Groove is in the Art: An interview with !!!’s Nic Offer
After 15 years and on the verge of releasing their fifth album Thr!!!er, the Brooklyn via Sacramento jam-punk-dance band leader speaks to D. Strauss, reflecting on the millennial New York band scene and revealing their role in this crucial period of underground American rock. Photo by Piper Ferguson (Nic Offer sits front left).
Defining the turn-of-the-century Brooklyn sound by way of California’s über-suburban capital of Sacramento, !!!—like the less physical fellow Sacrament-ites Pavement before them—synthesized a few of the the previous decades nascent trends (post-punk, krautrock, and the disco revival) into an epoch-defining genre. In the case of !!!, it was dance-rock, which WhoMadeWho and LCD Soundsystem (who would lift much of their sound and, eventually, their bass player Tyler Pope) would take to the club circuit, capturing the moment when the snobs wanted to lighten up but before the high-middlebrow went full-blown populist—a period now inverting with Rhianna’s seapunk moves.
Having been developed by Pope and lead singer Nic Offer of Out Hud—an act that would brush up against the hairy lip of the jam band scene (the tongue might make a better metaphor, as they were considerably more tasteful)—their groove music was as much a reaction against the college banner that was the Neutrally Milked ’90s as its lack of artifice was a commentary on their colleagues with electroclash leanings. Pope is gone, replaced by Supersystem’s Rafael Cohen, but with a new album by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the current ubiquity of Gossip’s “Move in the Right Direction”, the Misshaped world of indie dance is having a revival moment, which !!!’s latest, Thr!!!ler (Warp) notably reflects. After all, Nic Offer was there. And here.
A decade ago there was so much talk about the resurgent, Strokes-stoked Brooklyn rock scene. In retrospect, was that a real fellowship?
Before we moved there as Out Hud, everyone was like, “There’s nothing happening here. You can totally rule it, you know.” And within a few months of moving there, the first shows I was going to, it was just incredible [laughs]. I think everyone was just starting up. One of the first shows I went to, within a month, I was at Mercury Lounge and it was Moldy Peaches, Animal Collective, an early version of Gang Gang Dance, Black Dice. I mean, it was like a big deal. But that was pretty normal.
All millennial indie archetypes.
Animal Collective very much became the sound of contemporary indie, but seeing them at that time was like, “What are these guys doing?” It was challenging.
As a groove band there was an entryway for the audience to accept your odder turns. But Animal Collective or Black Dice wouldn’t hesitate to approach total abstraction, yet both helped define the decade.
I think they were just good at what they were doing and I think they were really good for indie. People always want pop but I think people wanted something a bit more challenging at the same time, and the pop hooks were there and there was solid songwriting. Some of Animal Collective’s songs were incredible, but they would get really out. I’ve definitely seen them in the midst of jams that were going nowhere and kind of suck but then get to an amazing part. I’ve seen the audience get shifty and the audience get into it again. They’ve been very admirable because they’d always write an album and go out and tour for the album and play completely different songs, trying to work on the new songs for the next record.
And this is the year that Daft Punk really will be playing at everyone’s house. From your perspective as an ostensible rock band on the electronic-identified Warp label, do you feel there’s a kind of merging between the dance world and the sort of the club rock you pioneered?
No, it seems like now it’s just become commonplace for those two things to merge and I think it’s where rock had to go. It’s like rock had an easy marriage with electronics and dance in the ’80s but they can coexist in a better way that I think people will build upon. I think when we started we were too punk. I mean, the first time we got played in a club, it was, like, “Whaaaat?” We didn’t think that was going to happen at all. We started doing the sound before DFA, but they were the ones who were smart enough to know that it would work in a club. And they mixed their records to be in a club.
James Murphy was watching you.
I don’t think so. I mean, they stole Tyler but I don’t think that they were influenced by us. I think he always kind of viewed us as competition. And I think he was going to do that, anyways.
When you hear the first Rapture album, it was essentially a punk rock album. You were groove-based before DFA got ahold of them.
Yeah, I know. It kind of slipped by me. I really like The Rapture, but when I first saw them they were like Spacemen 3 or something—it was like a wall of sound. The first time I heard “House of Jealous Lovers”, it was like they put a house beat under a Gang of Four song. It didn’t strike me that it was going to be the future of music. It didn’t seem like rocket science.
You didn’t think there was any sort of association between that sound and what you were doing?
I did because, since it hit in the clubs, I was like, “We could have a club hit.” So, we definitely mixed “Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard” so it could be played in a club, and then when it did it was, like, “Woah!”
What’s it like for a rhythm band to have a new rhythm section?
[Drummer] Paul [Quattrone] was on the last record but this is [bassist] Rafael [Cohen’s] first record.
And yet there’s a consistency to your sound.
I guess we’re telling them what to do, kind of. I mean, we write the songs, Rafael’s one of the songwriters.
He was truly integrated into the recording process.
As was Paul. But a drummer is, you know, less so. And Paul’s more of a rock guy, so we get a certain kind of sound out of him. Actually, a couple of times, we used [producer] Jim [Eno, of Spoon]. Some stuff would be more drum machine-oriented but we really just make it up as we go along and whoever’s there and whatever seems right, then we just do that. I like to have as many different tactics as can be coming at you from all sides, and we tried to have as unstructured a way of working as we could.
Those tactics being…?
Maybe some songs are built out of jams, some songs are an instrumental that Rafael wrote, some songs are an instrumental that I wrote or a beat that I wrote. And then you just let them find their way. You kinda just follow what suggests itself to you and you try not to take the obvious turns. It’s very organic. If you’re working on something tech-y, you try not to do the next tech-y thing. You maybe try to mix Fleetwood Mac with it or something. It’s just for it to be continually surprising.
How do you astonish yourself after 15 years?
I’m a big believer in the whole New Order “Blue Monday” theory, where you should be trying to make a machine work and see what it gives you. It’s known for being a legendary fuck up and that’s what they made the song out of, so we like to be out of our element and using machines that we don’t understand, and just seeing what happens.
Where the use of equipment actually becomes an extension of the jam ethic.
Sure. There’s a certain part I’m using on the song “Accept Death”, where I was trying to program a certain part in the chorus into the synthesizer. I was turning it up to the second octave and as I did that [guitarist] Mario [Andreoni] said, “That sounds cool,” and I was, like, “Yeah, it does, all right. That’s the part.” So, just fucking around with it and finding whatever is there and whatever can be.
From God’s mouth to your ears.
I know a lot of people believe songs are like gifts from this other world and they just magically appear to you. I’m not a big believer in any kind of fate-related thing. I think that songs could end any different way.
When you guys first started to make a name for yourselves, you were known for bringing the jam aspect back to post-punk music. Was that a misunderstanding of what you were doing?
No, no, ’cause we definitely jammed a lot: the first seven years of the band, we opened every single show with a jam.
As if you were the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Yeah, I almost thought we were kind of being like Public Image Limited or something. It’d be these kind of organic grooves that would rise up.
PIL would be more likely to open with a fight, not a jam.
[laughs] Yeah, we don’t really do that, but it was a great way because those were some of the most incredible moments I’ve ever had on stage. It was also some of the most nightmarish moments, ’cause you know it’d be hard to wrap it up if it was sucking, and if it did suck then it kind of set the tone for the whole show. It was hard to recover.
Couldn’t you just pull a John Zorn and wave a Cobra signal?
You can’t do that. You can’t step on people’s vibe like that; it’s through the jamming that you get further and further out to those things you wouldn’t necessarily have found. You just bring it home and usually, if it’s sucking, everyone knows it’s sucking and they try to bring it in early. There’s definitely a certain point in the jam where everyone’s locking, and you don’t know if what you’re playing is why it sounds awesome, so you can’t stop.
Are you the sort of band that would listen to the tapes after the show and look for ideas and material?
We never listen to the tapes from the show but, that was what practice was. It was jamming.
It isn’t like CAN, where you’d have 36 hour jams with the lead singer slowly losing his mind, wandering off and never being seen again?
[laughs] No, I never lost my mind. I mean the longest we ever jammed was, like, three-and-a-half hours.
That’s probably why the band’s still together, You know when 40% lose their minds, then it’s the end.
We’ve probably lost 40% of our band along the way, so maybe that’s about fair.~
!!!’s Thr!!!er is out on April 29th/30th via Warp Records.
Published April 25, 2013. Words by David Strauss.