As drummer for Oneida, the New York-based psych-freakout band that embraces maximalism in thrilling ways, John “Kid Millions” Colpitts made a name for himself with his relentless mastery of his instrument — playing that could at times stretch on for hours, should the band be presenting one of its trademark marathon shows. But the concept for his solo project Man Forever didn’t come about until he caught a friend’s ensemble performing Lou Reed’s notoriously noisy “Metal Machine Music,” which the German composer Ulrich Krieger had arranged as a chamber work.
“The program notes were interesting, because Krieger broke down the process behind ‘Metal Machine Music,’ ” says Colpitts. “He learned that the guitars were all tuned in fifths and leaned up against amps, so he was able to map out the overtones series very clearly, and he was able to pretty accurately represent what was going on notationally with what sounds like a lot of noise. Also, Reed would mess with the tape speed after he recorded — he would play back some of the tracks at half speed, and double speed, and create a whole other layer of overtones.”
That performance, and a conversation with Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase about the intricacies of tuning drums, gave Colpitts the idea for the first Man Forever album: “a ‘Metal Machine Music,’ but acoustic, and for drums,” he calls it. That grew into performances where he and other drummers (including Chase) would play on drum sets tuned to different pitches.
“I thought [Man Forever] could be a good avenue for me to do solo work with drums,” says Colpitts. “Maybe it won’t always be that, but [right now] it’s an avenue for me to explore different composition and recording techniques.”
“Ryonen,” recently issued on Thrill Jockey and one of three albums under the Man Forever banner to come out so far this year, is a collaboration with the Brooklyn-based ensemble So Percussion, a crew of Yale-trained heavy hitters who run the undergraduate percussion program at Bard College Conservatory of Music, and this fall will become Princeton’s Edward T. Cone Performers in Residence. Colpitts and So came together under the auspices of PUNK: Chaos to Couture, last year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit on the way mud-in-your-eye rock influenced and eventually became a part of the fashion world.
“What you often find [with pairings like this] is there’s ostensibly someone from the classical world and someone from the rock world,” says So’s Adam Sliwinski. “But usually if the pairing’s done well, there’s a lot more in common than there is different.”
“Ryonen” consists of two pieces written by Colpitts — complex and winding, with thundering, relentless playing giving way to moments of surprising serenity. “I brought a couple of pieces to them,” Colpitts recalls. “One was pretty much finished, and the other they helped arrange. We figured out practical considerations — ‘What is this going to sound like? How can we arrange this stuff? What makes sense?’ Technically, they can do pretty much anything, so there was nothing to worry about there. We did a number of rehearsals, got comfortable with the pieces, and banged ’em out.”
“Since we’ve spent a long time learning these complicated pieces by Xenakis and Reich,” recalls Sliwinski, “[Colpitts] wanted to see what it would be like to put together some really complicated loops. Man Forever’s material is about these endless loops; you build them up in these layers and listen to them for a while, and you hear different things emerge from them. It’s almost a form of minimalism, really.”
Monday’s show at the Middle East will be one of a few performances this summer bringing Colpitts and So back together onstage, although Colpitts has been touring “Ryonen” on his own and making tweaks to the material along the way. He has spent a hefty amount of time on the road recently; in addition to performances with Man Forever and Oneida, he’s served as the touring drummer for psych-rock outfit Spiritualized.
“I had the impression that Jason [Pierce, a.k.a. Spiritualized leader J. Spaceman] wanted to shake things up a little bit, and was looking for a more explosive performance during certain parts of the set — he said he wanted it to be like Sun Ra at times,” Colpitts explains. “I wanted to play the songs as they were written; not only is that what Jason wanted, it’s a good challenge. I don’t need to be up there trying to add something that maybe isn’t necessary. I’m a bit of an idiosyncratic drummer, and I have tics — I can be too busy. With Spiritualized, the material didn’t need me to improve things, because it had already reached that stage.”
Combining Colpitts’s gonzo approach with So’s conservatory training might imply disjointedness, but the two entities’ shared affinity for boundary-pushing and formidable skills give “Ryonen” a charge. “He’s an amazing, amazing drummer,” says Sliwinski of Colpitts. “There’s a funny thing, when drummers get together — whether they’re more academic or more this or that, we’re still drummers. So we speak a common language no matter where we’re coming from.”