Going to see Brooklyn's Oneida play live is a physically taxing experience, for both band and audience. At a Los Angeles show last year, the band jokingly referred to their live set as "the Oneida workout program," but this isn't far from the truth. The three piece's repetitive, Krautrock-influenced drones and hammering riffs lull you into a meditative state, even as your body involuntarily moves in fits and spasms to the bombastic drums (Kid Millions), pounding keyboards (Bobby Matador), and piercing guitars (Hanoi Jane). But according to Millions, it ain't easy.
Oneida With A-Frames and Pyramids. Funhouse, 206 Fifth Ave. N., 206-374-8400, www.thefunhouseseattle.com. $7. 9:30 p.m. Wed., July 19.
"It takes every ounce of energy to perform it," he explains. "There's not really space left over."
Oneida's new album, Happy New Year, manages to combine these primal tendencies with experimental instrumentation and medieval-sounding arrangements, making it one of the most original records to surface this year.
"There's no intent," says Millions of the band's songwriting process. "The songs come out however they're gonna come out, and then we put them together."
But this casual statement belies the precise results that Oneida achieve, working both individually and through group jam sessions. Millions points specifically to the epic, sprawling closing track, "Thank Your Parents," which was written during such a jam session, while the programmed drums–infused "History's Great Navigators" was composed by a single member and brought in for further tweaking. He also acknowledges the electronic-rooted influences that have informed the band. "We were turned on by '80s electro in the late '90s because it was everywhere. It was not cool in 1998 to be like, 'Let's listen to this Afrika Bambaataa "Searching for the Perfect Beat" track.' And disco. It's all part of it. We're obviously very inspired by Krautrock and that shit, but it doesn't just begin and end there."
After 10 years in existence, there have been a few changes for Oneida. In 2001, original member Papa Crazy left to pursue his own musical projects. In a not uncommon defining moment for a band, the remaining members had to decide whether to continue as a trio or look for a replacement. "We did one show with another dude," says Millions. "Then rehearsals as a trio started sounding different but cool. So we just kind of continued on, never being like, 'Oneida is a fucking three piece, straight up. Deal with it.'" Phil Manley, of the D.C. group Trans Am, is currently playing with the band as an "adjunct member," tourmate, and guitarist, adding another layer to the already intricate mix.
Another change came with the creation of their own label, Brah Records, a subsidiary of their longtime home, the Indiana-based Jagjaguwar. It serves as a place where they can sign bands that they feel deserve recognition, while the folks at Jagjaguwar deal with mundane details like distribution, finance, and manufacturing. Serendipitously, founding member Crazy's band, Oakley Hall, ended up on Brah. "We just wanna be a place for music that's not really represented elsewhere, like any other fucking label. Ours is good, that's the difference," effuses Millions.
But the impetus to start the label also stemmed from a frustration with their own. "When we first were on [Jagjaguwar], '99 or late '98, there weren't any other rock bands. There was all this sensitive singer-songwriter shit, and they seemed to make all these dumb-ass choices, and we were frustrated . . . in a good-natured way." So late one night, Oneida made an alcohol-soaked phone call to their label bosses, and the next morning the indie-rock suits floated the band a proposal, which led to Brah. Millions sees this as a lesson to be learned: "Drunken ideas can bear fruit. Take note."
While Happy New Year may just be the most eclectic, innovative, and downright beautiful album of Oneida's career, the effects on the band's trajectory remain to be seen. "Every record I think is gonna be big," admits Millions. "We didn't start this to be famous. As long as it's fun and we can stay sane with it, as friends and as people, we'll keep going. As long as it makes sense. That's the hope." And for now, it seems to make a lot of sense.