The Apples in Stereo Share "Energy" with Phish
You mentioned a little bit before that you are working on a new The Apples in Stereo album. I know it’s been a few years since you last released an album. During that time, you’ve actually been studying math and science in a PhD program. Can you talk a little bit about where The Apples are as a band now in terms of recording and performing as well as give us some information about your graduate program?
I would also like to say that the thing you said about Phish, the hallmarks of their sound and of our sound, it’s always mystified me a little bit that there isn’t more of a crossover between the various psychedelic scenes that kind of exist. I would say that Phish fans are among our fans. At the same time, the thing about a musical scene is it isn’t just about the music, it’s a cultural kind of scene too. And culturally, the Elephant Six scene is—at least on the surface and probably at the heart—very similar to the jamband scene even though musically it goes a little bit of a different direction. While there’s lots of jamming and lots of improvisation, the focus in Elephant Six is on production and there’s sort of maybe like a little bit more of a punk rock kind of quality to the approach, even if there’s not to the music. There’s a whole recorded kind of thing kind of built into our sort of aesthetic but, at the same time, one would imagine that Phish fans would love the Apples and love Elephant Six in general.
While Elephant Six collective is more underground than the jamband collective, there’s this movement of underground psychedelia that is just waiting for these kids to put on their headphones and trip out to. There’s sound effects, the music is permeated with strange sounds, guitar solos and sort of trippy gestures. It’s practically like dripping and oozing with psychedelic touches, not necessarily subtle ones. I mean, the Apples have a song about LSD on our first album. It struck me when you said that it’s kind of interesting because it’s almost like there’s this premade crossover that’s waiting to happen in the future.
You question sort of raises a question mark in our band because last year one of my best friends and one of my bandmates passed away very suddenly: Bill Doss, who was a band member in the Apples and he was also the leader of The Olivia Tremor Control, and he was also basically my lifelong best friend, my first musical partner, the person I made my first 4-track recordings with and had my first band with when we were teenagers.
So I guess the idea of playing and touring, I still haven’t quite come to terms with his loss. I don’t want to sound too heavy about it or anything like that, but I’m not sure exactly how to play out with our band after something so devastating. And at the same time, that’s not to put a bummer of a feeling on it, that’s more like me being honest with you as a person. So it’s a hard question to answer because we’ve got tons of songs, we love playing together as a group of friends that have been doing this our whole lives, and yet one of our family members is gone. It’s hard to imagine reassembling that family dynamic after something like that. Yes, you grow and you have to live your life and you continue to be creative and stuff, but you’re asking me in the year that I’m suffering from this painful loss so it’s hard for me to exactly answer your question.
It’s a little bit of a painful subject just because it’s hard to say what the future holds. We’re working on a new album, but our new album is a very, very, very strange album and it incorporates a lot of very experimental production techniques that I’ve worked out. It’s not a pop album, I don’t want to say too much about it yet, but it’s fairly far from being a poppy record. I mean, I’m not even sure how musical the album is. It’s sort of like a concept album, it tells a number of different stories, and it’s sort of based on… I don’t want to say too much because I want it to be interesting when it happens. But it’s a kind of unusual album, it’s kind of a deep album in concept.
I don’t mean deep like heavy, I mean like it’s multi-layered. It’s something that we’re all very involved in right now. It’s definitely a headphone album, possibly purely a headphone album. And I would say as far as touring and stuff goes, we are not sure. We’re sort of still emotionally coming together as people from losing our friend and also I’m in graduate school studying mathematics, which is like in itself, a super psychedelic thing to be doing.
Basically by day, my mind slips off into another universe with monolithic shapes and colors and sort of this other dimension or something like that. But also being a graduate student doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for touring. But I’ve played some acoustic shows personally, the band played—before Bill passed away—played last year at All Tomorrow’s Parties. And I’m playing some shows with Neutral Milk Hotel in the fall.
I played with [Neutral Milk Hotel founder] Jeff Mangum a little earlier this year. But where the band is as a live act right now is a little bit of a question mark. Which doesn’t mean that it’s questionable, it’s just we haven’t reassembled and played since our bandmate passed away. I suppose it’s as simple as that. It’s more like we’ve gotten together and hugged. Our new album is a pretty far out record and it’s dedicated to our friend Bill and among its heroes are Albert Hoffman and characters from Greek mythology. And without sounding overly pretentious or anything, we’re working on a pretty heavy album. But I think that people who listen to our music and maybe listen to noise music and that kind of stuff will think that it’s an interesting album.
And you asked about graduate school and that kind of stuff. I got into mathematics like maybe 10 or 12 years ago when I was fixing a tape machine in my studio. The thing is that as a record producer and engineer, I’d always kind of rejected modern technology as a kid. I hated the sound of digital stuff, I hated the sound of records that were made in studios, I hated music that came out of major labels. I was sort of like a punk underground, indie rock hippie as a young kid. And I exclusively disliked anything that came out of a slick studio. And like I said, I started recording my band’s albums and other Elephant Six stuff on 4-track cassette, moved up to a reel-to-reel 4-track then an 8-track, and by the late 1990s, I took a recording budget and I spent it on a 16-track from the mid-‘70s which is said to be the most warm, fat, awesome sounding tape machine in the whole world. And so as our band had built up in our sound, and I built up my skills as an engineer from recording with 4-track to many of the records I made like Neutral Milk Hotel, The Minders, the Apples albums, The Olivia Tremor Control, this is stuff that I did on an 8-track reel-to-reel. But I had gotten this amazing tape machine, it’s like the size of an old stove and as heavy as a piano. It came in a huge crate in the mail that was so big you could think there could be a rhinoceros inside of it. The problem was that the tape machine broke down almost every time you tried to use it. Also in addition for being famous for being super fat and warm, was famous for being terribly unstable.
So anytime you basically run the tape machine, it would blow out. So it came up that I had to learn how to fix the tape machine in order to use it. And the 16-track had this huge binder of thematics. It was literally the size of a huge encyclopedia or dictionary or something. So I had to learn a little bit about electronics to read these diagrams to fix the tape machine. I bought this book from Radio Shack about electronics and I opened it up and on like the first page of the book, it had this equation called Ohm’s Law. And Ohm’s Law says that voltage is equal to the current flow times the resistance. It’s the fundamental mathematical law of electronics, all electrical systems obey this law including presumably our own brains.
When I saw this equation there, to say it blew my mind doesn’t express with enough poetry and mysticism the feeling that was coming off the page when I saw this equation. This golden light was shining down through the mildew ceiling of my studio and as I sat there on the floor with all these diagrams around me, I had this religious experience and I realized that all the stuff that I thought was sacred in my 20s in life, that is: music, recording technology, tape machines, vinyl records, headphones, microphones, synthesizers, electric guitars, playing in my band with my best friends, which was sort of the glue of my childhood relationships and my adult relationships—because Elephant Six is a group of people who basically grew up together and are still best friends. We’ve been friends our whole lives. And so I sort of got this feeling coming from this equation that this was like the foundation of everything for my friendships to like The Beatles and The Beach Boys to like the gurgly sound effects I was getting out of analog synthesizers: you sing into the microphone, your voice gets transformed into an electrical signal, it goes through the wires, it goes through the compressors, it goes to tape, it comes back from the tape machine and you’re hearing it in your headphones, it goes into your brain, and your brain is firing off neural electrical charges and stuff, it’s like this whole cycle of making music that to me is like religion. Like was existing against this simple backdrop of this equation that only had like three terms in it.
It just blew my mind and I got really interested in mathematics. I taught myself math—I’m not a very mathy person. I’m an artist. I think maybe in productions and stuff there’s a lot of symmetry and patterns that happen in making records and the way that I make records that I would think are not mathematical exactly but are sort of pattern-based and interlocking like gears. There’s a feeling to that that feels similar to mathematics, but I got this sort of cosmic, kind of mystical feeling that mathematics was sort of the universe that my music and my friendships and the stuff that I thought was beautiful in the world sort of was floating around in. And so now some years later I’m in graduate school.