The Brooklyn-born quintet is releasing a stripped down jam on Joyful Noise in advance of a double LP next March.
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“Town Crier” is the first new, non-collaborative Oneida song in two years, but its roots go back much further—all the way to a completely different band. “It started long ago as a cover of the Pere Ubu song ‘Birdies,’” says singer and guitarist Bobby Matador. “But it bears no resemblance now to how it began. The process was like with the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz: first his arms get replaced, then his legs, and eventually he’s made completely of new parts.”
As side A of a new two-song 7-inch due this week on Joyful Noise, “Town Crier” goes back in time in other ways, too. It’s a return to Brooklyn-born band’s tighter garage-rock mode, after their last few albums—the most recent being 2012’s A List of the Burning Mountains—were more exploratory and jam-heavy. “We’ve been getting back to the concept of songcraft, and the idea of very digestible communication,” says Matador. “But it still comes with the kind of frantic drive that’s always a part of what we do.” Thus the track includes heavy riffs, careening guitar solos, a slamming beat care of drummer Kid Millions, and gnarled vocals tailor-made to growl along to, all in a more song-shaped package than you might associate with the five-piece’s recent work.
Add the more abstract instrumental B-side “Golden Age of the New Pariah,” and Oneida’s new 7-inch offers a glimpse of where this constantly-changing band currently find themselves. It also serves as a preview of their next full-length—a double LP due out in March—even though neither song appears on that record. “The album is new ground, and in our mind it holds these two sides of us together,” says Matador. “The single isn’t farewell to these two things, it’s more like a checking in.”
Though it’s been five years since their last official album, Oneida hasn’t been anywhere near dormant. Last year they released What’s Your Sign?, an excellent, expansive collaboration with legendary avant-garde composer Rhys Chatham, and this past spring a recording of a 2015 set at Brooklyn’s Secret Project Robot—featuring guests Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and James McNew of Yo La Tengo—emerged as a double LP.
“Our band being a vehicle in which other people can play is a big part of our identity,” Matador says of Oneida’s many partnerships. “If we improvise and you join us, you can’t be wrong. There’s no way to play the wrong thing. It always works. In that sense, we’re kind of a cult. It’s a benevolent cult, but when you play with us, you find out [what I mean]. I don’t mean we’re a cult band—we’re actually a band cult. It’s less about the audience and more like: you have to join us!”
If Oneida have become a cult, it’s a pretty far-flung one. Over their 20-year existence, members have spread out around the country, making survival a challenge, but the group has weathered those challenges pretty skillfully. “It turns out that our band is good at accepting that things might work different ways at different times,” says Matador. “For most of us it feels like a group marriage, and as anyone who’s in a long-term relationship knows, you have to constantly redefine the terms of the relationship, and keep talking about what’s working. For us, the music is still awesome, so we’re good, we can handle it. We haven’t had to do any Aerosmith-style group therapy yet.”
Despite Matador’s take, it’s probably fair to call Oneida a cult band. Their willingness to follow their collective muse has created an unpredictable, zig-zag career, one not necessarily built for wider audiences. Their music always seems to fall between genres—between rock and noise, songs and more out-there jams, guitars and electronics—and in that sense the two stylistic poles on their new 7-inch are about as Oneida as you can get.
”Let’s face it: human history shows us accepting change is difficult for people,” says Matador. “But that’s liberating for us, because it became clear early on that we could set terms of success for ourselves, and that if we were smart about that, we could really succeed. For us, success is measured in freedom and sustainablitiy and meaningfulness, all wrapped into one package. It’s been happening and it’s still happening, and it’s exciting.”