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The Apples In StereoAfter a string of 4-tracked 7"s and EPs (compiled on CD as Science Faire) and a superb full-length debut, Fun Trick Noisemaker, Denver's The Apples In Stereo last year released Tone Soul Evolution, their first 16-track-studio-produced offering. Released domestically in June of this year, the album continues the trend of surpassing its predecessor in terms of fidelity and songcraft. Principal singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer and all-round studio wizard Robert Schneider and perpetually smiling drummer Hilarie Sidney are sat backstage at the LA2 before their ecstatically received London debut (as support to Urusei Yatsura).
The song Tin Pan Alley talks of the production-line songwriting methods of old. I asked Robert who he would most like to record an Apples In Stereo song. After a little prompting from Hilarie, he confesses that his
by Matt Dornan
"dream has always been that I could write a song for the Beach Boys, 'cause I could, I know how to write a Beach Boys song. Sadly, half the band has passed on. All the good ones, and Brian doesn't seem to be too involved, so ... Mainly I'd like it if our band could play them and they’d be popular!"
The Beach Boys will crop up regularly throughout our conversation, but then I'd previously read of Robert's dream to work with the enigmatic genius Brian Wilson, so it came as no surprise to learn that Hilarie and Robert had already encountered the man.
"We asked him for some insight on Smile," says Hilarie, remembering her own equally important contribution
- "I gave him some aspirin!" So, does the dream still hold today?
"Probably not as much as it did," admits Robert. "He’s still my hero but it’s not my biggest dream in the whole world. I feel like I could help him write good songs and I think he could do it if he had someone to say 'C'mon, let's do it.' Seeing as I'm pretty patient I think I could work with him even though he's a little bit . . . difficult."
Despite their deliberate 'rough-around-the-edges' approach, it would seem fair to say that Schneider and Co. come far closer to the Beach Boys' work ethic and attitude in the studio than the multitude of bands currently being, almost randomly, compared to them. Robert agrees.
"And maybe the High Llamas in the sense of a certain sound. And they really resemble the Beach Boys which, to me, isn't really in the spirit of the Beach Boys inventiveness."
Given Schneider's prolific work rate (
“When I was eighteen I'd written, like, a hundred songs”) and obvious love of the studio (consider his production duties for contemporaries Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Minders, plus his own Marbles solo project) is there ever a day when he's not working on a record?
"It depends. If I'm working on an album or something it's twelve hours a day every day. I probably go to the studio every day when I'm in Denver. Sometimes I forget to eat or use the bathroom! You get kinda lost in it when you 're doing it. But every day I'll sit around and play guitar for an hour."
"He writes a couple of songs every day," interjects Hilarie
. "And then he asks 'What do you think of this song' and I'll be like 'Gosh, I don’t know, there 's so many!’ But then I'll be like 'Keep going with that one.' He writes a lot of songs."
"I don 't write full songs anymore because I'm generating so many ideas and I think I can always come back to them," continues Robert
. "If something seems like it's something we're gonna play in our band, now, I'll keep working on it. I get through two C-60 tapes a month on average. An idea could sound like a Broadway show tune, but I'll just hum it in there. Just 'cause, you never know, I'll be 65 and might be writing a Broadway musical. There 's always something on the back burner, and the front burner. In fact on all four burners!"
Perfect headphone music, The Apples In Stereo - despite penning instantly memorable songs - are not averse to a little studio trickery.
"Experimentation with weird sounds is something we've always stuck in the background of songs and we have been very interested in bringing it into the foreground," agrees Robert.
"But, at the same time, with our new record we wanted to do something more dry and human and less weird just because it seems that kind of experimentation is becoming more mainstream." He points to the new Cornelius album, Fantasma, on which he and Hilarie guest (on the standout Chapter 8 - Seashore & Horizon).
"[That album] jumps around a lot and that's what I think is great about it. It's like listening to the radio, every song’s like a different artist almost. In that sense our stuff has more unity from song to song, stylistically. But, definitely, that kind of messing around is something that I'm interested in. Especially on some of our earlier stuff it was something we were really interested in and we abandoned it for a while because we really wanted to get the Rock'n'Roll better. We felt we were weak on that. We had intended our last record to be a space-rock record but then, sometime towards recording, we were like 'let's make it a more natural record instead.' I don't know, we'll have to wait and see."
The melodious pop elements of the band are tempered with classic guitar sounds and a 'rock' attitude, belying Robert's love of late 6Os, early 70s bands such as Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Velvet Underground.
"I think it just fits in in the Rock'n'Roll," Robert says, explaining the influence. "And, at the same time, some of the guitar tones, types of melodic leads, things like that. I guess our philosophy is to take as much as you can and fit it into the shortest amount of time. It's like taking a little roller-coaster ride. That's why Good Vibrations is so great. It's such a short song but there's so much that goes on in it. It's like twenty minutes long in three minutes."
After spending the first six years of his life in South Africa before locating to the American South, the young, hyperactive Schneider felt out-of-sync with his peers. Could this sense of isolation have been the catalyst for the musical path that followed?
"It might have yeah. Junior high school, at thirteen or so, was a bit of a tough time for me because I really didn't feel like I fit in. And I was listening to music that was different from what the other kids in the class were listening to. And that’s when I started recording. I had a little jam-box and a synthesiser. That was probably just my way . . . When I was a Kid I used to draw comic books and play with Lego and that's what I'd do, build or make stuff. I always had computers and stuff. I used to tinker with stuff and when I was a little bit older I started to tinker with music and electronic gadgetry."
There seems to be a recurring 'space' theme through the albums to date. Lots of mentions of stratospheres, stars and the like.
"I'm not so interested in Science Fiction now, but when I was a kid my favourite thing was comic books and stuff," admits Robert
. "At the same time I like the image of futurism, especially 20s and 30s futurism. I like the old Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. I feel like our music is like that; kinda antiquated and, at the same time, futuristic. Pretty much that and a sunny, Summertime kinda feel and a sad, wistful thing are probably the three most dominant themes."
And the lead off track from Tone Soul Evolution, Seems So, could be about a UFO sighting. Or not.
"You know, I never figured that one out for myself, so it's whatever you think. Maybe it's a religious experience or a trip. I decided to leave that one alone 'cause the guy who's talking about it doesn't know what happened. The one thing about the song is that it seemed to happen while he was sleeping."
OK, if push comes to shove, Pet Sounds or Smiley Smile?
"Oh. Pet Sounds in stereo would boost it up but I don't know," ponders a perplexed Robert. "I think Smiley Smile's more endearing. But Pet Sounds is more lofty."
"I think Pet Sounds," argues Hilarie. "Smiley Smile's for when you're sitting around smoking a bunch of pot ... "
"Or doing the dishes or something. Pet Sounds is God-like, Smiley Smile is more human. It's like different kinds of art, like van Gogh or Michelangelo. They're both fuckin' great! But, I think, Smile blows them both out of the water. Good Vibrations and Heroes & Villains on either side of Smile is, to me, the best Beach Boys."
It would come as no surprise to hear a similar conversation in a decade or two's time comparing the work of The Apples In Stereo. Tone Soul Evolution could well be a contender. It's competitor is hidden amid the hundreds of ideas on tape and in the mind of Robert Schneider and I, for one, can't wait to hear it.
CWAS #3 - Summer 1998