Brothers Of Invention: Silver Apples & Graham Sutton In Conversation
, February 3rd, 2015 09:45
Simeon Coxe and Graham Sutton talk with Russell Cuzner about the new Silver Apples album, vegetarian vampires and the joys of the bootleg
The hex cast by Silver Apples on their 1969 song 'A Pox on You' has often seemed to have missed its intended target - a careless lover - and instead cursed the band itself, as if deflected by some witch's mirror. Vocalist Simeon Coxe and drummer Danny Taylor had initial success with their inventive and pioneering album, 1968's Silver Apples. Coxe's homemade kit of audio oscillators was one of the earliest instances of electronic sound being used outside of academia, its pulsing waveforms weaving through Taylor's inspired syncopations to bring unique flavours to the swing and groove of 60s rock and pop. The duo swiftly became a highlight of the New York scene with international potential. But with the release of their follow-up, Contact, the band was sued out of existence by Pan Am - the airline took exception to the record's cover, which showed the duo piloting a plane on the front that was then pictured crashed to the ground on the back cover. Consequently, their third album was never released and, banned from performing live, the duo's activities prematurely ceased.
Coxe unexpectedly resurrected Silver Apples in the mid 90s but, just two years into this new lease of life, he broke his neck in a tour bus accident. It took him years to recover, and then Danny Taylor sadly passed away in 2005. To a less optimistic and energetic character, it might have seemed like Silver Apples just weren't meant to be, but at the age of 76 Coxe remains undiminished by fate. He's just finished a solo European tour and he's recording a new Silver Apples album – the first in over 15 years – set for release this summer.
Continuing his strategy of teaming up with maverick composers and producers, including Steve Albini, Tom Smith and Sonic Boom, Coxe is this time working with Graham Sutton. In recent years, Sutton has helped define the sound of British Sea Power and the solo Jarvis Cocker, and his most recent production was 2013's triumphant Field Of Reeds for These New Puritans. That album saw him encourage the use of unconventional instrumentation - such as recording the wing movements of a live bird of prey in the studio. This creative, open-minded attitude in the studio is complemented by Sutton's work as a writer and performer - in the 80s he was the frontman in Bark Psychosis (one of the bands that prompted Simon Reynolds to coin the term 'post-rock') and in the 90s he made heavyweight drum & bass as Boymerang.
Excited by the prospect of Coxe and Sutton working together, we met up with them to both find out more about the new release.
The last time you saw each other was a few weeks ago at a Silver Apples gig in London's Corsica Studios…
Simeon Coxe: I'm glad Graham got to see the Corsica show - it gives you a comparison between live tracks and the recorded tracks, an idea of where I go with them in live performance. The recorded studio performance often doesn't really reflect what goes on live, but I like to feel there's some relationship there.
Graham Sutton: It's also nice seeing how people respond to it, what they're enjoying, and just being a punter in that situation - hearing the music out through a PA, the whole vibe. We can really feed off that, and feed back into it I think.
SC: Of the 11 songs off the [new] album I did five in [that gig], and I played a variety of them - contemplative ones and rockers.
GS: Your rockers went down a treat, didn't they?
SC: Yeah, and I got plenty of rapt attention on the contemplative ones. The whole idea of doing them live this time out is to find the weak spots and I'm at a loss, I couldn't find any. So that's a nice place to be, I guess!
GS: What I really enjoyed about it was that people weren't just there to hear 'Oscillations' again - obviously its good to hear that, but there was a lot of enthusiasm for hearing new stuff. That's a lucky position to be in. You've got all these bands reforming from about 20 years ago - there's quite a culture of that - and they just get stuck in a cycle of having to play out their old albums. It's great that it doesn't seem like you're in that position at all. Everyone wants to hear your new stuff. We want to get into your new shit, Simeon!
Are you finding the new material evolves as you tour it?
SC: I find it's an organic progression. I don't think there's any huge difference in approach from the old stuff, it's all just coming from the same me. I look in the mirror now and I don't even recognise the old fuck staring back at me, I still feel the same as I did when I wrote 'Oscillations'. That creative moment was not just a little brief thing, it has expanded and it exists now. There is a creative thing going on in electronic music that is really flowering, and the fact that my stuff sounds a bit antiquated and maybe a bit old-fashioned doesn't really hurt it, because it reflects back on the beginnings of it all. I'm happy embracing a techno sound. With 'Oscillations', for instance, I launch it into a different thing halfway through the song and sing it all over again with a totally different approach - like a house approach, a dance approach - and it works. It doesn't destroy or hurt the song at all. So, to me, there really isn't a huge difference in today's songs and 1967's songs.
GS: I don't think of it as a stuff sounding antiquated or anything like that; we're beyond that now. People can access music from any time and any era - it's all contemporary or it's all old.
With technology now, it seems that the possibilities are endless. What do you do about that? Do you ignore it and stick to the territory you've always maintained, or do you let it in and allow it to take you off in unpredictable directions?
SC: I perform with a sampler - hell, I am not against advancement in technology. To me, we're in a period now where the people in the lab coats, those are our brothers [and sisters], those people are working alongside us creating new stuff and new areas that expand our creativity. I don't know any other time in history where that's happened. Leonardo Da Vinci, maybe - he was an engineer and artist at the same time, but he's like one individual. Now we have whole societies of people working in concert, whether they know it or not. I think it's a beautiful place to be, I love it.
GS: Personally, I'm really, really in favour of technology democratising the whole process of making stuff - anyone can make stuff now using their phone, using whatever. Obviously you get a whole slew of shit, but that's okay, that's the price you pay. The sheer ability of anyone to make stuff is fantastic, I've always been massively in favour of that. I'm really anti the whole thing of analog purism or even just having 'gear'.
It is insane - with the tools available to us as musicians - what you can actually do now. It's just fantastic. I love where we're at now. We musicians have quite a romantic and sentimental attachment to big devices, but it's almost focussing on the wrong thing. I'm really not into 'gear' very much at all.
SC: I'm not either. People always approach me with, "How do you invent this or invent that?" I don't have a clue. It was like chewing gum, masking tape and a soldering iron - I'm not an engineer, all I was trying to do was make a sound, and make it so that I could vary it and therefore make a tune out of it. That's all I cared about.
GS: I'm much more interested in writing as opposed to all the gear and the tech end of things. That's the bit that I find really interesting. But for some reason people don't tend to ask about writing, [maybe] because it's quite solitary. It's not a very glamorous activity I suppose, whereas big machines with big dials - that's the glamour end of things. Do you know what I mean?
SC: Yeah, I know what you mean.
GS: Have you had any resistance to your new direction and the sound of it? Like doing your new version of 'Oscillations'? It didn't seem like it in London.
SC: Not one. I've done an updated version of 'A Pox On You' and they love it! They don't care, to them it makes it more part of their world, and it's still a part of my world because I feel the same way inside the song, it's just that it's got a different emphasis to it now. It has more of an industrial sound to it. One of the songs on the new record is my answer, 40 years later, to the song 'Program' on the first record, where I sample the radio. This time I sample the TV set and I've got everything from Judge Judy to commercials of one kind or another, but it's the same approach to the song.
GS: Judge Judy fucking rocks man, it kicks ass.
SC: Oh, I love Judge Judy – I watch it all the time. What a bitch!
I read you were working on a concept, an opera. Is that on the new album?
SC: I ran into a brick wall with that opera, in terms of money. The whole concept was not just to have an album full of songs but to have a video that told a story. It was going to involve actors, animation, a whole lot of stuff that I couldn't do on my own. I tried to get sponsors, I had people in New York and at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music behind it [but the] grant money dried up when the economy went south, so I just said, "Alright, screw it. I love these songs anyway, I'm just going to do it." So a lot of the songs on the new record are based on the story that was told in the opera.
What's the concept? What's the story?
SC: It's anti-vampires on earth. They have the same problems as vampires but they're vegetarians. They don't drink blood – they think that the blood drinkers' breath stinks - and they are a race that are invisible to the normal person's eye. But, they see each other and they float around and they're involved in a society. The song 'We Don't Have Much Time Left For Dawn' refers to the sun coming up [when] they have to get back to their coffins. 'I Am So Missing You' is about them looking at people who are still alive and missing that experience. 'The Mist' is all about them walking into a village that a group of soldiers has terrorised, walking through the mist and discovering the bodies and dead animals. It's not stuff that I just conjured up and said, "Yay, this is for Silver Apples." It was all part of that story.
GS: Well, you never know, there could be interest generated by doing the album - don't give up on it. Stranger things have happened.
SC: I still have all the scripts. I haven't given up on the opera but I'm just going to go ahead and use the songs on the album because I want to play them, and if it eventually gets picked up then we can do a video and tell that story. Because it's a beautiful story - they end up coming back and attacking those soldiers and destroying them and starting that little society all over again.
How did the two of you hook up?
GS: I was doing some stuff for another band involved with Jack [Trevillion, who runs Enraptured Records] and we met up for a drink. Just in passing, right at the end of the night, [Jack said], "Do you know Silver Apples? I'm about to do something with them." I'm a mad Silver Apples fan - I first got into them when I got into Can when I was 19, as you do. I was like, "God, I really want to hear what's going on," and his next thing was, "Well, would you like to be involved?" I was like, "Would I like to be involved?! I wouldn't exactly put it like that - I'll crawl over broken glass to make it happen." I'm coming at it as a fan.
SC: Well, that's wonderful, because so am I! I love the innocence and the honesty of it all – that's what I crave. I don't want to be a part of that music business attitude that destroyed the original Silver Apples.
GS: Did it? What aspect of it? I'm interested in this.
SC: Well, everything from Kapp Records [who released Silver Apples' first two LPs] being part of Decca which is part of MCA which is part of Universal Music. Geffen is riddled with a layered bureaucracy that has absolutely nothing to do with the artists involved, and there was no way to communicate the needs of Silver Apples to the people who can make the decisions as to how to promote us, how to produce us, how to help us get better equipment so we can go on the road. It fell into a drawer someplace and stayed there, so we ended up doing it all ourselves. The producer they assigned to us was so scared that his association with us was going to ruin his career that he developed 'mononucleosis' - in quotes - just before we went into the recording studio so he couldn't be involved. Still, his name was on the record.
GS: Even though he wasn't there? That's a good one, man, I'm going to have to remember that, what was it? Mononucleosis?
SC: It's a mysterious disease. He got that so that he wouldn't have to be there, so he could tell the world [he] had nothing to do with it when, in fact, he ended up putting it on his resume as the number one item that he'd done.
GS: Really? Cheeky fucker!
SC: We sold 30,000 records the first month and naturally he wanted to be part of that so next thing you know he's giving interviews to The Village Voice and The New York Times saying how he's so proud to be there when in fact he had nothing to do with anything. John Walsh was his name.
GS: [laughs] Go on – a bit louder.
SC: That was JOHN WALSH!
GS: How do you spell John, is it 'J-o-n' or 'J-o-h-n'?
SC: It's J-O-H-N with a WALSH on the end of it! [laughs]
GS: I guess getting sued by Pan Am didn't help much either?
SC: Pan Am didn't help one bit. That was actually more the end of Kapp Records than it was Silver Apples, although it did eventually cause us to not be able to play. They confiscated Danny's drums one night and they came after my stuff but we got it off the stage in time. But, Pan Am is no longer in business - and I am.
GS: Yeah, exactly, you're still standing – winner! That's fucking brilliant.
I wanted to ask you about the experience of working in Silver Apples as a solo thing versus how it used to be, and the fact that you're still using Danny's recordings - if you don't mind.
SC: I miss somewhat the camaraderie of live performance with another musician, however I love the freedom of being solo. I can do whatever the hell I want, at any time, whatever whim hits me.
GS: The only person to argue with - or the only person to blame - is yourself, yeah?
SC: Exactly, that's it.
GS: Well, I did this thing on Thursday [performing live with These New Puritans at Wire's Drill Festival in Brighton] where we had four days to work it out and it was my first time performing live for 20 years. Even though it was a medium[-sized] club, psychologically it was a big deal for me – one of those ones.
Has that given you an appetite for it again?
GS: Fuck, yeah. I was like, "Oh my god, so when's the six-month tour booked?" They literally asked me out of the blue, because I'd done a couple of albums with them, but it was really good fun. I was using a contact mic, guitar and various bits and pieces as well as a big fuck-off remote for the smoke machine. Actually, a few people apparently had to leave because they couldn't see or breathe! But the place was packed out, there was smoke and strobes going and all that sort of stuff. It was a lot of fun.
SC: I love playing with other people. I sat in with Portishead at ATP in New Jersey – that was wonderful. That was a six-piece band they had going on there, with no rehearsal – we just went out and did it. Beth came up with the idea of calling it Portis-Apples. I loved it.
You know, when Hendrix was part of Jimmy James And The Blue Flames, Danny was one of the many drummers that played in that.
GS: Oh wow, I didn't know that at all.
SC: And when Hendrix got the bid from The Animals to come over and play in England, he wanted Danny to come with him, Danny was his favourite drummer. Danny just said, "I've got my own band and I just don't want to do it," and that's how I got him. But that's how come Hendrix was connected to Silver Apples in a way - he would come to our recording studios because he was still trying to steal Danny. We ended up playing together and just jamming around. The engineer had the sense to roll the tape a couple of times so we got some of it, but all kinds of connections happened because of Danny. He was just a marvellous musician, and it was a wonderful trip to work with him. That's one of the reasons I don't have a drummer now. I don't want to make another drummer have to compare themself to Danny and have other people compare them to Danny. It would be so unfair.
GS: And you're still using recordings of Danny as well.
SC: I think Danny would love it. I think he's up there saying, "Hello! I didn't know I could do techno - I thought I was just doing drum beats." [laughs]
GS: I think it's just so cool – even in a virtual sense, it's the two of you. Except, maybe he argues back less or you have more of your own say than him. [laughs]
SC: Even in the new songs I go back to his material and I think, What would he do here now? I'm mostly just using his sounds, [when] creating my own drum beats I go to Danny's document…
GS: …and his style and the colour that he brought to it, and the feel.
SC: Yeah, it's not that I do it out of some historical perspective bullshit - it's because I love it.
The sleevenotes to your first album mention how "music can have a psychic effect that brings health." I wondered if that was an intent - to distribute some kind of psychic wellbeing through music?
SC: I, uh, it's never occurred to me
SC: I'm not sure I actually said that. It may be something some promoter said. I'd love to make people healthy, that would be wonderful, [but] I mostly think about making them happy. Maybe that's healthy. In the early promotional stuff I did have the word 'happiness' in there a few times. It wasn't really my idea but I agreed with it when it was presented to me by my manager Barry Bryant. Happiness was an anti-New York feeling at the time: there was a dark, drug-oriented New York sound and we had just been declared unofficially by the mayor of New York, who loved our music, as the "New York sound".
We were commissioned by the city of New York to play for the moon landing celebrations in the park, instead of the other bigger bands, and that's where the idea of contrasting ourselves to the rest of the New York sound began. Now we were the New York sound - let them be that old dark thing in the alleys, we're the new sound and it has to do with happiness and wellbeing. It's not like we were Mr Goody-Two-Shoes or anything - we thought acid was probably a pretty good way to get there - but that was maybe where that came idea from. We were transitioning from the street people that we originally, really were into an image more in-keeping with what we were being commissioned to do.
GS: For the fucking moon landings, dude - amazing.
SC: I didn't care what that said about me, I wanted to write that music. And we performed it, I'm not sure anybody was listening because everyone was paying attention to the moon. It was what Danny and I played when the guy stepped onto the face of the moon.
GS: Well, over here, it was Pink Floyd improvising, which is so crazy if you think that for such an epoch-defining moment you got all these crazy musicians. If that happened now [they] wouldn't dream of having it – a different era.
In this new digital age, what are your feelings are about the growing amount of illegitimate distribution of your wares, both of you? It's been said that the German bootleg of Silver Apples' first two albums helped reintroduce you in the early 90s.
SC: Sure, it did.
And, Graham, you've even leaked your own material before.
GS: Yeah, exactly, or did a fake and all that sort of stuff. That was even pre-Napster, it was a thing called Audio Galaxy, proper old-school computing. I don't think there can be anything bad about more people hearing your music, and the way it is now you've got to deal with the fact that not necessarily everyone's going to pay for it. It's just the nature of the beast.
SC: I don't care, in fact I love it. Music is like air - if you release music you're opening a gate and there's no stopping people picking up on it, experiencing it, digesting it, reworking it, re-releasing it in their own form. I think it's a very healthy, happy thing.
GS: Back in the day some of the artists and bands that I love to death [and] feel are really, really close to me, I got off people doing tapes for me, taping their records and giving me mixtapes of stuff. That's how you get into things and the idea that more people have easy access to stuff that you do is a great, great thing. You can do special vinyl editions that people pay good money for, but in terms of just getting inside people's brains, the more brains the better.
The avenues for exposure to the sort of music we're involved in - underground or less mainstream stuff - are limited, so the fact that there's now this possibility of being able to access billions of people if they so choose, I think it's just a fantastic and wonderful thing. Also, on a practical level, this argument is like 10 years old - it's just how it is now.
SC: People are still going to pay money to come and hear you play and people are still going to buy the art - the actual physical thing.
GS: Right, the artefact.
SC: But if some kid who can't afford that can grow musically from that, my God, the fact that he can now is fantastic.
GS: Yeah, it is amazing.
SC: It's just wonderful – I love this world.
SC: I do – I just think it's a beautiful place. [laughs] When I first came along there was no such thing as a computer, so I think I have a good perspective.
Well, thank you, that seems like a good conclusion to the conversation.
GS: Actually that was a very kind of New York happiness moment from us wasn't it?
SC: It was.
GS: What a wonderful world it is.
SC: Yeah, people will say, "Who are those cookies?" [laughs]