Beak> Vs Silver Apples
Beak> Vs Silver Apples

The New Yorkian and the Bristolean linked up for a decidedly geeky natter about oscillators, Hendrix and er, oscillators...

‘Machine Gun’ Geoff Barrow Vs. ‘Lovefingers’ Simeon Coxe III

Geoff Barrow is one of Bristol’s finest exports. You will know him best for his work with experimental, electronic trip-hop maestros, Portishead, doubling up as both their producer and off-kilter instrumentalist. Having scooped the Mercury Prize back in 1995 for the band’s sparkling debut ‘Dummy’, Geoff also recently launched new project BEAK> with fellow Bristoleans Billy Fuller and Matt Williams.

Simeon Coxe III is one half of Sixties psychedelic electronic duo Silver Apples. A true pioneer, he was ahead of his time in fusing traditional rock structures with modern electronic techniques. And with an emphasis on all things discordant and a distinctly minimalistic style, you could say this man single-handedly paved the way for ’90s alternative dance, including a certain Portishead.

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This article that appears in the February issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from January 11th. You can read the full issue online HERE and subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.

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SIMEON: You’re jumping into some fairly adventurous areas with your new record; it’s like no-holds-barred, I-don’t-give-a-shit stuff and I really like that.
GEOFF: Thanks. Yeah, the three of us (Beak>) just got into a room and played without planning what we were going to do. We didn’t do any writing beforehand; it was all improvised on the spot.
SIMEON: Yeah, it definitely has that freshness to it. You sacrificed a little bit of the polish but you gained so much in terms of the energy level.

GEOFF: So, when you began, what was your initial instrument? Was it keys or guitar?
SIMEON: If I had been a keyboard player, Silver Apples would probably have never happened. I was a stand up singer in a rock and roll club band in New York and I only played the tambourine. I could play maracas a little bit and I could also play the banjo, which I did as a hobby on the side. But it had absolutely no use in a rock and roll band so I never got to play it.
GEOFF: But you must have had good musicality and timing, because obviously timing was incredibly important in your later work.
SIMEON: I’d had musical training in school: I played in the school band and I marched in the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans and things like that. But I got into the rock and roll business strictly as a singer - all I used to do was stand up at the front and sing and wiggle about a little bit.

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Beak> - Iron Acton

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GEOFF: So, how did you develop the oscillators and the switch keys?
SIMEON: I had a friend who was what we call a serious music conductor and composer but he was very much into messing around and experimenting with electronic music that I knew absolutely nothing about. I used to go over to his house and watch him drink vodka and play Beethoven records and he had this oscillator thing that he would play through the stereo system. One time he drank so much vodka that he passed out, so I put a Rolling Stones record on and tried to play the oscillator along with it. I decided then and there that I was going to introduce it to my band at the time, The Overland Stage Electric Band. They absolutely hated it, they thought it was the worst thing they had ever heard in their lives and eventually broke up

GEOFF: It wasn’t the oscillator that drove them out was it?
SIMEON: Yeah. They all hated it apart from Danny Taylor who was a more adventurous soul and saw that there were possibilities. He saw that a crowd was gathering at our shows. So, we just started playing together, initially me, an oscillator, him and some drums, lots of improv stuff.

GEOFF: He must have been a pretty great drummer to be able to do that?
SIMEON: Yeah, he was a fabulously inventive musician. Not just any drummer would have worked. But Danny was able to break away from the usual progressions of beats and start inventing waves and that’s how that loop feeling got into it. I couldn’t really do any chord changing or anything like that but we started to think about how we could stretch it out and make it interesting to listen to and to dance to and we just came up with the loop feeling to it where it keeps going and going and going and we don’t have to change chords.

GEOFF: So, it was working under constraints really that provided the inspiration for it?
SIMEON: Yeah, it was the lack of equipment and the lack of musical ability on my part that led to some of the more inventive things. We had to fill up the void somehow. We just kept adding more and more oscillators because it became more interesting to have rows going and then I found a way to make telegraph keys.

GEOFF: Your instrumentation was a massive influence on us. Were you aware of the dissonance that was going on tune-wise?
SIMEON: To tell you the truth, we tried our damnest to stay in tune and finally just had to accept the fact that once in a while we were going to sound out of tune. But my serious music composer friend told me that it wasn’t unacceptable to sing out of tune or atonal, and that it’s even fashionable in some circles. But we did get a lot of criticism from other musicians.
GEOFF: You were obviously quite daunting back then.
SIMEON: At the time I felt so rejected from the musical community, but now that’s become sort of a badge of honour.

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Silver Apples - You & I (1969)

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GEOFF: There’s been an awful lot of experimentation over the years and one of the great areas of discovery is tuning. In relation to my world this has made a big difference. It became exciting again to hear things that were out of tune. I come from quite a sample-based background, sampling pieces of music and putting them together where they shouldn’t be. And there would always be a dissonance with that because things would never be exactly in time with each other so you’d have to slow them down or speed them up. There would always be tuning issues basically and the thing is that when we stopped sampling and started writing our own music it all became too in tune because I was so used to stuff being out of tune! So, if you’re saying that you were a little like an outsider musically, how come so many people were interested in you and came to see you play festivals?
SIMEON: The audiences didn’t have any problem with us being out of tune, it was the other musicians who were critical of us. And music critics. Although there were some musicians who completely wrapped themselves around what we were doing and who were very interested. We had real support from people like Jimi Hendrix who was very interested in the band - and actually Danny used to play with his earlier band before he went to England. Jimi Hendrix used to come to our recording sessions and bring new pieces of gear for me to try out.

GEOFF: I’ve heard that there’s a recording somewhere of you and Jimi together.
SIMEON: Yeah the tapes would sometimes roll when we were playing together and some of that has survived. We found a two-track dub of Hendrix and me working on the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. Danny had taken it home to try and figure out a way to put a drum part to it because the way Jimi and I played it was almost non-rhythmical. So there was no beat to it but there could have been a way to put percussion effects all through it if we had wanted.

GEOFF: It seems like it makes complete sense in sound that you three would work together with Jimi’s gift of experimentation and pushing things out there.
SIMEON: He was one of the few musicians who understood where we were coming from and what we were doing, even though he didn’t have any knowledge of electronic music and its history or atonal and twelve tone scales. He just had an intuitive feeling of ‘this sounds fun and cool’. Jimi was just another Greenwich Village blues guitar player at the time; he hadn’t really developed his style yet.

GEOFF: So, in theory that experimentation with you was an important part of the passage for him?
SIMEON: He encouraged me to keep going because he would get even more dissonant and out of range with his guitar than I could get with an oscillator, so I was trying to be as crazy as he was. Having played the banjo, I was aware of bluegrass progressions. And also because of the bluegrass I was aware of the importance of drones; the fifth string on the banjo is nothing but a drone-string and a rhythm string but you don’t ever play but the one note with it. So it was okay in my head that I would have an oscillator that started at the beginning of the song and didn’t stop until the end of the song and never change that note once. It was like filling up an empty space.

GEOFF: We call it glue.
SIMEON: Glue’s a good way of describing it. Sometimes I would make two or three oscillators drone right through the whole thing and play some rhythm with my elbow on the telegraph keys and then play lead oscillator during breaks.
GEOFF: It does seem now, from what you were doing, that you would have had a lot of people interested, especially in Germany and France. The whole experimentation thing at the time was just really strange, that all over the world people were approaching stuff in a completely different way but there was no cohesion really. Thank God the Internet has now brought everything together...

Interview by Matthew Bennett

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