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

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

Photograph by Mike Colletta

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

Illustration by Mike McQuade

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.