Swinging Modern Sounds #41: Utopian Communities


Bands, those funny little plans, that never go quite right, is a line from a really great song by Mercury Rev (“Holes,” from Deserter’s Songs), a song that rightly probes the mixed feelings that you might have about bands had you ever tried to imagine a band into being. Here’s a commonplace: just like in a marriage, bands are inscrutable to the people outside of them; just like in a marriage, bands end sometimes for inexplicable reasons; just like in a marriage, they sometimes endure long past when we think they will (because, perhaps, one player is dedicated, single-mindedly, to continuity), just like in a marriage, in a band, your intentions, for the most part, are for shit. The good part about being in a band is the part that involves playing together. Sometimes this is the only good part. Every other part of it is hard and requires that you be selfless, that you withstand decisions that seem counterproductive to you, that you watch as the politics take place, endangering the enterprise, that you lose yourself, again and again and again, to gain the whole.

Doesn’t mean it’s all bad, understand. Because playing together is sublime. Playing music with other people, in my experience, is one of the most sublime things that people can do together. It is rarely easy. Not a band that has endured for more than seven or eight years has done so without personal cost. Look at the Kinks, look at the Who, look at the Rolling Stones, look at the Eagles, look at Fleetwood Mac, look at Aerosmith. And for every band that has somehow managed to stay together, or to reunite after some long interval of discontent, there are innumerable others who could not. John Cale and Lou Reed are both still alive. Even though the Velvet Underground would never be the Velvet Underground without Sterling Morrison, why do John Cale and Lou Reed not play together any longer? Because the intensity of their disregard, and their pride, prevents them from doing so. Michael Stipe grew so far apart from the R.E.M. sound, or this is my supposition, that he just couldn’t pretend, any longer, to be able to sing those jangly indie rock masterpieces from the early part of their career. Ms. Lauryn Hill didn’t want to fraternize with any other Fugee. Hall is tired of Oates. Simon appears to have complicated feelings about performing with Garfunkel. Axl seems to hate all of the original members of Guns ‘N Roses. Young will only tour with Crosby, Stills, and Nash if they will sing the entirety of the Living With War album.

And it’s not just the really legendary or successful bands who have this problem either. Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine apparently could not keep playing together. The guys in Slint can’t stand doing it anymore. Pavement only got back together for the reunion money. It took seventeen years for Bill Million to be willing to play with Glen Mercer again in The Feelies, And so on.

It never starts out this way. No band starts out this way. So how do they start out? For the purposes of this essay, they start out like a Utopian community. In fact, the idea of the rock and roll band changed dramatically during the heyday of the commune, during a period naïve enough to believe in Utopian communities. The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane lived and played together, and they created a sort of idealized notion of how the band can do what the band can do (I remember seeing that band Thinking Fellers Union 201, in the nineties, and the highest praise accorded them by people who were in bands was: they live together). If you are all sharing a space, and rotating in the preparation of food and laundry, you will practice more, and the fact of your relationships with the other people in the band, you supposed ease with them, your unspoken communication with them, will become some of the raw material of the band. The band will lock in, the band will find its group identity. The much esteemed idea of woodshedding is a variation of the same theme. The band goes up to the country and gets its head together, does some woodshedding, until the material is secure. Which means that they practice a kind of Utopian community.[1]

Punk ruined this image, this Haight and Ashbury idea of community, as it ruined so many ideas from the easier, softer, hippier days. Johnny and Sid rode in the bus, and Steve and Paul flew from town to town, across the USA, because they couldn’t stand each other. The Ramones traveled in separate vans because Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend and they rarely spoke again. In punk, intimacy and a sense of feelgood idealism were not integral to the music. Or maybe the early exemplars of punk were simply dealing with so much deprivation that they couldn’t see fit to organize themselves into Utopian communities, because they never felt Utopian at all. Or maybe, during punk and after, the Utopian model of band formation just took on a slightly more hard-boiled anhedonic aspect. Gang of Four, for example, had their brainy, slightly dour Marxist reputation, which was also true of The Mekons (to some extent), and Delta 5, wherein the Utopian rhetoric sounded like it came from the Little Red Book sometimes. Gang of Four all had their bastard moments, or so I have been told. Some of them probably were bastards, but if you believe the popular, critical line on them, they all subscribed to a united anti-rock-star purpose, and the compositions were by the group. Same thing with a “collective” like Chumbawumba. So there was Utopianism of a sort in punk, perhaps, just not the patchouli-flavored kind.

More recently, commune-oriented bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros or Polyphonic Spree also traffic in this antique notion of the Utopian Community, inviting in, or so it seems, almost anyone who wants to join the band, and making the music that you might suspect a band of this kind of would make, neo-psychedelic music. It all goes back to Gong, or it all goes back to Henry Cow, or it all goes back to the Incredible String Band, or it all goes back to the Kweskin Jug Band and the Fort Hill Community. It all goes back to the notion that when you make a band, you make a kind of alternative ideological system, a place where the world, and its bourgeois conventions, are in arrest. You travel around the world, like a gypsy encampment, or like a posse of bounty hunters, or like mercenaries, taking few prisoners, creating your own ethics, your own theology, and you have teammates, people who will watch your back, and if someone throws a bottle at you, your teammates will hit him in the face with their guitars. An ideological and Utopian glue is what makes a band a band, at first; it’s what keeps it from splintering.

Perhaps no band recently has been more enamored of the Utopian community aspect of band formation than the band that is named after a bona fide Utopian community, the Brooklyn band called Oneida.

They started in high school, or some of them started in high school, and this is a worthy part of the Utopian mythology of any band. The band begins in that period in which cult-like communities of teenagers form apart from, or adjacent to the nuclear families of the constituents. I have written a little bit about the group of friends I lived with when I was away at high school (see Swinging Modern Sounds #10), and it’s fair to say that had any of us been able to play a musical instrument at that time—I was just learning—I’m sure we would have made a fine band, a band that sounded something like Lothar and the Hand People. (In fact, a guy who went to my high school was related to one of thmie players in Lothar and the Hand People.) We read deep in the Utopian literature, and we liked bands who were practitioners of this Utopian approach, and it was probably only our parents–who were footing the bill for our very expensive educations–who kept us from declaring ourselves wards of the state, so that we could be free to theorize and practice along the Utopian lines.

By coincidence, John Colpitts, also known as Kid Millions, drummer of Oneida, went to the very same high school I did, in New Hampshire, and this high-school was the furnace in which Oneida was first superheated. He may not have come up with the name Oneida there, nor his own pseudonym, and the lineup was not yet fixed, but he was drumming there, playing covers of The Cure and Joy Division, and playing on the ice hockey team (among other intramural activities). In this kind of a landscape does the idea of a band inevitably gain traction. Fat Bobby, who real name is elided here, also played with John Colpitts during and just after the boarding school years, and so some of the associations of Colpitts’s boarding school years, the years of idealism, the years of the Utopian, led to Oneida. The various players then went off to college, as you do when you are a graduate of a very good boarding school and Colpitts played with others in college, in a period when he was being exposed to a lot of music that was more Utopian than The Cure or The Smiths, let’s say, some krautrock, some minimalism. And among his acquaintances, during this college period, was the guitar player in Oneida who went on to become Hanoi Jane. It wasn’t long before, in New York City, all the relevant protagonists were in residence, including Papa Crazee, who left the band in 2001. And they decided to give Oneida a try.

The band name came to Colpitts in the library one day, and he claims not to have had any particular understanding of its significance at that time. A likely story. He claims not to have imagined that a Utopian community was a particularly good analogy for a band. He claims not to have noticed that a band and a Utopia and a separatist religious community were all alike in certain subliminal ways. Of the original Oneida, Wikipedia says:

The Oneida Community was a religious commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus’s millennial kingdom themselves, and to be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven (a belief called Perfectionism). The Oneida Community practiced Communalism (in the sense of communal property and possession), Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism, and Ascending Fellowship. There were smaller Noyesian communities in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney and Cambridge, Vermont. The community’s original 87 members grew to 172 by February 1850, 208 by 1852, and 306 by 1878. The branches were closed in 1854 except for the Wallingford branch, which operated until devastated by tornado in 1878. The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, and eventually became the giant silverware company Oneida Limited.

Kid Millions asserts that by naming himself and his collective musical endeavor Oneida he was just coming up with a plausible name. He claims that he didn’t really know what kind of band Oneida would ultimately become, that the name would somehow shape the band. Was it the name that drove Oneida toward its highly experimental song structures of recent years, its mostly wordless compositions, its unconventional sounds, timbres, voicings? Would Colpitts and Oneida otherwise have written a lot of conventional pop songs with bridges and female backing vocal choirs? Maybe the form and content of Oneida only gradually became coincident, because there were some relatively conventional “songs” in the early Oneida catalogue. But in the early years they adjusted to their name yet. They were Utopian up to a point. The name had not yet exacted its price.

Or: for a while, let’s suppose, Oneida was young, as all bands are young at first, and they had some idealistic notions about all living in the same city and playing together a lot, woodshedding, but then the name began to have its effect, and Oneida assumed its tradition of pseudonyms (and here we can see the way that Oneida is not at all dissimilar, and even forms a kind of blueprint for the band called Animal Collective, which is also a very good example of the Utopian community, with its pseudonyms and side projects and group-oriented ethics), and came in the process to behave as though they understood the poignancy of traditions like Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism, and Ascending Fellowship.

In due course, armed with pseudonyms, they also began to sound like some of what they had more recently been listening to: Can, Faust, and Neu.

What can we say about krautrock that hasn’t been said? That it was reactive, and perhaps reactionary, in that it was a radical response to being the generation after the generation that was in part responsible for a calamitous war, and that when Can, Fast, and Neu (and Cluster and Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk) were first doing what they were doing they were opposed to what had come before them in German culture, even as they were also reacting away from the European tradition of the art song, and finding ways, particularly via the work of Stockhausen (it’s a sign of the times that members of these bands constantly cite the influence of Stockhausen), to dismantle conventional Western notation and classical composition, likewise the reliance on tonality and development that we associate with Western classical music canon. Krautrock stood against the canon of German music, and against what was unsophisticated in rock and roll, in the same way that the Velvet Underground found an influence in the work of La Monte Young and Tony Conrad and Terry Riley, and bludgeoned rock and roll in New York City with what they were getting from the minimalists. That said, it is perhaps also true that Can be mapped onto the practices of the Oneida Community, especially, perhaps, the mutual criticism, part of it, as described here by the original Oneida Community itself:

THE little school at Putney went through a long discipleship before the system of mutual criticism was instituted. The process was perfectly natural. Love for the truth and for one another had been nurtured and strengthened till it could bear any strain. We could receive criticism kindly and give it without fear of offending. Association had ripened acquaintance so that we knew one another’s faults. We had studied the Bible systematically for ten years, and were trying to express our conclusions in appropriate external forms.

Oneida the band looks back not only to Can, the German band, but to Can’s reliance on some of the tropes of the Oneida Community. Mutual criticism, among Can, perhaps resulted in the removal of Malcolm Mooney, or Damo Suzuki, or even Holger Czukay (who, though a founding member, was forced to the side during the Can disco phase), and perhaps Oneida used a similar mutual criticism model in the period in which Papa Crazee moved on and formed his own somewhat rootsy band Oakley Hall, who by virtue of being named after a novelist, were obviously contingent upon a different set of traditions. The mutual criticism model may have been thus:

As oxygen combined with nitrogen is the very breath of life while pure oxygen is destructive, so criticism must be combined with love to be wholesome and healing. Christ was qualified to be the judge of this world by the love he showed in laying down his life for it. Criticism bathed in love wounds but to heal; bathed in personal feelings it leaves poison in the wound. There must be not only love but respect.

Having concluded with one phase of the mutal criticism model, arguably as it played out in an internecine context, a splintering context, Oneida began experimenting with the krautrock sound more earnestly, refining, transmuting, transposing, rehistoricizing.

The different order of sound became written in Utopian lines upon the release of the next album, Each One Teach One. A very remarkable record. Indeed, a friend of mine who is passionate about repetition (he appears, for example, Swinging Modern Sounds #12) urged me, for many years, to pay particular attention to the Oneida track called “Sheets of Easter,” from Each One Teach One (2002) as a high water mark, which for some time, to my shame, I resisted doing (he also likes Orthrelm a lot, and there I cannot tread with any regularity). But let me describe the excellence of the track. The voice begins the action, thus: the voice (Kid Millions, I think) sings “You’ve got to look into the . . .” And then a chorus of voices sings “light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light light” with one grinding organ chord for about fifteen minutes, and as with many Oneida songs the only “lead” instrument is the drums, but even here the variations in the drum part are only occasional, it’s really just the one chord, and you may be wondering if I typed in the repetitions of the word “light” above, or if I pasted them all in, and I wondered that about the song, too, if any of the song was looped, or if they played the entire thing, because it never moves off the grid really, it never slows down, and Kid Millions could have overdubbed the drums, in order to make sure that the thing never flags, but that doesn’t square with my knowledge of the band, the humanness of their project, and in the end it doesn’t make that much difference, because the more you listen to “Sheets of Easter,” as if watching the radiation emerge from a singularity, the more variation you hear, and you sort of never want it to end, and indeed, I am listening to it as I type these lines, and I never want it to end, I want it to be playing, and I would, if I could, just write an entire essay of thoughts I have while listening to “Sheets of Easter,” and now that I’m listening to all the guys singing “light,” I’m wondering if they are not singing “night,” just because “night” sounds more moving somehow: “night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night night.”

This is very satisfying music. There’s no room in the song for expression, and in some way, expression, in Oneida seems stupid. It’s not confessional, there’s not room for confession. There’s only room for what rock and roll is, the iteration of rock and roll. In Oneida, you hear exactly what a rock and roll band is and does. (I think in “verse three” they sing “sight.”) A rock and roll band is about an idea of sound, and the sound, according to this argument, is loud, and there are a lot of overtones, and the sounds of amplifiers, and simply indicating the sound is enough, and variation in the sound would only distract, and it would only seem embarrassing, overweening, and so stripping away variation, and harmonic movement, is to strip the thing to the purest example of what music is, and there are few examples more powerful than “Sheets of Easter.” Even “Sister Ray” feels a little bit vain by comparison, a little bit Rococo. The best analogies would be the sludgy metal of SunnO)))) or Earth. But SunnO)))) doesn’t really care about rhythm at all. And Earth, at least in its more recent vintage, does actually like to move off the one chord occasionally. So Oneida, on “Sheets of Easter” is pretty singular.

What, you might ask, was the Utopian narrative in this next phase of the band, was it something like Ascending Fellowship? “We understand by the ascending fellowship, a state in which a person seeks companionship with those who are on a superior spiritual plane, so that the drawing of the fellowship is upward (italics in original).” Certainly, the direction of the band in the time after Each One Teach One was toward an expansion of the groove, and toward improvisation, and this despite the fact that “Sheets of Easter” would appear in some ways to be a dead end, uncircumnavigable. Well, there was one way to circumnavigate it, and that was to concentrate on the means of production, and thereby to practice Communalism, in exactly the sense it was practiced in the original Oneida Community, which in this case meant the inevitability of building their own studio.

For some bands, building your own studio is simply a way to make music more cheaply, and you can admire this thriftiness, which is in some way Utopian. But in another Utopian construct, building your own studio is like Wittegenstein designing his own house, or Jung designing his own house, which is to say, a variety of individuation, or alchemical study, but an individuation perhaps that is closer to Deleuze’s theory, which is more about flows and multiplicities, than it is about some supreme dead stop of identity. You make the studio that best coheres with the idea of the band, a fluid idea of a band, an Ascending Fellowship. Ergo, Oneida built their studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but in Williamsburg before it was what it is now, in a particularly arts-friendly building (Monster Island, I believe it was called) that offered reasonable rents, and rewarded Utopian thinking. The resulting space was dubbed the Ocropolis, and the band not only recorded there, but built a kind of Oneida think tank, with old beat up organs and parts of drum kits, and tapestries, and tie-dye up on the wall, and they played there, and recorded other people there, and had improvisatory events there, and sort of made a whole idea of the Ocropolis, which was as pagan and as iconic, with regard to Utopian thinking, as the original Acropolis. As when Deleuze says:

Difference is not diversity. Diversity is given, but difference is that by which the given is given, that by which the given is given as diverse. Difference is not phenomenon but the noumenon closest to the phenomenon. It is therefore true that God makes the world by calculating, but his calculations never work out exactly, and this inexactitute or injustice in the result, this irreducible inequality, forms the condition of the world.

(I saw Oneida play a show at the Ocropolis one night, and it was, as far as I could tell, improvised from top to bottom, and it lasted a very long time, but not the seven hours of one of their other performances, and the audience just kind of worked its way in among the instruments, and the lights were dim, and there was a lot of pot being smoked, and a lot of the guys in the audience had the sort of Appalachian-chic facial hair, and there were a lot more men than women, which is a kind of Male Continence phenomenon, and there was something very out of this world about the show, as though something was happening that could not, in any way, be perceptible by the world that, for example, was thinking about American Idol at roughly the same time. And yet: it bears mentioning that Kid Millions is an exceedingly polite and smart and well-meaning guy, and whereas you might imagine, once upon a time, that the members of Can might have played a Baeder-Meinhoff legal defense gig, or would have, perhaps, robbed a bank and given all the money to radical environmentalists, the members of Oneida don’t seem to have a public platform in the countercultural sense of the thing. They just play. They just sit down and play. The playing is the platform, and it’s about multiplicities of intent. The music is only about the music. And the music is an idea of music, and the idea of music is that nothing extraneous exists outside of the music, and that simplicity and rigorousness of intent creates the opportunity for what is Utopian, instead of fitting the music into the hitherto existing Utopian thinking, as, perhaps the Shakers did. The Shakers tried to come up with melodies that expressed what they were already trying to express, with regard to their theology. But Oneida builds its theology on what they are already doing with their music. So there is a strident normalcy to them. They could, it seems, have day jobs where they copyedit or write dissertations. And indeed all of Oneida have day jobs, because they are that kind of band, which is to say a Utopian band that only does what it does because it believes in what it does. You couldn’t dance at the show, thought it would have been a very good show to dance at, and there should have been dancing. There just wasn’t room enough. People should have removed layers of clothing, but Oneida don’t exactly seem like the kinds of guys who would approve of the removal of clothing for any prurient purpose, though you will notice that John Humphrey Notes, the founder of the original Oneida Community had this to say about sex: “I conceived the idea that the sexual organs have a social function which is distinct from the propagative function…. I experimented on this idea, and found that the self control which it requires is not difficult; also that my enjoyment was increased; also that my wife’s experience was very satisfactory, as it had never been before; also that we had escaped the horrors and the fear of involuntary propagation. This was a great deliverance. It made a happy household. I communicated my discovery to a friend. His experience and that of his household were the same.”)

So Oneida had the studio, the Ocropolis of their theology, and it was a place to work, a reliable place to work, and they could work all night, if they wanted to work all night, and they didn’t have to pay studio fees, and if they wanted an old unreliable organ in which they were duct taping down certain keys, they could leave it there, and it would not get fucked with, and they could go to their day jobs, and come back, and the Ocropolis would still believe in what they wanted to believe, which was a constantly shifting palette of beliefs. And their religion, their theology, would attract certain adherents, or acolytes, for periods of time, and there would be trance states of various kinds, kinds of trance states that are still permitted in a secular post-rock-and-roll present.

They got big in Europe. As I understand it, this was inexplicable to them. They were playing to modest crowds here at home, but suddenly they went abroad, and they were on covers of magazines, and so on. This is the thing about small, mobile, idealistic cults. They are never rewarded with adherents in their homeland. They are foretellers of future things doomed to go disbelieved at home. So Oneida had to go abroad, and, for a while, they were showered with attention and success abroad. The Ocropolis was reflective of this state of affairs, of the increasingly recondite attentions of the American music audience. If the math rock idiom made possible some of what Oneida became, that idiom also faded, after a time, and the bands that were synonymous with it have all found the world harder than once they did. Tortoise, Labradford, Trans Am, and so on. Oneida, arguably, had something in common with this period. What constituted a certain wave form of difference, however, what Oneida had that some of these other bands did not, perhaps, have, was an unmistakable ethical system, a utopian ideal.

In addition to their recording studio, the Ocropolis, Oneida also, after a time, came to possess a record label, called Brah, and a web site that went with the label, a web site that was sort of like what the Black Panthers might have used. Or perhaps the web site and the label were like the silverware manufacture of the Oneida Community. The web site constituted an Oneida Community in this world, the postmodern world, that was separate, and historically bound, but constitutively similar to the original Oneida Community and its occasional broadsides and publications on such things as Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship. The web site, that is, became a public relations vehicle, but because of its Utopian vision and world view, Oneida, the band, is not able to use a web site as a publicity-oriented resource in the usual way. Instead, there are ethical questions posed by the web site, and ideas about history, and preoccupations with the intertexts of the rock and roll world. Oneida, as depicted (inconsistently, incompletely, as a series of public relations fits, as flows, as discontinuities), is a Hegelian entity, concerned with dialectical tendencies. In any event there came to be a web site, and a recording studio, as real world analogues to the Utopian thinking present in the increasingly uncompromising music itself. (An analogy, which is not a perfect analogy, but which nonetheless will serve for the moment, would be the MC5 during the period of its political rabble-rousing. This period did not last for long, and it seems to have been fomented primarily by the band’s manager, and certain members of the band have since recanted as regards the political rabble-rousing of the MC5. But the MC5, during the period of their militancy, accomplished something that virtually no other band has managed to do in a sustained way since, to sketch out a complete countercultural system of presentation. Many bands, even when utopian, merely attempt to have cultural and political axis to their project: I’m thinking of Rage Against the Machine, e.g., who sounded like they would follow every political thought to its conclusion but who did not entirely rage against the machine. Zach de la Rocha has been more political on his own, and Tom Morello has been more political on his own, but the assemblage known as Rage Against the Machine sounds more militant than it is. Gang of Four: same problem. Gang of Four in its most popular period (“I Love a Man In a Uniform”) is diagnostic, not programmatic. The MC5 did more than diagnose. The Jefferson Airplane, on Volunteers, or Blows Against the Empire, did more than diagnose. They militated. And, at least in the case of MC5, at the time it did not seem like an act, even if the act was later tamed.) The albums that signify, for me, the later and more militant Utopian model of Oneida, are Rated O, Preteen Weaponry, and Absolute II. None of these albums can be relied upon to have a lyrical statement in support of any particular politics or program. They are not about that kind of Utopian vision, the kind which requires a particular program of action (I’m thinking of Scientology, for example, whose totalitarian tendencies in the matter of prescription are well known.) Oneida is emblematic. They act in the spirit of Communalism and toward the unified collaborative vision of community.

Often there is a groove (see Preteen Weaponry, “Part One,” e.g.), in later Oneida, but there isn’t always a groove, sometimes there is just an idea, and for my money, the best and most recalcitrant examples are on Absolute II, where there is not a groove but a sort of sanded-away melodic idea, a remnant of a melodic idea, often keyboard-based, and often something is shimmering in the background, whether some electro-magnetic fields of guitar, and then some drumming, some rhythm, whether acoustic, or, on occasion, some synthetic pulsing of some sort. Is this not a band that is organized around drumming? Sometimes there is a whisper of drumming, though that is still a kind of percussive something or other. On “Pre-Human” is it looped? Is this a specifically pre-human, meaning pre-historic, or Holocene notion of sound, that is what happened prior to the Ice Age, or prior to the asteroid strike, prior to the Mystery Cults, and in looking upon that early iteration of planetoid history, there is sound, but there is not exactly music, so any advanced idea of melody would be unwarranted, instead there should just be the sound of sound, and this sound often repeats, and often lays out and takes a breath, and the moment when music takes a breath is a beautiful thing because it is like the cessation of human activity. Maybe all of the universe, in the Oneida formulation, is a form of repetition followed, at regular intervals, by a cessation of music. Is the anxiety of the a rest proportional to the amount of music that precedes it? “Pre-Human” hovers just this side of drone, without melodic development, in oscillations of stopping and starting. There is almost no sound on this track that sounds like a conventional rock band. Sometimes with Oneida you are able to say, oh there’s a Vox organ, but on Absolute II, it’s hard to do even that. It’s more about overdriven amplifiers, or something cooked up with effects pedals and a little bit of computer intervention.

And, on Absolute II, “Pre-Human” is followed by “Horizon,” which actually has some human voice—so disguised by effects that it’s impossible to attribute a particular intention to the voice. Some phase-shifter-and-amplifier noise is also taking place in the mid-range, and occasionally you imagine you can hear a guitar string being struck. My god, that sounds almost exactly like an electric guitar, and yet, we are twelve or thirteen minutes into an album by Oneida, and so far nothing like a drum has happened at all. Is it relaxing? Is it relaxing like a new age kind of thing? It is not relaxing. You can imagine watching proto-hominids eating a slain, vivisected water buffalo to this music, and also you can imagine the even dispersal of atomic fallout to this music, or you can imagine the demolition of stadia to this music, and all of what the human is, at the horizon line, is recontextualized, and made small by this music, which wants to supplant the merely human with something else. “Gray Area,” which is the third song owes a little bit to SunnO))), and in that spirit gigantic tectonic plates of guitar chording occasionally permeate what otherwise sounds like some factory machinery that someone has mistakenly left in the on position. If one were pursuing a positivistic course of study and asking whether or not a factory continues to make factory noises, iterations of labor, even when deprived of labor and its aggrieved practitioners, the answer would have to be: “Gray Area,” by Oneida.

And yet none of this prepares us for “Absolute II,” the track, which bears almost no resemblance to music at all. And that is what’s exciting about it. There are, again, a few moments when someone appears to pluck a guitar string, but otherwise the members of Oneida and their confederates and satellites are concerned primarily with trying to find ways to use the studio, the computer, the effects pedals, and so on, to produce anything but conventional improvised music. It should bear mentioning, while we are it, that there is nothing here that sounds anything like rock and roll. Rock and roll? I think maybe “Absolute II” is more like free jazz, or serious music, than it is like rock and roll. I can think of no rock and roll band that considered itself thus, except, arguably, certain “psychedelic” bands during the space between songs, when they were animated by hallucinogens.

And no drums anywhere. On “Absolute II.” No conventional drum kit that I can locate, even though, if we were to bear down on the question, we might say that it is a drummer’s band, in the final analysis. It is somewhat the vision of drummer Kid Millions that makes Oneida what it is. He certainly did not go out of his way to include his own instrument on this record. (And the title of Absolute II reminds me of a similarly uncompromising album from the seventies: No Pussyfooting. Allegedly, that album title came about because Robert Fripp did not want to compromise, in any way, on the minimalism of the approach. And Absolute II, is likewise absolute in its approach. Absolute II is absolutist, and apparently represents a recommitment on that score, not that there was a lapse, after Rated O and Preteen Weaponry, which are also demanding.)

The heartbreak of all Utopian thinking (and this is why, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne left the experiment at Brook Farm, and wrote The Blithedale Romance in part as a satire of the collective impulse) is that the second law of thermodynamics works on Utopia just as it works on all things. The idea, whichever idea it is, gets deracinated. Or the thinkers themselves lose their edge. Or a unanimity of spirit cannot endure. This last is perhaps the most frequent outcome—certainly in bands, as we have discussed. The unanimity of spirit fails, and the principals fall into dispute. In the Oneida Community, communal marriage ran so afoul of the common attitudes of the community’s neighbors, that Noyes, the charismatic center of Oneida, was forced to flee into Canada, where he suggested that maybe monogamy was a better idea, whereupon people began to drift off. We cannot know the interior of Oneida, because their statements and interviews are few, and somewhat gnomic, and the pseudonyms prevent a personal attachment to the individuals, and perhaps the principals of the sound, the abstraction of the sound, prevent a sense of confessionality or easy intimacy. And maybe this even applies to the band members themselves. Maybe they don’t know the meaning of Oneida except that they know the applied force of Oneida. But the facts remain: in most Utopian communities, there comes a time when you can still feel the Utopia, but you experiences it as a rash of differences.

In this interpretive view, this faintness of the original binding agent is coincident with: the live performance at Columbia University of a rendering of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music for chamber orchestra (again, see SWS #12). This was a spectacular show, and they handed out earplugs at the door, and you would have had to be a moron not to wear the earplugs (I wore them when I saw Oneida play, too), because the racket coming out of that orchestra made those louds shows I have seen, like Hüsker Dü, or Glenn Branca, seem tame by comparison. There was really no sense of how the thing was proceeding, there was no outside of the squall in order to assess its progress, there was only inside it, the feedback, almost like it was a military conflict, or an earthquake or volcanic eruption, but there was a real sense of mood, and the mood was of the transcendental possibilities of ordeal, and Lou and Laurie Anderson were there, looking both animated and slightly cadaverous at the same time, and I can’t think of a music performance that I found as Utopian as this one, except maybe La Monte Young’s Second Dream, that brass piece, at Merkin Concert Hall; this was like that, that seminal, that original, that outrageous, that new, and Kid Millions was in the audience that night, too, perhaps seventy-five members of extremist rock bands were in the audience that night, all determined, at the end of the ordeal, to found new Utopian communities. And in the case of Kid Millions the new vehicle was called Man Forever, which, unlike Absolute II, was not about an absence of drums, but more like an absence of any melody instruments. Man Forever, initially had only drums.

There was a subsequent performance of this ensemble of drummers, Man Forever, and I believe it was at the Issue Project Room on 6/25/2010, and I think there were maybe seven or eight drummers, maybe more, and I cannot tell you how they cued one another, anymore than I can tell you how the chamber orchestra heard its entrances and exits in the Metal Machine Music ordeal. I know only that the Man Forever performance was incredibly physical, and that it was summer, and every drummer got up from behind the kit completely drenched. The thing you don’t know about continuous drum rolls is that they do sort of make a melodic sound, and perhaps Kid Millions tuned all the snares. For me, Man Forever was more about the brutal power of simplicity. It was about saying that if rock and roll is about the drumming here is rock and roll taken to its absolute limit, so that is no longer the thing of its origin. The supplement of rock and roll. Kid Millions took the feedback and bow-on-strings screech of Metal Machine Music, and instead constructed a rhythmical language, and the impact was immense. Thus a new rhizome in the expanding, and attenuated, Oneida empire was born, a reconstitution of the entity called Oneida. A Man Forever album followed (and another this year, 2012, on orange vinyl), which has some elements contained within it which are suspiciously close to the possibility of melody, but which is still attuned to the possibility of rhythm and drone, and the Theater of Eternal Music, and the disturbances of consciousness that follow upon the drone.

At the same time, perhaps there was some crumbling in the presuppositions of the Utopian concept. First, the arts-related building in which the Ocropolis was housed, along with many other collectivist, utopian, arts-related groups were doing all things Williamsburg, was emptied out (and demolished to make way for the euphemistically named “redevelopment,” and here’s a shot of the process happening: http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2012/12/finally-demo-for-monster-island-in-williamsburg/), and, all at once, there was no longer a recording studio that was primarily, if not exclusively, made available to the impulsive and spontaneous musculature of the Oneida entity, and, second, Jagjaguwar, the label that distributed Brah, the Oneida record label, made clear that it would not exactly lie awake with regret if the Brah release schedule came to an end. What kinds of records were released on Brah? All kinds of records that would be of interest to the kind of person who wanted, mainly, that Oneida should go farther, compromise less often, and burn the rock and roll idiom to the ground, as if it were a building about to be “redeveloped.” I liked some of these albums a lot. Some of them appealed mainly to the ears of Kid Millions, but those are very interesting ears, very engaged ears. Every now and then there was a Brah release that I found surpassingly excellent, like Shinji Masuko’s Woven Music, which had moments where it sounded, well, slightly prog, and a bit ecstatic, that is, not exactly NYC, not exactly created in order to burn an idiom to the ground, but rather to ennoble, and uplift, and so on, mixing, in fact, classical guitar, nylon strings, with electronics, and if it weren’t so ecstatic, and satisfying on that basis, it would have been intellectually suspect. But Jagjaguwar had made clear that these albums, which did not, in all likelihood, sell copies in the tens of millions, were not absolutely necessary to its plans for Jagjaguwar itself, and so the label came to an end (and the spirit of complete disclosure, I should say that my band, The Wingdale Community Singers, did in fact have a song on one of the next-to-last releases on Brah, Koozies, Woodies, and Beer, a benefit album, which also, this album, contains a breathtaking acoustic rendering of “Sheets of Easter,” by a band called Fireworks), and in this way all of the things that seem to suggest the possibility of utopia, the inevitability of Utopia are stripped from the Utopia, and we have to deal with what seems like disappointment, or the commitment to rally and reframe Utopia, and what seems like the end of Utopia, or the abrading of Utopia against the rocky surface of the second law of thermodynamics, becomes an aspect of Utopia, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to come up with yet another statistical rendering for the apocalypse, the others having proven incorrect. All things decay, and music decays, and the music makers decay, and new Utopians spring up in their wake, and this is just how it goes, and you wake up one day, and you look back on what you have done, and everything you did in your youth somehow seems better than what you are doing now, but you are not one to get up on a chair and kick it out from under your feet, you are one to keep making things, regardless, and that is what has happened with Oneida, which could have gone on to make silverware, right? Selling the name Oneida to Sears, or somebody else, so that the Utopian part of the project becomes merely a capitalist trademark.

Is Oneida still Oneida? What does it mean to be Oneida? Is there really a band called Oneida? Are the principal players in Oneida still in Oneida? I could answer these questions. I could run these questions by Kid Millions, or Hanoi Jane, or Fat Bobby, and give you the answers. I could perhaps extoll the many virtues of a recent splinter-recording, by People of the North, itself a title from Each One Teach One, a recording in this case entitled Border Waves, made by Kid Millions and Fat Bobby, or, transparently, two-thirds of Oneida, a recording which in every way is an heir to the utterly uncompromising Absolute II, or which more exactly sounds like a combination of Absolute II and Man Forever. It has only three cuts on it, and each of them takes a good ten minutes of reiteration before it has said what it needs to say, which is simply that sound is music and music is sound, and the admixture of sonic effect with drum is enough for things to sound like some vestigial musical attempt, like a mere statement on wave/particle duality that happens to have musical elements, and this is where we are, and where we should be going, and this is what Brooklyn is like, and this is what the world is like now, it is faintly sinister, and it is repetitive, and it is all deprivation and environment and simulation and Venn diagram and arrhythmia and desperation and atypical calm, and this is Utopia, in a way, Utopia is what remains after the Utopia has spent itself. It’s hard to imagine that this band could have been started at a boarding school, or some combination of a boarding school and some of the finest colleges in the northeast, where people should have been reading The Grapes of Wrath, or writing papers on the line of succession in the United States in the event that both president and vice-president were assassinated, or were trying to come up with a new drought resistant wheat to plant in Mali, or were writing about whether Jesus intended to found a religion, etc., not making music that is as challenging to the orthodoxies of contemporary music as anything anyone has done since the Velvet Underground, all while being, at the same time, kind, reasonable, professional people with day jobs. Oneida is a Utopia now, in its later, more mature guise, its somewhat splintered guise, more so than ever before, more committed, more resilient, more punishing, and I can think of few recent bands, few recent Utopian communities, whose work I value as much.

Appendix One:

During the six months that it has taken me to write this piece, the band called Oneida has somehow seen fit to release a new album, A List of the Burning Mountains (Jagjaguwar), an album that in some ways does not exactly vary the formula of the last ten years, not as much as Man Forever has done, but which does indicate that the band’s new studio, and the work produced there, amounts to continuity with respect to the old Oneida theological world view, indicating its reluctance to fall away from the action of Utopian thinking. I will say that while it is often hard when listening, with Oneida, to figure out what is a keyboard and what is a guitar, because the noise being generated in each case is similar, it does seem as though Hanoi Jane, guitar player, is taking a spot in the front of the mix that he has not taken in a while. It is true that Shahin Motia could also be that guitar, or they could both be that guitar, because now the Oneida community has seen fit to grow a bit, but whichever way you spin it, there is guitar on this recording that has not been quite so present for a while. Moreover, there is a kind of Stockhausen aspect in the resistance, on A List of the Burning Mountains, to an improvisatory center. The compositions shift dramatically. The album, which consists just of two sides (in this way like the recent Man Forever recordings), two songs, develops, but in each case it develops somewhat erratically, with impulsive twists and turns that remind me of the electric Miles Davis of the mid-seventies, where the cues were hard to predict and the changes in tempo and mood eruptive and jagged. Davis, according to legend, owed some of the conceptual thinking to Stockhausen, but in the case of Oneida, it could just as easily come from Can (some of whom, after all, studied with Stockhausen). The jacket of the album looks like a French paperback, or like something from Semiotext(e), and gives away very little of what went into the recording, as is so often the case with Oneida. Having assumed, during the six months that I was working on this piece, that Oneida, as a collective, was sort of now replaced by Man Forever and various splinter projects, I am shocked not only by the appearance of A List of the Burning Mountains, but am shocked that the sixteen years of Oneida have only hardened the resolve of this collective entity. I imagine, by the way, that A List of the Burning Mountains refers in part to the wildfires of Western states, and the tendency of these to burn out of control without intervention when the fires in question are far from population centers. This is an apocalyptic image, though it is also a thoroughly routine one, at least if you come from AZ or CA or NM. The list of burning mountains would, in this way, be a long list, but also one that is mildly terrifying. I can remember my own first encounter with a burning mountain in AZ, and how strange it seemed to me that the mountain was just burning, and no one was attending to it, you can imagine a burning bush up there, you really can.

Appendix Two:

Here’s some more writing by John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Community:

WHO first preached the gospel? I am inclined to answer, Mary Magdalene. She was the first to find that Christ had risen from the dead; the first to whom he spoke after that event. He directed her to go and tell the disciples that she had seen him, and to say to them from him, ‘I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.’ That message was the Gospel—glad tidings of the event by which salvation came—and it was first announced by a woman. In the organization of the church Christ appointed twelve apostles,who were strong men and important officers. This was the conspicuous part of the organization. What was the dynamic? Was it a feminine apostleship? We may safely assume that the most important facts in this matter are not on the surface, but must be ascertained by esoteric examination. The fact that Mary preached the gospel before the apostles—in fact preached it to them—and stood between Christ and them in the most important message that ever went forth from heaven, warns us to inquire carefully as to the place that woman occupied in that organization. We have some hints showing an essential connection between the women who were attached to Christ, and his mighty works. For instance in the case of his first miracle—the turning of water into wine—the agency of a woman was notably present. The affair is recorded with minuteness, as the beginning of the glory that was manifested through Christ in his miraculous career; and we are told particularly that the mother of Jesus was with him when that work was done, and that she summoned him to it. She found that the wedding party at which they were guests was lacking wine, and she spoke of the want to Jesus. Why did she interfere in this way? What reason had she to expect that he would help them? Did a mysterious understanding exist between him and her about the matter? Evidently some element of the work in hand, whatever it was to be, had a commencement in her as well as in him. Her inspiration it would seem ran before his. He answered her suggestion by saying, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.’ But it appears that it had nearly come, and that she was not much ahead of the clock. She did not answer him, but assuming again the existence of a secret compact between them, said to the servants, ‘Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it;’ and, as if in obedience to her, he went right on and performed the miracle.’

After he was expelled from Yale, John Humphrey Noyes declared himself perfect and “free from sin.” He was arrested for adultery in 1847, and he was arrested for statutory rape in 1879, after which he fled the country to Canada. His son later helmed the Oneida Limited Company as it moved aggressively into a manufacture and sale of flatware.


[1] A surpassingly obvious example of this band-as-Utopian-enterprise is Todd Rundgren’s side project called Utopia, commenced in the early seventies and lasting, for a time, as a large-scale idealistic community full of ethereal notions (“City in my head/Utopia/Heaven in my body/Utopia/It’s time for me/For me to go/City in my head”) modeled, to some extent, on Mahavishnu Orchestra, another band that seemed as though it were exceedingly idealistic, spiritually adept, but which only lasted, in its first iteration (Jan Hammer on keyboards, John McLaughlin on guitar), for a few years, before infighting drove them all apart.

Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a recently released collection of essays, ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. Moody's band, The Wingdale Community Singers, just released their third album, NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH, on Blue Chopsticks Recordings. It's available at iTunes and Amazon.com. More from this author →