Oneida isn’t exactly the most famous rock band in Brooklyn, which seems to be the mailing address of half the bands who find their way to blog-fueled indie stardom these days. Yet they have been a staple of the scene (and in more than just an “inner circle, hipster, high-five” kind of way) for just over ten years, before many of their more well-known neighbors had left their college towns and moved to New York’s most rapidly gentrifying borough. Now Oneida has decided to sum up everything the band sounds like and stands for with a trilogy of albums called Thank Your Parents. The first of these three releases was last year’s Preteen Weaponry, a single forty-minute long track divided into three sections. This summer they released the second volume, Rated O, a sprawling triple album of punchy garage rock, hypnotizing kraut rock and a healthy dose of sonic experimentation. But while a career retrospective frequently marks the end of a rock band, Rated O finds the band at their most fresh and adventurous.
At Length talked with Oneida’s Fat Bobby (a.k.a. Bobby Matador) about the virtues of being a good self-editor, their upcoming September performance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Monticello, NY and why being a little old-fashioned about making music may be the key to succeeding in the new music business landscape far into the future. Check out the interview below while listening to the sprawling masterpiece “Folk Wisdom” off the band’s new album.
At Length: It seems that this project was a long time coming for you. You started a few years ago, then scrapped it, and now you’re coming back to it.
Fat Bobby: “Scrapped” isn’t quite the right word. We just called time out. It wasn’t quite becoming what we had hoped, which isn’t to say we were doing it badly, we just had this vision for something based around a trilogy kind of mode, but at the time our band was going through a lot of upheaval. Nothing dramatic, but we were losing our recording studio, and I had just moved from Brooklyn up to Boston. We weren’t really doing the idea justice — we were all hung up. So we thought, this is a great idea but we’re not quite succeeding at getting where we want to get with it, so let’s just return to it in a little while. Which isn’t that unusual for us — to take a project and begin work and suspend it or string it along or return to it at another time.
AL: So you had originally wanted to do this trilogy and now this second volume is out and it is, itself, a triple record.
FB: Right. Obviously, none of us is deep into numerology. There’s been this kind of return to a triad relationship here with the idea that the three pieces of it fit together, with Preteen Weaponry being the first leg in what we may be a little pretentiously calling a triptych. But really, my whole conception of a triptych is something like Stonehenge and the idea of two pillars supporting a lintel, so you’ve got these two things supporting a middle piece, and Rated O is the middle piece which is, itself, a triple album.
AL: So there’s already a lot of music with these two volumes. Did you guys know that there would be such a massive amount of material that you’d be producing for this?
FB: We make a huge amount of music. I can tell you that Rated O was pared down. We have volumes and volumes and volumes of recorded music, different compositions and recordings — output isn’t really an issue for us. When we talk about shelving the triple album idea it wasn’t like, “Oh we can’t make enough music.” At the time it was shelved we had more than enough for a triple album but we are self-editors and I think that’s a strength of our band. I know that it’s hard from a consumer side and particularly it appears to be hard for people who try to encounter or relate to our music on a professional level, you know, journalists, reviewers, whatever. I think a knee-jerk reaction from a lot of people is, you know, “Oh my God, this band needs to pare down their triple CD down to a single CD!” It’s sort of like, no, we’ve done all the paring down. You may not like it, or have a meaningful relationship with the whole thing, which is fine, but output isn’t the problem.
AL: Yeah, certainly, so many bands have put out the double album that the critics have savaged and said, “There’s one good album here and they’ve added a lot of filler.”
FB: I think that there’s a danger for people in the critical role to try and pronounce a universal judgment on something. We knew that this would happen and of course it’s bearing fruit as far as I can see in terms of people’s reactions to Rated O, where people say, “God, you can make one single 45 minute album out of this.” But the great thing is that you ask people to do that and it’s different for everybody. A great example is, I think, Sandinista by The Clash. You know the sort of canonical trope regarding that is that it’s sloppy and full of crap. But it’s kind of like, well, you know what, why don’t you ask a bunch of people to make a CDR or a mix tape out of Sandinista and see what you get? And it’s fascinating because it’s a band reaching in all kinds of directions. I don’t necessarily love the whole thing, but on the other hand I’m a fan of sprawl if it’s focused, not sprawl meaning, “Oh here’s all the music I made, bro” or “Here’s the whole book I wrote.” You have to be kind of relentless but it’s also, to me, completely justifiable to say, OK, what’s the unit that people consume something in right now? It’s the song. It’s just the digital thing, it’s really not the album. Albums exist, but you download songs. If you do buy an album, or download a whole album, plenty of people rip through it and pull out the things they like. And that’s great. And, of course, that means I’m totally out of step, but I don’t mind.
AL: Back when Sandinista came out, it was such the punk ethos to be concise and to get in and get out. But these days, I feel like people eat stuff up, whatever covers and alternate versions and remixes a band will put out, fans want it all. They seem to have an endless appetite for consuming different variations.
FB: I think you’re right in some respects. There are true fans — that’s exactly the right word — a true fan of something is going to want it all. You’re right, the appetite has been able to be fed in a way that it wasn’t when distributing music cost money. Now, if we wanted, we could say “Hey, here’s eleven hours of our Rated O sessions,” and that’s fine and there’s definitely a handful, like a dozen or so Oneida fans out there, that would probably be pretty stoked about that, but at the same time we kind of want to present something that’s exactly how we want to present it. There’s a little bit of power-tripping in that, maybe, and a little bit of ego, and one of the cool things about where we’re at right now with technology and music and intellectual property is that it’s a little bit of a wild west moment right now, and nobody really knows what the rules are. Fuck the laws, I mean the sort of aesthetic rules are totally in flux. Should we just be releasing a song at a time online? Should we be releasing twelve hours of music at a time? So we’ve made a choice to do it this way and who knows how we’ll feel about that five or ten years down the line.
AL: It’s interesting, because it strikes me that part of what you guys seem to be doing is that you seem to be getting into ideas that take more space to develop.
FB: I think that’s fair to say, but the one place I would check you on that is our double album called Each One Teach One. The first disc of that is just two long form songs, so it’s not unprecedented for us to do this. But, yeah, sometimes we make music that takes up a lot of space, and this is a convenient way to do that. Now, a critical response to that that I could imagine might be, “Well, why don’t you create, you know, a sort of short, limited, sampler size version of a ton of ideas and make more fully expanded versions of those ideas available online?” So it’s not like we’re super didactic about what the approach is. It’s very personal, you know, it’s just this is really what we want to do right now. Some of the music that we make, the power and the effect is only available when it’s consumed or experienced in these full versions. Frankly, my own experience with it is at very high volume and at length. You just have a different reaction. I have complete respect and sympathy for the consumer or listener who is like, “You know, man, fuck you, I don’t want to hear that.” Which is totally fine.
AL: I was really struck by how much these three discs seem to have a very different feel from one another. That first one with the sort of dubby feel with a lot of dark grooves, and the second one was a lot more what I think of as Oneida’s classic sound, and the third one had this kind of expansive, experimental, free sound.
FB: I would agree with that.
AL: Was that the plan from the beginning, to have these three different statements that you were thinking about, or was it more that you recorded a bunch of stuff and sorted them based on how they felt to you after the recording process?
FB: That’s an excellent question. The motivation behind doing this was to present different sides of who we are and what our music is and what our experience of our music is. So in that sense, we always understood that we wanted it to be a presentation of something, but that something is always kind of elusive and changing and we didn’t really know for sure what it would be. We always have made music both motivated by a specific idea, something like, “OK, we’re going to do this and we want it to sound this way,” but also at the same time being willing and, frankly, delighted to really listen to it critically after the fact and re-categorize it or say, “Boy, we really didn’t get what we were going for, let’s try again,” or “We really didn’t get what we were going for but, my God, this is going in this direction, can we do something else like this?” So that there is this fluidity in how things are characterized. It’s not like we sat down and were like, “All right, disc one: dark, electronic groove thing. Okay.” It’s not at all that directed. The idea of characterizing knowledge and experience into three separate strands is something that you see in intellectual disciplines throughout history and across cultures, and that was something that was really appealing to us.
AL: Speaking of the feel and the vibe, especially of that first disc, it seems that any one line description of Oneida will always mention that you have this ferocious and awesome live show. It struck me that this first disc has more of a studio sound than you guys usually seem to do, and I was wondering if you felt that there were some things that you were just not going to be able to tour with, or were already thinking of ways to bring them out on tour?
FB: That’s another nice question that allows me to provide a little bit of a window into our live versus studio existence. We always make music when we’re working in the studio via as many different approaches as we find feasible and valuable, so there’s never, ever been a conscious direction towards “Let’s do something we couldn’t do live blah blah blah.” Every record has tons of songs that we’ve never played live. But also every record has songs that have been studio constructions that we’ve decided, “Oh, this one would be sweet to play live,” and then we relearn it and sort of re-contextualize it or just take the spirit of it, which is a great process to go through. I think being freed from any expectation of monetary or commercial success [Laughs] allows us to write and dive into our music again retrospectively and re-channel itso we are playing some stuff from the first disc live, and the reality is that whole first disc of songs were all performed on live instruments. Some of them were layered and built up track by track in the studio. Any one of them could be easily done in some form live and some of them, like “Human Factor” or “Story of O” were just live recordings in the studio. “10:30 at the Oasis” was done in piecework, like “OK, you lay this part down here and you lay this part down here”, in like 15 different pieces. But we could definitely do that. Find a way to do that, work on translating that into a live sound given a specific live incarnation.
AL: And that’s certainly no different than almost any band that records an album these days.
FB: Yeah. As corny as this sounds – sometimes true things are corny and corny things are true – we really just try to remain open to the possibility that our music isn’t going to sound like we intended it to sound, and then to listen to it and decide if we like it or not, and then we decide if we can take what we like in a new direction or build on it, and that’s how we decide what we’re going to play live.
AL: Speaking about the difference between playing live and being in the studio, I’m really fascinated to see what you guys are going to be doing at All Tomorrow’s Parties [ATP], curated by The Flaming Lips, in September. You’re going to take your studio, the “O”cropolis, and put it out there among the people. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’re going to be doing?
FB: Absolutely. This was born of something we’ve done over the past year a few times, which was live performances in our studio. Our studio is in a building called Monster Island, which is like an art collective thing with several tenants, including the Mighty Robot Visual Studio (which runs a gallery called Secret Project Robot), Kayrock Screenprinting, the Live with Animals art gallery in the front on the first floor, and we have our studio in the basement. When we’re in the studio, we sort of inhabit it and it becomes a community experience. People come by and play, and we record and work in a very open and loose and holistic way, and I feel it’s a credit to this that you’ll see a bunch of past and present Oneida associates and members and people are playing on Rated O, and that’s how we run our world. And, basically, the Mighty Robot Visual A/V Crew are kind of a real visual partnership and analog to us. Anyways, we’ve been having these events in our studio, where we’ll put a little announcement on our MySpace page and our Website, saying “Hey, if you want to come to a free live performance, email us.” And the first fifty or sixty people who email come, and bring some canned goods to donate to a soup kitchen, and we’ll just do three sets in the studio. And it’s been really enjoyable for us, because it’s a performance environment where we’re assured that people are there because they care about our music. We try to make it a really welcoming, casual environment and a fun place to be and try to create a little bit of utopian communalism, and it’s worked out really well. At ATP they’re providing us some space on Sunday and we’re carting up a bunch of the equipment from our studio, but not all of it — our studio is packed floor to ceiling with some crazy shit. The Mighty Robot A/V Crew is going to come and they’re going to do projections in this space, and we’re just going to play and record. We’ll play songs and improvise and have guests and some of that is going to be pretty fluid, but hopefully we’ll be able to schedule some of that and provide ATP with good information ahead of time, of what people will be playing when. Have you ever been to All Tomorrow’s Parties?
AL: No, not yet.
FB: One of the really great things about that festival (and I’m speaking about the ones in the UK that I’ve been to) is that you can just make your way around, and you’re there already, so you don’t feel like you need to be somewhere. I can identify like one or two things that I really want to hit, but the rest of the time you can just walk around and – Boom! – here’s this band playing or here’s some music happening, and I’m just going to enjoy it and not be uptight about where I’m supposed to be. So we wanted to provide the same experience, the same sort of comfort level, and this view into our weird-ass thing, which is not quite as career-driven as some of our world is. But a place you can drop into and drop out of. It might be like, “Oh there’s nothing happening for the next 40 minutes,” because we’re just hanging out, but that’s OK, hang out. We’re very nice.
AL: So for those people who can’t make it to ATP, are you planning on doing other touring right now? I saw that you’ve got some European shows scheduled, but do you have any more US dates on the horizon?
FB: We just did a few, and I think we’re going to leave it at that for a little while, as far as supporting the album goes, from that nice “Let’s make the record label happy” perspective. Although only fair if I’m going to say something like that, is to point out that our label Jagjaguar is the most ludicrously supportive entity in the world of music. We tell them we’re releasing this huge album that we consider the defining statement of our band and we’re only going to play six shows in the US and they say, “OK, cool. What can we do to help you?”
AL: Jagjaguar must’ve been really on your team to support you guys through this.
FB: It’s funny. We’ve put out a lot of music and we’ve put it all out with them except for our first record. I mean, occasionally we’ll do EPs and stuff with other people, but that’s it. I don’t want to get all flowery about our label, but we’re a band that’s maybe a little bit out of the traditional business currents. I mean, I don’t think we’re not marketable — we’re not out there carving swastikas into the faces of people who come to our shows. We’re not about transgression in a typical way, but at the same time, who would want to try to sell “It’s going to be a series of three albums, and one of them is a triple album, and people are going to really hate some of this music?” So, they’re awesome. They’re totally behind it.
I’m sorry. I got off on Jagjaguar and lost the thread.
AL: That’s OK. We were just talking about live gigs.
FB: We played Brooklyn, San Francisco, LA, Boston, and we played this really cool Sunday night New Haven show. We just played a couple. We’re going to Europe for two and a half weeks and then ATP. We’re hoping that the ATP show will be this really positive, definitive experience for people who don’t know who we are. To be like, “OK, here’s what this band is. These assholes who released this huge amount of music? This is why they’re doing it. This is what their world is like.” Not that I’m pushing it or trying to sell it too hard, but if you want to know the O, you’re never going to get a better chance at it, unless you live in Brooklyn, in which case pay attention to our site and our Myspace and the next time we do one of these studio shows you email us, and you come and everyone is friendly. And it’s not some little inner circle, hipster, high-five thing — there are always people there who don’t fucking know anyone and everybody gets to hang out and see music.
AL: It’s kind of a corny thing to say, and it gets said a lot, but that thing with the free shows announced via MySpace and the open studio at ATP, these both sound like how the new world of distribution and the music business in general is supposed to work. You have more direct contact with fans and you eliminate a lot of the garbage and the rock stardom stuff, and it’s more about interpersonal interaction and more of a feeling like you’re part of something.
FB: I think you’re right, and I think that what you’re doing is sensing the idealism behind it, and there is hopefully some kind of low-key idealism that drives us. But I think it’s important that we call a spade, a spade here. If we were a really popular band, that would be a hell of a lot harder to do. So it is something that that is made much easier not being superstars. But you know, boo-hoo, I’m sure that’s something I could handle. And it’s also something that’s made possible by all of us having other ways of supporting ourselves. It’s one of the most liberating things and infuriating things at the same time. Not just a day job, but something that you care about outside of the music world, in your life. It’s infuriating because it’s hard to coordinate the schedules of this massive number of people, but it’s liberating because we don’t have to always be finding ways to make everything yield as much money as possible. You know, we’re not like, “Dude, money’s no good! Fuck that!” I mean, I would love to make a million a year. That would suit me fine. I would probably also still be a middle school teacher. The ability to create music and put together events without the financial pressure of having to monetize everything is great. But yeah, we sell albums. It’s not like we want it all to be free. But you’re right, the ideal situation for us is a combination of the good parts of hippies and the good parts of the DIY punk shit, and then whatever this new world is and what it’s shaping up to be, which is kind of exciting but will ultimately let us all down, and that’s fine. [Laughs.]
AL: I’ve just got one more quick extra credit question. What sort of movie would be “rated O?”
FB: The idea of rated O is that it’s something that would be retroactively applied to something, like, “Wow, that shit was rated O!” So by definition, I would say it would have to be documentary. Only a documentary would be rated O. You can’t write something and then film it and be like “This is rated O,” because you knew what was going to happen going into it. What has to happen is that everything has to go off the rails in ways you couldn’t imagine and in ways that your mom wouldn’t be psyched about. And then there you are. You can’t plan it in advance. Only in the cold, grey haze of a Tuesday morning can you be like, yeah, I’m pretty sure that weekend was rated O.