July 28, Empty Bottle
By Monica Kendrick
Most electronic music leaves me cold as a robot's teat. The mechanistic precision of house and techno beats and the nuance-free drones of most synthesizer-based music, the absence of the happy little accidents that happen when human hands meet physical instruments, interest me about as much as a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is admittedly my personal opinion, but then what makes popular music popular but a whole bunch of personal opinions, forged in lightninglike bursts of recognition of ourselves--of human nature--in the artist? It bodes badly that even when the prefab pulse takes the supposedly visceral form of rave music, the kids still need a tab of something or other to keep from lapsing into sheer boredom. Even the alleged egalitarianism of the sampling revolution sounds like so much bunk: is thousands of dollars worth of DJ equipment and a massive collection of vinyl any easier to come by or use wisely than a secondhand guitar?
Really, one should be skeptical of anything that comes recommended as a revolution, a radical break with history, and sure enough, the supposedly humble DJs and remix wizards of electronica have begun to succumb to some age-old impulses, mugging for magazine covers and writing manifestos. Maybe most tellingly, the psychedelic/experimental types (read: the ones that don't dance) have recently started construction on a creation myth. And like the scholarly punks of a generation before, who transformed the Velvet Underground from cult band to household name, they've unearthed an underdog, zeroed in on an image of noble failure, rescued from obscurity yet more beautiful losers.
Scratch the surface of any "radical" art movement and you inevitably find a few bold old humans who can cheerfully admit that they didn't know what the hell they were doing at the time but that they're glad it had an impact. The New York duo Silver Apples--drummer Danny Taylor and synth operator Simeon Coxe, who goes by only his first name--recorded two albums in 1968 and 1969. Both were reissued in 1994 by the German TRC label; lyrically and melodically, both are charming pop records. But the sheer alienness of the sound--no guitars!--was enough to brand the band a novelty upon its debut. Silver Apples originally met with some chart success, but Contact was hampered by a legal scuffle with Pan Am over the cover art--an airplane-crash motif that was arguably not in the best of taste--and the band dissolved broke and relatively obscure in the next year.
Simeon had spent 25 years painting and working odd jobs when he encountered a young fan (and imitator), Xian Hawkins, at an experimental arts festival in New York. Hawkins introduced him to the second-wave Silver Apples cult, and--living every fan's fantasy--was probably the driving force behind Simeon's renewed interest in making music. Hawkins and young drummer Michael Lerner now round out the lineup, and inasmuch as he's expressive at all behind his own bank of keyboards, Hawkins lets the occasional grin of fanboy glee flash across his face.
The original Silver Apples used only drums and "the Simeon"--as Simeon's instrument is nicknamed. It's a moody, complicated, jury-rigged synthesizer he built himself from oscillators and telegraph keys, and it can sound like a chorus of steroidal theremins when it's working properly. As Simeon told the British zine Ptolemaic Terrascope in an epic interview last year, "I know for a fact, having played outdoors many times, that if a cloud passed over, it would go out of tune." Even now the Simeon proves unpredictable--at a few points in the Silver Apples' set at the Empty Bottle, bursts of harsh feedback shattered otherwise seamless grooves. In an aesthetic of smooth electronic bliss this would be an abomination, but Simeon just rolled his eyes, tweaked wires, and finally sighed, "I think if we could just go directly into your system we'd have a much cleaner thing going on here." Replugged into the club's PA, the band surged into its comeback single, "Fractal Flow," a sweeping and insanely catchy affirmation of the nonlinear nature of time.
It's hard not to stare at Simeon, though he doesn't do anything but sing and play his whatchamacallit; it's so clearly his vision at work, and his gestures and expressions lend an intense human touch--at once mad scientist and sanguine old hippie, radiating an energy and charm that music loses when it becomes more fascinated with the means than the end. You get the feeling that the whole pile of glittering tubes and wires could explode in his face and he'd dust himself off, play with wires, and finish the song. The two very serious young men, Hawkins and Lerner, function as a reliable backdrop for Simeon's love-hate relationship with his cranky machine--a far more accessible and interesting aesthetic relationship than the usual master-servant dynamic of electronic whiz kid and his gleaming wheels of steel.
Whether the new Silver Apples can improve on the original's two fine albums remains to be seen, though "Fractal Flow" is a strong start. But regardless, Simeon's good humor and his warm and affectionate pop songwriting in an electronic context can serve as a much-needed counter to the Gary Numan school of electronic geekery, where contact with machines is valued over contact with humans because of the relative predictability and controllability of gadgets--and the artist is as distant from the listener as any stadium act ever was.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Perez.