The New New York Sound: an Interview with Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples

The New New York Sound: an Interview with Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples

This article originally appeared in AdHoc Issue 8, which also features a painting by Simeon on the cover pictured above. Purchase the issue here.

The crowd at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Wha? in the late ’60s would’ve been ready for sounds that were a little far out. A young Jimi Hendrix had played there while refining his soon-to-be iconic guitar style. The Velvet Underground played there too, and, well, surely they did some weird stuff. But when the singer of the Overland Stage Electric Band—a straight-ahead rock group—whipped out an old, junky oscillator during a set and started hacking away at it, the crowd revolted. The band members, meanwhile, left the stage one-by-one.

The Overland Stage Electric Band promptly disbanded; all that was left was the singer Simeon, with his oscillator, and the open-minded drummer Danny Taylor, a teenage phenom who had previously played with Hendrix. The duo pulled a new name from Yeats’s poem Song of the Wandering Aengus (not from Morton Subotnick) and Silver Apples was born, ready to mutilate “rock and roll” beyond recognition.

Soon enough Simeon constructed a more monstrous synthesizer, an electrical hazard strategically named “The Simeon” that spit out fantastically alien noises and was to become the band’s trademark. But coupled with Simeon’s expressive vocal tics and Taylor’s ceaseless, proto-Motorik beat, the off-key oscillator gurgles from The Simeon were too off-kilter even for  the academic electronic composers filtering through Columbia University and the downtown music scene. Informed by country and R&B, the group established something closer to rock, but on its own plane entirely. Presciently dubbed “the new New York sound” by then-mayor of New York John Lindsay, strangely enough, their music failed to make a big splash, selling poorly. But it influenced others, including pioneers of the pulsing kosmische music of ‘70s West Germany and, later, of the sinister rhythmic trip-hop throb of ‘90s Bristol and a variety of contemporary dance music movements.

After the band’s premature break-up in 1970, however, Simeon didn’t trace Silver Apples’s growing cult following. It wasn’t until the ‘90s, when Simeon discovered that the band’s seemingly-forgotten 1968 self-titled debut had received an unsanctioned (but popular) reissue, that he realized the impact his starkly innovative music had made upon subsequent electronic musicians. Since then, he’s transferred the soul and sounds of The Simeon to an Akai sampler and toured the world, collaborating with acolytes like Portishead and Cluster’s Hans-Joachim Roedelius along the way. Danny Taylor drummed by Simeon’s side until passing away in 2005, but Simeon, who resides in Alabama, keeps Silver Apples alive as a one-man experimental techno band. He has eleven tracks currently in post-production, which would make for the the band’s first record since 1998 (whenever it comes out). The equipment has changed, but the boundary-pushing, fun-loving spirit persists. When asked about whether his source of inspiration has changed in the past five decades, he said simply, “I have always been fascinated with the idea of creating order out of randomness by repetition. That’s with me always.” We spoke with Simeon about how he developed some of the most bizarre rock and roll ever made.

AdHoc: How did you start playing music?

Simeon: When I was eight years old, the school music teacher came to our house and talked my parents into having me play in the band. They asked me what instrument I wanted to play, and the only thing that interested me at the time was the bugle I saw in the cowboy movies when the cavalry came to the rescue. So the guy sold my parents a trumpet—closest thing.

AdHoc: Growing up in New Orleans, were there any local acts that were particularly exciting to you?

Simeon: I have never liked that typical New Orleans jazz stuff—too touristy. But as a teenager, I listened to a radio show by Jack the Cat. He played what was then called "race music," but we think of it now as R&B. I got hooked on the likes of Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Joe Turner, Dave Bartholomew, and later, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Hated Elvis.

AdHoc: How were you first exposed to electronic music?

Simeon: Boredom. I was with a band that was the house band at Cafe Wha? in the Village. Four sets a night, five nights a week. The band would fill up the time by playing endless improvisation—which left me, the singer, with nothing to do. I had a friend who was a "serious" musician, and he had this thing called an oscillator where he would drink vodka and play it along with Beethoven records. One time when he was passed out on the couch I put on a rock record and played along. I was hooked. I brought it to Cafe Wha? the next night and had a great time with it. The other musicians hated it!

AdHoc: I read that Silver Apples's first gig was in Central Park. How was that arranged? How did it go over?

Simeon: Our manager, Barry Bryant, was a real schemer and had a friend who was on NYC's Cultural Committee, or whatever it was called. There were free concerts in the parks of New York during the summer, and the two of them connived to get us, a totally unknown entity, on the bill with Sha Na Na, The Chambers Brothers, The Children of God, Nazz, and others one Sunday afternoon in Central Park. 30,000 people just stared at us like we were from Pluto. But the next day, the newspaper devoted more space to us that anybody else and said we "made amazing music with all that junky equipment." And from then on we were invited to play the "In the Park" series lots of times. The mayor even declared us "the new New York sound" during an introduction.

AdHoc: What about now—are you received differently in different cities, countries, continents?

Simeon: Yeah, there seem to be hot spots and some cool spots. England is always a packed house, from festivals to pubs, and the atmosphere is very exuberant. France and Spain: the same. The northern countries seem more reserved, except for Poland and Russia—a whooping good time there. In Japan and China there are large crowds but polite… Then when the show is over, the autograph and photo-op lines form and last for hours until I just bow and walk away. With my magic marker I have signed every body part you can name.

AdHoc: Have you changed your approach to composition and songwriting as your technological set-up has changed?

Simeon: It's really pretty much the same as it was from day one. Danny and I would just improvise until we hit onto something, and then I would search my lyrics notebook for anything that could fit. Today I mess around with different loops or patterns or textures until I feel a germ of something—then out comes the same notebook.

The only one of the early songs that was improvised during recording was “Velvet Cave.” The version that's on the [Silver Apples’s debut] is one of many, and was chosen by the label for being the most sane. When we did the song live, for each verse I would spin the various oscillator dials at random, and whatever notes the new patterns produced were the notes that I would have to sing against. Sometimes it was impossible to find a melody line, and it would it get downright out of control. All stuff was composed on the rig.

AdHoc: What possibilities does the Akai allow for, as opposed to the Simeon?

Simeon: The Akai is simply a tool that allows me to set up my rig without patching in sixteen or more individual oscillators. Their sounds are all sampled beforehand and loaded in before soundcheck. It has push buttons instead of a keyboard, so I can play it "live" in exactly the same way as I used to use telegraph keys to key in the different oscillators. So the methodology and the sound are the same; I just have it all in a little box instead of spread out all over creation. On one of my new songs, "Drifting," I use live sampling of TV shows, same as I did radio on "Program" [from Silver Apples]. I hope Judge Judy doesn't get mad at me.

AdHoc: What’s up for the future?

I've recorded eleven new tracks, which are now in post-production in London. It culminates about five years of work. The business end of it is being handled by my management [in England], and we'll see where it goes. I've done my part; now it's up to them. I play some of the new material in my performances these days and get good reactions. We'll see. I realize it's tough to market fresh new material from someone in his 70s—gonna take vision.

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