'Magnetic' to the Core

February 23, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

In the late '90s, as the alternative explosion waned and the most adventurous rock bands once again came from the indie world, none were more exciting than those that dubbed themselves part of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. Drawing inspiration from the Beatles, the Beach Boys and early Pink Floyd, they huddled around four-tracks in the small town of Ruston, where some of their parents taught at Louisiana Tech University.

The Olivia Tremor Control was arguably the most ambitious of these bands, releasing a triple album debut, and Jeff Mangum's Neutral Milk Hotel has become a semi-legendary cult favorite. But the Apples in Stereo were always the heart and soul of the scene: Their leader, guitarist-vocalist Robert Schneider, recorded his friends and was tireless in promoting them. The Apples also survived to become the most long-lived of these groups, and though it's been five years since their last album, "New Magnetic Wonder" is one of their strongest -- an exuberant explosion of inventive, melodic pop.

"I've written a lot of songs these last five years -- I've probably written more songs than in my entire life combined! -- so I was able to be much more selective," Schneider says in his boyishly enthusiastic way. "Because I had such a large pool of songs, I was really able to look over them and say, 'These are really strong; these are really hooky, but not strong enough to be on my record.'

"I threw out tons of good songs because they didn't have that something special. A good song shouldn't just be catchy -- something you can sing along with and that's clever or well-written. A good song should kind of make you feel a little weepy when you sing it. That's what I qualify as a keeper: A song that makes me feel misty-eyed."

A lot has happened to make Schneider feel misty-eyed since 2002's "Velocity of Sound." He and drummer Hilarie Sidney divorced; he got remarried; he made a solo album, and he played with two other bands, Ulysses and the American Revolution. But something always drew him back to the Apples. "I wanted to make the perfect Apples album that I -- I wanted to make a record that if that were it, if I never had the opportunity to make another record, I'd be able to say, 'This is what I was supposed to do!'"

So Schneider set out to make "New Magnetic Wonder" from his new home in Lexington, Ky. Along the way, he attracted the patronage of actor Elijah "Frodo" Wood, who wanted the Apples to be the first release on his new Yep Roc-distributed label, Simian. ("He's like that bizarre guy at the college radio station who is into all of this weird s---, except he's Elijah Wood!" Schneider gushes.) And, somehow, Schneider got the old gang back together: The album is a veritable Elephant 6 reunion, with contributions from Olivia Tremor Control's main men, William Cullen Hart and Bill Doss (who is touring as part of the Apples' current live group), as well as the reclusive Mangum (see Reasons for Living).

"The people who played on the record are all my friends, and in recent years, we've really been coming closer together," Schneider says. "There was a period with everybody being busy and Elephant 6 being a big centerpiece in the press where our faith in Elephant 6 as an entity kind of dissolved. You create your own pigeonhole, and at first, people are like, 'There's a hole there? For pigeons?' But then, it's like, 'We're stuck in this pigeonhole!' Since then, though, that the faith has come back more and more, because everybody has been working and doing interesting stuff, and a lot of the people are under the radar now."

Schneider says he has never had more fun in the studio, and that joy is palpable in songs such as "Energy," "Same Old Drag" and "Can You Feel It?" And as long as the Apples and Elephant 6 are still fun, he says he can't imagine either stopping.

"We were having such a great time, it felt like we were 15 again. I mean, I'm 35 years old now, and I just want my band to feel good. I have already done a lot of the things I set out to do, as far as production and stuff, and at this point, it's more than just making art: It's your life; it's your pursuit, and it's just your day-to-day thing that you do. If you're not in some job where you have stability and security and all that -- if you're an artist -- then at least you want to set yourself up where you're in a beautiful, fun place where you can make your art. And we're lucky to have that."

 

REASONS FOR LIVING

As rock myth has it, Jeff Mangum made two brilliant, intensely personal albums as Neutral Milk Hotel, "On Avery Island" (1996) and "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" (1998, below). Then he disappeared to live as a hermit genius -- Gen X's Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson combined. It's a tale that makes his friend laugh, "and Jeff thinks it's kind of funny, too," Robert Schneider says.

"Jeff is actually less neurotic than he ever was when he was making music, and he's not a recluse. It's almost like there's this pre-existing stereotype of people dropping out of music without dying. He went through a period where he felt ambitious about spreading his music, then he decided to stop. But he's still interested in music, he listens to music and that period of spreading it may come again."

The fanzine press made much of Mangum's appearance on "New Magnetic Wonder," but Schneider says the story is simple: Apples drummer Hilarie Sidney wanted to concentrate on singing the two songs she wrote, and Mangum agreed to drum on them, as he'd done on earlier recordings.

"I understand that it's news, but the fact is, Jeff's been on other records," Schneider says. "The guy is a musician, a normal guy ... Wait, I take it back: He's a little strange. But, basically, he's just a normal guy who just happened to write all of those great songs."

 

THE APPLES IN STEREO; CASPER AND THE COOKIES; TULLYCRAFT

 8:30 tonight
 Subterranean, 2011 W. North
 Tickets, $14
 (773) 278-6600

 

 

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