IN 1999, my band practiced in a rehearsal space on South 4thStreet in Williamsburg, distinguished now as being the space where a singer named Constantine Maroulis bailed on his band for a TV show called American Idol. Ten years ago, that space housed a different creature entirely. The room closest to the exit seemed to constantly bulge with ferocious sound.The guys were a couple of years older than us, friendly in a quiet way and looked surprising normal. They were somehow both always there when we arrived and still at it when we were leaving. Once, the door opened as I was passing and I caught a glimpse inside—wall hangings, strange lights, amps covered in fur—as the band crept out, giggling guiltily as if they’d been caught having more fun than was appropriate for the serious business of rock ‘n’ roll. This was Oneida.
The People of the Rock have kept busy in the 10 years since we met.This weekend they will execute a temporary psychic transfer of Oneida’s interdisciplinary recording/ performance temple,The Ocropolis, to All Tomorrow’s Parties for a daylong, free-for-all audio/visual collision to be recorded and released as a supplement to their current “Thank Your Parents” triptych. Additionally, they’ve released 10 albums and a slew of split EPs and 7-inches in the last decade (the most recent triple album Rated O, a cosmic monolith of rock clocking in at nearly two hours), while playing in numerous side bands and participating in ambitious projects like a live re-creation of their strings album The Wedding, a 10-year anniversary concert at PS 1, the Boredoms’ massive drum vortices and a threeday cruise off the coast of Japan on a rented Russian ferry to provide the soundtrack to a lengthy solar eclipse. Let’s see, in the last 10 years, I… fuck, I must have done something.
It’s a shame that, for many, Oneida is still a band they know of instead of a band they know. Foolish as it is to try and pin a scene on one band, I’d posit that Oneida was patient zero for a kind of musical HPV that has spread through touching, petting and intimate contact to bands and music fans in Brooklyn and, slowly, Everywhere Else. Symptoms of the illness include: uninhibited ecstatic self-expression; active devotion to friends, family and community; ‘damaging’ genres as a means of beating dead horses back to life; loyalty, generosity, audience participation, nonsensical volume; and improvising, not just lyrics or songs but also instruments, performance spaces and entire lives.Working with co-conspirators like Kayrock Screenprinting, Live with Animals, Secret Project Robot, Monster Island and an evolving roster of musical comrades like Sightings, Oneida alumni Papa Crazee’s Oakley Hall, Ex-Models, Black Dice, Awesome Color, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the influence of this ethereal spirit on our narrow demographic has been transformative. And yeah, they were already up to their armpits when Todd P was still just some guy in Portland.
The music? Seat yourself in the middle of the maelstrom with Rated O, their Empire Strikes Back, and let a single tune buffet and massage you for eight or 10 or 20 minutes. Mostly wordless, live if not totally improvised jams built around thunderous organ/guitar/bass/drum grooves somehow create not just forward momentum but a nar rative thread. Shapes congeal in a clotted pool of sepulchral funk but the flames in the background—is that a universe cleaving apart or hewing together? Oneida is uniformly divergent, endlessly inventive, 100 percent pure gunk, committed to formal experimentation and open to myriad meanings, all of them emotionally true. Each song determines its own production.The drums are so close in one track it sounds like they’re inside your head and pushing out.The next track, they’re at the end of the hallway. No experiment is abandoned before its logical conclusion and many are pushed beyond, yielding uneven, strange and rewarding results. Oneida unearth startling effects through hypnotic repetition of one skuzzy riff with minute variations: a rose is a rose is a rose is not a rose at all.You feel confusion, then anticipation, then unease or even boredom and nothing changes and nothing changes and then something changes in you and the clouds unfold and your soul fairly bursts with delight and relief.What you are hearing is not just the loud, brutal abuse and sometimes annihilation of innocent drumheads, metal strings and plastic keys that never did nothing to no one but also a group of devout musicians listening very intently.
Oneida is the river of pink ectoplasm flowing under New York City in Ghostbusters II. Oneida is the elite squadron of guerrillas that ventured so deep into the jungle that they never got the transmission that the war was over and “adventure” lost to “commercial placement” so they have subsisted out there for years in their mud-walled laboratories in the jungle, building synthesizers and delay units out of capybara bones and coconuts. Oneida is challenging and rewarding, a complex, nonsensical riddle—Who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-dingdong?—that’s the fulcrum between vast knowledge and instant death. Oneida is bunch of kids who believed in dreams, hard work and friendship long and fervently enough that it became its own entity. Picture the three or four or five of them as trembling cilia on the same antenna, groping heavenward, channeling something invisible coursing through the air into sound: rock ‘n’ roll.
Sept. 13, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Kutshers Country Club, Monticello, www.atpfestival.com