When Robert Schneider and friends set up a studio in their Denver apartment in the early '90s, there was no predicting that the sloppy group would evolve into The Apples In Stereo, one of the most influential indie bands of the decade. Along with Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples formed the core of Elephant 6, a collective that spread the gospel of psychedelia to a new generation. But after 2002's punky Velocity Of Sound, the Apples faded from view, and Schneider formed the new outfit Ulysses in his adopted Kentucky, and resurrected an old solo project, The Marbles. Now, with new members Bill Doss of OTC on keys and John Dufilho of The Deathray Davies on drums, The Apples have released the majestic New Magnetic Wonder on Elijah Wood's Simian imprint, and contributed to Yoko Ono's new remix album, Yes, I'm A Witch. The effervescent Schneider recently spoke with The A.V. Club about disillusionment, classic rock, and popping up on The Colbert Report during Stephen Colbert's guitar-solo challenge with The Decemberists' Chris Funk.
The A.V. Club: After the relative rawness of Velocity Of Sound, New Magnetic Wonder has a lot of flourishes and interludes, including "Non-Pythagorean Composition I" and "II." What's the story behind them?
Robert Schneider: Right around the time I did the last Marbles record, I invented a scale. I finally generated those tones on a sine-wave generator, and my brother-in-law turned them into a MIDI file that I can play on the keyboard. It's a 12-tone scale similar to all the black and white keys on a piano, but it attaches different notes to them. The higher the octave gets, the closer together the notes get. It's all based on logarithms. I used that scale to write "Non-Pythagorean Composition." I'm not sure if I'm the first person to ever think of this scale, but I'm sure that most people have never heard this sequence of notes, at least not on a rock album.
AVC: Sounds pretty brainy.
RS: What's interesting is, as a music listener, I don't like brainy music as much as I like gut music. I'd take The Velvet Underground over XTC any day. I love XTC, but I love that the Velvets aren't as composed or constructed. What I value more than artfulness is this purity of emotion and soul and humanity. I've always tried to reach for both of them.
AVC: Speaking of XTC, whatever happened to your collaboration with Andy Partridge? Why didn't any of that stuff end up on his new demos box set?
RS: We never actually finished recording anything together. At the time, it was frustrating, but the experience with Andy was incredible. He's one of the most creative, affable, clever, funny, youthful people I've ever met. We would basically write songs over the phone together once or twice a week, and we got together one time in Swindon, where he lives in England, to start recording in his studio. But here's something that was irritating and possibly illuminating about the whole situation: I was supposed to be at his house at 11:00 a.m., but I got lost in traffic, and I didn't wind up getting there till 2:00 p.m. We had an amazing day—we stayed up till 3 a.m., just playing records and guitar, having a great time. We were really hitting it off, and I left feeling exhilarated. The next day, my manager told me, "Andy called me and said, 'Robert was late.'" That's all he said about this beautiful day we had. I understand that's very frustrating to Andy. He's very organized. I hope this doesn't sound bitter, because I'm not bitter. It could have just been Andy's manager trying to protect him from this irresponsible punk kid.
Anyway, when we were in England touring on Velocity Of Sound, I was going to go to Andy's on my own time and record with him for a week. But his manager said, "There'll be no more work on this project until you get the demos done." He kept insisting on me doing demos, but in general, I'm philosophically opposed to doing them. My whole point was, "I'm going to be in England. Let's do the demos together." I'm sure Andy was a little miffed, and his manager blew it out of proportion. From my end, we're still on good terms, but from Andy's end, we're probably not. [Laughs.] But we did write 30 songs together that were pretty strong. He's the most amazing guy in the world.
AVC: What's the story behind Hilary Sidney leaving the group?
RS: There's a personal side of the story that has to do with our divorce that I really can't tell you. There's nothing bitter or bad about it; it's just too subjective. She left on great terms, though. We were finishing up the new album, and all of a sudden, all sorts of people were contacting us. We've gotten a different reception on this record than we have on previous ones. There's been a lot of activity and interest. It was obvious from the time we turned this record in that we were going to be touring a lot on it. I think that all the plans and all the traveling freaked her out. She didn't want to do it. She quit the band because she felt she was dragging her feet. I'm usually the foot-dragger in the band. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is she still doing The High Water Marks?
RS: That's the other thing: She has a new High Water Marks album coming out this year. She's in the band with her husband Per [Ole Bratset], and she's the lead singer and the main writer. It's her vision—it's not just my vision with elements of her. It's obviously more gratifying to do that than to play in someone else's band.
AVC: New Magnetic Wonder has kicked up quite a buzz. Is that surprising after Velocity Of Sound's reception? A lot of people were vocal about their dislike of that album.
RS: It was almost intended to be that way. I went through this phase where I was listening to a lot of R&B, The Velvet Underground, Pavement, and Ramones. I got to a point where I felt distaste for ornate, baroque, psychedelic production. The Elephant 6 scene had blossomed into such a huge thing, and every single time I saw a band, they had 13 people on stage with 12 theremins or something. I understand that those people were doing it partially because I did it, but it became predictable for me, and uninteresting.
AVC: What struck you about music like the Ramones?
RS: How pure and unaffected it was. The main thing you were hearing was this real, human vitality, not just sound effects and pretty instrumental parts and clever counterpoints. The recording would resonate with you. It really hit me that this was more important than anything else, and I felt that our records really lacked that. They went straight from my daydream to your daydream instead of straight from my gut to your gut. I became completely disinterested in big production; it just seemed so superfluous.
AVC: And yet your new album is probably your most complex and ambitious to date. What brought you back?
RS: Really, I did the wrong thing with Velocity Of Sound. Sure, our live show is a huge, sloppy fuzz-fest, but that's not the soul of The Apples. We're really about making these ornate pop productions that really rock out and make you want to dance, but that are also appropriate to listen to when you're sad. Velocity Of Sound wasn't really a mistake, though—it was a band record, and we really needed to make that record. And I learned a valuable lesson: Always try to capture the first take. People can hear your spontaneity, and they feel it. We're social animals, and we're really tuned into these audio cues from each other.
What really inspired New Magnetic Wonder, though, was hearing [Brian Wilson's] Smile. When I heard it, I realized that the whole genre of baroque pop has just barely started. I believe that Smile is the most perfect example ever made of psychedelic pop, and it came out two or three years ago, not 1967. The whole genre seemed new to me all of a sudden. Obviously, I'll never come close to touching anything that Brian Wilson has ever done. Maybe something he's sung in the shower or something. [Laughs.]
AVC: There's also a lot of ELO in New Magnetic Wonder.
RS: Besides Smile, ELO's Greatest Hits was probably the number-one inspiration for this record. I listened to it constantly, and at points I actively emulated it. [Laughs.] I wanted this record to be much more slick-sounding and pop than our other records, and less indie-rock. I wanted to get more of that glassy feeling, like you were listening to Queen or The Cars or something.
AVC: How did it feel to jam with Rick Nielsen and Peter Frampton on The Colbert Report?
RS: Oh my God, it was great. The whole experience was incredible. I wrote that silly song about Stephen just to be cute, just hoping I'd get a mention on his show. The week that I was writing it, he sparked up that controversy with The Decemberists, so I kind of rewrote the lyrics so the song had his back against his detractors. [Laughs.] Then I sent the song off to him. Apparently he had a writers' meeting, and the whole thing consisted of him singing and dancing along with it, and a couple days later I got the call asking me to play on the show.
I knew that Peter Frampton was going to be the stand-in for Stephen, but I didn't know Rick Nielsen was going to be there until my wife and I walked into the dressing room. Rick Nielsen is the reason I even took up music in the first place. When I was in sixth grade, [Neutral Milk Hotel's] Jeff Mangum and I went to see Cheap Trick play. It was my first concert. We met [Olivia Tremor Control's] Will Hart at that show. That was a seminal show for Elephant 6. [Laughs.] I stayed over at Jeff's house, and we rocked out all night to Dream Police. I think he had a baseball bat, and I had a tennis racket. I remember holding the tennis racket and thinking, "If I can do this, I can probably play guitar."
AVC: How did you wind up remixing Yoko Ono for her new album?
RS: I'm not sure how the Yoko thing came onto my plate. Basically, she was doing an album of indie artists remixing her old songs, and I was on her list. They sent me all of her albums and asked me to pick a song, and there were very few candidates, but "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do" is one of her most beautiful songs. It's one of the few pop songs that Yoko really has. It's so sad and pure. I don't know if it's about John Lennon or not, but I imagined she was singing to him. I tried to make it this space-age gospel thing, to really get the soul out of the song.
AVC: Your list of celebrity patrons has been getting big lately, especially considering that you're on Elijah Wood's new label.
RS: I met Elijah years ago at an Apples show at South By Southwest. He was rocking out in the front row, and he came around to meet us later. I was like, "Holy shit, Elijah Wood is an indie-rocker." He's totally into music. He's a record collector. He probably buys 78s. For all I know, he buys Edison cylinders. [Laughs.] He's not in any way what you would consider celebrity-ish. We kept in touch a little bit by email over the years, and when we were starting to record this new album, he contacted us and said, "I'm starting a new label, and I'd love to have The Apples be my first record." He came into the studio the first week we were recording, and just hung out. I showed him how to use the vocoder and the Mellotron. He was flipping out; it was like Christmas morning for him. I was like, "This is the perfect guy to be putting out our record."
AVC: And he directed the video for your new song, "Energy."
RS: Yeah. We had almost no budget for a video, and Elijah was like, "Let me do it." He got some of his friends together and rented out a space and somehow made it all happen. He must have called in some favors. It's a great video; he had it conceived from the start. He wanted it to have this live, party kind of feel. It's totally the most low-budget video The Apples have ever done.
AVC: The Apples have been around for 15 years now, but the band still gets widely stereotyped as childlike. Does that bother you?
RS: Well, I don't agree with it. The new record really breaks from that. It's not exactly childlike, but it is extremely poppy. Before we recorded this album, I really grappled with the question, "What is The Apples? What does it mean to me?" I realized The Apples should be the most fucking kick-ass, baroque, psychedelic band ever. [Laughs.] We should be making Top 40 songs, not indie pop. I went into New Magnetic Wonder wanting to make the essential Apples record, and I think it hits all the bases that The Apples have ever tried to cover. I can't counter what people think of us. I mean, we did The Powerpuff Girls and shit. [Laughs.] We've always walked the line between indie-rock and pop; even our first EP, half the people compared it to Pavement, the other half compared it to The Archies. I'm cool with that. That's our line. We fucking own it.