If you allow your definition of success to include artistic credibility and the ability to stage unique events that no other band seems capable of executing, then Oneida are one the defining success stories of independent rock from the last decade. The band has been able to avoid the hard-touring life, traditional album release cycles and industry machinations that have proven insurmountable obstacles to lesser groups. Instead, they have forged their own independent path and along the way they have constructed their own studio, released a triple-LP — itself the centerpiece of an ambitious trilogy of records — into a gloomy climate for recorded music sales, and pioneered all-day public jam sessions with a rotating cast of musical guests, dubbed Oneida Presents The Ocropolis.
Myself and photographer Tim Bugbee had the chance to discuss Oneida’s singular place in the current indie rock landscape at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival with Bobby Matador in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
How does the band decide to participate in events like the Ocropolis — is there a formal structure for making decisions within the band?
It’s not formal to the extent that we have a work plan, there’s just a decent tradition in our band of delegation. So in the case of this ATP, we try and make all our decisions collectively. E-mail is the best way to do that; “ATP is inviting us – are you interested so that we can move forward?” In this case, [Oneida guitarist] Shahin, who is really good at doing these kinds of details was the band representative to the festival. We’ve worked with ATP before, we work well together. We have a booking agent who handles contracting, but most of the logistics get dealt with by one of us.
For a tour in Europe, someone will be responsible for representing the band to our booking agent. We try and be really explicit about it. There are ways in which having dedicated representation or managerial expertise would totally work in our favor. We don’t nail everything but we do pretty well and it’s enjoyable and there has been value in doing it ourselves. We don’t have a manager, we work with agents who are really good at what they do and get who we are and what matters to us and it’s really easy to work with them.
For our most recent tour, Kid [Millions, Oneida drummer] was the tour manager. There are certain things that people historically do. For instance, I manage the money, other people have their things that they pretty much always handle. Sometimes things get crazy and we aren’t explicit enough, so we need to step back and figure out who is in charge. We all trust each other, that’s helpful.
Can you tell us the history of the Ocropolis marathon events?
We did it most recently in June at the now-closed Secret Project Robot space. Friday we played for three hours – all of Preteen Weaponry and Rated O. Saturday we performed from noon to midnight. Sunday morning at five in the morning we did the new album. It was a long weekend, but you know it’s worth it. It’s interesting playing music in situations like this, this long-form playing, its really unusual and its completely shattered all of us irreparably in some ways that are really cool. But it’s not like this is the only way I think of consuming music [Laughter] It’s not like, “Man, a good band plays for eight hours!” I completely value brevity, this is just what we happen to be doing and I think there’s value in it and I love doing it.
When you did the first off-site Ocropolis at the Flaming Lips‘ curated All Tomorrows Parties in 2009, did they initially ask about a regular set and you said “Well, how about this?”
What happened was the Flaming Lips asked us to play but they asked us if we would be willing to do something extreme or different. What the Flaming Lips initially proposed – I think it came out of them performing Dark Side of the Moon at the time – they were like, “You guys could play all of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.” I don’t think it was like, “We are only inviting you if you do this,” but it was a proposal and we were like “No.”
Was playing Rumours ever seriously discussed?
Hard to gauge. [Laughter]
Did anyone want to do it?
I mean I love that music but that’s really fucking hard. Part of it was that we’re always struggling to find time to play our own music and move our own music forward. It’s always a challenge and the fact that it’s always a challenge keeps us energized and invested. I’ll just speak for myself: I don’t have the time to be like “Let’s spend two months to rehearse Rumours.” In those two months I need to be working on what we’re working on, even if it’s just playing.
So we were like,”How can we do this?” That’s where our discussion went. So we thought what could we propose that would be interesting. So we just had this idea of: “We could do what we do here [at the studio], there. They could give us a room!” It’s one of those things where it’s like “Ha ha,” – crack another beer – “They should give us our own stage! All day, man!” [Laughter] If there’s anything I’ve learned in life it’s at least: propose your stupid ideas, there might be somebody crazy enough to do it. We feel like now it’s an awesome part of ATP, it’s not like we’re putting one over on them. It’s cool because it doesn’t have to be a destination, like catching the right set from the band you wanna see. Nobody has to feel obligated, and I get to play with my band, but also with all of these heavy, interesting people, some of whom don’t improvise. Some of whom are like, “I’m not good.” I mean, we’re not “good” either, we’re good at doing our shit. People seem to come into it with a pretty cool mindset.
How do you decide what guests to invite to the Ocropolis?
It’s just a multi-step thing and someone in the band is in charge of it. The first time we did it we knew that kid was playing with The Boredoms, we know the Flaming Lips dudes, we have some friends who are there so it all kind of fell into place and we reached out here and there a little bit. The second one, we were like we should have a plan..
Who did you play with at the Godspeed! ATP?
Mike Watt, Deerhoof, The Dead C. Some other people like Dallas Good from The Sadies played guitar, White Hills. That was something where we were like, here’s this huge lineup, so what’s everyone’s top level choices? I was shooting for Throbbing Gristle, Cluster and Charlemagne Palestine. I was zero for three, but all of these people would be people where I wouldn’t know what the fuck was up, they wouldn’t know what the fuck was up and we would have to find some ground to meet on. It’s really fun to be, like, here’s our band and you’re coming to guest in our band. That’s interesting and cool, and then there are people – like Mike Watt seized the stage and was like “Awesome!” The most interesting one to me at that ATP was two of the guys from The Dead C, Robby and Bruce. They were really challenging in a way that was interesting. I liked their music but I didn’t know them personally or anything. I don’t think they know who the hell we are. It was cool because it was complicated and interesting.
From a musical perspective?
Just from my perspective of playing but also how it sounded and it went to places where we wouldn’t necessarily take it. That’s really cool, you’re sort of building something and feeling each other out with people who are just coming at it from a place that they’ve developed because they’ve played together for a long time and have a thing.
How did your relationship with [Yo La Tengo member] James McNew come about? [McNew played bass with Oneida for the majority of the Ocropolis set]
We’ve played with Yo La Tengo a few times, I really love that band, I think they’re just amazing. They asked us to play the Hanukah event at Maxwell’s and we’ve just gotten along. So we were like, “We’re in Jersey, we should find someone to represent.” We sent an e-mail to Yo La Tengo, something came up with George & Ira, and James after a while was like “I’m just gonna be there” and we were like “You’re not even in the festival, you should just be in our band.” It turns out he was totally down. It’s a fun thing to do for a lot of reasons, but you learn who is down to play. I feel like we’re like the Allman Brothers or something. [Laughter]
When you’re doing the Ocropolis marathon sets, do you get bored or check out?
Before you get bored, it’s like “Okay…the river of ideas and energy that immerses me is running dry, this would be a good time to step away.” So I’ll work myself out and step away. The reality is that this [The Ocropolis] is how we play as band in general, but with more of a time span. We’ll play all day every day, but it might be that Jane can’t come on Saturday or something. People are there or not there but for the most part each of us is playing for eight or ten hours a day for four days. It’s like taking that experience and stretching it out. I don’t wanna leave, I don’t wanna stop. At the same time I gotta step away, even if it’s just to grab a beer and go back on. Yesterday I took one actual break, twenty minute break, I came out of the club and I ran from the club across the empty field from there to here just to say hi and get a drink here and run back. It was awesome, I just felt like the craziest human being.
What’s the status on releasing the Ocropolis material?
It’s not going anywhere, we’re taking good care of it, its not like its slipping out of our consciousness. There’s no specific plan right now, I don’t know that any of us would feel good about just dumping it out there without listening to it and getting to know what it sounds like. Even if we then decide, “Here’s some archival shit.” At some point when I feel like we’ve gotten perspective, we’ve reviewed everything, it’s in decent shape sonically, we can then make it available somehow. At that point we all have a bunch of different ideas. My hope would be to do something with it, like make a product out of it, but then make all of the data available to people who could then listen to chunks of it, pull out chunks of it and make a mix, sample pieces of it. Just a free thing, like here’s all this shit on an FTP site, enjoy, the only qualification is let us know if you listened to it or used it. But that’s way down the line and that’s just one idea.
You’re a very ambitious band with a lot of projects, and you don’t regularly tour as much as other bands of your ilk. You have your own studio and you’re able to put together events that other bands couldn’t necessarily imagine pulling off. Is that something Oneida has purposely set out to do or is that just a result of your dynamic?
I’d say it comes from who we are as people and as a band and what we’ve prioritized but its not as noble or idealistic as saying “Let’s set out and be an example.” That implies much more foresight [Laughter] One thing that I feel that we as a band do very well is think about who we are and what we’re doing and what it means to us. There’s a great tension between making music for our economic living and working in another field for your economic living and you give up things in both directions. One thing that I personally have felt very strongly is that economic independence for me personally – working and being committed to working – has allowed me the luxury of treating what I do in Oneida as a more important, personal part of me than just a meal ticket. It is the meal ticket for the Ocropolis and the studio, there’ s a lot to keep running. I don’t necessary speak for the rest of the band in exactly those words but that’s a viewpoint that is pretty honored and generally shared by us as individually as well as collectively. We’ve always based Oneida on “what would be awesome” and tried to find a way to do what would be awesome rather than “What does a band do?” and do it and try and be awesome at it. It’s all limited by shit so it’s not a perfect life but at least its good energy to throw a the problem.
It’s less of a pragmatic decision?
We make really pragmatic decisions in order to protect the heart of what we do from pragmatism.
You guys have your own studio, you put out a triple record a few years back, and you get to do events like the Ocropolis. How is that possible if the over-arching narrative right now is that music is dying, bands can’t sell records, etc.?
Because we work. I mean the band funds itself but our lives aren’t funded by the band. So when we go out on tour, tour pays for itself and maybe we have a little money that pays for studio rent. We’re also super fortunate in certain ways. We have an audience in Europe that’s pretty supportive and sizable and we can go there and tour and come back with a little more money in our pockets.
We’re careful about the decisions we make and how they impact us on theoretical and practical levels. We’re also fortunate enough to have circumstances that allow us to do what we do. We’ve been working with a fantastic record company for a very long time. We respect each other, we respect how each other does business. It’s hard to end up in that situation. Its not like we’ve sailed off on our crusade, it’s more like we tried to do what we do and got really lucky.