!!! - Death and betrayal as dance-punk's pioneers grow up

The loss of a former drummer and the defection of three band members have only focused !!!, their frontman tells Nick Hasted
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On a chilly Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, Nic Offer is sitting on a boardwalk by the Hudson, contemplating irrelevance. His band, !!! (named to suggest pow-pow-pow comic-book excitement, and pronounced "chk-chk-chk"), have, with LCD Soundsystem, led the city's crucial dance-punk scene for nearly a decade. Their fourth album, Strange Weather, Isn't It?, is more thrilling than their 2004 landmark, Louden Up Now. But its sometimes malignant mood also reflects the death of ex-drummer and close friend Jerry Fuchs, and the defection of three other members from the band.

Offer, who was once quoted as never listening to anyone over 40's music, is now 37. It's a worrying age for a man with inspiring belief in pop's eternal, youthful present. That faith is in new song "Steady as the Sidewalk Cracks", where Offer sings, "Don't you ever look back, you've got to trust the music."

"That was against that argument I have with people many times a year – 'aw, music's dead, it's not as good as it used to be,'" Offer says. "Man, Plato said that." We're in Brooklyn's Williamsburg district, a neighbourly, gentrified place he and America's indie-rock royalty – Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear – call home. Later, !!! will play one of the area's Pool Parties, where a watching Jay-Z and Beyoncé anointed Grizzly Bear last year. Nevertheless, ever since their 2003 cult hit "Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard" castigated New York's then-mayor Rudy Giuliani's prohibition-style assault on its dance scene, Offer has found the city a musically conservative, frustrating place.

"I came here [from Sacramento, California] at the tail-end of when Giuliani was stubbing out the club scene with his foot. Everybody knows that America started the current conception of electronic music, but it hasn't got it for the last 20 years. It perpetuates that stereotype of Americans as kind of dumb, which a lot of us are really ashamed of. Maybe it's because we don't have enough MDMA. It is five times as expensive here. And maybe the clubs close too early. I thought it was interesting that people said disco-punk was dead, but every major indie record seems like it went dance – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and TV on the Radio, and the new Arcade Fire. It seems like it's begun to permeate everyone's perception. So maybe it will still happen."

!!!'s songs anyway express a night on the dance-floor as an emotionally rounded, bitter-sweet experience beyond mere pilled-up excess. "Yeah, definitely. To me disco especially is such an emotional music. I've cried on the dance-floor. People do that. It's so loud, and the DJ's riding the faders and driving the point home so hard – 'the love you lost' is there. I guess the hedonistic aspect of dance music rules out every other point it could have. But most of my favourite disco music is soul music, and about love, and it is deep."

"Jump Back", a coldly metallic, echoing track on the new album, sounds like being lost in a club on a bad trip, separated from friends. Offer's lyrics began as a vicious attack on an unnamed party's "jugular". They finished as a warning to himself. "To me the darkness in that song is foreboding at the imminent loss of everything. At irrelevance – anything but that. It scares the hell out of me.

"You look at the rock'n'rollers who've made good records after 40, and there's five of them. And they don't make it to 50. So it is like: 'I'm 37, we make records every three years. I'd better get one more out.' That song is staring at yourself in the mirror and going: 'This is you. You can see the lines on your face. What are you gonna do? Because they're only getting deeper.'"

The jugular being gripped changed from an enemy's to !!!'s own. "We felt when we started the record, 'why are we making this?' You want to make a relevant record – something that matters to someone. We did disco-punk before it was cool, we did it while it was cool. Now it's not cool. But we just need to push to find something more. That song was about seizing it – saying, 'this is it, and this is all we have'."

Does Offer fear becoming part of the musical past, more than anything that might happen to him outside music? "Well, like what? What other sense is there? I think it's important for an artist to feel like you're running from something – to feel chased. And I enjoy making records, I enjoy touring the world, and I'm not making very much money at this – as soon as the band's done, I'm going to have to get a job, immediately! And this is a job that I've made with my friends. I don't want to do anything else, and I don't have any other talents. When the band's over, I will have a serious comedown."

Another new song, "Even Judas Gave Jesus a Kiss", reflects !!!'s internal turmoil since 2007's Myth Takes, charging at least one absconding ex-member with unforgivable betrayal (generally held to be drummer-singer John Pugh, though a squirming Offer won't say on record). "I don't want to drag anyone's names through the mud. And if it feels like I'm saying that forgiveness isn't possible, maybe putting it out there is some kind of peace offering. A lot of lyrics become true. And with that one, where it says, 'History got even/ And it all worked out for the best', that really makes sense between Judas and Jesus. Judas got his 30 pieces of silver, but he went down in history as the all-time betrayer, and Jesus came out the saviour of man. And with us, within a month of recording it, history had gotten even."

Ex-drummer Jerry Fuchs' death, when he fell down a New York lift-shaft in November 2009, was more shattering. "It's definitely a first time – something that intense. Because you think of a friend at this or that random time. Even if it's, 'so-and-so hated these kind of fries'. It does change your emotional make-up, because there's a response inside that happens differently. The trigger still goes to that position, and has to be constantly readjusted."

Does Offer feel that's part of the ageing process, too – of heading towards darker days? "I suppose so. You get used to the idea of friends getting married, then you get used to the idea of them having kids..."

And then there's that other ceremony coming down the way..."Yeah, exactly!" he laughs. "It's like, 'Oh, man. Oh, Jesus...' The only thing you can do is start thinking of heaven as some kind of positive outlook. That's why everyone goes back to being a Christian at the end. We'll see how I do. I grew up going to Catholic school, and my mum was going to be a nun and my dad was going to be a priest. And I remember being an altar boy, being there at 7.30 in the morning for daily mass and they were all old people, and you knew they were there because they were scaredof dying. I thought, 'I don't wanna end up like that!'"

It was back in Sacramento, the sleepy Californian city where !!! forged their own dance scene when they formed in 1996, that their faith in music's future began. "The way that things worked there has been a guiding light," Offer believes. "We didn't hop on anybody's tram. Our winning formula was to keep discovering things and pushing forward."

When !!! play it's a grey, cold, rain-whipped evening, thinning the open-air crowd. In mud-smeared white T-shirt and shorts, Offer clambers among them, causing grins, refusing to let spirits dampen. "You've gotta work hard if you want to have fun," he tells me. "And you have to work at positivity. It can be dark out there. Bands always tell you about their tough breaks, but success and fame are just tides and you have to surf it, and you fall. There's nowhere to run. It's just how it goes."

'Strange Weather, Isn't It?' is out on Warp