INTERVIEW

RETOLD: Even in the fertile, lawless year of 1967, the primitive, synthesised sound of Silver Apples sounded like nothing else. Surviving member Simeon Coxe recalls how rotten luck ruined it all

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“I had my first brassiere thrown at me last night,” says Simeon Coxe as we sit down in the foyer of a Dutch hotel in front of an open fire. “It landed right on my shoulder, right in the middle of ‘Oscillations’. That was something.”

For the seventy-six-year-old Coxe – originally one half of psych rock duo Silver Apples, and now the project’s sole member – the road to his current European tour has been a long and rocky one. In early 2015 he will release a new, sixth album, ‘The Alabama Sessions’, which will mark a staggering forty-eight years since the release of Silver Apples’ eponymous debut. In between that period there are tales of Hendrix, lawsuits, paralysis, death and more – a story Coxe talks me through, and one that is as unique and unpredictable as the music his group has made since 1967.

Born in Tennessee, it was in New Orleans that Coxe began to develop a taste for music during his formative years. “When I was a teenager I used to skip out on basketball games and go down to Rampart Street and listen to people like Big Momma Thornton and Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew who were just playing in the bars. That was the music I was into. Then I got to New York and started singing in rock’n’roll bands and it expanded into the pop and soul stuff of the time.”

When Coxe moved to New York he initially followed a more traditional rock route, fronting a rock standards group, The Overland Stage Electric Band, although it was here he began to play with an oscillator. Attempting to incorporate the strange new sound into a live performance, his entire group quit, save for drummer Danny Taylor who, like Coxe, believed in the wonky, experimental sound. And so Silver Apples was born.

“Our sound came from my inability to play music,” Coxe tells me. “I was just beeping and bopping along behind Danny’s drumming. Until I got better at what I was doing we were just kind of trapped and letting Danny carry the show. I just floated on electronically behind him.”

Soon Coxe’s skills grew and so too did his set up. More kit. More oscillators. More strange sounds. In 1967, whilst electronic music was still largely primitive and modular synthesisers were only just beginning to appear on mainstream records (a preposterously expensive cost, and so limited to the stadium bands of the day), the unique set-up of Silver Apples soon attracted Robert Moog.

“Moog called my manager Barry [Bryant] and said ‘can I look at what you’re all doing?’, and we said sure and Moog came and spent the day. They never took any of our ideas because he was the real deal – and one paper called what we were doing ‘hippy technology’ – but he was just curious to see what we were up to. He was the real electronic guy and I was just a street rock’n’roller who was buying up these cheap old oscillators for two dollars and trying to make them work. We really were street poor dirt people – I was living in my van.”

After spending six months locked in a practice space honing their sound, which at that point encompassed an idiosyncratic meld of jazz, space rock and futuristic electronic explorations, Silver Apples played their first ever show. To 30,000 people in Central Park. “I was scared to death,” says Coxe. “Every time I look at that picture I shudder because it was just astonishing to go out and play for the first time in front of all those people. They just stared at us mostly. We followed this band called Children of God who were this wonderful, all black, soul band who played a mixture of gospel and pop soul and they were very popular in New York and everybody was standing up and cheering and then out we come and start with ‘Oscillations’ and they just stood there and stared at us. That was very unnerving. ‘How do we get these people going?’. We never did,” he laughs.

Coxe’s homemade set-up grew and grew, until it was named ‘The Simeon’ (by manager Bryant, not by Coxe). Consisting of nine audio oscillators piled on top of each other and eighty-six manual controls to control lead, rhythm and bass pulses with hands, feet and elbows, it would also include radio parts, lab gear and a variety of second hand electronic junk. It was truly a one-off creation, not without its problems.

“We used what technology we had,” says Coxe. “We had no idea how to hook this stuff up or transport it, nobody to make a telephone call to. We were hanging over the cliff the whole time. I always took a soldering kit with me to every single gig and I almost always had to use it. Something would always break. Piling stuff in the back of taxicabs and then out again, something would break.”

As Silver Apples continued to grow, expand and experiment further, the aim, perhaps counter to popular belief, was not to go even weirder but to bridge a gap and make their sound appeal to the masses. “We’d never seen anything like what we were doing before, but that didn’t mean it was good,” says Coxe, “it just meant it was unusual. For us to convince people that something unusual was also something good was a steep mountain to climb. We were always trying to be more normal, not more far out, because most of the criticism we got was that we were too freaky, too strange, too out there. Every record label that came to see us would say, ‘it’s too weird, it’s too far out. Even our jazz division wouldn’t take it’.”

Finally, Kapp records took an interest and while insisted on the songs being trimmed down and edited for radio appeal, they largely took the band as they were. Coxe says: “We were so happy to have a label we didn’t give a damn.”

The self-titled debut album that came in 1968 is a musical blueprint that took a decade for many others to catch up with, fusing rock, psychedelia and electronica with poetry. It broke new ground with every track. Predictably, the general public didn’t really get it, and despite the group’s attempts to reel it in, it was still largely a pretty strange record. It wasn’t without its notable admirers, however. On a John Peel interview, John Lennon was asked what he thought the next big thing was to which he replied: ‘watch out for Silver Apples.’ The group would go on to play with Jimi Hendrix several times also, although the only recorded version of their many collaborations comes in the form of a take on ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, as both were aiming to perform it at separate concerts. Danny Taylor had previously been Hendrix’s drummer, turning down an offer of going to England at the invitation of the Animals. “At the time Jimi was just another blues player,” says Coxe. “He wasn’t famous or anything, so Danny stayed, thank goodness for me – I don’t know where I would have been without Danny saying no. Danny and Jimi stayed friends forever and we ended up in the studio together many times; he would jam with us and us with him.”

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The duo moved towards their second album, ‘Contact’, which was released in 1969, but instead of proving to be the record to switch the rest of the world onto their freaky sound, it was one that killed their career. The band worked in an unlikely sponsorship deal with American airline PAN AM, and the front cover of the album featured the duo in a plane cockpit with the company’s logo clearly visible. But that wasn’t the problem. The artwork on the back featured a plane wreckage. To PAN AM the assumption was clear – they were an airline now associated with catastrophic crashes and a couple of stoned-looking musicians. Coxe remembers the period painfully.

“Everybody lost money,” he says. “I think it destroyed Kapp records; I don’t think they ever recovered from it. But everybody has to sign off on something like that, including PAN AM and their legal team – they were sponsoring that thing. Somehow, someone in PAN AM got his nose bit the wrong way and he started the ball rolling the other way to get rid of the thing. They got a judge to get an injunction to get all the records taken off the shelves, all the distribution of the record nationwide was instantly shutdown, which of course meant zero income and they even got some sort of a temporary hold put on us to stop us from performing any of those songs live. They even confiscated Danny’s drums.

“PAN AM felt really threatened by us using that plane crash on the album. That left us with a terrible reputation amongst record labels. They treated us like we had leprosy. We already had a third album recorded and we could not get anyone to even listen to it. It ruined us, it ruined the record label but actually PAN AM is now out of business and I’m still in business. So, small victories.

“Danny and I could not play anywhere,” Coxe continues. “I took a job as a DJ in a little club and Danny went and worked for the phone company. Barry took what savings he had and went to Copenhagen; he disappeared. We had no record label and no prospects of getting one; we weren’t allowed to play anywhere, plus enormous bills to pay from the third album we’d recorded. We just ducked, hid under the couch. That’s what happened.”

The duo retreated from music, feeling defeated. “I felt like the big, bad evil legal gremlin had got in and destroyed an art form,” say Coxe.

So soured by the experience Coxe turned his back on music altogether. “I stopped listening to music. I have a blank of the late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. There are twenty or so years in there were I didn’t listen to music and I said that this was bullshit as an art form, and I wasn’t having anything to do with it.”

And then a phone call came from a friend at a New York art gallery opening one night in the ’90s. “They called me and said: ‘listen to this, they are playing your music’. She said you should come up here, it’s on a CD and I said: ‘What?! We never released a CD!’, and she said: ‘here it is, it’s in my hand’. Then I started digging and it wasn’t long before I found a tonne of stuff: pirates, bootlegs, CDs, people claiming they were me.”

Silver Apples had disappeared so far from anything remotely resembling the musical limelight that there was indeed someone pretending to be Coxe. “One guy with a beard in San Francisco was going around playing ‘Oscillations’ in bars saying he was Silver Apples. I had to get a lawyer to shut him down. Really. I had to get a New York lawyer.”

Interest was renewed but no money was coming in because all material in circulation was illegal bootlegs. Silver Apples then returned to the stage.

“It was so daunting returning and I had zero confidence in thinking that I could pull it off,” Coxe tells me. Much of his equipment had gone, too. “It got flooded out in a hurricane in Alabama, most of it. I have a few pedals and a couple of oscillators, but most of the whole rig was stored in a house that got destroyed by Hurricane Frederick in 1979 and most of my equipment was floating out into the Gulf of Mexico.”

During this period the pair pulled appreciative – often famous – crowds who had caught up with the group’s output, allowing them to finally release their lost third album, ‘The Garden’, in 1998.

The same year, bad luck struck the group once again as the group’s tour van was forced off the road, resulting in a serious collision. Coxe broke his neck, rendering him completely paralysed. Determined to return to music, he would make close to a full recovery, but it was a slow and challenging battle, which he owes to the good grace and consideration of one doctor.

“I was lying there, totally paralysed from the neck down, and this surgeon that had been working on me brought in a keyboard, a synthesiser, and put it next to the bed and just walked away, didn’t say a word. Just left it there. I learned how to pick up one hand and get it on the bed rail and then move it to touch a key to make a note. It was a huge part of my therapy that he thought of doing that, even though I couldn’t play piano before I was paralysed.”

“I still haven’t completely recovered, but you’d never know it. I have limited sensations in my fingers and my toes, I have almost no upper body strength, but it’s nothing compared to what they thought. My family was told don’t expect too much but it was that damn keyboard. When lights were out I would wiggle myself around and get a foot on the floor, even though I couldn’t feel the sensation I could feel the pressure. I learned how to judge the pressure little by little and next thing you know I am able to take steps around my bed. One time the nurse walked in to give me my midnight shot or whatever and she saw me in there and then they realised they had to do something and got me on therapy. “They are still writing papers on it now and discussing it.”

Whilst in recovery, and while Silver Apples diminished once more, Danny Taylor sadly passed away in 2005. But Coxe remained determined and returned solo as Silver Apples in 2007, using real life drums samples of Taylor playing in his new, more electronically focused ‘The Simeon’. Tour dates have since been steady, official reissues have been put in place that Coxe can now see royalties from and a renewed interest in the group has continued to grow year on year. It’s something Coxe is humbled and somewhat surprised by. And yet looking back on his near fifty year musical adventure, he finds himself in a place where he’s perhaps never been happier or more creatively fulfilled.

“There’s something magical about that,” he says. “I’m always the oldest person in the room. I’m seventy-six years old and there’s nobody in the rock’n’roll game doing it, that I know of, doing it to the extent I am – they’re not touring with the intensity that I am and I’m recording all new material. The audiences are treating me as though I’m 25 years old – the music that I’m doing – they say – has no time on it. A girl threw a brassiere at me last night – it’s not like I’m seventy-six years old, I’m just a guy who is out there doing it and I’ve been doing it for a while but there’s no age connected to it somehow, in an odd way. I don’t feel old, I look in the mirror and I say ‘who the frick is that?!”

Coxe is gearing up to release ‘The Alabama Sessions’ in 2015, the lead single of which, ‘Missin You’, suggests the album could be something quite remarkable. The album’s title is a homage to Coxe’s now home, somewhere were he finds peace yet whose music is still considered too weird, even now. “It’s nice and warm all the time,” he says. “I can go out on my sail boat. I’ve written lots on my sailboat. That’s where I am now, there’s not a venue around that understands what I’m doing. It’s been fifty years but they still don’t get it, it’s horrible to them, they don’t get it. I’m getting more resistance in Alabama than I ever got in New York, but I don’t care; that’s where I go for my peace. I find it easy to make stuff flow down there.”

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