The following was originally published on Exclaim.ca.
By Jessica Lewis
It’s been a rough few years for !!!. Since 2007’s Myth Takes, the dance-funk band with legs in NYC, Sacramento, Portland and Pittsburgh has suffered through the death of previous drummer Jerry Fuchs and the departure of members John Pugh, Justin Vandervolgen and Tyler Pope. They were looking for a fresh way to represent the changes they’ve gone through, and with new members, they’ve come out of the bad funk remarkably. Strange Weather, Isn’t It? is strong and focused, but it addresses the sadness with a maturity that we haven’t seen from them before. We had the opportunity to chat with front man Nic Offer about growing up, worrying what others thought, competition, writing and the evolution of music. But the !!! style will never die, as underwear, sweat, Saturday Night Live, the Beatles and Inception all worked their way in as well.
I saw you last time you were here at the Opera House.
Oh was it the real old place? Was it cold outside? Hmm…
Yeah. You know what will make you remember? The back of your pants ripped.
Um, you’d be surprised how many times that’s happened. I had one pair of pants that I had to sew the back of three times. After the third time they ripped in the back of the pants, it was on the last night of our world tour, and I was like “okay that’s the end of these pants.”
Yeah it was shocking… you had nothing underneath.
Well that has been a while because I now do wear underwear.
No more shockers at the upcoming shows.
Well hopefully there will be something shocking.
Do you have any new live tactics?
I hope so. We’re trying to figure out some tactics. It’s like one of those all or nothing things. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to be typical, so it’s kind of like if we can’t do it the right way, we’re not going to do anything at all. I already think the live show is exciting and with the new songs it’s enough to keep it fresh. We’re trying out some pretty exciting stuff, I think.
If you take anything away from a !!! show besides the music, it’s that it’s sweaty. Everyone in the crowd is disgusting.
That’s good though!
Of course, that means people are dancing.
Sometimes if we’re playing a show, the air conditioning is on too high, I’ll have them turn the air conditioner off. People dance more when they’re warm. Frigid air keeps them kind of not as into it. Obviously if it’s hot, it’s hot. Let’s say it’s like a 500-seat place with 200 people in it and the air conditioning is cranked, you gotta turn that off. Let’s say in September, not in July. It’s just to warm ’em up a little.
You’ve said elsewhere that you’ve been learning how to make your records better and you feel that this one is your testament to that. How did you get to learning how to make things better?
Well, I think to me each record has been somewhat of a progression. Our first album, we’d never made an album before. We hardly knew anyone who had made an album, so it was really exciting for us just to make one. The second one, we moved to more like “woah, we can make club tracks,” so that was exciting for us. And then with the third album, it was like we figured out how to start writing songs more and it always had jams but it was starting to form into stronger songs. With this record, it moves further along everything texturally and the club friendliness of all the tracks I feel is even more bangin’ and the songwriting now is really tight and concise. There’s not much fat on this record, it’s real lean, lots of ideas packed in, but only what’s necessary. It’s a more enjoyable album for me to listen to, because when I have to listen to it with someone, it’s very tense. If their eyes wander or something, I’m like “ah fuck we lost them,” so this is an album I could sit and listen to with a friend and not be so edgy.
So you had that in mind when you were writing?
Well yeah, it really kind of came from a conversation with a friend at the beginning of the record and we were at a bar and she was complaining about how our records were too long and jammy. At the time it hurt my feelings, I was like “how could you say that to me, it’s so rude!” but at the end of the record, I realized that I had been hearing her voice in my head the whole time and I was glad that she had said something.
Well she better love this one then!
I know! I’m actually really worried because if she still doesn’t like it, I’ll be like, “fuck!”
Maybe it’s just stuff that grows with time.
Yeah, well stuff ages in funny ways in music. Especially with dancing. Dance and electronic music, it always has to be the newest, freshest thing. And then within a few years it sounds hopelessly dated. Then it takes 15 or 20 years to really sound classic and good again. So I think we’re pretty far off from sounding classic, but all that music from that era is a special time for me, so it’s always going to sound classic to me.
When did you start writing?
About a month after Myth Takes tour finished, right at January 2008 we started. It has been a while. We don’t live in the same town, so we have to work when we are together, and we also like to write a couple songs and then tour a few weeks so the songs get kind of tight, write a few more, tour a few weeks. Our scheduling is strategic for creativity, but not for show business.
I feel most of the songs are darker and more mature and you are showing us how you’ve grown in the last couple years. Were you aiming to show off a more mature side to !!!? I was like, there’s no swearing all over it!
We realized that at the end, that there’s not a single bad word on that. But I think sometimes people in the band get frustrated with us being seen as a big time party band and they want people to know that there’s more to us than that. But to me it’s just not even a matter of that, it’s just where we were interested. It wasn’t necessarily something we felt like we needed to prove, it was just it was this is what’s been exciting to us. I mean we are older. You’re making a record to be a reflection of who you are, so it kind of comes out naturally if you have matured.
Well it has been a crazy year for you guys so of course.
Yeah it has, it’s been a crazy time.
Who writes the songs?
We used to jam everything with the whole group and after we moved, whoever could get together would, so there would be two people working on something or one person working on something and they’re bringing it to the whole group and everybody jamming. So a lot of songs are basically maybe just a couple people but everything’s been through the whole band, so if somebody had like one little keyboard lick or something they wanted to add. When we were in Berlin, we did a lot of jamming, so a lot of those songs were based on the whole band. We just try to have several different approaches to songwriting so it doesn’t kind of sound too similar. I think taking a bunch of approaches is something a little more exciting.
Did that bring up any competition?
No. When John was in the band, sometimes we’d both write vocals for a song and whoever’s was better, we’d use those. But I wish it was more competitive, I actually got really inspired when I read that history of Saturday Night Live. Everyone that went through SNL said that they never would have written that much material but the competition of having to write in order to end up on the show made them write. That changed my views of competitiveness. If you look at the Beatles, John and Paul were constantly competing with each other, and that’s part of why they wrote so many good songs. They always say that Paul was the real go-getter and John never would have written anything, he was just sitting at home watching tele and smoking marijuana. It was always just like Paul showing up being like “I wrote this song” and it made John go write one. I think that’s good for a band.
Does “Steady as the Sidewalk Cracks” mean the time when you started making music?
That song is about my defence of music, even more specifically pop music. I really just tune out the discussion when someone starts talking about oh how good it used to be, music back in the day. For example, I listen to a lot of music on YouTube, like anytime I want to look something up. Anything I’m listening to, if it’s like an oldie from the ’60s, the ’80s, like dance track or a ’90s techno song, some drum and bass song, anything you look at almost always the top rated comment will say something like “oh music was so fun back then, kids today just don’t even know how good we had it!” That to me is just ridiculous! How is it that each of these styles of music was somehow the golden age? To me, there’s always a golden age in some form of music. Maybe it’s not the brightest time for pop or hip-hop or whichever, but that’s happening somewhere else and it’s going to come back. And then it’s going to be another exciting time in pop or hip-hop. It’s kind of just my defence of time and the wheel and music and all that.
I also noticed in your songs there are a lot of he said/she said. I thought that was an interesting theme throughout.
Yeah, sometimes it’s more fun to play with characters instead of making it all about yourself. Because then maybe you can make it all about yourself but maybe expand the story a little better than your basic story or something. Maybe let in even more of how you feel because it’s kind of left in more complex emotions or something.
So is it at all fiction?
Um, “AM/FM” is a fictional account of my own mind.
And “Jamie, My Intentions are Bass” mentions someone talking about your songs with you.
Yeah. That’s based on some real life instances. That’s about a couple hooking up and one telling the other that they’re having a dream about them and the other confessing that they had a dream too. That’s based on true stories, maybe not. Some of them my own, and some of them other people’s. It’s a better way to write by combining a lot of different stories. I always compare songwriting to how when you’re dreaming, you’ll be doing something that you were planning on doing the next day but you’ll be with someone from the second grade and someone that you saw in a store once when you were 17 and you’d be making jokes about the current news or something. You know, it’s always a mix-up of all the details screwed up in a bowl.
You must have loved Inception, eh?
I did, actually! And did you notice that Leonardo DiCaprio said “Strange weather, isn’t it?”
No I didn’t, but that’s awesome.
Yeah it was really weird, because I was with Raphael, our new bass player, and we both just jumped back, we looked right at each other like “what the fuck?” It was actually from another movie. And then it was in this movie. And it’s real prominent. It’s a part where everything’s getting weird in the bar or something and he walks up to someone and says “strange weather, isn’t it?” It’s real prominent!
You need it for a clip! Yeah I saw you had said somewhere SWIT? is kind of addressing awkward situations. Is that true?
The other movie it was from was actually called In the Mood for Love where everything’s changed between this couple, but when they run into each other on a rainy street, there’s so much that they need to address but they kind of don’t even know where to begin so instead he just says “strange weather, isn’t it?” So that’s kind of how we felt after this much time with everything changing, even trying to put it into perspective just wasn’t going to make sense, so we just wanted to say “strange weather, isn’t it?” But maybe that saying was a reflection or maybe that’s just all it is, just the weather. It’s just how it goes.
A big thing about this album is that you guys went to Berlin. Was that the first time you went to go work there?
Yeah. Tyler had been living there for a while already, so it was kind of one of those things that since we don’t live in the same town, we needed to pick somewhere to be together and it was like well, Tyler’s living in Berlin now, let’s go there!
How much of the record did you record there?
It was mostly writing. There was some recording, but mostly writing.
Which songs can we hear the Berlin sound on?
I think “Jump Back” was the most recorded and Berlin-y sounding song. That was definitely one of the late night jam sessions, and felt like Berlin. Something like “The Hammer,” we definitely learned a lot from clubs on that song. It was being written before we were there, but it came together there. When you’re dancing to minimal techno, the focus is clear, what you’re hearing and what you’re dancing to, so that’s kind of translated into making something poppy. Only what’s supposed to be there is what you’re listening to, and what you’re listening to should be deep or dense enough to stand on its own. So maybe to me something like “The Most Certain Sure” is a reflection of that, even though it sounds like it’s from Miami or something.
You also wrote in other cities, right?
In New York and Sacramento. Oh, well in the middle in our trip to Berlin, we went to play a show in Buenos Aires, and then when we came back it was very first jam we had, it just felt sunny and Buenos Aires. It was “Even Judas Gave Jesus a Kiss.” It seems a bit sunny for Berlin, so it was like “wow, maybe we should go do the next record in Buenos Aires.”
You also co-produced with Eric Broucek. How was that, were you able to keep a clear focus going?
Yeah definitely. That’s what we ask from a producer, because we’re not very focused. It was a struggle of opinions with him, but I think he really brought a lot of exciting things to the record. And the same way that we fought. We fought with each other and we fought with him during the record, but as soon as it was done, it was all love.
So what were these fights like?
Oh man, they were brutal. I think they kind of surprised him though because he wasn’t used to people getting like that in the studio. Everyone’s trying to make the best record they can make, people are getting pretty passionate. It’s just how that kind of thing goes.
Who would end up winning or having the final say?
Everybody. With each record, it ends and everyone can say “see I told you so.” But you also have to say “you know what, you were totally right about that one part.” There isn’t necessarily one person who dominates in the fights. That’s the positive aspect to the fighting. The things that you fight for end up being the things that you really cared about and so you kind of made them work and the things that you let go were the things that other people were worried about that didn’t ultimately matter. So that’s how the fighting is a good leveller, why it works so well.
You finally get to see what’s worth it kind of thing.
Yeah exactly. Because if one person was dominating, always fighting and getting their way, at the end of the record, it wouldn’t be the record it should be.