"Retro-futuristic." It sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it? How can something look to tomorrow with a design fashioned after yesterday?
Robert Schneider has that one figured out. In bringing his long-running pop enterprise known as The Apples in stereo back to active duty with a tour that kicks off Friday night and a new album that hits stores next week, the Lexington-based songsmith, producer and pop entrepreneur has come up with a bright and immensely studio-savvy sound that he hopes can be viewed as a voice for the future.
But the future according to Schneider isn't the pre-programmed, computer-animated cosmos into which we are increasingly being led. It's a more innocent and decidedly childlike place, inspired by television and film of years, even decades, past. It's less Star Wars and more Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The environment nods to its cultural forefathers, but the music, for all its high-tech accents, is played by real musicians.
This then, as shown by the new album, Travellers in Space and Time, is the brave new/old world of The Apples in stereo.
"I wanted to make the record sound futuristic," Schneider said. "But my image of futurism is influenced by the kinds of futuristic stuff I grew up liking as a kid. So in the end, my idea of futuristic pop turned out sounding a whole lot like '70s pop.
"I also really wanted it to sound hopeful. In doing so, my inspirations for the record's sound were mostly visual. I wanted the record to sound more like the way old sci-fi movies looked, or how old episodes of Dr. Who and Lost in Space looked. The whole way their technology looked. ... I wanted the music to sound like that, like stainless steel and flashing lights, but with a hand-crafted, human feel.
"It's like the way old computers were built. You can see they were made by hand. They don't look like they were stamped out by Sony or something, like modern electronic gear does. I wanted something where you could see the lines of solder between the front and back."
Back to the future
In understanding the futuristic new music of The Apples in stereo, it's perhaps best for a quick rewind.
The Apples came to be when Schneider, a native of South Africa, moved from Ruston, La., to Denver to attend college in 1991. A six-song EP disc, Tidal Wave, credited simply to The Apples, appeared in 1993. It marked the beginning of the highly influential Elephant 6 pop collective that spawned the bands The Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and, eventually, Elf Power and Of Montreal.
Schneider moved to Lexington with then-wife (and then-Apples drummer) Hilarie Sidney after the release of the fifth album credited to The Apples in stereo, Velocity in Sound. The band then became a more splintered enterprise, with its members scattered all over the country. But its popularity steadily rose. The release of 2007's album, New Magnetic Wonder, teamed the Apples with actor Elijah Wood's Simian Records label. That, in turn, won over high-profile pals including comedian Stephen Colbert.
The reception for New Magnetic Wonder also gave the Apples a broadened sense of artistic confidence.
"I think we went into making Travellers in Space and Time thinking we could pull off anything that we wanted to do musically," Schneider said. "With New Magnetic Wonder, I had a really high goal. As a producer and writer of most of the songs, I wanted it to be the essential Apples record, the perfect expression of everywhere the Apples have gone. And we pulled it off.
"I also felt the last record was the perfect psychedelic indie-pop Apples record. The new one isn't really psychedelic. It's not really indie at all. I don't even think it's rock. It's just really poppy. We went into it feeling super confident."
Traveling for 'Travellers'
There is a certain irony in the name of the new Apples album that extends beyond its "retro futurism" premise. With band members living and working in different locales, Schneider became something of a traveling bandleader.
In Lexington, he worked extensively with vocalist and keyboardist John Ferguson of Big Fresh (who joined the Apples lineup in 2006) and in the studio of longtime local rock pro Otto Helmuth. But veteran Apples members John Hill (guitar) and Eric Allen (bass) are in Denver; keyboardist Bill Doss lives in Athens, Ga.; and drummer John Dufilho lives in Dallas. (Big Fresh's Ben Phelan will be an auxiliary band member on the Apples' spring tour.) Journeys to studios in Western Kentucky and Nashville were also integral to the recording sessions for Travellers.
"As far as the recording was concerned, I think having lots of different places, different environments to go, actually helped the process," Schneider said. "I liked traveling to different studios to work on different tracks. It kind of broadened the palette of sounds and feeling. And you can hear the different personalities of the people involved. Even when the music becomes especially slick on a couple of the songs, you can hear the good time that was being had.
"It can be grueling to work in your home studio or even your home base studio for months on end. This album took a year and a half to make. The mixing alone took months, but I won't go into that. There was just a lot to mix and a lot to carve away. But it can be grueling.
"I used to have a studio in Denver, where I worked for 10 years constantly. Even though it was a creative place, there was still this sense of the same environment every day, wearing you down. So I liked the feeling of traveling to my friends' studios and working with them."
This weekend, the serious traveling begins. With Friday's performance at Cosmic Charlie's begins the first swing of touring for Travellers in Space and Time. It's not an especially burdensome tour — only a three-week run along the East Coast and through the Midwest, winding up in St. Louis on May 4. For Schneider, that's long enough.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing my friends and, of course, I love to play and sing. But there's some stress surrounding touring, too. I have to leave my son for a few weeks. I hate that.
"There are two different sides to touring. On one hand, it's almost like you're on this ship out in the ocean. There's total freedom, even though you're on a kind of regimented schedule. And given that this particular tour is only for three weeks, it's perfect. But when you're out for two months straight or more, you start to feel you're without roots. You feel like a stranger when you come home.
"Now that I'm in my 30s, I prefer to not to feel like a stranger."