By Kirk Greenwood
Photo by Adam Cantor
This past spring saw the release of the seventh studio album from the Denver, CO indie godfathers, The Apples in Stereo. The 16-track album, Travellers in Space and Time, is a strange mix of unearthly, futuristic themes and blissfully danceable melodies. We spoke to The Apples in Stereo’s longtime bassist, Eric Allen, just before the band kicked off a breakneck three-week tour to coincide with the album’s late-April release date.
Allen describes the band as a “song-writing based” venture with a “retro” sound that, somehow, also manages to be “poppy” and “futuristic.” “Our style is very distinctive,” he says. “If we try to cover a song, we just end up sounding like The Apples.”
One speculates that a lot of the group’s distinctiveness has to do with the zany, mad scientist-like persona of lead vocalist/guitarist and songwriter, Rob Schneider, whose peppy, high-pitched vocals do their best to hide the “tinge of sadness,” which, Allen says, often characterizes his lyrics.
Travellers in Space and Time is The Apples in Stereo’s most glammed-up, hi-fi album to date and a striking departure from some of their earlier work, which tends to reflect a more back-to-the-basics, folksy aesthetic. The group cites classic rock influences like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground and ELO; their name was purportedly derived from the Pink Floyd song “Apples and Oranges.”
“The music we draw from tends to be older music, or we happen to like older guitars, older recording techniques,” says Allen. “But we’re not Luddites; we appreciate the fact that the indie music is continually evolving.”
In an effort to stay fresh, the band decided to do a few things differently on their latest album. “This album has a bunch of songs that feature the keyboard prominently,” says Allen. “That’s something that you don’t really find so much in popular music today where everything’s based on guitar-driven melodies.”
The Apples in Stereo underwent a few changes to their line-up back in 2006, and the resulting shift in the power dynamics of the band is noticeable on the new album. “Everyone in the band contributed at least one song to this album,” says Allen. “Robert’s always been our main songwriter and, in the past, someone might contribute a song here or there. This is the first time everyone contributed their own complete song. It gives the album a completely different feel.”
Allen, Schneider and rhythm guitarist, John Hill, form the longstanding core of the band. Travellers in Space and Time is the group’s first studio album to feature new drummer, John Dufilho, lead singer of Dallas indie rockers The Deathray Davies. The band also welcomes longtime touring collaborators, Bill Doss (Olivia Tremor Control, Elephant 6) and John Ferguson (Ulysses, Big Fresh), onboard as permanent keyboardists.
“The band is pretty spread out,” says Allen. “So most of the recording for this album was done in the same New York studio we used for our last album, also in Rob’s home studio in Lexington, KY.”
After playing an inaugural show in Schneider’s hometown, The Apples in Stereo’s spring tour took them north along the East Coast, where they played shows in DC, New York and Boston as well as one at Johnny Brenda’s here in Philly. They also gigged at college towns in upstate New York and major cities throughout the Midwest.
The band hyped its new album by releasing a pair of video shorts online, featuring Schneider, who is a self-described math geek, contemplating interdimensionality with Elijah Wood, of The Lord of the Rings fame. Wood owns Simian Records, which produced Travellers in Space and Time as well as an earlier release, New Magnetic Wonder. One of the shorts doubles as a music video for the band’s latest single, “Dance Floor,” which is available for free download on their website.
The Apples in Stereo were the first big-name act to join Woods’ Simian label, but their roots are deep in indie territory. The iconic, Athens, GA based Elephant 6 Recording Company was founded by Schneider, Doss and a few friends back in the early 90’s to give voice to what they felt was a burgeoning indie sensibility at the time. Elephant 6 became a platform for such bands as The Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power and Of Montreal. “It really resulted from a group of friends with similar musical interests, who were all working on the same kind of thing at the same time,” says Allen. “We were able to provide each other with a stamp of approval at a time when none of us were being taken seriously by the mainstream.
“There was a lot of bleeding over between the bands,” Allen continues. For instance, Bill Doss, the group’s current keyboardist, was also the creative force behind The Olivia Tremor Control.
According to Allen, the band’s core audience has always been “indie college kids,” but, more recently, “We’ve been seeing a lot of older people at our shows, even people from the Sixties who say that what we’re doing reminds them of the psychedelic music from that era.”
The Apples in Stereo helped to originate many of the music-making techniques that have contributed to the recent success of super-trendy, Brooklyn-based psych folk bands like MGMT, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, The Dirty Projectors and Yeasayer. For his part, Allen is sage about the place The Apples in Stereo occupy in pop music history and the band’s legacy: “Folk rock never died,” he says, “No one really started it, per se. People were doing this kind of thing before us and, obviously, younger musicians have continued doing it.”
Allen is careful to stress the importance of remaining musically open and adaptable vis-a-vis the youngbloods: “I haven’t listened to the new MGMT album yet, but I’ve heard that it’s very different from their first album. I think that’s exciting,” he says. “The same is true for us. It’s important for a band to be able to evolve stylistically; it’s a sign of maturity.”