Interview: Robert Schneider (Robbert Bobbert)

RobbertBobbertStill.jpgEvery time I hear or see Robert Schneider, head man for the indie-pop group Apples in Stereo, I'm totally convinced that his side project Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine isn't some cynical grab for attention -- he's 110%, maybe even 120%, jazzed by the stuff he does for kids. His fun debut album as Robbert Bobbert for Little Monster Records -- Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine -- may have just come out this year, but as you'll read in the interview below, he's been working on a lot of this stuff for a long time.

Zooglobble: What music do you remember listening to growing up?
Robert Schneider: I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, so my early years were in a beach city. South Africa is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans merge; they have awesome beaches and surf. After our family moved back to America, I eventually discovered the Beach Boys. I think their music reminded me of the feeling of living by the ocean.

My parents listened to a lot of Cat Stevens. I love his music – Tea for the Tillerman and the song “Moonshadow.” I saw Harold and Maude when I was around 12, and it is one of my favorite movies with its great Cat Stevens soundtrack. However, the Beach Boys are still my favorite band. My son Max (age 8) likes them too - he heard Brian Wilson perform Pet Sounds when he was in the womb; and later saw him perform the songs from Smile - but I think he likes the Beatles a little bit more. He came into the Beatles on his own, hearing the music around the house and from other family members who are big Beatles fans.

What impact did other pop culture (e.g., TV, movies) have on your musical tastes?
TV was banned in South Africa until 1976. There simply wasn’t any TV there because the government thought it would corrupt the populace. In my last year there when I was 6, I can remember seeing TV for first time…there was a little picture of a springbok going across the savannah in black & white and thinking, “Wow – a movie in my house!” Prior to that, what people did was play movies at home on projectors. You could rent movies at the local store.

When our family moved to America, I watched a ton of TV that first year. Between the ages of 6 and 7 (1977-78), I watched a massive amount of reruns and basically got caught up on American culture. I also listened to a lot of 70’s pop and disco, mostly from TV. This permeated my mind. So, the TV world of the 1970s probably influenced me somewhat.

When I was in middle school, MTV first came out. We lived in the college town of Ruston, LA. The local cable TV service would not carry MTV, but Louisiana Tech had a satellite disc. My dad was a professor there, and I went to a school on campus (it was awesome! We had a planetarium, regular music class, art classes). Every day after school, once MTV started, my friends and I walked over to the student center on campus and watched MTV on the giant screen. I had to go out of my way to get it, so it was really special.

I have great memories of the early years of MTV. There was a great show in the 80s called The Cutting Edge. I also watched 120 Minutes -- the absolute hippest music was on there, like REM and Robyn Hitchcock. I discovered this noncommercial, alternative music existed, and it blew my young mind.

Most of my early musical influences came from buying records, reading magazines and listening to Louisiana Tech's great radio station KLPI.

What came first -- the songs (or the album) or Robbert Bobbert?
The songs came first. They were recorded over many years, first for my little brothers for their birthdays and Christmas. This continued even as we started the Apples and Elephant Six Collective -- I continued to record songs for my brothers and for other kids I knew. Eight years ago, we had our son Max, and throughout his life I’ve been recording songs for him. The song “Gravity” was written for his school science fair last year. Gravity is awesome and I wanted to write a song in praise of it. I did a presentation for the kids about physics and wrote the song for the class. Once I had a bunch of songs, enough for an album, I finally started pulling it all together. I decided to use the name Robbert Bobbert because it’s a nickname my mom called me when I was a kid.

RobbertBobbertBubbleMachine.jpgWhile some of the songs were written a number of years ago, others were (presumably) written recently for the album. Did you take a different approach at all with the new stuff (e.g., deliberately changing how you wrote lyrics, melodies, production)?
The older songs were recorded on 4 track cassette in my bedroom when first learning how to record songs. They tend to be a little looser and sloppier. The song “I Love the Animals” is one of my earliest kid songs; “I Am a Clock” is newer and is more musically tight.

I think besides the fact that I am a better musician and producer/recording engineer now, my approach is pretty much the same. Every song I take on its own and just make it as fun and gleeful and colorful and unusual as possible. I try to write whimsical lyrics. I want the songs to come bursting out of the speakers like a piñata. Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine was recorded over a long period of time, but even though you can hear how the music evolves over time, somehow it all works.

What did you use for inspiration in writing this album?
Besides the songs I wrote for specific occasions (my brothers’ birthdays, Max’s science fair, etc...),I tend to draw inspiration from things I’m very interested in. I love science and looking at how clocks work as a perfect system, as you can hear in the song “I Am a Clock.”

Just like the song says, “I Love the Animals"; coincidentally, that was almost the title of the album. Different animals give me a lot of ideas for characters (like the little duck in polka dot pajamas and the mighty, mighty elephant…). Animals are a ubiquitous subject in childhood. Some of the backup vocals on the songs were inspired by actual animal sounds – the “quack quack” on “Little Duck” and the “bark, bark, barooo” on “Hey Little Puppy” (which was created to sound like my pet beagle Simon). In the future, I want to write more about astronomy and outer space. I love those topics. And, probably more about animals too.

RobbertBobbertLive.jpgPhoto courtesy Holly Sharp; taken at LA Times Book Festival in April 2009
You've played a few shows for kids -- what's different about playing a show for them as opposed to playing for adults?
The kids’ show's at least 50 percent comedy. I bring in the bubble machine, gags, real and fake inventions and goofy dances to make kids laugh. In an Apples show, I may tell the occasional joke, but with the Robbert Bobbert show the jokes are pretty much going all the time. The Apples are known for being spontaneous, but with Robbert Bobbert it’s like improv standup comedy for little kids. I go out and be as dorky and silly and funny as I can. At same time, I am trying to throw out stuff for them to think about.

The educational aspect does not exist for Apples shows, unless you count the fact that audience members are always coming up and asking me questions about the placement of mikes, recording techniques, etc.

My goal for playing the Robbert Bobbert shows is to be like the ultimate big brother or cousin…that fun, zany, endearing person in your family.

Has writing Robbert Bobbert affected your writing for the next Apples in Stereo album?
The children’s songs are really more like early Apples stuff. Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine was primarily recorded on keyboard. With that record, I just got in the habit of playing piano a lot so the new Apples record will be more piano based – only one or two songs will be guitar-based.

In a sense the Robbert Bobbert record did affect the next Apples record. It doesn’t sound the same at all, but it’s a step in the progression of the music. I’ve spent the last several years honing a certain production sound. When Brian Wilson released Smile it gave me a belief in big production, so I use a blend of synthesizers, laser sounds, fast drums, synth space, choppy guitars…in my mind I hear a perfect R&B and psychedelic production sound that I’m always after. Robbert Bobbert does reach it sometimes, the perfect blend of analog/ acoustic sounds with electronic textures all fitting together in a way that is really awesome. The last Apples record (New Magnetic Wonder) and the new Robbert Bobbert song “We R Super Heroes” are great examples of that.

What's next for Robbert Bobbert? What can you tell us about the Robbert Bobbert TV show in development?
We have an animated video of the song “We R Super Heroes” just starting to make the rounds now. Also, I’m working on an idea for an animated TV show about the art of discovery and invention, mostly involving my love of math & science. I want it to be packed full of all sorts of interesting and cool stuff that I’m into and that I’d love to show kids if I have the chance. It could be Op Art, 3D design, or patterns in nature. It’s not meant to be a teaching show but rather turning kids on to discovery and problem solving. I want to pump them up and tell them that they are the generation who will grow up and discover great things, unravel mysteries and create the future of humanity.

I’m also playing at two festivals this summer: -- June 13 at 4 pm at South Street Seaport, NYC and August 31 at 7 pm in Millennium Park, Chicago