California Dreamin'

People of faith will tell you that they communicate with their deity every day, but not many encounters with the Almighty involve Him drinking a Diet Coke. That's how Robert Schneider, the singer/guitarist/songwriter for the power-pop band Apples in Stereo saw his Personal Jesus.

"It was the most incredible, watershed, amazing and beautiful experience. It was magical, and he was so human," Schneider says. "I always worshiped him, but by meeting him, it made me bring myself out of his shadow creatively. I felt that we connected in a very special way -- and he's not insane at all!"

Schneider is talking, of course, about Brian Wilson. In doing so, his voice takes on a rapid-fire pace reminiscent of a precocious and enthusiastic 13-year-old. "I gotta tell you something in advance," he notes, energy crackling through his voice. "I'm easily distracted and often go off on tangents. I won't be insulted if you cut me off and pull me back -- my mind is like a sieve."

As his enthusiasm for the former Beach Boy suggests, there's a good deal of California sand running through that sieve, despite his current home in Kentucky, which he shares with his wife, Apples drummer-vocalist Hilarie Sidney, and their two-year-old son, Max.

Longtime fans of the group are well aware of Schneider's obsession with the classic '60s pop sounds of the Beach Boys, Beatles and Kinks, so lovingly and fluffily re-created on records like the Apples' 1995 debut, Fun Trick Noisemaker, and 1997's Tone Soul Evolution. One critic likened their sound to a "gang of kindergartners rushing toward you at recess." Even their atmospheric trip into Victorian psychedelia on Her Wallpaper Reverie made you just want to go out and hug someone.

So it's a surprise to find the Apples' new release, The Velocity of Sound (SpinArt), take a new direction. Filled with ringing guitars, simpler melodies and stream-of-consciousness lyrics, it's a dirtier punk-pop sound than expected. Schneider says that the record is simply the synthesis of the live Apples and the studio Apples, which he views as two separate entities. "Our band has always been a rock and roll band, and it's an experience of exploration and learning for me," he says. "We needed to do something that was pure to us, and not just throw in elements of stuff we love. You won't make a classic album by referencing other classic albums."

And though Schneider speaks in the plural, there is clearly only one platter of vinyl nirvana to shoot for, one that he mentions a dozen times more than his own new release. "If I was going to make a record as good as Pet Sounds, then it shouldn't sound like Pet Sounds. [Our music] has more of a tonal quality in common. It's not just ripping off parts," he says. "There's always been a certain mystery to classic rock albums. I want to penetrate that mystery and make albums like that. To get inside and breathe it."

For The Velocity of Sound, Schneider set out to have no acoustic instruments at all. "We put as many fuzz guitars on it as possible," he says of the process. "I wanted to capture something real and alive on the vinyl -- not just nice and composerly. Oh, hold on a second, will you? I want to say goodnight to Max. Thanks, you're so cool!" Back on the phone, he notes that Max and a nanny are coming with them on the road (the boy's third such jaunt).

Schneider formed the Apples in 1992 with Jim McIntyre (bass), Chris Parfitt (guitar) and Sidney during his time at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Schneider named the group after a bootleg Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd song called "Apples and Oranges," later adding the "in Stereo" tag. A self-produced EP, Tidal Wave, also became the inaugural release of a ragtag label called Elephant 6, which he started with other like-minded low-fi indie rock bands.

Since then, they've released numerous LPs, EPs, singles and compilations. Fans of brevity, even their "full-length" records rarely break the half-hour mark, though they feature about a dozen tunes. Band members have also participated in an array of side groups, including Secret Square, Von Hemmling Path, PW3, Orchestre Fantastique and Dressy Bessy.

Schneider has had a hand in producing many of those acts and others, although he gave it up two years ago to concentrate on knob-spinning for the Apples alone. "I felt like I was spreading myself thin, not putting enough creativity and energy into the Apples," he says, not to mention the time consumed by being a new father. "The day we found out we were pregnant was also the day our last [full] record was released," he says of 2000's The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone. "We were getting ready for a gig in the hotel and she took a test and screamed that she was pregnant. I fucking flipped out!"

The New York Times recently spotlighted the Apples in an article about the increasing use of licensed music in TV commercials after Sony's ad agency approached the group to use their "Strawberryfire" in an ad. After wrestling with moral issues, the band decided to take the much-needed $18,000, which was more than three times the entire production budget of The Velocity of Sound.

An offer closer to Schneider's heart came from Craig McCracken, creator of The Powerpuff Girls. A fan, McCracken asked the group to contribute a song to an upcoming soundtrack record. Within ten minutes of getting off the phone, the amped-up Schneider had already written "Signal in the Sky (Let's Go)." The tune was subsequently chosen as a single release and spawned a video that had the Apples romping around in costumes for a quasi-Godzilla movie. More recently, an episode of the show featured a story line based on the song, and included the Apples themselves in cartoon form, much to Schneider's bliss.

After the current tour to support The Velocity of Sound (which will be released October 8), Schneider will enter the studio with former XTC front man Andy Partridge. The two have formed a unique and somewhat odd musical partnership, writing songs by phone and mail for the past two years and discovering a mutual obsession with inventing their own board games.

But while Partridge is another musical hero, Schneider says he does not have the "fanboy worship" of him that he does for Brian Wilson, back to whom all trails lead. "I can't express how much he's touched and influenced me," Schneider adds, reminiscing about the recent Pet Sounds symphonic tour that Wilson mounted with Apples compadres the Wondermints. "I guess my big heroes would be him and Albert Einstein, because I'm really into math and physics. Einstein is like the Brian Wilson of math, don't you think? Hey, did I answer your questions adequately? Did I talk too much? You're so cool!"

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero