Home Authors Posts by David Peisner

David Peisner


Confessions of a Cover Band: Yacht Rock Revue croons the hits you love to hate


One night in 2012, a man in a Ronald Reagan mask paused beneath a stop sign in the Old Fourth Ward. Armed with a stencil and a can of white spray paint, he transformed the sign into a tribute to a 1978 hit by a mostly forgotten Canadian pop crooner named Gino Vannelli: “I just wanna STOP & tell you what I feel about you, babe.”

“I Just Wanna Stop” is the kind of song whose words most Americans over 40 know despite never consciously choosing to listen to it. After peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978, the tune never quite disappeared, becoming the aural equivalent of a recurring wart. The song found a second life—an endless one, as it turns out—in the musical nether region where the smooth, soft-rock hits of yesteryear remain in heavy rotation. Yes, that’s “Africa” you’re hearing in the dentist’s office. And “What a Fool Believes” in line at CVS. And that faint melody burrowing into your brain while on hold for the next available customer service agent? That’s “Steal Away.” Songs like these, disparaged by critics in their time then jokingly christened “yacht rock” by a comedy web series in 2005, are now the soundtrack to American tedium.

They’ve also become the source of a very good—if conflicted—living for the man who defaced the stop sign: Nick Niespodziani, the singer, guitarist, and de facto leader of the wildly popular cover band Yacht Rock Revue, which tours the country, headlines 1,000-plus capacity venues, and occasionally even plays with the original artists behind these hits.

At the time of the Vannelli vandalism, Yacht Rock Revue had begun to graduate from a local curiosity to a national one. Niespodziani’s sister videotaped the incident and posted it on YouTube. They then printed T-shirts of the sign and, when Vannelli performed at the Variety Playhouse, they got one to him.

On a gray Monday afternoon not long ago, Niespodziani was standing at this crossroads, looking at the sign, trying to explain the motivation behind the prank. “We had this idea, so we videotaped,” he said. “It was definitely guerrilla marketing.” Also, he was pretty drunk.

The episode seems to capture something ineffable about Yacht Rock Revue—part fandom, part joke, part self-promotion, each element infused with irony. When YRR takes the stage at Venkman’s, an Old Fourth Ward restaurant and nightclub co-owned by Niespodziani and bandmate Pete Olson, the band is fully in character, complete with gaudy shirts and sunglasses. They crack jokes about each other’s moms and theatrically highlight multi-instrumentalist Dave Freeman’s one-note triangle solo during America’s “You Can Do Magic.”

“This music isn’t easy to perform,” Olson says. Yacht rock songs tend to be filled with complicated chord changes. All seven band members are accomplished musicians, and Niespodziani, who trained for a spell as an opera singer, is a rangy vocalist, capable of gliding through the high notes in Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl,” Michael McDonald’s gruff tenor in “I Keep Forgetting,” and Dolly Parton’s amiable twang in “Islands in the Stream,” without seeming to strain. He, Olson, and drummer Mark Cobb first played together in Y-O-U, a band they formed at Indiana University in the late ’90s. They found scant support for original music there, so they relocated to Atlanta in 2002.

Yacht Rock
Nick Niespodziani, singer, guitarist, and de facto leader

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
Mark “Monkeyboy” Dannells, guitar and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
Mark Cobb, drums and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Y-O-U built a buzz in Atlanta, thanks to Niespodziani’s catchy, Beatles-esque songs and the group’s playful gimmicks. They performed, straight-faced, as Three Dog Stevens, a sad-sack trio playing what they called “sandal-rock” (a made-up, synth-heavy genre defined by its purveyors’ predilection for wearing sandals with socks); they covered Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” entirely on keyboards while dressed as the Royal Tenenbaums; they created a YouTube mockumentary series about a competitive jump-roping team. “Comedy has always been part of what we do,” Niespodziani said. “We were doing anything to get noticed because we felt we had good songs but just couldn’t break through with them.”

“I said, ‘That sounds like hell on Earth.’ He was like, ‘But you’re going to make a lot of money.’ So we did it.”

In 2008, Y-O-U was booked every Thursday at the 10 High club in Virginia-Highland. They’d stage “Rock Fights,” playing dueling sets of covers by artists like Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, and INXS, or rejigger Y-O-U songs as soul rave-ups with horns and backing singers, or do a standup comedy night. Yacht Rock Revue was just another of these goofs: Put on silly clothes, and play songs everybody knows but nobody really likes—or claims not to. It was Cobb and guitarist Mark Dannells who came up with the idea. Dannells thought about calling it “A.M. Gold” but Cobb had recently seen a viral web series called Yacht Rock and felt like the term would resonate. Niespodziani went along because his friends needed his vocals. Two band members wore wigs to that first show, and, at one point, Niespodziani stripped off his shirt. People loved it. The club’s booker invited them back the next Thursday. The gig sold out. He asked them to do it every Thursday.

“I said, ‘That sounds like hell on Earth,’” Niespodziani recalls. “He was like, ‘But you’re going to make a lot of money.’ So we did it.”

Most cover bands are awful. But because they play well-known songs, they often secure regular, paying gigs that bands playing original music can’t. Even for the good ones, there’s a ceiling. Few ever perform further than 20 miles from wherever they played their first gig. What’s more, performing other people’s music for a living carries a degree of shame. Cobb has heard the mutterings about Yacht Rock Revue: “Why are these guys playing covers? They could write their own songs. They don’t need to hide behind a gimmick.”

Most of the guys in Yacht Rock Revue—which also includes bassist/vocalist Greg Lee and keyboardist/vocalist Mark Bencuya—had already spent half a lifetime dragging gear into dank basement bars to play for a few bucks and even fewer people. They did this in an era when the music business was cratering. The rise of the internet taught a generation of consumers that music is free, devaluing the dream to which musicians dedicate their lives.

Yacht Rock
Greg Lee, bass and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
Mark Bencuya, keyboards and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
David B. Freeman, sax, keyboards, and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
Peter Olson, vocals, percussion, and guitar

Photograph by Mike Colletta

When Yacht Rock Revue started in 2008, Dannells was nearly 40. “It’s not like the world is beating down the door of 40-year-old rock stars,” he says. Today, Yacht Rock is a business, owing its success partially to the corners of the business that haven’t collapsed: live music and merchandising. Besides their public shows, Yacht Rock Revue plays a steady stream of well-paying corporate gigs. They also sell lots of captain’s hats, T-shirts, and other swag. The success of the franchise means it’s been more than five years since any of them had a day job. Niespodziani and Olson created a company, Please Rock, that provides the bandmembers and their families with health insurance, 401Ks, and all the other trappings of comfortable, upper-middle-class stability few musicians ever achieve. All this grants bandmembers some real creative freedoms. “I just released a whole record of orchestral music,” Dannells says. “I don’t care if it sells. I just do it for enjoyment.”

Niespodziani shuttered Y-O-U years ago but still writes elegant power-pop songs for his other band, Indianapolis Jones. But the difference between his two bands’ profiles is stark. Troy Bieser, who has been working on a documentary about Yacht Rock Revue, says he’s seen this in the juxtaposition of the footage he’s compiled. “I’ve seen Nick going through the journey of being thankful for the success but it also feeling ill-fitting,” Bieser says. “That existential dilemma has followed him.”

Niespodziani knows whenever Yacht Rock plays anywhere, that’s a slot a band like Indianapolis Jones can’t get. “We’re a big part of the problem,” he says. As a 39-year-old father of one, who’s worked hard to get what he has, he isn’t about to give it up, but he’s also honest about the compromises he’s made and doesn’t hide from the question that is a natural byproduct of his own success: When a joke becomes your life, how do you keep your life from becoming a joke?

“I never would’ve guessed I’d be doing what I’m doing now,” he says. “The 23-year-old me would punch me in the face and leave me for dead.”

Yacht rock was mostly made in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the genre wasn’t named until 2005 when JD Ryznar, a writer and actor, created the Yacht Rock web series with a few friends. The video shorts imagined the origins of songs like the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes,” Toto’s “Rosanna,” and Steely Dan’s “FM.” The music, Ryznar says, was well-crafted, like a yacht, and recurring nautical imagery in songs like Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” or on Loggins and Messina’s album Full Sail made the term fit. According to Ryznar, true yacht rock has jazz and R&B influences, is usually produced in California, and frequently involves a rotating group of interconnected studio musicians. The term was never intended to be a pejorative—“we never thought it was silly music,” Ryznar says—but the web series is most definitely comedy, and feelings about the music itself tend to be buried under layers of hipster irony, warm nostalgia, and veiled contempt. Yacht rock songs are finely constructed: They’ve got indelible pop hooks, but they’re decidedly professional, not ragged and cool like punk or early hip-hop, which were canonized among the music of that era.

For the first Yacht Rock Revue gig, much of the set list came from a compilation CD that Cobb had burned titled The Dentist’s Office Mix. It included songs like Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Ambrosia’s “The Biggest Part of Me,” and Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” “I’d put it on at parties and just see what the reactions would be,” Cobb says. “It was a weird, guilty pleasure.”

Niespodziani’s initial feelings about the music were uncomplicated. “I wasn’t a fan,” he says. “I was really into music that made people feel something, that had some grit and humanity to it. The ethos I thought was important in rock ’n’ roll was rebellious fun crossed with a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of thing. Yacht rock doesn’t do any of that. It doesn’t rebel.” He found a lot of yacht rock to be technical, clinical, and sterile. “Sophisticated for the sake of being sophisticated.”

Onstage, Niespodziani is the picture of unapproachable retro cool. Tall, with shaggy hair and an angular face, he hides behind large, dark sunglasses and frequently surrenders a thin half-smile. In other words, he personifies the classic, arrogant, coked-up, late-’70s rock frontman. In person, he gives off nearly the opposite impression. Over coffee, he’s thoughtful, earnest, and self-deprecating. His sharp facial features are accentuated by wide-lensed prescription glasses, and, having traded the polyester shirts he favors onstage for a camouflage green hoodie, the vibe Niespodziani exudes is hardcore music geek. Olson, who has known Niespodziani since they were in fourth grade in Columbus, Indiana, says when they met, “Nick was the nerdy kid who was good at math and jump-roping.”

Yacht Rock
The band performing at Buckhead Theatre in March. Yacht Rock Revue will headline the eighth annual Yacht Rock Revival at State Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park on August 25.

Photograph by Emily Butler

Yacht Rock Revue, for Niespodziani, is a part he plays: “I’m almost more an actor than a musician.” He and his bandmates spend hours prowling vintage stores looking for the retro leisure wear that they don onstage—and then a not inconsiderable amount of money getting those old clothes tailored to fit. “It’s a war of attrition,” he says. “You find something that might work, and then it’s itchy or it smells or holes develop because the shirt is older than I am. You have to be shopping at all times.” They once did a gig in street clothes, but it felt wrong. “Polyester,” he says, “is our armor.”

Sometimes that armor hasn’t been enough for Niespodziani. During the band’s first few years, they played weekly at the 10 High. “I would drink a lot and almost sabotage myself, sometimes onstage, and make fun of it,” he says. “People would ask me about the band, and I’d talk down about it and act like I was too cool. I didn’t lash out at people, but it was strange to get well-known for something that didn’t make me feel good about myself. I’d get drunk onstage to deal with it.”

His bandmates certainly noticed, but, for the most part, they let their friend work through it. “He’s been the moodiest about it,” Cobb says. “He just hates Rupert Holmes’s ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song).’ Hates it. But he knows it goes over well.” So when Niespodziani’s got to play it, he’ll often deadpan an introduction comparing Holmes to da Vinci and Picasso. “By talking about how great it is, it helps me shed that song’s terribleness.”

Niespodziani believes the ironic distance he puts between the guy he is onstage and the guy drinking coffee at Ponce City Market is fundamental to the band’s success. “Because we thought—or at least I thought—I was too cool to be doing this, everything has keyed off what the audience reacts to, whether it’s the clothes we wear, the sidestep dance we do, whatever. The audience has been the head of the snake. We’ve just been following it.” It helps that with more than 500 songs in their repertoire, the band doesnt burn out too badly on any tune. “The only song we have to play is ‘Africa.’” The 1982 hit by Toto, by a band made up of talented but largely anonymous studio musicians, has become something of an Internet meme itself, with multiple think pieces devoted to untangling its allure. “Part of it may be the audacity of the synthesizer sound,” Niespodziani says. “They’re just so cheesy. The chords are fairly complex and pretty unexpected. The way it goes to the minor key in the chorus is kind of a cognitive disconnect. And when you listen to the words, it’s not really about anything. Maybe that’s why it’s so quintessentially yacht rock. It’s not so much what the words are saying, it’s how they make you feel, this combination of pure joy crossed with reminiscing.”

Despite his ambivalence about the music, Niespodziani is first among equals within the band. He sings lead on more songs than anyone else, and it’s his judgment they trust when adding songs to their catalog. He has a system: “Generally, the more a song annoys me, the more likely it makes sorority girls want to eat each other’s brains. Also, almost every song would be an encore for the band we’re covering. So, those are the basics: Does it annoy me? Are girls going to like it? Would it be an encore for the band we’re covering?”

“I’m almost more an actor than a musician.”

Others in the band are more unabashed about the music. “I’ve always loved all this stuff,” says Lee, the bassist. “You have to love it before you can play with it in that comedy sense and do it right.” This ability to walk that line between having fun with the music and making fun of the music has won over many of the original artists. When the band first reached out to guys like Dupree, Gary Wright (“Dream Weaver”), and Player’s Peter Beckett, some artists disdained the term “yacht rock” and feared being treated as a joke. Dupree was an early convert and evangelized about the band to his peers, touting their musicianship and enthusiasm. He says those who eventually performed with Yacht Rock Revue were “staggered that they were playing in front of 4,000 people who knew every word to their songs.”

The genre’s rise as a cultural touchstone—Jimmy Fallon has been a big booster, inviting Dupree, Cross, McDonald, and others to perform on TV, and there’s now a SiriusXM station devoted to it—has benefited these artists. Their Spotify and YouTube streaming numbers have risen noticeably. “It’s made a big impact financially,” Dupree says. “Even the skeptics have seen the power of it.”

For a while, the band had a bit of a good-natured Twitter beef with the creators of the Yacht Rock web series. Ryznar admits he initially felt like the band had hijacked his idea, but now his only real gripe is Yacht Rock Revue’s liberal definition of yacht rock. “Half their set is incredible yacht rock,” Ryznar says. “The other half, they play way too much Eagles, America, and Fleetwood Mac. Those aren’t yacht rock bands.”

The band makes no apologies. As Niespodziani puts it, “Yacht rock is what we say it is now.” That’s not just bravado. Yacht Rock Revue trademarked the term “yacht rock” for live performances, so other acts can’t use it without permission. The maneuver helped snuff out competition from other cover bands but occasionally puts them in conflict with some of the genre’s originators. When Cross’s manager tried to assemble a “Yacht Rock” tour featuring Cross, Orleans, and Firefall, it ran afoul of the trademark.

“We said, ‘If you want to call it Yacht Rock, we’ve got to be the [backing] band,’” Olson says. That compromise collapsed when Cross’s manager “wanted a piece of the trademark and of all our earnings over three years.” Yacht Rock Revue sent a cease-and-desist letter instead.

The band’s set list is anchored in the classic late ’70s, early ’80s yacht-rock era but can stretch to include songs as old as the late ’60s or as recent as the early ’90s. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck: If they go too far afield, they risk becoming just another cover band, but there are other considerations to take into account, too. As Cobb explains, “Nothing about Whitney Houston is in the genre, but when we play ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody,’ the chicks go crazy, everybody orders another round, the bar sells out of Tito’s and Red Bull, and they’re like, ‘When can you come back? You broke alcohol records.’”

The band’s audiences have evolved over time. The earliest shows were heavy on hipsters and fellow musicians. Then, those fans brought their parents. At a Buckhead Theatre gig in March, the crowd leaned toward balding guys in button-down shirts and platinum-blond women wearing expensive-looking jewelry. Niespodziani once called yacht rock “the music of the overprivileged,” which was a joke, but also not. Getting older, wealthier fans out to shows is an impressive accomplishment most artists would envy, but it has changed something fundamental about Yacht Rock’s appeal. “When we started, it was people elbowing each other, laughing at this music,” Niespodziani says. “Now, there’s no irony.”

Yacht Rock

On a night off during a Vegas stand in 2015, the entire band went to see Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band perform at the Pearl Theater in the Palms Casino. Starr began doing these tours in 1989, fronting a band of aging rockers like Gary Wright, Steve Lukather (Toto), and Gregg Rolie (Santana, Journey), whose names and faces you might not recognize but whose songs you certainly would. Just past the midway point in the show at the Pearl, Lukather stepped to the mic, and Starr began beating out a familiar rhythm on the drums. As Lukather picked out the first few notes on the guitar and the synths pumped out the insistent melody, the song was instantly recognizable: “Africa.” In the theater balcony, Cobb recalls looking across at Niespodziani and seeing something change in his friend. “I just watched Nick’s face and, all of a sudden, it was as if this weight lifted off him.”

The Beatles had always been Niespodziani’s favorite band. “Now, I’m watching Ringo Starr, and he has to play fucking ‘Africa’ every night, too,” Niespodziani says. “He was in the Beatles! That was a life-changing moment for me.” Starr and his band were touching many of the same nerves in the audience at the Pearl Theater that Yacht Rock Revue touches all the time. “When we started Yacht Rock, I didn’t like the music we were playing. I didn’t like myself for being in a cover band. I had some dark times. It’s been a journey for me to get okay with it. That was a pretty key moment. Once you get to a certain point in the music business, everybody’s hustling. I’m not going to look down my nose at anybody for doing anything that makes it possible to feed their family by singing songs.”

Seeing Starr go yacht rock was a significant step that’s made enjoying Yacht Rock Revue’s triumphs a little easier. For years, Olson and Niespodziani waited for interest in yacht rock—and their band—to fade. Opening Venkman’s was a hedge against that. But Yacht Rock Revue’s stock continues to rise. Their touring business has grown 375 percent since 2014. “It’s not a fad,” Niespodziani says. “This is going to be our biggest year by far.” They play increasingly larger venues and have recently started booking dates overseas, including this summer in London.

The question is, where else can they take this, literally and figuratively? Back in 2013, the band quietly released a five-song EP: four original songs and a cover of—what else?—“Africa.” They used to occasionally drop an original tune into their shows, sometimes announcing it as a “Hall & Oates B-side.” The crowds were amenable, kind of. “It’s hard when they know every word to every song,” Niespodziani says. “They don’t come for discovery; they come for familiarity.” That’s a truism any band who has ever had a hit knows all too well. The essential appeal of Yacht Rock Revue—and yacht rock—is a combination of nostalgia and escape, a yearning for the simpler, easier time these songs evoke. Yet Niespodziani has been wondering lately if it’s possible to pivot fans to his own songs, either with Yacht Rock Revue or Indianapolis Jones.

“That’s still my dream,” he says, “to have one song that matters to somebody the way ‘Steal Away’ matters to people. No matter what else I do in life, if I don’t ever get over that bar, part of me will feel like I failed at the one thing I wanted. I don’t know if I can ever let go of that. I don’t know if I’m ready to face that darkness.”

In 2013, during a commencement speech at Syracuse University, the author George Saunders told graduates, “Success is like a mountain that keeps growing as you hike up it.” Niespodziani brought this quote up to me while we were having coffee. He knows his life is nothing to complain about. He lives a rarefied existence where he gets paid a lot of money to play music. But clearly, the mountain grows in front of him, and the hike up isn’t always easy. He’s still prone to self-deprecating asides about his band, he still kinda envies the Robbie Duprees of the world—but, hey, he doesn’t need to get drunk onstage anymore, and he doesn’t lose sleep wondering if he’s a force for good or evil in the world. That stop sign at the crossroads in the Old Fourth Ward isn’t an omen or a cautionary tale. It’s simply a funny story that makes people smile. He’s just working on becoming one of them.

“The way I really made peace with it is, it occurred to me that everywhere we went, everyone was so happy to see me,” he says. “These people, it’s the highlight of their week to come sing along with these tunes. If your job is making people happy, that’s a pretty good calling.” He leans back in his chair and smiles. “My job is to make it okay for everybody else to have fun. That’s kind of cool.” He gets quiet for a moment and shrugs.

“I guess.”

This article appears in our July 2018 issue.

Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider gave up a flourishing music career to chase his true passion: Math

Robert Schneider

Last summer, Robert Schneider did something he rarely does anymore: He got onstage with his band, the Apples in Stereo, at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, strapped on a guitar, and bounced around playing joyful indie rock.

Schneider used to do this kind of thing all the time. In fact, up until 2012, he’d dedicated his entire adult life—and a fair part of his teenage years—to writing, playing, and recording music.

He was good at it, too: The Apples released eight albums of catchy power-pop spiked with Schneider’s sharply drawn lyrics, toured on three continents, and had their songs licensed for commercials by companies like Pepsi and Target. Schneider also had his own studio in Denver and a thriving side gig as a producer. His success wasn’t mainstream, but his cult of admirers was: He appeared twice on The Colbert Report, once on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and alongside actor Elijah Wood in a video for the Apples’s 2010 song “Dance Floor.”

Robert Schneider
A still from the 2010 Apples in Stereo video for “Dance Floor,” which starred Elijah Wood. That’s Schneider on the right.

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Two songs into the set at the Georgia Theatre, Schneider stood at the edge of the stage and asked the crew to turn the house lights on for a minute. “We haven’t played for five years, and it’s our second show in seven years,” he told the crowd. “So, smile!” He stepped back and snapped a photo of the audience with his phone. The Apples hadn’t played together since Schneider’s bandmate and childhood friend Bill Doss passed away in 2012, and the gig was a chance to exorcise some demons.

“The show was amazing and very therapeutic,” Schneider, who’s 46, told me several weeks later. But there are no plans for any more gigs. He’s effectively quit life as a minor-league rock star to devote himself to something few musicians think much about: math.

Schneider’s domain these days is a small cubicle in the math department at Emory University, where he is a researcher, a teacher, and a sixth-year graduate student. Shortly after I first met him, he showed me around his workspace. Books with titles like Riemann’s Zeta Function and Fermat’s Last Theorem sat neatly in a tall stack with a few comic books. Photos of groundbreaking mathematicians—Srinivasa Ramanujan, G.H. Hardy, Leonhard Euler—were thumbtacked to a partition, just above a shot of Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson. Two pages of dense mathematical proofs were taped above Schneider’s computer monitor alongside a red sticker for the Elephant 6 Recording Co., the Athens musical collective that he cofounded in 1991. On his desk sat a Texas Instruments calculator that dates back to 1973 and a TRS-80 computer from 1980, the same kind Schneider had as a kid. Both still work—though neither gets much use.

“Those are more like fetish items to make me feel good when I’m working,” he said. “I never had an office or a cubicle before. My only job in my adult life besides being a musician was selling popcorn to people out of this old-timey wagon on the street in Denver.”

It was July, and the math department, like the rest of the university, was deep into its laconic summer lull. Most of the offices were empty, lights off. Only a few students and professors roamed the halls. Amid all this quiet, Schneider was a ball of frenetic energy. Pacing around the office, he spoke at a rapid-fire clip, gesticulating, jumping from subject to subject, seemingly unable to resist the urge to detour down every conversational cul-de-sac.

Schneider took the most circuitous of routes to mathematics. He was a good but hardly exceptional student growing up in Ruston, Louisiana. He always enjoyed math but actually failed Algebra I his freshman year and never made it past Algebra II and Geometry in four years of high school. By the time he enrolled in college in nearby Shreveport, his focus was elsewhere. “I didn’t take any math classes in college,” he said. “It was all music, philosophy, poetry.”

Music had transfixed him ever since his first concert in sixth grade, when he saw Cheap Trick in Ruston. Guitarist Rick Nielsen tossed a guitar pick into the audience that Schneider grabbed. To an artsy kid growing up off the beaten track in the South, the idea of making a glorious racket, of being seen and heard at high volume, was endlessly appealing. “I took up guitar the next year and didn’t look back.” By 1991, he’d dropped out of college, moved to Denver—not far from where his father was a professor at the University of Colorado—and started the Apples in Stereo.

The Apples sound nods towards the Beatles and Electric Light Orchestra, and the band’s success rested not only on Schneider’s seemingly preternatural gift for crafting songs with memorable hooks but also his sense that doing so wasn’t a frivolous undertaking. “Music is a glue for humanity,” he said. “It’s a method for us to find ecstasy and to deal with pain.”

“Music, art, poetry, and mathematics—these have the feeling of mysticism and religion to me . . . These are things that to me are fundamentally as important as something could possibly be.” —Robert Schneider

As the band’s stature grew, Schneider became an avid collector of vintage musical equipment. In 1999, his Ampex MM-1200 tape machine—a giant piece of analog recording equipment that was integral to the album he was working on—broke down. The repairman made a suggestion: Learn how to fix it yourself. Schneider had always fiddled with electronics; as a kid, he had a RadioShack electronics experiment kit and a bunch of primitive recording gear that he constantly toyed with. So, he went to RadioShack and bought a soldering iron and a book called Basic Electronics. Back at the studio, he opened the book and, on one of its first pages, found an equation known as Ohm’s Law: Voltage equals current flow multiplied by resistance, or V=IR.

“It’s the fundamental law of electronics,” he said. “The moment I saw that on the page, this feeling washed over me. I can remember it as if light were shining down on the page. Aaaah!” He mimics the sound of an angelic choir. “I realized that, to record my album and make my art, I needed the tape machine running. But what did that mean? The tape machine was nothing but an instrument supporting my art, my feelings, my ideas, my friendships with my bandmates, and my income at the time. I realized that all those things, every single signal that ran through every single speaker I’d ever heard in my life, every piece of music I’d ever heard come off a record, every time I’d ever sung into a microphone or plugged in a synthesizer, all those experiences were made true by this simple equation. All the beauty and wonder could boil down to one thing, Ohm’s law, and that was math. It blew my mind.”

Quickly, math began to dominate his waking hours. “I wasn’t consciously trying to learn math,” he recalled. “I was just playing around with this thing I’d found, like a Rubik’s Cube or something.”

Math became a hobby for Schneider the way painting or poetry might be for others. Despite the popular perception that music and math are products of opposing sides of the human brain, Schneider discovered math could be a pursuit just as creative and spiritual as music had always been for him.

“Music, art, poetry, and mathematics—these have the feeling of mysticism and religion to me,” he said. “It’s more than just something you do or something you’re good at. These are things that to me are fundamentally as important as something could possibly be.” To Schneider, these are the tools we use as humans to unlock the mysteries of the universe. “We have ideas and feelings we want to communicate with each other. The formulation of our thoughts to each other is—aside from physical needs like survival—the fundamental thing that humans do. So, to me, these pure forms of expressing various types of ideas we have inside us is not a shallow pursuit. It is the deep pursuit.”

Robert Schneider

There was something fundamentally appealing about the way a math problem would look impenetrably complicated but gradually simplify itself as he worked through it. It reminded him of arranging, producing, and recording music. “It looks hopelessly difficult, but if you go through it, you can simplify everything.”

The impulses driving him to do math were the same yearning for self-expression, the same need to be understood, that made him want to pick up a guitar. But math also has an additional facet. “Our entire modern world is, in a sense, driven by mathematics. It was mathematics that lifted us out of the dark ages and into the industrial age. It’s so weird that something you do for art’s sake could also turn out to be the most useful thing in the world.”

His bandmates found his interest curious, to say the least. “I can think of thousands of other hobbies I’d approach before math would come on my radar,” said Apples bassist Eric Allen, who’s known Schneider since the early ’90s. Whether it was on tour or in the studio, Schneider could often be found with his nose in a math book or scribbling down equations in a notebook.

Schneider calls it his “secret life.” “I had no friends who were at all into math.” When he finally found someone who was, he married her. “The first thing I learned on the night we met was that she’d taken calculus,” he said. “I hit her up: ‘Can you show me calculus right now?’”

His wife, Marci, who works in the costume department at a theater, also persuaded him to take classes at a community college in Kentucky, where she was from and where the couple was living at the time. That, in turn, led him to the University of Kentucky, where he got an undergraduate math degree in 2012. He was at a crossroads: stick with music, or go to graduate school.

From the outside, it looked very much like a garden-variety midlife crisis. Schneider calls it his “midlife observation.” At 41, he’d been a touring musician for 20 years. He’d made seven albums and written countless songs. Staying on that path felt safe. Math, on the other hand, was a problem he’d yet to solve. There was no guarantee that he would even solve it. It demanded a leap of faith.

His revelation? “You can do more than one really deep and intensive thing in your life. Your life isn’t just what you think it is now. It’s not what you think it is when you’re 20 or 30 or 40. If you’re not open to your life going in different directions, it’s just going to level off until you die. This is the thing that motivates me: Our time is finite.”

One afternoon at Emory, Ken Ono dropped by Schneider’s cubicle and asked if one of his students could meet Schneider. Besides being a professor of mathematics at Emory, Ono is also Schneider’s doctoral adviser. In a classroom down the hall, a skinny undergraduate stood up, looking a little sheepish.

“Robert,” Ono said, “this is Sam. He likes the Elephant 6.”

“Do you know, like, Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel?” Sam asked.

Mangum is the Elephant 6’s most well-known figure and was the creative force behind the band Neutral Milk Hotel. Its 1998 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which Schneider produced and played on, is easily the collective’s best-selling album and is considered a wildly influential indie-rock classic—Pitchfork named it the fourth-best album of the 1990s—that’s only grown in stature as the years have passed. Together with two other childhood friends, Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart, Mangum and Schneider formed the Elephant 6, which grew into a sprawling network of like-minded, creatively ambitious, fiercely independent, and widely admired bands and artists, based mostly in Athens, but also with branches in Denver, San Francisco, and Brooklyn.

Schneider grinned at Sam. “Yeah, we grew up together. We were in a band together.”

“Wow. That’s really, really cool.”

Schneider laughed. “Well, thanks for thinking it’s cool.”

Proximity to his friends in the Elephant 6, most of whom had relocated from Louisiana to Athens by the mid-’90s, was one big reason Schneider chose Emory for graduate school. He figured he could still gig in his spare time. Another reason was his adviser, Ono. In addition to being a world-renowned mathematician, Ono had arrived at academia through a path nearly as unconventional as Schneider’s. Ono dropped out of high school, spent time in the 1980s racing bicycles, and later represented Team USA at the World Cross Triathalon Championship. Schneider and Ono shared a passion for number theory, the study of the relationships between series of numbers, and a deep interest in Srinivasa Ramanujan, the self-taught Indian savant who rose from obscurity to become arguably the most important mathematician of the last century. Although Ramanujan is revered for producing a journal filled with mathematical results that have taken experts decades to comprehend, Schneider and Ono were drawn to the romance of his story. He was born into poverty in colonial India at the end of the 19th century, and his entry into the world of mathematics was not just implausible. It was nearly impossible.

“I didn’t think there was an archetype for somebody like me, doing this stupid thing on my own, pursuing this really esoteric pursuit, but here was Ramanujan doing something similar,” Schneider said. “Nobody else around him got it. Nobody else cared.”

Schneider arrived in Atlanta in the summer of 2012. That very weekend, Doss, his best friend from Elephant 6, died of an aneurysm. “I talked to him one day, and the next day, he was dead. He had no health problems, nothing. It was out of nowhere.” The loss was devastating, but it also lent clarity to Schneider’s decision to come to Emory. “Where I thought I was not entirely turning away from music, in fact my bridge was cut. I’d already made this huge change, and now, my thread going back to my teenage years and my earliest music was chopped off.”

“You can do more than one really deep and intensive thing in your life . . . If you’re not open to your life going in different directions, it’s just going to level off until you die. This is the thing that motivates me: Our time is finite.” —Robert Schneider

Schneider’s first year as a graduate student at Emory was challenging. It took a while to get used to the strictures of academia. “Coming into an office every day and being on this fixed schedule almost felt like prison,” he told me. With time, though, Schneider found his way. He began to get papers published. Researchers began to cite his work. He’s currently working on a multiyear, interdepartmental project with colleagues in the chemistry department and studying partitions, which are, in the most basic sense, all the ways you can add numbers to get other numbers. In particular, he’s fascinated by the work of a mathematician named George Andrews and his theory of partition ideals, which holds, as Schneider explains it, “this promise of a sort of super theory of partitions, a meta-theory that is above number theory and ties together seemingly disconnected parts of number theory. I’m chasing that theory.” I’d be lying if I said I totally understood what all this means (despite having Schneider patiently explain it to me multiple times), but what I do get from it is that it represents a search for connections, for explanations, for the hidden architecture of our world that is not entirely different from what he searched for in music.

“It’s a way to convey ideas in a nonverbal way, just like the musical aspect of music,” he said. But with math, “I can express different emotions and ideas that you can’t express with words and you can’t express with music. They’re too complicated.”

Last fall, Schneider began coteaching a writing composition class at Arrendale, a women’s prison in northeast Georgia. Offered to inmates as part of a certificate program, the course is meant as a foundational prerequisite for a class on the history of ancient arithmetic that Schneider created and will teach at the same prison this spring. He’s not sure who might register for the class—“maybe it will be poorly populated”—but there’s something in its very existence that connects to Schneider’s own winding life path and that of his hero, Ramanujan. Math, Schneider believes, can find you in the unlikeliest of places.

“For me, it’s just about pursuing things that are beautiful and mysterious and, also, maybe trying to be helpful.”

Robert Schneider
Part of Schneider’s “Teletron Mind-Control Interface for Analog Synthesizer”

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Robert Schneider
“Ocean Telephone No. 7” from a series of seven (2014). Co-invented by Robert Schneider and his son, Max, the receiver gives off the sound of an ocean.

Photograph by Mike Colletta

All this adds up to Schneider being what Ono calls “the most entertaining instructor we have in the math department and probably one of the most well-known people on campus.” It’s only half-jokingly that Ono calls Schneider “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” In addition to his musical and academic pursuits, Schneider has designed an algebra-based board game and invented a mind-controlled synthesizer called a Teletron. He did the latter by circuit-bending a toy called the Mattel MindFlex. When hooked up to an old Moog synthesizer, variations in brain activity produce theremin-like waves of sound. Schneider wrote some compositions for it—really, collages of art, poetry, math, and text which were intended to stimulate electrical activity in the brain in different ways, thus producing reactionary swaths of melody. Although there are a couple of Teletron prototypes floating around, the goal was never mass production but invention for its own sake. “We talk about visionaries—Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg—people who have this singular vision that bucks the trends,” Ono said. “Although Robert isn’t a multibillionaire like Musk or Zuckerberg, what he has is this desire to be completely different from anything that preceded him.”

Although this makes Schneider a fascinating character, Ono conceded that it also creates problems. “He’s very difficult to advise because he’s confident, he’s creative, and it’s very important to him that the work he does is completely of his creation,” he said. “On one hand, that means his work is going to be beautiful, but it makes it more difficult for me to show how his work is connected to the work of others. Science usually proceeds by building on the work of others, and Robert struggles with that.”

Schneider told me that he understands the criticism, but in a way, it seemed to get to the very core of who he is. “It’s not that I’m not interested in building on the work of others,” he explained. “But as an artist and musician, I’m trained to look for new ideas, to avoid reusing other people’s ideas. The cutting edge of art is made by destroying other people’s ideas, turning them upside down. It’s hard for me to shake that feeling.”

This article originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.

Follow Us