Credit: Adam Cantor
By Paul Freeman [October 2010 Interview]

I have heard the future... and it works!

Robert Schneider and his ever imaginative band, The Apples in Stereo, know how to take listeners on a trip. And their latest journey, in album form, is ďTravellers in Space and Time.Ē

Itís a kaleidoscopic wonderment, building on the colors of Ď70s funk/R&B, ELO, Pink Floyd and The Beach Boys. Delightfully inventive sonic eccentricities add a futuristic sense of sonic fun. This is the indie power pop bandís second album for Elijah Woodís Simian Records [the first being 2007ís acclaimed ďNew Magnetic WonderĒ), distributed by Yep Roc.

Schneider was born in Cape Town, South Africa and, at age six, moved with his family to Louisiana. He attended college in Denver. It was there, in 1992, that he formed the band (originally known simply as The Apples).

He established the Elephant 6 music collective and label, producing albums for Olivia Tremor Control, The Minders and Neutral Milk Hotel, as well as for The Apples in Stereo. His intricate productions recall the work of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector.

The first Apples album was 1995ís ďFun Trick Noisemaker.Ē The bandís work frequently celebrates science-fiction themes, careening through the cosmos on retro-psychedelic fuel. Their brand of sunshine pop is consistently captivating. They spent a decade on the now departed spinART Records, before finding an ideal new home with Simian. Their song ďEnergyĒ was featured on last yearís ďAmerican Idol.Ē

Schneider, who has been featured on ďThe Colbert Report,Ē has channeled some of his infinite creativity into numerous side projects,, including his bands Marbles, Ulysses, Orchestre Fantastique and Thee American Revolution. He has also recorded childrenís music, using the name Robbert Bobbert & The Bubble Machine.

Though Denver is still the bandís official base, Schneider now resides in Lexington, Kentucky.

In the midst of a busy day, just after enjoying lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, Robert Schneider took time to talk with Pop Culture Classics.

The brilliant Schneiderís sentences come pouring out in excited torrents, like an LP played at 45 rpm.

On the new album, was it difficult to balance the retro aspects and the futuristic aspects?

My idea for the record was that it would be kind of like a time capsule. So it was sort of like a record that is intended to be listened to by kids in 20 years or something like that. And so, on the one hand, playfully, we wanted to make a record that would sound fitting then.

So we imagined this world of the future with flying cars and stuff like that. And like, what pop album would they be listening to in 20 years or something?

And then, on the other hand. there was the idea of, how would the people of the future know that we were making a record for them? Like itís kind of a concept record, in that itís supposed to be futuristic. And if itís a time capsule, how will we speak to the people of the future so that they know that we were thinking of them, that weíre writing it for them?

So we figured most of those goals point towards trying to be really futuristic and sort of cram everything into the record that people from our time might consider to be futuristic, while, at the same time, not being post-apocalyptic or nihilistic or anything like that. Like I want to project a positive future. Like I believe in a positive future. Or rather, I believe that, whatever the future will be, itíll be hanging on the points that are futuristic that people introduce now.

Itís kind of like, the cities of today look fairly futuristic by the standards of the past. If we envision the future to be a certain way, whatever that is, and if we would like to see a future thatís like that, you have to start doing futuristic things now, so as to introduce it, so that, to the people of the future, it will seem normal to them, kind of like to the degree that our modern world looks futuristic, in the sense that people of the past thought of the future.

Huge interstates, spiraling all over, these tall, shining buildings, stuff like that. So the degree that our world looks futuristic is because architects and planners and artists 30 or 50 years ago started trying to be futuristic on purpose, like putting up really modern buildings in the Ď60s and Ď70s. So itís like our landscape now looks futuristic, partially because there are lots of futuristic-looking structures around that people of the past put up, trying to be futuristic. And based on that analogy, my thought is that, if Iíd like the music of the future to sound like this or if we imagine the future in general to be a certain way, you have to start to put the ideas of the sounds out there now.

Weíre just a little indie rock band [Laughs]. Iím not saying weíre trying to influence the future. Iím just saying, Iíd like to imagine a positive future where psychedelic pop rules [Laughs]. At the same time, itíll be the future, not now. And what will our genre sound like in 20 years, 50 years? Our thought was that it would include lots of references to futurism of the past, because youíre trying to encode in your music that it is futuristic. Itís for the people of the future. This isnít just us now making modern music. But itís us now trying to make future music, regardless of the fact that weíre a band that lives now and weíre making modern music. The fact that weíre making modern music is forced on us, just by the fact that we exist now. I mean, really,people in the future could be listening to something weird, like brain music.

Anyway, I forgot where I was going with that and I apologize.

In drawing inspiration, you went back to classic album artwork, as well as the actual music of bands like ELO?

[Excitedly] Oh, oh, I didnít totally answer your question, but all I was trying to say was that part of the retro-ness of the record is that weíre trying to reference other futurists of the past, like ELO, for instance. And like the futuristic R&B of the Ď70s, stuff like that. Thatís all I was trying to say. I was so long-winded about it. Iím sorry.

Actually, what you were saying was fascinating. Are you wearing the futuristic uniforms on this tour?

Yeah, itís cool, because, as kind of a pretext to this whole thing, itís not like The Apples have been unfashionable, weíve always been brightly colored and kind of interestingly dressed. But we sort of had a motley fashion sense as a band. We were like indie-rockers and Generation X. So itís not like we generally had a very together look as a band. It was almost against the philosophy of the band to have a together look. But for this record, there was the concept of time-traveling and stuff. So weíre kind of pretending to be time travelers while weíre on tour and weíre going backwards in time, is the concept of our tour. Itís like the storyline behind our tour is that we are The Apples in the future and we are doing a tour backwards in time. So weíre hitting the tour dates in reverse.

So it didnít make sense to have a fun concept like that without being a little theatrical. And maybe for The Apples of the future, it wouldnít be against their philosophy to be that way [Chuckles]. And so thereís this designer in New York named Rebecca Turbow. And my wife was familiar with her work, kind of fashion stuff. Sheís kind of an underground designer and she does really futuristic stuff, among other things. One of the things she does is really futuristic, alien-looking fashion.

So I decided, at some point, to really pull off the concept of the record like we were trying to do and have it be this futuristic, sci-fi sort of thing, that we needed to have costumes. And as soon as I said that, my wife was like, ĎOh, I know a good designer that would make awesome futuristic costumes and would also look really fashionable and cool, not like youíre just wearing a movie prop or something.í And she had done costumes for other bands I like, including, of Montreal [an Athens, Georgia indie band] that I saw a photo of that I liked. Theyíre friends of ours.

So anyway, we commissioned her to do it. And she did these awesome drawings, before we got the costumes, to like propose her ideas. And her drawings are so cool, we used them in the album art. So we do have futuristic costumes and sort of our kind of posture is that they are impervious to time traveling. So anyway, we have futuristic costumes, to answer your question. I guess I could have just said, ĎYes.í [Laughs]

You must really transport the audience.

Yeah, exactly.

Elijah Wood signed you to his label, appeared in your video. He seems to really get The Apples. Do you view him as a kindred spirit?

Yeah, he is really deeply into indie music and other kinds of music, too. Heís got a little bit of a musicologist kind of thing going on. Heís a really interesting person. We met almost 10 years ago at an Apples show. It was at South By Southwest, the music conference in Austin. And he was an enthusiastic, indie rock kid rockiní out in the front row. After the show, he came up to meet us and it was like, ĎHoly shit! Itís Elijah Wood!í And like it was really exciting. This was around the time ĎThe Lord of the Ringsí came out. But , prior to that, I really liked some of the films he was in, like ĎThe Ice Storm,í which is a really moving movie - not that the images are moving, but that itís emotionally moving.

So we made friends. Heíd maybe be in New York for a show. Weíd run into him here and there over the years, kind of kept in touch loosely. And then, a few years ago, our contract with SpinART, our label that we had been on since our first album, had expired. And so, without getting into too long of a story, we took a long time making ĎNew Magnetic Wonder,í our last album, because we didnít have a deadline. Like for the first time ever, since we had started recording our first album, we didnít have somebody saying, ĎHey, didnít you say it was going to be done three months ago?í And ĎCan I hear something?í There was nobody to answer to, so we decided we would take the opportunity to finish our album without having a label expecting it from us and to try to put everything into it that we could, to try to make the perfect Apples record with no time constraints.

Thatís beside the point. The point is that our contract with SpinART was up. My only point there was that it was nice to be outside of a contract [Laughs] Sorry about that. A little stream of consciousness thing going on.

Elijah contacted our manager. And he was starting his new label and he was wondering if Apples were interested in being the first band that he put out. We knew that he was a big fan. We also knew that he had deep and eclectic taste in music. Deep taste, kind of like a college radio deejay might. He pretty much fits into the mold of a college radio deejay. Like, if you just look at the guy, youíd go, ĎOh, he clearly is a college radio, late night deejay.í

Anyway, his label [Simian] had some sort of distribution set up with Yep Roc Records, which was a label we were really interested in. At that time, quite a few labels had contacted us. But Yep Rock were probably at the top of the heap for us. And then Elijah is the president of this label and then having distribution through this other label we liked, it just seemed too perfect.

Because heís a really cool kind of president of a label. You feel like heís going to get your music and support your artistic aims, even if theyíre non-commercial... or even if they are... or whatever. Thatís the main thing. I kind of saw him as being a kind of anti-Seymour Stein. Like he has the potential to be this great label head with this awesome taste, sort of an influence. But Seymour Stein, I think was reputed to be not the greatest person to get into business with. The Apples ourselves were on Sire Records, which was his label some years ago. But I had hung out with Seymour and I really liked him. Iím not trying to diss Seymour Stein. Iím just saying that Elijah seemed like a really positive version of somebody like that, somebody whoís an awesome label head and, at the same time, he has a really positive kind of energy. And his interests are very positive in general. I think of him as a very positive person. So yeah, thatís how that happened.

You mentioned trying to make the perfect Apples record. Was it always your goal to make a perfect pop record?

It definitely has always been the goal. In our minds, even when we started, we recorded our first EPs on four-track cassette and then four-track reel-to-reel and then eight-track reel-to-reel. We didnít realize that what we were doing was low technology, because we were kind of learning as we went. Weíre like, ĎOh, thereís a better microphone? Letís try to get it.í

But just because we didnít know about a better microphone, it didnít stop us from thinking that we were trying to make these hits. So we were always trying to write and record hits. Definitely it is the goal of, I would say, any pop band, and definitely The Apples, to try to make the perfect album.

At the same time, we had some space between the album before ĎNew Magnetic Wonderí and that album. And so I had a greater degree of perspective on our band. And I also had a feeling about what I thought the perfect Apples record should be. And I felt that The Apples records, all of them, were really great records and solid and really interesting and different from each other. And those were some of my goals. And I think that the songs stand up, all of the songs. But I felt like, as far as just the hits, like hearing our greatest songs, that they were spread out over our albums.

I imagined that, if I were a kid, wanting to recommend The Apples to somebody else, you would recommend like maybe giving them a mix tape off of our albums. And our whole band decided that we wanted to try to make an album that would be the essential Apples album, everything we aspired to do, everything that we thought was awesome, everything we thought was great about writing a song and every great kind of song, that we were trying to put everything on this one record and make like the ideal Apples album, that would be like perfect. And, like I said, we had time to be able to do that. It wasnít like we had people pushing us to finish.

Thereís always people pushing to finish. But we had some freedom, with time, with this record. Every record, when you look back at it and itís done and itís mastered, and it comes out, thereís always some flaws that you see on your record. And youíre like, ĎOh, I wish I could have done that differently.í ĎThe snare drum could have been louder on this songí or ĎThat song was a little bright compared to the other songs.í Some will be worse than that, like ĎOh, I totally forgot to put that lead guitar part on there that Iíve been playing liveí or ĎWe left the Vocoder out of the mix.í [Laughs]. Or whatever.

I mean, on the new album, there were moments like that, too, where itís like, ĎWe left the background vocals out at some pointsí or like only the vocoders were there. It worked out nicely. It worked out organically, but it wasnít necessarily planned.

Oh, Iíd like to comment, it just occurred to me, that the larger scale the production youíre working on, and the more planning thatís involved in making it, the more unplanned things happen. Itís funny that the more youíre doing something that seems controlled and seems like itís going to work together as a whole, the more chaos is somehow being bred internally [Chuckles]. I donít know what the deal is with that. But I realized that on the last two Apples records where we really tried to go for a majestic kind of production. There are so many little - itís not that theyíre errors. Itís just that you would think that, with all of the technology and everything, that it would be perfection. Completely smooth perfection. And yet it actually, the more you put into it, the less perfect it gets. Itís great that itís that way, that it doesnít become overworked. I hope not, anyway. I like to think that itís not.

Okay, I was totally off track there... Did I answer the question? What was your question?

[Laughs] Yes, you did just fine. Thanks. Building on what you were saying about the technological advances, when youíre going from four-track into this new computerized world, do you have to be aware of not letting the technology use you, so that youíre just using it?

Because of the fact that we came up from recording on really primitive gear and really believed that we could make great records with it, I donít think our band has a problem with that. I feel like every single piece of technology that we use, and most of the stuff in our studio and when weíre recording, is all old, ancient gear. Even the new album, even the synthesizers are like Ď70s synthesizers. And it was recorded to tape before it was put into ProTools. Thereís lots of modern production techniques that weíre using. But theyíre also kind of self-innovated techniques. Itís not like weíre just using plug-ins out of the box. Like itíll be running the thing out of the computer through the amp to the wah-wah pedal and then into the tape machine and then back into the computer or something.

Thereís definitely a danger. As a producer, your ear will get used to the new technology, when you hear it in the culture and you hear it in other peopleís music. And then you donít notice the genericness of it, when itís being applied to your music. Thatís the danger. And thatís what happens with bands, as they get older. You hear artists from the Ď60s and Ď70s now and itís like, ĎOh, my God! Theyíre using a fretless bass and like the chorus guitarí or whatever!í Itís like, ĎWhat are they thinking?í [Chuckles]. Thatís something that I feel wary of, is not becoming immune or desensitized to the sound of the technology thatís sort of generic and is smeared over all the music that uses that technology.

Itís just like that music of the Ď70s or the Ď60s, part of what makes it sound like itís from the Ď70s or the Ď60s was the technology. Most of it. If you took a Ď60s recording studio and put it into your modern day and recorded on it, it would still sound like the Ď60s, even if youíre recording now, with new people. So the smear of technology across the music is something that Apples use consciously. Like, when weíre slick, weíre really trying to be slick on purpose. And when weíre not being slick, itís because weíre not being slick on purpose. Itís not like weíre masters of technology or something. But I feel, at least for myself, as a producer and engineer that Iím completely in control of it, even though I donít really understand all of it [Chuckles]. Because the thing I donít understand or I havenít heard of before, I donít know what it is, why would I use it? Iím only going to use the thing that I need to use. And when I hear a sound in my head and I have to figure out a way to make it happen, at that point, youíre speaking a new technology. A lot of times, though, that sound is better matched by old technology, for me. So, yeah, does that answer the question? Iím so sorry to be a little scattered. We have a show today and weíre starting the tour and stuff, so Iím a little spastic.

Hey, we appreciate your taking the time for this. In the songwriting process, do you start to use more synth for composing? Or is it still guitar?

On this album, actually, all the songs were written on piano. But it wasnít like synths or anything like that. Itís not like Iím constructing the song digitally or something like that. There is a retro computer-y or synth-y kind of element to it. Itís not like a digitally constructed record, like you would think of dance music or electronic music being constructed inside the computer. Itís a played record that was played by people on actual synths and stuff like that. Iím just saying that in advance of whatever I was about to say... and let me think what that was going to be... [Laughs]

No, so basically, on this record, it really was different from our other records, because I wrote all the songs on piano. So the songwriting has a different quality.

I envisioned the production to be futuristic, but while I was writing the songs, I wasnít trying to do anything on purpose except write hit songs... and meaningful songs. Thereís sort of a balance there, because, as a producer, Iím really conscious of the different sounds weíre using and weíre trying on purpose to do certain things conceptually. But then as a songwriter, itís important for me, for it not to be conceptual. Like I donít want to write futuristic songs for the future. I want to write songs for the public domain, thatíll last into the future.

So, in the production, we want it to be like a time capsule. On the songwriting side, Iíd like to make songs that are good enough, that mean enough, that they survive.

So, when Iím sitting there, like chugging away on the piano, Iím not thinking about whether this is going to sound like a UFO, particularly, or whatever. That stuff definitely comes more into play in the studio, after weíve put down the piano and the drum track, stuff like that. Basically, at that point, on this record, every single production choice that was made after the basic tracks went down - the piano and the drums and maybe a couple of guitars - every choice that was made was based on, ĎIs it futuristic?í If itís not futuristic, does this sound like something we would have put on our last record? Then donít use it, use something else thatís more futuristic, that sounds similar. So like, instead of using a horn, weíre using a telephone through a fuzzbox, which has a similar timbre. Or whatever.

So, the answer to the question was ĎNo.í [Laughs] Although I do love playing the synthesizer. And weíve always used heavy synthesizers on Apples records. The difference is that these songs werenít written on guitar, so the rhythm guitar isnít the main, driving instrument. The main driving instrument is keyboard.

Itís kind of funny, too. In my mind, this record is reallypiano-heavy. But I donít even know if I hear the piano in it now, when I listen to it [Laughs]. Thereís so much kind of outer space stuff. And I wanted that. Anybody can make a piano record. I wanted to make a UFO record. Nevertheless, itís funny, because, in my mind, itís really piano-heavy, but then when I actually hear it, when I walk into a store or something and I hear the song, itís like, ĎWhoa, is there piano? Did I write that on piano?í

In the songwriting process, does it tend to be analytical or do you just want to let it flow in and flow out?

Yeah, it just flows in and flows out. Like, I wonít sit down to try to write a song, unless Iím already humming one. Like if Iíve got a hook in my head or something like that. The song will be pretty well developed and Iíll sit down and kind of start banging away at the piano. And Iím really just feeling around, kind of stream of consciousness, on the guitar or the piano and sort of singing. Like Iíll play the part that I already have and then Iíll stop and Iíll listen in my head to see if my imagination produces a new part, where the song should go. And then Iíll try to figure out what that part was, if it comes. If it doesnít come, then Iíll put the song down and wait until another time when the part will pop into my head spontaneously.

Iíve written a lot of songs, so I donít feel the need to like construct songs anymore. When I was younger, I used to do that sometimes. Like I would want to write a certain kind of song or I would try to take two different songs that both had good hooks and try to smash them together into one song. And thereís nothing wrong with that. Those are great ways to write songs.

But now, unless the song really imposes itself on me, I donít want to muddy up my songwriting. Unless a song imposes itself on me as being absolutely necessary, then I just wonít finish it or I wonít even start it usually.

So how do the songs usually impose themselves on your mind?

Often, probably like 50 percent to 75 percent of the time, Iíll be driving or doing something else and Iíll hear a melody. Itíll pop into my head like Iím listening to the radio. Sometimes itíll be a full production. And Iíll start humming along and the song will write itself that way. Before I even play it on an instrument, Iíll have at least the vocal hooks and the main lyrics and stuff like that going. So thatís the best way for songs to happen. When it happens like that, thatís my best song.

Then, other times, theyíll be like a little bit more riff-based. Like Iíll have an awesome, chugging piano riff or some sort of really interesting chord progression or a great guitar riff and Iíll like play it over and over and over again. Itís not like Iím singing at that point. Iím just playing. Iíll play the riff. And as a musician, thereís a lot of pleasure in just playing a riff repetitively. So Iíll like be playing the piano riff over and over, being lost inside the sound. And then, itís like suddenly, a melody will emerge in my head. And it happens instantly. Those are also the best kinds of songs. So like, Iíll already have a great riff, which is hard to find sometimes. Iíll already have a great chord progression. And Iíll just be playing it with pleasure. And the the melody will just pop out suddenly. Iíll try to catch that melody. Thatís the other best way for a song to happen.

The melody is contained in the chords somehow. And itís just sort of like, of all the possible melodies that could be in there, one of them sort of emerges spontaneously at one point. And you have to, at that point, have a tape recorder or something to be able to quickly capture it, because it will flow into some other new melody.

But sometimes Iíll think, ĎOh, this is the hookiest melodyí and Iíll be chugging away and singing it with all my heart and itíll be like, ĎThis is a great song, a total hit! Itís awesome! This is a song for the future generations. And Iíll never forget this great song.í Then, the next time I sit down, Iím like, ĎOh, shit! I canít remember it!í And all I can remember is some slightly simpler or slightly different version that doesnít quite feel the same when I sing it. So itís important to capture them while you can.

I guess what I like, when Iím writing a song, is for it to be as if somebody else wrote it and I just heard it, rather than I really was inside it, trying to write it myself. I donít feel a sense, as a writer, wanting to express myself. I feel more a sense of wanting to connect to some kind of cosmic human something. I donít know what. So thatís, for me, the most pleasurable way to write.

And then thereíll be other times when itís like a cartoon wants me to write a song for Disney or whatever. Or like Iíll have a commission to do a commercial, TV ad or something like that. And then you are constructing a song. But even then, I try to launch into it, because theyíre going to want the best song. So Iíll try to launch into it with a really simple poppy chord progression that Iím comfortable with, like ĎWild Thingí or something, and see if a melody emerges. Like thereís so many melodies in ĎWild Thing.í Itís like, in constructing the song, I made the choice to have a ĎWild Thingí-type chord progression. But then, at that point, Iíll try to jump into it with enthusiasm and sometimes a good way to write songs for me is Iíll start to play the guitar or the piano, without having any chord progression or anything, and Iíll start singing at the same time. And Iíll just see if something will happen. And a lot of times, something will, like, right away, itís as if Iím playing a song that I already knew. So also thereís some good songs that come out that way.

So did you even have melodies coming to you in childhood, racing through your head?

I think in childhood I did have songs stuck in my mind, but it would be more like nursery rhymes and stuff like that. I had the song ĎCarsí by Gary Numan stuck in my head from something like age nine to age 23 [Laughs]. Literally playing constantly in the background of my head. It was always there. Itís still there, deep in there. If I listen for it, itís there. It made an early impact on me.

But no, I think it started in high school, when I really started hearing it. I was interested in music as a kid, but I can remember the first time I sat down and strummed a guitar chord, and I closed my eyes and I heard an orchestra playing the chord with the guitar. I was about 15. That was one of the experiences that defined my productions and my whole life probably.

And I remember sitting on my bed, as a teenager, young kid, strumming an A chord. and in my mind, there was this richness to it. And all of these flutes and violins and stuff playing. And I heard them in my ears as if they were playing at the same time, in the same room. I think, from that point on, I started really hearing dense arrangements, when I would record. I would hear some arrangements, even when I was writing a song. Even as a high school kid, I would hear a spartan sort of arrangement, bass lines and stuff like that, in my head, as I would be strumming it and stuff.

I like that. Itís a nice feeling. Itís a lot of work to pull it off, though, in the studio. Like itís a really huge effort and Iíve gone through periods where I wasnít sure the effort was worth it, because you can get just as much of an emotional response out of something really primitive, like a cassette recording or a four-track recording. But you donít measure everything by the amount of response you get from it. You measure it by how satisfying it is to you artistically.

And itís like, one year, you want to just play acoustic guitar and thatís what youíre into. And you feel really raw about it and thatís all you want to do is record it on a four-track. And that doesnít mean that itís a better year or a worse year than the year that you want to have somebody put a lot of money into letting you make a record that has like thousands of tracks on every song and sounds like space music or something.

I go back and forth. Like I went through a period, before ĎNew Magnetic Wonder,í when I completely lost faith in complex production and I decided it was completely empty and like nothing but frills and that, aside from just the song and the singing, the vocal performance, it didnít matter what the backing track was. I recorded an album with my band Ulysses that we recorded live in my garage with one microphone, in mono. And it was awesome and really raw. And I really still feel great about it, like listening back to it. And that kind of satisfied my anti-psychedelic production period. At that point, I kind of came out of it and came to the conclusion that, yes, it might be the case, possibly, that it doesnít matter what the accompaniment is, itís all about the song and the vocal performance, thatís all that matters.

But nevertheless, accompaniment can be glorious and thereís a lot of special attention you can pay to it. Itís kind of like you can make that like a classical composition, while the song and the singing are still just a raw pop song. And thatís kind of like where I am right now. I feel like, with the backing track, Iíd like to have the density of a classical composition, not that weíre trying to be classical at all. Iíd just like to have that kind of intricacy. And like, at the same time, the songwriting and the vocals donít depend on that at all. Theyíre not at all clever. Theyíre just like pure and kind of like universal. I think thatís sort of maybe the goal.

When you were first hearing Brian Wilson music, were you analyzing it? Or just letting it wash over you?

The Beach Boys were a band that I got into as a little kid. Iím from South Africa, originally. And I moved to the U.S. when I was six. And as a little kid, The Beach Boys spoke to me, because I lived in Cape Town, which is a beach kind of city. The beach and the ocean were part of my experience as a little kid. And The Beach Boys really kept those images alive for me. They helped me retain memories of my early childhood, retriggering the memories when I was in my older childhood.

In high school, I got ĎPet Sounds.í I had gotten ĎSgt. Pepperí in the summer of 1987, when there was all that hype around the 20th anniversary of The Summer of Love. I was 16 that year and totally bought into the hype. I was just like, ĎSummer of Love is all over again.í I loved it. I was so into psychedelic music anyway. So I totally believed in the second summer of love.

So I had gotten into ĎSgt. Pepperí that year and I had read that Paul McCartney had said that ĎPet Soundsí was the best record ever and that it influenced ĎSgt. Pepper.í So I got ĎPet Soundsí and it became like the soundtrack to my life for many years, while I was a teenager and into my twenties. It was in the background on dates and all of my sensitive experiences. I really felt like that sort of melancholy, distant, sort of hopeful kind of person, like the singer on the record, that the character of the singer conveys.

So, at the time, I didnít pick it apart at all. I was still trying to hear like what was special about the drum sound of the snare drum. That used to really mystify me in high school. I would listen to Beatles records and be like, ĎWhat is it about the snare drum thatís different about modern snare drums?í Because I didnít know about reverb and all the fancy stuff they were using in the Ď80s on snare drums. All I knew was that the snare drums sounded great. And what is it? I kind of picked apart that it had more treble, maybe it was a little more distant in the mix. I didnít know. I was obsessing over things like that in high school, as far as the production goes. I couldnít quite hear the full arrangement, even though I was into doing arrangements. I mean, Brian Wilsonís arrangements are miles beyond something like The Beatles. Not to say that The Beatles arenít just as good or better. But just in terms of his arrangements, the complexity and density of the instrumentation and stuff. Itís like nothing else.

I still canít pick it apart. I still canít listen to something like ĎPet Soundsí and really pick apart the instrumentation. Except I can pick out obvious things, like there are three instruments all playing the same instrumental line and they mix together together to sound like a new sound. And then I can copy that.

And in the last few years, Iíve been able to sort of get the kinds of chord changes he was doing on the piano, these dense changes. And, the new record, even though it sounds nothing like ĎPet Sounds,í the chord changes on the piano, if you heard them on their own, kind of sound like ĎPet Sounds.í [Laughs] So yeah, itís a little hard to pick apart for me. Iíve always gone about it hearing a few primary sounds in the music and then sort of like filling in with my own sort of shoddy details in the production.

The fact that The Beach Boys music has had such a profound effect on you, do you think about your music having that kind of effect on The Applesí listeners?

Oh, itís impossible for me to think about that. I can think about it as an analogy to that music. So it moves me to think that that might be the case, that someone would think about our music the way I think about the music I love. And people can tell me that, but itís hard for me to be standing there, talking to a kid and feel any different. Like Iím just that kid. Iím no different. And I think the kid gets that, too. So I donít feel itís quite the same. I guess I just canít process it and think about it that way. But it would be really flattering and nice to think that might be the case. But itís hard.

My music sounds so imperfect to me. Thereís so much more that I want to do and that I wanted to do on every record.

As far as the futuristic stuff, were you always into sci-fi and fantasy?

Oh, yeah, when I was a kid, before I took up playing the guitar, my goal was to be a comic book artist. And my whole childhood, up until middle school, when I took up rock Ďní roll and kind of became a rocker, my whole childhood prior to that was geared toward me being a sort of sci-fi comic artist. That was my entire ambition and everything I thought about.

I love sci-fi, but I especially love futurism and the futuristic mythology. And comic books kind of portray that. Thatís actually one reason for the new record being the way that it is. There was a theme on Apples records, even going back to our earliest EPs and stuff, Iíd say something like 25 percent of Apples songs are about UFOs or outer space or physics and stuff like that. There was sort of a science-fiction-y theme. So I had always had the ambition to make a record that was sci-fi sort of themed. It wasnít necessarily a time capsule concept. That was more recent. But I have always had the ambition of making a UFO kind of pop record. I didnít know what that meant. I just had that ambition to make one that was based on a sci-fi or outer space kind of concept.

I had a series of experiences, for instance, going to Tomorrowland, at Disney World, with my family a couple of years ago, and things like that. I had few sort of sci-fi experiences that clinched in my mind that this was the time, this was going to be the album, this was going to be our sci-fi album. But definitely I have always had that interest.

I study mathematics and physics and stuff, too. And Iím a math major at university right now, on the side from touring and stuff.

Youíre back in school?

Yes, Iíll probably have my Bachelors of Science in like a year or something like that.

I guess youíve always been fascinated by the connection between music and math?

Yeah, I really am. Not that Iím disagreeing with you, but itís not the connection between music and math, and itís not my main interest. Essentially, Iím just interested in making great pop songs. And separately, doing beautiful math.

But like, Iím interested in taking mathematical structures and applying them to music somehow. And like itís not my main interest. But I have the knowledge base to sort of experiment with that. Itís if you want the world to be futuristic in the future, then you try to be futuristic now. So Iím interested in trying new structures and notations and ideas and stuff like that, even though itís not necessarily my number one thing. My number one thing is just beauty and trying to do things that are beautiful. But my number two thing is trying to do things that are futuristic and different. So yes, Iím working on it.

So thatís where your introduction of a new form of musical scale comes from?

Yeah, I guess so. I was talking to a friend of mine whoís really into classical music and its intonation and stuff like that. It dawned on me when I was leaving his house, that you could make a musical scale based on logarithms and right away the equation popped into my head, how you could generate the scale. It just came to me in a flash of inspiration. My friend had been talking about special tunings and stuff like that. And at the time, my interest, I was taking a Physics class, I was interested in waveforms and stuff like that. It just immediately came to me, the possibility for the scale and how it would be generated. It was like half a second. I wrote it down in my notebook and wondered for about a year, if you could make music, what it would sound like, how you could generate the tones and so on.

Then about a year later, my brother-in-law, that I record with, I have a band called Thee American Revolution with him, actually, he told me he would help me. He had figured out to use MIDI to do stuff like that. And he helped me use a tone generator to make the scale so I could play it on the keyboard. And so that was right around when Apples were making the ĎMagnetic Wonder,í so it made its way onto that album. And we recorded a bunch of compositions for the new album, too, with the scale. But, like, when we put them in the sequence of the record at the end, even though this record was so different from the last record, it was like we were literally trying, at every turn, to not do the thing we did on the last record.

Like, if we were going to put an instrument on here that was on the last record, we wouldnít use it, but would instead use something else. It was part of our manifest for making this record, to replace the old sounds with new sounds. So, in the end, we ended up throwing out a lot of the compositions, even though theyíre really cool. Iím going to put out a whole album of them at some point. But there is one song, ĎC.P.U.,í on the new record, that was sort of an experiment in writing a pop song in the regular chromatic scale and then having it sort of be fused with instrumental sections that are in the logarithmic scale.

On the one hand, I had a good song that had only two chords, so it was possible to do that. On the other hand, I was interested to see, can you play a kind of primitive song with a rock band and then put this new scale over it. Will it work or will they clash? We were careful about doing it, so I think it worked out okay. So, thatís probably an example of me trying to be a little futuristic. At the same time, I had the idea, and Iím an artist and a musician and a composer and I am interested in using various things for arts or whatever. Like, as a producer, I love using found sounds and sound effects and various kinds of objects as instruments and stuff like that. So I guess I am interested in finding different sounds to use in making music. So, the scale, as soon as it came to me, it was obvious thatís a new way that I could make music. I got all excited about it.

Recently, I modified a toy called the Mattel Mindflex, to make it so that you can operate a synthesizer with your mind, as well. And that was another thing where it was like, I had the idea, my family bought me the Mindflex and I immediately thought, you could control a synthesizer with it. So at that point, it was like, ĎWell, what would the music sound like? Thereís a burning urge that I have to do it.í

So I kind of like pushed it through and learned how to do it and made the thing work. I found the wires that enabled you to do that are inside the toy and I plugged it into my synthesizer and it worked. It was such a great feeling. And then I made a composition for it and we had a performance. And now I feel kind of satisfied. You can make music like that with your brain. And other people have done it, too. Itís not like Iím the first person to do it. If thereís a futuristic toy, maybe you can make futuristic music with it.

Iíd heard that there may be an animation project growing out of your childrenís album?

Yeah, weíre working with some animators, putting together a cartoon show about math and science. Itís sort of a show about invention and innovation and discovery and the mysteries of the universe... for little kids. Plus I want it to be fun, like say, confetti exploding out of the TV.

My focus has been on finishing The Apples album and then touring and stuff like that. And already Iím looking towards other new projects. And thatís an ongoing project. It exists and itís at a very highly developed stage right now. But itíll have to be once the touring has wrapped and weíve wound down a little bit for our record before I can really dive back into it.

Some artists get stagnant after a while. You seem to constantly find and explore new possibilities, expanding the horizons.

[Laughs] Well, that was really nice of you to say. Gosh, thank you. I guess Iím trying. Thank you.

Is that something you can actually be conscious of and work towards?

The only thing is, I do try to seize every opportunity for a new idea, just to follow it up at least a little bit. Itís not like you have to become the best at it or even really understand it. But part of art is having to put a little bit of effort into it. Like, if you just have a cool idea and it happens easily, well, the way thatís going to happen is you did it in PhotoShop or something like that. Itís not like you can easily pull off a new idea. You have to kind of work at it a little bit.

So I would say, if you have a cool idea, you put a little bit of work into it, you donít have to finish it or master it, then thatís art. Youíre doing art. And then like, you take it as far as you want to and youíre like satisfied and then itís over. And thatís art. And so, I guess I am kind of interested in that, but I guess Iím not conscious of it... but I really like that you said that. Thank you. It makes me feel good. Because you worry about that sometimes.

Iím 39 now, when I was younger, I always used to worry that, I always assumed, when I was in my twenties, that I would run out of songs by the time I was 39. But like, Iíve written more songs in my last few years than I wrote in all of my twenties put together. And Iíve put out more records. And Iím happier with the songs. In fact, I think that theyíre much better. Iím not sure that the productions and everything about the music is better, because you change over time. Like my goals were different then. But I feel that my songwriting is better. And I write more songs. So, I donít know. Iím sure that time will still come. But thatís when Iíll have a lot of half-written songs left over that I can... I mean, like I said, the song needs to impose itself on me. So you never know. I guess, if songs are no longer imposing themselves on me, Iíd be happy not to write them.

But basically, have the musical goals and philosophies changed much over the years?

No, I do think my approach has changed, because every time I do something, I want to move on and do something different. Iím always kind of a little bit curious and a little bit satisfied. But beyond that, my philosophy has always been to make something that you can listen to forever and youíll always hear new elements and kinds of little connections inside the music. Iíve always wanted to make music that fits together like clockwork a little bit, like things are kind of pulsing and rippling and all the elements of the production are sort of playing off of each other.

Even when I was recording with fuzz guitars and four-tracks and stuff like that, we were to make this sort of interconnected little baroque kind of piece of noise. And I would say thatís kind of still my goal. In addition, itís become more my goal, as Iíve gotten older, to write songs that mean something to other people.

I mean, I always wanted to write meaningful songs, but when I was younger, I was also so involved with trying to figure out the production, the drum sounds and stuff like that, the arrangements and how to make the arrangements work, different elements of orchestration and things like that, that was all mixed in together. Itís not like Iíve mastered it now. But as I gotten better at that, it became more important to me - like I said, I had that crisis some years ago - and it became more important to me to really try to write true songs that are great. You canít say that your own songs are great. But you can write songs that really, really feel like something when youíre singing them. And if you write a song that really feels like something while youíre singing it, it feels like somebody else wrote it, like you canít even believe that you wrote it.

And maybe you didnít. Maybe you ripped it off. You keep asking your friends if this sounds like something else to them. Like those are the kinds of songs that I feel I want to write now. When I was younger, I was sometimes like, ĎOh, I want to write a song like The Jackson Fiveí or ĎI want to try to write a song like Pavementí or whatever. Now I feel more like Iím just trying to write songs and maybe in the production, Iíll try to pour in some of the elements from other bands that I love.

Well, there are a lot of young songwriters trying to write songs like Robert Schneider.

Oh, I canít imagine that. But if thatís the case, thatís awesome.


Oct 26
Crocodile Cafe
Oct 27
Mississippi Studios
Oct 30
San Francisco
The Independent

Oct 31
Blank Club

Nov 1
Los Angeles

Nov 2
San Diego
Nov 3
Tucson, AZ
Nov 5
Fun Fun Fun Festival
Nov 7
Walterís on Washington
Nov 8
Granada Theater

Dec 9
London, United Kingdom
King's College London Students Union