THIS AIN’T NO DRUM CIRCLE Man Forever

Inspired
by
Metal
Machine Music to get real gone, Oneida’s
Kid Millions looks for the musical “surface patterns” others might miss.

 

BY MIKE
SHANLEY

 

Two drummers are seated on either side of one snare drum at
center stage. Behind them, left to right, stand a bassist, two keyboardists and
a guitarist. All the lights are out in the backroom here at Gooski’s, which is
often the case during shows at the Pittsburgh
dive. The bright fluorescent lights kill the mood. Things might feel a little
claustrophobic, but Man Forever hasn’t started playing yet. This is only the
beginning of the tightness.

 

At three minutes after midnight, the two drummers – Kid
Millions (known best perhaps as a member of Oneida) and Tony Paterra (of the
Pittsburgh-based duo Zombi) – begin playing single stroke rolls on the lone
drum: Budda, budda, budda, budda.
They’re not really in sync but they aren’t exactly out of sync either.

 

This will continue for about the next 30 minutes, the first
four of which will be unaccompanied. Their attack doesn’t change, and it
occasionally creates a strange overtone that’s easily confused for one of the
other instruments joining in.

 

When Mike Bonello’s (Dirty Faces) bass joins in four minutes
later, it alternates between two notes, which get held for long, unspecified
periods of time, creating a fuzzy, thunderous foundation. Three minutes later,
the keyboards worm their way in. Chris Cannon (who will perform later in the
evening with his band Raw Blow) plays the woodie, Oneida-speak for a vintage
organ housed in wood. He too works with a specific set of notes, while Dave
Kadden (of Invisible
Circle and the only non-Pittsburgher
onstage besides Millions) adds more textures. A couple minutes later, Jim Lingo
(Centipede E’est, Midnight Snake) starts doing the same thing on guitar.

 

The melodic instruments create vibrations that shift from
fast to slow, something that’s only apparent when giving the music full
attention. All the while, the drums underpin it all, pounding away with no
variation.

 

Kid Millions (aka John Colpitts) has been involved in some
spacey, heavy and somewhat psychedelic music as a founding member of Oneida and, for one
album, the really heavy White Hills. But Man Forever exists in a strange gray
area where that kind of music finds a strange bedfellow with minimalist
composers. It’s easy to quip “this ain’t no drum circle,” but even using that
negative metaphor as a reference point can’t begin to prepare your ears for
this. Ironic, too, that he has described “Surface Patterns,” the name of the
piece, as a meditation that tries “to replicate the experience of looking at
the surface of a river as it approaches and cascades over a waterfall.” It
sounds more like a churning machine.

 

The idea came to Millions after seeing a performance of Lou
Reed’s Metal Machine Music recreated
by the chamber group the Fireworks Ensemble in 2010. “It sparked a number of
different dormant ideas that I had. I read the notes on the Metal Machine Music performance about
how Lou Reed made that album. He tuned his guitars strings in fifths and leaned
them up against amps so there were layers of feedback that resonated in
interesting ways.

 

“So there was that idea. I had remembered talking to Brian
Chase [of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] about tuning drums to just intonation, very
carefully pitched drum tunings. And I thought all this stuff might work
together. I could do a noise album with acoustic instruments. So that was what
was going on in my head. That’s how it came about.”

 

After two albums on the vinyl-only St. Ives label, Man
Forever moved to Thrill Jockey this year to release Pansophical Cataract. Like the previous albums, it features two
extended works, including “Surface Patterns,” which he edited down to 18
minutes in order to fit on one side of a record. The second piece, “Ur
Eternity,” starts off in a similar fashion, sounding almost like an alternate
take of the first track. Eight minutes in, though, it really overloads when a
combination of rack tom, floor tom and two kick drums join the fray, which
continues for another 10 minutes. The album features a four-drum lineup, with
bass and two guitars (one played by Yo La Tengo’s James McNew). Millions does
double-duty, playing the woodie himself.

 

On this tour, though, he’s been playing with different
people each night, many of whom are going on instructions taken from a video he made describing how
the various instruments work in the music
or talks prior to
taking the stage. He’s also decided to limit the band drummer count to two. “I
think it’s more interesting with two. It’s easier just to have the rhythm seem
crazy,” he says. “I want them to be out of sync. In sync is not interesting to
me.”

 

So far the only challenge has been to make sure the hired
guns understand how the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. “One
thing that’s hard is to get people’s heads wrapped around it on that level, is
to make them [realize the performance] is not about them,” Millions says.
“That’s the discipline thing. It’s about the sound. It’s not about an ego
driven thing. That’s the dream and the hope.”

 

A similarity to Terry Riley, as least in execution, is
something Millions doesn’t dispute. “I wanted it to be like a punk version of
that,” he says. “To make it like a bit odd where I’m doing this stuff in a rock
context with rock musicians, typically not people who are familiar with this
kind of music. Or they’re familiar but they might not ever do it, and to just
make that head space into the performance. That might be surprising or yield
surprising results.”

 

He laughs casually when asked if a performance requires a
good deal of discipline. “There’s really no choice in the matter. You’re just
playing until 30 minutes is up,” he says. “The discipline is staying steady and
even. And I really hope the musicians are also being disciplined because it’s
not supposed to be about the individual. And some people get into how their
part is changing things, and they might assert themselves more. And it’s not
meant to be that way.” 

 

Millions also realizes that most audiences might not be
prepared for music like this to ambush them. “I’ve contemplated doing a
preparatory statement: ‘Hey, we’re going to be playing a 30-minute piece,'” he
says.” Some people are like, ‘Yeah, you should totally do that.’ But I don’t
know if that’s really necessary. I like people to not know. That’s the
intention too. And people can decide to check out. They can just fuckin’ [say],
‘This isn’t my shit. I’m gonna go have a beer.’ And a lot of people do.”

 

If it sounds abrasive, you’re right. But if you think this
is too much, you should’ve been at Gooski’s in February when a lineup of Man
Forever performed “Surface Patterns” with four drummers rolling away on two
snares. Your intrepid reporter was not mentally prepared for that performance
and was one of the audience members that got restless and wandered out to the
bar area after about 10 minutes. The intrigue however, never wavered.

 

Tonight, I’m there for the duration. At roughly 12:32 a.m.,
when Kid Millions raises his sticks in the air and brings them back onto the
snare for the final crash – the signal for everyone to stop playing – I’m the
one who immediately starts whooping.

 

Man Forever is currently on tour. Check dates here.

 

 

 

[Photo Credit: Joshua Bright]

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