Silver Apples – a conversation on The Edge Of Wonder
Silver Apples were something like a constant hum in the background of my music collection. I never really got deep; the tracks were just there. Little did I know about all the stories that go along with the electronic pioneers. Earlier this year that I organized a Noisekölln showcase for the Austrian band UMA (in the now-defunct Raum) that the name Silver Apples came up again, because they are featured on UMA’s debut track ‘Drop your Soul’. So we met up with Simeon Coxe, the only remaining member of the band in the basement of Berlin’s Festsaal Kreuzberg, a stop on his The Edge Of Wonder Tour. We brought along Nicholas Houde, who goes by SFTSTPS and a conversation, or rather monologue unfolded. We where listening and nodding our heads to all the wise things this man had to tell us about DIY culture, not giving a fuck about anything and oscillators. We talked a lot about oscillations. Photo: Barry Bryant (1968)
Simeon Coxe: What are we talking about?
Nicholas Houde: Actually let’s talk about this silver plate with apples on it. Is this in your rider?
Michael Aniser: The name Silver Apples is from this poem…
SC: By Yeats.
MA: How did you come up with this poem?
SC: I’ve had this period of poetry, sort of romantic, everything from Shelly, Lord Byron, all up to Yeats has always fascinated me. Even when I was a little kid I could recite Keats ‘Ode to Beauty’ before I could do my ABC’s. I’ve just always thought that expressed what I was seeing and feeling. I’ve had poems like ‘The Wandering Angus’ on my wall in my studios all my life. When time came to name the new band that was just me and Danny and not the Overland Stage Band that we had before, we just sort of where looking around and I just read of the bottom of that ‘Wandering Angus’ poem I said ‘How about Silver Apples, Golden Apples?’ I think if we’d lived in California it would be the Golden Apples. Because we where in New York it felt more like we are Silver.
MA: Is this urban space also how you got into electronic music?
SC: I have no electronic background whatsoever, I was just strictly a singer, I didn’t even play an instrument, I played the tambourine badly… A friend of mine who was a serious musician had an oscillator and he used to drink vodka and play this oscillator along his Beethoven collection and I thought that was kind of interesting and so one time when he passed out on the couch I put on a rock record that I had and played it along with that and I was hooked, I never heard anything like this before. This could really be a hoot, and so I brought it to this stage where we where playing, we played five sets a night so I started playing with it. Danny loved it, everybody else in the band hated it.
MA: When was this?
SC: In ’66 maybe…
MA: Where there other electronic projects around?
SC: None of us had ever heard about any, but I’m sure there where. For me it was just like totally brand new, that wasn’t really what was so appealing. What was so appealing, was that I was actually playing an instrument, never mind that nobody knew what it was. But I was playing something, and I could just jam with it and felt so free. I was used to stand there for half an hour with my thumbs in my pockets waiting for the band to finish their long jams, because if you play five sets a night you just have to improvise. They would do this long blues 3/4 improvisations that where just boring. I’m just standing there. But now I’m not, now I’m doing something. Who cares if it’s weird and shit, to me it wasn’t, to me it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. One night the manager of the club came over and says wanted to let you guys go, but that’s really interesting you should keep doing that. And then some guy came in and said if you like to develop material let’s involve the poet scene in New York and you guys can practice in my loft, so we moved everything up his loft and just lived there for six month and that’s pretty much how Silver Apples started, just putting together music that is kind of organized and using poems by other people because I didn’t have time to write anything, I had to develop what I was doing. That’s the way we did the first record, basically it’s poems by other people. The second record also was mostly songs by other people, it wasn’t until the third record that it was totally me. I was just so hung up in trying to make this damn equipment work that I couldn’t be bothered to write songs.
MA: I can totally not imagine that right now, I grew up with all that technology, music equipment on hand every time. But you just developed your own thing.
NH: I was wondering if you are almost more free to use electronics at that point.
SC: Nothing was there for me to draw from that was right or wrong. Anything that I did was ok, because there was no president. So that’s why we have songs that have banjos in it, Blue Grass…
NH: …that was my first access point into your band, when a friend of mine, who is a huge tastemaker in my life, gave me a mix tape and it had one of this early songs with the banjo on it. I was like “What the fuck is this?!” I came from Colorado and was hearing a lot of Blue Grass, to see that transit into this really mechanized formation… at this point I was just starting getting more into experimental music and started dealing with electronics. It was very mind-blowing to see that fusion happening.
SC: I didn’t have a blues background so I wasn’t even trapped that way, I just was doing anything that felt like music, put a drum beat to it and had fun with it. It was freedom, there was nothing there saying “Don’t go there, that’s opera, that’s Blue Grass, you’re not supposed to do that”
NH: How did you even get involved with this Band in the first place if you weren’t really a musician?
SC: I was a dishwasher in a camp in Connecticut and the waiters and one of the cooks where Blue Grass musicians, I was from the south and had a long understanding of Blue Grass music. In between meals we used to sit on a porch, they where some fine musicians and I started to mucking around with the washboard, I played the jug and i’d sing harmonies and the next thing I know one of the shows up with a Fender electric guitar and that was like “Oh my god, listen to this shit!” and in about two weeks we transitioned into a rock’n’roll band and I named them ‘The Random Concept’ and off we went, no more dishwashing, no more waiting on tables, we where musicians. We where living in my station wagon, but who’d given a shit. We eventually got gigs in New York and we took the place by storm, we where good. Then they broke up, they wanted to go home to their girlfriends and the drummer went on to play with Lionel Ritchie and The Commodores and then he got busted for armed robbery and went to jail. And I ended up with Danny, the booking agent had me as a lose singer sleeping in his office and The Overland Stage Band had four good musicians and none of them could sing a lick, so he got us together and we started to play music straight away. The drummer was Danny.
NH: It seems like you where not much linked to subculture at the time?
SC: Not really, if you are thinking about the New York hippie type of subculture or the Andy Warhol thing.
NH: In history you get associated that way, but it sounds like you had no prior connection…
SC: I lived in my van in New York, in this old Volkswagen bus, I don’t know if you call that a van even…until I ran up so many tickets that I had to get it out of the city, I had to drive it up to a friends house in Connecticut and give it to him and said “Don’t ever drive this into New York city you will be fucking arrested.” I ran up like 120 parking tickets, it was my house, don’t you put a ticket on my house! I was not a hippie, I was a New York street kid and that’s how I knew about all this oscillators down at Canal Street. So when people where asking what do you need? I’d say, well, I can hit two notes, so I need three more oscillators to change chord. Let’s go get some down on Canal Street! They showed up with five bucks and we came back with some oscillators.
NH: If I think of Canal Street it’s one of the last areas like that surviving…
SC: There is one electronic supply store left I think, there used to be like 10…
NH: Are you still living in New York?
SC: No, I love New York but I got really tired of the winters, it’s just not in my system. I grew up with a tropical environment, so I moved back to Alabama. I’m done with winters. I tell my booking people ‘Don’t book me in the winter, I don’t go out in the snow, if we do winter-stuff at least do it in South America’.
NH: Do you think it had changed the way of your life being outside of the circles in New York?
SC: Not really, when I put Silver Apples back together in the 90s I did go back to New York to do that, because that’s where the roots of the band where and also that was where I was hoping Danny would be. So I started bruising the bars and leaving the word out to try and find Danny. I was living in a friends house down in Tribecca and was playing at the Knitting Factory. I had all this offers to play, people where curios as hell. I was trying to get it good enough, so I wouldn’t go out and embarrass myself and Steve Albini offered to do some recordings. We spent a couple of weeks in Chicago, living in a van outside his studio, he wouldn’t even let us sleep on his floor this schmuck.
NH: That man has never been known for his politeness.
SC: Steve is a wonder, he is amazing. He was the first one to say he is not a producer. He says “All I do is record people, I’m a good recording engineer. I don’t make artistic selections.” He has always been very separate.
NH: It’s interesting to think about all this terms, and how you pioneered electronic music. You hear so often this idea of the producer, of the matriculation of the sound palette, this idea of constant tinkering of perfection seems really present in current electronic music. I wonder how you are feeling of this ideas and where you fit in to that.
SC: When we first started off with Kapp Records they didn’t have a clue what to do with us. They knew they had something different, now here is the chance to do something, but what? They had a couple of people that they assigned to produce us. Those people didn’t know what to do with us either. None of us had any recording studio experience, not me, not Danny nor Barry who was almost the third member of the band, he was the guy who was sort of our manager and spokes person, the guy who was out there trying to get us jobs. But Kapp said: “You produce yourself!”
NH: Had you ever run a mixing board before?
SC: Never! Never even seen one. But there was an engineer assigned to us to cut the tape. It was only a four track board, they where used to just do a singer and a piano, so they didn’t need more. So we developed the idea of recording all our four tracks and then boiling three off ’em down to one and kept building songs that way. I’ve always produced my own stuff, as awkwardly it may be it was always me. So now when I sit down with my Mac and Ableton Live and produce my own stuff it’s normal, I can’t imagine any one else doing it. I think they are one and the same: The act of producing and the act of creating are all one big pile of dough.
NH: It’s so great to hear you articulate it that way, I feel like in the last fifteen years especially there is this big idea of DIY culture, put out your own record, book your own shows. Almost without even thinking about it, that’s almost exactly what you where doing in the 60s, but just out of total necessity.
SC: Everyday was a challenge, it was wonderful and it was a growth thing, it was huge. You know, six month later we had a record, it was odd. People coming in and where saying add some guitar and things to it. They wanted it to be more commercial, something they could understand and we resisted, thank god. We just said no. No guitars. Maybe it was because all the guitar players in the Overland Stage Band hated my music so much, so I was resistant to let guitars in my face. They threw me out, now I throw them out.
NH: So the band was build on obstinates?
SC: Yeah, totally something like that, not some deep musicology academic bullshit. It was just like some kid saying “Go fuck yourself and no guitars in here!”
MA: And now you still doing it and touring. You got a new record out?
SH: There is a brand new song sitting up there on the table on a single. I have punches of songs that i have in various stages and I just happen to get this one ready on time for the tour on a 7 inch, so they named the tour after that song and calling it “The Age Of Wonder Tour”. So i gave them a hook. I haven’t even had a chance to proper record it, I did it live in New York at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music and they have a great board and recorded it off there. You can hear the audience and everything in it. I’m always doing new music, it’s always out there and I have record labels keep telling me if, I put ten songs together I should come see them. One of this days I guess I will, but I just love to go out and play once a song is recorded I’m almost done with it, it’s a totally different thing, that’s the craft part. To sit down and learn how to do it live is a whole other art form. And you practice and you will do that song right, every time, no matter if you are sick or if you don’t have a soundcheck it’s still gonna be good. And never do it boring, hit those notes perfectly. I just never get tired of playing out. I don’t get any joy of sitting in front of a computer or multitrack board, that doesn’t do shit for me.
NH: Hey man, I’m right there with you.
SC: I know it’s necessary, but thats not what drives me. What drives me is getting out there and seeing if I can amaze myself at being good at something I thought i wasn’t good at. You know that feeling? Show yourself something tonight. It’s a thrill to go out there and do oscillation for the 500th time and do something different that works.~
Silver Apples’ new Single The Edge Of Wonder is out now as a 7″ on Enraptured Records and digital as mp3 files on iTunes.
Published September 21, 2012.