Q&A With The Apples In Stereo’s Robert Schneider

Talking to Apples in stereo frontman Robert Schneider is something like sitting around the kitchen table with a few friends and a six-pack while knocking out the screenplay for a new episode of Seinfeld. OK, give me four totally diverse topics and that will be a new show: Muffin tops, a kid in a germ-proof bubble, going out with Marisa Tomei and poisoned glue on envelopes. With Schneider at the controls of this magic-bus ride, he pulls the topics he likes out of thin air like some deranged conjurer, instantly discards and modifies them, apologizes for going off the tracks, backs the engine up to the starting point, begins talking about something entirely different, then excuses himself to take brief notes on some future project while humming a melody that’s just popped into his head. He’s easily the most dynamic, fascinating interview subject I’ve ever encountered—and I’ve done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ’em. He’s also one of a handful of great songwriters to emerge over the past 20 years, a psych/pop genius whose knack for addictive melodies and memorable lyrics is perfectly obvious on Travellers In Space And Time (Simian/Yep Roc). To no one’s surprise, he’s also been discovered by nationally focused advertising agencies for high-profile TV ad campaigns. Schneider “relaxed” for as long as he could to speak with MAGNET from his home in Lexington, Ky. Schneider will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“Dance Floor” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/DanceFloor.mp3

MAGNET: What are you doing right now, Robert?
Schneider: I’m watching a butterfly on a flower on my back porch. It’s quite idyllic. Maybe you should interview the butterfly. It would be very psychedelic. Oh, oh, I have a friend in Lexington who’s a follower of Baba. He went to India for a year to the hometown of Baba. He’s the grandfather of a kid who’s on my son Max’s elementary-school basketball team, so he and I got to be friends. He grew up in New Jersey, but he lived in New York City when the whole Village scene was happening. He saw Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett. He saw the Velvet Underground with Nico, all in small clubs. He was a teenager at the time. And then he moved to San Francisco and was a total hippie with a huge afro. He was there for all the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. He went to Woodstock. He was walking back to crash in his van when Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He’s in the Woodstock movie because a friend of his was on the crew, so they let him watch most of the concert from the side of the stage. He passed out against one of the speakers when the Who played. If you look in the movie you can see this hippie lying against the speaker. He was friends with Abbie Hoffman.

Wow, he’s like Forrest Gump.
It’s exactly like that.

Did you have any thoughts about going to the World Cup, back to re-visit your South African roots?
I’d love to go. I don’t really follow soccer that much, so of all possible times to go, I think I wouldn’t have gone during all that mass of people descending upon the country. I moved to America right at the time that one would get into sports, so I didn’t ever get into any sports from any country. I’m a man without a sport. But Max likes basketball and that’s awesome. He’s the man with a sport. I really wish we could tour in South Africa. I went back as a kid on vacation in 1981 or something. But I haven’t been back since the country became free. In my little-kid world over there, I never noticed any lack of integration. Then when I was a teenager or in my early 20s, I was afraid of flying. So when I might have hitched a ride back there with my parents, I was terrified of flying. Even in the early days of the Apples, we turned down tours overseas. Now I’m kicking myself for that. I do want to go back to South Africa. I have a grandmother over there who’s, like, a 101.

I have to tell you about playing Apples albums, especially your new one, Travellers In Space And Time, and your previous one, New Magnetic Wonder. Your songs are so hypnotic, so instantly memorable, that I have to stop playing the records. I can’t get the damn songs out of my head.
[Laughs heartily] Well, that’s a good sign. That really means a lot to me. Thank you so much.

The first thing you hear on the new album is the sound of a stylus being dropped on an LP on a turntable. Most kids in the digital world wouldn’t even know what that was.
It had to start like that. I want records to be preserved in the future. Records are the most durable and simple-to-use sound format that’s ever been invented. It’s really too scary to think that in 50 years you won’t be able to decode a CD. There won’t be the hardware available to decode something as primitive as a CD. But you could still play a record with a record player. That’s why they sent records into space.

Yeah, you could probably stick your fingernail or your claw into an LP and hear something, it’s so simple.
Exactly. And the concept of the LP spinning like a wheel is almost universal, to people anyway. I wanted the new record to be futuristic, that we were making music for the future. On one hand, of course, we’re copping lots of influences from the past. But the main thing was to imagine what our style of baroque-pop music would sound like in 50 years. A lot of that had to do with stereotypes of the future that I grew up with, like from sci-fi and stuff. In that way, it ended up being more retro than futuristic, really. The vision of the future that I really love is the retro-vision. It’s not a really dire vision.

Like that movie The Road or even District 9. Neither one paints a very pretty picture.
I’m 100-percent certain that the world and humanity will evolve toward a positive future. By necessity, it has to happen. That things will somehow force the right kinds of changes and decisions to be made. But even destruction, if that happens, it’ll be more like a reduction in the life as we know it with the sparking of some kind of new balance. Not the extinction of all life. It’s kind of like The Time Machine where he goes 100,000 years into the future and finds this utopian world with huge fruits and vegetables hanging from the trees, but it turns out to be dark and scary, too. At that point we’ll be able to decode our digital compact discs.

Unfortunately, if they don’t work, good luck cashing in on any warranty.
We were also referencing our first album, Fun Trick Noisemaker. I collect sound-effects records and old spoken-word records. I’m sure lots of people like you or me enjoy grabbing those things when you find them. Like, 1,000 lion roars of Mexico. I found that one record we used on the new album about Morse Code that says, “This is how you learn to speak the Code.” It blew my mind: The Code, on its own it, sounded so mysterious. And he never says Morse Code on the whole thing.

Maybe it’s like how references to the Super Bowl these days are subject to licensing by the NFL, so they just refer to it in vague terms as the Big Game.
The outro to the album uses a hypnotism LP made in 1959. I wanted it to be like a time capsule for the future but also a time capsule from the past. I think you have the right to be a custodian of recordings as a recording artist. You can pull these little pieces from the past and re-work them. You keep that stuff alive. The grandkids of the guy who made that record in 1959 can now hear their grandfather’s voice. His voice has the chance to live again and be contemporary. I like that concept, using found sounds.

Here’s what I hear on the new Apples album. Definitely a big Jeff Lynne/ELO thing going on. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Joe Meek’s space music. Cheap Trick.
Definitely Cheap Trick. I met Rick Nielsen between the last record and this one. They were a big influence.

And the cowbell intro to the song “Do Ya” by the Move.
Our song is not a direct rip, but it’s definitely a direct reference to “Do Ya.” In fact, I wanted to cover “Do Ya,” but then I figured it would be better if we could just made our song sound more like it.

And the vocals sound like what the Stones were doing in the ’80s, that Some Girls LP.
Thank you. We were trying for that. That album had lots of “who-who”s on it.

I’ve never downloaded a ringtone in my life, but if I did, it would be “C.P.U.” Great song that would startle the hell out of everybody in the check-out line at my local Nob Hill supermarket.
Is that the one that they made into the ringtone?

I don’t know. Have they already done it?
I’m gonna suggest that, because what a cool thing to have a ringtone with a futuristic sound. I’ve never downloaded one either, but having those non-Pythagorean ringtones is actually a really good idea. Maybe I should generate a few of them, compose a few different little melodies and turn them into ringtones. I’m gonna do that. I’ve gotta remember that. Do you mind if I write that down real fast. Good idea, Jud.

I love the artwork on the new album, kind of a futuristic take on M.C. Escher.
Definitely, definitely. Jimmy Mitchell, the guy who did our artwork, is a genius. He’s heavily influence by architecture in general. He’s a draftsman who’s designed furniture in the past. He lives down the street from me. Just in general in life, with no particular belief system in place, I like to take on different systems for a few days just to see how they feel. How you might see the world differently. I like to go by my gut. Follow the threads, like finding silver in the rock. I tend to operate on synchronicities. Not that I believe in them. I’m a reverend in the Church of the Subgenius. It’s a dada, surrealist kind of—and the funniest and most truthful religion on earth. The central concept is that you seek slack, just like what it sounds like. You want things to go easily for you.

Like, cut me some slack.
Right, and the point of the thing is when you seek and you find slack, the whole thing multiplies so you try to follow coincidences and conspiracies and all sorts of funny stuff that comes up in the world. When you find the thread, you follow it. They told me in Taiwan that I was a philosophical Taoist, not a religious Taoist. And that’s how it’s happened. Any person who’s come into my life, anybody I’ve worked with, anybody in my band, it always happens by these lucky series of events. And I always follow them.

And you make your own luck. You’re the kind of guy who would see luck and grab it while others would stand around scratching their heads.
I think you follow the luck when you notice it. It’s like the fact there are probably four-leaf clovers in every patch. You just have to look for them. I tend to find four-leaf clovers everyday, almost. I think it’s because I stare at the ground while I’m thinking. I was walking down the street in winter, the holiday season. And these new neighbors had moved in, one of the kids was in Max’s class. And their house had this beautiful, illuminated light-art in the windows. A couple of the windowpanes it looked like Frank Lloyd Wright had taken a spaceship ride and come back to earth and very quickly made some art for these people’s windows. It blew my mind. I was asking them about their windows, and the husband said , “Oh, I did that part.” So he brought me in and showed me these amazingly detailed, painstakingly rendered drawings. He’s obsessed with perspective by distorting it. And he knows how to do that M.C. Escher thing of bending the lines of perspective so everything connects. Then there’s this wiggle room so you can make these illusions. I never could quite grasp how people did that, but seeing him do it, I sort of get it. You can make an impossible shape happen.

There’s no denying the guy’s art certainly belongs on one of your albums.
It reminds me of (Marvel comics artist) Jack Kirby crossed with M.C. Escher crossed with Frank Lloyd Wright. So everything he showed me was fucking, mindbogglingly incredible. I couldn’t believe it. It’s exactly the kind of art I like. At the time, we were beginning to record the new album, and I know this has to be the album art. I didn’t tell him, I didn’t ask him. I didn’t want to put any pressure on him. But I started to keep my eye on which drawings he was doing would work for Travellers In Space And Time. So the whole time we were recording I already knew what the art was going to look like. It sorta influenced how I wanted the album to sound like. Same thing happened with New Magnetic Wonder. This kid who was a fan of the band just sent me some collages in email form. It just dropped into my lap from heaven. This is slack. So I made New Magnetic Wonder sound like the artwork. All my friends from Elephant 6 were always inspired by art as a musical reference. Usually, when we’re in the studio, we’ll bring up art and artists more than other bands as far as trying to describe what we’re trying to go for.

Did you ever hear the unreleased-at-the-time album by Joe Meek & the Blue Men? All instrumentals in the vein of Space Age-era “Telstar,” only much weirder, like if the Tornados actually came from another planet. Pretty strange stuff.
No, I’ve never heard of it. I’ve got to get that. Do you have The Ventures In Space? Is it beyond that?

Yeah, definitely weirder than that. I think it’d be right up your alley.

—Jud Cost

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