Imaginary Interviews With !!! (Chk Chk Chk)
For the dance-rock titans, the grooves evolve but the dance remains the same. Rock's most consistent group hits another one out of the park.
How many bands have recorded a truly great seventh album? For that matter, how many have released a truly special fifth and sixth album?
Undoubtedly, there are a few examples but there are not many that spring to mind. Of course, a lot of the seminal bands that are still revered today never even got that far. While those that have stuck around have struggled with ever diminishing returns, as they change up their sound, strip it back or find comfort in nostalgia. Of course, there is the odd exception and then there is the inevitable, much-heralded return to form that the media will portend as a return to the vital sound that made them so thrilling in the first place. Whatever the context, there are few bands that manage to keep producing the results. No dips, no lows, just consistently hitting the heights album after album after album.
That's exactly the position !!! find themselves in. After a career of dizzying highs on record after record of life-affirming, joyous anthems, they have done it all over again. After 2013's Thr!!!er, 2015's As if and now the phenomenal Shake The Shudder, the band complete a hat trick of great albums, all in the middle-age of their career. An incredible run that cements the band as one of the truly special bands of the last 20 years.
That the band has been able to keep up this phenomenal run is all down to the band's desire to keep pushing themselves forward musically as frontman Nic Offer attests, "It's just a matter of taking on different challenges each time. You consistently try to be on shaky territory. You want to be continuously discovering something new. Each new record is a challenge. What can we do better and how can we change the sound. How can we push it forward? What haven't we done with it? It's just a process of discovery."
For !!! it's that attitude that differentiates them from other bands with similarly lengthy careers, "Rock 'n' roll is full of young bands because they are at that time of discovery and trying new things." Offer explains, "Then they all stop doing that and get a bit boring sometimes as people and often as bands. For us, we felt like we had to be consistently in that territory of trying new things. We want to be able to compete with our younger selves."
Inevitably, Offer has seen his role in the band change hugely since its inception, "When there were more of us I had to help balance out the ideas and make everything happen between everyone." Now, as on Thr!!!er and As If, the genesis of every !!! record comes from the band just getting in a room and doing what they do best. "Now we do a lot of jamming," he continues. "During the jamming, one person brings in a beat and we record everything to a computer and then I do all the editing and put loops together but then Rafael and I kinda take them and build songs upon that. So Rafael and I kind of Lennon and McCartney back."
This relationship between bassist and multi-instrumentalist Rafael Cohen and Offer is fundamental to the whole process of making a !!! record. Like any great songwriting partnership, it's the similarities and differences that allow them to create something truly special, a relationship that Offer succinctly summarises: "We are very different. He's a family man and I'm kind of just out there. It works like a great songwriting partnership because what he suggests is not the way I saw it and we go back a forth like a ping pong game. It's great in that respect. You want someone who surprises you. He's a lot more sophisticated than I am and I'm probably a lot more daring than he is."
The roots of the outstanding new album Shake The Shudder began when they found a window in their hectic touring schedule to jam. "We had a week off in Barcelona and we were jamming all day and I was just sitting on the balcony at the apartment we had rented for the week in my underwear 'til late in the evening just editing the jams and it was fucking fantastic."
With that inescapable image, Offer explains that the editing is the part he loves best about creating a new record: "That's the exciting part when you start cutting them up and loop a bit that goes round for 20 minutes and you're like 'Yes!'" Despite that, he admits to be anything but a computer whiz kid, nothing that "We're still kind of clunky on the mechanics of things. None of us are naturally computer people but it's such a rewarding way to make music that we've all made the most of it and figured it out to the best of our abilities."
As with every !!! album since Thr!!!er, Shake The Shudder features a wealth of guest singers, including long-time collaborators Lea Lea and Meah Pace as well as Nicole Fayu, Cameron Mesirow, and Molly Schnick. Writing with different singers is something Offer now relishes after some initial awkwardness. "It's the fun part of it but the first time we were doing it it was hard but we've kind of gotten better at it," he explains. "The first singers we would sing with, it was a difficult thing because you hear it in your head a certain way and you have to kind of divorce yourself from that because sometimes they'll make it better and other times how to communicate the emphasis of how you hear the melody is difficult."
Now, the process has become a lot simpler and more intuitive, "you kind of know when you're writing it I think this would sound good from this person's perspective and then others they just happen to sing along at the part and it really brightens it up." With that in mind, the band were flexible on who sang on which songs, as "some of them – as soon as we wrote them – we had the person in mind who would sing it and others it just kind of happened." Nevertheless, Offer is ecstatic with how the additional vocals have worked out on this album: "Honestly the singers that we have worked with on this record have worked better than on any album that we've done before."
Once the jamming is done and loops have been cut up and spliced, the bands then flesh out the songs live. It's their way of retaining the spontaneous, yet intricate sound that the band is known for. It also enables them to capture their kinetic energy before even setting foot in the studio, as Offer explains, "We usually just get together and then practice like crazy. We really cram. We're like those kids cramming for tests. We basically learn the songs and then we set up a residency at a club in Brooklyn, a tiny little club and just play the new songs.
"A set of new songs every night for like a week and then we went straight into the studio and knocked them out. So they have a good mix of being a little bit live, a little bit loose but a little bit tight at the same time. They are very fresh to us but we know what we are doing."
If all this sounds like it was plain sailing, that wasn't always the case. "There's always a couple toughies," Offer admits. "There are always a couple that come together a little too easily and you don't know why it's that easy and others you really have to chase. On this one 'Throttle Service' was pretty difficult. It was such a simple song." When everything does come together, it makes the struggle all worthwhile: "When you've made as many records as we have you get angry about the ones that got away but you believe in how hard you had to work to get some of them. It's worth it. There's a lot to be said for not giving up."
In music, as in life, there is a fine line between success and failure but there is also a fine line between a great song and a good one, as Offer elaborates, "There are times when you think you've got it and you don't get that response that you would have thought. I would say that it's a very subtle difference because you really think you have it every time. Every song you think 'this one fucking kicks' but there's just that little bit of 'I think we really got it this time.' It's a very very subtle feeling."
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One song that most definitely "fucking kicks" is the house influenced banger "The One 2", a song that could have turned out very differently. "That was a funny one that came from a lot of different areas," Offer offers. "It came from a basic jungle rhythm and chords that Rafael had and he had the chorus. He sent it to me and I wrote some verses and we thought it was done. Then we played it to a friend and was like 'nah, it sounds too plain, it needs some more synths or something." Rather than kicking it to the curb, the band kept at it.
As Offer elaborates, "then there was another instrumental that we had from the Barcelona jams, which was more of a tech house track with a four on the floor and it had great synths and some great guitars in it and I was like 'you know this needs more synths' and I was trying to find a melody for it and I didn't have a melody as good as that other one so I just stuck it on top and played the two tracks together and voila it sounded great. It was a big endeavor but it all came together pretty easily even though there was a lot of interlocking parts." The track highlights that subtle difference between good and great as Offer confirms, "It was definitely one of those ones that when we were making it and we turned up the bass when it drops and then kicks back in after the chorus. We were just like 'Yeah!' We were so psyched."
As on previous albums, the band amassed a wealth of additional material during the sessions for Shake the Shudder but how do the band decide on when a song simply isn't up to scratch? "If it's not working for other people than you need to fix it," Offer responds. "If it's not coming across as you think in your mind. But our problem is that once we've finished a record we always think we'll go back and fix the other ones but then you end up just working on the new ones and end up just leaving it be. At this point, we are just acquiring a stack of shoulda, coulda, woulda so I think we may stop and revamp at some point."
That begs the question of what do you do with so much leftover material? "We're just letting them sit there and it's hard to say what we'll do. We've talked about a few ideas like doing some kind of continuous mix that would have some of the unreleased ones." With expanded anniversary editions of landmark albums de rigueur at the moment, the easy option would be to add them to repackaged editions of earlier albums, something that Offer refuses to consider at the moment, "We haven't got to that reissue point yet. We like to think that we are not at that stage in our careers yet. I don't need demos from every band. I like the idea of it just as a statement."
!!! find themselves in the unique position of being a band that has lasted for 20 years with nary a dip in the quality of their albums. They are the exception that proves the rule and Offer is just as amazed as anyone: "It's surprising to us especially as I don't find many bands that are seven albums into their careers very seriously. By this point of being a band for 20 years they are usually pretty shit, so I kind of accept it when people assume that about us. I'm surprised that we're good too! It's like a Hollywood movie. Just believe in your dreams and it'll work out."
Being the type of person he is, Offer is already thinking about the next record, "I already bought two new drum machines since the record finished!" he enthuses. Plus, there's always the need to invent some new dance moves as Offer tantalizingly teases, "I'm always working on them. Let's see what comes up."