Silver Apples' Simeon Coxe

Silver Apples' Simeon Coxe
As half of Silver Apples, Simeon Coxe was arguably the first musician to integrate live electronics into rock music. Comprised of Coxe, drummer Danny Taylor and "the Simeon,” a homemade contraption with multiple oscillators, pieced together from junk parts, Silver Apples released only two records (a third, The Garden, was released posthumously in 1998) before parting ways at the end of the ’60s. In the ’90s, Coxe learned that the band’s fan base – which includes Suicide, Beastie Boys and artist Mike Kelley, to name a few – had grown considerably since. MCA officially re-released the band’s first two records in 1997 (a German company had done so illegally in 1994) and Coxe returned to music, recording with Spectrum, Xian Hawkins and others, and touring with Danny Taylor until a van accident left him with a broken neck. Sadly, Danny Taylor passed away in 2005. Coxe has since recovered enough to play again, and he performs solo as Silver Apples. He lives in Fairhope, Alabama, a "little wilderness refuge” where he records on a daily basis. One of the nicest rock legends you’ll ever meet, he plays Toronto on May 1 at the Music Gallery as part of the Over the Top Festival.

Silver Apples has been functional for over a decade now, so it’s clearly not just revisiting the past at this point – what prompted your return to music?
Before the ’90s, when this all started to happen, I had absolutely no idea that there was any interest in my music whatsoever. I thought that Silver Apples was this interesting little spot of my life where I got together with a fantastic drummer, and the two of us worked up some original music that we thought had meaning, and that we thought would make an impact. Then the record label blew up, and the band couldn’t survive without the touring and the jobs. We were too unusual to work in clubs or anything like that, and without the record label’s support we just couldn’t do anything, and so the band just kind of disintegrated. Danny went his way and I went my way, back into the arts and stuff, and just kind of left Silver Apples behind me. I was astounded to find out in the early ’90s, when people like the Beastie Boys started contacting me wanting to get in on the revival, as they kept saying, of Silver Apples. I was totally astounded, and so I said, "Hell, if I can play music again, that’s what I really want to do. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Damn, I’ll come on back!” And so I did. And I started looking for Danny. My original idea was to join back up with Danny, and pick up where we left off. But it took me almost ten years to find him.

Did you ever end up recording with him again?
We just did some stuff in the studio, fooling around… basically we were just getting back together in order to do live performance. We were thinking maybe if we got enough live performance under our belt and got tight enough, and got enough interest in the band going again, that a record label would come along. But first of all, we had a van accident that injured me, and then during the years that I was recovering he got sick and died. And so we just never got ourselves back together as a duo. But I’ve been working as a solo artist for the last two or three years, and so far there’ve been no complaints. I’d rather do that than look for another drummer.

How did you feel when you found out that the German label TRC had bootlegged your two original releases in 1994?
Well, at first I was, like I say, flabbergasted. I think it was Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys who pointed it out to me. And I went into the record store Other Music in Manhattan, they had about ten of them, and they started ripping the cellophane off, asking me to sign them. So there I was, signing my own bootleg! I was signing bootlegs until it was pointed out to me that these people are ripping me off, and that I should try to wake MCA up, get them to do a legitimate reissue. But at first I was honoured, I thought it was beautiful that somebody cared enough that they would do that. Then when I realised what the numbers were – there were tens of thousands sold. I think there were more of that German bootleg sold than there were of the original Silver Apples record – that rode the Billboard charts for ten weeks! When it was pointed out to me that that was the kind of money that was going on in my name, and that I wouldn’t get any, then I was pissed… [But] it all works for the good – I’m out there touring now, and I’m recording again, so things have worked out. And if somebody made a buck off of me then fine, I don’t care.

You grew up in New Orleans – when did you move to New York?
That would have been around 1960. Boy, that makes me ancient, doesn’t it? Around 1960 I ran away from home, so to speak. And my whole idea was to become an artist. New York was the famous art gallery scene, and that’s where abstract expressionism and pop art and you know, the Jasper Johns, Bob Rauschenberg thing’s going on, New York was the hot spot. And I just said, "I’m going to go up there and be famous too.” So I took off, and, of course, I ran into a brick wall like everybody else does when they go to New York as a 20-year-old kid that doesn’t know anything.

Once you were in New York, how did you turn to music?
Well, after it became obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to support myself selling paintings… you can’t just be a wet-behind-the-ears kid and go to New York and take it over by storm, I didn’t know that. [laughs] I did have some music experience, and being from New Orleans, people would say, "Oh! You can play jazz, right?” And I’d say no, I can’t play jazz, but I can play tambourine. I can sing. So they let me sit in with them in these pass-the-hat situations in the Greenwich Village coffee houses, and I started being able to make enough money to actually pay the rent off some place, and I started making money as a musician, and more and more I got away from painting… Eventually I got with a bunch of guys who were forming a rock band. They wanted a singer, and tambourine man… that was a band called the Random Concept. And we worked for a number of years, pretty successfully, in New York as a club band, and that’s where I cut my teeth in rock’n’roll, pop type music.

Was rock’n’roll close to your heart at that point?
Absolutely. I was hooked at that point. Wilson Pickett was my absolute hero, Fats Domino always had been, being from New Orleans. Fats is from New Orleans, and I had grown up with him as a teenager, I had gone to his clubs and stuff and seen him play… The R&B kind of soul thing I was very into. I didn’t like the Beatles much, but I really loved the Stones, and some of the more nitty-gritty of the rock’n’rollers at the time. Never did really get into the San Francisco scene too much, but by the time I hit the New York scene with the Random Concept, we were playing a lot of soul music, we were playing a lot of Rolling Stones and Stevie Winwood, and things like that. We were playing some of our own material, and it was very New York-sounding. It was New York rock’n’roll, that was the way I thought of it. Stuff with a beat that I liked. Silver Apples grew right out of that.

Coming from that background, what sparked your interest in electronic instrumentation?
It’s a strange little story. I had a good friend who was I guess what you could call a serious, Julliard-type musician. He and I were good friends, and we used to sit around, and he used to drink vodka, and put on Beethoven or some other classical music, and play this oscillator along with it. And the drunker he got, the weirder it got, and the more fun we had, until he would just pass out. And one day, after he’d passed out, I slipped a Rolling Stones record on and I played along with it, and I was hooked forever. I said, Jesus, this is fun! By then, I was with the Overland Stage Electric Band, which had Danny Taylor as the drummer. It was a regular rock’n’roll band, we were working every night at Café Wha? in the Village. And I [borrowed] the oscillator one night, plugged it in to the vocal amp, and when they got into one of their long, drawn-out guitar solos, I started playing along with my oscillator. Well, it totally weirded them out, but the audience loved it! The band hated it, and they kind of one by one found other work and quit. They left just me and Danny, and Danny said, "I like what you’re doing, let’s do more of that!” And that’s how Silver Apples was born, with Danny’s acceptance of the weirdness of what I was doing, and my interest in trying something new, along with his fantastic, solid musicianship.

How did the Simeon evolve? Did you know what you were doing when you built the first model?
Oh, absolutely not. I didn’t know anything. I’ve had my hair stand on end more times than I can count for sticking my finger where it didn’t belong in an electronic circuit. I strictly learned by trial and error, trying different things, putting in old circuits that I found in junk shops around New York, or lying on the street, or in garbage cans, or behind TV sets… I was building this monster that looked like part of Frankenstein’s brain. And it would make music. And I could key in and out, and I could turn the dials, and I could change notes. So we started writing songs just based on what I could do.

Was this conducive to writing creative songs?
We were kind of forced, many times to stick with one chord throughout an entire song, so we would develop ways to create interest within that one chord by changing vocal lines to make it come up a little dissonant, or by changing the drum pattern in the middle of the song… Audiences began to get into it. They didn’t care that I wasn’t changing chords, all they wanted was some sort of groove that they could get into… So the simplicity that people seem to like in the music now was really just a matter of necessity back then.

Did you have any allies in New York who were doing similar things?
We didn’t have any allies that were doing similar things, but we had allies that had their heads in the same kind of place... A few that come to mind are T. Rex – whenever they would come to town, we would get together. They even sat in with us a couple of times at Max’s Kansas City. Jimi Hendrix, whenever he was in town and was recording or something, we would go by and mess around, exchange equipment – he was an equipment freak, he loved to tinker with new toys, and so he was always interested in whatever I had found… But for the most part, [other musicians] thought we were crazy.

And were you?
Yeah, absolutely. They were right.

Did you get the sense that what you were doing was radically different?
We just did what we felt at the time – we couldn’t play music like other people because of our gear, so we just played music that we liked, and called it, you know, music. And to us, it wasn’t strange, because at that point, we had been doing it for six months to a year or so. We would be on the bill with somebody like Blood, Sweat and Tears and David Clayton-Thomas told us it was the worst goddamn rubbish he had ever heard. He HATED it. And he would play a note on a harmonica and say, "You can’t even hit that!” I said no, but I can hit every other note that you can’t hit in between all of those holes that you blow in [laughs]. But he was just vehement, he just couldn’t believe that somebody was out there making all that ugly racket, and somehow was getting gigs – he was just beside himself he was so pissed. He’s the most negative reaction we ever had among other musicians. Other musicians mostly just scratched their heads and smiled and winked.

I read that KAPP Records, your original label, tried to market you as a Top 40 act.
[Laughs] Isn’t that ridiculous? They didn’t know what else to do. If you looked at [their roster] at the time, you would see that they were all over the place, they didn’t really have a focus… We were young, and we had long hair, and we were playing weird music, so we must be pop. And so they would try to book us supporting the 1910 Fruitgum Company or one of those bubblegum hit bands. We’d play to basketball arenas of little girls who were peeing in their pants. It wasn’t our audience at all – the Fillmore, that was our audience. But then the next night we’d be playing in some high school auditorium, some place where no one had a clue what was happening.

And you hit Toronto on your first tour.
We did, yeah… just before us was Blood Sweat and Tears! Jethro Tull was right after us. It was a place called the Rock Pile… I do remember that after the concert, the next day, Danny and I went out and set up the drums, and a little bit of the oscillator stuff and played a free concert in a little park some place for all the American kids who had come up there to dodge the war. And there were a whole bunch of kids there who had come from New York and knew of us, and they were just street people, they couldn’t afford to get into the Rock Pile.

Touring and otherwise, what is it like to be a musician now as opposed to then?
I have more of a relaxed attitude towards the audience now. I don’t feel like I have to convince anybody that I’m a musician anymore… It was totally a head-scratcher back then. I had to go out and convince people by performing that I was actually playing music, that this wasn’t some computerised, automatic system or something. There was a lot of that going around – [Wendy Carlos’s] Switched-On Bach, and that Morton Subotnick thing, Silver Apples of the Moon. That was all done in a laboratory, it was all pre-recorded, and they couldn’t do it live. We were constantly fighting that battle, that we were a live act, that we are in-your-face rock’n’rollers, we are not some kind of a Columbia University lab project.

Do you still feel an attachment to homemade equipment?
Yeah, because it’s just more fun. I haven’t ignored the new technology, I use a sampler. [That’s] the reason I’m able to do solo performance now… It’s Danny’s drums that I sample, every single rim shot, every hit on the snare, every cymbal that I can find in all of our practise tapes, I sampled over a long period of time after he died. And carefully, one by one, put together his drumbeats, and had recreated what he was doing… That frees me to do what I was doing with Danny live. And so even though Danny is electronic now, it’s just the same thing, it’s the same energy, it’s the same feeling that Danny and I used to generate. I know he’s sitting up on a cloud, just clapping his hands and diggin’ it. He would love that I sampled him, and that he’s all electronic now, and that he lives. He’s going to play in Toronto, even though he’s been dead for three years. [Laughs]. He would think that was a hoot.

So reincarnation through…
Through the miracles of technology [laughs]… It seems natural, but at the same time it seems a little bit bizarre. And I’m aware of that, but I just know, having known Danny for as many years as I did, that he would love it. And that’s fine with me, that’s all I care about.

What happened after KAPP records dissolved, during your long hiatus from music?
Oh, I worked as an ice cream truck driver, a carpenter, a bartender, I worked as a television news editor and then a television news reporter, then I worked as a graphic designer at an advertising agency, then I worked as a writer for a newspaper, and then Beastie Boys found me through the Warhol Foundation, and wanted to know if I would participate in getting a licensing from MCA to re-release my records. I thought hell, "Why would anyone want to do that for?” [Laughs]. That’s pretty much what it was. I went through 20 years of just odd jobs, doing this and that, just goofin’ around, but, you know, working, paying my way. Having friendships and relationships and going through normal life, just not being in Silver Apples.