The eight-piece collective -- which comes off like a cult at its sweaty performances -- emits a spooky, spiking pulse and jagged guitars, both of which are fueled by a hypnotic, booty-snapping bottom-end. It's the sound of Soul Train running over Gang of Four. Or maybe a reggae dance party hosted by Can.
Back in the mid-'90s, however, singer Nic Offer and guitarist Tyler Pope were just hardcore kids playing in a band called the Yah Mos, looking to do something new. So they recruited drummer John Pugh, whom they met after crashing at his pad in Little Rock, Arkansas.
"They called me up and said, 'We really need you to come out here and play bass,'" explains Pugh, calling from !!!'s current tour. "I was like, 'Isn't there somebody in Sacramento who can play bass? I have to move all the way out there?' But I didn't question it too much, because I loved the Yah Mos."
After a single practice, the band broke up, but Pugh was soon absorbed into the duo's other new project. He was even on hand when Offer and Tyler decided on the odd name !!! (pronounced chk chk chk). "When we finally settled down with a record label [Gold Standard Laboratories], they were very adamant about coming up with a definitive explanation so people wouldn't be so confused," says Pugh, revealing that the name had no proper pronunciation at first. "We just wanted it to be a creative name that people pretty much defined for themselves. And they were like, 'No, people aren't that smart.'"
Sacramento has never had much of a club scene, so !!! started off playing the same DIY hardcore basements and living rooms Tyler and Offer had booked while in the Yah Mos. This, despite the fact that their tastes extended far beyond punk, into funk and electronic dance music. "It was an uphill battle getting people to accept it and enjoy themselves -- to wrap their heads around the idea of going to a show and dancing," explains Pugh.
At the same time, the band's performances retain punk's confrontational attitude, which was used to shake audiences from their stolid, indie-rock indifference. "If you jump in the audience and really interact with people point-blank, they snap out of the idea that they're there to just watch the show and not really interact with it," Pugh adds.
After six years of gigging, !!! dropped its self-titled debut in 2001, and soon most of the band relocated to New York, where it was sucked into the next-big-thing vortex along with other groove-oriented acts like Radio 4, the Rapture, and LCD Soundsystem. "We took a lot of lumps in the early days for doing something that was totally unpopular, frowned upon, and thought of as kind of retarded," says Pugh, with a laugh. "When we got to New York, we could feel like there was a lot of other stuff that was moving in that direction."
Even though Pugh argues that !!!'s "approach has always been different" from the aforementioned groups, they are all kindred spirits. In fact, they used to hang out together at a dive on the Lower East Side called the Plant Bar. Dan Gorman (trumpet/percussion) worked there until former Mayor Rudy Giuliani closed it down. It was among the first bars to fall to Giuliani's fist, an experience that served as the inspiration for the group's hit single, "Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard."
After Giuliani began wielding an outdated cabaret law, like John Lithgow in Footloose, patrons literally weren't allowed to dance in certain bars. Signs were posted on the walls. Bartenders would scream at those who looked as if they were about to get their groove on. "And if you're the DJ, they're screaming at you, 'Stop playing music people can dance to!' So you have to put on Metal Machine Music to quell the throbbing masses. It was a problem," recalls Pugh. "Things have really died down in that respect. You don't really see squads of cops showing up at bars anymore."
The band is currently touring in support of Myth Takes, the follow-up to 2004's critical smash Louden Up Now. But unlike that release, which was recorded through the exchange of tracks with band members who still reside on the West Coast, Myth Takes was recorded live in Nashville, resulting in an album that's fuller and more deeply textured.
"We were definitely trying to make a DJ-friendly record, and in a lot of ways, I think we tried to clean things up too much. The final product for us came out a little sterile," Pugh says of Louden Up. "So we made a conscious decision: We're a band where chaos is one of the main elements in the music, so we should let that show. We shouldn't be ashamed of the chaos."
In other words, the big city and its dance-club culture have never killed !!!'s punk spirit -- that age-old love of chaos. "New York was great for just the variety of styles and people. It was good to go out and explore that and kind of take it all in," says Pugh. "But we figured out that at the end of the day, a house party's kind of the preferred mode for us."