How the Apples in Stereo Built a New Magnetic Wonder
If there is one undeniable truth in Lexington this year, it’s that Robert Schneider is excited about the new Apples in Stereo album.
Armed with a dog-eared black and white notebook full of math equations, Robert can hardly sit still as he explains theories on music, dreams and math. As he gushes about music past and present, I realized why I found his enthusiasm so refreshing: it’s been a long time since there was a band that was half as excited about their music as I was.
“I would have flipped out if I had heard this when I was like 15 or 16,” Robert said of his group’s latest work. “It would have been one of my favorite records ever. If I had heard this instead of Sgt Pepper’s or XTC’s Skylarking, I might have developed along the same lines anyway.”
By age 15, Robert had already “discovered” multi-tracking by using a double cassette recorder to layer the songs that he and his friends wrote in Ruston, Louisiana. He and his friends, Will Hart, Bill Doss and Jeff Mangum recorded anywhere they could find space – including their high school’s bus terminal. Everything they created, individually and as a group, bore the symbol of their loosely-defined record label, the Elephant Six Recording Company.
Now, two decades later, the four have come together again on Robert’s latest project. Will and Bill, having since formed the core of the Olivia Tremor Control, and Jeff, who showed his skill in Neutral Milk Hotel, joined their longtime friend to flesh out songs that had been building in Robert’s head for years.
“I wanted to work with old friends and see where that takes me,” said Robert. “It’s about getting older and having old friends that you love… It’s not that we decided to have ‘guests’ on the record, but I wanted to have my friends involved in the record because it makes me feel creative and inspired.”
Credit it to whatever you will, but New Magnetic Wonder is nothing if not inspired. Starting with “Can You Feel It?,” a tune that feels like it was pulled straight from the golden pop sounds of 70s AM radio, the album radiates with a warmth that eludes most of the Apples’ contemporaries. It’s simple in the way that all pop music is, but challenging in the way that few seem to realize that it could be.
“With New Magnetic Wonder, I really felt like I was trying to make a pop gospel record, but in a rock sort of way,” Robert explained. “My goal was to make a really meaningful record–something that would make people feel like they weren’t alone, but also something that was totally ecstatic, like an R&B song.”
How exactly does one create a pop gospel record? Surprisingly, one way is with math. Lots and lots of math.
Robert Schneider loves math. He even has a sparkly silver jumpsuit with “I (heart) Math” on the back, that he uses during his solo performances under the moniker Marbles. But his real devotion to art of numbers comes across not through his clothing choice, but in his new album. To make use of his mathematical mind, Robert invented a new musical scale, the Non-Pythagorean scale.
Additionally, Robert spend the past two years as an on-and-off physics student at a few area colleges, a move which both confused and annoyed his manager.
“My manager got really pissed off at me the first time I told him I was taking the classes, because I was supposed to be writing this record,” said Robert with a laugh. “I had to hide my physics and calculus courses from him for the past two years. It’s a very enjoyable thing to do, and I totally pulled off the record.”
One possible reason that Robert was able to achieve such a feat is that he literally wrote part of the album in his sleep. Or, in a dream, to be exact. During a particularly vivid dream (“It was almost like the whole world was happening in my dream”), Schneider wound up in a police station listening to his favorite Velvet Underground song with an officer of the law. After informing the cop all about the song, and its place in his favorite Velvet Underground album, he awoke with the song still ringing in his ears.
“I could still hear it like it was playing on the stereo,” he said. “I jumped up out of bed, grabbed my recorder and wrote the song. It took me five minutes, because I already knew it.”
Dream thievery or no, “Skyway” has earned the right to stand toe-to-toe with the best Apples songs. Its raw, powerful guitar riff underscores a great melody and some superb backing vocals. Connected to the first single, “Energy,” by a mellotron link track, the duo may be the best one-two pop punch in recent memory.
New Magnetic Wonder marks the first release on Simian Records, a label owned and run by Elijah Wood. The Apples in Stereo first met Elijah at the South By Southwest music festival while touring behind Velocity of Sound. Wood enthusiastically enjoyed their show from the front row, after which the Apples’ record label took him back to meet the band.
“I recognized him as the kid from the front row,” said Robert. “Then all of a sudden I was like ‘Woah, it’s Elijah Wood!”
From there, the two corresponded through email and occasionally met up when Schneider was in New York. But it wasn’t until the Apples played a set of seven new songs at Busters, here in Lexington, that things really started to develop.
“After he got wind that we were starting to record new material, [Elijah] called up our manager and asked if we might be interested in signing to his label,” said Schneider.
One year and some ink later, the Apples in Stereo became the first band to sign to Wood’s fledgling label. By this time the label had been picked up as a part of the much larger Yep Roc records, making the Apples labelmates with such acts as Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg and Sloan.
But the biggest boon in terms of publicity came from another unlikely source: Comedy Central’s hit television show, the Colbert Report. Robert, a longtime fan of the show, decided to write an ode to Stephen Colbert.
“I just did it as a funny kind of thing,” said Schneider. “Plus it’s kind of psychedelic to write a song about a tv host.”
He wrote the song on a Wednesday, and passed it along to his manager the following day. On Friday, Robert found out that not only had Stephen already heard it, but loved it and had played it for his writing staff. Monday the phone rang with an invitation for Robert to come on the show for the “Guitarmageddon” against Colbert and a member of the indie rock group the Decemberists.
It was there that the song, “Stephen, Stephen” was debuted. At the end of the program, Robert took part in an all star jam with Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Peter Frampton and Chris Funk of the Decemberists. It could be said that things came full circle for Robert, who had begun his musical career upon staying up all night playing air guitar after seeing Cheap Trick, his first concert.
Suffice to say that Robert Schneider and the Apples in Stereo have had a very busy five years between their new album and their last. It’s a record that shows their growth, but also one which Robert notes was finished despite a myriad of distractions.
“Last semester I toured, mixed the record and played on the Colbert Report and all this stuff while taking classes,” Schneider said. “I never let my manager know, and I still got an A in physics. I felt pretty good about it.”
But it looks like there’s no letting up in the band’s schedule. Thursday they’ll be playing an instore at CD Central before their show with Casper and the Cookies at the Dame, the starting show of their 2007 tour. Then the band will be making an appearance on the Late Show with Conan O’Brien for their Valentines Day episode.