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!!!: Honed and unhoned
Dance-punk veterans reflect on new album, studio-vs.-live approaches

By Pete Kane
Special to MSN Music

Comparative veterans by indie-rock standards, dance-punk band !!! ("Chk Chk Chk") released their fifth album, "THR!!!ER," April 30. While they were setting up for their show at Noise Pop in San Francisco, we had the opportunity to speak with vocalist Nic Offer, guitarist Mario Andreoni and bassist Rafael Cohen about the album, how new modes of consuming music influenced their songwriting, and on the legacy of Michael Jackson. [Note: This conversation has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity.]

You're in Brooklyn now, right?

Nic Offer: We're still all spread out. There's three of us in Brooklyn, Mario's in Sacramento, [drummer] Paul's [Quattrone] in Pittsburgh.

And it's now six of you full time, with no touring members?

Nic Offer: Yep, six of us full time. It's a life choice.

So, the new album. It's kind of a departure.

Rafael Cohen: We hope so.

Nic Offer: They should all be a departure, shouldn't they? You can't put your foot in the same river twice. [Laughs] I probably read that on Twitter.

Mario Andreoni: You take three-year gaps between records, and you grow quite a bit. This is the first record that we've also done with Rafael in the fold, so ...

Nic Offer: We've never mentioned him in an interview, but since he's here ...

Mario Andreoni: [Laughs] It's never a conscious choice to do something like that, but you go with what excites you at the time, and we had a different set of demos, different-sounding stuff to work with.

Rafael Cohen: Bands are always saying their records are a departure, and you're never sure. Some of it, you're like, "This one's totally crazy and different," and sometimes you're like, "This one sounds the same, right?" and people go, "Nope. That one sounds different. You got it this time." We're getting a sense that this sounds like !!!, but it's, "Nah, this is a departure."

Mario Andreoni: That's a good thing. That is a good litmus test. For someone to actually say it sounds different is great.

At first and second listens, "THR!!!ER" is more apolitical and less scatological. It's more a collection of highly crafted pop songs that one unified. I'm thinking of [2007's] "Myth Takes" -- not that it's one song, but they sort of bleed into one another more than on "THR!!!ER."

Mario Andreoni: For me, I stopped listening to albums. I was only listening to playlists of singles. I found I really liked techno, but I kind of would get bored in the mixes. When I was going straight to just the songs that I liked, I liked how different things would sound next to each other. Instead of just getting into one band, I was getting into all these different kinds of sounds. So, working on things, they came out different. And it's like, well, if this is how I like to listen to music, and these are all the different styles that I like, then why can't our own sound be like this?

Bing: More on !!!

Dare I ask who?

Nic Offer: Ramadan Band, Shackleton. There's this one playlist I made right as we started the record: Virgo Four, Jamie Jones, 6th Borough Project.

Mario Andreoni: These are all obscure reference points, but they're all tracks that we all sort of rallied around, loved how they felt.

Rafael Cohen: There's a moment when we're all hanging out where someone plays something and everyone's like, "Hey, what's this one?" and you get the sense that those songs became touchstones on the record. You're hanging out in Spain or whatever, and someone's playing songs in the hotel room, and everyone's like, "You gotta give me this later."

Nic Offer: Yeah, we're just regular guys trading mp3s. [Laughs]

Mario Andreoni: We're just some file-sharing bros, playing Noise Pop.

Nic Offer: Yeah, you get the vibe, right? We're still friends. We're still bonded by the music.

Seventeen years later.

Nic Offer: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Sixteen!

Fair enough. Still, the album is polished.

Nic Offer: Honed!

But your live shows are anarchic.

Mario Andreoni: Unhoned.

How do you bridge that gap? Or do you even try?

Nic Offer: They're just different experiences

Rafael Cohen: The focus is so much different. You're trying to strive for something you're hearing in the song, while you're in the studio. Live, you're always looking for new ways to do it, especially if you're on the road with it for the next year. Part of our core was always just jamming. Even if there's not a lot of jamming per se on this record, we're at a point where we do it live and it's like, "Now I can just see how this sounds." It might fail miserably, but that's what's so exciting about it.

Do you enter into the studio with a pretty good idea of what the finished product's going to be?

Nic Offer: We had a stack of demos. We felt like we were going in with the blueprints and we were going to build it. You know you're going to find stuff along the way and follow that heat, and suddenly that synthesizer takes the focus.

Rafael Cohen: I think we were really prepared. We tried to tour each time before going in. We tried to identify the things that gave the demo whatever kind of magic we felt it had.

Obviously, with the name "THR!!!ER," you're thinking of Michael Jackson. "One Girl/One Boy" specifically sounds like it's influenced by "Off the Wall."

Mario Andreoni: Honestly? Well, I don't want it to come off the wrong way, but ...

Nic Offer: Mario's glad Michael Jackson is dead!

Mario Andreoni: [Laughs] Somebody had to say it. No -- Michael Jackson's music has been part of our whole lives. It's never a conscious thing; we never reference anything. We listened to a couple tracks in the studio, but we did that because every band listens to "Thriller." Every band is trying to make their "Thriller." I think if anything, our first album sounds a bit like a broken version of "Off the Wall," but as of now, it wasn't like we suddenly got into him.

I remember on [2010's] "Strange Weather" -- it was actually the week he died when we were working on "The Most Certain Sure." So if there was any strong Michael Jackson influence, it was then. But on this record, it's just because Michael Jackson's always there.

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