AFTER THEIR HARDEST YEAR YET, !!! FRONTMAN NIC OFFER TALKS REEF YOUNIS THROUGH THE LESS WILD THAN EXPECTED ‘STRANGE WEATHER, ISN’T IT? AND IN DOING SO EXPLAINS HOW THESE NEW YORKERS ARE MORE PUNK THAN EVER
It might be the release of Chk Chk Chk’s (!!!) first album in three years, or perhaps the gruelling global tour that’ll see the band more or less play up to the first day of your advent calendar, but after three days worth of hustling and hoping, juggling time zones and pinging countless emails back and forth, we reach the conclusion that Nic Offer is a difficult man to pin down.
“Yeah, sorry, we’ve been travelling around so it’s kind of easier to co-ordinate time zones this way,” Nic explains, crackling down a trans-Atlantic phone line. “I’m glad we’ve finally got to do this.”
It’s been a few years of upheaval for the band, with John Pugh leaving in 2007 to concentrate on his own project and Jerry Fuchs’ tragic death after falling down an elevator shaft, but !!!, it seems, are a band resolute to overcome any obstacle. Imbibed with a reckless punk spirit, they’ve long been considered one of the early purveyors of dance punk continued and popularised, to some extent, by the heavyweights of NYC: the funk of The Rapture; the condensed chaos of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; the electronic gloss of LCD Soundsystem; and the distorted creativity of TV on the Radio.
As club-friendly as any contemporary cross over, they’ve always carried a frenetic dance floor appeal, meeting writhing funk rhythms with Nic’s sultry murmurs and excitable yelp. But things are a little different this time round and here we find them, over a decade and four albums into their career, on the cusp of the US leg of a punishing album tour. Not that Nic sees it that way.
“We don’t think of it as punishing,” he says. “When we did the last big tour we lost a few people along the way but that was after twelve years of touring so, at this point, we’re always excited to get back on the road. It’s like you get really strong the more you play and you become a finely tuned machine, so by the time we hit the UK we should have everything real tight and it’ll be kick ass.”
Nic’s excitement is palpable and it’s particularly impressive considering the adversity he’s faced, not just of the last few months, but for the duration of !!!’s lively 14 years. With band members spread far and wide, an ever-revolving line up, deaths, departures and a constant battle to deliver against a punk funk/dance tag that, rightly or wrongly, throws up a world of connotations, !!!’s desire to challenge expectations is no less diminished, despite the lukewarm reaction to their latest LP.
“It never works out like you want it to but I take it for what it is and learn what I can from it and don’t let the parts that stroke my ego inflate it too much,” he explains. “It’s always a bit dangerous to play around in that area but it’s an interesting way to see what the problems are with it [the album] and the failures and successes, but I’m not going to say I’m 100% happy with the reaction. At the end of the day, as long as you’re 100% happy with the record, that’s all that matters.
“You try and make every song as good as it can be, and every song on there we put everything into. When I think of the record it’s like…,” Nic pauses for thought. “Whatever criticisms people have, whatever songs they point to, someone else will point to it as the highlight. Singles have a way of uniting everyone and on this album perhaps a few more songs are more for specific people, and a few less people are going to like these songs, and I guess that’s how it’s going to be with this record. For me, I try and pick it apart and I still love it.”
It’s this single-mindedness that kept !!! from dissolving when times got tough. From the early days of not being considered punk enough by the die-hards, to constant critical comparisons with the energy and agitation of their early work, they’re still a band streamlining and refining the vigour of their debut and sophomore albums.
“This album is different. We’ve made a record before that we weren’t completely satisfied with when we made ‘Louden Up Now’ – we felt we could have made a better record. It wasn’t such a case of we were overly immersed in it, we were probably just a bit rushed. But perhaps that was the fault with this record; we didn’t take a step back.”
Although Nic’s outlook regarding new album ‘Strange Weather, Isn’t it?’ errs on the personal, it’s not simply a case of being overly attached to the record. Indeed, it’s that same level of intimacy, blunt, tenacious honesty and edgy vibrancy that’s been !!!’s lifeblood for their entire career, even if it’s not as overt this time around.
“I still enjoy it and I guess when I’ve thought that a band has made a record they’re not totally satisfied with they weren’t trying their hardest or they weren’t in the right place, but that wasn’t the case with this one and that’s why I feel so confident in it.
“At the end of the day, I can give you my personal review of all the earlier records, and I’ll have differing opinions, but, for me, our best records are ‘Myth Takes’ and this last record. It might not be the critical consensus but I think you need to wait and look back on it in twenty years. Let it sit for a while. That isn’t to say I couldn’t pick it apart but the things I’d want to improve aren’t necessarily the things people pick up on and write about.”
Having written and recorded the album in Berlin, Nic readily admits the city had an influence on the album’s outcome but is also quick to establish it was a decision as much born of opportunity as it was the appeal of hanging out in one of the world’s premier club capitals.
“It was a chance that presented itself and it would have been foolish not to take it,” he says. “We don’t all live in the same town so we need to pick a place to be together. There was also the whole romance of it and the club scene being so different and something we could soak up and see if it had an influence on the record.”
And it did. ‘Strange Weather…’ carries rapier flashes of the trademark !!! gnashing, loose-limbed intensity but there’s a darkness and a measured minimalism that lends the album a new, focused control – a claim not often levelled at a band often accused of letting their indulgent, progressive approach get the better of them.
“In some ways it also came out of a conversation I was having with a friend and she was kind of complaining about the last record, saying it was too long and jammy. Like I said, I love that record, so I guess that kind of input helped us focus and strip it down and bring it to its essence by putting only what needed to be there in there.
“But you’re always trying to use your environment as an influence. We were attracted to the minimalism of CAN, Stereolab, Neu! and it seems people are always overplaying the funk and sometimes it’s good to settle into something simple.
“Berlin had some influence but we were in a fresh environment that stimulated us in different ways, and then we could go out and be inspired by the club. At the end of the day it was exciting and it was fun going out and seeing how people dance and react to club music. It’s a reference point any band should work with because that simplicity keeps you on the right path.”
!!! are a band who invest everything in what they do. There’s a wholehearted conviction and a steadfast belief, and it’s arguably one of the reasons why, for some, their records struggle to replicate the power and intensity of their ballistic live show.
“Some of the shows we’ve played this year have been the best we’ve ever played and a lot of the new songs in the set are taking over,” says Nic. “We just enjoy doing what we do best, and I think that comes across.”
But, for all the adversity of the last two years there’s a very real sense that this album allowed !!! to consign and release the spectre of those events.
“You make the record from the space you’re in at that time, and everything that we went through is there in the record and some things definitely came out in that for sure. Your music is you – it’s you expressing yourself and the things you’re going through at the time. Our records are that and this record was definitely one of the hardest we’ve made.”
But for a band as progressive as !!!, looking anything but forward would be a drastic, literal change in direction. Never a band content to sit back and amplify their success of that time, Nic’s keen to point out that there’s a vast difference between being forward thinking and having a set plan.
“You make each record along the way and each record we’ve made we didn’t know what it would be until we came to make it. We’ve never sat with any label and said, ‘we’re going to do this’ or ‘let’s do this’, and it takes us a while because we like to change the perspective. I think you learn so much from making a record – it helps make the next record better. We’ve done things with this one that we never thought we could do and we feel as though it’s opened a door for us that we’re intrigued to go through.
“I’ve always looked at Bowie and Blur as the reference points. I like the bands where each record is different and they’re moving to some other place and if you like an artist, you should like the things they’re exploring and trust in where they’re going. And for us, you try and be the artist you enjoy. That’s what’s exciting about a band; their journey.”
!!!’s journey has been more turbulent than most and while the last few months haven’t exactly seen many happy endings, at no point do you feel their longevity, creativity or durability will cede a millimetre. And why would it? Having faced down and fought from their beginning it could be why they feel that three exclamation marks is an apt representation of who they are and what they’re about. After all, a full stop is the sign of a quitter, right?
“I think of this generation we were the first band to make a dance/punk record and with it being where we were and where we were coming from it kind of made sense. I felt like we weathered it fairly well and we were well received and when we came out of it people didn’t think that punk funk or dance punk was this dead movement. But at a certain point, you tend to get comfortable with that label.
“If you take glam, you might take Roxy Music and Bowie and T-Rex, and they’re all different from each other but they all sit well under that title. Every band is going to face that at some point and it’s their job to push it beyond that.
“We just want to push it further and further, throw the paint on canvas, push it around and see what we come up with. I definitely see open doors and there’s still dance music playing in the hallway and that’s the way I want to go. We don’t have it in us to make a country record. We’re still hit by a groove and we’re still a bunch of punks.”
By Reef Younis
Originally published in issue 21 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. September 2010