In the shorthand of the pop music world, Thriller has come to mean the pinnacle of an artist’s career.
Michael Jackson’s 1982 classic is the all-time best selling album and represents the King of Pop’s most creative and vital period. So when the genre-bending dance-punk sextet !!! (pronounced Chk Chk Chk for simplicity’s sake) set out to record their latest, the feeling of being at the top of their game started to seem like they were entering the Thriller zone.
“It was just something that was in the air the whole time. It was like a game we would play. We’d just say ‘What’s the hard rock Thriller? It’s Back in Black. No, it’s Appetite for Destruction. And we’d do that back and forth for different genres,” says the band’s singer Nic Offer. “But there was a feeling that we were doing something really good so we said ‘Let’s call it THR!!!ER. It just came together. It definitely felt like a high point for us. It felt like we’d really achieved a record we didn’t know we could do.”
Released last April on Warp Records, the band’s fifth album is a more dynamic take on dance rock, a creative experiment that came from a new in-studio partnership with producer Jim Eno (the drummer in Spoon). Though the band was coming off disappointing sales for their fourth album, the live performances were hitting an energetic high-water mark
“When we were doing the tour for Strange Weather, the record didn’t do as good as we wanted, but we really felt so good about the band at that point. It was a new lineup and we were getting along, having a great time and the shows were great,” Offer says. “We needed to work hard to keep it going.”
The band’s songwriting had sharpened, and for the first time, !!! had an album’s worth of songs written and arranged before they even set foot in a studio.
Since the band members live in different cities now, songwriting is done via email and individual contributions can show surprising results. “Even When The Water’s Cold” is a particularly good example, Offer says.
“When Rafael sent me an instrumental and a completed version with vocals, I got it and worked all night on it, but I didn’t listen to his vocal version, just the instrumental version,” Offer says. “I finished and listened to his version and it was cool because we’d inadvertently written about the same thing. We both had swimming in it. We sat back and didn’t know what to do with it.
“A couple weeks later we were playing in Spain and hanging out in the hotel room, smoking spliffs and going back and forth and we just said ‘Let’s combine them.’ We took some of my melody and some of his melody and we jammed them in together and they made perfect sense. It just came together. It was pretty seamless in the end.”
Having the songs mostly complete, they worked with Eno in the studio to introduce some unexpected elements, shaping the songs into a record that both stretches the band’s sound mold and exceeds fan expectations.
“Jim was a huge part of it, but I think he’d be the first to say we brought him a good batch of songs of. We had a connection and it felt really good,” Offer says.
Along the way the band backed away from any worries that changes in sound might alienate their audience.
“We take an album template as ‘Do whatever and it will sound like you.’ You shouldn’t be trying to make it sound like you it will, definitely. Don’t worry,” Offer says. “Most everybody listens to many styles of music, so it’s not so strange to switch. A big unifying thing for us has always been dance music but there’s lots of different dance music. I’ve had some arguments with friends in other bands, there’s this thing that you have to think about your audience. But as a kid I remember listening to somebody like Bauhaus and they’d attempt so many different styles, but at the end it all came under that Bauhaus blanket.”
Pushing the envelope sound-wise also resulted in a nine-song record that avoided settling into any rut, with dynamic song-to-song shifts. From “One Girl / One Boy” to “Slyd” to “Californyeah,” the album’s singles represent a creatively restless band.
“With a lot of records, I hear three or four songs and I don’t need to hear the rest of it,” Offer says. “You’re just trying to make and album that you’d like.”
When !!! began in Sacramento in 1996, they were drawn to dance music, which was all-but nonexistent in the rock world, so Offer and his bandmates sought elsewhere.
“During the 90s all we listened to was R&B and hip-hop. We didn’t like a lot of the rock music that was going on. In the ‘90s it was very separate. Rock music became very rock. Rock music wasn’t supposed to have drum machines. I feel like the ‘90s music separated specifically into white and black music and now it feels a lot more integrated. I think now is a good time for mixing styles together,” he says.
But that era gave !!! a unique voice from the very beginning.
“There should always be a little bit of trying to create your own thing,” Offer says. “I’m sure whoever is creating the most exciting music now is some who thinks the current music is bullshit and they’re thing to do their own thing. We definitely wanted to make our own music.”
!!! play Club Congress tonight with Acorn Bcorn at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 for the all ages show.