Silver Apples bring the oscillators to Liverpool
Legendary evolving electronica band Silver Apples play The Kazimier at the end of September. 'We never let our lightbulbs dim', they tell Getintothis' Will Fitzpatrick.
Electronica pioneers Silver Apples first appeared at a Central Park all-dayer in 1967.
Crammed behind a vast array of drums and oscillators, the duo won over an unsuspecting crowd with their other-worldly sounds, going on to make two of the most influential records of the psychedelic era.
They broke up unexpectedly, with controversy over the sleeve of their second album Contact, and disappeared from the public eye.
In the late 90s, founder member Simeon began performing under the band's name again, unearthing a lost third album and releasing new material along the way. He plays the Kazimier on September 30 - Getintothis caught up for a chat ahead of the show.
Getintothis: How are you, Simeon?
Simeon: I'm good! Working my way through the summer here, getting ready for the fall tour.
Getintothis: Are you looking forward to playing Liverpool?
Simeon: I played Liverpool a couple of times ten years ago. I think the place was called The Cave, or something like that...?
Getintothis: The Cavern?
Simeon: There you go! I remember walking the streets - kind of a bleak, rainy day. That's my memory of Liverpool.
Getintothis: Yeah, that sounds like this city alright... It's 44 years since the first Silver Apples record, and 16 years since you started working under that name for the second time. Did you ever imagine that you'd still be performing in 2012?
Simeon: I never really gave it any thought, you know? I didn't plan anything; it just doesn't ever seem to stop. As long as I'm happy and healthy and strong enough to do it, I'm gonna be out there playing music. I just feel humbled and honoured that there's still anybody interested after all these years.
Getintothis: There are plenty of folk-ish melodies and rhythms, amidst all those electronic sounds and textures. Did you have any particular influences when you first started writing as a duo?
Simeon: Well, I grew up in the South, and my grandmother always had Nashville radio on. So country music was definitely in my childhood, and when the family moved to New Orleans, the whole rhythm'n'blues thing kicked in. So it was a combination of that and the bluegrassy country music of my childhood.
Getintothis: The bluegrass influence crept in a little more with the release of 'Contact', your second album.
Simeon: Yeah, the second album was really more me. The first album was... I dunno, the record label had more influence on us at the time, trying to get us to be more melodic. More pop.
The second record really let us loose. I wrote most of the stuff - on that record, Danny (Taylor, original drummer) and I were playing like we played live, so that's more like what Silver Apples sounds like to me.
Getintothis: Did you think of yourselves as a rock band?
Simeon: Yeah. There wasn't a genre of electronica, there was just rock. Both of us were from rock'n'roll backgrounds, and that's the music we knew really. We were just trying to adapt our abilities and instrumentation into what we were hearing in our heads as rock'n'roll.
Getintothis: The band came together as you began to construct what's known as 'the Simeon Machine'. Can you tell me about how that came together?
Simeon: That was just a pile of junk! I didn't play guitar or keyboards. I was just a stand-up singer with a tambourine. There really wasn't anything for me to do in four-piece, five-piece bands (Simeon and Taylor initially played together in New York bar combo The Overland Stage Electric Band). Little by little I began to introduce oscillators, just as a gimmick, or something to be doing while the guitar players were doing their long solos.
The whole interest in oscillators just seemed to grow, especially between me and Danny. I kept adding oscillators, and then the next thing you knew we were playing oscillators against the drums and it was making sense. And it was fun to do! And at last I could play an instrument! I wasn't just standing there.
So as the other members of the band started drifting away, it became just me and Danny, and that's how Silver Apples was born. Not just some bright idea - 'oh, let's just do drums and electronics'. It just sorta happened.
Getintothis: How did the other members react to the oscillators?
Simeon: Not very well. They thought it was just a bunch of noise - the words they kept using were 'too freaky'.
They just liked to play the standard old soul music stuff, and some of the pop songs that were out and about. They were perfectly happy just to be working as a bar band. Danny and I were much more interested in doing our own music; we didn't really care about that other music. That was already done and over with as far as we were concerned; it was somebody else's trip, not ours.
Getintothis: Was it a big deal to go from playing those bars to the first Silver Apples show in Central Park?
Simeon: Yeah, what a difference that was! Oh lord, I was scared to death! There were more people than I'd ever seen in one place, all gathered there staring at me. That was a trip!
Getintothis: Did you enjoy it though?
Simeon: I guess so. I hardly remember it. I've seen photos of it. I remember my girlfriend climbing a tree, so that was where she watched the show.
Little smatterings of things: I remember the first time we started going, I didn't think we had enough sound. I thought the speakers weren't loud enough. I just wasn't able to hear myself very well, but we struggled through it.
The crowd was there to have a good time; they couldn't give a damn whether we were making mistakes... they didn't know! So everybody was happy, everybody was cheering - it was a big party in the middle of the afternoon and it was great fun. Musically I have no idea what happened!
Getintothis: There was a really good critical reaction to the show.
Simeon: There was. That really woke us up. That was when we realised, 'oh gee, maybe we are onto something here'. We'd never really thought of ourselves as being unique before, but then when we looked around, there really wasn't anybody else like us.
It didn't occur to us until we got those reviews from that show, where they were saying that we stood out because we were so different to any other band that played that entire day.
Getintothis: When did you first start to realise that other people might be influenced by your music?
Simeon: That never occurred to me until well after the fact. I didn't realise anything like that was going on until the early 90s, when I started hearing my music being played again.
People started telling me 'there's covers of your stuff out there.' 'There's bootlegs of your material out there.' Prior to that, during the 70s and 80s I had absolutely no idea that anybody knew who we were, never mind were taking influence from us.
Getintothis: Were you aware of bands like Suicide or Kraftwerk?
Simeon: Well... yeah, kind of, but later on. At the time Suicide were playing in New York in the early 70s, I had already gone back to Alabama and I think Danny went to California for a while. So we weren't really part of that New York underground music scene any more. We slowly became aware of it, but we didn't know any of that at the time.
I didn't even hear of Kraftwerk until the 80s. Someone somewhere played something for me - 'this band are approaching music from the same direction you guys were, just halfway across the world', and it didn't occur to me that there was a connection at the time.
We found out later that there was a fair amount of sales of the first record in Germany and throughout Europe. Not a Billboard Top Ten kinda thing, but there was a fair amount of distribution over there. I think if we'd known that we were getting some recognition in Europe, we would've packed it up and come on over and played.
Getintothis: ...And instead you stopped playing following the controversy from the second album sleeve.
Simeon: Yeah. Hah. I don't know how that got snowballing, but once it got going we were just blacklisted. It cost the record label a bunch of money for an irresponsible picture, but y'know, we didn't make the pictures.
They were made by an advertising agency that was hired by the record label. Everything was approved beforehand - even Pan Am approved of it, before anything was printed up.
It wasn't until later that some executive at Pan Am got his drawers in a bunch over it, and things started falling apart. If somebody had said right in the beginning 'don't put the airplane crash on the back', we'd have come up with something else.
We weren't out to hurt anybody or to wreck anybody's career. To us it was just a joke - you turn over an airplane over to these two hippies, here's what's gonna happen. But they didn't think it was funny at all.
Getintothis: So what did you do following the breakup?
Simeon: I came back down South, and just dropped out of the music scene. I just figured if I couldn't be a Silver Apple, I didn't wanna do anything. So I started doing a lot of graphic design, and trying to make it as an artist, and I got a side job as a local news reporter.
So I did that for years, and I eventually got a job in an advertising agency as an art director... and then Silver Apples came back! So I dropped everything and went back to the music, which was where I wanted to be anyway.
Getintothis: There's a certain irony there, since advertising led to the breakup of Silver Apples, but it was also how you earned a living afterwards.
Simeon: I'd never made that connection before! That is interesting. I'd never thought of that before, but it was the advertising agencies that screwed it, and it was the advertising agencies that kept me on my feet until it came back. That's kinda cool.
Getintothis: What made you decide to start performing again?
Simeon: Well... people just kept offering! Y'know, you get enough phone calls from The Knitting Factory in New York, you eventually say 'ok!'.
It's a no-lose situation. I got a group of musicians to prop me up in case I fell flat on my face, and once I got into rehearsals the music came back to me, and I felt all that energy again. I was hooked, and there was no turning me back. I didn't care how old I was, or how much time had gone by. As long as it's fun and people seem to enjoy it, I'm out there. I'll do it. I just love it more than anything in the world.
Getintothis: Then you started making new music again - in particular, you recorded with Steve Albini. Do you remember anything from those sessions?
Simeon: Um, that was when we were working as a trio. I had a drummer (Michael Lerner), and Xian Hawkins on keyboards and other instruments.
It was the formative stage of putting Silver Apples back together, and I feel like I've grown a lot since then. The music still holds up, although it never did get reviewed very well (1998's Beacon LP was a collection of re-recordings and new sketches that were widely regarded as slight in comparison to the early records).
I think that was because it was too far adrift from what the original Silver Apples were. There was always the unfortunate comparing of drummers to Danny, and that's not fair to anyone. That's why I don't work with a drummer now!
Steve Albini was good to work with; he's a meticulous engineer and he's got some marvellous equipment. I remember all that about it. Like I said, musically I was still forming ideas. I think it was a growth thing: I was helped by Steve, Xian and Michael to grow as a musician, until I could do it on my own again.
Getintothis: You said in the reissue liner notes that "it's the new Silver Apples music that turns (you) on today." How do you think the sound has evolved?
Simeon: The textures are much denser now than they were on Beacon, or some of the other stuff I did with Albini and beyond.
But it's only because I've gotten better at my craft. I can do things now that I couldn't do back in the 60s. It was necessarily very simple back then, and I've kept some of the purity of that, but I've been able to add complexity.
You always like your most recent stuff best, but it's rewarding for me to think, 'damn, I'm still a musician!' I'm not some historical artefact that people are coming to see out of curiosity. There's new music that's appreciated for what it is.
Getintothis: The Silver Apples sound has certainly continued to evolve over the years.
Simeon: Yes. I'm proud of that. I've never let that lightbulb dim.
Getintothis: That's even more remarkable given that your back was broken in a road accident in 1998. How severely did that impact on your playing?
Simeon: I can't play the banjo any more; you can imagine the dexterity required. Umm, I'm still ok, but I don't bring a keyboard out onstage with me - I use one in the recording studio, where I can afford to make mistakes and come back to it again.
But I can still play the hell out of those oscillators, cause all you've gotta do is flip dials back and forth, and it's all in your ears anyway. You stop moving the dial when you're in tune with the backing track, or your accompaniment drones, or whatever you've got going on out there. Otherwise it just becomes annoying, or an unpleasant racket.
Getintothis: Danny Taylor played a few reunion shows with the band, but sadly passed away in 2005 - have you ever thought about collaborating with other drummers, or was he too important to replace?
Simeon: Oh yeah. With the reformation of Silver Apples I worked with Michael, just because the idea of working with drum machines didn't really appeal to me at all.
But since Danny died I've sampled all his practice tapes that I had, and through the magic of computer programmes I've been able to recreate his sound pretty accurately, I think. The new material is all samples of Danny, and how I imagine he would have put together rhythms in that crazy head of his. Not that I would presume to be able to hear what he heard, but at least I have the sound to work with.
That's kind of where I go now: I write my melodies then play against his practice beats, same as we would've done. That's how we created songs back in the day - working with songs until we found something we liked, and then we'd say 'hey, let's nail that down. What were you doing? Ok, here's what I was doing. Ok, I'll write a verse against that.'
There's a bunch of really great drummers out there, and if we're playing the same festival or something, then we'll take the opportunity to say 'hey, let's just work some oscillations and see what happens,' and it's fun. Like Geoff Barrow from Portishead. The drummer from Oneida (Kid Millions) is a Silver Apples fan. I love working with other musicians, I welcome it.
Getintothis: Is there anyone else in particular that you'd like to work with?
Simeon: Uh, no, I can't name names. You mean, like, for a future project or something?
Getintothis: Well, maybe, but just hypothetically.
Simeon: Well, here's something I could just throw out for fun. I had a phone call not long ago from Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedys, saying that if I ever wanted to lay down tracks and let him do his political-poetic rant across the top of them, then that would be fun. And I thought, 'you know what, that would be fun.' Why don't we just try it and see what happens?
I've already laid down some tracks with Makoto Kawabata from Acid Mothers Temple. Maybe Jello Biafra would like to come and work on that, heheh! So there's a few things that are out there that I would love to do. I'm always getting those kinds of phone calls, and every now and again something does happen.
Getintothis: Has anyone ever made you think 'they've taken our baton and run with it'?
Simeon: Well, um, there's Portishead. I've performed with them onstage; they're wonderful musicians. Sonic Boom... I've performed with Spiritualized in Australia, and Pete Bassman... So all three major players from Spacemen 3 have separately worked with Silver Apples.
I could mention bands... Blur, for instance! They put out their album that was based on a lot of my ideas and their fanbase was totally negative on it. But I think Blur was ready to grow by then; Damon Albarn was ready to move onto bigger and better things, and he's proven it with his operas. So maybe I helped them grow a little...
Getintothis: Who do you like to listen to yourself?
Simeon: It depends on how I feel when I get up in the morning. There are bands from China that blew me away... I like Beethoven as much today as I did when I first heard him all those years ago. That's really powerful music - every musician out there should listen to Beethoven. There's a lot to be learned there.
Getintothis: Is there anything you still want to achieve with Silver Apples?
Simeon: Longevity. I don't want it to end. I am very happy doing what I do on the level that I'm doing it. It's very rewarding. Music can be extremely rewarding, emotionally and spiritually. I hope I can continue to do that.