After The Crash: Oneida’s John Colpitts Interviewed

When Oneida, Boredoms and Spiritualized drummer John Colpitts was involved in a serious road collision in 2018, he initially thought his ability to make music had been taken from him. He tells Stevie Chick about the long road to recovery and his new album, Music From The Accident

John Colpitts by Lisa Corson

“There was no warning,” remembers John Colpitts, of the 2018 car accident that almost claimed his life. He pauses, selecting his words carefully. A couple of years ago, onstage in Brooklyn, he described it as “the sound of a thousand instantaneous thunderclaps. I saw movement beyond comprehension. Somehow in the chaos I had a calm, measured thought: ‘This is how you die.’” Today, perhaps fittingly, he speaks of the impact solely in terms of sound. “It was just loud,” he says, finally.

In the early hours of 28 February, Colpitts was the passenger of a taxi-cab speeding to Los Angeles airport to catch a red-eye flight back to New York. He’d been in LA for 30 hours, recording drum parts for what would become Destroyer, the fifth album by mighty Canadian psychedelicists Black Mountain, and was flying home so he and his partner could catch Bruce Springsteen’s performance on Broadway that night. That weekend he was due to play a concert at Brooklyn club Secret Project Robot with Oneida, the group he’d formed and performed with, under the sobriquet Kid Millions, for 21 years. The launch party for their 15th studio album, Romance, the show was the opening date of a long Oneida tour across the US; once those dates were complete, Colpitts intended to stay on the road touring with his other project, Man Forever.

“I was going full-blast,” he says. “Just going, going, going. An Oneida tour, a Man Forever tour. None of it was going to pay. And I wasn’t getting enough out of it. I couldn’t see any relief. I was doing so much shit and barely scraping by. And then everything stopped on a dime.”

The accident occurred at 4am. Colpitts’ taxi-cab had been travelling at high-speed, but the vehicle behind it was faster. “There was a loud crash, and then a lot of pain,” he says. “I was in this small, shallow 2016 Nissan Versa, and the car had been rear-ended. The vehicle behind us – a white 2017 Honda Accord, driven by a guy who was drunk and on pills – had ploughed through the back of the car I was in, into the bench seat I was sitting on, into my lower back. And I realised, ‘Wow, we are completely out of control. This could be it.’"

“It could have been so much worse,” he adds, after another pause. Whether as a coping mechanism or a quirk of his preternaturally upbeat outlook, Colpitts’ natural inclination is to accentuate the positive. He survived. Though his injuries were serious, he didn’t require surgery. His partner, his bandmates, his friends, his family and fans of his music rallied around him. Thrill Jockey, the label that released his records as Man Forever and his new album, Music From The Accident, started a Gofundme to help pay for his medical treatment, while The Actors Fund gave him further financial support.

Still, his injuries were serious – broken ribs, chipped vertebrae and further impact damage. “I was in hospital a few days, and it was awful,” he admits. “And afterwards I couldn’t walk, at least not in a functional way that was going to help me.” After a month in LA he flew back home to New York. “There was a lot of pain,” he says. “Like, a lot of pain in my neck. And there were definitely times when I was like, ‘How am I going to live with this pain?’ I don’t want to overstate it – there’s people who have it much worse than me, who’ve had much worse accidents. But when you’re in the middle of it…” Colpitts’ doctor prescribed opioids to combat the pain. “And I took them, in quite a naïve way. And then, when I stopped taking them, I withdrew. And that was hard, brutal.”

While Colpitts recuperated, that frenetic tornado of activity he’d been the eye of dissipated. The Oneida tour was postponed, the Man Forever shows were cancelled. His various ongoing freelance gigs were written off. After all, a man who can barely walk, who is in so much pain he cannot sleep, cannot play the drums. And while his doctors predicted Colpitts would eventually recover, he faced the future with a newfound sense of uncertainty. “Now, I can look back and be like, ‘It’s not that bad’,” he says, his mood the darkest it will be for the duration of our Zoom call. “But I was out of commission for six months. And during those six months, I experienced a lot of low points, a lot of grim thoughts.”

For now, his drums sat silent. But the lives of artists follow arcs penned with poetic flourishes, and soon those drums would offer Colpitts a route back to the life he’d loved.

John Colpitts first picked up the drumsticks “on a whim”, an unthinkably casual introduction to the instrument for a musician who, in addition to his work with Oneida and Man Forever, has drummed in a slew of further collaborative projects (including People Of The North with Oneida comfrere Bobby Matador, Charnel Ground with Come/Codeine guitarist Chris Brokaw, and duo projects with J Spaceman and Borbetomagus saxophonist Jim Sauter), and served as drummer with groups as venerated as Royal Trux, Boredoms, White Hills and Spiritualized.

“One of my friends at high school was a wonderful drummer, and he made it look so easy,” Colpitts remembers. “I was 15 and I thought, ‘I could do that’. So I just naively sat behind a kit, stumbled it out, and was playing Dire Straits and Guns N’ Roses covers in a band within a week.”

Though he took some lessons, Colpitts didn’t take the drums seriously until he was exposed to the jazz greats while studying at Middlebury College in Vermont. “You learn about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and the virtues of practicing a lot,” he says, “and then you see a path.” However, that path didn’t take a definite form or direction until Colpitts moved to the Big Apple and got a job at the Knitting Factory, then New York’s premier venue for experimental music. “I was 22, 23, and thought I was too old, and that I didn’t have any real talent for music,” he says. “But I saw a lot of people play at the Knitting Factory. And many of them were better than me. But also, many of them were not.”

Inspired by the experimental music scene, by jazz, underground rock and DIY punk, Colpitts felt empowered. Running into Patrick Sullivan, an old friend from Middlebury, at a party in New York, he decided they should make an album together. “And we did!” Colpitts grins, though Oneida’s first album, 1997’s A Place At El Shaddai’s, scarcely hints at the brilliance that was to follow. “Oneida got good once Bobby and Jane joined,” Colpitts nods. Assuming codenames to acknowledge the distance between their onstage and offstage personas, the four-piece Oneida lived, rehearsed and performed in Clinton Hill, then a rundown neighbourhood of Brooklyn to the south-west of a very much pre-gentrification Williamsburg. Colpitts, as Kid Millions (a name he took from a poster he saw for the 1930s Eddie Cantor musical), held down the traps; Sullivan, AKA Papa Crazee, played wild, overdriven punk-psych guitar, Bobby Matador hammered the keys of the beaten-up 1960s keyboards he’d christened “woodies”, and Hanoi Jane played bass, keys and guitar.

Long before Girls, Broad City and the post-Strokes rejuvenation of New York’s rock scene, Brooklyn offered cheap rents and dingy, even cheaper warehouse venues where bands like Oneida could perform. In the years that followed, the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, LCD Soundsystem, Japanther and more would spring from this Brooklyn scene to much wider notoriety, and Brooklyn would swiftly become as overpriced and impossible for artists to live in as everywhere else in New York. But these were the wild west days of Brooklyn underground rock, and Oneida were pioneers, staking their claim on the burned-out ‘Burg one wild freakout at a time. “Back then, in Manhattan, you could play terrible showcases at places like CBGBs or find yourself on an eight-band bill at somewhere like The Spiral, which was pointless,” Colpitts says. Or you could drop $80 on a keg of beer, occupy some disused warehouse space in Williamsburg or thereabouts and charge two bucks on the door promising punters all they could drink, and have yourself a good old time.

The area they lived in was “awful, ugly. No-one lived south of Bedford.” But while the group wanted for creature comforts, their gnarly environs made for a good story to sell to out-of-towners. Like Sub Pop had done a decade earlier, Oneida’s Turnbuckle Records brought a number of UK journalists over to Brooklyn, to get a taste of the DIY keg-party scene Oneida had kick-started. The guy who ran Turnbuckle seemingly had money to burn, and the group’s early press agent, Steve Anderson, was “very good at his job”, Colpitts says. The offer of a free trip to New York won Oneida’s second album, 1999’s Enemy Hogs, column inches in titles like Melody Maker, The Independent and The Times its frenetic though often-inspired din perhaps hadn’t earned.

“The journalists were pretty cynical,” Colpitts says, “over here for their free trip and feeling like, ‘This label paid for us to be here, so we have to spend a little time with this band of fucking idiots, these talentless hacks.’ But we made sure they left convinced. We crafted a narrative for them. And I even remember discussing burning a sofa in the street with one of the photographers. I don’t know if we did, but we could have – it’s certainly something that was able to happen in Brooklyn back then.”

This bulging press pack inspired the group to book a disastrous week-long tour of the UK in May of 2001. Despite all their clippings, ticket sales were non-existent, and all the shows, save a headlining date at London’s Garage, were cancelled. “We lost so much money,” Colpitts winces. “Some guys in the band were paying off their credit cards for years. Just to go to London then was a dream, it was impossibly exciting. But the reality was sleeping on people’s floors for a week, and losing thousands of dollars. It was a stupid early lesson.”

By 2001, Turnbuckle Records had folded, and Oneida had jumped ship to fledgling indie label JagJaguwar, now home to the likes of Bon Iver, Dinosaur Jr, Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten, but then a shoestring organisation offering somewhat miserly advances. The group began taking a conceptual approach to making albums. 2000’s Come On Everybody Let’s Rock was a proudly gonzo, overdriven rock album that anticipated (and, on the feral, brilliantly Mudhoney-esque ‘Doing Business In Japan’, outdid) the garage-rock revival just around the corner. For 2001’s Anthem Of The Moon, the group sought to make “a really scary psychedelic album”, a mission they accomplished via Jane’s screaming lead guitar runs, Bobby and Crazee’s squealing antique keyboards, Colpitts’ hyperactive drums and an epic closing-track, ‘Double Lock Your Mind’, that made like MC5’s ‘Skunk (Sonically Speaking)’ given a krautrock spin, with Silver Apples squalling in the corner.

The following year’s Each One Teach One marked a watershed, however. Financed by American music writer Doug Mosurock for his Version City Records imprint, this double-vinyl set was their most boldly experimental yet, and opened with the immortal ‘Sheets Of Easter’. Named after some drug store Easter stickers in their van, the fifteen-minute piece centred around a needling two-note riff, repeated incessantly, as the group answered the opening line, “You’ve got to look into the…” with a martial, endless bark of “LIGHTLIGHTLIGHTLIGHHTLIGHTLIGHT…” ad infinitum, or at least until 14:13 were up. A mind-wrecking exercise in out-rock brinkmanship, the piece had its roots in a brilliantly bloody-minded CDR the band would play before taking the stage in their earliest days, a homemade remix of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ that looped and looped its opening riff, cycling back to the start before the first change. “I’d heard minimalism, I’d heard Glass and Reich, I’d heard My Bloody Valentine play the ‘holocaust’ mid-section of ‘You Made Me Realise’ for minutes,” Colpitts continues. “I remember walking into the practice space and saying, ‘What if we just did something on one note?’ ‘Okay, let’s try it!’ It was a simple idea, well-executed.”

The album also marked the exit of Papa Crazee, who’d started his own group, Oakley Hall, shortly before Each One Teach One. The loss of a founding member would be enough to send any group into freefall, but for Oneida, it galvanised their creative restlessness, their feel for risk-taking. “When Crazee quit, we were like, ‘Whoa, what do we do now?’” Colpitts remembers. The answer was open-ended to the point of infinity: on the albums that followed, Oneida would continue with their conceptual exploits, drawing further unlikely styles, genres and ideas into their underground maelstrom, broadening the grasp of Oneida’s sound without ever diluting their identity. Everything was on the table now, whether that meant an album of exquisite chamber-pop (2005’s The Wedding), brash and psychotic disco-punk (2006’s Happy New Year), even bouts of fearsome bashment bounce (‘Brownout In Lagos’, the opening track to 2009’s sprawling, brilliant triple-album epic Rated O). With a fearlessness, imagination and energy later echoed by John Dwyer’s Thee Oh Sees the following decade, Oneida refashioned themselves as sui generis autodidacts, rebuilt themselves into something indefinable and always changing.

“We became our own inspiration,” says Colpitts. “Oneida can’t really copy anything, we just don’t have the ability. We’re not skilled, we’re not chameleons. So we would have an idea, an aspiration, and just attempt it, and it would become something else, something that was just ours. Nobody is psychedelic like Oneida. Some of the records sound more classically psychedelic, but we don’t sit there and jam with a wah-wah and echo. Our sound just became more ‘us’. And that just came from playing together a lot, and being open and recording a lot. We’re not as groundbreaking as Can or Sonic Youth. But those groups had their own studios, they would go there regularly and record everything they did, and we had that too. That’s how that voice came out.”

Oneida were even able to withstand the gentrification of their beloved Brooklyn, and survive the closure of their studio/rehearsal space The Ocropolis in 2011, as developers swooped in to make their filthy lucre. Oneida kept on truckin’, and Colpitts began his Man Forever project, a drums-forward operation that sometimes featured as many as five sticksmen at once, and spread his drumming far and wide. After collaborating with Japan’s avant godheads Boredoms on their grand scale drumathons Boadrum 77 and Boadrum 88, Colpitts found himself invited to play with the core Boredoms group on numerous occasions; “It’s a miracle to play for Boredoms,” Colpitts says. “I’d do it for free. I’d pay them for the honour to play with them.”

Colpitts was busy, busy, busy, going, going, going. Until everything, everything stopped.

Oneida in 2012

February 28, 2020. John Colpitts is onstage at Roulette, an arts venue in Brooklyn, reliving the fateful night of two years before. As with his recovery, Colpitts isn’t alone tonight, accompanied by four other percussionists – Noah Hecht, Greg Fox, Brian Chase and Matt Evans – along with bassist Tristan Kasten-Krause and viola-player Jessica Pavone. For 70 or so minutes, the septet channel the jagged emotional terrain of the accident and the trials that followed. The music they perform shifts through various modes, from calm rumble to frenetic, furious crescendos, occasionally struck dumb by sudden pulses of electronic noise or swallowed by passages of beatific drone, as the narrative’s shifting moods dictate.

The focus is always Colpitts. He recounts the details of the accident, and follows unexpected pathways into his past and his future. As the septet stir up a rumbling, free, jazz cacophony, he’s back at the moment of impact. Elsewhere, as the music ebbs to a numbing, complacent throb, he revisits his early days in New York, juggling gigs with Oneida with work as a temp-worker for big firms in Manhattan, a ‘portfolio career’ set-up that sort-of works, until it doesn’t, and day-job commitments mean he can’t tour with Boredoms across Australia. In that moment of recrimination, he vows to commit himself completely to his music. The reality is, to finance life as a “full-time” drummer, he picked up a new side-gig, delivering bread from bakeries to bodegas in the wee-est hours of the morning, a decision he says “casually destroyed my life”.

This performance at Roulette, which led to Colpitts’ new album, Music From The Accident, posits the accident not so much as the tragedy of Colpitts’ life as A Thing That Happened – a transformative moment, after which many things changed, some for the better. "This may sound strange, but aside from the pain, everything that followed the accident was positive,” he says, near the beginning of the performance. “I healed. I got married. Some misplaced ambition was quieted.” There is life before the accident, and life after it. He talks of before, of being attacked in his car while delivering bread at three in the morning, of running a red light to escape his attackers, this life he was leading to pay for the life he thought he wanted to lead. “I was 45 years old,” he says. “I was wandering around in a dream, with no beginning and no end.”

The accident signalled the end of the dream, a breakthrough of sorts. He plays the voicemail he left his partner while he was still laying in the wreckage of the taxi, his voice calm, underplaying the situation, perhaps to allay any fears. He remembers himself during the moment of impact again, as two of his ribs snap. “I don’t know if I made a sound,” he says. “I was a receptacle for the chaos happening outside.” He talks through his brief period under the spell of opiates, the painful experience of shaking them off, the revelations that followed his recovery. He’d punished himself for years, he says, trying to make something of himself in music. As the taxi sped down the highway on February 28, 2018, he was reliving the session for Black Mountain, spiralling over the fact that it hadn’t gone well. In that context, the accident was almost a relief. “The abuse was finally coming from outside myself,” he reasons.

“I just felt like I had no choice,” Colpitts says today, about turning the experience into some form of art. “It was like this inevitability.” Seven months after the accident, he was invited to play a festival in North Carolina. “Everyone was curious about the accident. So I got onstage, played some drums, and talked about it. And people really connected with it.” Soon he was thinking about the performance in context of the work of his friend and hero, avant garde cornerstone Laurie Anderson, whose work has regular punctured the barriers between performance art, poetry, multimedia and music. “I was like, ‘Maybe I can think about this like Laurie might. Shit… Maybe this could be my new album!’”

He performed the solo piece a number of times in the US and around Europe, “just me talking and playing the drums, off the cuff. It was cool. But I felt myself getting stale. So I booked Roulette, for the second anniversary of the accident. That was a big kick in the ass.” Wanting to take the piece to the next level for the Roulette performance, he worked with theatrical director Mark Armstrong for several hours a day, every day, work-shopping it. He shot a series of experimental films in the vein of Chantal Akerman, to be projected as he performed. And he enlisted the help of his friends, the other musicians in the septet, to flesh out the music.

“And after the performance, I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe this could be a thing…’” Colpitts remembers. But then the pandemic kicked in. “And I was like, ‘Well, I have to make this a record.’ And it’s weird. I couldn’t stomach it. I don’t know why. I found it very hard to finish this record.”

Colpitts wrote Music From The Accident working from tapes of his improvising with Greg Fox, and of his performances, and composed a new piece, the drum-based ‘Up And Down’, for the album. “I was trying to capture certain states of mind with the music,” he explains. The drum-less opening piece, ‘Bread’ – a dreamy, brooding ambient track, composing a vibe of peaceful unease – evokes Colpitts’ mind-state as he’d drive around New York several hours before the dawn on his delivery route. “I was driving kind-of half-asleep, going around the city and really sensitive to the different states of city life: traffic, silence.” He’s reluctant to characterise the piece as a narrative of his experience, certainly in comparison to the performance at Roulette. “It’s there, though,” he admits, saying he can hear an arc in the album, “me going from stasis, to a little bit of a stumble, to full, emphatic celebration of no longer being unable to play.”

Now recovered, and newly a father, he’s easing himself into life again – there’s a new Oneida album on the horizon, and the group have played a number of outdoor shows during the pandemic. The ecstatic joy of playing music again has yet to subside, and maybe it won’t. The accident still casts a shadow over his life, however. Onstage at Roulette, he’d confessed that “sometimes for reasons I don’t entirely understand, I desire to return to the moments immediately following the accident, a time of deep and profound suffering, when I sat in terrible pain, with absolutely nothing, and without expectation."

Asked if making the album was cathartic or therapeutic, Colpitts says today that the truth is “a little complex. The therapeutic element was not necessarily the process of talking about the accident itself, but my completing something and not letting myself down, and doing something that I’ve never done before. It was a really weird time. I felt like I had nothing to give creatively at all. And the creation of the record was hard. It was months and months of just trying to get it to sound right. When I handed the record to Bettina Richards at Thrill Jockey I felt like, ‘Jeez, this is all I got. I hope this works. I need to put this out – I need to put a period after this.’”

But despite the trauma that preceded it, and the trauma of making it, he’s immensely proud of the album, in particular the closing piece, ‘Recovery’, 16 or so minutes of rumbling, tumbling, emotive drumming, accompanied by Jessica Pavone’s soulful, sawing viola scree. “I love how that came out,” he says, still marvelling at the finished piece, at the joyful alchemy of making music. “She’s so amazing. After just a couple of passes, she nailed it, as I was hoping she would. Ultimately, it’s like spinning gold out of straw – you just think, How can this work?’ And it just works.”

Music From The Accident is released by Thrill Jockey on 18 March

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today