Kid Millions is the moniker of New York City underground rock scene lynchpin / globally in-demand drummer, John Colpitts. Already kind of covered his general thing on Monday, brief yourself here. In a nutshell: John cut his teeth through constant touring and recording with the heavy psychedelic / kraut / spacerock band he co-founded, Oneida. In the last few years, he's done collaborative jams with some real heavyweights: Laurie Anderson, J Spaceman, Ex Models, et al. The Boredoms flew him out to play a show on a boat on the South China sea for an eclipse once. In 2010 Kid started a solo project called Man Forever, an all-percussion recording and performance project taking cues from Modern classical touchstones like La Monte Young and Steve Reich, as well as radical post-rock'n'roll maneuvers, most pivotally Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.
Kid's currently in town under the banner of Douban's "Behind the Billboard" performance series. He plays a collaborative set with Carsick Cars's Zhang Shouwang tonight at XP, and leads the Man Forever China ensemble (featuring the drummers of White+, Omnipotent Youth Society, and SUBS) on Friday, November 7, also at XP. Caught up with him the other night to get a bit more background on the life of a full-time heavy hitter:
SmartBeijing: So let's start with some stock openers... Who are you? Where are you from? When did you move to New York and why?
John Colpitts: I'm Kid Millions, I grew up in the northwest corner of Connecticut, Litchfield County. I moved to New York City in January '96, really just because my friends from high school were moving there, they wanted to play music. I didn't have a direction and I thought I could find work in music. Not playing, but just in the business. And I did, I got a job at the Knitting Factory, a venue that was more experimental-leaning at the time.
SmBJ: Were you playing in bands back in Connecticut?
JC: Yeah, kind of. I did have a band, but Litchfield County is really remote, not many people live there. So we would play open mic nights, that kind of thing. And we were underage, so we would play two songs and then they would kick us out. [laughs] So we'd stand out in the parking lot of wherever we were playing. That was all.
SmBJ: Then you moved to New York for music. What were the first bands or projects you got involved with? Was it all you playing drums or did you play other instruments?
JC: The first project I got involved with was this free improv group called Mishagas. It was electric guitar, saxophone, and I played drums, and it was pretty, you know, punk, free… It wasn't jazz really, you know. It was kind of aggressive. I did a couple of tours with that band. And then I started Oneida with a friend of mine. We recorded an album on a four-track cassette and I gave it to a friend who ran a label just to be like, "Hey, do you have any advice for us?" And he liked it enough to put it out. And it was just this flukey thing where the label had investment money and they paid us — not a lot, but enough — and then they had tour support, they paid us to go on the road. So there were all these really lucky, flukey things that happened. It was '97 when that went down. I'd gotten laid off from a job, and I was like, "Oh, let's just go on the road."
SmBJ: How did the band build up after you toured that first record?
JC: My friend put out the demos, the record that we made. We couldn't tour as a duo, so I had good friends who were with me in the City, and I just pitched [them on] this tour. At the end of that tour — which was two and a half months, it was the longest tour I'd ever been on — we were a band after that. It started out with, "Hey, you guys play our songs," and by the end of the tour it was like, "You know what, I think this will work as a band, let's all contribute equally." From that point on, it was on. [laughs]
SmBJ: To my ear, in Oneida, the drumming is an integral part of the music, more so than in many other rock bands or psych bands or whatever you want to call it. What has been your creative input to the songwriting process for the band over the years?
JC: Well, I'm pretty integral… Some of the songs came out of jams, some of them came out of just my own ideas, some of them were other people's ideas. Conceptually, I've had a big role. Not now, but for a long time I would say I was the main organizing force behind the band. Everybody contributed equally creatively, but thinking in terms of the business side. Not that there was any money, but getting the relationships with the labels, booking tours, I did all that. But yeah, I was very much one of the creative driving forces of the band. Not above all the rest of the guys, but I was able, as a drummer, to have a big say. I wrote a lot of the lyrics, maybe 50% of the lyrics, sung about 50% of the tunes.
SmBJ: As Oneida developed and became more established, were you starting to get other projects going, or did other opportunities for collaboration come up for you individually?
JC: Well… I don't think so. Not until recently. I rarely got other opportunities early on. I think in 2004 or so I was asked to play in the Ex Models. So I played on one of their albums. That was the first big collaborative thing that I did.
And then little things here and there, like I started to play with the Boredoms in 2007. In 2010, Oneida was slowing down a little bit, and I had been asked to do a solo record for the side label of Secretly Canadian, and I didn't know what to do, but it became Man Forever. And so that kind of took off, because I quit my day job in 2012…
SmBJ: What was your day job?
JC: I worked in IT, I was a manager for an IT company. So, that was… yeah. [laughs] I mean I did that for 10 years, that was a real job, a real career. I just decided, "OK, I need to try to do this full time. I'm open to failing, totally, but I need to see if I can do this." So that's what happened in 2012. Recently, in the last four years, I've branched out more. I played with Yo La Tengo, I played with Laurie Anderson, I played with Spiritualized. It's grown. I think in a way, as a result of me just jumping off the cliff and just seeing, "Oh, maybe people would be into playing with me, other people besides Oneida." And somewhat, it's worked out. I mean it's hard as hell, but…
SmBJ: I want to ask more about the Boredoms collaboration. You first played with them in 2007 as part of their < ahref="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/77_Boadrum" target="_blank">77 drummer show, but you've since been flown out to Japan to play with them. How did you become one of their global go-to drummers?
JC: It was 2007, I heard that they were looking for drummers, and I knew the guy who was organizing it, Hisham Bharoocha. [The Boredoms] tapped him to organize the drummers in New York. So I heard Boredoms were looking for drummers, and I knew he was involved, and I was like, "Hey man, I'd love to do this." As it came closer, he was like, "Hey, we're looking for a few guys who would rehearse with the Boredoms before the show to know the piece and communicate it to the rest of the people who just show up the day of." So I did that, and I didn't feel like I really met them much… I met them, but you didn't really get too close. And then the next year, 2008, Hisham also was like, "Hey, I'd love for you to come out to LA" [for the same performance]. So I did that, I was what you'd call a drum leader. I just gave it my all. I didn't know how it came across.
And then they had this gig where they were doing this show for a solar eclipse in the middle of the South China Sea, on a boat, and it was just four drummers, and they asked for me. And, yeah, I did it. For some reason it clicked, I don't know why. Because, you know, their English isn't great, so it's hard sometimes to know if you're connecting with these guys. But it just worked out. I've had some ups and downs. Like I had to cancel one of the tours that they asked me to do, for work. That was why I decided to quit my job. I was like, "Dude, I can't get an opportunity like this and turn it down any more." I think that was very disappointing for them. So there was a bit of a lag, they did some shit without me, but recently I think I've gotten back, hopefully. [laughs] Into more of a first call for the big events. I hope. But I've been very good to them. I put out a record by Shinji Masuko, the guitarist, which is a beautiful album.
SmBJ: Looking at the timeline, it seems that participating in the 77 Boadrum performance must have had an influence on you in forming the Man Forever ensemble. How did you first get the idea for Man Forever and what was the initial concept?
JC: Man Forever came about because I was asked to do a solo record. I didn't know what to do. I had no idea. While I was trying to conceptualize this record, I went to see this group Fireworks Ensemble play Ulrich Krieger's transcription of Metal Machine Music, the Lou Reed record. So I went to see it because my friend is the leader of this group Fireworks who did it. It turned out to really blow my mind. The performance was amazing, the program notes were really interesting because Ulrick Krieger broke down how he cracked the code of Metal Machine Music and was able to transcribe it. Because, you know, on first listen it's like noise. But it's not, actually. The guitar is open-tuned to a D, so when [Lou Reed] leaned the guitars up against the amps, there's actually a series of overtones that you can pick out and transcribe. [Reed] used tape manipulation, speeding up and slowing it down to get different effects.
So I read about that, and then I saw the show, and I was blown away. And in the middle of the show, I remember that my friend Brian Chase who's the drummer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an incredible drummer, he had been studying just intonation with Lamonte Young, with tuning with his drums, and I was like, "Wow, maybe I could do a Metal Machine Music, but for drums, acoustic." And we'd just gotten a 16-track tape machine in the Oneida studio, and I was like, "Fuck, I'll just do it. I'll just go in and I'll do a bunch of passes of playing carefully tuned drums, different passes at different tape speeds, put them into the computer at different pithces. Pitch it up a third, pitch it down a minor third, or whatever." And then I mixed it, and that was the first record. It was all me.
But then, a month or two after I'd done it, I had an opportunity to set up a show. So I got a bunch of drummers, and we tuned it up, and then it's like, "Oh, this is a lot of drummers, it's like the Boredoms." At the time I didn't think of it as being influenced by the Boredoms, but clearly it was. It didn't register in the front of my mind. But doing the Bordeoms stuff opened my mind up to that kind of thing, multiple drummers. And of course I met a lot of new drummers, and it just kind of opened up the drumming scene a bit in the city, people got to know each other. So I did that record and it got a small amount of attention, just a little bit that was like, "Maybe this could be something I do." And then the second record was another kind of conceptual thing. So I started to think of it like, "This could be my thing. This is my shit." I'd done Oneida for 15 years at that point, and I needed something of my own, too, if I was going to go full time. All those things fed into it. Everything I'd done up until then.
SmBJ: To pick on this point a bit, the bridge between Oneida and Man Forever and talking about your own drum philosophy... One of the themes that connects the projects is repetition. I like the part in the Thrill Jockey promo video for your new record where you talk about the "banality" of these compositions.
JC: Well the video is tongue in cheek. I was always attracted to a long-form, very focused kind of meditative drumming thing, where the piece would be meditative, but it would be really restive as well. So with the first Man Forever piece, it was drummers really going for it, but it's meant to create a drone in the room. I didn't want extended techniques, I didn't want people hitting rims or getting crazy. It was just hitting the drums. And then the next piece, I wanted to just focus on those moments in Steve Reich's music where the phase occurs, say in the piano phase there's these transitional moments where the hands kind of cross over each other and the tempo doubles, or it seems like it doubles, and I wanted to just do single stroke rolls that are out of phase constantly. So there's a lot of material that's hitting your ears, but it melts into a single sound after a while. Because you're doing it for half an hour or 40 minutes.
I think, banal, yeah… you could certainly talk about it in that way, because in those pieces, the only thing that the drummers do is a single stroke roll on the same drum. I could do that with anybody that feels like they can play for 30 minutes straight. I think it sounds better when its a trained drummer, [but] the simplicity of the concept… it's very simple, but it's elegant as well. I happen to be going around, being one of the drummers, but it doesn't really matter. It could be anybody. There's a certain detachment that I wanted. I was really sick of getting on stage and having that anxiety that you had to perform and present something really complex and interesting and technically brilliant. It was really starting to weigh on me. So I thought, this is perfect. I just have to sit and play a single stroke roll without thinking for thirty minutes. It's better when you don't think, it's better when you're not trying to make something happen. So I think that detachment is really liberating. And then for the new stuff, I just was like, "OK, I think I need to play the drum set, I think I need to maybe try to have it be more of an exciting performance." For me, and for the audience.
SmBJ: For the latest record, you played with this group So Percussion, a classically trained percussion ensemble, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did you conceive doing record with a group like this, which has such a high technical skill set compared to the previous ensembles you'd put together?
JC: I was asked if I wanted to do a concert with So, and I was like, "Yeah, definitely. Sounds great." Those guys are really busy, and they're really in demand. I didn't imagine that they'd want to invest a ton of time in creating something from scratch. First of all, we weren't getting paid that much, in their world. It was good money but for them it was not [that] good, they get really paid. So I knew I should come prepared for the first rehearsal. I brought a couple of pieces that weren't quite finished, but they ideas were all there. I thought, "Now I'm getting to work with some really heavy, technical guys, so I think I can just do something really out there that would require heavy technique, and they'd be able to do it no problem." So that's what I did. I just brought the nuttiest shit I could think of. The piece that [I'm doing in Beijing] is tricky, but not for them. That would be something that they could just, one run-through and it's tight.
The other thing I did with them was a bit more crazy, it was a certain pattern played quarter notes, and then the same pattern in the same tempo but triplets, played off each other. And then there's a lot of other shit going on. So we worked it out and it ended up being a really satisfying and strange piece. So it was like, "OK, these guys can handle whatever I throw at them, let me see how I can approach that and make it interesting, for them."
SmBJ: After the Man Forever record with So Percussion, Ryonen, came out, how did you take it out and perform it live?
JC: I did what I'm doing in Beijing, but I had a band. I have probably eight people that I will check in with who know the piece, but the touring group was three. Me and two other people, sometimes three. So I just knew that these guys were down to be into it and they could hack it. I just wanted a group that was really rehearsed, that really could blow this shit away. Because this piece, it can sound terrible. [laughs] It can sound really bad. A lot of the time that's my fault. There's this fine line between a transcendent performance and one that's like, "Ok, fine…" With the single stroke roll piece, I did that tour by myself. I'd just go everywhere and meet local drummers and bang it out in one day. Sometimes it was amazing, and sometimes it was terrible. So I feel like I want to just be able to hit, and have it be really overwhelming for the audience, something that they would just never even conceive of. People are being very generous, they want to play in the project because it's different from their normal gig. But yeah, it's hard. Touring it in the States, I just lost money every tour. But you know, I wanted to get out there and play, and tour the record. I did a tour with So, and we did the whole record. But we played like nine shows total.
SmBJ: Stock closing question then. What are your plans going forward? You have some new ideas in the fire?
JC: Totally. I have some new ideas for sure, a few. I consider Ryonen a new record, it's not quite a year old, so I still feel like it's cool to perform it in new places and just try to get the word out. So that would definitely include [these China shows], and Japan maybe in April would be the last end of this particular phase. But in the mean time I have a new record that I want to do, building on this a bit. A bit more complex vocally, and it would require more of a band who could rehearse it. It would be much more challenging to play. And then there's another piece that I have to write, for a bigger group, like 20 pieces, that would be more droney. Overtones on the drums and cymbals, close-mic stuff, that I have to write and finish. So for Man Forever, that's the general gist of what's going on. I hope one or more of those pieces gets recorded and I can put it out before the end of next year.
Kid Millions plays a collaborative set with Carsick Cars's Zhang Shouwang tonight at XP, and leads the Man Forever China ensemble (featuring the drummers of White+, Omnipotent Youth Society, and SUBS) on Friday, November 7, also at XP. Find more info on the latest Man Forever album, Ryonen, on Thrill Jockey.