The dance-punk mainstay’s frontman on keeping it fresh a quarter-century in, the thrill of live performance, and the banalities of social media promotion.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
26 years. That’s how long Nic Offer’s !!! have been around for when I meet him at London’s Heaven in mid-October ahead of their show there, the penultimate of the Let it Be Blue UK tour. At this point in a band’s career, especially one whose initial rise coincided with the fabled mid-00s New York indie scene, you’d expect them to coast on their past successes. Minimal new material and what’s there rehashes past sounds, a few dozen artificially-expensive reissues of past albums loaded down with endless demos you’ll never listen to, live shows predominately stocked with decades old favourites performed with a dependable detachment.
Not !!!. Even a worldwide pandemic barely slowed their new music output, and what does come out clearly evolves upon the scrappy mid-00s dance-rock they initially made their name on whilst being a world away from the days of Louden Up Now or Myth Takes. Their live shows are high-energy, non-stop, dynamic affairs placing a premium on that new material, with a locked-in band symbiotically feeding off enthusiastic crowds as Offer and Meah Pace throw out all the shapes with such passion that the stage can only contain them for minutes at a time. During my conversation with Offer, he’s happy to be reflective about his band’s history and the moment in music time they’ll (somewhat unfairly) always be tied to, but every reflection will feed back into an observation about how far !!! have come since those days and their efforts to remain relevant rather than falling into nostalgia cycles.
Offer is remarkably candid and straight-talking. The kind of guy who laughs in agreement at the suggestion he’ll be 92 busting moves with a Zimmer frame on-stage. We talk about that desire to keep the !!! experience, both on record and in concert, fresh so deep into a run; crafting their latest album, Let it Be Blue, in pandemic-enforced isolation; the thrill and uncertainty of touring in our new abnormal; and overthinking social media promotion. An hour later, he’ll take the stage with the band and put on one of the most fun shows I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing all year, causing me to ride the Tube back drenched in sweat. So much for the idea that getting old means you need to become boring.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How’s it felt to be back on the road playing shows again?
It’s been exciting! I was definitely fine being off the road, but once we started hitting again, I was like “oh, yeah, this is where I need to be!” And the shows in the UK have just been through the roof.
I didn’t realise that !!! are now 26 years old!
Yeah, it blows my mind too!
After going for that long, how do you find the energy and inspiration to keep making exploratory new music rather than falling into the nostalgia cycle of so many of your contemporaries?
We came up as part of the post-punk movement and I always felt that post-punk was anti-nostalgia to begin with. The 2000s wave of post-punk kinda got caught up in that nostalgia, that was never the part of post-punk we were interested in. We were interested in post-punk as a way to find something new. So, we never felt an allegiance to our old material. We felt an allegiance to the original ideals, and if the original ideals we to move forward then we had to change our sound. If you keeping moving in music and growing and changing, you keep finding new things. It just becomes part of the journey and we want to be one of those bands on the journey.
You’ve actually managed to jump ahead a bit in my questions there! Your live sets have almost no pre-Strange Weather material anymore, I was going to ask whether that was a conscious choice.
There’s a thing where people will come up to us after a show and go “oh, man! That was the best show I’ve ever seen! But why didn’t you play this song and why didn’t you play that song?” Well, the reason why it’s the best show you’ve ever saw is cos you saw a band having a good time. If we were playing those hits, it wouldn’t be the best show you ever saw, y’know? We started this band to have fun, we didn’t start it to have hits.
You don’t want to be the band who gets up on-stage every night and is obligated to do “Me & Guiliani Down by the School Yard” as the light dies behind your eyes.
We’ve seen that happen to other bands, and we’re not about to let that happen to us. Also, we feel like we’ve been on a good trajectory. We like the records we’ve been making, we feel lucky to be in that position. Maybe there’ll be a point where we aren’t writing good records anymore and we’ll have this catalogue that we can play so many cuts of because we just aren’t tired of them.
Kinda like when Bowie retired all of his big 70s hits for a long while so when he dug them back out again at the end of his career, he felt refreshed.
And that happens. When you dig out a song you haven’t played in a while, that’s when it starts to get fun!
Sound-wise, it’s almost like each record goes between two different ends. One hand, you’ll make something that has a lot more of a tangible, tight band feel to it. Then on the next, you’ll go for a more relaxed, jammy house feel. In 2019 you brought out Wallop, which was a tight record, and then as the pandemic kicked off you released the Certified Heavy Katz EP which was almost as long as a proper record. It’s only 10 minutes shorter than Let it Be Blue. Was Katz already in the bag when the pandemic hit?
Yeah, that was already in the bag. When we make our records, we over-write then everyone votes on the songs. Those were all songs that didn’t fit on Wallop but were ones we really liked. It was actually the first time we had leftovers we really liked, so we put it out as an EP. But I was surprised by how it all hangs together. I don’t think it’d work as one long album, but as two separate things, I think they work really well.
When did you start work on Let it Be Blue?
First song was written in January/February of 2020, right before the pandemic happened.
Was most of the writing stage locked in before the pandemic?
No, most was done during. Once we were separated, we’d trade Ableton sessions online and work on each other’s. It was a conscious decision cos we try and make every record sound different from the last and, with these parameters, we knew it would definitely affect the sound of the record. So, we leaned into that and let it make a positive impact, and hopefully set us up for the record after it. Playing all these songs, which are basically computer-based, live now, it’s been really exciting to let them breathe and be a band again, and it has excited us again for the next record and what that will be.
When I saw you for Shake the Shudder, I think Meah Pace had just become a full-time member of the band. How did that feel to add to the band dynamic?
It always feels good. With different producers and singers, it changes the conversation in the room and how the ideas bounce off each other. Whatever band members are there is what ends up making the record, and that’s another reason why it doesn’t sound like an album from 2005. It’s completely different people, in a way. With Meah, she was able to bring in something different that we hadn’t had in the group before. It’s hard for me to imagine it going back an all-guys line-up. It really balances things out. Sometimes I’ll even see bands and go “I wish this had just a little more of a girl influence.” It’s been great having her with us.
I feel having that girl/boy dynamic live as well as on record creates a more inclusive energy that gets put out there. Which is also added by your dancing, too. I have Asperger’s and minor dyspraxia, so I get really self-conscious about my dancing. But seeing you up on-stage just totally free not giving a fuck helps push me past those shame feelings.
It’s funny, I was talking about this last night in Brighton. I was like “Anyone can do this one move!” and it’s this little slow-motion thing where I run my hands over my body. The way you describe your body, you can totally do that move! I have this one friend I remember seeing back at the earliest dance parties in the 90s we used to go to. He starts dancing and I was initially “what the heck is he doing?” but, as time went on, he turned into one of the best dancers. It took him discovering what interesting things he could do with his body. It’s just you expressing yourself to the music, y’know? It starts with just a little bit, then it takes over. Don’t think you can’t!
How do you structure a setlist at this point?
You figure out from just playing so many shows and seeing what works. Any band I see, I start liking about four songs and then it starts to sound a bit samey to me. With us, it’s always about creating a new moment. Rafael singing, Meah singing, me singing, we’re all singing, now I’m down here, now someone else is playing keyboards… It’s all about changing things up so you’re not just looking at the same band for ninety minutes. It’s the same thing as when a DJ has to play music to keep people moving, you have to think of it more in that way…
You structure it like a DJ set.
Basically. To put things in contrast with each other so they don’t seem too samey. No two songs that sound too similar next to each other, so it feels fresh the whole time. I think that’s part of what makes our sets work and why people like us as a live band. We’re trying not to bore ya. I’m very conscious of “they might be getting bored now, they might be getting bored now…”
Keeping an eye out to know that “ok, next time we’ll move this track to here…”
Now it’s hardened into a set we think works really well. It’s like having a series of cards to play, and we now know which cards work best in a particular order after a year of touring them.
Because you’ve been at it for so long, how have you found your fanbase evolving over the years? I’m sure there’ll be fans who’ve been around since the self-titled 22 years ago, and there’ll be younger fans who’ve only just gotten in from Wallop. How do you find those differences in your audience at shows?
It’s strange to me when people come up and say “I’ve seen you 14 times!” and that happens more than I’d expect. I think that’s a good result of keeping the setlist moving so they’re not seeing the same show they saw six years ago or fourteen years ago. Especially in the UK, there’s a lot more older people at our shows who’ve been with us for a while. But honestly, I’m happiest when the kids are there, cos the kids dance more readily. I also think we’re something of an anomaly in that we’re an older band who’ve made nine quality records. Getting older doesn’t have to mean getting boring. Certainly, I know many people who get older and become boring, but I like to think that the people who come to our show like to stay interested, fresh, and excited. Those are the people we’ve always wanted to play for, people who are excited for new ideas. That was the post-punk dream.
How have you been finding touring in our current… situation? It’s been a growing story in recent months that artists are struggling to make live tours work; Animal Collective just cancelled their entire UK and EU runs because they would otherwise be in a financial hole. How have you been finding it?
Honest to God truth: I’m waiting to fucking find out! *laughs* I will say that this is the first album which has come out where we’re not doing Europe. We looked at it and were like “we’re gonna lose too much money.” So, whether we make or lose money on this trip, I’ve just been too afraid to ask. This is honestly the part of the band I try to stay out of. I’m happy to just show up and see people there! The shows have been good because people have been there having a good time. I hope that’s enough to cover our ass and we get home alive with the chance to come back and do this again. I couldn’t tell you. It might be that we get back and find out “oh, we did fine.” Because, compared to everything else that’s happening, if we did “fine” then that means we did really well. Toss a coin into the air for what the truth is. They might say we’re fucked!
I’ve got a friend in a band who’s admitted to me that their current tour has left them in a hole, but she’s trying to instead focus on the thrill of being back on-stage playing these songs they worked really hard on over the pandemic to people who really respond to them. I’m guessing it’s the same thing for you?
The whole time I’ve been playing shows, I’ve just felt lucky to be playing shows. I’m still in that same position. I’m lucky to be here, I’m happy to be here, I’ll continue to be here until they make me fucking leave! *laughs*
You’ve been on Warp Records for almost the entirety of your run. Nowadays, and even back in the 00s boom, it’s rare to see artists not go label-hopping. How’ve you found that relationship between yourselves and Warp?
It remains a label I’m proud to be on. It always seems to be cutting edge but not too boring or dry, and I like to think that’s what we’re trying to do as well. Something that’s a little challenging but isn’t like homework. It’s fun! When they asked us to be on the label, there were tonnes of legendary releases that we were proud to be associated with, and they’ve continued to put out lots of great releases.
They also do a really good job of keeping your name out there, promoting your newer stuff. For a band 20-plus years in who just wants to make music, that kind of support must be a major relief for you.
The industry has changed so much nowadays with social media and such. Bands are expected to do a lot more promotion and that’s fucking annoying! There’s a song on Certified Heavy Katz, “Take it Easy,” where I talk about that! I was working on the song and our manager was leaving voicemails asking “could you make an Instagram video about the show?” I should be making this song, I should not be making content! But I also guess we tend to overthink it cos we’re not constantly on social media. Someone else’s manager might call them and get a “oh, yeah, we’re making this song at the moment, come to the show, bye!” post. But with me, I have to overthink it and make sure it’s funny.
That’s probably fun to do if you want to do it rather than being mandated.
Absolutely. I think the artists who thrive nowadays are the ones who are good at doing it and where it comes natural to them. And I enjoy it too! I like content by other artists I may not otherwise listen to! If I like their music and they’re good at social media and they make it a part of their mystique, I do enjoy it all even more! I just don’t think that’s where I excel, but I’m trying to get better.
What music are you currently listening to?
I think the UK bands are currently having a really good moment. I really like the Jockstrap record. I really liked that last Shame record. This morning I was listening to Sorry; I saw them play in New York, actually, they were the last band I saw before the pandemic hit. IDLES are great. It’s been a while since I’ve really liked a lot of UK bands, maybe Klaxons in the 2000s. But there’s so many great ones in the UK with the talky-thing right now! I keep expecting to be sick of it, but nope there’s another great one!
There’s also a Joyce record (self-titled) that just got reissued; a Brazilian woman from the 70s. That record is amazing! I recommend that!
Let it Be Blue is available now on all formats via Warp Records.
Callie Petch will make a storm around the world.