Overland, Oscillators And Operas: Silver Apples Talks
New York, 1967. The Random Concept had seen enough of the times and the changes in the city, and were packing up and going back to Connecticut. The singer and the drummer didn't want to leave, the town was in transition, and they were enraptured by the exciting momentum that was building in the undercurrents of the burghs of NYC. They spoke to their agent, and the drummer found work with a band called The Commodores. The slight and wiry singer joined up with a house band who according to the man, "was a good band, but they just couldn't sing." Simeon Coxe wasn't exactly welcomed into The Overland Stage Band, he tells me.
"They were kinda reluctant to have me at first, you know they all knew each other and had been a band for years, so it was kinda awkward to start with. We were the house band at the Cafe Wha? at the time, just playing endless sets, like four sets a night. We didn’t have enough material, and they would just go into these long, Grateful Dead-type blues jams just to kill time. And so me, like I’m the singer and I’m just standing there, I’ve got absolutely nothing to do, just stood there with my fingers in my pocket and just acting like I’m really interested in what’s going on! I was bored silly, so one day I just brought along a friend of mine’s oscillator, brought it on stage and plugged it into the PA and just started playing along with them."
"And boy they hated it, Jesus they hated it. And that’s when they moved out."
Simeon and the drummer Danny Taylor took this unique and unorthodox instrumentation and stage set up out of this dreary blues rehash and became Silver Apples. They took their name from "The Song of Wandering Aengus", a poem by WB Yeats which Simeon had pinned on his rehearsal room in his teens.
"Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun."
The two-piece band were revolutionary in their use of pre-electronic electrical instruments, with Simeon singing and creating previously unheard sounds and manipulated rhythmic waveforms which were were only consistent in the fact that they could never be pre-determined from show to show. Hooking up an ever-growing series of oscillators, telegraph keys and amps, all wrangled together on pieces of plywood, Simeon's psychedelic sonics would be underpinned by Danny's primal pre-Motorik drumming. Simeon would use every limb and extremity to operate this machine, which became known as 'The Simeon'. What led to the construction of this Frankenstein's musical monster?
"The necessity of it all, there was no other way to play it. I don’t play any instruments really, just a bit of dabbling in this and that, and at the time just a rattle on a banjo. When I went to create an instrument out of oscillators I didn't really know where to go? You certainly can’t make a stringed instrument out of ‘em, so the obvious thing was keys like a keyboard, but I can’t play keyboard so that was no good. So I just invented a way of doing it with telegraph keys and push buttons mounted into plywood, that was the only way I could play it. It’s just because I’m an inept person, so I made my own stuff!", Simeon chuckled.
Surely an instrument as influential and ground breaking as this, a weary and wired contraption that birthed a new era of electronica and psychedelic wig-outs was now a treasured time-capsule? Legends like Jimi Hendrix and Procol Harum had jammed with it and been left in awe of it. Not so.
"From one day to the next, it was never the same. It never was 'a thing' that you could say 'That’s The Simeon, That’s It'. Every day it was a little different, every day it got better, to me. Some way to make it more efficient, or easier to play, less cumbersome to carry around. It never was something that you could put in a box and put on a shelf and market it."
They were signed to Kapp Records at the time, home to more conservative acts such as Sonny & Cher and Mel Tillis, who had other plans.
"It was never my idea, it was the record company’s idea to call it The Simeon. I would never do that, call it after myself, I’m just not that kind of person. But they went it did it, they thought it was a great promotional gimmick and they could say, 'He plays this new thing called The Simeon'. I just gritted my teeth and went along with it, what am I gonna do?"
Simeon tells me it was a very exciting and creative time in New York, and that he threw himself into that, musically, artistically and politically. Naivety withstanding.
"Abstract expressionism was being lauded as a major movement in art, and was being slowly replaced by younger artists who were more into a pop art feel. So there was kind of a little war going on in the art community. Music was going through a big change, from sort of 'lounge music' to a sort of festival feeling. There was lots of activity, and lots of debate and people just exploring new things. We just jumped in on that, it was just there."
"I thought somebody was gonna come along out of all of this and change the world. I felt that things were really happening, and that we might actually bring peace to the world. Although of course, that never happened", he resigns.
The two albums were a commercial failure, and a third album from that late Sixties period ('The Garden') was buried for years. For the following three decades, the band made no more music or appearances, although the legacy of those debut records soon became apparent as the band were often cited by pioneers such as Cabaret Voltaire, Front 242 and legends such as Kraftwerk. Along side the experimental frenzy of those electrical innovations, Danny Taylor's restrained drumming pallette can clearly be recognised in krautrock and beyond. Simeon revived the band in the late Nineties without Danny, and toured and released a couple of new albums, but the duo got back together when Danny was eventually tracked down. This also led to the discovery of the 'missing' album, which like most folkloric records was in a box in an attic. The happy reunion was to be shortlived, as a series of bad fortune saw Simeon break his neck in a road accident leaving him unable to play his instruments, followed by the tragic death of Danny in 2005.
During the Noughties, further bands were referencing Silver Apples significance, including Geoff Barrow and Portishead, and the strung-out drone rock of acts like Spacemen 3. Simeon decided to continue Silver Apples alone, and found himself invited to psych festivals worldwide and a regular guest at All Tomorrow's Parties.
And that brings us round to the here & now. Nearly two decades since the last Silver Apples release, a new album 'Clinging To A Dream' is released this week. As part of the publicity machine and the upcoming tour dates, Simeon is in London, but I'm curious to know where is home and what it's like being on this kind of tour, almost 50 years since the band first formed.
"Fairhope, Alabama. A little town, down South near the Gulf Coast. It’s simple and rural and rustic, wide open spaces and long beaches. It’s very peaceful, and the world I’m in when I’m touring is very exciting, and lights and sounds and people jumping and yelling and screaming. I’m more creative when I’m back home. I divide my time into two different parts – one is the art part, which is creating the music and recording it, making it a thing that you can call ‘a song’. The second part is the craft part, where you learn how to play what you’ve created live. You rehearse it, and hone it and craft it, make it into a polished thing that you can present to people live. And that is a whole different mental process to the art part. I enjoy both, but I do need some solitude to develop both of them. The of course you go out and play them to people, and the more distraction the better!"
I guess when you've been in the music "business" for over 50 years (which it's clear Simeon never really has been), that a 19 year gap between albums is no more than an Aphex Twin anxiety respite. Why is the time right now, and where did an album come to fruition? Simeon's imaginative mind was still fantastic in it's creative dreams.
"I’d spent several years working on an opera project, I got inspired to do this thing that was gonna be on DVD only. It was not to be performed live, it was all animated digitally, this fantasy story about people who flew and changed the world. And the songs were about this adventure they were having as they flew in a sort of parallel universe, their observations of people. I wrote a lot of music for that, and all along with the storyline that I was developing for the opera. And then it fell into a brick wall when it came to try to finance it. I found out that the animation that I wanted to do to present it properly was just costing millions, and there was no way I was gonna get that to happen. So about four years ago, I discovered I was just stuck with all these songs. So I started working on the ones that could stand alone, that didn't need the storyline to support them, and turn them into just songs. So the obvious next step was why not put them on a record? So I talked to a few people and we got it going."
In between the far-out flights of fancy and the frankly oddly-electronic excursions, the over riding impression from the album is one of positivity and emotional spirit. Was that intentional?
"I’m just that way, there's hardly a negative bone in my body. I’ve been told I’m the world’s worst music critic, because I like everything!", he laughs. "That’s just me, the stuff that comes out of my body just has a kinda positive overtone to it. Even if I write something that’s kinda evil, like ‘Nothing Matters’ which is like a dead-end song, like approaching the end of the world, it still has this fun part to it. I dunno, when I play that song live the audience just jump up and down and clap and holler and whoop about a song about the end of the world. I’m like, ‘Er, okay?!’"
"I just cannot convey pure evil, I can’t do it", he laughs louder.
Since his accident back in the Nineties, and keen to transform the way he worked after that, he bought a Mac when he was working on the opera and was determined to use that as his instrument. Since Danny's passing he has continued to respect and admire his partner's skills, sampling and manipulating the original loops and patterns from earlier studio recordings, or simply leaving them in as intended. This solo process is very different to those memories of the early days.
"Before, we used to go in a studio and sit before a desk that had 900 tracks on it, and everything was all confusing and mysterious. We didn’t know what was going on in that room, and they had no idea what we were doing in the other room, and it took forever. This whole album was done in my studio, by myself and Ableton Live. This went on for a few years, I’d specifically bought the computer just to do the opera, and it ended up being my Silver Apples recording studio. So I had some demos, and I took them to Graham Sutton (Bark Psychosis) and we loaded the digital files and got them on tape to work on."
Thinking back to the feats of dexterity needed to operate dozens of oscillators and buttons in 1967, does he feel it's as articulate as when he was operating The Simeon?
"Yes, I feel very connected to it. It’s like using any fretless instrument, where you have no physical connection, and you have to listen with your ear, like with a violin, to get the note clean and the intonation right. I have had some great training, with the filters on the oscillators and such. I really learned how to listen to the music while you were playing. I feel very confident now, I used to be terrified, never know what was gonna happen. I used to have to learn to sing a song in different keys in case the oscillator was off pitch! But now I’ve gotten better at my craft, I’ve learned how to do it, and that’s making it much more fun for me. I can go out and play in a happy mood."
Simeon has no intention for this album to fit into some pre-determined marketable slot. Stuff just comes out of him, "from some inner place, and it just sounds like me, I don’t know how to describe that. I don’t have a message for the 21st century or anything like that… I just do my thing."
As part of the album tour, Simeon has been invited to perform at 'Convenanza', the festival held in the beautiful medieval city of Carcassonne in France. Curated by Andrew Weatherall, last year showcased live sets from guests Vox Low (whose electronics & live set-up is not too distant), and also Sterling Roswell. Rosco was once part of the Spacemen 3 set-up, which Silver Apples have worked and toured with in their separate strands.
"I’m so looking forward to it, I mean who wouldn’t wanna play there?! I always think if Spacemen 3 had got their personalities sorted out, and just stayed together, great things would have come out of that. But they're all out there, doing great stuff."
New decade, new album, new live shows, does he still get any nerves about his work's reception?
"When you present your work to the world, I think you are always hoping someone, somewhere will like it. I’ll probably read the reviews once, then throw them away, good or bad, because you don’t wanna get too hung up on that. I play them live in my set now, and they’ve become part of me. I don’t have any set life plan, whatever happens, just do it."
Being as respectful as possible to this kind gent who has made laugh and gush with his honesty and positivity, I still can't help but think he's older than my father. He tells me his life hasn't been "like 'wow' and it hasn't been dull. I just kinda let it happen". Where does he get the energy from?
"Beats me", he laughs. "My mom lived to near a hundred and was still active and writing in her nineties, so I hope I’ve inherited all of that and I can just keep on going. I hope you and I can have this conversation in twenty years or so, and talk about it again."
"When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air."
Finally, I asked Simeon if he found out where “the glimmering girl" had gone?
"I sure haven’t, but I’m still looking for her. There’s life in the old dog yet. Yes Sir", he laughed.
Silver Apples – Clinging To A Dream is released by ChickenCoop/ Cargo Records on 2nd September 2016 and can be found HERE.
Silver Apples perform live at Convenanza Festival, Carcassonne, France on 30th September 2016 and full info and tickets are HERE.
Photo credit: RedYourBlues.Com