The stories already circulating about the recording of !!!'s third album are strange enough. You know, the ones about the eight-man dance/punk/electro/house/dub outfit holed up in an empty house in Nashville, doing kung-fu workouts in short-shorts by day, and then jamming all night, in search of the perfect groove.
But that tale isn't even as bizarre as another image, revealed by the group's frontman, Nic Offer. Try to picture Offer and Co. on the Music City club scene, knocking back brews and digging the jukebox sing-alongs to Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks.
"Yeah, our last night in Nashville we went out honky-tonkin'," Offer says via phone from his Brooklyn home. "And I have to say, it was really kinda rad, seeing people mouthing the words and getting into all these country songs from the last fifteen years.
"That stuff makes much more sense when you see it in that context, I think," the 34-year-old adds. "A good song is still a good song."
The idea of !!! gone mainstream country deserves a definite mental "!!!," but Offer's last comment suggests something important about the evolution of his group. Myth Takes, !!!'s new album, is (as always) about the pursuit of the ultimate dancefloor jam, a quest that drew the members of the collective to Nashville from their current homes all over the country. Yet the disc is also focused on traditional songcraft as never before something the industrial-strength hooks and melodies of new tunes such as "Must Be the Moon" and "Heart of Hearts" confirm.
It's a lesson !!! (usually pronounced "chk-chk-chk") learned quickly last year, while road-testing some of its new material in front of U.K. stadium crowds as support for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Chili Peppers' guitarist, John Frusciante, had taken a liking to !!! and extended the invite. But Offer and his bandmates soon figured out that some alterations of their sound were in order.
For a group whose sweaty club gigs had become legendary and whose stated goal was getting even the people along the back wall into the funk the transition to playing in front of audiences of 50,000 must have been tough. "But actually, once you start playing to 6,000 people or so, you can't see their faces anymore, so if you add a bunch more faces behind them, it doesn't matter," Offer explains. "The tough thing is playing to 50,000 people who don't give a shit about you."
Making those crowds give a shit, !!! realized, involved taking some songs back to the drawing board. "Some of them were just too subtle," Offer says. One example, he says, was "Bend Over Beethoven," a funktastic eight-minute groove that was losing audiences during its verses. "So," says Offer, "we had to do some re-recording."
The guy in charge of that process was the group's bassist, Justin Van Der Volgen, who doubled as !!!'s producer on Myth Takes. It was a role the band had wanted Van Der Volgen to assume on its last outing, 2004's Louden Up Now, Offer says. "But he was too busy with other stuff, and he just didn't have time."
The buzz surrounding the group a rep that began building after 2001's self-titled debut and increased with Louden Up Now and a 2005 acid-house rethink of Magnetic Fields' "Take Ecstasy with Me" was loud enough that !!! could have had its choice of big-name producers. But that, says Offer, was exactly what they wanted to avoid especially as they tried to escape being lumped into the dance-punk movement, in which they shared icon status with the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem (and which now includes Gang of Four-inspired bands all over America).
"It's always tempting to get a guy who produced some record you liked when you were a kid," admits Offer. "But those guys usually aren't very fresh any more. Getting a producer is really about who's the freshest and the hottest at that point. And Justin was the freshest and the hottest."
Being fresh and hot, of course, didn't mean that the normal frictions between producer and band no longer applied. "It's hard, because you tend to say, 'He's not really in authority, he's just one of us,'" agrees Offer. "But that was a minor complaint, really. If we would've gotten someone else, we would've been saying, 'Ah, they don't get it. They don't understand us!'
"There's just gonna be sparks when you make a record. We were gonna have to complain about something so yeah, we complained," Offer adds with a laugh.
What seems surprising at first about Myth Takes is that the new musical directness is coupled with lyrics that are intentionally more abstract and open-ended. It's surprising, at least, until you consider that !!! couldn't get much more direct than telling "the president to suck my fucking dick," as Offer directed three years ago on "Pardon My Freedom."
That line, in fact, is part of what prompted Offer's rethink. Although the rest of "Pardon My Freedom" was somewhat more subtle, referencing John Lennon and even Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," those points were perhaps understandably missed by most reviewers, some of whom anointed Offer dance-punk's political spokesman.
"I still remember the first article that focused on that line," Offer sighs, "and then it just got to be ridiculous. So it became clear to me that I needed to back off, lyrically, because I didn't wanna get put in that box. And I realized that I really preferred stuff that had some emotional depth, but didn't hit you over the head." Thus "All My Heroes Are Weirdos," perhaps the most political tune on the new album, cushions its message by retelling the story of the Roman emperor Nero.
One thing Offer wishes he'd been a bit more direct about, however, is the status of Out Hud a popular electronic side project that also included !!! members Tyler Pope and Van Der Volgen (who's now married to Out Hud's vocalist and drummer, Phyllis Forbes). Out Hud broke up following 2005's aptly titled Let Us Never Speak of It Again, but in a recent Pitchfork interview, Offer made what some construed as encouraging noises about a possible reunion. "You know, if it felt right, we would do it, I suppose," he said.
"Uh....I didn't mean it to be that open-ended. Maybe that was a mistake," Offer says now. "I don't think anybody feels that the time is right, and I don't see that day coming any time soon."
Instead, the focus is now solely on !!!. And with a new album Offer feels is the best representation yet of the group's frenetic live experience, there ought to be a lot of "!!!"s in !!!'s immediate future. In fact, Offer confesses to only one regret: Now that the songs from Myth Takes have received further road-testing, they're already bigger and better than on record. It's the kind of built-in obsolescence that affects the albums of only the truly great live acts, but it still makes Offer a bit wistful upon reflection.
"That's what we're always gonna be chasing," he says. "That's the curse, I guess."