February 12, 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
Brooklyn's Oneida want to harsh your mellow.
By Kimberly Chun
WHITHER WENT THE angry hippy? Did he disappear into some Grass Valley meth fortress after Altamont? Is she still furiously monkey-wrenching, pounding steel pegs into redwoods, or simply settling for divvying up her Working Assets dividends among her favorite charities? Is he pushing and shoving in the dance circle at the latest Other Ones hoedown? In any case, the bad trips and dank, dark underbelly of the bohemian boomer legacy have obsessed post-'60s artists and musicians such as Raymond Pettibon, Bongwater, and Sonic Youth since the '80s, and the fascination with utopias past and present continues in the minds of Brooklyn, N.Y., trio Oneida, named after the 1800s New York Christian utopian community, which preached the withdrawal method, found new and unusual ways for its members to draw from a pool of virgins, and eventually spawned the utensil company. Free love and flatware, Spahn Ranch and Williamsburg, Brooklyn these are the things that Oneida are made of.
But don't get them wrong. The band harbors a real affection for the Summer of Love and the hate that followed, says bassist-vocalist Hanoi Jane, a.k.a. Baby Jane, a.k.a Le Shiv. "I think the '60s represented an era of experimentation, and we're all fascinated with experiments gone awry, either cultural terror or psychic terror. The '60s were such a wonderful period of psychic horror, and we're rediscovering the terrible side of the trip, not in the terrified way but in an excited, embracing way," he says on the phone from his Brooklyn home, adding that he just returned from work at Scholastic Books and is slamming back a whiskey as fast as he can.
New words I can handle, and Oneida provides. "Tragi-psych" is the term the trio coined around the time of their fourth album, 2001's Anthem of the Moon (Jagjaguwar), a full-frontal embrace of psychedelia, released after they won over British music writers with the cock rock of 2000's Come on Everybody Let's Rock (Jagjaguwar). "That's when we started talking about the idea of epic psychedelic songs about total mania and loss of self," Jane says.
With that loss came a new identity: the angry acid casualty. "We're kind of hippies, but we're, like, vicious," says drummer-vocalist Kid Millions, a.k.a. Man Forever, on the phone from Brooklyn. "There's no jamming we don't jam. What we do is really refined. We try to find riffs and focus on how those develop within their own context and with repetition. At least for myself in drumming, I find the more I play, the less I play. The more extraneous fills and doodads fall to the side."
A former booker for the Knitting Factory in NYC, Kid speaks slowly and deliberately lest he tumble headlong into the "fugue state of fear" that accompanies not only bad acid but also rotten interviews. He's girding himself to go into rehearsal for the group's upcoming tour: Kid and keyboardist-vocalist Fat Bobby, a.k.a. Bobby Matador, will perform as People of the North during the first half, and Jane will join them for the West Coast portion as Oneida. The band will be back in the Bay Area for the first time in four years Feb. 19, after crawling away from a single San Francisco show that Kid calls "disastrous."
This time they have talismans to ward off bad mojo: a recent split CD with the Liars, Atheists Reconsider (Arena Rock Recordings), on which the two groups cover each other's songs, and last fall's much praised double CD, Each One Teach One (Jagjaguwar), which plummets down the rabbit hole of punk, drone, dance music, art rock, and psychedelia once explored by Can and Pere Ubu. Named after various social movements' calls to education, Each One Teach One is addictive stuff: starting with two 14-minute songs, including the trance- and pogo-inducing one-note, eight-word drone of "Sheets of Easter," continuing to the almost snappy title track, and extending to the arch, self-conscious new wave of "People of the North" and the barking madness of "Rugaru."
That's the beauty of Oneida's "one-step," says Kid, who, along with Fat Bobby, DJs Miami freestyle and dance music at Brooklyn bars. They started DJing after scavenging boxes of discarded dance discs that were left on the street. "I think it's really connected to the side of Oneida that writes 'Sheets of Easter,' a repetitive, pulsating, intense, sonic experience, like that song 'Rock Me' by Connie or like 'Let the Music Play' by Shannon," Kid says.
"Bobby's got a bunch of tapes; he calls the genre 'stern yet true.' The beats and electronics are very stern yet true. Our beats we try to make them as stern as possible.... No trappings, no extras, no lies. They don't lie, man," Kid rambles, before abruptly dropping the notion. "It's all facetious. They're all nice."
No need to break that flight of fancy. Sober austerity and discipline are the last things you'd associate with Kid, Bobby, and Jane, who appear to be running the band as a mutating, "transient" art project, with ever multiplying pseudonyms, wide-open musical goals, and a community of likeminded musicians such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Broke Revue, and Oakley Hall (which includes ex-Oneida singer Papa Crazee, a.k.a. PCRZ, a.k.a. the Beatles).
The band began in 1996 when Kid and Crazee met at a party and drunkenly committed to recording an album together. "In the next eight months, they recorded on a four-track, achieving insane heights of infidelity," Hanoi Jane says, describing the making of the 1997 Turnbuckle full-length A Place Called El Shaddai.
For their touring band on that ill-fated maiden outing, the duo added Fat Bobby and Hanoi Jane (dubbed when the group considered calling themselves the Fondas). When they returned, they decided to become a full-fledged rock band, complete with decision by group consensus, even as Crazee quit Oneida in November 2001. "Bobby and I brought the soul to the band. We just used them for their financial resources," Jane jokes.
After the tour the band will put out an EP on Ace Fu this spring, work on a soundtrack for Speedo (a documentary about a demolition derby driver), and complete their next album, which already has a title, The Wedding, and a new sound, Left Banke-style baroque pop.
Monkey-wrenching your assumptions is still a goal, Kid says, in the interest of preserving the Oneida family feeling. "Our perversity might be a way to make it difficult for us to be approached, like starting an album with 'Sheets of Easter,' " he observes. "Other people will say, 'Song X is really catchy. Why don't you start the album with that?' And we're like, 'Huuuuhh?' "
Oneida play Wed/19, 9 p.m., Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., S.F. $8. (415) 621-4455.