A conversation with Nic Offer
Interview by Adam McKibbin
DJs in need of kicking the party up a notch have long had a friend in !!! (pronounced, for the uninitiated, by making three repetitive sounds, like ChkChkChk). Since their debut full-length in 2000, the dance-rockers have released a series of critically acclaimed and dance floor-approved singles, such as “Me and Giuliani Down By The School Yard” and “Pardon My Freedom.” Their new album, Myth Takes, keeps the momentum going strong.
Before jetting off to Europe to kick off their world tour for Myth Takes, frontman Nic Offer talked to Adam McKibbin of The Red Alert and ARTISTdirect about the ingredients for his band’s high-energy live shows, his past life as a New Waver, and America’s reluctance to embrace dance culture.
You’ve said in the past that you don’t think !!! would have been the same band if you’d been from, say, San Francisco instead of Sacramento. Was there a concrete way in which Sacramento shaped the band, or was that meant as more of a general statement about how everyone is affected by their environment?
I think it’s pretty easy to put our fingers on exactly what it was: Sacramento was really just overlooked. It wasn’t hip. Most indie bands didn’t stop through there; they just went through San Francisco and Oakland. So we were kind of left to do our own thing, and we started picking up disco records and post-punk records—records that, at the time, weren’t very cool. But it was a small town and a tight-knit family, so there was no one to make fun of us. We’d go up to Oakland and San Francisco and the punks just didn’t get it. We were ridiculous. (laughs) Our freak factor was nurtured in Sacramento, absolutely.
Do you feel like you have the songwriting down to a science now? Does it come easier than it did during those early days?
I’d say it’s as much of a struggle as it’s always been. You know what, I think that’s almost the secret that we’ve learned: it’s always going to be a struggle, especially with eight people. What we’ve got down to a science is bearing that pain and struggling to communicate.
You don’t all live in the same city anymore, so are you emailing song pieces back and forth as you start to write new material?
Yeah, we do a bit of that, for sure. We have to do it any way we can. (laughs) Wherever we can fit it in, we do.
Do songs still occasionally stem from pure jam sessions together, starting from scratch?
Yeah, you know, we kind of start up and go. Now people bring in certain grooves more often, but even then, you bring a drum machine beat and everyone starts jamming from there.
How much of a good live show depends on the audience? Can you play in front of a lukewarm audience and still come away feeling that you tore it up?
It goes both ways. If we’re in a bad state and the audience is great, it will push us over the edge and make the show great. There have been a few times, too, where I’ve felt that we’ve been great and the audience has been…not so great. And we still persevere. The magical nights, though, are when the audience is great and we’re great—that’s when everything transcends.
In your opinion, is it possible for people standing in the back or sitting at the bar to feel the music as deeply as the people who are dancing front and center? Are they automatically missing out?
Well, it’s tough for me to criticize because there are so many different levels of enjoyment, but, yeah, the ultimate state is to be lost in the music—and if you’re standing in the back, you’re not going to be lost in the music. The only way to get fully lost is to be deep in the audience and, you know… be dancing.
Do you feel like fans need to see !!! in concert to fully understand the band?
Yeah, I think the ultimate experience with us is live. We’ve been dealing with the fact that our records aren’t as good as our live shows for years. The bar for us, in a way, is Fun House and Confusion Is Sex—those are great records, but you know they’re nothing compared to what those bands could do live. You can hear how it could be so much more. So we wanted to make an album that would be that good, at least a close representation, so people could maybe hear it 20 years later and say “Man, this must have been awesome live.”
How do you keep the energy up night in and night out? Do you have a regimented routine?
You know, the guys have been passed out backstage five minutes before we walk on, but then we walk up there and nothing else matters—you pour everything into it. It’s never been a problem. I’ve been dead, I’ve gone up there having not slept in two days, and still killed it. The music is a pretty energizing force.
Are you boisterous and extroverted in your quote-unquote “private” life? Is there a distinct separation between your onstage and offstage personas?
Interesting. I can’t figure out what I am. (laughs) Some people view me as very intense and loudmouthed offstage as well, but I’m not like Mr. New York Popularity. I’m not the guy always making the scene, that’s for sure. I really spend a lot of time with myself.
Do you think the American dance scene has been catching up to Europe in the years since you began?
I think so. I think it has a long way to go, and there are a lot of factors holding it back. It’s really complex. We’re trying to get ready to throw a party tomorrow night for our record release, and we wanted to throw an all-night party—which is not such a big deal in Europe, but even in New York City, some people just don’t get it. I think it will take a while. I feel like Americans still don’t really fully understand how awesome it can be to go dancing and stay dancing all night—especially with bars closing at 2:00. A lot of times when I go dancing around America, it’s still really focused on the hits; I like dancing to hits if I’m drunk or something like that, but, to me, if I’m dancing to a song that I already danced to 200 times when I was a New Waver in high school, it’s hard to immerse myself. I’d prefer to be hearing something that I don’t know. The whole dance-rock scene has been in such a box, and there have been so many rules to it. I’d like to see more people throw parties the way we threw parties in Sacramento when we were first excited about this music; we had a loft space and we played anything and we’d dance all night, you know? It was one of the best times of my life, really.
Those all-nighters are something I feel I’ve had to sacrifice while living in L.A., especially when I talk to someone in cities like Berlin or London. Even Coachella shuts down early out here.
Yeah, I know—and those European festivals will literally go all night. We finished one in Spain at six in the morning and then there was an after-party on the beach—like it was nothing! (laughs)
You’ve played some high-profile opening slots, like with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What do you look for in an opening band when you’re headlining?
You know what, we haven’t necessarily found our perfect opening band. I think the best opening band is anyone who kicks ass and keeps us on our toes and makes us play better. There have been a couple of times when we’ve been blown off the stage by an opener, but most of the time if someone goes on and kicks ass, it makes us kick ass.
How much super-depressing music do you have in your collection?
(laughs) Okay, okay… not a whole lot, but I definitely like stuff like that. I like Smog and Cat Power. In high school, I wore black clothes and did the whole New Waver bit. So it’s not always go-go-go, up-up-up with me. I like Eno’s ambient records, and I really like slow soul jams. I’m mellow. (laughs)