It all started in the summer of 1995, with the dissolution of post-hardcore act The Yah Mos, and founding member Nic Offer’s return to Sacramento, California to put together an ensemble of artists culled from his former band and members of the groups Black Liquorice and Pope Smashers.
!!! (pronounced ‘chk chk chk’) spent their formative years developing a groove-oriented post-punk sound, releasing a self-titled debut in 2001 before surprising onlookers by signing to Warp Records. Offer’s continual studio-hopping provided plenty of new ideas, allowing the band to augment their songs with new technologies on albums such as Thr!!!er (2013).
Most bands with a 20-year career live by the law of ever-diminishing returns. !!!’s seventh album, Shake The Shudder, sees the dance-punk group continue to challenge themselves, broadening the narrative through an ingenious mix of jam sessions and the use of modern computer technology.
Can we clear up once and for all what the name !!! symbolises?
Nic Offer: “The original idea was based off the bush language and their clicking of the tongue, so we spelled it as an exclamation mark. We’re literally older than Google, and we had the idea that they would file us at the beginning of the alphabet in record stores so we’d be winning over everyone else. That scenario never emerged, but I still think it’s a good name and we weren’t really considering that we’d be doing interviews all over the world by now.”
You were originally in a punk rock band called The Yah Mos. What precipitated the change to a more dance-influenced sound?
“At the time we were listening to lots of Motown, funk and James Brown, and it started to switch over. As our tastes became more eclectic, despite playing punk, we weren’t listening to it - we were listening to funk and disco and started to think we should play the music we listened to. The moment we tried to do that, it felt like it was what we were supposed to be doing. The side of punk we were attracted to was the lifestyle - we drove around in a van and slept on friends’ floors. That was fun and that was the life. I still have a soft spot for a lot of that music, but it’s the music of adolescence and aggression. As you grow out of that, it doesn’t resonate as much.”
The first !!! album still had a punk attitude, but sounded more funky than dance or electronic. Was it a gradual shift to the electronic domain?
“Well there was only so much we could throw away. At the time of the first record, we were a lot less into electronic dance music and only really knew Daft Punk. We weren’t gear heads, we didn’t know how to use drum machines, and we only had one synthesiser - it was an old 70s Yamaha. I think it got used on one song on the first album. We’ve been perpetually learning new gear the whole time. When I look at the way music changes, it seems like the structures and songwriting doesn’t change as much as the aesthetic around it, and I think we’ve been a mini model of that over the years.”
So you’ve come to embrace the technology rather than be driven by it?
“Whatever you think dance music has ended up being for the last however-many years, it’s always been cutting-edge, and it’s embraced the most immediate technology. But within two years that sounds dated… until 18 years later when it all sounds classic again. I think we’ve become excited by that element of it and embraced that too.”
You mentioned Daft Punk. Did you have them in mind when you were developing your sound?
“There weren’t really a lot of models for what we were doing. We liked the post-punk groups like Can and Chic, and Talking Heads was certainly a similar model of a band that began with guitars and drums and later embraced technology. But I don’t know if there was anyone where we thought this is exactly what we wanted to do. We loved all different parts of these different bands and thought that combining all these heroes would give us an interesting path.”
You were originally an eight-piece. Is it difficult to organise that many people?
“I don’t really know how we did it. I think it was an interesting point, especially on the second record when we became more percussive and realised that everyone didn’t have to play all the time - you could get interesting effects by just bringing things in here and there. I wouldn’t say it was difficult; it wasn’t something we even considered. We were all just excited to be there, and maybe that didn’t always make for the best music, but it was a blast. In the days before cell phones, it did become difficult when some of us moved to New York and others to California… but we learned how to do it.”
What was it like signing to Warp Records? Did you know much about the label at the time?
“For a lot of people like us, the few electronic artists that you would listen to in the 90s were Aphex Twin, Björk or Daft Punk. Right when we started to wonder what labels made those kinds of music, Warp put out their 10-year anniversary compilations and we just ate those up. So when they asked us, it was like, ‘What, they want us?’ and that was really exciting. But I think the turn Warp took at that point was where contemporary music had gone - it was a revival of sorts. With Napster, the whole history of recorded music was available to everyone, and all free, so to be cutting-edge at that moment you had to know about this obscure German group from 1970 or some strange folk or post-punk record. IDM had slowed down at that point and Warp looked at us as what was cutting-edge.”
Having been in bands for so many years, how do you sustain the energy? Is that motivated by the subject matter of the songs?
“It’s probably all of it. Embracing the changing aspects of dance music has really helped propel us forward and given us something to strive for. It’s created a model for us where we must constantly reinvent ourselves, and that part has kept it fun and fresh and made us the exciting band that we hope we are. I see my other friends check out from that, but we made these choices because of who we are.”
Is the motivation now more about perfecting your art rather than trying to break new ground?
“We’re just trying to make something as good as fucking possible and effective. I hope that we’re breaking ground but it gets harder. As far as we can tell, we’re constantly trying something new and perfecting what we have done before. I recognise its failure in being contemporary, but it’s what we can do with it. To me, the music that sounds the most different today than it did 15 years ago would probably be hip hop, and the way that trap has become the dominant pop music at this point.”
Shake The Shudder still sounds very contemporary, but perhaps everything is so much more jumbled now that it’s harder to truly differentiate yourself…
“It’s funny, because when you think about attempting something new, for example, if we embraced trap beats and tried to test something like that, by the time we incorporated it into our sound, music would have probably moved on. So you want to embrace the new, but you don’t want to jump on a bandwagon. We listen to contemporary pop and rap all the time, so it’s interesting to wonder when it will all creep out of us. To be honest, I wouldn’t have expected the first song on the album, The One 2, to come out of us, but it just kind of appeared.”
How much does technology dictate that sense of exploration?
“We absolutely rely on it. A constant model for me as a musician has always been the story of how New Order wrote Blue Monday. They were fucking around with sequencers and didn’t know how they worked. In fact, they malfunctioned in the middle of the recording and they used that as part of the song. I think that’s where we want to be - constantly in a state of learning and play, and using technology that daunts us. In a way, that’s what keeps it ‘punk’ too, because we’re constantly naïve.
“I remember the first jam we did, we had this one shitty Oberheim synth and I hated it, but it was all that we had, and by the end of the week we’d got a lot more interesting things using this synth that I hated by playing it in different ways than we were used to. Then we decided, let’s just use any synth there is and have no rules. We showed up to a jam in Barcelona and used the synth that they had - some cheap old 90s poly, and it made us get really different sounds. That’s how we stay true to our punk roots.”
How does the creative process start for you?
“We kind of do it all. We get together and jam and cut it up. Rafael (Cohen) and I will mostly take things back and forth, cut the loops up, build them into tracks and start writing songs on top of them. Then we learn those songs, start playing them out and get them ready as a band. We work separately and probably meet up once a week to trade stuff back and forth. But if you look at the songwriting credits on any of our last three records, every song has a different combination of people and that gets different results. We like bringing in different singers and have tons of instrumentals floating around. We shoot those tracks everywhere to see which ones get people in the band excited.”
Can you give us some insight into what you once described as the “slippery when wet” method of deciding which tracks to run with?
“Yeah, with this record in particular, we recorded 19 songs and sent those out to the band and friends - and a couple of fans this time - and tallied the votes. We actually changed two according to band taste, which we haven’t done before. Usually we do exactly what the vote says, but we went for a couple of the more difficult ones. We’re actually sitting on at least another double album of thrown away tracks at this point. We had problems with our first two records where we literally just about had enough, but since then we’ve been writing more than we need.”
It’s hard to believe a band doesn’t argue about stuff; what sort of disagreements do you have?
“Honestly, the slippery when wet method was our way of quelling a lot of the fighting. It was like, let everyone see their ideas through and the vote will decide what works out. That solved a lot of the fighting, because if you didn’t trust what was happening then the vote would work it out. The fact is, there’s fighting in every band - there has to be in any relationship, and it can be a good growing pain. The crucial thing is to fight in a good way and not be insulting [laughs].”
Do you have your own recording setup at home?
“It’s more software-based. I’ve got an RME downstairs and a PreSonus Fire Studio upstairs, and I go back and forth between the rooms. The basement is where the whole band can play and that’s where we did a lot of the production for this record. I also have a couple of guitars, a Wurlitzer and an electric piano. I really like hardware drum machines too, so I’m always fiddling with one of those. We like the process to be continually evolving and see no distinction between the computer and playing live.”
Which drum machines do you have?
“I like them all; they all do things differently. I was obsessed with the Elektron Machinedrum and the Monomachine. I got the Dave Smith Tempest a couple of records ago - that’s a beast and really fun to fuck around with. It has its own unique character and doesn’t sound like other old drum machines or other instruments.
“Since I finished this record, I just bought a Vermona and a MFB Tanzbär, which also have really unique characteristics. I just like to discover their weird idiosyncrasies, because you could just use drum machine samples forever and it’s about having a toy to mess with. It feels satisfying to make a beat, and when I do it usually has 12 different percussion parts on it because I don’t want to stop making it [laughs].”
We understand that you switched from Logic to Ableton Live recently…
“When we finished Thr!!!er, we decided to learn Ableton. It was that New Order theory… let’s get lost and not know what we’re doing. As it turned out, for the kind of dance music we were becoming interested in, it was so much easier to manipulate stuff in Ableton, and more exciting. After we record things, we usually end up mixing at another studio, and it’s always frustrating to me when you’re working with Pro Tools that everything is a five-minute task, whereas in Ableton it takes 15-20 seconds.”
What software are you using in the box?
“We like a lot of the SoundToys and Arturia stuff. We haven’t been bitten by the modular bug and find that the synths people ask us the most about are the soft synths, so we like fucking around with those. We like computer music and think that stuff is fun. If ever something sounds too thin, an amp or a compressor will usually turn it into a completely different beast.”
Your music has a natural and organic sound, so you’re obviously integrating the software in a very subtle way…
“The most that we’re using it for is editing. So much of what we do depends on the live jamming loops. When the band is jamming for two and a half hours, they’re in a space where we’re doing things that we wouldn’t normally do, and it’s all out there. We’re not at a beginning or end point, but in an imaginary space, so we take those live elements and fuck with those using Ableton’s bag of tricks and effects plugins to manipulate the sound.
“Honestly, I think the cover of this record really puts across what the sound is: a live, visceral shot - it’s sweaty and cut up with computer editing, and that’s how we get the sound we want. Hopefully it sounds unique and futuristic, but at the same time live and natural, because it is live and natural - it’s like jazz or something, you’re hearing the first time a keyboard lick has ever been played.”
Do you always work with a producer and, if so, what do you look for in one?
“A producer and band’s relationship is like anything - it doesn’t matter if a person is good looking or has a great personality it’s about how you work with them. There’s different ways you can work with people and different things that can be brought out of each other. We did some of our best stuff when Justin Van Der Volgen was in the band producing; we trusted his opinion and the last time we had that was when we worked with Jim Eno on Thr!!!er, although we used him more as a coach and father figure. We wanted to learn from him and trust in his opinion, and that was a great relationship.”
What about for the new record?
“The producer we used on the last two records, Patrick Ford, is probably a little bit more of a peer. We treated him like a freshman, because he’s a little younger than us and had some kooky ideas about how things should go. He isn’t even that interested in dance music, but has a natural curiosity for sound. We built a great relationship with him and it was fun to be in the studio. That can be important, too, because when you’re having fun you try more things and are more open. His technical know-how is definitely what he’s best at, but it’s also about just having another guy with ideas in there.
“For tracks on the record like The One 2 and What R U Up 2Day, the seat in front of the computer would always be revolving. Each person would sit down and start hacking away at Ableton; then the next person would get in the seat.”
Are you running your instruments through outboard or the Mac?
“The guy that mixed the album, Phil, used a lot of outboard stuff and we rely on that a lot, but I couldn’t necessarily tell you what was used. We do run a lot of stuff through guitar pedals downstairs in my basement, and we use Moogerfooger and Boss delays on the vocals and drums just to give them a more well-rounded sound that’s not completely in the box.
“We really like the mixing process and are a lot more involved in that than the mastering because it gives the music a different character. Phil was really good about knowing when to use a sampled beat or a soft synth and what to put though a compressor to get things sounding tougher.”
So you’re not so involved in the mastering process?
“I could say a lot of things about mastering, but it’s not something I necessarily understand, and this album was the first mastering session we went to. I just don’t think our views are mature enough to be able to tell the difference, and we didn’t have a whole lot of comment to make or feel the need to send the tracks back a hundred times.
“We were lucky enough to find someone in New York who would let us sit in, which is a similar ritual to the whole record. So we were there, and now that we know how it’s done, maybe we’ll be more annoying next time. You kind of never want to finish making a record; you always want it to be better, and the mastering process being the last piece is as much a part of that, but there’s always going to be someone better than us who can correct our homework and sign off on it.”
!!!’s new album, Shake The Shudder, is out now on Warp Records. Check out the band’s website for more info