Oneida :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

If time is a flat circle, the members of Oneida have figured out how to toss it like a frisbee. Nearly a quarter century since their debut album, the avant-rock quintet have returned with one of the most straightforward, riff-heavy records in their vast discography: Success.

Of course, this is Oneida we’re talking about, so “straightforward” doesn’t exactly mean verse-chorus-verse. “Beat Me To The Punch” barrels ahead like a Ramones bop until it’s interrupted by one of the most damaged guitar solos since “I Heard Her Call My Name.” On the concise noise-rock jammers “Opportunities” and “Rotten” (featuring Yo La Tengo’s James McNew), keyboardist Bobby Matador delivers dark, satirical lyrics with deadpan repetition. It’s a blast to hear drummer Kid Millions let loose on the kit in the lengthier songs’ extended jam outros, as organs and guitars throb at full blast. On the Beatles-meet-Philip-K-Dick sci-fi love song, “I Wanna Hold Your Electric Hand”, Oneida sounds positively triumphant.

In the middle of July, before they were sadly forced to cancel their tour, I connected with Bobby Matador and John “Kid Millions” Colpitts on a video call. With a friendship that dates back even further than their 24 years together in Oneida, they had plenty of stories to share. Read on for some insight into how the Grateful Dead continue to play an unlikely role in the band’s history, how improvisation guided their latest collection of rock songs, and the threads that connect their many releases. Each one, teach one. | j locke | Photo: Nina Westervelt

Aquarium Drunkard: The bio for your new album mentions that you two have been playing in bands together since your junior years of high school. Can you tell me about how you met, and what some of those early bands were like?

Bobby Matador: Yes! I think it also says in our bio that you don’t get to hear any of it. [Laughs] We both grew up in northwestern Connecticut, but didn’t know each other until we went to the same boarding school in New Hampshire. If being in a rock band pulls you, you find like minded people really quickly, in any environment—school or whatever. The very first time the two of us played together in a band was when we were in 10th grade. We didn’t really know each other, but we knew of each other. A bunch of seniors asked us to play in their Grateful Dead cover band. I’m going to go ahead and say they were called the Four Winds.

Kid Millions: They were! [Laughs]

Bobby Matador: They wanted to broaden their sound so they could play bigger, more expressive stuff. They called Kid in as a percussionist, and me to play keyboard. Never mind the fact that there were six of us, but they kept the name the Four Winds. 

AD: Were you teenage Deadheads at that point?

Kid Millions: I don’t think we were ever Deadheads. I went to some Dead shows, but it was more of a social thing. Now I’m more of a fan, but back then I didn’t understand how they were a good band. I didn’t get it. At the shows I saw, they weren’t good. Rob, you had a cool record collection because of your brother, right?

Bobby Matador: Yeah, I had an older brother who pulled me into the indie and punk world. By that point being into the Grateful Dead was a tribal thing, though I think retrospectively I wasn’t too pulled into the oppositional side. This was the late 1980s and early ’90s, so a lot of people said “fuck the Grateful Dead!” I was just like “ehhh, this is not my music,” but it was an excuse to play. I remember one of the songs was “Eyes of the World” and I just didn’t like that song. [Laughs]

AD: Back then it seemed like punks weren’t allowed to like the Dead. 

Kid Millions: Just Black Flag and Greg Ginn.

Bobby Matador: We weren’t punks either, just music fans. We’ve always been a little bit exploratory, looking forward and backwards at the same time with arms wide open. You know, Oneida has released a 7” of Dead covers on tie dye vinyl! That was in 2008, maybe. We covered “Cream Puff War” and “Cold Rain and Snow.”

AD: “Cold Rain and Snow” is my favorite Dead song! 

Bobby Matador: There you go! Once again, we’re coming from the same slant. We did that. Then we also contributed to a big Dead tribute album that the dude from the National put together. We requested to do “Drums -> Space.” According to my 13-year-old child, if you look at Oneida on Spotify, our number one streamed song is “Drums -> Space!” [laughs]

AD: How did your collaboration develop from there?

Bobby Matador: By the time we were seniors in high school, we were writing and recording stuff together, and performing in a bunch of different contexts. We went off to different colleges and formed our own bands. Kid brought my band to Middlebury College where he was studying a couple of times.

Kid Millions: I tried to get Bobby to book a show for my band, but he was such a wastoid at that time. Just kidding! 

Bobby Matador: Strong words! But it’s true, I had no logistical bent at that time.

Kid Millions: That was my strong suit… figuring out how a show could happen! We kept in touch all through that time.

Bobby Matador: By that point, the idea of staying connected musically had its roots in us. We made the decision to move to Brooklyn with a few other folks because that’s where we could afford a place. Obviously there are always music scenes in every city, but there was no music scene in Brooklyn in 1996 that felt accessible to us. We found our way pretty quickly after Kid started working at the Knitting Factory. You can tell the story better than I can, but they basically said “you’re interning” and then very quickly after that “you’re not interning any more, you’re booking! You’re good at this and we don’t have to pay you shit.” [Laughs]

Kid Millions: Bobby was also really resourceful when we moved to Brooklyn. What he told me is that he was going to move to New York with his friend Al “to rock.” That was how he framed it, and I thought it sounded pretty good. When we finally found a place I think Bobby was still looking for work. The day we moved in, he wandered around the neighborhood and found us a practice space. Is that right?

Bobby Matador: There was a vacant, abandoned nightclub on the second story, half a block away on Fulton Street in Clinton Hill. It had been the site of some kind of shootout or robbery several years before and had been left unlicensed. This was wild west territory for that kind of stuff, and it had been left in a disastrous mess. I met this guy who was like “oh yeah, I got a place I can rent you guys.” We had this 1,700 square-foot nightclub for $300 a month. At the time, it was like “shit, can we afford this?” [Laughs]

After that I got a job working at a jazz record label called Black Saint / Soul Note Records. It was an Italian label whose US offices were at Kennedy Airport. Kid, you put me in touch with the guy Frank who was running the US side. There we were, both working in the jazz world! At the same time, I was interning with a guy named Peter Watrous who was the jazz critic for the Times. I knew how to write so I thought I might be a music critic. I liked working with him. He took me to a million incredible shows at the Vanguard, Blue Note, and S.O.B.’s that a dirt-poor, new to the city kid could never have gone to. It was clear really quickly that writing about music was going to require a part of my brain that I had reserved for making music. Those two things weren’t going to co-exist well for me.

AD: Is that around the time when Oneida got started?

Kid Millions: Pat Sullivan and I went to Middlebury College together. He was a music guy, but we weren’t close, but we were friendly. I ran into him at a party in Manhattan some night and said “Hey, we should make a record.” And we did! Unlike many of those things that people say, we actually did it. He would come by our place and we worked on it for a while. At first Oneida was just me and Pat. Then another guy we knew from high school had started a label, so when we finished the album I gave it to him. I honestly didn’t think he would do anything, but he loved it and decided to put the record out. He had a lot of money to blow.

Bobby Matador: Kid means “to invest.” Historically, that’s a synonym for blowing money with Oneida. [Laughs]

Kid Millions: He kind of fashioned it after a major label, who at that time were paying artists to go on tour. This label had a budget to pay us X amount of money each week to be on tour, so we were like “Alright, fuck it! Let’s do it.” We went out for many, many weeks. We didn’t have a band before that, so that’s when we got Bobby and Jane.

Bobby Matador: We had all played together in our late teens and early 20s. Jane and Kid were in bands together in college, then Jane came out to Oberlin where I was studying. We both played bass, but you can always use two bass players, so Jane joined my band. We’ve held onto connections to the people that make a difference, and I think that’s where we transcend the classic rock band origin story. You meet a million people, and can look back and impose a veneer of inevitability of working with someone, but it’s really about how connections hook in and stay. There’s the connection, but then there’s the way you grow with somebody.

We toured together for eight weeks in the fall of 1997. I remember it was six weeks, then we took some time off for Thanksgiving, then did two more weeks. I assumed that by the time the tour was over we would all hate each other. But instead, here we are 25 years later!

AD: That leads pretty well into my next question. Before the recording sessions for your new album, the pandemic lockdowns were the longest time you had been apart from making music together since the start of the band, right?

Bobby Matador: We had some material and a date in the studio at our friend’s place in Ridgewood in March 2020. A few days before we were supposed to start, everything was closing down. Rumors were flying, suppositions were building. People were saying they were going to shut down the bridges out of New York, so it was a wild moment. We missed that session, and then it was lock down for us until the following May. That was over a year of not playing together.

AD: How did it feel when you were all back in the room?

Bobby Matador: Fuckin’ awesome! That’s not very articulate but it’s true. [Laughs] We did two days of improvisation, so there are hours and hours of recordings. That’s not new to us, but the idea of this band that’s been going for 24 years getting back together and playing unscripted for two days non-stop was an interesting story for me. You could feel some of the rust, but it was an emotionally and psychologically powerful experience. Being in that big, beautiful room making these sounds was super compelling, and that kickstarted the process of making our new album. We worked out the actual songs, some of which predated the pandemic, and then recorded at the end of the summer.

Kid Millions: The new album was recorded in maybe a day and a half? Then of course we spent a lot of time on mixing and other stuff, but the songs were all there at that point.

AD: It’s a really funny album! “Opportunities” and “I Wanna Hold Your Electric Hand” crack me up.

Bobby Matador: I like that you hear that! You’re not wrong. [Laughs] It’s a little bit dark, it’s a little bit dry. It’s not a joke, but it’s funny.

AD: When you sing “I just don’t know what to do with all these opportunities,” it reminds me of scrolling through Netflix and the paralysis of choice. There are a billion things available but you don’t want to choose any of them.

Bobby Matador: I hadn’t thought of Netflix, but “the paralysis of choice” is a great phrase.

AD: Thank you! I didn’t coin it, but I’m happy to use it when I can.

Bobby Matador: Own it! Own it!

AD: John, you also released your solo album, Music From The Accident, earlier this year. What was it like recovering from the car accident you went through in 2018?

Kid Millions: It was a lot, but thankfully I recovered over about six months. That was a long time ago now. What actually got me to truly recover was that somehow we had an Oneida tour that was happening. We canceled one after I had been in the accident, but then was it in August? Bobby, I know you didn’t come…

Bobby Matador: The one we canceled started two days after your accident, but then there was a summer tour in August, and after that there was a European tour.

Kid Millions: I had a deadline, so I spent a couple of months working my way back to playing shape. Recovery was hard and painful. There were definitely times when I was in pain when I didn’t think it was going to end. But it’s long gone now, thankfully. It happened but it’s not really in my thoughts a whole lot, which is cool.

AD: It’s a really interesting record with the absence of drums and percussion in the first half. Did you see this as a chance to branch out a bit?

Kid Millions: Honestly, it was the only thing I could do. What’s on that is everything I could do. That was all I had! I didn’t think about branching out. [Laughs] I could play drums when I made it, but it was just all that came out. There’s nothing more, there’s nothing less!

Bobby Matador: That’s a pretty good encapsulation of how a lot of our music can be described. This is how it came out! [Laughs]

AD: You guys make so much music that I imagine you can’t labor over it for too long. You just have to keep it moving.

Bobby Matador: We’ve used a lot of different processes to make music, whether on our own or together. We have no single formula or recipe, but I have retrospectively figured out one common thread between a lot of what we do. If we conceptualize something or have an idea, then we tend to pursue that idea on an instinctual level. We can have the idea and put parameters in place. Sometimes those parameters are big and complex, and sometimes it’s just “boom!” Here’s one idea. Then we chase the goal and see how that comes out. It’s taken me a long time to figure out that’s the thing that keeps happening. If it’s super complex and scripted, we follow the script until we don’t. I obviously can’t speak to how John made his solo record, but hearing him say that I agree that’s the way it is.

AD: So you guys were just in “rock song” mode for this one, sort of?

Bobby Matador: Sort of! That’s just how it came out, man. I’d say yes, except rock songs have choruses. These songs have really simple structures, and the language in them is very simple, but there’s a lot of complexity underneath. I think you’ve sussed some of that out in the humor, but there’s also darkness, and a lot of ways to read the lyrics. We didn’t set out to write songs that work on an emotional and physical level. The faucet was on, and this is what came out.

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