Apples In Stereo Interview

By shane

It's pretty rare when we give a full feature on this site to an American artist. But then again, it’s pretty rare when a band like the Apples in Stereo come along. As founders and kingpigs of the critically acclaimed Elephant Six Collective, the Apples are spear-heading a roots pop movement that’s unquestionably the freshest thing in American guitar indie music today. Their new album, “The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone,” pushes the boundaries even farther, with forays into northern soul and Motown. Frontman Robert Schneider is well on his way to becoming the Phil Spector of his generation, handling production duties for the Apples as well as most of the bands under the Elephant Six wing. On the eve of their extensive world tour (see our Tours page for their North American dates,) Excellent Online sat down with Apples keyboardist Chris McDuffie for a brief chat about all things Elephant. Here’s a complete transcript of the interview.

Interview by Shane Brown

EO:  I know you’re fairly new to the Apples [McDuffie joined the band two years ago, prior to the release of the “Her Wallpaper Reverie” EP], but can you describe exactly how the whole Elephant 6 Collective came to be?  I know they [Apples frontman Robert Schneider, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Olivia Tremor Control’s Bill Doss and Will Cullen-Hart] all went to school together…

C:  There’s really not a whole lot more to it than that.  In high school, and even before that, they were playing music together.  They played in bands together, did a lot of 4-tracking, stuff like that.  From there, Robert and Will actually came up with the Elephant 6 idea.

EO:  And then at some point, Robert relocated to the Denver area.  Why the move?

C:  His dad moved out here.  He was actually living in Paducah, Kentucky for a while before that, even.  It just seemed like the thing to do at the time, I guess.  He actually went to school out here for a bit, too, at  U.C. Boulder.

EO:  So is there a grand masterplan for the whole Elephant 6 thing?  Is it going to remain an imprint, or are there plans to make it a full-scale label? 

C:  For the most part, it’s gonna still be an imprint.  There is talk of maybe an Elephant 6 label that could actually give bands a budget, but that’s still in the planning stages.

EO:  The E6 Collective is now split across the States [the Apples head the E6 West, which is located in Denver, while the Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel remain in Athens, GA.] I’ve heard folks at your label speak as though the two divisions actually have different agendas – that E6 East is driven by experimentalism, while E6 West controls the studio and the business end of things.  Is that a fair assessment to make?

C:  Well, I think it is fair, but again not.  Speaking in terms of Elephant 6, I think everyone involved has the same idea of more or less a loose, collective type of thing.  But I think in terms of the individual bands, like the Apples and, say, Beulah, are thinking a little more… I don’t want to say business-wise, but a bit more ambitious, whereas some of the guys in Athens are truly happy just to do their art and 4-track and stuff like that, and anything beyond that is just, I don’t know, a bonus.

EO:  Is it true that the E6 East actually lived and worked out of one large house?

C:  I’m not sure, actually.  For a while, those guys were all out here.  The Olivias and Jeff Mangum were all living out here for a while.

EO:  So what’s the Pet Sounds Studio [Schneider’s home base in Denver, where most E6 bands record] like?  I’ve got this perfect indie rock fantasy of it all being in Robert’s basement.

C:  Well, it’s pretty close to that.  It’s in what used to be a storefront.  It’s pretty, um, low-rent [laughing.]  Smells like cats really bad.

EO:  The whole E6 Collective just fascinates me.  I wouldn’t even pretend that bands like the Music Tapes and Of Montreal sound similar, but at the same time, there’s something that definitely unites all the bands under the E6 wing.  Can you put your finger on any sort of reason why you all came together?  Is there any kind of universal construct behind the whole thing?

C:  Well, I think the place to start would be the influences.  Everyone – well, not everyone, but definitely a core group of people – is really crazy about 60’s pop, and the more experimental aspects of that.  That’s definitely the core of it, not to just… it sounds bad to make it sound like we’re all derivative.  [laughs]  But, you know, when you’re a teenager, pop music means a lot to you.  And that particular kind of 60’s pop isn’t a bad place to start.

EO:  Fair enough, and as a result, you guys utilize a lot of classic instrumentation, like theramins and what-not.

C:  Well, not theremin – there’s none on our stuff.  There’s a lot of Moog synthesizers that have that whistly, theremin kind of sound.  So I guess all the theremin-ish noises are definitely my department.

EO:  So what’s the weirdest studio story you’ve got?  What’s the oddest thing you guys have ever done to attain a certain sound?

C:  Well, on the “Her Wallpaper Reverie” EP, there’s a track called “Y2K,” and we wanted to use clip-clops to make the kind of old-fashioned style beat, like old radio show sound effect stuff, but we had no idea how to go about it.  Well, we ended up going out and getting a coconut, cut it in half, and went outside on these big concrete steps.  And we just miked up me sitting there with these coconut halves clip-clopping away in sync with the beat.

EO:  So what’s your take on the current pop music scene?  It seems nowadays that if you aren’t Korn or N’Sync, you’re left out in the cold.  Do you ever see yourselves pulling off any degree of mainstream fame, or are you content with the indie ethos of things?

C:  Well, you know, I can probably speak for all of the Apples in saying that we’d all like to make a little more money. [laughs]  I don’t know.  We’ve kind of been through the corporate thing already – we had a thing going with Sire for a while, like a distribution deal and that sort of thing – I don’t know.  We’ve come to the point where it seems, like, I don’t know.  You make money because you sell records, and we’re in a good position to keep building an audience.  Things are happening for us without getting involved so pointedly with the idea of breaking out through a record deal, if that makes any sense.  We’re kind of okay just trudging along right now, doing the indie thing.

EO:  I was watching TV the other day and heard “Strawberryfire” playing behind a car ad or something…

C:  Yeah, the commercial.  And now, I think a little bit of our music’s going to be used on an afterschool special… about bulimia, of all things. [laughs]

EO:  You’ve got a new record coming out, and I just got to hear it today.  All I can say is, well, damn, when did the Apples get soul?

C:  [laughs] Yeah, yeah, we’re going for the Motown R&B thing.

EO:  So this was a calculated plan when you guys went into the studio?

C:  Well, it’s just kind of whatever Robert’s been listening to and admiring.  You know, a lot of that other side of 60’s pop music, I guess.  

EO:  There’s a lot less production on this one, as opposed to your previous works.  No real obvious quintuple-tracking of stuff to get the layered psych-out effects.

C:  Yeah, it definitely sounds more like the band does live.  It’s still somewhat inbetween there – all the vocals are still double-tracked.  I don’t know.  It’s not quite as symphonic as the other stuff.

EO:  It struck me as odd that you picked “Look Away” as the first single – it’s more of a happy, laid-back, classic Apples track, and then you listen to the album, and it’s full of these in-yer-face fast rocking soul tunes.

C:  Yeah, I don’t know.  I think basically it just came down to the fact that “Look Away” was done and it was a good tune. [laughs]  We didn’t have the whole album assembled and then picked a single, it didn’t work that way at all.  When “Look Away” came out, it really was the only thing done that we knew was gonna be on the album. [laughs]

EO:  So where’d the title of the album come from [“The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone”]?

C:  I think it came from a medieval text.  Robert was watching some cable program and they mentioned it, and he thought it would be a good name for the record.

EO:  After listening to the “Her Wallpaper Reverie” EP, it sounded like you guys were heading down the more E6 East sound, with the layered effects and the sound snippets between songs.  Was that just a one-off departure more than a total style change then?

C:  Yeah, basically.  I think Robert had stuff building up that was in that vein.  It was a low-pressure thing, we didn’t promote it and all, so we figured why not just toss it off and have fun with it all the way?  I think a lot of people were actually annoyed by the experimental aspects of the thing, at least that’s what we heard from a lot of Apples fans.   Just the fact that you have to listen to the weird stuff in-between tracks gets to people, I guess. [laughs]

EO:  So what’s the overseas reaction been like for you guys, and for the other Elephant 6 bands?  Do the audiences over there get the whole E6 concept, or is the translation lost?

C:  Before I joined the band, they went to Japan a couple of times.  And we went to England together a couple of times.  Japan is supposedly crazy – we sell just as many records in Japan as we do over here – so they’re pretty nuts about us over there.  Britain was… it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t…  I guess we had about 10-15 people in the front rows of all the shows who knew all the words, so if that’s a decent measure… But mostly we were opening for a bunch of Euro-side bands, and it was all about them.

EO:  I’d heard something about a forthcoming movie soundtrack that at least Robert, if not all of you guys, were going to be involved with.  What’s the whole story there? 

C:  I don’t know how far along the movie is – it was tentatively called “Dean Quixote.”  We did a few tunes for that.  Kind of your typical slacker-type movie, from what I’ve heard.

EO:  Are the contributions full-on tunes, or orchestrated instrumentals, or what?

C:  No, actually one of the songs was “What Happened Then,” which is on the new album.  Then there was some instrumental stuff, too.  I don’t know what actually ended up being usable [laughs], but there were two or three things, yeah.

EO:  Do you guys think that the Internet is somewhat responsible for the E6 fanbase?  [The Elephant 6 Mailing List, found at, is full of notoriously hardcore fans.]  Do you use it as a tool to increase your listeners?

C:  Um, well, I don’t know. We don’t really read the list, you know.  We’ve got a website thing, but somebody else does it for us.  So, I guess, no.  [laughs]. Personally, we don’t have anything to do with it. It’s a source of amusement, you can see when people have rumours about break-ups and stuff, it seems like all big time pop, and then you remember, “Oh, yeah, we only sell 20,000 records.” [laughs].

EO:  Well, you’ve got songs on the eMusic site for download.  Is that panning out for you guys?  Do you actually get to see stats on how it’s doing?

C:  SpinART handles all that for us, so I’m not real sure about sales.  But eMusic gave us a bit of money for tour support and stuff like that, so in that regards, it’s pretty cool.

EO:  So what’s the future looking like?  Any other E6 releases coming out in the near future?  Long-term plans for the Apples?

C:  Well, I can’t speak for any of the other bands, but I know we’ve still got a lot of material that’s kind of backlogged and ready to record, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we came out with another record relatively soon – nothing before next year though, certainly.

EO:  Speaking of the other bands, one thing I noticed on the new album is that there aren’t any guest contributions on it.  The Elephant 6 Collective is pretty well known for members guesting on one another’s albums, but there’s none of that on the new Apples record.

C:  Yeah, I think that’s more to do with us being in Denver.  Right now, we’re the only Elephant 6 band in Denver [ed. note: We think he’s forgetting about Dressy Bessy, often considered to be part of the E6 West make-up.]  Everyone else is in Athens – well, I guess the Minders are in Portland and Beulah’s from San Francisco – but I guess there’s really not much of an Elephant Six community.  So unless there happens to be someone coming through Denver, we’re not gonna get any guests.

EO:  I was actually out in Denver recently, and thought upon arrival, “Wow, I’m officially in Elephant 6 territory.”  But then, except for a little shop called Twist & Shout, it seemed just as hard to find your stuff out there as it is here.

C:  Almost every other place we play, we do better than Denver.  There’s not a whole lot of local support out here for us, or for the whole Elephant Six thing in general.  I mean, there’s a few people, but it’s not… I don’t think it matters to Denver that the Apples live around here.

EO:  Denver aside, there really seems to be a universal appeal for the Apples’ sound.  It’s tough to pigeonhole, but it’s definitely pop and definitely ear-friendly.

C:  Yeah, it’s music even your burned-out uncle would like. [laughs].  Actually, we do get a lot of old people – well, not OLD people, but guys who are certainly beyond the whole indiepop thing – showing up at shows and going, “Wow, man, this stuff’s great.”

EO:  So do you actually get like 50-year-old, grey-haired, card-carrying members of the Brian Wilson International Fan Club hippie types?

C:  Oh, yeah, you know, I don’t even know how they end up at these shows.  People get turned on to us that are real unlikely fans, at least from the typical scene.  It’s the 60’s thing, we’ll admit it, we wear it on our sleeves… [laughs].  We’re not a stretch for those people at all.

Special thanks to Brendan Gilmartin at spinART Records for granting us the interview.  Visit spinART’s website at, and be sure to bookmark for the latest on the band, and for the latest on the entire Elephant Six world.