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Robert Schneider takes the small stage at Austin's Waterloo Records looking as if he's just wrapped up a brisk game of Frisbee golf, a shaggy beard twice as long as his thinning thatch of hair almost obscuring his face, a pair of flip-flops on his feet. Tuning up his beat-up acoustic and opening a notebook of song lyrics, Schneider, the Apples in Stereo's singer-guitarist-songwriter, sheepishly jokes with the crowd crammed into the record store, the people packed tightly near the front of the stage and jamming every aisle, bringing in-store commerce to a halt. If there wasn't a microphone, Schneider's words would be completely inaudible; even with one positioned a few inches from his face, his voice is about as loud as a Kleenex landing on cotton balls.
As he launches into his short set -- a mix of new and old songs, including some off The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone(which was released last week by spinART Records) -- Schneider's voice doesn't get much louder, only enough to be heard over the lazy melodies he's strumming on his guitar. A few feet away, his bandmate, drummer-singer Hilarie Sidney, looks on, smiling. The entire low-key production feels as if it's happening in the backyard of the house they share in Denver, save for the hundred or so fans hanging on Schneider's every word. After about 20 minutes, he's gone, leaving as quietly as he came.
"I was really surprised there were so many people there to see me," Schneider says, on the phone from his home recording studio. At the moment, he's under attack by his allergies, remixing the first single from The Discovery of a World . . .("Look Away") and finishing a song for inclusion on Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls, all while lying flat on his back because of a recent skateboarding mishap. "I really couldn't believe it. I walked in expecting there to be like five people, and it was like a show. Excuse me just a second, I have to blow my nose," he apologizes, before emitting a shrill honk that makes him sound as if someone's either tickling or stabbing him. He laughs. "That's the horn section."
Schneider's solo set at Waterloo was a big change from the last time I saw him and the Apples in Stereo play in Austin, performing at the now-defunct Liberty Lunch at the 1999 South by Southwest music festival. Finishing up the set, Schneider repeatedly -- and futilely, as it turned out -- tried to smash his solid-body Rickenbacker on the club's stage. After about six or seven whacks, he gave up, dropping the uncooperative guitar and thanking the crowd, very politely, for coming out. The gesture was, perhaps, an out-of-character one for Schneider, more in line with someone with a fetish for The Who rather than Schneider's well-known fixation for the Beatles and the Beach Boys. (His home recording studio, where the Apples have recorded every album except 1997's Tone Soul Evolution, is known as Pet Sounds Recording Studio.)
Yet, as the songs on The Discovery of a World . . . show, although Schneider may have a love for classic pop melodies, it's rivaled, if not surpassed, by his passion for rock 'n' roll. You can hear it on the disc's opening track, the energetic "Go," all lush harmonies, layered arrangements and surprisingly forceful, almost growled vocals. Schneider may still pledge allegiance to John and Paul, but from the sound of "Go" and "I Can't Believe," as well as a few other songs on the album, it appears he'd settle for Mick and Keef. Though he may be best known as the guy softly singing retro-sounding, forward-thinking pop songs, it's clear Schneider is not above smashing a few guitars. Well, trying to, at least.
More than anything else, with The Discovery of a World . . ., Schneider and the band set out to prove that point, making sure everyone knew they were much more than a group that answered the question of what it might have sounded like if Lennon and McCartney had collaborated with Brian Wilson rather than competing with him. Schneider admits that idea was part of the plan when the group started: he just wanted to do his best to sound like his favorite records. But now, all he wants to sound like is the Apples in Stereo. The comparisons used to thrill him. Not anymore.
"I think it bothers me in that I don't think I really copy anything," Schneider says, speaking so quickly that the words seem to come out on top of one another, a rapid-fire aural assault. "There's a lot of bands that rip off melodies and chord progressions that are very familiar, stuff like that. I really think that we have original songs that are different from everybody else. I think the sound that we're making . . . I mean, we're not really a retro band. We're not trying to make '60s-sounding records; we're trying to make modern, rock 'n' roll, psychedelic records.
"Yet, at the same time, there's a lot of inspiration and a lot of references, especially on our past records," he continues. "I feel on the new record, it's less referential of our influences and stuff. On our old records, we'd be like, 'Fuck! That sounds great! Those drums sound just like the Beatles.' Now it's like, 'Those drums sound too much like the Beatles.' It's more us. I was so used to getting shitty kind of recordings on my four-track or eight-track, all I wanted was something that sounded as good as, you know, a '60s record. And now, I guess, I feel like we're way past that. And as an engineer in our studio and stuff, I feel like the sound quality of it definitely doesn't sound like that either." He pauses, then delivers the punch line: "Definitely sounds more like, uh, 1970."