Words by Jonathan Stout
Like many bands, legendary NYC/Boston indie rockers Oneida had their plans turned upside down at the onset of the pandemic. The band had booked studio time to record new songs in March 2020, but as the lockdown intensified, they canceled the dates and spent the next 15 months unsure of what the future would bring. They used the downtime to hunker down and write. As a result, they had a lot of material to draw from when they reunited.
“We had this large and growing collection of songs,” founding member Bobby Matador remembered. “Like everyone who works in some productive, creative way, you get used to the fact that sometimes the faucet is open. Sometimes the faucet is closed. This time, the faucet was wide open.”
The resulting album (Success, released on 08/19 via Joyful Noise Recordings) is a collection of rockers that hone in on the band’s more minimalist and direct tendencies.
“We wanted to play very, very simply in our own idioms and own vocabularies,” Bobby stated. “But it’s funny. It’s a record of rock songs. Some of which have two chords. Some only one.”
We chatted with Bobby about the making of the album and what the band has planned for the future.
Off Shelf: You mentioned in the press release that the band’s creative “faucet was wide open” when writing for the new album. What do you think caused this high level of inspiration?
Bobby Matador: If I had a handle on that level of causation, I could probably manage the flow better! There might be people operating on a higher plane who can see how these rhythms work, but I just can’t. Tough, crazy times are always ongoing, so I don’t know how much of it is about suffering – which is a traditional attribution for creative energy, I know.
OS: Do you have a favorite song on the new album? If so, what makes it your favorite?
BM: It shifts, of course, which is true for anyone playing their own music, but I’m writing this after just getting home from the first of a few brief tours, and after playing these songs every night I’m leaning toward “Beat Me to the Punch” right now. It’s fun as hell to sing and play, and feels like a perfect realization of how simplicity, ambiguity, and collision can make a song land. Like…a punch, I guess? I also get deep inside “Low Tide” on a lot of levels — there’s a personal relationship for me in the sounds and themes and how they work together in that tune.
OS: Throughout your career as a band you’ve experimented with nearly every nuance of rock n’ roll, from the more direct to improvisational. With the new album you’ve created one of your most accessible collections to date, which you mentioned was not on purpose. Why do you think your writing sessions turned out this way rather than more free-form compositions featured on your other outings?
BM: Similarly to your first question, parsing the “why” of things is not so easy, because Oneida is a band that thrives on instinct – I mean, we do sometimes examine our processes while they’re underway as well as after, and in some cases we preformulate a process intentionally – but we also have a long history of allowing ourselves to be blown by the wind. Also, to be clear, I think that some of these tunes capture freedom inside their strictures pretty effectively. And you know, it’s probably worth noting that we worked these recordings up from a batch of nearly 25 recorded demos, which definitely started life all over the map.
OS: The band has been around for a very long time at this point and your output has remained pretty consistent. What has kept you all so inspired and willing to continue to create with one another?
BM: The relationships among members of Oneida have been cultivated and nurtured intentionally – that’s been a point of emphasis for us since the start. Those who’ve looked at us as a cult more than a band aren’t necessarily wrong. Also, we can always return to our foundations as mutual fans of Kurt Russell’s film oeuvre if things get shaky.
OS: Like many bands, the pandemic forced you to cancel tours and studio time. How did you remain positive during this time of uncertainty? What got you through this difficult time?
BM: [laughs] Who says we remained positive?! As far as uncertainty – look, this pandemic is, and has been, shitty. But chaos, uncertainty, and inconstancy are the basic fabric of reality. You know what they say, right: man plans, god laughs and Azathoth abides at the nucleus.
OS: Is it difficult organizing band functions with the members spread throughout NYC and with you all the way out in Boston? When relocating to Boston, were you concerned that the band may not be able to continue with so much distance between members?
BM: I’ve been living in Boston since 2004, so we’ve had some practice at managing. Like most obstacles, the geographic disconnect can be surmounted by will and planning. The Boston-NYC travel is just long enough to be annoying but short enough to be doable. It would be amazing to be neighbors with my bandmates, but I find life to be full of compromises, and this one probably doesn’t make the top ten toughest at this point. I mean, we’ve been a productive, original, compelling band for 25 years – obviously, it isn’t a deal-breaker.
OS: Throughout 2021 you thrilled fans by offering rare live recordings and demo compilations available exclusively through your Bandcamp page. Are there any more archival releases like these planned for the future?
BM: Nothing is solidly planned like this for now, but there are some threads we are pursuing and exploring. For years we had our own studio space, the Ocropolis, and we have a crazy trove of tape reels that we’d like to wade into – and we also have really good multi-track recordings of a whole series of collaborative extended performances from our “Ocropolis” performance installations from 2009-2013, featuring a ton of amazing artists playing with us. So this stuff will hit in some form, at some point – but I can’t put my finger on dates or schedules right now. We always have multiple projects in the works, so it’s kind of a mystery which one will get traction and see the light of day next.
OS: The band members of Oneida are all involved with other side projects and solo endeavors- do you think being active with these other projects helps you all stay inspired?
BM: I think it’s been important to have ongoing creative relationships and projects outside the O – I’m not sure if the projects provide inspiration, or vice-versa – that would require a level of self-examination that I don’t think would be good for me or my music. As David Briggs said, the more you think, the more you stink.
OS: Oneida has existed now for well over 20 years and you’ve covered a lot of ground- both sonically on record and physically by touring all over the world. Is there anything that you’d like to see the band accomplish that you haven’t yet achieved?
BM: Yeah, but if I knew what it was, I’d be working on it right now! I mean, for one thing I would really like a two-week performance residency at a hotel somewhere in a country I’ve never seen. Also I would love to see Oneida get seriously paid! Those aren’t goals, though, you know what I mean? Just things I’d like to see happen. Also, a signature line of fragrances. We’ve actually discussed this in the band. I’ll spare you the details…
OS: How does it feel to get out there and play shows again after the height of the pandemic? I still see bands having to cancel tours midway due to COVID exposure, etc. Have the complications decreased the enjoyment of touring or just provided new parameters to adapt to?
BM: It feels really, really, really good to play on the road. Yeah it is much more complicated – but I’m at the simple-pleasure stage of joy and abandon and ecstasy in playing music with Oneida and with people all together for music. That’s corny, but it’s real.