"I was recently at a restaurant with [!!! guitarist and vocalist] Rafael [Cohen], and it was really funny because something came on and we were like, 'Wait, what is this?'" Nic Offer tells me late in the afternoon last Friday, the same day the frontman of the long-running dance-punk collective !!! is seeing the release of their sixth album, As If. "And we were like, 'Oh shit, this is "Pardon My Freedom."' As we realized that, the waitress walked by and I was like, 'Check, please!'" That track is a single from the band's 2004 breakthrough Louden Up Now, which helped !!! stand out as one of the weirder, more fearlessly funky acts in an increasingly crowded scene. But when the bubble eventually burst and the blog-housers and nu-ravers and dance-rock revivalists were forced to either "mature" or scatter like roaches, !!! defiantly stayed the course, releasing a string of varied studio releases and becoming a festival fixture. "We've been able to take a lickin' and keep on tickin,'" Offer says, considering the band's unlikely longevity and influence. "That's if I'm trying to look at it so basically and honestly, but I mean, you know, it was a group formed by friends to have fun, and it's remained like that the whole time." Now in his forties, Offer is releasing one of the danciest records of his career and explaining how loss, integrity and George Michael helped him get here over the course of almost two decades.
As If is now your sixth !!! studio album, and you're almost 20 years into it as a band. How's that feeling?
It's a trip, I never would've guessed it. I don't know, it's weird. The weirdest part about it is having to explain yourself all the time. Everyone's like, "Why are you still here?" And I'm like, "I have no fucking clue, it just never stops being fun" [laughs]. That seems as good as any a reason to do it, right? If we found something funner to do, we would it. But I haven't come across it, so I'm still doing this, because it's fun.
Especially in light of 2012's more straightforward, studio-focused Thr!!!er, this new one sounds like a throwback to some of your '00s releases. Was that deliberate, or did things kind of just shake out that way? Or am I way off base?
You're totally fuckin' off base here. No [laughs], uh it's both really, because it's really important to us that we move forward, and I think that's why we made albums before that some people thought were too produced, or something. That side of [making] records fascinates us, and that's what you have to do, make records around the things that fascinate you. But I definitely think there was an idea of -- if anything, it seemed to be that people wanted a rawer record from us. So it seemed like we found a way to kind of balance that. There's a lot of stuff that's straight off the demo, straight out of the first take the first time we played it in the room where we were writing it. The band was just live as live as live could be, the livest thing we've ever done. But also at the same time it's also the most computer-y thing we've ever done.
This is a noticeably more dancefloor-friendly album. Does that feel at all strange to make such an unabashed club record now that you're getting older as a band?
Uh, I guess so, but I also think not because... I guess I used to go to clubs more when I was younger, but I was probably too wasted to know what was coming out of the speakers. I still go to clubs, but now maybe I'm at home listening to club music on some good speakers and trying to understand it more. More than trying to understand it through talking over it and the drugs of our early twenties.
Is there any part of you that is trying to reach through all the fucked-uppedness to get to some 20-year-old kid -- in other words, are you trying to cut through the party and actually reach somebody?
Yes and no. Really, at the end of the day, we're just trying to make the records that excite us. This is just what we're excited by. It's kind of one of the things where it's like you're trying to stay connected to that instinctual response that you have to music, and this is where we've been instinctually hit. To do another form of music would be disingenuous.
What do you make of people thinking that dance music is disposable -- or functional music, along the same lines of how you described going out in your twenties and being too fucked up to pay attention to the music?
That's always the rap on dance music, that it's disposable. And in many ways it is, because it is meant for the moment, and it does go in one ear and out the other. But I think people are on the dancefloor to have revelatory moments, and you do have those. I've had profound moments on the dancefloor. I've shed tears on the dancefloor, I want you to know! Those old disco songs are heartbreaking, you know? And certainly we want to create those moments for people with our songs. It's important to us that the songs are about something. But I don't think that every song in the world needs to be about a dead father or something, you know? Songs can be about everything, and I don't think a song is not as relevant as another song because it's just telling you to dance. I think that dancing is an important thing and it's important to have those songs that tell you to do that.
Why do you think you guys have lasted this long, as opposed to some of your peers who have faded away or given it up?
Maybe just because we were a big band to start with. We've lost half our members, so maybe there was just more of us to lose. The other bands, they were built around three or four people, and once one guy leaves, they're done. We've been able to take a lickin' and keep on tickin'. That's if I'm trying to look at it so basically and honestly, but I mean, you know, it was a group formed by friends to have fun, and it's remained like that the whole time. There's been some tough times. People left the band, and we got new people and they became part of the family. It stayed fun, we've stayed friends and we're still like a family. There's no one I'd rather hang out with than the band to this day. That's really lucky. But I think we've also deliberately pushed ourselves to be in new territory. We're always attempting something different. With this record, I think yeah, it's us, but we've achieved a lot of things we couldn't have achieved on other records, and that's exciting to us.
I feel like your band has always been more conscious of its outsider status, in that I never got the sense that you really wanted to play the main stage. Did you? Or do you?
I think anybody wants to play to as many people that will appreciate them, but I think that we were just always conscious that that's not where we belonged or... it's funny, honestly we could rock a main stage better than anyone. We're really good at rocking a big festival stage; we've done it in many countries. So we always want to do that. I think we never had that idea that we needed to change who we were in order to be on that stage. The thing that comes first is being a good band. And as far as that will take us, let's go there. That's the most important thing to us. We've never wanted to gloss it up or slick it up or whatever -- make a song for McDonalds or something. That's never really been in the cards. Anything we've done that's been like kinda commercial has been because it's what we wanted to do. Everything we've done, we've wanted to do. Maybe there were a couple t-shirt designs we didn't get to approve, but generally everything we've done, we've wanted to do.
Obviously dance music has evolved a great deal since you started releasing records. What do you feel about the current state of dance music, either on a micro or a macro scale?
Certainly on a micro scale, I love it. What I DJ is mostly contemporary stuff. I think there's a ton of exciting records made all the time and yeah, it takes some digging through Beatport or whatever, but there's fucking incredible records released every single day. And I feel lucky to have attached myself to dance music, because I consistently need something new, and dance music has become the style of music that needs to be constantly new. It sounds dated two years after it's out, so it's attached itself to futurism and pushing forward and electronics. So it has to be continually new, and I love that part of it -- to me that's really exciting.
I think when people ask me about this, they want me to sort of kick EDM's teeth in or something like that, and that's not necessarily -- now going to the macro level -- I'm not mad at EDM. We've always thought that rock music was boring. We've always been kind of like anti-rock music. And I think there's a reason that kids today want to go to big EDM shows rather than the Black Keys, or whatever is passing for rock music these days. I'd rather listen to any dipshit EDM guy than the fucking Black Keys. At least it's a new thing, at least it's in a new territory. It's fresh. And I don't think I understand all that EDM because it's more based around adrenaline and sugar and drugs and things that aren't supposed to appeal to who I am at this point. But I certainly understand why fucking kids like it. It's fucking exciting, and it's something that's their own, it's not their dad's music. Their dad's gonna like the Black Keys, you know?
I think people associate your band with joy, but you've lost people in this band over the years, including Jerry Fuchs and Mikel Gius. How did their deaths influence and change the band?
It's just such a part of life. Any group of friends that is a group of friends for a while will go through these things. Both of those guys liked to fuckin' party, and I'm sure they would've wanted the party to continue. I feel like the lyrics from the last song on Thr!!!er ["Situation (Meet Me at The)"], "you get what you get," were basically about that. I haven't fucking learned anything from death. It fucking sucks. I've learned nothing, you know? Literally nothing. I can't tell you anything about death. It fucking sucks and I miss those guys and that's all I know about it.
There's a lot of variation on As If, which is nothing new for you guys, but it's the big dance tracks that really stand out here. "Freedom '15" is a highlight -- were you trying plant a certain kind of flag with that George Michael nod in the title?
[Laughs] Certainly! We love George, we're all like giant George fans, except [drummer] Paul [Quattrone], but he doesn't know anything. We just think he's unfairly been maligned, but really it was just one of those things where you know, the hook went "freedom" so it was obviously going to be called "Freedom," so obviously we had to nod to George because it's one of our favorite George songs.
He has been unfairly ignored.
He certainly wasn't as prolific, but I think he comes in a fairly distant third to Prince and Michael [Jackson]. As far as like a soul guy from the '80s, like a visionary soul songwriter, I think he's fucking fantastic. I love him. He fascinates me too because he had such a struggle, you know. He spent the majority of his career in the closet... he's the one I'm still waiting on his memoirs. He wrote one in like '90, but he was still in the closet at that point. I think the book's called Nude or something like that [Ed. note: The title of George Michael's 1991 memoirs is Bare]. It's like he hasn't revealed his true self to the world and I feel bad for him because every time you read about him now he's still fucked up on drugs or something and you feel like there's a bit of him that hasn't really -- he strikes me as one of the great tragic figures in rock. I don't feel like he's truly happy still, you know? And I want George to be happy, because he seems like a good guy to me.
His career kind of mirrored Boy George's in a weird way, but Boy George has been able to come out on the other side with some sort of sense of sanity --
I think they would both be pissed to hear you say that [laughs], but there are of course very obvious parallels between the two. But I actually read George's book [the 1995 autobiography] Take It Like a Man. George is fucking great -- Boy George. He's totally got it together, he's very self-aware. He comes through the other side of getting straight, and in his book he's totally -- he knows he fucked up. And he's very clear about it. And he has a real sense of humor about himself. He's like someone I always really like in interviews and stuff. Boy George is cool.
My favorite thing on the new album is probably "Funk (I Got This)," mostly because you looped a dialogue clip of Mister Cee during his big Hot 97 interview about his sexuality. What inspired you to use that moment?
I'll tell you exactly what inspired me to use that moment. It's the fuckin' stupid ass commenters on the New York Times [website]. I had listened to the interview, and then I read the article about it, and it's like any time there's a hip-hop article in the New York Times, all these fuckin' people comment like, "Why are you writing about this blah blah blah!" They're like incensed that it's considered an art. And it's like, "It's twenty-fucking-fifteen, man!" So I put the interview on again and I was listening to it, and it was just like such an incredible interview because to come out on hip-hop radio -- and he doesn't even really fully come out, he admits he can't come out. It was one of the most incredible and moving things I'd ever listened to. It's definitely the greatest radio I'd ever listened to, because they come on the air and it's awkward at first, there's these weird silences and he's having to squeeze it out and say, y'know, to have to say on hip-hop radio, "Yeah, I've been filmed with transgender prostitutes." I will never have to say anything that brave. I will never have to make that step. So to listen to it was just incredible, and it was kind of one of those things that was really simple, because it was an incredible moment between friends. Magic things were happening. The way they we're standing up for him and encouraging him to be himself was just so beautiful, to have his friends stand up for him like that.
When I'm cutting up a jam session, ultimately what I'm doing is honing in on the magic, and there are incredible moments happening. It's like I'm capturing that magic and looping it. And to listen to this interview, it's like they were discovering things. They were pushing out into things and discovering and it was an incredible moment. So I just cut it up.
Looking back, is there any advice you'd want to give to yourself when you started this band? Is there anything you would've wanted to do differently if you could?
I just would've worked harder younger. It's been kind of exciting because we've kind of opened up this other aspect to the band in the last five, six years or something where I feel we got better than we ever had been. And I certainly understand why bands are usually better younger, and what is there in that kind of energy. So I feel like if we had worked this hard at that age, I mean we could have done incredible things. Our big moment in the sun was [2004's] Louden Up Now, my least favorite [!!!] record. When I listen to that record --
Is it really?
-- I know it could have been better. Yeah, by far. That or maybe [Strange Weather, Isn't It?]. But those are definitely my least two favorite. And Louden Up is the one that most people know. And I just know that... I'm just sure if we had dropped [As If] at that time, it would have been fucking huge. [Louden Up Now] gets by on the fact that its sound was new. We were The Hot Sound of the Day. Now we're lucky to be around. Our sound is dated, but we're lucky to be here and be able to make it sound fresh.
As If is out now. You can buy a copy HERE.