DON’T EXHALE Oneida

Boundaries are merely for
crossing when it comes to the Brooklyn
experimentalists.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Three is the magic number for Oneida this year. After all, there are three
core members in the Brooklyn-based band – drummer Kid Millions, keyboard player
Bobby Matador and bassist Hanoi Jane. Their current project, a triptych called Thank
Your Parents
, incorporates last year’s Preteen Weaponry (with three
songs), this year’s Rated O (a triple
CD/LP) and an unspecified third installment. To record Rated O they brought in three past and present members – Papa
Crazee, who left in 2002 to form Oakley Hall, Phil Manley (or Double Rainbow)
from Trans Am and the Fucking Champs who played guitar on The Wedding and Happy New Year, and Shahin Motia, a/k/a Showtime, also of the Ex -Models,
who still plays and tours with the band. (A fifth member, Barry London, who’d
previously engineered some of Oneida’s
albums, recently joined the group as well.)

 

Still, ask the band about numerology, or anything else,
really, and you’re likely to get a flip response. Fat Bobby, who is really not
fat at all, answered to a string of questions about influences and musical
direction by observing that Oneida
is an anagram for “No Idea,” and that tells you a fair amount right there.

 

Behind the jokester front, though, lurks a force in
experimental rock music, a hard-working band that cranks an album pretty much
every year and plays ear-pounding, mind-altering shows, all the while daring
you to take them seriously.  

 

Oneida
has had a triple album in its sights since the mid-‘00s, if for no other reason
than it seemed cool and impossibly difficult. “Like a lot of our ideas, it
sounded crazy when we thought it up,” says Kid Millions. “We thought, ‘How are
we going to do this? Is this even possible?’ 
And we just went ahead and tried to realize it.”

 

It didn’t work immediately. Happy New Year was
supposed to be a triple, but the band couldn’t record enough material in time
and shelved the idea. The returned to it last year, bringing in recordings from
as long as four years ago, a diverse mix of “Captain Bo” style bangers,
extended motorik cruises, eerie
folk-scented chants, noise-bent jams and one dancehall-style DJ toasting
complete with echoey classic dub production and produced, accidentally, in mono.

 

“It’s really nothing more complicated than like us being
like, ‘Wow, we really do a lot of different things,'” Millions explains. “We
were trying to put a boundary around it. But by putting up a boundary, we’re
delineating something that we can cross.”

 

Refusing to be penned in, that sounds like Oneida, a band that has consistently
confounded listeners who come to its albums with expectations.  And, in fact, the first handful of tracks on Rated
O
diverges in radical ways from past Oneida
efforts.

 

Consider “Brownout in Lagos,”
the album’s oldest track. The DJ on the cut, Dad-Ali Ziai, is one of Millions’
friends from high school, who came to New
York in 2005 and laid down the vocals. Millions says
his friend spent three hours crafting a verse for him, but that, ultimately,
what he liked best was the freestyle warm-up he did before getting to work. “I
said, ‘Hey, can we just try using the freestyling over this, like you did when
you showed up?’ And he was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s always better.'”

 

Frequent Oneida
collaborator Brad Truax of Home made a beat for the track, and Millions sent it
off to Jagjaguwar. It was supposed
to be the first track for Happy New Year. “They thought it was a joke,” said
Millions. “We were so psyched about what we did, and they were like, ‘Is this
real?'”

 

Instead, “Brownout in Lagos” is the first track on Rated
O
leading off a string of extended experiments in sound, the burble and
bash of “What’s Up Jackal?”, the very electro-squiggly “10:30 at the Oasis”,
with guitar from both Manley and Papa Crazee, the long, mesmeric “Story of O”
and, the abstract, difficult “Human Factor”.

 

That song, clocking in at 10:28, arose out of an improv
session, where Millions decided to go for an extreme vocal approach. Millions,
who indicates he’d been thinking about outside singers such as Chris Desjardin
from the Flesheaters, Mark Morgan from Sightings, even Yoko Ono, says he sprung
the idea on the band one day at the studio. “Nobody knew what was coming. I
wanted a little bit of slapback on the vocals. I wanted it a little bit
distorted, nothing extreme.  But I wanted
to explore more different approaches to making sound with the throat.  I wanted to express emotion.”

 

The song is possibly the most difficult one on any of the
three CDs, and after it’s over, the band settles into songs like “The River,”
“I Will Haunt You”, “Ghost in the Room” and others that fans will immediately
recognize as Oneida.
“I suppose we do tend to put the more difficult stuff first,” Millions admitted.
“But in this case, we always wanted to put ‘Brownout in Lagos’ first. And then somehow those first
songs were of that seed and of that era somehow.”   

 

Guests from Oneida’s
past, present and periphery appear throughout Rated O, but perhaps the
most arresting cameo comes from Gian Carlo Felipe, ex of Mink Lungs and now of
Emergency Party, who lays down sitar in “O”. “We had been playing all weekend. And
I was just like, dude, come on out. Come to the studio and lay a track. So we
set him up in the studio and just played,” says Millions. “I think we all felt
at the end of that performance, oh, okay, whatever, that was interesting, okay
fine. But then we listened back to it, and we were like, whoa.”

 

And that’s the key, actually, to the whole Oneida experience. Think too much, and you’ll
get lost in a hall of funhouse mirrors. Listen to the music and it starts to
make sense. As Fat Bobby, asked how Rated O relates to Preteen
Weaponry
, puts it, “That’s one of things that has to be the territory of
the listener, not the speaker, I think. I mean, when provoked I will talk big
and move air, but we worked too hard on making this stuff say the right thing,
that for once I’m feeling like not… exhaling.”

 

The final installment in the trilogy is most likely recorded
now, but no one knows exactly what it will sound like or when it will
drop.  “It could be any number of things
right now,” says Millions. “We recorded about an album’s worth of minimal,
really quiet stuff, and there’s a double album of really bombastic, dudes-in-a-garage,
bashing out long, epic, stupid stuff. There’s a lot of stuff to pick from and a
bunch of different songs. We don’t know what to make it yet.”

 

Bobby adds, “Jane will be executive producing the ska
tribute to this project when he turns 60. Apparently it will be called Skank
Your Parents
.”

 

But in any case, there’s no point in trying to pin these
guys down about who they are or what they may attempt in the future. Expect
more irony, more experimentation, more serious greatness wrapped in silliness
delivered with a monkey’s grin. Expect more of everything, especially the stuff
you don’t know what to do with.

 

Says Millions, “If people really hate it, then maybe we’ll
do more.”

 

 

 

Oneida began a brief
U.S. tour, followed by an extende trek to Europe and the U.K., on July 10. Tour
dates at their MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/oneidarocks.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Lisa Corson]

 

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