Robbert Bobbert Interview. Robert Schneider from Apples in Stereo on his kid-music alter-ego. Babble.com's Five Minute Time Out.Tammy La Gorce
If you were hip in the ’90s, you know Robert Schneider as the mastermind behind the super-poppy yet unfailingly cool Apples in Stereo. If you weren’t hip, now’s your chance to trick your kids into thinking you were. Just get Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine (Little Monster), Schenider’s first kids record. The thirty-seven-year-old talked with Babble about his love of Stephen Colbert and what’s possibly the longest-ever incubation period for a kids album (Schneider started concocting Bobbert when he was twenty-one) – all while racing down a Lexington, Kentucky road to pick up his eight-year-old son, Max, from school. – Tammy La Gorce
You’ve had a great run with The Apples in Stereo, and that hasn’t let up – last year’s New Magnetic Wonders was an Apple-head’s dream and much acclaimed. Why did you want to make a record for kids?
I’ve actually been working on this kids record my entire adult life. I have three younger brothers, and when I was twenty-one my dad gave me four-track recorder. I’d make them songs for their birthdays and stuff – I was always working as a camp counselor for kids or as lifeguard. Basically, when I was young what I did was round up kids, and I was in the habit of playing guitar for them. So that same year, which was also the year I started The Apples in Stereo, I was in college [at the University of Colorado], and I got really distracted from my schoolwork because of music, and I asked my dad if I could drop out a year. My dad said okay, but only because my kids music had so much promise. I’ve had a dream of recording a children’s album since then, but I never did. Then a few years ago I started recording even more kids’ songs, for Max and his friends and for his school science fair, and that’s kind of the story of how this album finally got made.
Awesome. Are you shifting your focus from The Apples in Stereo to your new alter-ago, the mad scientist/inventor Robbert Bobbert?
Not entirely. The Apples in Stereo are recording a new album we started a couple months ago. It should take about a year to come out. I also just finished an album with my other group, American Revolution. It’s been a very musical time these last few months. The new Apples is really, really good. It sounds like R&B blasted from the speakers of a UFO. That’s exactly what it sounds like.
Are Apples in Stereo fans at an age where they’re having kids? Are these the kids you made Robbert Bobbert & the Bubble Machine for?
I don’t know – I guess it’s maybe for preschoolers up to elementary school age, maybe fourth grade. Probably some of our fans have kids that age. But there’s also some songs on there, like “We Are Superheroes,” that could have been on an Apples album.
Something that separates Robbert Bobbert & the Bubble Machine from the rest of the slew of kids records made by established rock folk is its concept: You’ve created this alter-ego for yourself and you get into character during live shows by pretending you’re the brilliant inventor behind everyday stuff like cups and spoons. How do the kids react?
They’re awesome. Sometimes they argue with me, but then they’re distracted because I’ve added this huge robotic bubble machine my wife Marcy built onstage, and I also have this huge boom box with flashing lights blasting. Robbert Bobbert is sixty percent stand-up – I have to try to make them laugh. It’s just fun to ham it up.
The album even includes a comic book designed by Todd Webb, who does illustrations for Nickelodeon Magazine. How did that come about?
Growing up, I always wanted to be a cartoonist, so that’s always appealed to me. But about a year and half ago this guy I know who writes this blog called Optical Atlas send me a link he said I should check out. It was from this kid in a band, and this kid had had a dream that he had been talking with me and invented a way to play music on an abacus. He wrote a song about it and happened to post the song on my birthday. The kid turned out to be Todd, the cartoonist. I thought it was cool that he thought of me, and I wrote him a letter and said it was really sweet of him, and that it was just this cool coincidence that he posted it on my birthday. Then he wrote me back and said he was a comic artist. I liked the synchronicity of the whole event, that I would meet him just as I was finishing my children’s album. So I went out and bought Nick Magazine at the supermarket and it was awesome. Things just gelled. Over the last six months he’s been writing it I’ve given suggestions and we’ve sort of loosely tied the comic book to the subjects on the album. Now we’re thinking of making short cartoons – Robbert Bobbert math-themed cartoons for kids.
Right: I’ve heard you’re kind of a math genius. You’ve twice been a featured speaker at the Mathematical Association of America’s MathFest and you created “The Non-Pythagorean Musical Scale” based on natural logarithms. What on earth does that mean?
In my late twenties I got really into math through studying philosophy and also through working in my studio. It blew my mind that very simple equations were involved in doing the things I loved, writing songs and playing music with my friends. Everything from singing into a microphone to hearing music through headphones – these were things guided by electronics, and it was an equation that was so simple that contained such a rich experience for me, really cool. I started working out some simple math on my own, relearned some things I had learned in high school. I worked out a musical scale based on logarithms through taking classes in physics and mathematics. It was very enriching. I’m now officially a math major at the University of Kentucky.
Does that mean parents who buy Robbert Bobbert & the Bubble Machine are indirectly turning their kids onto math? Is this a math-y album? Is there math wisdom to be absorbed here?
“Educational music for kids is the equivalent of political songs in pop music.”
I would say not at all. There’s a song about gravity [“Gravity”], but the record isn’t educational, just like pop music isn’t educational. Educational music for kids is the equivalent of political songs in pop music, music where it has to mean something. I want this to be something you can sing with your friends and that you’ll remember because it’s a lot of fun, not deep. It’s not supposed to be in any way preachy or lesson-y. On the other hand I am interested in producing a few Robbert Bobbert short cartoons that are kind of mathematical, that bring in the wonder and mystery of math and physics.
You’ve made a couple of recent musical appearances on The Colbert Report. Is Stephen Colbert an Apples in Stereo fan? Or does he just have a fondness for guitar-playing math whizzes?
No, The Colbert Report is one of my favorite shows. I was obsessed with how great it is, and in the summer of 2006 I thought it would be fun if The Apples recorded a song for him – part of Stephen’s character is that he’s so vain, on the show he’s always mentioning whenever anyone mentions him in the media. There was no real urgency to it, but toward the holidays I thought the song would make a nice Christmas present for The Colbert Report. And it turned out there was one degree of separation between us. Our publicist was Stephen’s publicist or some easy connection. So we got him the song and he loved it. The next Monday he called and said he wanted to work it into the show. I was completely unprepared to do it. It was pretty mind-blowing. But when I got there I got to meet Rick Nielsen – he’s the guitarist from Cheap Trick, which is the first concert I ever went to, and I got his guitar pick at that concert. It was like magic, meeting him. I also got to meet Peter Frampton and Henry Kissinger and disreputable governor Eliot Spitzer at the time he was reputable.
What about Colbert himself? Did he live up to your expectations?
Yeah, I got to hang out a little bit with Stephen and that was incredible. I even got to go to the office Christmas party, and that was awesome because I’d never been to an office party. Musicians don’t normally have office parties. Then he asked us back to play again last year.
Tell us something about Max. What’s it like to be a rock dad?
Max is an awesome kid – he’s very fun and sweet and bright and he loves science and math. He’s also excitable. And in that way he’s like his dad.
Illustrations: Todd Webb