By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Robert Schneider takes the small stage at Austin's Waterloo Records looking as if he's just wrapped up a brisk game of Frisbee golf, a shaggy beard twice as long as his thinning thatch of hair almost obscuring his face, a pair of flip-flops on his feet. Tuning up his beat-up acoustic and opening a notebook of song lyrics, Schneider, The Apples in Stereo's singer-guitarist-songwriter, sheepishly jokes with the crowd crammed into the record store, the people packed tightly near the front of the stage and jamming every aisle, bringing in-store commerce to a halt. If there weren't a microphone present, Schneider's words would have been completely inaudible; even with one positioned a few inches from his face, his voice is about as loud as a Kleenex landing on cotton balls.
As he launches into his short set -- a mix of new and old songs, including some off The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone (which will be released on April 18 by spinART Records) -- Schneider's voice doesn't get much louder, only enough to be heard over the lazy melodies he's strumming on his guitar. A few feet away, his bandmate, drummer-singer Hilarie Sidney, looks on, smiling. The entire low-key production feels as if it's happening in the back yard of the house they share in Denver, save for the hundred or so fans hanging on Schneider's every word. After about 20 minutes, he's gone, leaving as quietly as he came.
"I was really surprised there was so many people there to see me," Schneider says, on the phone from his home recording studio. At the moment, he's under attack by his allergies, remixing the first single from The Discovery of a World... ("Look Away"), and finishing a song for inclusion on Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls, all while lying flat on his back because of a recent skateboarding mishap. "I really couldn't believe it. I walked in expecting there to be like five people, and it was like a show. Excuse me just a second, I have to blow my nose," he apologizes, before emitting a shrill honk that makes him sound as if someone's either tickling or stabbing him. He laughs. "That's the horn section."
Schneider's solo set at Waterloo was a big change from the last time I saw him and The Apples in Stereo play in Austin, performing at the now-defunct Liberty Lunch at the 1999 South By Southwest Music Festival. Finishing up the set, Schneider repeatedly -- and futilely, as it turned out -- tried to smash his solid-body Rickenbacker on the club's stage. After about six or seven whacks, he gave up, dropping the uncooperative guitar and thanking the crowd, very politely, for coming out. The gesture was, perhaps, an out-of-character one for Schneider, more in line with someone with a fetish for The Who rather than Schneider's well-known fixation for The Beatles and The Beach Boys. (His home recording studio, where the Apples have recorded every album except for 1997's Tone Soul Evolution, is known as Pet Sounds Recording Studio.)
Yet, as the songs on The Discovery of a World... show, although Schneider may have a love for classic pop melodies, it's rivaled, if not surpassed, by his passion for rock and roll. You can hear it on the disc's opening track, the energetic "Go," all lush harmonies, layered arrangements, and surprisingly forceful, almost growled vocals. Schneider may still pledge allegiance to John and Paul, but from the sound of "Go" and "I Can't Believe," as well as a few other songs on the album, it appears he'd settle for Mick and Keef. Though he may be best known as the guy softly singing retro-sounding, forward-thinking pop songs, it's clear Schneider is not above smashing a few guitars. Well, trying to, at least.
More than anything else, with The Discovery of a World..., Schneider and the band set out to prove that point, make sure everyone knew they were much more than a group that answered the question of what it might have sounded like if Lennon and McCartney had collaborated with Brian Wilson rather than competing with him. Schneider admits that idea was part of the plan when the group started: he just wanted to do his best to sound like his favorite records. But now, all he wants to sound like is The Apples in Stereo. The comparisons used to thrill him. Not anymore.
"I think it bothers me in that I don't think I really copy anything," Schneider says, speaking so quickly that the words seem to come out on top of one another, a rapid-fire aural assault. "There's a lot of bands that rip off melodies and chord progressions that are very familiar, stuff like that. I really think that we have original songs that are different from everybody else. I think the sound that we're making...I mean, we're not really a retro band. We're not trying to make '60s-sounding records; we're trying to make modern, rock-and-roll, psychedelic records.
"Yet, at the same time, there's a lot of inspiration and a lot of references, especially on our past records," he continues. "I feel on the new record, it's less referential of our influences and stuff. On our old records, we'd be like, 'Fuck! That sounds great! Those drums sound just like The Beatles.' Now it's like, 'Those drums sound too much like The Beatles.' It's more us. I was so used to getting shitty kind of recordings on my four-track or eight-track, all I wanted was something that sounded as good as, you know, a '60s record. And now, I guess, I feel like we're way past that. And as an engineer in our studio and stuff, I feel like the sound quality of it definitely doesn't sound like that either." He pauses, then delivers the punch line: "Definitely sounds more like, uh, 1970."
The Discovery of a World... backs up Schneider's claim...sort of. The album straddles the present, with a foot in both the past and the future. Like the band's previous efforts -- including 1995's debut Fun Trick Noisemaker and last year's mini-album, Her Wallpaper Reverie -- the disc wouldn't be out of place if it were in the racks three decades ago. But unlike those other albums, The Discovery of a World... would be right at home three decades from now as well. It's timeless, dated only by the copyright information stamped on the back cover. Tone Soul Evolution and Her Wallpaper Reverie, especially, were like Easter-egg hunts, hidden surprises everywhere; not so much for the melodies or riffs, but for the sounds, the recording techniques and guitar tones lifted directly from The Apples' predecessors. Each disc came off, in a way, like a sampler of Lenny Kaye's Nuggets garage-pop compilation, or maybe the time-lapse version of a day spent listening to an oldies radio station.
Schneider's fascination with recording started when he was growing up in tiny Ruston, Louisiana, when he and his friends had to record their own songs to get the kind of music they wanted to hear. Spurred on by what little good music they heard working as teenage disc jockeys at Louisiana Tech University's student-run station, they formed bands together and also recorded separately, trading tapes back and forth, trying to outdo one another. Among those friends were Will Cullen Hart, Bill Doss, and Jeff Mangum, who, along with Schneider, now form the backbone of the Elephant 6 collective, a group of like-minded musicians dedicated in equal parts to upholding classic songwriting traditions and decimating them. The Elephant 6 bands have a knack for writing hooks that stick in your head like a .22-caliber slug and -- partly thanks to Schneider's skill behind the boards -- a talent for nearly obscuring them with (literal) bells and whistles.
Schneider, besides engineering every Apples album, records most of the Elephant 6 groups as well, including Olivia Tremor Control (featuring Hart and Doss), Neutral Milk Hotel (spearheaded by Mangum), Denver's The Minders, San Francisco's Beulah, and a handful of other bands that fly the Elephant 6 flag. For Schneider, it's a way to help out his friends and himself. Armed with a new (well, new to him) 16-track recorder, the experience he's gained in the last few years taping other bands helped him get the sound he wanted for The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone.
"I guess that was the main thing we were trying to do," Schneider says, referring to the disc's fuller sound. "There's fewer instruments, actually, on most of the record, but I tried to make the sounds carry a lot farther, so you hear a lot more going on. We really wanted to make this record different. We wanted it to not be '60s, and not be lo-fi, and not be...I just wanted it to be good. I've recorded and mixed a lot more bands in the last few years, and I think that's really helped my engineering skills a lot, and my producing skills, and stuff like that. So, I do feel a lot more confident and competent in that way. But I'm still working on it. I've got a long way to go.
"I think the spirit of Elephant 6 is that of enthusiasm and experimentation," he says. "There's a general feeling of everybody wanting to do something different, everybody wanting to make different sounds and to put different sounds in the form of a pop song. I think everyone's very concerned with writing good songs, but not just have a song be a song. I think the combination would be experimentation and a classic pop song. Like The Music Tapes would be almost all experimentation and a little pop song, and with The Minders it's almost all pop song and a little experimentation. But still, I think the feeling of trying to get a certain sound and a certain spirit out there is a very genuine thing."
Schneider thinks everyone is still catching up to the Elephant 6 collective, just now coming around to the group's particular way of doing things. He thinks those critics still have a long way to go toward understanding his mission, though, because The Apples and the other bands are too often viewed as grave robbers, stealing from the past to create their own future. As Schneider says, nothing could be further from the truth. As much as he loves The Beatles and The Beach Boys, he knows that his band isn't either one, and he doesn't want them to be. In fact, in some ways, he thinks they're better. As bold of a statement as that is, he might be right. At least in some ways.
"It's just that, you know, The Beatles didn't engineer any of their own records," Schneider says. "They didn't figure out how to get a drum sound. They didn't sit there listening to other records and go, 'God, this is our drum sound.' Recording at home, it's a whole different world, I think, from being a studio band with managers and accountants and fucking promoters and publishing people, like most of the '60s bands were like. As far as that goes, it kind of pisses me off, just because I feel like what's going on -- not just with our group of friends, but also in general in the rock-and-roll underground -- is that there's a lot more experimentation. And in a way, I think that makes it even more personal, if you're more personally in control of getting the sounds. You like the way a certain record sounds, and this is the best you can do to make it sound like that. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."