Interview: Silver Apples’ Simeon Coxe
As the electro-pop act returns after 19 years, we catch up with a pioneering songwriter still doing his own thing
Even amongst the other musical pioneers of the late 1960s, the music of Silver Apples stands out as a beautifully incongruous affair. Managing to be both raw and primal but also unique and ahead of its time, the electro-pop meditations of synth-prodigy Simeon Coxe and drummer Danny Taylor can be seen as a precursor to both Krautrock and trip hop. The pair’s eponymous debut from 1968 and its follow up, Contact, a year later remain experimental high points of a decade renowned for its innovation.
Silver Apples will shortly be returning with their first new album in 19 years, Clinging To A Dream. Sadly, Danny Taylor passed away in 2005 and the band is really now a solo project for Coxe. Having said that, Taylor’s spirit and rhythmic style are still evident on the record and Silver Apples’ unmistakeable sound is as propulsive and hypnotizing as ever.
Ahead of the album’s release we caught up with Simeon to discuss its unusual start and what it’s like to make music without his partner…
When did the idea to record an album of new material come to you?
“I didn’t start off trying to record an album of new material, it never was a plan. In the early part of the twenty-first century, the first five or six years, I was working on a project that was more or less an opera. It was conceived to be animated digitally and available on DVD rather than performed live. I had the whole storyline worked out and many of the songs. I presented it to various people and got reactions that they loved it and it was a wonderful work but just too God damned expensive. The cost to do the animation was unbelievable. We could do cheap paper animation but to get it right was so expensive that I had to bag the idea.”
And this led to Clinging To A Dream?
“I started to look at the songs to see if they could stand on their own and a lot of them did. I felt that you didn’t need to know the storyline, they were interesting songs regardless. As a matter of fact it made them more mysterious. The song The Mist, with the line ‘here comes the mist, here comes the rain,’ was part of the storyline but it stands by itself because it creates a mood and a feeling of being lost in a forest or swamp. I realised I didn’t need to have the opera and could work on the songs to make them more presentable as music and not have to have some sort of visual support or storyline.
“I took five or six songs out of the opera and reworked them a little bit and added my own voice, instead of having different characters sing. That’s why in the songs it sounds like there are several people singing, but it’s just me overdubbing myself in order to make it a ‘me’ project and not have to invite backing singers in. That’s how the album got started. I thought that if I had six songs already then why not take them, and another one that I wrote a long time ago, and write a couple more I’d have enough to start shopping an album around. It doesn’t have a concept behind it or any kind of deep meaning, it’s a collection of music that I enjoyed putting together.”
We’ve always been interested to know how you go about creating a Silver Apples tune, we’re guessing it’s not a case of you being sat in your bedroom with a guitar?
“They just blossom, I don’t know how to explain it. I have a boat and a lot of times I go out on the boat, not for the intent purpose of writing a song, but while I’m out there, messing around in the total quiet and solitude, stuff will come to me. When I get back to the studio I jot stuff down and think about it and they kind of come about that way. Sometimes it’s the lyrics first and sometimes I get an idea for creating a riff or mood or music and I’ll work it up that way and then see if I have any poetry that will fit it. I’m not very disciplined you know, stuff just floats around and I grab it when I can.”
On your early stuff Stanley Warren poems were used as lyrics, when did you start writing lyrics for yourself and how do you find that side of the process now?
“I was writing my own lyrics before Stanley, it’s just that we were under such pressure from Kapp Records to get our first record finished and get it out that we didn’t have enough lyrics to go around for all the music. We put a notice on a bulletin board at Max’s Kansas City, where all the artists hung out, and it just said ‘rock band looking for lyrics, poets call this number’ and we got like twenty-five responses. Poets came out of the woodwork and were sending us stuff. Stanley Warren actually wrote a song that he thought was perfect for us called Seagreen Serenades, a love song to pot, and so what we did was we took a lot of his poetry and reworked it a little bit. He gave us total permission to do that, he said ‘I have no idea what music this is going to fit, so if you need to add a word or subtract a word or rearrange things then feel free.’
“We took his basic poetry and made it fit rhythmically with what we were doing and used a lot of his stuff to get the people from Kapp Records off our back. That’s why on the second record there’s a lot more of my stuff and some other poets. Eileen Lewellen wrote Misty Mountain on the first album and I Have Known Love on the second, her stuff was lying around and so we grabbed two of her poems. We’ve always been that way with the lyrics, we try something we like and we’ll use it if it’s okay with the poet. When it came to this record I was pretty much writing everything, actually I did. I don’t think there’s anything on there by anybody but me. So that’s totally mine.”
Does lyrical inspiration mainly come when you’re out on the boat or is it just an idea which you then work into a song back on dry land?
“The first song on Clinging To The Dream is called The Edge Of Wonder and that came to me while I was writing on a sailboat. The waves going up and down were ‘Neptune’s metronome.’ I kept thinking that the boat was keeping an even beat like a metronome and that the wind was ‘Aphrodite’s violin.’ That just came whilst sailing and so that song was very much related to the sailboat. Other songs come while standing in line at Costco or Walmart, waiting to buy a pair of shoes. Something hits you and you have to step out of line and write it down quick. I just never know and don’t plan. I usually find that if I tell myself, ‘Okay, I’ve got to write a song’ then nothing happens, the doors are shut. Alcohol doesn’t help one bit, drugs don’t help, it’s a natural flow of energy which comes bursting out sometimes and you’ve got to be aware of it and be there to catch it when it comes.”
When did you first realise that you had that signature primal rhythm inside you?
“I don’t even know I have it, it’s just there and that’s just me. That’s just the way I think and the way I am.”
Is it equally hard to say where it came from?
“When I was a child I was very much influenced by the bluegrass music that was on my family radio in Tennessee. We moved to New Orleans when I was seven and I became interested in the rhythm ‘n’ blues sounds there. I went to school listening to Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner and to the very simple rhythms of early R&B and that appealed to me. Looking back in retrospect I can only think that the simplicity of bluegrass music and the simplicity of Fats Domino and his music must have influenced my musical comfort zone. Instead of being a complex and involved thing I like to keep it simple, I just feel happier with it that way. I don’t try to over-analyse anything, if it appeals to me I just leave it alone and don’t change it.”
Is it easier to make music now with the advances in technology?
“Well no, it’s always hard and they don’t just fly out of me. I’m not walking down the street jotting down songs. It takes a while. Months can go by and I don’t have anything happening. I’ll sit down and play music or improvise by myself and won’t feel inspired, then sometimes I do and it starts flying out and I start writing it down.”
Has that processed changed at all over time?
“Not really no, it’s just as hard as it ever was. Technology didn’t make creativity easier, it just made it easier to do the craft part – onstage where you’ve learnt your songs and you’ve practised it, that whole organisation is to me the craft part and a whole different part of the musical experience than the creation of the song. That craft part and creative part eventually come together but they are two really separate processes.”
Another obvious difference on this album is that Danny Taylor is sadly not with us anymore. How noticeable was that for you with regards to the creative process?
“Well fortunately when he was in my studio before we went back out on the road for the reunion concerts he would sit at his drum sets and play with the tapes rolling and then he would listen back and work against himself and try to develop new ways to do things. I have those tapes, endless samples of Danny practising. So when I write a song I usually go get something from those tapes. I’ll either use those sounds directly, which is getting harder to do because of tape hiss, or I will take the ideas he was working on and develop them with computer generated drum sounds and keep tweaking to get them as close as I can to what Danny’s drums sounded like.
“On some songs, especially those that I do live like Walkin and A Pox On You, they’re actually Danny’s drums that I’ve lifted off of those tapes. On other songs there maybe parts where he’s not playing for a certain passage and I’ve added something to it. I would like to think he’s happy up there that I’m still making something out of his drum sound.”
That must be an emotional experience?
“I tell you, it sometimes grabs me emotionally when I’m standing up there on stage and start the drum track. I have all of Danny’s drums on a backing track and when I start his drums for Walkin it’s all him and I get this eerie feeling that if I were to turn around and look he’s going to be there. It hits me that way, so I really feel his presence all the time on stage.”
You mentioned the comeback gigs, were you expecting them to be as successful as they were?
“No, I never expect anything and never know what to expect when I go out, but it was thrilling to feel that energy and I really loved it.”
You’d been away for a while at that point, were you worried about coming back?
“We sat down to rehearse and the first time Danny came down to my studio we set up and I said ‘what do you want to play?’ and he said ‘well let’s just start from the top and do Oscillations.’ So we did and it was like we had played it the night before and no time had been lost at all. We both fell right into it and it was really kind of easy. What was hard was that Danny felt that since he hadn’t played for so long he needed to get his chops back and that’s why he practised over and over and over again for weeks, hours at a time to get his precision back and that’s why I have the tapes.”
In your opinion why do you think Oscillations stands the test of time?
“I have no idea why, I don’t ever analyse my stuff so it’s just a welcome feeling for me that it’s somehow passed the test of time and is still with us. I still love to do it, it never gets old to me and maybe that’s part of it. Every time I start Oscillations I get all excited and I want to play it and start to wonder ‘what’s going to happen tonight?’ there’s always that improv part at the back that I do.”
When you first played live in the 60s what was the reaction like?
“Back then it was dead silence and people staring with their mouths open. I’m sure they weren’t expecting a band to come out and play with no guitars, but eventually in some places the audience would get it and would start dancing and moving but in other cases they’d just sit there through the whole concert and just stare at us like ‘Jesus, what are these people doing!’
That must have been strange…
“It made life hard to realise that you weren’t getting through to people. Stuff that you really loved and believed in and were confident of. Nobody was getting it, well some were and those few that did get it were the ones that we went and played for and that became our focus. We didn’t have a widespread audience but we had a very devoted one and that’s who we played to.”
Bringing it back to today, it must be quite a different experience to be releasing an album to a welcoming audience who get what you do?
“It is an entirely different feeling than when we released the first record and were wondering what was going to happen. Were they going to throw rocks at us, yell at us, boo us and throw drinks at us, because we’d seen that happen to other artists. Now I know that what I do is not that strange, as a matter of fact there’s people coming out with stuff that’s a lot stranger than me. I’m not old-fashioned but I’m not interested in new freaky sounds. I want to make some musical sense out of those old electronic sounds that I developed.”
Any final thoughts on the new album?
“I like it, I actually listen to it. I usually don’t listen to my music, once it’s done it’s done. I go out and play them live but I don’t sit and listen to them in a room, I don’t do that. But with this one I have plopped the cd on and listened to it and it does hold up and I like it.”
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Clinging To A Dream is released on 2 September and Simeon is also out on tour currently. For more details, take a look at: silverapples.com