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John Colpitts

Toeing the line between rigid structure and utter chaos, the drummer for the long-running art-punk band Oneida—who’s also known by Kid Millions or by another of his “taken” names, Man Forever—bangs drums into infinity.

The so-called father of minimalism, composer/performer La Monte Young, once said that drumming can be exciting, but it cannot “deal with the spiritual truths one can experience when very profound pitch relationships are executed perfectly in tune.”

We wonder what Young would say about John Colpitts, aka Kid Millions, perhaps best known as the drummer for the experimental post-rock band Oneida. Defiantly flying in the face of Young’s pearls of wisdom, Colpitts takes an approach that fuses concepts of minimalism with abstract art, percussion ensemble playing, and muscle-building kit workouts. Thanks to his association with friend and Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase, Colpitts has applied some of Young’s groundbreaking tuning techniques to his recent rhythm-based project, Man Forever.

“I thought it would be cool to encompass the physical limits of your body—and the limits of your ear—to create this larger sound that’s not about one guy,” Colpitts says. “It’s not about one drummer.”

It appears Colpitts is game for just about anything, as long as it’s adventurous. For instance, he was one of seventy-seven drummers participating in the Boredoms’ 77 Boadrum project, which took place in Brooklyn at the numerically auspicious time of 7:07 p.m. on July 7, 2007. In early 2015, Colpitts released a new record, Era of Manifestations, with the Oneida offshoot People of the North. (The name is a reference to an Oneida song of the same title, inspired by the marauding Norsemen the Vikings.) The free-jazz-influenced four-piece band, which includes guitarist Shahin Motia (Oneida) and bassist Richard Hoffman (of the avant-noise band Sightings), widens Colpitts’ musical bandwidth.

“People of the North was initially a project that started as a duo,” Colpitts says, “when [Oneida guitarist/bassist] Hanoi Jane had gotten hurt and was out of commission for a while. In the meantime, [keyboardist] Bobby Matador and I started playing as a duo just for fun and wrote a lot of new material that has, over the years, ended up on Oneida albums. I think People of the North is more nimble, and we can say yes to more gigs on the fly.”

It’s clear that Colpitts isn’t afraid to place himself in a variety of settings to garner feedback and conduct artistic research. In 2010, the New York Times went one step further, dubbing Colpitts an “obsessive.” There’s some evidence to support this claim, however, as the drummer has been known to overdub dozens of performances to create a massive wall of sound—as on the improv-heavy Era of Manifestations, which Colpitts reveals is, in part, the result of meticulous editing.

However we describe him, Colpitts has created an aura of mystique about his drumming projects. For Man Forever’s self-titled 2010 release, inspiration came from Lou Reed’s iconic abstract double album, Metal Machine Music, after Colpitts saw a contemporary classical interpretation by the Fireworks Ensemble, which based its interpretation on Ulrich Krieger’s transcription. “I said, ‘I will make a Metal Machine Music–like record that’s acoustic,’” Colpitts explains. “‘The drums will be tuned, I will play the kit, and I’ll do multiple passes.’ I recorded onto tape so I could do the tape-speed [sound manipulation].”

Other recordings followed, including 2012’s Pansophical Cataract, the concept for which Colpitts hatched while prepping for a performance with Chase at WFMU’s Jersey City radio studio. Due to the station’s space limitations, Colpitts’ vision of employing the multiple kits necessary to realize the material could not be accommodated. Unfettered, he and Chase flipped the script and minimized their setup to include only one snare drum, on which the two played single-stroke patterns at different tempos simultaneously. The alternately soothing and unnerving matrix of rhythms that arose from this conceptual approach became the basis of Pansophical Cataract. “We kept simplifying the concept,” Colpitts says. “It had this incredible effect with all this phasing.”

Man Forever’s latest major studio recording, Ryonen, featuring Chase on kit drums and the ensemble S?? Percussion, boasts two massive compositions spanning more than half an hour, including the eighteen-minute title track, which suggests the kind of phasing inherent to the pioneering work of minimalist composer Steve Reich. (Other recent sonically textured Man Forever collaborations include Live at the Pilot Light, with White Gregg, and Boanerges, featuring saxophonist Jim Sauter.) Like Reich, Colpitts seems keen to investigate all things psychoacoustic—the physics of sound and the psychological aspects of how listeners interpret it. But to paint Man Forever’s aesthetic with the minimalism brush is to ignore the delicate (or not-so-delicate) balance between strict compositional structure and utter chaos Colpitts achieves in his pieces.

Ryonen takes cues from minimalism, but it’s difficult to call it that,” Colpitts says. “The second piece, ‘Ryonen,’ is kind of like you set off a musical box and let it play out. It’s just rhythms stacked up against each other that don’t change a whole lot. Steve Reich is the guy who has gone deep into [phasing]. My work is like a punk version of that, or something. It’s a bit more random.”

Colpitts has alluded to the idea that Man Forever’s output represents a kind of countervailing force to mass cynicism and the fatalistic view that our world is on the precipice of collapse. In theory, the tricky, repetitive rhythms Colpitts bangs out in nightly percussion endurance tests can be played ad infinitum to create meditative cyclical patterns. That is, if the spirit is present and the flesh cooperates. Repetition, even with slight deviation, taps into something timeless and therapeutic. It’s trance-inducing music without beginning and without end. Music that flows. Music, or sound, that…just…is.

This mirrors Colpitts’ writing process, which operates via one constant: change. In fact, the opening track on Ryonen, “The Clear Realization,” evolved from the song “Waiting on a Friend,” which was recorded previously but went unreleased until Kid found the performance or performances he was after.

“John had been trying to record that song with a bunch of different people,” says Colin Marston, recording engineer and owner of the Menegroth studio in Queens, New York, where Colpitts recorded Ryonen with S?? Percussion over a span of two hot, air-conditioning-challenged days in June of 2013. “I think he may have been the most happy with this one from Ryonen. It’s something he’s had in his head for a while and has been trying to figure out how to realize, I think. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to come back and try to
record it again sometime.”

MD met Colpitts at the Ocropolis, Oneida’s base of operations in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. Although respectful and somewhat reserved during the interview, Colpitts seemed slightly preoccupied, as if the creative wheels madly spinning in his head were beckoning him back to the kit….


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MD: What attracts you to the meditative aspects of certain rhythmic patterns?

John: The “why” is a good question. I think back to when I used to mow the lawn in Connecticut, where I grew up. Just the drone of the mower—it would hit a note and you could hum that note. You could sing melodies off of it. The other thing I would say would be efficiency. That’s efficiency of movement, efficiency of…ideas, maybe.

When I moved [to New York City] in 1996, I was listening to drummers who were incredibly articulate but their ideas were surprising, like Zigaboo Modeliste on the great early Meters stuff. To me there was something minimal about that stuff. As a drummer I think a bit too much, but I guess that might be the “why” you were asking about. The technique and the obsession with technique and displaying technique can be distracting, so I think I got away from that a bit with the first album on Thrill Jockey, Pansophical Cataract.

MD: Can you describe the basic structure of the compositions on that record?

John: It’s just two drummers playing single-stroke rolls out of sync with one another.

MD: A lot of people compare Man Forever’s music with Steve Reich pieces.

John: Well, one thing with Steve Reich—I didn’t go to music school like he did. S?? Percussion has a great version of his Drumming that was a studio production. They multitracked it. It’s insane.

In terms of Pansophical Cataract, I wanted to do a project that would allow me to go to a new town and hook up with some locals and I wouldn’t need to worry about their technique. It would be something where I could say, “I just need you to play a single-stroke roll for a half an hour; it shouldn’t be loud, but it should have even dynamics.” This stuff creates a drone—a kind of drone that I hadn’t heard. Maybe it’s out there, I don’t know. Maybe it’s something like a La Monte Young [piece].

MD: You’re very precise about tuning your drums.

John: I tried to tune the drums carefully in terms of how La Monte Young might have done something like this. It’s very loosely inspired by him. My friend Brian Chase, from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, inspired me in terms of tuning and being really focused on drum pitches. [See sidebar.]

MD: How did the whole thing with S?? Percussion come about? Did you know them?

John: I knew of them. For a number of years I had been reaching out to Ronen Givony, of [classical/contemporary music performance organization] Wordless Music, with different ideas. He had a project that he had been asked to do, a musical accompaniment to a punk couture show at the Met [Punk: Chaos to Couture, 2013].

MD: Interesting mix.

John: Right? [laughs] It’s a little crazy. How he wanted to represent that musically was by having Man Forever collaborate with S?? Percussion.

MD: How collaborative was the “punk” show at the Met with S?? Percussion?

John: Somewhat collaborative, although quickly it became apparent that I should generate the pieces, which is fine. I didn’t have the music written out. I have an eight-track cassette recorder/player with five working tracks that I brought when we met. We hooked it up to their system, and we isolated the different tracks. We only met four times. It wasn’t hard. They are so on their game. It wasn’t difficult.

MD: You used single-stroke rolls as the basis of composition in the past. Any special sticking patterns used for the pieces on Ryonen?

John: I was trying to do an album that was pulse-based. I had two [Man Forever records] that were pretty abstract. I wanted to do something vocal that contained shorter pieces. I didn’t get there. [laughs] With the first piece, “The Clear Realization,” I was trying to create something that was a bit more open-ended. With Oneida, the band that I’ve been in for eighteen years, I’ve been experimenting with more open-ended improvisation. I was developing a forward-motion drumbeat that didn’t have a 1. I had envisioned that the kick drum—my kick drum—would be the pulse. It would be somewhat in threes [sings pattern resembling repetitive accented triplets] for long, extended periods. Players would hear the pulse and they could just play through. It’s kind of set up like a raga, in a way, except it’s rhythmic only. Then I would play different phrases on top of the pulse that never ended clearly on the 1. I wanted the piece to be constantly evolving but keep the kick pattern steady. Time signatures would change constantly through threes and fours, fives and sevens.

MD: You have bongos in “The Clear Realization.”

John: I came up with the bongo pattern, because I wanted something that was musical that could be repeated. It was something that I could play but couldn’t sing. Apparently that figure is in eleven.

MD: Without written music, how did you communicate your ideas to S?? Percussion?

John: I would have to demonstrate patterns. I’ve done these types of pieces with a lot of people. I would say, “You have to get the sticking right.” I’ve played this on stage, and dudes would hear it and [plays the pattern incorrectly]…

MD: The patterns were not being resolved correctly.

John: Right. For the piece, I laid down the drumset performance with the kick. After that I overlaid bongo parts. Then I added a snare that was in five. It has a ruff in it to start with.

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MD: So “The Clear Realization” is not really an example of phasing.

John: No. This piece is not based on phasing. I don’t want it to phase. This one is supposed to be locked in. In fact, it’s very hard to play.

The second piece, “Ryonen,” was developed through different sticking patterns on multiple drums. There are two drummers, facing each other, playing snare drums that are close together. On each side of the drummers there’s a tom. It formed a diamond. One of them is playing triplets and the other is playing—I was playing—quarter notes. As the piece progresses, different tom hits are added to the mix. Each part lasts a certain amount of time, and we have a metronome in our headphones. The triplets and quarter notes meld, in the same tempo.

I think we [recorded] the “Ryonen” piece first. We just set up the drums, and Jason [Treuting] and I are on the diamond. We recorded that first and tracked it to a click, together, then overdubbed snare and concert bass drum. Later, we added some of the additional pitched drums, the mallet work during the break part, and pieced that together in the mix. There’s also a bongo, low in the mix.

MD: Did you write the piece so that drummers would hit the toms at the same time?

John: No. That’s the phasing part, in a way.

MD: What pattern is played on the bongo?

John: I think it’s the same as the [quarter-note pattern]. The bongo player bolsters the melody. Then triplets are played on a snare without the snares on. It’s supposed to lull you. It’s actually programmatic in that there’s a story, a Zen koan, called “Ryonen’s Clear Realization,” which inspired the two pieces.

MD: What’s the koan about?

John: A nun, or a woman who becomes a nun, wants to study Zen, but the Zen masters, all men, say, “You can’t study with us, because you’re too beautiful. You’re too distracting to us.” So she takes a hot poker and burns her face. Ultimately she’s accepted by the masters, studies Zen, becomes a nun, and writes poetry.

MD: Returning to the music, the drums are tuned to resonate with one another to produce a kind of drone, right?

John: You can hear the resonances, yeah. With “The Clear Realization” we meant to harmonize with the drums when we sang. The kick is the drone. There’s a front head with no sound hole, so the kick has a tone. I’ve heard a live recording, and I would like to do better.

MD: How would you improve it?

John: More practice. The goal is to have the drums [create the melody]. Brian Chase’s tuning is so magical. He studied with La Monte Young and applies what he learned from his study of concepts, like just intonation, to the drums. He has a snare that he tunes to…I don’t know what. He’ll play it like a string. On different parts of the drumhead you’ll get different harmonics.

MD: Let’s shift gears to People of the North. The title Era of Manifestations suggests the religious group the Shakers. How did this historical time period inspire your playing?

John: Well, we came up with the album and song titles after the music was recorded. That’s how we typically work. With People of the North we try not to overthink too much. We check in with each other every six or eight months and just record. The Era of Manifestations was something that I had been reminded of when we were working on the record.

MD: People of the North is far more loose and improvised than your Man Forever project. Did you prepare for these recordings, and if so, how?

John: We each practice on our own. Bobby [Matador] lives in Boston, actually. There’s not a whole lot of preparation. We try to just go for it, although there might be some discussion of what we’ve been listening to and what’s been inspiring us. We seem to take a different approach to each record, and each record has its own flavor. For this one, we recorded at Seizures Palace in Brooklyn with Jason LaFarge, who recorded the tracks to tape and then quickly transferred them to the digital world. I have to say, though, that I still feel that there are qualities of tape compression that do nice things to drums. I can really hear it. I’m sure I’m crazy, but I like the sound of drums to tape, especially cymbals.

MD: Please, discuss your background.

John: You mean where I grew up? Lakeville, Connecticut, in Litchfield County. I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where I studied English lit.

MD: Does your literary degree help sculpt a narrative for your drum pieces?

John: For sure. Every job I had was because I could communicate. I don’t know how long I can keep this [drumming] up. [laughs]


Turning Ears, Tuning Heads

Man Forever’s output is so evocative and sonically rich, it begs for colorful description and deeper analysis. In a 2012 review, Modern Drummer editorial director Adam Budofsky equated the sonic assault of Pansophical Cataract with “riding among a herd of a thousand buffalo.” One of the definitions of cataract is a downpour of water or a waterfall, the sound of which some observers associate with Man Forever’s pieces. “Pansophical Cataract is a wave, a waterfall, like the surface of a river flowing,” John Colpitts confirms.

The tuning of the drums, handled by Colpitts’ musical cohort Brian Chase, of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was a key factor in the development of the pieces appearing on Pansophical Cataract. Its role, Chase says, “stems from the approach that was taken on the earlier versions of Man Forever. John knew I had a deep interest in tuning drums to exact pitches, and [he knew] my solo project Drums & Drones, which is greatly inspired by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House installation in TriBeCa. Tuning drums in Man Forever has to do with respecting the physical quality of resonance: The drumhead vibrates and resonates, which is a simple concept, but it’s one that drummers often take for granted. When there are multiple drums being hit, it would make sense to have them individually and collectively be in tune. It’s like harmony—we wanted the drums to be resonant together, like forming a big chord. John chose pitches that he liked for this ‘drum chord,’ and we tuned the drums in this fashion.”


Tools of the Trade

Colpitts plays a four-piece Modern Drum Shop kit and Latin Percussion Aspire bongos. His cymbals include 13″ hi-hats featuring a Zildjian A New Beat top and an Istanbul bottom (model unknown), an 18″ Zildjian K Dark Thin crash, and a 22″ Zildjian K Constantinople Light Low ride. He uses a DW 5000 bass drum pedal, a Pearl hi-hat stand, DW cymbal stands, and Yamaha hardware. His heads include Remo Coated Ambassadors, and he plays Vic Firth American Classic 5A hickory sticks.


Story by Will Romano

Photos by Paul La Raia