By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Robert Schneider's world moves at light speed.
He thinks a lot of things. He says a lot of things.
With very little prodding, the frontman for Apples in Stereo talks at length about mathematics, about brainwaves, about frequencies.
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Your head spins just trying to keep up with his many favorite subject matters—each of which seemingly comes faster at you than the last.
Then, out of nowhere, he goes on a tangent about his bandmate, the Apples' Dallas-based drummer, John Dufilho. Locals should know Dufilho; He's the frontman for the Deathray Davies. Schneider says that the forthcoming sixth Deathray Davies record, that band's first in five years—for which, he says, some 45 songs have been already been written—is "a production masterpiece...really high art."
It jumps out at you, and you want to ask him more about it—that's some serious praise—but then Schneider goes off on another stream of consciousness, discussing something else intriguing with the fervor of a man possessed.
Conversing with Schneider would prove tiring were it not also so interesting.
For 17 years, Schneider's been known as the frontman for the Apples, an oddball indie pop-rock outfit that's existed comfortably on the outskirts of the mainstream for all of its career. The band's put out seven studio albums of endearing, futuristic, thinking-man's bubblegum, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.
But Schneider is a more accomplished man than that. He also might be the most interesting personality in rock, for a multitude of reasons.
For starters, in 1993, he helped found the absurdly influential Elephant Six Recording Co., which spawned, among other namecheck-worthy indie icons, Neutral Milk Hotel and of Montreal. In more recent years, he's become something of a darling speaker at mathematical conventions, where he's called upon to speak about his research in alternative musical scales—non-Pythagorean scales, he calls them—that are based upon various mathematical algorithms and the "[frequency] textures between the notes" created when non-standard chords are played. Even more recently, he's started research in an entirely different realm, creating an instrument he calls a "Teletron," a synth that players try to control with their minds—the more active their brain, the higher the pitch of a note. It gets crazier: Schneider's written a symphony for the thing—in which two players, their heads strapped to sensors, scan images aimed at engaging more or less left- and right-brain activity, depending on his score's sonic intent.
Schneider's also among the fastest talkers in the world: He describes all of the above interests, in ridiculous detail and yet also in very understandable terms, in just a few minutes.
So it's no wonder, then, that the Apples' music is so conceptual—not in narrative, but in theme.
"We've always had kind of a spaceship, UFO, kind of science fiction-y thread to the Apples," Schneider admits, his geeky roots shining through once more. "I'm guessing that 25 to 30 percent of all Apple songs are about UFOs or things like that. Every album has a few songs about outer space and UFOs and stuff."
It's an especially prevalent theme on his band's newest disc, Travellers in Space and Time, which, as its name implies, centers very much around elements of time and space—more so even than past Apples releases.
"We wanted to make the sort of sci-fi Apples record that has always been brewing," Schneider says.
But here's the thing about Travellers: It's not the formulaic disc one might expect—quite the opposite, actually. It finds the Apples at both their most epic and dance-inducing to date. As with everything Schneider does, there's reasoning behind that direction.
"We were trying to make what I consider to be universal pop music," Schneider explains. "It's like, 'What will our genre be like, if you evolved psychedelic pop 20 years from now? What will it be like then? What influences will it incorporate? How will it still be psychedelic but be different?' We went into the album with that sort of idea. You would imagine that it would be incredibly poppy—and it's supposed to be. We wanted it to kind of be like a time capsule that's supposed to be opened in 20 years. And, hopefully, in 20 years, the kids will be like, 'Oh, this is meant for us.' We were trying to write music for the future."
It certainly sounds like as much with Schneider offering up his highest-ranging falsetto to date over electronic blips and beeps and an overall synth-heavy instrumentation. More important, it's impossibly catchy and cheerful, eliciting smiles as it forces you to dance along—even when focusing on topics such as being confused by the world, as Schneider sings about on "Dance Floor," the disc's lead single, and when he expects listeners to relate to being out of satellite range as he does on "C.P.U."
Luddite music, this isn't. But this isn't just the work of some mad indie-rock scientist, either; Schneider's quick to credit his bandmates for their added influence—of which, he says, there was plenty on this album.
Dufilho, for whom Travellers serves as his first time working with the Apples in the studio since joining the band four years ago, was leaned on heavily during the disc's production, Schneider says. Schneider credits him for analyzing and finding various percussive sounds—sounds Schneider wanted but couldn't pinpoint from Michael Jackson's Thriller, which ended up being, by Dufilho's estimation, distorted glass bottle hits—for use throughout the disc. And, despite his short time in the band, a song Dufilho wrote, called "Floating in Space," also appears on the disc and finds him taking over lead vocal duties from Schneider.
"We have all these great songwriters and producers in our band, and I wanted to include them," Schneider explains. "And, given the concept of this record, it should include these other geniuses contributing their productions and styles to the record, helping tie it together into the futuristic fabric."
As is par for Schneider's course, his answer's a bit out there, but it also makes sense. In his idealized vision of the future, collaboration is a key component.
Oh, and speaking of the future? Schneider wasn't kidding about Dufilho's upcoming Deathray Davies record.
"It's so good," Schneider emphatically reiterates. "It's incredibly good. It's amazing. It's complex, and, at the same time, it's got lots of really catchy songs. He's really creative."
Hey, if anyone's an expert on blending creativity and catchy songs, it's Schneider.
So here's looking forward to the new Deathray Davies disc—assuming Schneider's amusing distractions don't further push back that album's release.