!!! (Chk Chk Chk) interview: Trust your Gut

!!! (Chk Chk Chk) frontman Nic Offer details the self-scrutiny, silliness and tally charts which went into making rambunctious sixth album As If

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 03 Nov 2015

“Nobody is as real as what you just did right there.” There’s a sample on !!!’s newest album As If that’s taken from radio DJ Mister Cee’s interview live on Hot 97, in which he breaks down his involvement with a transgender prostitute and starts to find confidence discussing his own sexuality, through co-host Ebro's support and encouragement. The on-air conversation traverses legalities, moralities and the pitfalls of self-expression, marked by honesty and anxiety. As an example of trying to stay true to yourself, and the resultant difficulties finding that truth can cause, you won’t get much realer.

Nic Offer, lead showman of !!!, wonders whether internal conflicts of (self-) interest might be the backbone of their new record – and possibly, of the band more generally – hypothesising, “I guess… we’re just trying to keep expanding our cliché?” If they have one, !!!’s cliché is that they’re the showiest, danciest punk outfit this side of the 80s.

The band’s hyperbolic moniker has found standardised pronunciation as Chk Chk Chk – although the group initially claimed that any monosyllabic sound repeated three times over would do. It proved an infamous, potentially gimmicky and later certifiably un-Google-able title, but lives on as a reminder of the flamboyant Californians’ determination to shake it up. “We were really high minded, kind of pretentious when we started,” Offer laughs. “We really wanted to change music. But there’s still that attitude in trying to push the music as far as it goes, though; that’s how we feel we keep punk.” In short: call them what you want, because !!! works better as an attitude than a band name.

The Punk Credentials of !!!

Some 18 years since the band’s inception, the line-up has seen rapid-fire changes alongside their well-documented irreverence for genre. To date !!! consists of Offer, Rafael Cohen, Allan Wilson, Mario Andreoni, Dan Gorman and Paul Quattrone, with some nine alumni to keep count of, too. In 2000 their self-titled debut record opened the floodgates for early noughties dance-punk, ushering in bands like LCD Soundsystem and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Building on the moody post-punk floor fillers so popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, !!! injected a highly welcome dose of kooky, unselfconscious humour into their rabble-rousing party starters. Moving to esteemed label Warp in 2004 confirmed the band’s status as risk-taking good timers, renowned for their obscenely energetic live performances – something Offer’s still proud of: “Everyone always says the shows are better than the records!”

In more recent years, their punk credentials have been called into question – apparently hidden beneath gyrating hips and fluorescent lights. A surface listen to their latest, disco-balled record As If could reinforce that doubt, but beneath the glitzy surface lays a steely core.

Offer explains, “We all really responded to punk, but what we responded to was being yourself, doing your thing. But then it got locked into something very rigid and close-minded… So when we first started doing dance punk, there were punks mad at us for not being Black Flag. But that’s not the attitude, that’s not what we were in punk for. Then, a few years after dance punk, everyone was like, 'Why aren’t you doing that dance thing anymore?'” He laughs, hard. “That was never what it was about. To us, the whole punk attitude should be a search for something more, like: ‘Society is bullshit, so what can we do?’”

Rather than non-conformism through your classic snot and spit, !!! circa 2015 are taking a much more introspective, self-aware route: attacking big, existential questions through obstinate independence, and a little help from their friends. The band decided to outsource the tracklisting of their sixth album; after sending a multitude of demo tracks to friends and family, the record was compiled based upon their “pretty brutal” feedback.

“We gave them a week to listen and then everyone turned their votes back in. Our manager/secretary set us up with a proper tally sheet, with the votes all laid out so you could see what the boys voted for, what the girls voted for, what the older people voted for, what the younger people voted for… Yeah, it was proper! You could see it all. I was like, ‘Oh, ok, guess that track didn’t work out!’”

Offer admits that some of his favourites failed to make the cut, but !!! stuck resolutely to democracy – and yielded the rewards. Lead single Freedom '15 topped the tally, and has been “hands down the most talked about in all the reviews so far,” Offer muses. “It wasn’t what we’d have anticipated, but friends will tell you what you need to be told!”

Offer describes As If as a “grab bag”. The title’s a quasi-pun on the idea of dressing up in other musical voices and attitudes – and it reflects the “many different techniques, different producers” which had a hand in the record’s genesis.  As a handy guide to navigating its complicated waters, Offer has created a kind of treasure map – a short series of blogs and an accompanying YouTube playlist which demarcate the reference points and samples sprinkled within As If.

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From the obvious to the downright unlikely, the hints include Blawan, Erykah Badu, The Cure, Sparks, Jam City and the ever reclusive Jai Paul. Some clues will have you slapping your forehead – of course Badu’s On & On influenced the vocals in Sick Ass Moon. Others straight up can’t be found within the record’s walls: The Cure is only namechecked thanks to Lovesong playing in a coffee shop at a fortuitous moment – “a simple, eternal song.”

Offer is quick to refute any specific intent behind the “treasure map”, though. “I don’t know why we did it,” he says, slowly. “People were like, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’ And we were like, ‘Oh, it is?!’ But it must be tiring, I would think, for a critic to get another press pack that says, ‘Here’s a band’s new record and this is why it’s the most incredible thing they’ve ever done.’ And it seemed, also, like a strange record… so this is our way of explaining that we were just trying lots of things out. You won’t necessarily like everything you’ll find in there, but hopefully there’s some gems and rubies for you.”

Spanning house, disco, funk, punk, soul and thoroughly indulgent pop, the most consistent thread you’ll find through As If is of self-realisation, driven by Offer’s mind-set that “you have to be be unafraid to let anything happen.” It’s a deceptively simple mantra given the powerful current of shoulder-shimmying silliness and Panto-sized winks; tracks titled Ooo, Sick Ass Moon and Lucy Mongoosy are just the tip of one big, flamboyant iceberg. Finger-snapping one liners like, “She said her favourite Beatles song is Wonderwall” nestle against huge Europop choruses, sassy backing vocals asking, “How’s it working for you baby?” and perfectly timed auto-tune.

Crafted to bring a grin and set you sweating (Offer says, multiple times, that sweat is very important), it’s a record that demands semi-baffled but completely enthusiastic participation.

'Too Ridiculous'

As a third layer of icing on an already very sticky cake, the album’s promo material features the most famous monkey in showbiz, liberal use of intentionally terrible photoshop and full eye contact, face-to-camera lip sync videos. Watch Bam City if you think this sounds like exaggeration – it’s a million miles from your average, label-endorsed promotional vid. Offer is excited: “It’s so good that you notice that, we fought for all those things. And you’ll be surprised, there’s more to come! I will tell you, though, that the monkey was controversial. People thought it was toooo far. Too ridiculous.”

This begs the question; what could possibly be too ridiculous for !!!? “Well, there’s a pile of vetoed ideas… There are certainly times we’ve just gone too far. But I mean, take Lucy Mongoosy – it’s not even some huge inside joke to the band, it just opens up a strange world, something you have to imagine. The name describes the beat, it had that feel… and that’s why it felt okay.”

“You take an artist like Prince, and people always told him, ‘You can’t do this! Don’t do this! This is crazy!’ But he’d do it, and he was always right, he only trusted himself… But then suddenly he was kind of too far into his ego? He was too far gone. So there’s always that self-doubt; have I gone too far? Are we over the hill? Can we still do this? It really gets confusing, and that was part of the struggle with the record. Even with track I Feel So Free – ‘I try to listen to the little voice I hear inside, but it’s hard to trust it when everyone out here’s so uptight.’

“It’s a simple, basic couplet but it’s a very intense thing that I think everybody battles with. That thing of knowing what your true self really wants, and then what society… or whatever… is telling you you’re supposed to do.” It’s hard work, trusting your gut. “True. But I always get in the mood when the right groove comes on.”

As If is released on 6 Nov via Warp