an interview with Robert Schneider of
the Apples in stereo

I caught up with The Apples in stereo's main man, Robert Schneider, immediately after he'd leapt from the wings of a flaming prop plane, narrowly averting a gruesome death being puréed by the blades of a helicopter piloted by his prey, a fugitive from a COINTELPRO sting operation...wait, that was just what's on TV. I got confused. Actually Schneider had just returned from traffic court - seems those forgetful bedroom recordist types often forget about mailing those little envelopes to the DMV. See kids? It's true: loitering, littering, and - especially - loud music lead to Bigger Crimes.

JJN: Since I'm from Wisconsin and the magazine's called Milk, I've gotta ask: what's your favorite dairy product?

RS: My favorite dairy product? Well that one would be easy: cheese. One of my favorite foods in the world. I like rennet-less cheese because I'm a vegetarian. I love cheese of all varieties - green cheese, blue cheese, cheese from the moon - but I especially like jack cheese and sharp cheddar. I like to eat sharp cheese becasue I tend to sing a little flat.

JJN: (inaudible groan)

RS: I love Wisconsin too. Have you ever been to the House on the Rock? You've gotta go there, I've been there like four times. It's the coolest manmade place in the world.

JJN: I haven't been to the House on the Rock, but I did get to see Xanadu, the House of the Future, at Wisconsin Dells, before they tore it down.

RS: What was that like?

JJN: It was...weird. All foam, it stank because there's no air circulation, and the decor...very '70s. It was like one of Prince's love-video fantasies, actually. But you'll excuse me - I've just got to use the wonderful segue you've provided me with: Lots of critics often return to the idea that your music somehow looks backward rather than forward. I hate to use this evil word, but the notion of "retro" often comes up. Is this something that bugs you, pleases you, makes you want to purchase automatic weapons, what?

RS: It doesn't necessarily bug me. A good number of my heroes are from the past, a good chunk of the music I think is better is from the past. At the same time, though, we're not trying to copy it. We are inspired by it, by its energy, its vitality - especially the '60s is inspiring to a rock band. But we're trying to do something better. I mean, that was a long time ago, those people aren't doing the same thing anymore. We've grown up with that music, pieces of our sound are taken from places that inspire us, but none of it's ripped off. It's not like we're lifting riffs...

JJN: The Oasis thing...

RS: Right, exactly. Our band, ever since it started, has always been forward-looking: this is what's been done, this is what we like about what's been done, what can we do with it to make music for the future? We want to make recordings that we'd like to listen to, that will stand on their own at any time. Hi-fi, natural sounding, warm.

JJN: One reason I ask is that in a way you could argue that it's music that tries really hard to sound "new" or "hip" that dates most badly: if you're always trying to get the latest hip cool sound, well, so's everyone else, and if you come up with something new and it becomes popular, suddenly there's five million 7 Mary 3s out there wearing the same pants you were wearing. I mean, in ten years nothing's going to scream "1997" more than your two bars of sampled drumbeat.... You can go back and imitate the past, or you can look at it and see what you can use from it to move forward.

RS: Right. We're not going out of our way to be obviously different from everything, but we are trying to do something on our own. We're aware of what's going on now, and we listen to lots of different music that ends up mixed together in our music. We're inspired by modern music too, but our basis is also in those '60s records. We're not particularly rooted in what's happening right now, at least in the mainstream, but at the same time I really think what we're doing is part of a really strong undercurrent of music that's forward looking and not necessarily retro. I guess you could say that we're trying to make good, natural recordings of the sort that proliferated in the '60s.

JJN: To compare Fun Trick Noisemaker to Tone Soul Evolution, the first seems as if you colored more within the lines, while the new one seems a bit looser, furrier. The instrumentation's more diverse, with some horns, Pet Sounds-era bass harmonica, and so forth. Is this something you consciously tried for?

RS: Yes, definitely - I guess if you're talking in terms of colors, Fun Trick Noisemaker was coloring in the lines, but at the same time we used a lot more different kind of colors. It's a lot more bright colors. The new recording is more like, there are no lines, it's more like a painting, with fewer colors. The last record, it's more like there's a certain layout, and everything fit in its place, and we tried to stuff everything into all the cracks. We were trying to pretty much fit any melody, any harmony we could fit into the song. You're really not going to be able to specifically hear a lot of the stuff we did - there's so much ping-ponging, so many parts in there, that nothing would stand out in particular. It would sound really colorful, but you wouldn't be able to pick out the various parts a lot of the instruments would be playing. On the new record, we tried to go with fewer musical parts, fewer melodies and different ideas - basically we were trying to paint in less, not fill in every single gap. Trying to make everything we put in there really good and really count.

JJN: That's interesting, since you recorded this one on 24-track, while the last one was 8-track.

RS: In theory, this was a more stripped-down record, although it didn't really work out that way. A lot of people have said that this record sounds more dense than the last record, but in reality the last record probably had twice as many different instruments going on, with different parts, but all at the same time so you don't hear all of it. You just hear the movements of the chords - you don't know which instruments are forming the chords. Whereas on the new record, we took the theory that we would just take the stuff that sticks out and not fill in the rest of it, just put the main things there and then whatever the song needed to seem finished.

On the last record, if we'd had a 24-track, we'd've just kept going and going and going. There were some harmonies and stuff we'd worked out that we didn't get to put on there. The new one's a little less crazy, but a little more loose, more energetic, a more human-sounding feeling.

JJN: You can hear more of the instruments, more instruments other than just a whole bunch of guitars.

RS: On Fun Trick Noisemaker, any given song would have four electric guitars, two acoustic guitars, three lead guitars.... On this record, we performed the two basic rhythm guitar parts, just the two guitarists, the way we'd play it live, then we'd overdub the lead guitars. We left a lot more room for other things to be happening. Actually I ended up doing more lead guitar overdubs, as opposed to synthesizer or keyboard overdubs, but everything on the new record stands out when it happens. On Fun Trick Noisemaker, stuff would just come and go - everything would blend together - which is a great thing, more of a Pet Sounds kind of thing, where you really can't tell what's going on but it sounds cool. More evocative.... With the new record, the various musical parts tend to be more rhythmic, less melodic, more concise, more rocking. What instruments are there are really there, not this big mish-mosh of a million sounds all mixed together. That's what we were going for on Fun Trick Noisemaker, that Pet Sounds kind of feeling. I'd combine a lot of different instruments to make them sound like one weird sound. Nothing would ever be playing exactly the same part - I might have a slide guitar, a synthesizer, a piano, an organ, and some fuzz guitar, all doing basically the same sort of thing panned out across the stereo image: they'd all be there to form one sound. The parts would mesh together in a way that would make one big sound.

JJN: What sorts of interests or activities outside of music do you have that might influence your music or lyrics?

RS: Well, as far as my songwriting...for the rest of my life, music was just a part of it until the last few years. Right now, the band takes a lot of our time - I don't really have a lot of other activities right now. Doing that, or hanging out with Hilarie [Sidney, Apples drummer and vocalist]. But I try to take a lot of pleasure in sunlight, in nature, in being young, or getting older...

JJN: It's that backward/forward thing again...

RS: Yeah. I think just the different people you meet, people you see on the street, walking around, going to the store.... When I was younger, I was really interested in poetry, drawing, reading, meditating, and I'm sure they influence how I do things now. But mostly it's just regular life, normal life that's most important.

JJN: I'm curious about that title, Tone Soul Evolution: it's one of those phrases that sounds cool because it's intriguing and kind of makes sense, but not in any obvious way. Any secret underground candy-rock psychedelic profundities about the title you'd care to relate?

RS: It was inspired by a phrase that we saw on the back of an old '60s R&B record. We changed it just a little bit - it was a description of one of the songs on the record. Basically, I saw this phrase, and it pretty much described us and our music. "Tone soul" - I would say that applies to our music. It's soulful and tone-oriented; in a way it's spiritual, and at the same time very down to earth. There's a tone aspect, the difference colors and predominance of harmonic considerations in our music. And evolution is what this record seemed like to me. Strangely, each of those three words was something I was considering prior to seeing the phrase on that record.

JJN: Where's the "narrator" on Fun Trick Noisemaker from?

RS: It's from an old record that my friend Jeff found in a used record store one day. He was just listening to a bunch of old demonstration records and stuff, found that, and said "Robert - you've gotta listen to this!" I listened to it, and said, "Oh my god, that's the beginning of our album!" I cut it up a bit, the dialog - it's not exactly like it was, but pretty close. The record was printed for some convention in the '60s trying to determine what wavelength to use for satellite broadcasts, which was best suited for stereo music programs. It wasn't really released, it was just for this conference. We were only able to track down one person who was involved. He's some executive now, and he just said "yeah, go ahead, use it."

JJN: Can you say a few words about the Elephant 6 collective? How is it different from - or the same as - the usual idea of a particular "scene"?

RS: Well, it isn't a scene because for the most part it's not localized. People who live in different places or move around a lot - a bunch of friends, inspired by the same stuff, who have a do-it-yourself feeling toward music and the music industry in general. Not everybody is the same, nobody's really alike - but there's a certain quality of songwriting...

JJN: Yeah - there's a common thread in a strong interest in melody, harmony...

RS: The texture of sound, certain production. That binds all Elephant 6 bands. It's a close friendship - a lot of us grew up together since we were little kids. We started, all trying to do something different, doing all these tapes and trading them. The music wasn't really similar, but there was a sort of sound going on here, similar influences. And it was different from what others are doing, no one else wants to put it out, so why don't we try to release it? We formed a community, a support group for making recordings.

A lot of people start making records like this and realize there is a way to do this kind of music. Hopefully, the best of those bands we'd hook up with, too, playing with them, trading tapes. In a way, it's just to get our music out to the world - but in another sense, it's asking if anybody else out there is into this. You know, there might be one person in Oklahoma City sitting listening to a Syd Barrett record. Around the country, a bunch of loners, uncool people, doing their own thing, which happens to be a similar sort of thing, and maybe we could find one another. It's nice, you know - you meet these people and think, "wow - we'd probably be good friends if we lived here."

JJN: I think music in general can form communities like that - but the thing about people like Elephant 6 is that there's not 500 layers of industry, marketing, advertising, a stadium full of guys in suits and ponytails, in between you and the music. I think that's one thing you notice about your Marbles project: it's very personal in a sense, since it wasn't created in the situation where you know that other people are going to hear this. Sort of a technical question: do you have any special way to get the kinds of sounds you get given the equipment you were using?

RS: Not really. I just try to get the right levels, get things as clear as possible. I do have a definite sound, my ears must have a certain EQ curve or something - that translates to everything I record, even with the Marbles stuff. I have figured out some things through experimentation, like how to do drums, but at the time, I had just one mic - that had a lot to do with the sound - and a 4-track - that had a lot to do with the sound. I tried to make it sound as much like a '60s record as possible. I've been recording on 4-track since I was fifteen. The Marbles record I did when I was twenty-one. So I've been recording for a while, doing lots of experimenting. I was trying to see what sounds I could get. I had a lot of ideas in my head, and I'd try to get as many of those parts that I was hearing into the song. I didn't have drums yet, so I'd just beat on the wall - from necessity, really. That's one thing that's different now - if I want to hit a snare drum, there's a snare drum. Then, if I wanted to hit a snare drum, I'd have to use the cat or something. Really, I just wanted something well arranged, something that sounded interesting in stereo, that sounded really cool in headphones on an LSD trip. I wanted something that my friends would think sounded really cool. They'd be impressed and go "wow, Robert - how'd'ya do that?" And after a while, they were like "put it out, put it out." And really, that's pretty much the way we do it. We don't think that much about it, just see what sounds good, try to get the sound we hear in our heads on the tape.

JJN: The clichéd bandname question: where's it come from, what's it mean, and what's up with "in stereo" being lower case?

RS: It's very clearcut, actually: we're The Apples, the music's in stereo. It's not actually the band name - it's a step back from it, a band name once removed. We're The Apples, in stereo. Kind of like a TV show, "in stereo!" That always seemed to be a really big deal, that it was in stereo.

JJN: I was also thinking of a sort of surrealist pseudo-random connection - apple of my eye, stereoscopic vision, apples in stereo...

RS: That wasn't intentional - that's very cool, an interesting observation. But it's also an old Syd Barrett song, an old Pink Floyd song: "Apples and Oranges." Not obvious, like "Baby Lemonade." But there's the specific reference, yeah.

Like some more of the Elephant 6 crowd? Here's an interview article with Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel.

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