Monster Island Block Party w/Oneida, Ex-Models, Golden Triangle and others
September 6, 2008
Secret Project Robot
The night started off earmarked for pathetic disaster. New York City had been put on notice to receive a hard rain from the runoff of Hurricane Hanna, which had been making its way up the eastern seaboard all week. The East Village Radio Festival, my original destination for the day, had been postponed due to the forecast, leaving me free to attend the Monster Island Block Party, which was prepared with an indoor location. This actually was auspicious because I had earlier been frustrated by the dilemma posed by 2 free outdoor music festivals on the same day – damn you NYC and your constant embarrassment of riches!! – and this relieved me from having to make an uncomfortable choice between the two.
Just as I was walking out the door to make my delayed departure towards the show around 8pm, my friend who was going to meet me there called to tell me that Oneida had already played at 5:30 (we had mistakenly assumed that they’d be the headliners and play last) and that he wouldn’t be coming after all. But, BUT, he told me that he heard that Oneida would be recording an album later in the evening and were inviting 15 people to join them in the studio for the recording. Only thing, all the tickets had been handed out at the beginning of the day. I almost turned right back around and headed home. I decided to press on, but at least 10 separate times on my walk to the subway I stopped in my tracks and stood frozen on the sidewalk, reassessing whether to make the journey. I’ve gone to my fair share of concerts alone, but this was billed as a party. What was I doing going by myself to a party where I’d know no one, that was supposed to be over right around the time I probably would arrive with vague intentions of crashing this album taping for which tickets had been handed out hours ago? But my momentum was unassailable. And it was so dramatic out, not quite raining, but windy and dark with an importunate drizzle and the air full of that portentous moodiness unique to having a tropical storm in proximity. I figured that at worse, I’d get to walk the desolate streets of Williamsburg that take you to the river and revel in my solitary thoughts like a little weather-battered shadowy moppet of the night. Or something like that. In any case, I soldiered on.
I was pleased to find that the event was still well underway when I arrived. The space (I’m not sure whether it’s called Monster Island or Secret Project Robot or Las Estacas or all of the above) is a converted warehouse located in a fairly uninhabited stretch of Williamsburg, right near the river, and functions as an art gallery, performance space, and as I learned, in the basement, a practice space and recording studio for Oneida. The event had the feeling of a “happening,” with freaky shit going on in every corner. There was some animalistic installation in the front room with sculptures made of leather, furs, and other organic-looking materials bearing horns and pelts…the works. In the main space, the lighting was all wrong for the scene. The bright fluorescent lights dilated everyone’s pupils and paradoxically, made for a much more psychedelic effect than the dark dinginess of a typical event of this sort. It was like 60 minutes on acid, man. At one point a parade of lissome young people nominally covered in diaphanous loincloths and covered from head to toe in some sort of white powder made a slow march through the space. Exposed tits and dicks - this was a good party!
Despite plenty of visual stimulation, the band was taking forever to set up so I wandered around aimlessly for a while before I realized that there was a basement, where The Ex-Models (which feature Oneida’s Kid Millions on drums) were just getting ready to start their technical issue-laden set in the basement. I was psyched to see them and what they were able to play sounded pretty good although they couldn’t really get things going due to the fact that their equipment seemed to be on the verge of bursting into flames. At one point a thin plume of smoke was rising from one of the amplifiers. Thankfully they turned that off, but I was still concerned that an explosion of some sort was nigh. They played for about 20 minutes before they gave up. The basement cleared out and everyone headed upstairs where Golden Triangle was getting ready to play.
Oneida was breaking down their equipment and moving it all into a room off to the side. I figured it was my chance. I walked up to Hanoi Jane and asked if they were playing again that night. “Yeah, we’re recording an album.”
“Oh cool!” I said, expectantly, enthusiastically, nonchalantly.
A pregnant pause and Jane asked, “Do you have a ticket?”
Mournfully, innocently, trying to make the most of my feeble hand, I responded, “No,” bowing my head with shame.
“Do you want one?” he asked.
I instantly perked up, my eyes widening like those of a manga cartoon girl. “Yeah yeah!” I said, my head athletically bobbing up and down.
“OK, but if I give you this ticket you have to promise to actually come,” he said sternly as he proffered a rectangular cardboard strip of paper featuring an eyeball with a metallic gold pupil.
I found his ultimatum laughable and asked him “Are you kidding?” After realizing he was serious, I wiped the smirk off my face, and solemnly agreed, “Yes, of course I’ll come.” (This exchange suggested to me that Oneida may not fully be aware that they are in possession of really big fans.) While I waited for the recording to begin, I went upstairs to watch Golden Triangle who were playing a raucous set encircled by fans and without significant demarcation from where the band ended and the audience began. It was hard for me to concentrate, excited about the oncoming performance by Oneida and not wanting to miss it since it was happening in a closed off private room and it wasn’t quite sure how I’d learn when it was starting. People kept peeking into the room and getting shooed out.
Finally they said they were letting people in. I entered timidly and was instantly greeted by a girl asking, “Ticket?” I nodded my head yes and before I could actually produce it, she thrust a can in my hand and insisted, “Beer!” I hesitantly walked further inside not knowing where to stand in the tiny cramped space full of instruments and equipment with a glass window looking into a small control room in the back since basically anywhere I stood would be impinging on the space of the musicians. Sensing my timidity, band members encouraged, “Come all the way in! Stand wherever you want.” There were maybe 10 spectators—some huddled in the back, a few sitting in the middle encircled by the band, and me in the back at the top of the steps leading up to the control room, looking out on the whole scene. Oneida informed the assembled group that what they were about to record was to be their “party album” and the deal of us being there was that everyone had to be partying at all times. They asked to make sure everyone had a beer and insisted that if at any time during the proceedings anyone needed a beer that we were to raise our hand and one would be brought to us. (Miraculously, this system actually worked.)
View From Inside The Ocropolis: Oneida channel The Feelies
Then they started playing, with each song getting more intense than the one before, culminating in a full on manic jam propelled by 2 drummers (inspired by the Feelies I later learned). Oneida play with an extremely joyous yet disciplined and serious intensity, and it was a powerful experience to watch and feel such energetic playing in such an intimate surrounding. It really made you feel like part of the experience. At one point the band popped open a bottle of champagne and started passing it around. Later someone said, “Bring out the dragon” and a pipe was passed around. It felt like a climax of my music-going career to be witness to such an experience. Anyone can go to a concert. Album-tapings are were the real professionals get their kicks. I learned afterwards they were recording what was to be the 3rd part of their triptych, "Thank Your Parents," for which they recently released the first part, "Preteen Weaponry." (The 2nd part will be released later next year.) Hey Oneida, can I come to all your recoding sessions from now on??
Fat Bobby steps away from his keyboard to mess with a bass for a bit.
Afterwards, I was completely elated. I felt this sense of being connected to all the people in the room who had shared in the experience. I think I was wrong and probably no one else cared to know who the hell I was, but I couldn’t shake it. I wanted to thank the musicians personally for allowing me to be a part of their album. They seemed confused by my effusiveness. I was shocked when one of the guys responded to my praise with diffidence, saying that he had been disappointed in his own playing and felt like it wasn’t as good as it should have been. I was able to obtain a copy of Oneida’s "Heads Aint Ready" 7” wherein they pay energetic homage to the frenzied, insistent instrumental lines of the Dead’s early arrangements of "Cold Rain and Snow" and "Cream Puff War" and listened to it a few times when I got home. (The next day I found several photographs and 2 live action videos that I had apparently taken with my digital camera during my trip home of my subway car on the G train, completely empty other than me, speeding through tunnels. WTF?)
I was still feeling the glow from last night’s experience with The Big O when I woke up. I visited the band’s website, Enemy Hogs, to spend some more time in their world and came across the phenomenally engaging tour diaries written by Kid Millions. I then went on to spend some of the most enjoyable hours in recent memory totally rapt by the extremely frank, funny, well-written journal of life on the road traveling across America and Europe in a rickety perpetually broken-down van, crashing on couches, and playing shitty, half-empty venues. They start off filled with enthusiasm and boundless energy and with each successive tour become increasingly more disillusioned and exhausted. For Oneida, the road is filled with loneliness, bad food, soul-crushing disappointment, ever-looming calamity, and accommodations so uncomfortable that the only way to deal with it is to get completely wasted. Anyway, if you have a day to spare, I highly recommend checking the Oneida tour diaries out. One of the best music reads I’ve enjoyed in a while.
I had told someone a story the night before about when I first fell in love with the Grateful Dead—how I rented the Grateful Dead Movie when I was 13 and sat in my parent’s bedroom home alone, watching in the dark, and had my expectations for what music could be totally turned on its head. That night years ago, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. As I watched the band play their hearts out, I was so moved I stood up on the bed and started sobbing. I remember thinking: all this time, all the music I’ve known from radio, MTV, records, I didn’t know that there were people out there who cared so much, who were willing to play so hard, to push the notes out of themselves and explore so boldly, venturing into such vast terrains of music—I was sad that I hadn’t known that’s what music could be up till that point and regretful of having lived so long with a false sense of the limits that existed on the possibilities of music. Well Oneida care. They play with that same intensity, and I don’t think it ever gets any less exciting when you find a band willing to play like that.
Download: Cold Rain & Snow by Oneida from the Heads Aint Ready 7"