To understand the cosmic purpose of Oneida the Band, according to keyboardist Bobby Matador, you must investigate the contradictions of Oneida the Word. And such an investigation, you might guess, is no simple task. For these noise-loving nihilists from Brooklyn, a band name is never just a band name.
It begins with the indigenous people of North America in the 17th century, when the Oneida Nation is hunkered down in (what is now) New York State. Time passes. The American Revolution begins. The Oneida Nation joins forces with Colonial troops to bloody the British. Liberation. And then, the American government promptly backstabs her brothers-in-arms, in the name of Manifest Destiny, in the name of “Relocation”. The Oneida Nation is displaced, but survives. Their tagline? “Proud and Progressive”.
Onto the 19th century, in which a truly freaky Christian, John Humphrey Noyes, is the founding father of the Oneida Community in Putney, Vermont. Noyes and his followers practice “Perfectionism”, a doctrine based on the belief that “man’s innate sinlessness (can) be regained through communion with Christ.” One way they practice their dogma is by crafting steel traps and silverware. Another way is by taking multiple wives. Neighbors run Noyes out of town (and, ultimately, out of the country), but his legacy lives.
Fast-forward. It’s the beginning of the 20th century. Turning the Good Book into filthy lucre, Noyes’ Oneida Community lives on as Oneida Ltd., maker of sterling silver spoons, a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. Oddly, the company doesn’t shy away from its polygamist roots, boasting of a heritage linked to “the 19th century Utopian Society of John Humphrey Noyes, a religious and social society whose ideals were translated into everyday life through shared property and work. Their tagline? “Your Table is Ready”.
And now, the 21st century. Urbanization’s got hold of the people, technology reigns supreme. Art meets capitalism. Oneida is one of Brooklyn’s own, a thick, psychotic, psychedelic rock band residing in New York’s hottest borough. The closest thing the band’s got to a tagline? “Come on Everybody Let’s Rock”.
To hear Bobby Matador sum up his band’s part in this strange 400-year-and-going-strong narrative: “We are the contradiction in getting from free love, to free trade, to free-tarded.” He holds up a special Friends-branded digital camera, party swag received from a friend-of-a-friend who works on the sitcom. “This,” he points to the camera bearing the mark of Ross and Rachel, “tells you all you need to know about Oneida. Utopianism to corporatism.”
Sitting with the band before their show in Portland, Oregon, it’s hard to place these intellectual pranksters with the frightening music they make. Sweet and polite, Bobby Matador (keyboards/vocals), Kid Millions (drums/vocals), and Hanoi Jane (bass/vocals) wear sweaters and glasses, drink their drinks slowly — their inner anarchists remain in-check. Bobby’s a non-stop verbalizer with a big grin on his face, and he does a mean MacGyver, repairing his vintage keyboards at the last possible minute with a flashlight, magnifying glass, and knife. Kid’s chatting up the opening band, usaisamonster (“They’re old friends, they used to be in a band, Elvish Presley, that did Middle Earth operas,” he whispers lovingly). Jane warms our cold, wet, winter hearts, rhapsodizing about Brooklyn, about the lack of exploitation in the current NYC music scene, about slowing down recently due to a health scare. These are the sonic terrorists making Krautrock fashionable again?
In their current incarnation as a trio, Oneida are a loud, loud band driven by hyperkinetic keyboards and deliriously maniacal drumming, with often-nonsensical lyrics taking back seat to the instrumental mayhem. With five full-lengths in their pants, the band has a legion of faithful chaos-seekers sloppily salivating over their smart intense sound. People love these guys. Even the guy traveling with the band, the roadie-cum-digital archivist, has taken a nickname: Mustang Larry.
Each band member assumes an Oneida nickname, and Bobby Matador’s explaining why such a naming protocol is humble, and righteous: “Here’s the thing. You have nicknames for your friends, right? It’s a way that you think of yourself or present yourself. Nobody ever questions why rappers name themselves because there’s a tradition in hip-hop culture and black American culture of not accepting that you’re given one name. Nobody’s like, O.K. Malcolm X, what’s up with that? He had a reason for doing that, but that’s a culture thinking, “this isn’t the only name I’ve got.” If you read scripture and Bible stuff, which I grew up reading — my mom is a minister — everybody has different names. It’s just something that happened with us, we started calling each other different things. I’ve been calling Kid that for years, that’s what I’d call him in front of his mother. It’s like, should we all identify ourselves with our social security numbers? Fuck that.”
Oneida’s music is nearly impossible to define. Call it warehouse-art-rock, terror-rawk, stoner-metal. But don’t call it math-rock, says Kid. “The other night we were playing and this kid came up to us and was like, ‘There’s this band called such and such, they’re really like you, they’re really math-y and precise…” Bobby Matador jumps in. “I love it when people call us math rock, because as far as we’re concerned, Oneida’s math rock that only goes up to ONE. Just call us “one-step” and we’re good. That’s one of the genre names that we’d like to have applied to us arbitrarily.”
The band’s trying to convince me of the righteousness of their mission, the purity of their sound, as if listening to their music could detoxify my soul. Oneida can spew the same sonic spunk as the MC5, the New York Dolls, Captain Beefheart, and the 13th Floor Elevators, so you might expect them to be affected, or cocky. But listening to Hanoi Jane riff on a “dream bill” (including the Liars, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Oakley Hall) the band played on in their ‘hood, I begin to believe the vision that is Oneida. They are the purveyors of great potential, of cerebral and instinctual transformation, of evolution.
Listen to track one, “Sheets of Easter,” from the band’s latest double release, Each One Teach One. It’s 14 minutes long, and it repeats itself in a 1-2-3-4 chant for pretty much the entire length of the song. “People have asked us if we’re doing that just to provoke people,” Bobby Matador explains. “It’s a little more complicated than that. I think “Sheets of Easter” is an awesome song. We’re not stupid, we know it’s going to provoke people. But by putting it as the first song, it lets people know: if you can get with this, you might really like the rest.”
“Sheets of Easter” is a disturbing song. When Oneida open their set with it, I’m half-surprised people don’t get up and walk out of the place. Oneida can rile you up, give you the jitters, make you wanna turn the volume down, and up at the same time. War-mongering television and radio pundits have mass-media junkies on edge; Oneida might just push you over that edge. I have to plug my ears to survive the blast — it’s an odd sensation. The insanity muted, I feel a resistance to the band’s demonic pull. I want to burn with them, but I choose to spare myself. Have I made the right decision?
We’re discussing the ludicrousness of trying to categorize this music, of attempting to contain bedlam in a box. I mention that a friend referred to Oneida as “psyche-rock” (“psyche” as in, “psychedelic”), and that I saw another possibility inside of that name for the band’s blend of repetition, massive volume, and chaos. Psyche-rock, as in, rock that messes with your head.
After World War II, German artists went on a long journey to reclaim their souls, their country, their sound. From this, Krautrock was born. Musicians mixed art and noise, chaos and beauty, somberness and madcap humor, complex technology and naked talent. Inside of this collage came freedom. Freedom from the past, from their identity, from the creative imprisonment the war and its horrors birthed. As the bombs drop on Baghdad, as American consumers play out their speed-freak duct tape drama, as the Department of Homeland Security moves us from Yellow (“Elevated”) to Orange (“High”) and back again, as the country pulls apart in dissent, and support, let’s hope that Oneida, and the rest of their neighborhood, are evidence of a similar American liberation.