A few Fridays ago, Fat Bobby woke up at 6 a.m. in Boston’s “vortex of white suburbia,” where he teaches seventh-grade American history and eighth-grade English while also coaching hockey (“We were undefeated for a game—we wound up 1-6-1”) at Dedham Country Day School, where his dad’s the headmaster. The day before, Bobby’d played the tricky baroque piano interlude from the Beatles’ “In My Life” at graduation ceremonies. But now he had to finish up the semester with some meetings, then head down to Brooklyn to link up with his power trio. The most reliably inventive and prolific rock outfit in NYC for nearly a decade now, Oneida—whose ninth-or-so album, Happy New Year, came out this week—were scheduled to play the Syrup Room, in a somewhat ghost-town-like East Williamsburg Industrial Park neighborhood, at half past midnight.
The show ran late, but that’s OK; Fat Bobby wants Oneida to feel like a dream onstage anyway. The Syrup Room, which formerly specialized in pancake toppings, felt like a barn: a big, claustrophobic space in the middle of nowhere off the Morgan stop of the L train (or “Hell Train,” as Oneida’s album-length 2000 Steel Rod EP put it), with makeshift bar and toilet stalls, a sizable hole in the ceiling, and a refrigerator keeping beer cold. After a set by Home (jammy indie rockers now recording for the Oneida-run Brah label), Fat Bobby’s keyboards commenced to blur into Hanoi Jane’s bass and Kid Millions’ drums as they plunked what sounded like the same note over and over again, for 10 minutes or more. If you listened close, you noticed incremental shifts, but much of the crowd looked confused. Yet by the time the band’s set wound down to the new album’s key track, “Up With People,” which Kid and Bobby say was inspired by stern old Chicago house trax by the likes of Fingers Inc., people were kinda sorta dancing.
Turns out the drone they’d opened with was the intro of the title cut of 2002’s double disc Each One Teach One, slowed down and stretched toward eternity; in the past, Oneida have kicked off many a concert with that same album’s landmark “Sheets of Easter,” which goes, “You’ve got to look into the light light light light light light . . . ” ad infinitum for 14 minutes. Starting shows in a trancelike state “is a little bit of a hippie thing, a way to settle in,” Bobby theorizes, wearing red-tinted sunglasses and a T-shirt for stoner-boogie bunch Parchman Farm while sipping a Dos Equis and talking a mile a minute on the back patio of a little Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, the neighborhood Oneida call home. “We’re not trying to unsettle people.” And though Kid says they’ve given the vocals more production emphasis on their last couple albums (the new one even comes with a lyric sheet), Bobby admits they still purposely sink the singing into the mix during live shows. “For me,” he says, “the sound works best when you can’t tell what’s coming from where.”
Happy New Year ends, as do many Oneida albums, with an extended epic—this time, the seven-minute “Thank Your Parents,” originally planned as the title track of a triple album, a project the band promises it hasn’t shelved, just postponed. Secret Wars, from 2004, ended with another extended monstrosity, “Changes in the City,” which changed almost imperceptibly, just like the city does. Since that time, of course, Brooklyn rents have climbed, and Oneida have watched contemporaries become famous. “More power to them,” Bobby says, paying respect to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Animal Collective. “But no major labels have come to knock on our door. And I attribute that to their good business sense.”
He remains proud of the borough, though. “There’s still this acceptance and understanding in Brooklyn: ‘Do whatever you do with passion, and I’ll give you a chance,’ ” he says. “I feel like the coolest thing we’ve accomplished as a band is to help build this community of people—not just music, but art, film, everything.”
A few Sundays earlier, in fact, Kid Millions was fixing up Oneida’s new recording studio, downstairs from a loading dock in an austere industrial building they now share with the Mighty Robot art gallery at the west end of Metropolitan Street, where Williamsburg abuts the East River. Oneida’s old studio, right next door, had been displaced for condominiums. Kid’s gym bag revealed CDs by Scott Walker, RZA, Fela, Marshall Jefferson, and Black Sabbath. Hanoi Jane, who has somewhat less hair than his drummer, drove us to a Williamsburg burger joint where they both drank Trappist beers—one red, one blue—from Belgium’s Chimay monastery.
Once upon a time, Oneida were a four-piece; now that Fucking Champs/Trans Am guitarist Phil Manley has his own Oneida pseudonym (Double Rainbow—the other guys, when asked their real names, play the hip-hop card), they’re looking like a four-piece again. (“We’re in the process of figuring it out as we go,” Kid explains.) Years ago, though, they were a duo: just Kid and Papa Crazee, now of the art-country act Oakley Hall. “When Crazee left,” Jane says, “we were surprised by how much space that left in the sound.” And since then, they’ve explored that space, recording a reggae dancehall track for release later this year and incorporating dainty instrumentation (zither, harpsichord, mandolin, sitar) on last year’s uncharacteristically pastoral The Wedding. “We’ve done songs that are freak folk, and they’re really well played and intricate,” Kid says. “But we don’t run around in peasant skirts.”
Happy New Year begins with a dead ringer for “Scarborough Fair,” though Bobby insists Simon and Garfunkel were ripping off an Elizabethan folk melody, while Oneida are stealing a traditional Southern funeral song he found in a book of old musical transcriptions in a thrift store. “We’re thieves,” Bobby admits. Which makes sense, seeing how he first played with Kid in a Grateful Dead cover band, when they were juniors at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, half as old as they are now.
All four Oneidas are in their early thirties. “It’s hard to market us,” Jane says. “Maybe we’re too old.” Two of them are married, and Bobby’s got a baby due in November. College towns Middlebury, Vermont, and Oberlin, Ohio, also figure in the band’s prehistory; that’s where they got into the habit of playing house parties, prepping the group for the ad hoc venues they still frequently frequent. When Oneida first formed, obscure little holes in the wall were the only places they could get gigs, give or take an occasional night at the Knitting Factory, which Kid was helping book at the time.
Now, Kid provides computer tech assistance for a living; Jane just got his master’s in social work at NYU. “We’re not music as a business,” he says. “This isn’t what we use to pay bills.” But Oneida’s still an obsession, one the guys plan to keep at forever, even if Jane has to remind his parents that music’s more than just a hobby. His mom, after witnessing some rare blue material at one gig a few years back, said Oneida reminded her of Redd Foxx, who she’s not much a fan of anymore. In contrast, Bobby’s mom—a Congregationalist minister who, until lately, pastored her own church in Dublin, New Hampshire—has compared the trio’s music to Philip Glass. Only louder.
Their first show ever was upstate, in Rochester. Two hours east of there, not far off I-90, sits Oneida, New York, where John Humphrey Noyes founded the utopian free-love Oneida Community, for whom Oneida were named, and which eventually evolved into a company that now includes an Oneida stainless-flatware division. “The founder was named noise!” laughs Bobby. “I love it.” What’s more, a multi-great granddaughter of Noyes is a fan, and has invited the band up to visit the community’s site sometime. They were also awarded commemorative grapefruit spoons.
But the Oneida Community isn’t on the curriculum for Bobby’s American-history students, who he only carries through the Revolution. Bobby admits “the seventh-grade boys are super-obsessed” with the fact that he’s in a band. “I don’t think I could do it if part of me wasn’t still a seventh- or eighth-grade boy,” he says of teaching. “I didn’t fail anyone, but I don’t give out very many A’s, either.”
Still, he’s happy to get a break. For one thing, it’ll give Oneida a chance to tour North America. Furthermore, Fat Bobby says, “This is my first summer vacation in years. So I plan to log some time in the hammock.”