"It fits us completely," guitarist Mario Andreoni says. "It's pretty much commercial suicide."
Formed in 1996 from the ashes of phenomenal but overlooked mid-'90's hardcore act Yah Mos, !!! began as an offshoot of the dance parties that had become the norm in the Sacramento scene. "Downtown Sacramento is just like a medium-sized town within the city," Andreoni explains. "It's not too expensive to live there, and there's enough people going to shows and parties to have fun. For years we would have dance parties. We basically all were friends, and we wanted to make some music that people could dance to."
The seeds were already there: Yah Mos, also fronted by !!! singer Nic Offer, featured a brazenly danceable, horn-aided undercurrent. But it was on the road that the vision for a dance band--this dance band, more or less--was truly realized. "When we were in the Yah Mos, on tour, we would play these mix tapes we'd made for parties in other towns," Andreoni remembers. "Most towns we visited, it was something new, and these people loved it."
Once back at home in Sacramento, !!! stopped being a concept and became a reality, thanks to the combined effort of what has grown into a core of eight men. Ranging in age from 23 to 30, !!! is made up of Andreoni, Offer, Justin VanDerVolgen on bass, Dan "Gorman" Gorman on trumpet and percussion, Tyler Pope on guitar, Allan Wilson on saxophone and percussion, John Pugh on drums, and Jason Racine occasionally on guitar. The concept, the reality--everything--worked immediately. "When we started playing house shows here," Andreoni says with absolutely no modesty, "it was unbelievable."
!!! spent its first two years gigging around Sacramento, playing house parties and the occasional big bar show. Andreoni recalls the band's decision against becoming a local fixture: "Whenever there's a new band in town, everyone asks you to play--all the time." Instead, the band took off slowly while Offer, Pope, and VanDerVolgen also devoted time to another band, Outhud, an instrumental outfit featuring Molly Schnick and Phyllis Forbes (formerly of the band Raoul) on drums and cello, respectively. After releasing a seven-inch single on local hardcore label Hopscotch Records and an initial split single with Outhud in 1998, the two bands made the natural move to release a full album--together. The result, a self-titled split released jointly by Sacramento-based Gold Standard Laboratories and San Francisco's Zum fan-zine, stood as a truly complementary record. Outhud's clever, subtle take on new wave served as a perfect flipside to the primal, raw grooves and guttural vocals of !!!, making for a truly worthwhile split record, and one of the most memorable albums of 1999.
Not content to let their records do all of the talking, both groups hit the road. After a grueling set of tours by both bands in 1999, the two acts were becoming well-known in punk circles for their in-your-face stage antics, and in wider realms, for their innovative take on dance music.
"People think that we show up in your town and make you dance," Andreoni says, laughing. "We also have a lot of people you would consider, well, squares, coming to our shows in a lot of towns. People read about us or hear about us who wouldn't really show up to a hardcore show. It's a big mishmash." As for being forward in expecting their audience to move, Andreoni doesn't consider it to be a new thing. "My whole thing is that if we play and we inspire people to move, that's great. Nic is the one with the microphone, and once his juices are flowing, he gets into it. He's gotten better as far as shouting things, but Nic's approach to it is supposed to be harsh. We're in a new era of people yelling things to the audience, like, 'Dance, motherfuckers, dance!' I remember the exact same thing when I first started going to hardcore shows. I guess people haven't been moving as much lately, and we're helping to bring that back."
The band's records are part of the plan. Touring has become an integral process in !!!'s songwriting process, helping incorporate the spontaneous qualities of the band's inimitable stage act into the finished recorded product. The responses of audiences in bars, basements, and living rooms on the group's last sojourns have shaped the records that they recorded shortly after returning home. "We end up doing a lot of writing and rewriting on the tour," Andreoni notes. "After every show, we talk about what worked and what didn't. Right now we're recording the songs that we played on tour this fall--they're definitely different from when we first wrote them. Stuff played in a practice space may not do it live."
On their new full-length, released in December on GSL--and self-titled to add to the confusion of their moniker--!!! proves itself as a band that can stand alone on record. The instruments are recorded clean, retaining the power of the live act yet with the added clarity of concise production. The seven tracks and 45-odd minutes show an unseen range, both musically and emotionally; along with the expected subjects of getting down and getting it on, the record is tinged with remorse and skepticism--unlikely choices for a dance party record. "It's not all about politics and partying," Andreoni admits. The breadth of subject matter is a result of the evolution musically. "We're just getting better, and that becomes darker. I'm glad that we're not just a generic punk band trying to be a generic soul band."
It's two days before Christmas, and as !!! completes the process for an upcoming record, several of their members prepare to move to New York, leaving the future complicated but promising for !!!. Andreoni is uncertain. "The people who write a majority of the songs in both !!! and Outhud are going to be in New York while the other half of the band is going to stay here. We're already getting ready for the tape trades. We're all talking about doing regional tours. It's gonna be an effort to try to arrange it around festivals. In Middle America and the East Coast, we can do a really good tour in two weeks." The band plans to play Europe soon: "It's funny what parts of American culture Europeans catch on to."
Not surprisingly, !!! seems ideal as an international pop sensation, taking cues from a wide range of uniquely modern American music and making them as revered as parodied, filling gaping needs in popular music, underground or not. The band's sound began, and remains, firmly rooted in punk rock. As the music stumbled into the expanse of funk and soul, the comparisons came from all directions. "We get compared to the Contortions and the Minutemen all the time. I love the Contortions, but I've never liked punk-funk," Andreoni states flatly. He's also quick to dismiss both funk-tinged rap metal and most commercial dance music.
"Some of us were around when Anthrax and the first wave of commercial metal was doing the same thing. I was 15 and apeshit over Metallica as much as any kid." The happenings of mainstream pop don't really concern Andreoni. "We listen to so much stuff with a groove to it. We have dance parties and we play all this music: punk, '60s soul, underground hip-hop. Almost all Top 40 music is made by the same producers. They use the same programs to make these same songs..." He pauses to complete the thought. "There's a definite void when that's considered dance music."