Earlier tonight, I read an article in the literary journal n+1 by John Colpitts (aka Kid Millions of Oneida) about his life as a drummer in an experimental rock band, entitled “Heads Ain’t Ready.” The article is title after the name that the band gave to their first tour, which lasted two and a half months, a truly insane amount of time for an underground band on their first time out.
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.
Throughout the essay, Colpitts takes this tone, of questioning whether anything has changed in the last 15 years, for a band that started out with no fans and no prospects and barely seems to have anything more today. The essay begins with a withering and indispensable account of a disastrous show in rural California, at which the band played at 1 AM for 6 minutes to impatient hotel staff. This show happened in 2010, when the band had been together for 14 years.
The guys in Oneida were probably right that “heads weren’t ready” for what they were doing in 1997. But I think one has to conclude that, at some point around the turn of the century, they came around, at least to the point where they could engage with the music on something like its own terms. Here’s what a young college radio DJ wrote about the band’s fourth album in 2003:
Goofy, experimental psych-rock from New York. Runs the gamut from wacky and amusing to rocked-out to cheesy and irritating, but mostly stays on my good side. Lots of good guitar and drum work, and world-music influences are exploited with more-or-less standard instrumentation in a way that I find quite novel. My only major complaint is that many of the songs are a lot longer than I think they need to be.
Although it seems that the pummeling, apparently endless exploration “Double Lock Your Mind” was something that I was not prepared for, I’m living proof of a ready head’s existence.
And it’s not like I was the most clued-in, far-out dude at KTRU in 2003 either. My impression at the time was that Oneida was one of those bands that were fundamental to college radio of the day- that they were one of those bands that everybody knew. I’m guessing that there are lots more people out there like me who get what Oneida’s doing and respect it. However it may look to Colpitts from a day-to-day perspective, there are people out there being spoken to by his music.
Perhaps he can take some comfort in that; no doubt he remembers it from time to time, such as when his solo project Man Forever is profiled in the New York Times (on page C7 of the New York edition), or when his autobiographical musings are published by a well-regarded literary journal (in an edition that’s not available online and is probably read by a couple hundred people outside NYC at most).
Here’s the thing though: I have been a terrible fan of Oneida. I own two of their twelve records, and I haven’t bought or even listened to any of their material since 2009. I’ve never paid to see an Oneida show; the only time I’ve ever seen them at all was in 2005 when the Jonx opened for them, and I’m ashamed to admit I barely even remember that show. I’m a huge fan of Oneida-adjacent artists, including Parts and Labor (friends of the band, whom I’ve written about three times for the Houston Press and Chronicle), Marnie Stern (Kid Millions plays drums on her most recent record; I don’t have that one yet, but I wore out that first three, and I’ve written about her multiple times), and Pterodactyl (Colpitts released some of their records on his label Brah; I’ve written about them for the Austin and Houston Chronicles, I have every piece of vinyl they’ve ever released, except one EP that I have seriously considered mail-ordering from Europe, and I flog them to friends every chance I get). By rights, Oneida should be one of my favorite bands.
Yet somehow, though my head might have been ready, my heart never was. I think part of it is that their music is just a lot more challenging than that of any of the bands that are associated with them- and if you’ve ever heard Pterodactyl, that is really saying something. Experimental music (which is how I would describe Oneida, and if you want to argue about that please go jump in a lake instead) has always been something to which I felt as if I didn’t have complete emotional access, like it was something that I listened to less because I enjoyed it than because I wanted to understand it. The problem is that you can’t be a good fan out of intellectual curiosity. That’s just not how it works.
Maybe there are other people out there like me. Maybe that’s why Kid Millions seems to feel like he’s still out there in the middle of nowhere at 1 AM playing to nobody- those of us who are watching don’t bother getting close enough for him to notice.
Writing this now, I feel as if something has changed. I’m going to make a pledge, here and now. I’m going to be a better fan of this unique and enriching music. I’m going to start by going out and buying that new Marnie Stern record that Kid Millions is on and at least one Oneida record, on vinyl. Even if I have to spend $35 for a 3xLP copy of Rated O.
My heart is ready. I hope that counts for something.