Thursday, February 21, 2008

Interview: Silver Apples

Well, I was planning on trying to write a very serious and thoughtful intro to this interview, but then I figured I'd just dork out and say "I got to interview Simeon of Silver Apples!" And yes, I planned on using that exclamation point. Silver Apples became a big band for me several years ago when I started learning a lot about electronic and psychedelic music, but more than being a band for critics and record collectors to praise, Silver Apples are particularly interesting to me because of how infectious and easy their music is in spite of the fact that it is so strange on so many levels.

I attended the most recent Apples show at Hailey's a few months back with a friend who hadn't ever heard them and typically isn't interested in druggy, experimental electronic music. After a couple songs, however, my friend was converted, and that is exactly the kind of thing that I hope happens to others this evening when Silver Apples play Sloppyworld as part of the Melodica Festival. I talked with Simeon about the past, present and future, and here are the results:

So I wanted to start off asking you about how you met Wanz and how you became involved in this year's Melodica Festival.

Ten years ago, in 1998, I was touring with Silver Apples as a trio, and we were promoting our new record, Contact, and our booking agent in New York knew Wanz and had booked his band in the past and knew he was putting together a festival in Denton that year, and so on our tour we used Melodica that year as almost a tour break. We were touring in our RV and parked it in the parking lot there, and stayed for about a week. We got to know Wanz pretty well, he hung out in the van and stuff, and so when he started putting together this festival as an anniversary get together, he called me, and I was sort of in the middle of touring, but I was happy to squeeze him in because it was so much fun working with him before.

And so, you guys put your first record out in 1968. When you think about the fact that so many critics and fans in electronic music circles consider Silver Apples to be pioneers in an iconic and legendary sense, how does it make you feel?

Well it's totally an honor. At the time, we didn't think we were doing anything different, we were just having fun with what we could put together at the time. We really were not aware of the electronic movement so to speak, we didn't know about Can or Neu! or any of those other bands that we seem to be considered contemporaries of today. There really wasn't communication amongst us all at the time, and there wasn't an art movement or anything at the time. We were just out there doing our thing, and later on, as things come together historically, it looks like things were all happening together, but I doubt very much that any of those people were aware of me and we weren't aware of them, we were just doing our things sort of simultaneously.

But you guys came before Can or Neu! or any of those groups.

Yeah, but I doubt very much that they knew us or knew of us even. I don't know what kind of distribution we had in Europe. We have pretty good popularity over there now, but back in the 60's, I don't think anyone had heard of us. I think it was just simultaneous creativity.

Well that's interesting, because it sounds like when Silver Apples were first starting out, you didn't feel like you were doing anything revolutionary necessarily.

No, it didn't feel that way. There was a lot of revolutionary stuff going on back in those days. Rock n Roll was sort of in its beginning stages. I know there was a lot before that, but there was a new feeling about rock and its place in the culture, but in the arts and movies and music, everyone was trying to do new stuff. Doing something new was considered the thing, you know? It wasn't considered strange, it was almost expected. And so we hit on this thing quite by accident, both Danny and I being from rock backgrounds, we didn't have any ideas about electronics or how to put stuff together, we just used whatever we had, much like you play with toys. You don't really have to know how to make things work, you just put them together and see if you can make something happen with it. We didn't think of it as revolutionary at all at the time.

Could you briefly explain how Silver Apples got together in the first place?

Both Danny and I were playing music in straight rock n roll bands in New York, just club bands. I was a singer and he was a drummer, and my band, the Random Concept, broke up and went back to Connecticut where they were from, and that left me sort of stranded in New York. The band that Danny was with needed a singer, so our booking agent, a mutual booking agent, knew of my plight and knew Danny's band needed a singer, so he got us together. So I started singing at the Cafe Wah, they were the house band there at the time, and I got to know Danny. Then I started bringing in oscillators just because a friend of mine had them and was showing me how to play them, and I was bringing them in and plugging them into my vocal amp and playing along with them when they were doing these long extended guitar solos, almost like the Grateful Dead, just playing forever. They left the singer with nothing to do, so more out of boredom than anything else, I just plugged in oscillators and started playing around. And one by one, the other members of the band quit for one reason or another, most of them saying that they couldn't stand what I was doing, but Danny liked it, so it finally in the end boiled down to just me and him left, and rather than adding a new member, we just kept going with what I was doing, and he changed his drumming style from straight rock n roll beat to getting into patterns, because that's what I was doing, and we started getting into a looped kind of sound rather than a progressive or linear sound, and that's how Silver Apples got going. It was pretty much an organic thing. We didn't have a big light bulb go off, it just sort of happened.

Were you guys aware of the originality of what you were doing at the time? Did you feel like any other band was doing anything similar to what you were doing?

We didn't know of anybody if there was anybody. We kinda felt all alone out there. We'd go out and play with other bands on the same bill, and we'd be astounded that our sound was so completely different. We didn't realize that we were all alone until much later.

Is it true that you didn't have any formal training in music when you started the band?

Yeah, I had played trumpet in my high school marching band, but that's the only musical experience that I had.

Have you tried to learn more about formal, traditional music during your career?

Well you can't help but pick up stuff as the years go by. I kind of can play chords on guitar, I know what the notes are on the piano, I can pick out tunes, but no way can I actually play it. I can find chords and structure songs on a keyboard, and then I just translate these sounds or structures to my oscillators, but I still play them the same way I've always played them.

So you have your own method for notating and developing songs before you record them?

Yeah, I don't think you could sit down and put them on a piece of sheet music. Well, I guess maybe you could, but a lot of the changes don't really fit a fretted instrument or keyboard because a lot of my stuff is in between the notes. So it's like I'd be in B flat and a half, and (laughs) I don't really know how you'd notate that.

Can you explain how you started to build your own equipment?

Well its like I said, we were just playing with toys. We would have oscillators and we'd make all these noises, and we'd try to figure out how we'd make rhythms with them, and we decided to hook them up to on and off switches, but that was too cumbersome, so we tried telegraph keys. And that worked for a while, but then we realized that my fingers could only play so many telegraph keys, so I started doing the same thing with my feet. But I would stomp on the telegraph keys and break them, so we rigged up a piece of wood with some on/off switches so I could stomp them with my feet, and that's how I started playing the bass, just one note at a time with me feet, and then rhythm and oscillators on top with telegraph keys. I didn't know how to play a keyboard, so I just figured out my own way to play.

Well it sounds like the Simeon set up was created out of necessity, but do you see any intrinsic value in creating your own instruments?

Sure. The instrument is as integral a part of musical expression as the music itself. If you have created your own instrument, and are writing songs that maybe couldn't be played on some other instrument, or maybe just not as easily, you're writing music for your own capabilities and creative senses, and other movements don't come into it, you're just doing it for yourself and tyring to see if you can make some music, make some sense out of all this mess you've created.

So it's important sometimes to create a new medium or vessel with which to make music?

Yeah. Just this last week before I left to come to Dallas, I discovered in one of my new songs that I'm going to be doing that I needed another oscillator. I could do it the way I've been doing it, but it would be much nicer to have another oscillator I could play in a live setting so that I didn't have to rely on my sampler. Instead of carrying 20 oscillators around with me, I've been sampling different sounds that I've been using so I don't have to carry all the oscillators around, but I found with this new song that I really do need the other oscillator, so I went on Ebay and bought one, and it arrived two days ago. I wired it into my system and practiced with it last night and this morning before I left, so my so called Simeon instrument has grown one more oscillator in the last 24 hours because of Melodica.

So you took a pretty long break from doing Silver Apples stuff, like from the late 60's until the mid 90's.

Yeah, the 70's and 80's, Danny and I both spent doing different stuff not related to music.

What were you up to?

Well I was down south here in Mobile, AL, working as an ice cream truck driver and then i got a job editing film at a television station, and when they switched to video, I turned around and started working on camera covering news and I eventually became a news reporter, and I was a reporter on various television stations in Virginia and Baltimore for about 10 years. Then I became a graphic artist when that ran out, and worked at an advertising agency for a while. But I maintained contact with the art world and hung out with the artists there, and it was the artists who were aware of the resurgence of interest in the Silver Apples, and it was at an art opening that I heard one of the artists playing my music and I realized something was going on. And that was why Silver Apples started again in the 90s, through my art contacts.

How did it feel to know that people were taking interest in your music almost 30 years later?

At first it was a little bit of a head scratcher, because I couldn't figure out why. If I wasn't a success back then, why would anyone care now? But I slowly realized that it was because of comments from music writers about how the music sounded fresh today and ahead of its time. That's when I realized that the fact that Danny and I didn't try to play like anyone else has kind of kept it pure in a way, and has made it more meaningful than if we had tried to blend in at the time and tried to be commercially successful. We could have had bass and guitar players, but it probably wouldn't have had the impact it has had today.

How disappointed were you with your lack of commercial success back in the 60s?

Well everyone wants to be a success and be able to pay their bills and not have to duck out on hotels bills and stuff. Our manager used to teach us shoplifting techniques so that we could eat. Things were really desperate there for a while, right around the time the band broke up. There were lawsuits against us. The record label had folded and there were some outstanding bills and we were kind of laying low. No record label would sign us, and it was just a very bad time. We eventually had to take jobs, and finally I just bagged it, moved down to Alabama and drove an ice cream truck. I was just tired of New York winters.

Do you listen to a lot of contemporary electronic music?

Oh yeah, today I'm very much into it. People send me CDs and MP3s from all over the world telling me that they were inspired by my stuff and asking me to accept their music as a gift. So I'm very aware of contemporary stuff going on all over the place. Just a month ago, I came back from a media festival in Italy, and I did the ATP festival in England about a month before that, where Portishead and Sonic Youth and others that were influenced by my stuff in the 90s were playing. Its all very fulfilling and exciting to me and I love it.

Do you feel that there is an energy level in music today that is in any way similar to what you experienced in the 60's?

Yes, it's very peculiar that you would go through such a drought in the 70's and 80s. It started to warm up in the 90s, but it never really got anywhere. But now, in the mid 00's, all of a suddenly it's kind of catching on fire and people are getting into it, and there is some joy in total experimentation and creativity that is like it used to be in the 60's. There isn't the Vietnam War or any of that stuff, and there isn't that sort of anti-government or anti-war feeling, but there is a creative energy going on now that is quite like the 60's.

Are there any new bands in particular that you find exciting?

I can't really name anyone in particular, but at that festival in Italy, there was a band that came on just before me called Los Super Elegantes from Argentina. What they were doing with live sampling was one of the most creative things I've ever seen. They had a stage set that was like a kitchen in an apartment, and there was a couple in the apartment that was having a knock down, drag out screaming fight, a domestic fight, breaking dishes, etc. right in front of the audience, and it was one of the most interesting approaches to electronic live sampling that I've ever seen. They are in LA right now, so I would say that if anyone gets a chance to see Los Super Elegantes, they should grab the opportunity because they're great.

What are your plans for Silver Apples in the immediate future?

I have a European tour coming up right after I do Melodica, and I'll be there through the month of March, and when I get back I'll have a break, and I'll be working on a new record that will come out late summer on Gifted Children records on vinyl. The record label is planning several tours to promote the record in the fall, one of which will include Pop Montreal and the Over the Top Festival in Toronto, so I'll be pretty busy this year. There is a lot going on.