"It's strange to think that a year from now I might be doing what the people that I think of as rock stars are doing."
So says Rob Schneider, the unassuming frontman for the Denver-based pop quartet called the Apples. But while it's presently difficult to imagine Schneider and his bandmates (guitarist John Hill, bassist Jeff Mangum and drummer Hilarie Sidney) hobnobbing with celebrities at Spago, that may change soon. SpinArt, a Sony-sponsored indie imprint that's served as home to popular underground pop acts such as the Dambuilders, Lotion and Monsterland, has signed the Apples to a three-album contract that's attractive even by major-label standards.
Among the tasty perks SpinArt has promised, Schneider says, is a substantial video-and-touring budget and an overseas distribution pact. Best of all, the label is providing the band with its own sixteen-track recording studio--a bonus that is particularly enticing to Schneider, a self-confessed studio junkie and co-founder of the Apples' own Elephant 6 record label. "Part of me feels so excited [about the deal] that my head's spinning," he elaborates. "But on the other hand, I feel terrified. Everything is just happening all at once, and it's just sort of freaking me out."
In fact, the contract and the prospect of a studio has induced Mangum, W. Cullen Hart and Bill Doss--longtime friends of Schneider's, as well as Elephant 6 labelmates--to move to Denver from their previous residence, Athens, Georgia. "How could I not come to Denver?" asks Mangum, who joined the Apples after previous bass player Jim McIntyre took an indefinite hiatus from the band. "I mean, [the Elephant 6 groups] went through a long period of time where we were just wondering how long it would be before we could put out any records or scrape up enough money to put together a tape to send to a label. It was kind of scary. We'd find ourselves picking out two or three [labels] to send tapes to and then getting turned down by all of them."
Making sense of the Elephant 6 family tree isn't easy, in part because Mangum is both bassist for the Apples and a solo artist who records under the moniker Neutral Milk Hotel. This brilliant, stoner-folk project has been getting ecstatic notices in the indie press; for instance, Mangum was listed alongside Vic Chesnutt in an Option article touting "new folk renegades." Hart and Doss, the other pair of recent Denver emigres, have received equally positive reviews for their group, Olivia Tremor Control--another act on the label.
Elephant 6 is a relatively new entity (its first recordings were released last year), but the company's spiritual foundations go back to a childhood meeting between Schneider, then a recent transplant from South Africa, and Mangum in the small town of Roustin, Louisiana. And while the twosome grew into lifelong friends, they weren't chums at first sight. "One of my bitterest childhood memories is of Jeff chasing me around the playground with a baseball bat in the second grade," Schneider explains, laughing.
When Mangum and Schneider reached junior high, they traded in their bats for guitars. Shortly thereafter, Mangum formed the punk band Maggot, which he now describes as "just me and Will [W. Cullen Hart] playing guitar along with this other guy who had just smoked his first joint. We'd basically crank up our amps and make noise and scream dirty words."
"In junior high, Jeff and Will were doing noisy stuff at his mom's house," Schneider interjects, "and I was trying to write, like, Beatles songs and Jethro Tull songs at the time. We all liked Syd Barrett and the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. But beyond that, we all liked different things."
The same remains true today, yet the Elephant 6 bands also share common bonds. Although the Apples and Olivia Tremor Control produce Pavement-meets-Pet Sounds slacker-pop that stands in contrast to the full-blown, no-wave weirdness of Von Hemmling and Clay Bears (the latter is yet another Mangum offshoot), the music made by each act is rough and sour on the outside, deliciously sweet on the inside. "The Elephant 6 sound is basically the sound of those of us who grew up in Roustin," Schneider explains. "We learned to play music together, and we listened to music together, and we got high together, and we sat around in our bedrooms beating on pop bottles when we were sixteen together. You know, just shit like that."
"We were our only scene," Mangum elaborates. "We really didn't have a music scene to live up to in Louisiana like you would if you lived in New York or L.A. We were our own little scene, and we just traded tapes with each other."
One of the most endearing qualities about the majority of the Elephant 6 bands is their accessibility. Even at their weirdest (and they do get weird), the Apples and Neutral Milk Hotel write songs that are instantly likable. Mangum's Hotel material, for example, manages to evoke all the eccentric folk nuances of Beck but without the self-indulgent aftertaste. Likewise, the Apples' new Glowworm EP (due for release on Iowa-based Bus Stop records this month) is sure to be a hit with anyone who loves remarkable pop hooks. In short, these and other Elephant 6 bands exude a fresh, almost naive charm that's sorely lacking in the music of 99.9 percent of the bands that reside on today's alternative dung heap.
Not that Schneider thinks of himself as a musical revolutionary. "I just want to write songs that are uplifting and make recordings that make you feel somewhat exhilarated," he says. "You know, songs that have an almost transcendent quality about them, so that you can just sort of lose yourself for a while and get in touch with whatever."
"I try to make things hopeful [in my songs]," Mangum adds. "But I guess more than anything, I just try to cut through the bullshit and try to write about the stuff that's really going on inside people's heads. The kind of stuff you won't get when you just go to the grocery store or whatever."
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This approach won Neutral Milk Hotel a slot at the 1994 Yo-Yo a-Go-Go festival, which took place last week in Olympia, Washington; others on the bill included the Spinanes, Mecca Normal and Some Velvet Sidewalk, with a special guest appearance by Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, who played in public for the first time since Kurt Cobain's suicide. Mangum subsequently convinced Schneider, Sidney and recent Elephant 6 recruit Lisa Jannsen to check into the Hotel for this event, as well as for an upcoming tour of other Pacific Northwest cities. Mangum has also committed to playing bass during the Apples' future appearances, including a possible date at this year's New Music Seminar in New York City.
With prestigious gigs such as these, Schneider might be expected to have experienced a sudden increase in hat size since the Apples started playing Denver clubs last year. However, the loquacious young singer still seems to have his feet firmly planted on the ground, despite all the sudden attention he's been receiving. "The greatest thing about all this is that I get to come home and hear Jeff or Hilarie recording in the bedroom or hear the new song that Jim's recorded," he insists. "It's great to hear all this cool new pop music--and it's right there in the bedroom when I come home."
Only when he's talking about the contract with SpinArt does Schneider let a few lines of rock-star-ese work its way into his conversation. "Our lawyer is currently negotiating with SpinArt's lawyers," he enthuses. "And guess what? His firm represents Brian Wilson. It's like a sign from God.