Heads Ain’t Ready
Education of a drummer
I’d like to tell you a story of an Oneida show and see if you can place it in our fifteen-year history. I imagine it will be instructive to anyone with any kind of fantasy about being in a band.
Oneida was on the West Coast. We had a show booked on a Thursday at the Brookdale Lodge — a place deep in the redwood forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains that once, during a more optimistic time, had been a destination for Hollywood royalty. The Lodge was a sprawling, grotesque combination of Jazz Age elegance and crack-house decay. The crown jewel of the grounds was a multi-tiered restaurant with a river running through it. Photos from the ’30s showed massive redwoods and extravagant greenery growing through the dining area’s vaulted ceiling, but that was all gone now. All that remained was the flowing river, a dampness that permeated everything, and poorly disguised evidence of rat control. Still — grand architecture can distract you from otherwise obvious faults. As we loaded into the performance space we were impressed by the grounds.
“These woods are filled with criminals,” a friend who’d once worked there as a waiter told me. Drug dealers, bikers, crooks on the lam, prostitutes, and various other hard-up characters filled the area surrounding the lodge. The show’s promoter did something with weed — harvested it, delivered it, packaged it . . . something. She was a friend of a friend and she had never booked a show in her life. A clear red flag should have been the fact that this midweek show had eight other bands on the bill. The flyer insisted that performances would start at 6 SHARP — which meant that the first band decided to shuffle their gear toward the performance area at about seven.
The promoter was so excited about the show that I was disturbed. She clearly evidenced some kind of mania, whether native or drug-induced I’m not sure. She was small, cute, blond, and obsequious. As the night went on her mood touched on everything from callous indifference to tearful (and drunken) despair. She had hired the venue for an undisclosed sum and had actually added some bands to the show after the flyer was printed. I think the total ended up being eleven. In other words, for her first-ever show she had tried to put on a weekday festival, in the middle of the mountains, with Oneida as the headliner. Just so you know — Oneida has always headlined shows on the West Coast. This sounds like a good thing but it’s not. Any touring band will tell you that it’s not a coveted slot. Most people leave as soon as their friend’s band finishes their set, because they all have to work or they assume that the touring band will suck. This is in fact often the case.
We were given two rooms in the hotel, both of which were in states of decay. There was a torso-sized hole in the drywall in the front hall in one, and in the other the bathroom door didn’t have an inside door handle — so if you made the “mistake” of closing the door you were locked in. The sheets seemed clean and there was a balcony, though.
By the time 9 PM rolled around, one band had finished their set and the second had just started after a long, involved, and pointless sound check. It was a parade of amateurs. Everyone was incompetent, from the promoter, to the security, to the sound person, to the mentally impaired hotel managers — but especially the bands. Literally every band was filled with clowns. They needed “more vocals in the monitor,” they needed “more treble in the drum wedge,” they “couldn’t hear the bass.” Oneida doesn’t sound check. We can barrel through. I’m just saying — these eleven (!) bands on a Thursday night, running lengthy (sometimes hour-long) sound checks for a show that maybe had . . . ten to fifteen paying customers reveals a certain LACK OF SELF-AWARENESS.
It was at this point that Oneida decided to find out whether there was a curfew, which at these kinds of venues there often is. It turned out that the curfew was 1 AM, a mere two hours away, and there were five more bands to play before our set. My one friend who lived in the area, the former waiter, had gone home long before. It seemed likely that there would not be an Oneida set.
We begged and cajoled the promoter to beg and cajole the owners of the hotel to let the show go on longer so all the bands could actually play. But the promoter at this point was drunk, crying, incoherent, and not in a position to advocate for anything. So we did our best to convince an assortment of disinterested employees to cut into their sleep so Oneida could play to no one. Or, well, there was a couple who had driven six hours to see us . . . I’m not sure from where . . . it might have even been twelve hours. But yes — there was a dude (and his girlfriend who had never heard us — not such an uncommon scenario) who was waiting patiently, through this cataract of terribleness, to see Oneida play a set.
So Oneida went on high alert. If we’re on tour and have a show booked, then we play — no matter what. This is why we’re here. Many of us have left our families, our girlfriends, our straight lives, in order to be two thousand miles away among vaguely threatening and indifferent strangers. The only reason we make these sacrifices is to play music. So that’s what we will do. Because of this band rule, we’ve played a set locked in the basement of a frat house while brothers blocked curious listeners from descending the stairs; we’ve taken the stage in Memphis even when the promoter insisted that we didn’t have to play; and we’ve managed to clear rooms of the bartender and sound person. This is not uncommon. If you talk with any touring band they’ll have similar stories.
But at this point, approaching midnight with three bands left before us, it seemed like our rule was about to be broken. There was zero sympathy from the hotel staff. In fact, as our guitarist poured energy into convincing them, their mild resistance transformed into hostility. We were not unaware of the legacy of biker gangs in the area, and some of the security staff started to take an aggressive tone. Were we willing to have a violent confrontation in order to play? Were we willing to get hurt? Some of us were but some of us weren’t. I have to tell you that I think this particular moment, when we contemplated giving up and not playing and retreating to our hotel rooms for some sleep, was one of the darkest moments in the life of Oneida . . . at least for me. There was something insane about this choice we had made — to be so far away from home, to surrender our lives to a collection of truly incompetent lurkers and stragglers, so we could be told, “I’m sorry but you can’t play music right now.” There was absolutely zero reason for me to be in this particular place, at this particular time . . . were we really accepting this?
We regrouped. We started to talk to the other bands waiting to play. They agreed to shorten their sets. We loaded our gear onto the floor in front of the stage so we could start the minute the penultimate band finished. We squeezed an agreement out of the hotel staff to stay open for another thirty minutes. We even convinced the band before us to play only two songs, and they were in the same boat as us — on tour and from the East Coast. They were as outraged and disappointed as we were. But they were also aware of what we were going through.
Let me just say, this was not our first or second or third tour. This was 2010. It was probably our seventh time touring the West Coast. We were paying dues. Brutal dues. Dues we’ll likely have to pay again, in a worse situation.
So yeah — we played a set. We played for six minutes. But to a lot of people at the show — it was a triumph. They were amazed. The sound guy said, with complete lack of irony, “Wow guys, that was amazing! You definitely need to come back and play for a biker crowd.” Light Asylum, the other touring band, was raving. Were we good? I’m not really sure. It was very late, and we were very angry.
I started playing drums when I went away to prep school in New Hampshire. At the time I was very serious about hockey; that was one of the reasons I went to that school.
But I found I stopped caring so much about hockey when I didn’t have my father there to impress at every game. I also discovered the ambivalence that came with THC and girls. Membership on the varsity team might have gotten me some attention I lacked from the girls, but smoking pot seasoned my disappointment with passivity. I had also broken my hand in a pointless dorm fight about laundry, so I was sidelined from everything. Any passion I’d had for the sport leaked away while I watched JV games from the sidelines in my cast.
Within two years I was playing drums. I was inspired by my classmate Willy Cook, a baby-faced optimist prodigious on the drums, and with girls. He was always available to explain how drumming worked, or to deliver an exegesis on the opening bars of Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times.” He offered up his drumsticks for my impromptu experiments against walls and dressers. He deduced that my passable single-stroke roll might be an entrance into the rarefied world of rock and roll. There were also fewer drummers in my class than other musicians, so I figured I would have a good chance at being in a band. Below these thoughts burbled a hope that playing an instrument would help me talk to girls. Within a week of playing drums I had joined up with four other guys and was learning covers. Being a rock drummer came easy to me — at least at first — and I practiced as much as I could manage in the school’s music building on the school-owned drum set.
The first few months with an instrument and in a band were a liberation. It was like passing out of illiteracy. All of a sudden the incessant soundtrack of my adolescence, the galvanizing backbeat accompanying and oppressing most of my conscious life, was emerging from my own hands. What’s interesting about early rock and roll is that the drummers who invented the language actually studied and were fluent in the more virtuosic style of jazz. Rock and roll simplified the rhythmic complexities of jazz and paved the way for a universally accessible form of music. But of course by the time I started playing drums, the simplified beats of the mid- to late 20th century had become the entire story. Learning how to play them passably is simple: it took me about a week of obsessive practice to pick up the basics and about a month later my band of losers was playing a concert in the school cafeteria. We were careful to select covers that weren’t being played by the quasi-official school rock band. That band was made up of the best musicians in the school and performed choice cuts by the Stones, Eric Clapton, Little Feat, the Dead, the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, and ZZ Top. We also played songs by the Rolling Stones — but we added Guns N’ Roses, Dire Straits, and Traffic. At the time I really didn’t care about other drummers — I knew clearly that I was the worst in the school and was just happy to get in front of people and play. It was easier for me to do this than mingle in the audience and figure out what I was supposed to be doing there.
I had started to play the drum set surreptitiously in the school music building — it was illicit because I wasn’t taking lessons through the school, and I was taking practice time away from people who were. I could be ousted from the drum room at any time and was. Eventually I started taking lessons from a Berklee-educated drummer who lived in Manchester, New Hampshire. I don’t remember much about him except that he often seemed lost in reverie. At the time I imagined he didn’t like teaching and that he wanted to be somewhere else. My lessons were a bit of me attempting to draw him out, combined with the fact that sometimes I hadn’t done much practicing during the week. In a one-on-one lesson, it’s impossible to pretend that you’ve actually practiced. There’s a saying with regard to practice: “Skip a day — you know, skip two days — your teacher knows, skip three days — your audience knows.” I learned that from him. He would tell me about Berklee — and tell me not to go there, that I was better off getting a “real education.”
Around this same time in my hometown of Lakeville, Connecticut, a video store had expanded into a music shop. The owner happened to be a drummer, so his merchandise leaned toward drums and percussion. He was a short, shy, and slightly crippled guy who played jazz drums and took my interest seriously. The first piece of equipment I bought was a wooden-block practice pad with a thin and tough flap of rubber glued on the top. The rubber flap gave your sticks a rebound that approximated a drumhead. Within a few days I had pounded the rubber off the block, thoroughly annoyed my sisters, and somehow infused myself with confidence in my abilities. I nailed the rubber back to the block and kept going.
The video/music store also had a drum set for sale in the window for $150. I can’t believe that this was the real price for the kit — but it was. I don’t know how it all happened but my dad ended up buying me that red drum set and I moved the kit into a storage room in our garage. I started taking lessons from a local drummer who’d also gone to Berklee and who worked as a teller at the local savings bank. He started me off wading through the two staples for beginning (and advanced) drummers — Stick Control: For the Snare Drummer by George Lawrence Stone and Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer by Ted Reed. Stick Control was first published in 1935 and Syncopation was first published in 1958, and both are still used extensively today. Stick Control is an exhaustive instructional manual focused on developing the dexterity and fluency of one’s hands, wrists, and arms in response to a single drum. The lessons are usually no more than two bars long and must be repeated at least twenty times without stopping. There are close to a thousand phrases of advancing complexity over the course of the book. I’ve never gotten past the fourth or fifth of the forty-six pages. “To the uninitiated,” Stone writes in the preface,
the art of drumming appears easy — so easy in fact that unless the drum student has had the advantage of expert advice, he may fail to realize the importance of the long hours of hard, painstaking practice that must be put in before he is technically prepared to enter the professional field with the confidence that his efforts will measure up to approved musical standards.
Stone’s words are still true — but they didn’t resonate with me in quite the way they should have, and that’s for the best. The seductive ease with which a drummer can reach a certain level of proficiency obscures the brain-racking hours of solitary practice necessary to reach higher planes on the instrument. Once I realized the amount of practice necessary to improve I had already experienced the thrill of performing in a band in front of an appreciative audience. I say appreciative because the first time I stepped onstage to do the tasks usually left to “real” musicians it was a revelation, as much for my peers as for me. It’s a revelation to see awkward adolescents speak the language of what’s seen as “adult”—all of a sudden a bunch of dudes who can’t even look you in the eye are playing in great sympathy. The alchemical merging of disparate strains of leaden playing into a larger cacophony that suggests a more refined song is as exciting to the performer as to the listener. The band travels from elsewhere to bring the fruits of its labor to the community . . . the alien sounds from recordings are made flesh. It’s an astounding transformation, and you’re either moved to spontaneously applaud or, if you’re the one playing, you’re on the receiving end of an appreciation that feels unexpected and perhaps even undeserved. The audience’s surprise and delight in a performer’s manifestation of music is expressed in clapping, yelling, screaming, whistles — it is unorganized. To answer this with a louder sound of monstrous constructed noise is to begin a dialogue that isn’t satisfied until one side is exhausted in some way. You often see inexperienced bands remain onstage long after their audience has wearied. But those few moments of excitement and delight that I felt when I first played drums in front of people fueled me for years.
There are always going to be people better than you, and when I got to college my freshman dorm was no different. Justin Cook had his drums set up in his room. He had custom rubber muffler foam covering all his drums and cymbals and a tape deck and metronome hooked up to headphones so he could play along to a quartz-regulated pulse or his favorite tunes of the moment. He had a subscription to Modern Drummer and a music stand with reams of sheet music spilling off the edges. Justin was the jock-style drummer. He worked out, his chest and arms were substantial, but he was also the coolest, most generous guy. Drummers in general tend to be down-to-earth. People like Stewart Copeland from the Police are the exception to the rule. Justin was worlds above me technically. On the first day we met we started talking about drums, and he started showing me shit that I still do today.
There’s a concept that gets a ton of ink in the drumming world called “independence.” What it means is that the ideal state for a drummer is one in which each of one’s four limbs has complete and total autonomy. Normally your hands and feet work on a kind of sympathetic symmetry: when you’re walking, your arms and legs work together unconsciously. Sitting at a drum set is no different — and the first thing you need to overcome is your body’s impulse to do everything together. When your right hand is marking quarter notes on the ride cymbal, it’s all you can do to keep your left hand from playing the same rhythm on the snare or your foot from pushing on the kick pedal in time. Drumming becomes combating the natural symmetry of your limbs in order to carve out a beat. For the basic rock beat you tap the ride cymbal for four beats per measure, hit the snare on the two and four beats, and the kick drum on the one and three. If you spend three hours working on this in front of a drum set and don’t give up I guarantee you’ll get somewhere. Your left hand will not need to be linked to what your right hand is doing; your foot can play something somewhat separate from your left hand. It’s exciting — you can almost feel the synapses forming and connecting in your brain. Once you master independence, it’s easy to feel like you’ve learned everything there is to know about the drums. At least that’s how I felt, for a while.
This is where Justin Cook came into play in my development, with the little hi-hat flourish he showed me the day we met. I’d been playing for about two years . . . but I hadn’t even brought my kit to college. Justin jumped on his kit and started playing along with some Primus or Blues Traveler or something, and he did something funny with his left hand when he crashed the cymbal on the one beat. He led into the cymbal crash by hitting the open hi-hat cymbals with the stick in his left hand on the “and” of four. This was amazing. Not only did he use his left hand to highlight the tired and typical cymbal crash on the one, but he opened and closed the hi-hat cymbal in the process — adding a tightly controlled pre-accent to the measure-starting crash cymbal. Justin basically opened up the entire left side of my body with this simple accent.
During my junior year I took a January-term class in jazz performance from saxophonist Fred Haas. At the time I enjoyed jazz — I was into Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and a few others. I wasn’t rabid about it. I knew that jazz drumming was the peak of the form, but I wasn’t consumed by it. That was about to change.
Haas wore leather pants when he performed. He was tall and rail-thin with large hands and an obsession with bebop and hard bop music of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s — Charlie Parker especially. When we arrived for that first class he handed out a transcription of the solo from Parker’s tune “Koko” and played the recording from which it came. It was a revelatory experience. I saw the genius of Parker’s instant composition — the nuances, the harmonic development — all over the course of a two-minute piece. The recording ended and I looked up from the paper transformed — I was almost crying. Up until that moment jazz was a blur of notes, an approximation of a form I wasn’t able to grasp, but that recording with the notation unlocked the form for me.
I became possessed and was made despondent by the music. Possessed because there was an infinite reserve of recordings to mine and only a few weeks of concentrated study to crack the surface, and despondent because I was 20 years old and still a mediocre musician.
Over the course of that January I trudged across the brutal landscape of midwinter Vermont, jazz incessantly playing in my dorm room, in my head, and in my practice space. It was the first year that a new multimillion-dollar arts center was open, but there weren’t enough practice spaces available for student musicians, and there wasn’t a place to practice drums. As a stopgap solution, the department had the drummers set up in a drafty storage closet adjacent to one of the classrooms. I would spend four to six hours a day practicing in there, through the cold, enduring constant interruptions from classes and teachers complaining about my noise. There was something shameful about my obsession — the banishment to an unsoundproofed room that wasn’t even designed for music allowed others to witness the comic, thrashing impossibility of my dream. There was something undignified about a white, privileged college student overcome by passion for a music that was many years and circumstances and literally thousands of hours of practice away from him. I felt like the institution pitied my desire — even Haas, while never discouraging, seemed wary of my dedication. To be punished with this kind of obsession in the context of college and my own self-loathing engendered a war in me. I wanted to play the drums in a transcendent way. I had also internalized the impossibility of doing so.
That January, Haas invited a host of instrumentalists to the class for demonstrations, concerts, and private lessons. The absolute standout for me was a Boston-based drummer named Bob Gullotti. Gullotti taught part-time at Berklee, played in an avant-garde jazz group called The Fringe, and was the most astounding drummer I’d ever seen. I’m not sure how to describe the depth of his technique compared with mine. Here was a guy who transcribed and played Charlie Parker saxophone solos for the drum set. There was something overwhelming about this, as if he’d somehow overridden an implied consensus about the limits of the instrument. Playing a sax transcription on the drum set with feeling and nuance set up an impossible context for me. There are many times when complacency can descend on the instrumentalist in isolation. You might start to feel that you’re pretty accomplished — there are definitely things you could learn — but you don’t need to go out of your way to acquire these skills. You can see the next tier of accomplishment clearly — the road to acquisition is clearly demarcated. Then someone like Gullotti arrives on the scene and kicks your ass. This drummer just handed my own ass to me on a platter — he basically said through his accomplishment on the instrument that there’s something flawed in your self-image. You’re not who you think you are.
Gullotti could do a press roll with one hand, he could play the entire kit articulately at a whisper — barely above audibility. I couldn’t play the drums without wearing earplugs. Gullotti was an educator — he wasn’t conceited about his technique. He was confident and he didn’t coddle — his level was attained through great personal sacrifice and dedication. But at the same time he was open about it. Haas approached the drummers in the class and said, Listen — if you guys come up with $150 he’ll teach you a master class before he leaves to go back to Boston. We were in. I think there were three or four of us and we came up with the fucking money.
Gullotti sat us down at his beautiful small jazz-scale kit and had us play. We asked him some questions — I had some really basic technique stuff to ask him and he had some general comments.
He was like, “How many of you guys use a drum pad?”
We all raised our hands. The drum pad was gospel — everyone used one. I still do sometimes.
“Don’t use a fucking drum pad. Don’t sit in front of the television and watch Letterman and run your exercises. You’re a musician, right? You’re playing music. There’s nothing musical about a drum pad. Every minute you dedicate to the drum should be played on a drum. It should be musical — you should be playing the instrument!”
He also instructed us in efficient practice technique — a technique I still use today. He said, “Look — there aren’t enough hours in the day. We’re all busy people. We might only get an hour to practice a day. But if you have an hour — you gotta use that hour. Spend fifteen minutes on something specific and don’t stop, don’t let up. But when that fifteen minutes is up, change and go to your next thing. Move on. Don’t waste time flopping around, noodling around. Use your time efficiently.”
It’s simple advice, but if you aren’t maximizing your time in the practice room, you’ll never advance. I have a full-time job that requires a lot of my time. I don’t have the luxury of large blocks of time in the studio to practice. Sometimes I do, but not often. I need to grab an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes a day for three weeks leading up to a show. So I go down to the practice space right after work and I play for an hour. It’s an hour straight — I turn off my phone and run exercises on the kit without stopping until it’s been an hour. Then I stop, pack up, go home, and get some sleep so I can do it again the next day.
Gullotti is easily the best drummer I’ve ever seen — but if you look him up online there’s hardly a word about him. There are some videos, there’s a bio on the Berklee website, but there’s not a ton . . . why that is I’m not sure. He’s reserved, he’s not a huge self-promoter — that seems pretty clear — but he’s a complete musician. Something to aspire to.
Brooklyn Indie Rock
This is a complicated subject. First of all, no one in Oneida is from Brooklyn. We weren’t born there. But it is accurate to say that we formed there in 1996 or 1997. I moved to New York after college following a US tour with my band Super Hussy. There’s a seven-inch out there if you’re curious. Or you can email me and I’ll send you one.
I graduated from college in 1995. I studied English. But I wasn’t going to be an English professor. The drums suited me. I found that I could spend four to five hours a day playing the drums. I loved the drums. But two things discouraged me from playing them: my parents and my school. My parents counseled that music was not a safe career path — of course they were right. But more than that it was the college. No one there had any concept of a working artist — whether a full-time artist or an artist who had a day job but kept at his art. There was a tenured professor at my college who had written one screenplay produced in Hollywood in 1972. I’m not saying that getting a screenplay produced is not a huge accomplishment, just that college is not necessarily a place where working artists exist. The music department was already telling students that it was too late for a life in music. They said: “Quit liberal arts now and go to a real music school — or forget it.” I minored in jazz composition. I was told that Charlie Parker practiced twelve hours a day for six years . . . how was I ever going to reach that level of achievement? The implication was never — which is true. I’m not a Charlie Parker. But when you’re studying someone in school it means they’ve reached a stratosphere reserved for the very few. There was no indication of any universe apart from that. You were either Charlie Parker or you did not exist.
Knitting Factory I
I bought into these two ways of looking at being an artist. First, I thought, there’s no way I’ll be able to make a living making music. Second, since I love music I ought to be close to it. I’ll look for a job in the music business. I looked for internships at first because I knew I wouldn’t get a job — there were no jobs. But you can work for free anywhere you want — even now — so I tried that. I’d learned of the Knitting Factory while I was the music director at my college radio station. We’d received a few very strange, very noncommercial CDs from the Knitting Factory label, and I liked them, so when I arrived in New York in 1996 it was the first place I went. I was staying on a friend’s couch in Brooklyn but I put on a suit and interviewed for an internship. On my résumé I had included my experience of booking my own tour, for Super Hussy. I might have talked about it a little. What I didn’t mention was how insane the tour was, how many “holes” there were (days without a show), or the fact that we slept at park grounds most nights. It lasted a month, and when I got home my girlfriend split up with me without explanation. So you could say I became versed in the hardships associated with touring. While I interviewed I met the guy in charge of Knit Tours — the touring arm of the Knitting Factory. He seemed like a pretty cool guy. They had a lot of businesses going alongside the club. I learned later that none of them made any money. Anyway, I got the internship, was told to come in later in the week, and I went back to my friend’s couch so I could start figuring out how to get a real job.
The next day I got a phone call from the Knitting Factory. The Knit Tours manager had quit — would I come in to interview for that position? It was one of those odd miracles. In their rash and irresponsible way, they hired me to run Knit Tours. To be fair, they hedged their bet by not paying me for a month. So I got my chance to work in the music business.
I’m not sure this is widely known anymore, but at the time the Knitting Factory was the premier for-profit venue for avant-garde music, perhaps in the world. They had just moved from Houston Street to their much larger Tribeca location — with a couple of stages, offices in the basement, and massive overhead. The owner was telling anyone who would listen that there was a huge untapped audience for experimental music — and that he had created a way to capture this audience and turn a profit. I believed him.
Within a few days I was completely immersed in the “downtown jazz” community. I was given a Rolodex of promoter contacts. The directions were: “Talk to the artists, find out what kind of money they want and how long they want to go out, and book the shows they need.” That was it.
So I started booking tours around the US for Knitting Factory–affiliated artists. Dave Douglas, John Zorn’s Masada, Thomas Chapin, Charles Gayle, William Hooker and DJ Olive, and Rashied Ali were all on my roster and all did tours.
I had come to New York with all my idealism intact. I believed in music and it carried a kind of hallowed significance — it was something one did without hope or expectation of remuneration. My outlook was refined through my interactions with the “downtown jazz” musicians. I might book a show for an artist somewhere “interesting”—somewhere that I was curious about — say, Cleveland. I wondered about the audience, if the promoter was friendly, if they took them to a great restaurant, if the opening band was “cool,” and I wondered if the music was good. My questions to the artist were met with a kind of callous incredulity — because if fluency is shared assumptions about the meanings surrounding words then I was not quite fluent in the language of a working musician. Did the gig pay well? Did the audience seem to listen? Well, then it was a good gig . . . the rest of it didn’t register.
I joined a band soon after I started working at the Knit — a guitar, alto sax, and drums trio called Mishagas. We played a kind of free improvisation — a highly mannered way of playing, but it felt free to me. We played with Harry Pussy a couple of times and they liked us, which was gratifying; I think Thurston Moore saw one of our shows.
In New York in 1996, among many musical trends, there were a few that stood out — avant-garde jazz was actually one of them. The heart had gone out of rock music. If you wanted to see a high-energy performance, you went to see people like David S. Ware or William Hooker. The other trendy movement was labeled “illbient”—ambient records mixed with spacious hip-hop beats. The associated parties happened in abandoned office buildings in Manhattan and people would just sit around on the floor. Other parties would often have a “chill-out room” where someone would be playing this flaccid stuff. There were no rock bands in New York to speak of. The band of the moment was Jonathan Fire*Eater — they imploded pretty quickly and I guess they came from DC anyway (some members went on to form the Walkmen after a couple-year hiatus). Girls Against Boys were about to get signed to Geffen. There was certainly no concept of “Brooklyn.” Bands were from Manhattan — or, if they lived in an outer borough, they said they were from New York City.
I had moved to New York after college on a whim. I had no plans, and my high school friend Rob told me that he was moving to New York with his friend Al “to rock.” That was enough for me — it gave me some purpose. We spent months trying to find a place where we could live and play music. Do you understand the kind of naïveté that went into this search? We saw raw spaces in downtown Brooklyn, entire houses in Jersey City. We worked with realtors who threatened to sue us for not taking spaces that merely seemed interesting. After months of searching and coming up empty we set aside our dream of living in a place where we could also rehearse and ended up in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn — a neighborhood within walking distance of the Pratt Institute. The neighborhood was beautiful and stately but seriously run-down. Our block on Waverly Avenue had five boarded-up brownstones on it. I already had a job and somewhere to be every morning, but Rob wasn’t working. So his first order of business was to wander around the neighborhood. He stopped into the first realtor’s he saw and asked if he had any spaces that he thought a band could rehearse in. It turned out there was an abandoned nightclub directly upstairs from the office that was being used for storage. It just needed to be cleared out.
The nightclub closed because it had been the site of a gun battle a few years earlier. As I write this it’s hard to imagine that kind of thing happening in Clinton Hill — but in any case there was actually a stage, a DJ booth, a bar, furniture . . . and floor-to-ceiling junk. Some old barber chairs and piles of chicken bones. The space itself was cavernous — about half the length of a city block. You can still see the building at Fulton and Clinton, second story. We moved all our amps and drums into the space and started jamming all hours of the day and night. There were absolutely no restrictions on our volume. We played until four in the morning at peak, earsplitting levels. In the entire time we had that space not a single person bothered us or came in to see what was going on. One thing about the space, though — there was no bathroom. We pissed off the fire escape and into various glass and plastic jugs we left around.
The space was situated directly above three storefronts that did a huge volume of frying. The air was clouded with particulate oil and everything in there took on the grim, one-dimensional, slightly acrid smell of used fryer grease. The scent permeated all corners — a few hours of playing and the stench would linger on your clothes, skin, and hair for weeks.
One weekend we walked over to the space and were shocked to find the door propped open. The landlord was upstairs with a mild-mannered, brightly smiling man named Maurice Johnson. He was going to turn the cavernous space into a Christian community center, and while he did the work completely by himself, we could continue to practice. We probably had about three months before he would start hosting events there. This looked like bad news but it was the kind of nonsense we thrived on — we figured that our noise would unnerve any Christian. Of course we were wrong. As Maurice cleaned out every last piece of trash from the space he also volunteered his sunny commentary on our free-form noise jams. He replaced the bricked-up window frames with new Andersen windows. He let the light in. He was always there when we arrived and would often remain behind after we left. We finally developed a begrudging respect for the transformative work he’d done. He was going to name the place El Shaddai’s, one of the many Hebrew names for God, translated loosely as “God Almighty’s.” He printed up cards, which we still have:
A little while after he got the cards printed up, Maurice started exhibiting some odd behavior. He painted the door a dark red and scrawled REMEMBER THE BLOOD on it in large black dripping letters. He painted a section of the sidewalk in front of the building in the same colors and drew some swirling spirit forms along with some more disquieting Biblical passages. He started sleeping in the space and stopped doing improvements. Within about a week the landlord had changed the locks. Maurice was gone.
Oneida started in this space, but in a strange way. I ran into Pat Sullivan at a Manhattan party. We were acquaintances in college, we both played music — but we didn’t do a lot of hanging out. But when I saw him I said, “Let’s record an album!”
It’s the kind of bullshit people are always saying to each other at parties, but for some reason we actually followed through. We decided to make a song-for-song response to the second LP of the Beatles’ White Album. There are a couple of songs that didn’t make our final album, but we did complete our project. We gave ourselves a goal of a song a week and we alternated songwriting.
At the time Pat lived on the Upper West Side and worked as a paralegal. After midnight it might take over two hours to travel all the way to his apartment from Brooklyn. So we would record in our practice space, using RadioShack microphones and mixers, his TASCAM 4-track cassette machine, and all kinds of other shitty gear, and then he would come back to our place on Waverly and crash on our couch.
Our recording setup was very primitive — more primitive than we really knew. There was a low-fi movement happening at the time. It was perfectly acceptable to make a record that sounded shitty. But the best low-fi albums — by Guided by Voices — had their own internal aesthetic coherence. They sounded great and terrible at the same time. We didn’t quite have the talent to pull that kind of thing off, so our recordings usually just sounded terrible.
We hung the mics from the rafters over my drums because we didn’t have enough mic stands. It was just Pat and me over at the practice space, and the album we ended up recording was not bad — it also wasn’t very good. But when we were finished with it, we gave it to a friend of mine who had just started a record label called Turnbuckle. He was an heir to a paper company fortune and flirted with calling the label Timber! Then he thought better of it. He ran it out of his apartment on East 19th Street and the biggest artist on the label was Bailter Space. Matador Records had just dropped them. I had no expectations about him liking it — I just wanted to hear his comments. Miraculously, he fell in love with the album and wanted to release it and pay us some money to tour.
So we signed a two-record contract and tried to find a band to play the songs from the album. We didn’t look any further than my own apartment. My old friend and roommate Rob was down and so was Frank McDermott.
One of the many amazing things about Turnbuckle is that they did not skimp on budgets and production. A Place Called El Shaddai’s, possibly the worst-sounding 4-track record ever to be released on a legit label, was mastered by Fred Kevorkian (no relation to Dr. Death) at Sear Sound. Mastering is the most misunderstood step in the process of making recordings and is often the most important. An album you buy in the store or an MP3 you download illegally is stereo — two-track recordings. There are two discrete channels — the left and the right. When you’re in the studio, however, you might have as many as one hundred discrete tracks that you have complete control over. You can apply subtle EQ or effects to the track that is exclusively the kick drum, you can add reverb to one of the vocal takes . . . in order to get these multitrack recordings into a form ready for reproduction, you need to output them to a two-track stereo mix. Once you have the final stereo mixes of the recordings and are ready to produce the album, you take these final mixes to the mastering studio for a final EQ and level adjustment for the entire album. This can give the final product a coherence that it lacked before.
So anyway Fred’s nickname was something like the Shark. He’s actually a well-known mastering engineer. He’s mastered U2 albums. In the studio next to ours Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, and Ron Asheton were recording a one-off for a soundtrack. There were master reels of a Sean Lennon album leaning up against the wall of our studio.
This was where I finally realized that our record sounded like shit. It was absolutely insane what Turnbuckle had invested in. We weren’t even a band — we had never played a show, we hadn’t even performed these songs in rehearsal. We had written them and then put them down onto a 4-track. My skin crawled as Fred pulled up song after song of tinny amateurism. We were truly the worst band in the world at that moment, and to have someone like Kevorkian wading through these tracks in preparation for a CD production was really painful. We also had the owner of Turnbuckle in the room. I wondered what kind of regrets he was having at that moment.
“Oh . . . huh . . . I like this song — this one’s pretty good,” Kevorkian said with surprise. He was talking about “Gandhi For Now”—our foray into rap-rock.
In the meantime, we had been asked to leave our original practice space on Fulton Street. The spot turned back into an illegal club. Police shut the place down within a few weeks, though — so our rehearsal space was empty again. Rob and his girlfriend Erica (now his wife) proposed to the landlord that they move into the space to live.
We rehearsed the songs from our newly recorded album in Rob and Erica’s new home. They tried to make that place livable — the illegal club had put in a bathroom, and Rob built a shower when they moved in — but they only lasted four months. The fryer stench was too strong. During this short period I remember telling the band about my vision for Oneida’s next six albums. Not that I had any idea what they would sound like . . . but the primary focus for the project was sustainability, and the model for success was Guided by Voices. GBV had been a band for about six or seven years. They had released six good to great albums in as many years and were just starting to gain some traction. They were a cult band at the time — but I saw that as the path for us. I knew from my work at the Knitting Factory and my limited experience touring that no one would care about our band. They might not care about our band for years. They might never care about our band. We would have to indoctrinate ourselves into this reality, for our sanity and the longevity of the project — we had to accept that we would be unnoticed for many years. Until we understood that fact with our entire beings, there was no point in starting.
Oneida was a combination of our college bands. On the one side there was a band Rob founded at Oberlin called Karaoke Hustler and on the other side was my college band Super Hussy. Karaoke Hustler was a collision of nihilism and good times. Super Hussy on the other hand was a kind of conceptual “fuck you” to the assumptions about standard performance etiquette and professionalism. Our music was atonal and noisy — and we’d often break down in the middle of songs into staged arguments and bickering that were impossible to tell from the real thing. We also had highly elaborate stage personas, outfits, and concepts that we would create from scratch for each show. It was exhausting but fed directly into Oneida.
When it came time to reproduce the El Shaddai’s songs live, we had all these bizarre strands from which to weave a semicoherent band. Rob and Frank quickly adopted stage names — Bobby Matador (a.k.a. Fat Bobby) for Rob and Hanoi Jane for Frank. For some reason Pat and I were still calling ourselves by our given names at this point — but once we’d been on the road for a few months and traversed the country a few times, those staid identities started to erode and needed to be replaced. Pat became Papa Crazee, after the Run-D.M.C. song, though with the spelling borrowed from a glam-rock compilation that we liked, Glam Crazee. I became Kid Millions, a name I thought sounded like someone who wasn’t reserved, who wasn’t afraid — who wasn’t me. It didn’t really work but the name stuck.
We started playing the songs in Rob and Erica’s new apartment. We played the eight songs from El Shaddai’s, one new original that we quickly abandoned . . . and five or six covers, including the Stones’ “Citadel,” Mötley Crüe’s “Public Enemy #1,” and Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
It was 1997 and none of us had ever heard of Williamsburg. In 1997 no bands would ever say they were from Brooklyn. It was just not done. So on our first tour we told people that we were from Brooklyn. We found this to be a mildly amusing joke. People would respond to this admission with bemused incredulity. It really was the antithesis of cool at the time, like saying you were from the suburbs. We could comfortably identify with being Brooklynites . . . but we were making a very conscious choice when we did this.
Knitting Factory II
Meanwhile, things were happening back at the Knit. Over the course of eighteen months I had been promoted to booking the club and working directly with Michael Dorf, the owner. Dorf was an absolute genius and I admired him tremendously. He was tough for a young hayseed like myself to work for, but at his chosen career he had limitless talent and charm. Musicians would constantly bitch about him and the club, they would gripe about all the wrongs he’d heaped upon their backs. But the reality was that he created the context for their work to be heard. He also somehow yoked corporate sponsorship to the rickety wagon. He did everything he could to keep the doors open.
The tenor of interactions in the music world is incredibly heated. I think first you need to understand what kind of person books bands for a living: from the top tier of people handling someone like Lou Reed to the people one rung above the absolute bottom, they are a gang of cutthroats. For the Knitting Factory, certain booking agents had the power to transform a moribund month into a profitable one with a couple well-placed shows. They knew it and I knew it. What most people didn’t realize was that the Knitting Factory — and probably most music venues in the country — was constantly struggling to pay its bills. There were weeks when I wouldn’t get paid. Dorf sometimes got infusions of cash from his parents.
During my stint at the club, a high percentage of the shows were dead. The exceptions were of course the shows people would point to when claiming indignantly that the club had to be making piles of money. They had been in the audience for Lou Reed, Medeski Martin & Wood, or Yo La Tengo. “Every time I go to the Knit it’s sold out!” Exactly. You and everyone else who comes to the Knit twice a year. I didn’t see you in the audience for Borbetomagus or Joe Morris.
This is all to say that my position as booking agent of the club was very stressful. There wasn’t a week that would go by that I wouldn’t be screamed at, threatened, or personally insulted. The booking agents were either mumbling, “Never booking another fucking show at your bullshit, pathetic club,” or they were yelling: “Why the FUCK DID I EVER DO YOU A FUCKING FAVOR? YOU WILL GIVE ALEX CHILTON A BOTTLE OF MAKER’S MARK OR THE FUCKING SHOW IS OFF! FUCK YOU! THE KNITTING FACTORY WAS ALWAYS A BUNCH OF FUCKING WORMS! FUCK YOU AND TELL DORF TO SUCK MY DICK! THE SHOW IS CANCELED! I’M CALLING WETLANDS!”
The problem was that these people were our livelihood. If they decided that I needed to be punished they could withhold all shows from the club and we would see it clearly in our bottom line. So it was my job to placate these people and to pretend . . . well, I don’t know . . . that they were important? I’m not sure — but they were all assholes. There were a couple of exceptions, but, to be honest, those were the people who didn’t have very desirable rosters. I cherished them for their humanity, but they didn’t bring me any money.
Then there were the artists who booked their own shows with me. Everyone felt like they deserved a show at the Knitting Factory. They assumed (wrongly) that their music was better than the artists we regularly featured. I was the person standing between them and the ultimate goal of their meaningless show.
Anyway — I was being assaulted from all sides. And of course Dorf was difficult in his own way . . . any shows I booked he would second-guess. The only advice he would ever give would be, “Book more good shows!”
There were also people who had no perspective on what was required to bring challenging music into a for-profit venue. I spent months planning and executing a week of concerts featuring the incredible Dutch drummer Han Bennink improvising with a different New York–based musician every set. There were six nights of shows, two sets a night. I arranged for the club to fly Bennink over from Holland, put him up in a hotel, convinced a large contingent of New York musicians to perform, and helped our promotional person get the word out to the local press. The shows took countless hours to plan. On the first night I ran into a jazz critic I had met in Holland a couple years before. He had introduced me to Han Bennink and the wonderful world of Dutch improvisation — he was instrumental in developing my interest, and I was happy to see him at the shows I had struggled to put together.
I approached him and allowed myself to feel a small amount of pride in the event I had managed to assemble. I thanked him for introducing me to this music. His reaction was oddly cold.
“I understand that you haven’t been very nice to Dutch bands.”
I looked at him. I tried to think of who or what he could possibly be talking about. He was standing in a club that was hosting six days of shows for a virtually unknown Dutch improviser.
He continued: “You were treated very well in Holland. A lot of people went out of their way to help you and talk with you. When they called you asking for shows you treated them poorly.”
I was struck dumb. I probably received forty calls a day from bands or artists looking for a show. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Huh — uh — I’m not sure what you mean . . .”
“Well, no, of course you wouldn’t.”
I was devastated. You need a thick skin to book a club. I suppose I developed some of that . . . but I’m sensitive. The environment did not suit me, and from what I had seen of the bands that were popular and playing shows, I knew I could do just as well.
I started keeping my ears open for other opportunities — I knew I had to leave the Knitting Factory before it killed me — so when I received the offer to act as artist liaison for the US arm of the Black Saint/Soul Note label, I jumped at the chance. I had a number of meetings with the US label manager, who promised I’d be making more money than at the Knit and doing something that seemed a little less stressful.
Black Saint/Soul Note was a pairing of two Italian-owned jazz labels that from the mid-1970s through the mid-’90s documented a huge segment of otherwise unheralded American avant-garde jazz. They had a distribution office located in a warehouse on the grounds of JFK Airport, and Rob had been working there for about a year.
I was looking forward to working with Rob and getting away from the Knitting Factory. I also felt like it was a good time to start focusing more of my life on performing music — the Turnbuckle deal for Oneida’s first album had just materialized, and though I wasn’t sure what it all meant yet, I knew I had to leave the Knit. When he heard I was leaving, John Zorn actually gave me a hug and told me I was off to much greener pastures. I think a lot of the regular artists at the Knit had a fondness for me by the time I left and they were sorry to see me go.
A few days into my new job I arrived at work and was pulled aside by my boss for an urgent meeting. Something unexpected was happening in the Italian offices of the label. The owners seemed to have forgotten that they wanted to hire me. It was all very confusing and bizarre — but it seemed as if my US boss had not properly prepared the owners for my arrival. They were shocked — and were saying that I needed to be let go immediately. After a couple of days of work, I was without a job.
I took this news with more than a little excitement. The prospect of driving out to JFK every day had already begun to wear on me. More to the point, I now had absolutely nothing to lose by focusing full-time on the band. I quickly formulated a plan. I was going to demand a severance package from Black Saint/Soul Note for their unprofessional behavior and then devote the next couple of months booking a full US tour for Oneida. We would spend two and a half months on the road up through Christmas and try to make something happen with our music.
Back in 1997 email was not widespread — so most booking happened over the phone and you had to mail your music to clubs to even get them to consider putting you on a bill. I needed to find a way to subsidize the endless phone calls and mailings I would have to make to assemble Oneida’s first tour.
Turnbuckle gave me a phone at their office and offered to manufacture and ship out demo cassettes of El Shaddai’s. I went into their office every day, made my phone calls, sent out the demos, and slowly built a tour by leveraging all the contacts I had acquired at the Knitting Factory. I probably worked four hours a day for two straight months this way. I took shows wherever I could get them, with all kinds of bands I had come into contact with at the Knit. I booked us to play “new band night” at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, a basement house show in Bloomington, Indiana, an anarchist coffee shop called the Black Cat in Seattle with a high school band, a party at Bennington College, a warehouse show at an old tobacco warehouse in Winston-Salem, and many other slots on random bills across the country.
The tour was grueling. It was the longest stint we’ve ever played. But when you’re in your early twenties anything is manageable once. We dubbed it “The Heads Ain’t Ready Tour,” which meant — people are not ready to love Oneida. We knew it would be a thankless tour. And we were right — heads were not ready. It’s arguable whether they were ever ready.
When you’re on the road, if you’re not playing, then you’re losing money. So you try to play in a different city every night, seven nights a week. Factor three to six hours of driving into each day. Then add to the equation that you’re completely unknown. There are next to no people curious about your band — and more credit to them for that. They’re probably at home making an interesting recipe, having sex, or watching a sitcom.
Among the many bewildering and mind-numbing elements of touring are the rock venues themselves. Most clubs are painted matte black on the inside. I suppose it has some functionality — for stage lights and graffiti control — but it never made sense to me. These places exude despair. In the late ’90s the nationwide smoking ban had not yet taken effect, so the places were most often steeped in a disgusting stench of stale ash and rotting beer and mixers. Bathrooms were more or less destroyed: stalls had no doors, toilets were rarely flushed and caked with minerals from weeks-old piss and shit. Every inch of available space was covered with stickers from the myriad faceless bands who had come through town since the last full-scale wall scraping. Soon we started calling the anonymous bands that plastered their decals indiscriminately around clubs “sticker bands.” The names were always terrible — Green Stick Fracture, Priest Jelly, Baked Muffin Diver, endless puns on the word ska . . . they were all part of the ceaseless stream of mediocrity. But really, they held up a mirror to our own impossibly futile enterprise. We were these same sticker bands, these same terrible groups, playing endless shows to nobody, chasing some elusive idea of fame of which we had no conception.
The rules of thumb — bands are not fed, they are not offered a place to sleep, and they are definitely not offered money. On our first tour we often begged for $20 at the end of the night “for gas” and many times we were denied. Our largest payout over the course of eighty shows was probably $105. You’re dealing with simple economics here. If no one paid to see you play, then there’s no money to pay your band. We understood this implicitly, so we weren’t angry . . . but try explaining this to someone curious about being in a band.
A tour is something of an existential trial. During those early tours, before we knew any bands in other cities, we would be playing bills with bands that had nothing to do with us aesthetically. They would be jam bands, funk/punk groups, “jazz” outfits — you name it. It’s never a problem when a band is clearly terrible. You can dismiss them and return to your beer or the game on TV. What’s worse is when they are competent — when there’s nothing to immediately identify them as good or bad. A competent group of musicians will corrode the clarity of your self-image. The band might be performing something that’s not great, but it’s not particularly horrible either. They might be operating from a completely different set of assumptions about music than you are. This will call into question your entire philosophy—“Are we any different than this band? Why am I doing this? What sets us apart from this?” It’s time to lash yourself to the mast and pour wax into your ears. But the cruel fact remains — your band is no good. It really isn’t any good.
You see bands load onto a stage and start to collapse because the venue sounds different from their practice space. When we were starting out I think we were happy with the way a club sounded maybe one out of every twenty shows. Good sound was a shock. You just have to accept that you are entering a world that’s completely out of your control. The only thing you can do is set up, play, and laugh. If you can’t see the humor and absurdity of this kind of life you don’t belong in it.
Talent is not rare. By recorded evidence, Oneida was the worst band on Turnbuckle Records. Sure, there were a lot of terrible bands out there — but there were also a lot of astoundingly good ones. We played with a lot of bands with way more talent than us, who had true charisma and better songs. But a lot of those bands couldn’t manage to stay on tour, couldn’t stay away from drugs, and couldn’t stop fighting with each other.
Oneida always felt like outsiders. We definitely did not fit into the NYC world. We were not cool guys, we were pretty gnarly-looking, and we weren’t particularly talented. Our songs were borderline annoying. But we had spirit. We had this naive assumption that we were going to find like-minded souls out on the road. We were seeking this kind of community — we hadn’t found it yet, but we assumed we’d find it somewhere.
Early on it seemed as if the country was going to be populated by bands bent on schooling us. Our third-ever show was in Pittsburgh with a band called Dirty Faces. They kicked our asses all over the place. The band had all kinds of bizarre ingredients stirred into one pot — there was Cleveland avant-punk, hip-hop (in the dual vocals), primitive garage rhythms, great songs, and an astounding stage presence. We really clicked with everyone in the band and started to play with them all the time. Oneida’s record label Brah has released two of their albums. We’re still friends with all of them today. Oddly, it’s a very rare person who shares our passion for this band. I don’t know what it is. But — like us — they aren’t able to cross over.
At the time, though, it felt dispiriting — in a different way than playing with bands that sucked or were merely competent, but still dispiriting. Would we ever be this good? If not, what was the point?
The tour ended with a three-day stay in Bloomington at Chris Swanson’s house — Swanson was the founder of the record label Secretly Canadian. We played a memorable basement show in which Pat took off all his clothes and then played the show in standing water. Like the kind of situation that kills people — water plus naked plus a lot of electricity. We were out of our minds from the endless touring and really didn’t give a shit anymore . . . but this somehow came across in a positive way. Swanson never forgot the show. Then we went to Cleveland and played one last, miserable show, on December 21. We had no money and were barely hanging on to our sanity. We were back in New York on Monday, December 22 — we loaded our gear into the practice space and went off to see our families for the holidays.
Once we returned to the city and started practicing, I noticed a change. We would sit down in front of our instruments and music would just start flowing out of us. We would unearth a riff and just beat it to the ground — we would play a single pattern for an hour at a time. We were in a practice space now on South 4th Street called the Music Garage. If you want to see the actual space — the place we recorded our second album, Enemy Hogs, and wrote Come On Everybody Let’s Rock — it’s a bar called Dram now, a mixology place where everyone dresses in a retro-future style. That’s the old Oneida space.
We weren’t playing a lot of local shows — or any, really — but we were starting to sound like an actual band. We were creating songs from scratch, and a lot of them were endless repetitions of riffs. What set Oneida apart from a lot of other bands was that we used electric combo organs — we called them “woodies,” to distinguish them from the plastic “keyboards” from the ’80s that were more common onstage and perhaps more agreeable. Keyboards had more tonal variations, purer sounds, and more advanced circuitry. A sound guy would assume that a keyboard would be plugged straight into a club PA and that it wouldn’t go through an amp. Whereas a woodie was made of wood and would be played through an amp. These were organs whose heyday was the mid- to late 1960s—“combo” because they were perfect for combos, or bands, to travel and do shows with. They were compact, electronic, and prone to chaotic noise and surprising distortion. In 1997 and ’98 they were everywhere, available for $100 or less. They were unloved instruments and Rob snatched up a number of them. Woodies, as played expertly and creatively by Rob, became one of Oneida’s signature sounds.
The Music Garage felt like a microcosm of the Brooklyn scene — or even of the New York scene. It was incredibly dispiriting. It was like LA or something — anyone with half an idea would be in a practice space turning that half an idea into a quarter of an idea. And it would be ceaseless. We’d get to know the bands that played there by the sounds coming from their spaces. There was a kind of funky Latin band — maybe one short step away from a jam band. There was a garage-style band that was almost good. One of the bands was called NVR — they owned a black Hummer on which they flew a small Jolly Roger. The Hummer had the band’s website on it — if there were even websites at the time. Oneida was actually collecting people’s mailing addresses and sending them flyers when we went on the road. So anyway — perhaps this band didn’t have their website on their Hummer. But they did drive it around the neighborhood and park it in front of the rehearsal space. I never heard them practicing but I saw them milling around their car once in a while. They all dressed in tight black clothes and obviously spent a lot of time at the gym. Maybe it was a Type O Negative kind of vibe. Once when I was driving around Manhattan I saw some posters promoting the NVR debut show. They had clearly spent a lot of money on the flyers — it was at some nightmare like the Lion’s Den. After the concert date came and went we stopped seeing their Hummer outside the rehearsal space. The band disappeared.
We kept going. We booked another two-week tour for April 1998. We were going to open for Songs: Ohia — the biggest-selling act on Secretly Canadian at the time (about two thousand CDs sold). Rob knew the leader of the group from college. Two thousand CDs seemed like an unattainable goal — it felt like the kind of success that Oneida could aspire to . . . like how much more successful could we possibly be than that? Well, as it turned out — not much more! But that’s another story.