Don’t let the
high-gloss production fool you – Robert Schneider’s still the classic
pop-loving savant he always was.
BY AARON PASSMAN
Disney World means different things to different people:
Overpriced tickets, lines, childhood whimsy, giant personified rodents – everybody’s
got their own take. But that’s not what Robert Schneider thinks about at Disney
World. A 2008 family visit to the Orlando
theme park made Schneider begin to contemplate the future – or, more specifically,
the idea of the future.
Schneider, the stalwart leader of the Apples in Stereo,
recalled that his parents had taken him to the park nearly 30 years before,
when Epcot wasn’t yet built, but that giant dome was already on the horizon. He
recalled a lifelong love affair with “that idea of what the future’s going to
be…that feeling of hopefulness and the promise of progress; that the future
will be more like a positive future where everything’s easy and more powerful.
I love that vision.”
So when it came time to craft the latest Apples record, Travellers in Space and Time, he attempted
to translate those ideas into sound.
He says he wanted the record to sound “overtly futuristic,”
and pointed out that the sounds that most immediately seemed to convey that
concept were “blips and beeps and robot sounds that you might have in the sound
effects department of Dr. Who in the
BBC Library or something.”
But while Travellers has its share of blips and bleeps, that doesn’t quite describe it. Says
Schneider, “I wanted to promote that feeling of hopeful, sci-fi futurism, and
in the end that does sound a lot like the ‘70s.”
So the Apples’ latest, for all its futurism, feels
distinctly informed by the past, with influences from the late ‘60s through the
early ‘80s showing up all over the LP. There’s the Hall & Oates-inspired
“Hey Elevator,” the Beatles-y harmonies sprinkled over the chorus of “Dignified
Dignitary” and the electric piano and woo-hoo-hoos of “Told You Once,”
Schneider’s spot-on homage to Jeff Lynne and ELO, seemingly Travellers‘ chief musical reference
While previous Apples offerings delved into psychedelic
lo-fi, Travellers finds Schneider
exploring different territory. For starters, nearly all the songs are
piano-based rather than guitar-centric. In the past, rather than change a
guitar string when he broke it, Schneider says he’d just head down to the pawn
shop near his Lexington,
Ken. home and pick up a cheap Silvertone or Kay hollow-bodied axe from the ‘50s
or ‘60s. But the shop closed, so no more cheap guitars, which meant changing
guitar strings or switch to piano.
Schenider says that the concept behind the group’s last
offering – 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder –
was to create “the ultimate Apples album; this was going to be our ultimate psychedelic
indie-pop record.” So out of a desire to try something new, Schneider focused
on the keys, working chiefly on an old Wurlitzer electric piano – the same one
on which he wrote New Magnetic Wonder‘s
“Same Old Drag” and other tracks.
Another difference this time around is, once again, the
focus on high production values. Early Apples records delved into the lo-fi end
of things, but Schneider says that the 2004 release of Brian Wilson’s Smile made him see the value in
“The whole hopefulness of it finally coming out made me feel
all hopeful about big production again,” says Schneider, who speaks as though
he can barely catch his breath or get the words out fast enough.
Still, he hasn’t abandoned his early lo-fi leanings: His Ulysses
side project was recorded on one microphone in mono in a garage, and in 2009
Schneider’s lo-fi deep-psych side-project Thee American Revolution released its
debut, Buddha Electrostorm.
Despite the radio-ready Apples work that he’s best known
for, he confesses, “I tend to enjoy less commercial-sounding projects than I
did in the past. I love super lo-fi stuff.
It makes me feel warm and young and makes me feel happy. It’s where I
come from and I still love to record stuff like that.”
Last year also saw the release of Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine, the self-titled debut from
the 39 year old’s band for kids. The Apples have always been plenty
kid-friendly, but Schneider says the difference lies so much in subject matter
but in tone.
“As far as children’s music goes,” he says, “it’s definitely
an instrumentation choice – I try to choose instruments that sound more like
toy instruments or more zany sounding.” The major difference, he says, is that
while Apples songs are more whimsical in their arrangements, the subject matter
is more heartfelt.
Despite all the side projects, Schneider’s still focused on
the Apples in Stereo – an outfit he’s confident he’s continually improving.
As far as songwriting, he says, “I feel like I’m sort of
pulling off what I consider to be really tight pop songs now better than I’ve
been able to do in the past. I think I’ve always been good at it, but I think
I’m able to throw out songs now that I like, but they’re not like the best
fucking song ever.
“One has to imagine that one has fewer records to make in
the future than one has made in the past, so one wants one’s record – every
record that you put out – to be like fucking seamless. And I didn’t have that
ambition in the past; seamlessness wasn’t part of my thing.”
The Apples are currently touring behind Travellers and the album even hit shelves a few days early for
Record Store Day on April 17.
Not surprisingly, it’s a medium dear to Schneider’s heart,
and when we spoke he’d only earlier that day finally received the double-vinyl
of the album in the mail.
“The CD isn’t a beautiful artifact like the vinyl record,”
he says. “The vinyl record is special because the music on it can be recovered
so easily. That’s beautiful to me. I want all records to be put out on vinyl.
All good records, anyway, where people actually cared when they were making
[Photo Credit: Adam Cantor]