The last time !!! released any music was two years ago, when we heard them doing strange things to Stephen Merritt’s morose indie staple ‘Take Ecstasy With Me’, in the process turning it into a eight-minute long acid house classic that divebombed out of club speakers worldwide. It was easily one of the best singles of 2005, but now this dancefloor-destroying Pan-American eight-piece have taken their trademark dance-funk sound off into previously unimaginable new territories.
The ten tracks on their third album, ‘Myth Takes’, are more dense, layered and groovy than ever before – it’s !!! to the power of !!!, a cut’n’paste pop art sound-splash built from lupine post-punk bass patterns, spaghetti western guitars, African polyrhythms, house bleeps and vintage Philly soul. It’s also no exaggeration to say that there is no music like this being made anywhere else on the planet at the moment. With ‘Myth Takes’, !!! have stretched themselves so far that they’ve become truly peerless.
Because, if they’re anything, !!! (drummer John Pugh, singer Nic Offer, percussionist and horn player Allan Wilson, guitarist Mario Andreoni, keyboardist Tyler Pope, bassist Justin Van Der Volgen and percussionists Dan Gorman and Jerry Fuchs) are a band that like to test their own limits. It’s all born from an endless almost spiritual quest to find the ultimate groove, the mystical piece of music that will make all other songs redundant. And like most monks, !!!’s spiritual quest is accompanied by intense and rigourous physical training. Rehearsing ‘Myth Takes’ in a rented house on the wrong side of Nashville, the band started each day with a strict exercise regime. “We all lived in this huge empty building – there was literally nothing there so that when we moved in we had to go out to the thrift shop and buy coffee cups” remembers Nic Offer. “But every morning we’d do a kung-fu workout together and then after that we’d jam together all afternoon and night. I think that the neighbours thought we were a cult or something. One time the postman walked into the yard when we were all out in our little short shorts doing chants and contorted into these weird sweaty positions. It worked, though. Don’t mess with the magic.”
For !!! the magic really happens when they play live. Formed in 1995 specifically to play an all-night party in Sacramento, California, they’re still easily one of the most exciting live acts in the world. But with ‘Myth Takes’ the band let their audiences choose the direction of the songs. “The songs are basically written four times” explains Offer. “We write them in the practice space and then we test them on the road. Then we take them back into the studio and rewrite them before we tour them again. So they evolve. But playing them on the road has a way of making everything gel: people come to see us and party and dance, so if that doesn’t happen we’re not doing our job properly.”
A 2006 UK arena tour supporting Red Hot Chilli Peppers helped the band hone their songwriting even more. “Once you’re used to playing in front of 6,000 people it’s not that different to playing to 44,000” says Nic. “But doing that tour we learnt that to play shows that big you have to almost turn into a cartoon character. You have to make the hooks hit harder and make everything seem bigger. I could feel us getting better every night. It was a good experience.”
The band are still spread all over the US, so the Nashville house was a welcome opportunity for them to get back together and jam for three weeks non-stop: in this case, almost literally. “Usually when we jam we try and let things go for at least 45 minutes,” laughs Offer, “but sometimes we’ll get so into it that we’ll play for two hours and not notice.
“But besides that I think when we covered that Magnetic Fields song it brought us down to how simple it actually is to write a song. All the best music is made when you’re discovering how to do something new - we’re used to writing nine minute songs, but playing something that was so simple made us rethink the whole concept of the song.”
Their friend Chris Woodhouse recorded the Nashville house jams, while Justin Van Der Volgen produced the whole record, threading the best bits together to create a dense sonic patchwork that has as much in common with ‘70s Jamaican dub as 21st century dance-punk. If this sounds too arcane, please don’t be put off: ‘Myth Takes’ also features some of the band’s sparkliest pop songs alongside the distended jamming.
Indeed, the band are keen to make known their dissatisfaction with the current music scene, something their unusual approach to promotional duties for this album seeks to underline. “Basically,” says Nic, “we’re sick of seeing promo pictures of ourselves and other bands because everyone always looks ridiculous. Even our friends’ bands look like douchebags. So this time we’ve created these life-sized cardboard cutouts of ourselves that anyone who wants to feature us in their magazine can do what they want with. You can dress them up, put them on London Bridge, do whatever you want. Because every band knows that doing press is part of a big game that you have to play to make music. You start doing this because you love music and playing live – everything else is just a drag.
“Really, all we want to do is play. If we could jam together forever without stopping, we probably would. We’re just dedicated to chasing that elusive groove.”
With ‘Myth Takes’, !!! are one step closer to their goal.
NB: The name of the band is pronounced by repeating any three identical monosyllabic sounds. Chk Chk Chk is the most common of these, but they can also be called Pow Pow Pow, Bam Bam Bam, Uh Uh Uh, Etc Etc Etc. or whatever else you can think of that sounds good.