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Sunday, June 6, 2004

!!!

Move your butt and your mind will follow


Special to The Japan Times

Nic Offer and John Pugh, the vocalist and drummer of the New York dance-punk band who go by the moniker !!!, are on a mission to liberate butts everywhere, but right now they're hungry. It's a sunny spring day and they're sitting in an Ebisu bar and promoting their debut album, "Louden Up Now."

News photo
John Pugh and Nic Offer of !!!, in Tokyo last month to promote their new album "Louden Up Now"

A woman from their record company dumps a basketful of convenience-store treats on the table in front of them and they dig in. Offer, a curly-haired scamp, snaps up the Pretz, those long, skinny breadstick-like things that come in every conceivable flavor.

He's complaining about the cable porn in his hotel room, specifically the use of strategic powder puffs to prevent people from seeing what they've paid to see.

"Anytime it gets interesting it gets all blurry," he says, munching away. "Like, what's the point of this?"

"It's like America," adds Pugh, checking out the cookies. " 'Anything but the nipple.' "

The censors' strategic masking and the reaction to Janet Jackson's costume malfunction are not the same thing, but maybe they are to people like Offer and Pugh, who have a bracingly clear idea of how fads and rules and other social contracts prevent people from enjoying themselves. The dance-punk movement -- which is an update of the twitchy DIY funk called No Wave that swept through lower Manhattan in the early '80s and rocketed out of Brooklyn a few years ago on the turbo-powered beats of bands like The Rapture and Radio 4 -- aims to take back the indie-rock standard from naive pop-punk and emasculated emocore. And it's not just a matter of asserting what they feel is better music.

"The '90s hardcore punk scene was really bad," says Pugh, a serious young man from Little Rock, Ark., who possesses an impressively deep voice and chooses his words carefully. "Snorecore. In the early days it was exciting, but by '95 or '96 there was this homogenization in the wake of bands like Fugazi. They changed things for the better, but it created this dogma that pushed the freak factor to the side in favor of political correctness. Eighties punk was a meatheaded, really violent thing -- dudes beating each other up in the pit. The new reaction was: 'Everyone respect each other's space. We can make aggressive, angry music without hurting each other. We can be intelligent punks.' But by the end of the decade it had become so safe that if you were dancing at a show and having fun you'd be asked to leave."

The electro-funk of !!! (pronounced "chk-chk-chk") has little regard for punk's musical attack, but a lot of regard for anything that provokes a response. The beats are aggressive, the songs long, snaky things that insinuate themselves into your nervous system like a drug, (and we're not talking sedatives here). Though the band's lyrics are not overtly political they contain harsh language and Offer, who's been known to totally lose it on stage, delivers them with the force of a Pentecostal preacher whose circuits have been flipped by the Devil himself. Their breakout single, "Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard," advocates dancing as a means of curing everyone of their smug ennui, which Offer suggests eats away at the soul. "If you got hips shake 'em," he screams as the metallic beat pounds away, "and if you got fears forsake 'em."

The group, which now numbers seven, formed out of the conflation of two groups -- one an experimental punk outfit, the other an unironic disco cover band -- in the northern California town of Sacramento. The small-town vibe, close-knit arts community and relative isolation from everything hip created a space where they could develop their obsessions -- ranging from old-school funk to dub (Offer is also a member of the experimental dub collective Outhud) -- into something pure.

The two men admit that the band was never that ambitious, but once they got out of Northern California and discovered there was a world out there that liked and needed the kind of iconoclasm their outlook changed. Three years ago, Offer, Pugh, and several other members moved to Brooklyn.

"Two members have children and they wanted to stay in Sacramento," says Pugh. "The rest of us were getting restless. We had friends who played in bands in Brooklyn and they said it's great out here. There's tons of great bands and tons of clubs where you can play at. We'd always had a really good experience in New York, so it seemed natural for us."

The timing couldn't have been better. The New York rock revival spearheaded by The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs was drawing an incredible amount of media attention, and not just from the rock press.

"As soon as we got there it seemed every magazine in the country had to do their New York rock article," remembers Offer. "It was hype, but it was also real, because you knew there were all these other great bands that weren't getting attention. There was something to back up the hype."

Having the band divided between two coasts, however, is a problem. "We usually show up in Sacramento a couple of days before a tour, so it's like cramming before an exam," Pugh says. "Then we go out on the road and we're, like, what are we doing out here? We barely even know how to play these songs any more. But by the end of the tour we're on fire."

Given the group's priorities, it isn't an empty boast. "Louden Up Now" is anything but self-centered. It clearly addresses the listener, whom Offer berates, chides and confides in as if that person were the only one in the room. "Am I making any sense at all?" he yells in "Hello, Is This Thing On?." And in the incendiary "Pardon My Freedom" he demands a reaction and then insists, over and over in mock outrage, that he doesn't care any more. It's provocative and funny, and even a little disturbing.

"It's not like we're saying you have to throw away your politics, get meatheaded again," explains Pugh. "We just want people to dance and have fun. Some shows we'd play and there'd be the old-school punk rockers saying, 'We can dance again, let's slam.' And we'd be like, 'What are you doing? Don't you want to dance and let the girls dance with you? Mix it up a little. Take it back to the old days.' "

When sex was fun?

"Exactly."

It's suggested that Middle America has always had a popular aversion to club culture anyway.

"When the rave scene was happening in England that Manchester drum beat came over to America and got heavy metalized in groups like Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers," says Offer, throwing in a verbal demonstration of the beat he's talking about. "I remember every rock concert you went to, back then, everyone was doing that beat. But at the time, it was moshing that took off as an actual form of dancing."

Pugh adds, "The punk reaction to rave culture was 'F**k that faggot electronica.' That was another thing that made the punks repressed, this fear of drum machines. It was the only thing they were rebelling against."

!!!, needless to say, have no such fear. In fact, even though all seven members play percussion instruments at one time or another during their shows, they also employ a drum machine.

"It's bustin'," says Pugh with genuine admiration. "It can play, man."

"Louden Up Now" is now available in stores. !!! play July 30, 8 p.m. at the new Liquid Room in Ebisu. Tickets 5,250 yen in advance. Call Beatink, (03) 5766-6571. They also play Aug. 1 on the White Stage at the Fuji Rock Festival, Naeba, Niigata Pref.


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