Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider adjusted the controls on his stereo
at his Denver home, trying to come to a decision about the tones and
frequencies of the music pouring through it.
"Does it sound trebly enough?" an excited Schneider, lead
singer/songwriter/guitarist of the Apples, asked his bandmates as he continued
to work the dials.
The Denver-based band had just received the vinyl version of their latest album,
Tone Soul Evolution (Elephant 6/SpinArt). "It's the gatefold we've
always wanted to do," Schneider said. "It's kind-of a double album, except we
just added a new 7-inch as sides three and four. That was the only way we
could justify the cost."
Schneider can hardly contain his giddiness when it comes to making music. He
doesn't think of writing, recording or producing music, such as
"What's The #?" (RealAudio excerpt) off
their recent album, as work, only as meeting deadlines. When he isn't touring,
he spends nearly every day in the studio, either helping friends (Olivia Tremor
Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Minders or Felt Pilots, for instance) record,
making his own music or just hanging out. "I just wish I could spend more
time in the studio," he said.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in four years the Apples have already
amassed three albums-worth of material, not including a full-length release from
Schneider's solo project, Marbles. Nor should it come as a shock that the
Apples' music, from Tone Soul on down, sounds studiously crafted yet
effortlessly catchy -- a product of listening for hours to records by pop masters
such as the Beach Boys, the Byrds, original Pink Floyd leader Syd Barrett (the Apples' name is derived
from Barrett's "Apples and Oranges") and the Beatles, as well as more recent
bands such as Pavement, Lilys and the High Llamas, and trying to emulate their
"Listening to music on headphones really changed the way I listened to music,"
Schneider said. "I started paying more attention to the production qualities of
these records, hearing the movements of stuff. The way that '60s records were
recorded and split into stereo is just so psychedelic. Pink Floyd's The Piper at the
Gates of Dawn is the perfect headphone record. When I heard that record
for the first time, I realized that the placement of sounds is just as important as
chord progressions and melodies."
Not surprisingly, the Apples In Stereo sound good through headphones -- or
speakers, or a PA system for that matter -- because their production wizardry
combines subtleties for massive impact.
Their full-length debut, 1995's Fun Trick Noisemaker (Elephant
6/SpinArt), for instance, employed Beach Boys-mastermind Brian Wilson's
patented Pet Sounds-era technique of performing and recording the lead
guitar and vocal parts twice, once for each speaker. The meld of familiar
sounds ironically created new, unfamiliar sounds from which emerged
stunningly original melodies.
To help attain that goal, Schneider included spacey sounds thanks to his late-
'60s Moog and late-'70s Jupiter keyboards and some tape-manipulation.
Tone Soul Evolution, however, takes a cleaner approach to reach the
same goal. The melodies and whimsical lyrics remain, but are bared to the
world. "I wanted you to be able to hear each instrument," Schneider said. "We
always try to have fun with stereo, but this time everything is either hard-right,
hard-left, or middle. You can pick out individual instruments instead of it
sounding like one big sound."
Schneider also bares a newfound maturity and restraint on the new record. "At
first you're like, 'Wheee! I'm having fun with the technology.' We've
documented that discovery before, now we need to build on that. The same
holds true of my songwriting. I used to only want to make happy music to cheer
people up. Now there are other emotions and other people I want to address."
"Was it something in the sky, or something in my eyes?" sings Schneider on
Tone Soul Evolution's opener, "Seems So."
Similarly, Schneider describes the band's beginnings as a blur of images.
Shortly after moving to Denver from rural Louisiana, Schneider met original
bassist Jim McIntyre taking the city bus to school every day, and the two found
common musical ground in their love of the Beach Boys. "I went over to his
house that night, smoked pot, met (drummer) Hilarie (Sidney), his girlfriend, and
we all started hanging out," Schneider said.
Though McIntyre no longer plays in the band, he and his studio, Pet Sounds,
are an integral part of the Apples' world. The revolving lineup now includes
John Hill on rhythm and acoustic guitar and Eric Allen on bass. Learning their
instruments along the way, the Apples have gone from four-track to 24-track
recordings. Yet their earlier work, chronicled on 1996's Science Faire
(Elephant 6/Spin Art), stands above the typical, nostalgic demo collections.
"The Apples in Stereo aren't an obvious choice for commercial radio because
they're on a small label," said Sean Boy Walton, music director at radio station
KXRK (X96) in Salt Lake City, and an early fan of the Apples. He liked their
song "Tidal Wave" (Fun Trick Noisemaker) so much that he added it to
the station's regular rotation and invited the band to perform at KXRK's annual
summer festival, The Big Ass Show. The song saw airplay on more progressive
commercial radio stations and was even played on an episode of
Nickelodeon's underhandedly hip children's TV show "Pete and Pete." "In an
ideal world, the Apples would get lots of radio play around the country because
they write perfect pop songs," Walton continued. "They act as a great buffer to
long, dark, un-fun Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains or Korn songs."
Chuck Arnold, who has known the Apples In Stereo since their inception and
has provided them with tour support and radio promotion and even pressed
"Time For Bed," a split 7-inch with Olivia Tremor Control, on his No Life Records
label, pinned the band's unique charm on their easy-going attitude. "They're so
laid back," he said. "They approach writing pop songs with a perspective that
many people don't have ... Maybe it's the heavy use of marijuana."
But ask Schneider, who also confesses to being an avid fan of Nintendo games
and a cat-lover, and he'll tell you it's their innovative nature that makes them so
likable. "You hear some bands' third or fourth records and it just sinks your
expectations of them," he said. "I want our records to always be a good
surprise. I'm fascinated by technology. I learn more about it every day."
Schneider's fondness for personal relationships has shaped his rapport with
fans, of whom there are many rabid followers of Schneider's work, as well as
his lyrical approach. "When I write songs, I feel like I'm writing to one person,"
he said. "Even if I don't have someone specific in mind, it helps me feel more
emotional and inspired. I like the feeling of addressing someone personally.
That's why the vocal sound I like best, where the singing comes in both ears,
works so well. It's like a whisper to the listener."
Thus far, the Apples In Stereo have done their damnedest to out-step
predictability. Even Schneider said he can't predict what the next Apples record
will sound like. "We've still got a lot of territory we want to cover," he said.
[Thur., Dec. 4, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]