If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.
This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.
Night Five: The Apples In Stereo
The wait for the Apples In Stereo to appear onstage at San Jose’s Blank Club seems interminable. It’s Halloween, so at least there are plenty of people in costume to gawk at. But by the time you’ve seen the guy with “Evil X” spelled out in electrician’s tape on the back of his T-shirt (with half the “V” drooping downwards) or the girl in the NASCAR racing gear lugging a steering wheel or someone wrapped up in the American flag or the guy in the Mr. Rogers-style red-and-yellow-felt superhero’s outfit walk by for the 25th time, it feels like you’re part of a living tape loop that will never end.
Then they switch off the barely watchable lo-fi big-screen TV that appears to be showing the top of the ninth inning of game five of the San Francisco Giants/Texas Rangers World Series. In its place is a video of Apples frontman/songwriting genius Robert Schneider in oversized sunglasses and spaceman gear, walking through a cave on a permanent loop. After 20 minutes, the video takes on the aura of a trapped Chilean miner endlessly wandering around his underground prison.
What Schneider described as “a short film” had looked captivating earlier that afternoon on his laptop, the same piece of hardware that had survived bouncing off a highway sometime during the Apples’ 2010 tour. Schneider had played the video piece on my dining room table while the BBQ chicken and portobello-mushroom caps were still being grilled for the nine-person Apples entourage. As he stepped outdoors to chow down, Schneider gasped, “What a perfect California backyard. I can see myself coming out here in the morning to write songs.”
It’s only right that the Apples and Oranges are on the same bill. The Orange Peels from Sunnyvale, Calif., cheekily described as “the Vale of Sun” by vocalist Allen Clapp, open the show with a tasty blend of pop originals, many of which, oddly enough, reference foul weather. “I don’t mind the rain,” trills Clapp in one of his songs, backed by versatile guitarist John Moremen, bassist Jill Pries and drummer Gabe Coan. With Moremen’s former connection to late master Bay Area songwriter Jimmy Silva, “Hand Of Glory” has been added to the Peels’ set. A few new songs from their recent album, 20/20 (Minty Fresh), have the same power-pop sheen as onetime Berserkeley Records legends, the Rubinoos. “Allen Clapp’s songs are so great,” Schneider says afterward. “I can hear them being recorded back in the ’70s by the Bay City Rollers.”
About 25 minutes after their scheduled 11:00 pm start, the Apples, now swollen to seven members and dressed in deep-space regalia, march onto the Blank Club’s tiny stage to greet Planet Earth. “We are space travellers from the future, returned to the past to play our music for you,” announces Schneider, summing up the theme of the Apples’ seventh full-length album, Travellers In Space And Time (Simian/Yep Roc). Schneider, whose costume also mimics a duster from a spaghetti-Western, once described the new sound as R&B emanating from a space ship.
In addition to their hyperactive singer/guitarist, flanked by longtime stalwarts John Hill on guitar and Eric Allen on bass, the band now consists of Bill Doss (formerly of the Olivia Tremor Control) on keyboards, onetime Deathray Davies member John Dufilho on drums, John Ferguson on keyboards and vocoder-rigged mic and Ben Phelan on guitar, keyboards and trumpet. After he spent a week at a math conference in San Jose last year, Schneider was determined to play the rebuilt steel-and-glass hub city of Silicon Valley on his next Apples In Stereo tour.
The current set is a fine, career-spanning mix of the new record along with a healthy dose of the band’s high-water mark to date, 2007 album New Magnetic Wonder, a disc so appealing that some of its hypnotic tunes (“Sun Is Out,” “Energy”) were used in national advertising campaigns. They also dig deep into the trunk for “Strawberryfire,” a psychedelic gem that so perfectly recreates the Beatles it could be a Sgt. Pepper outtake. With the extra personnel, Schneider can now recreate live more of what he hears in the studio, such as Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass-like trumpet flourishes and a rocking cowbell ensemble right out of the Move’s “Do Ya.”
Schneider, who early in his career had a tendency to blow-up his voice early on a tour by over-singing, is now completely in control of his trademark instrument, with the ability to pump out those high-fructose, Sugar Pops-spiked vocal lines from start to finish. “We’re gonna play the next song backwards,” Schneider says before launching a Brian Wilson/John Lennon-style experimental float upstream to some outback village. Some of Schneider’s songs, “Dignified Dignitary” from Travellers, for example, are as lyrically deranged as the Mad Hatter—and as addictive as a double espresso.
“OK, here’s our second song,” Schneider slyly announces from behind a beard that would do S.F. Giants closer Brian Wilson proud. It’s now well more than an hour into a set that careens from an interstellar fly-by of the third moon of Pluto to a Power Puff Girls Saturday-morning cartoon fest in the blink of an eye. The meaty encore is dictated by a houseful of rabid Apples fans who dredge up requests for early numbers from classic albums Fun Trick Noisemaker and Tone Soul Evolution.
“See ya in the future,” salutes a sweat-drenched Schneider, whose evening’s work is far from done as he leaves the stage. True to his upbeat nature, Schneider begins to work the house like a political candidate, hugging anyone at least twice who comes up to congratulate him afterward. He’s the rare example of a man who has found not only what he wants to do, but exactly what he was born to do. The Apples In Stereo, using a bigger deck of cards wielded by sharper players everytime they pass through town, keep getting better and better.
And tonight is also a fitting cap for this six-show “Octember” stroll through the MAGNET years. Maybe you wouldn’t stay up so late at night, anxiously staring at that date circled on your calendar, if all class reunions were this much fun.