As Nic Offer tells it, there were plenty of ballsy titles in play for !!!'s upcoming fifth album: "It Takes a Nation of M!!!ions to Hold Us Back, K!!! Em All, Jagged Little P!!!, and the English press would've loved for us to finally fess up to a Happy Mondays influence and call it P!!!s 'n' Thr!!!s & B!!!yaches," the frontman shared via e-mail from Dakar, Senegal, where he's been traveling. But the band instead went as big as possible, settling on Thr!!!er. "We figured some people would give us shit for it," writes Offer about nodding to Michael Jackson's gargantuan hit, "but it made us laugh, so fuck it."
That self-confidence is a large part of what makes the long-running danceniks go, though this far into their career, they needed some help channeling it. Cue Spoon's Jim Eno, whose production helped make Thr!!!er, out April 30 on Warp, both fluidly funky and tightly structured. "I don't think most bands are necessarily good at identifying where their ruts are," wrote Offer about Eno's input. "Jim would suggest things that seemed odd to me, but I figured if we did it my way it would sound like a typical !!! record. It seemed like it was probably best to avoid that."
The sextet, whose last effort was 2010's Strange Weather, Isn't It?, is well-practiced at avoiding normal. Though Offer and Co. got started in Sacramento, the bandmembers are now spread out amongst New York City, Philadelphia, and their aforementioned hometown. "People are always amazed that we're able to make the long-distance relationship work," explains Offer, "but after operating this way for the last 12 of our 16 years, we can't see it any other way. Maybe we would be a better band if we practiced on Tuesdays and Thursdays like a normal band; maybe the distance has helped keep the magic alive."
It's also kept any dull consistency from setting in. Though the album has plenty of the spacey, hedonistic atmosphere familiar to longtime !!! fans, songs like "Fine Fine Fine" have a more searching lyrical perspective, while "Except Death" and "Slyd" wriggle and roll in new ways. "If [a new song] doesn't sound like !!!, we figure we're in good territory," writes Offer. "Actually, a really good example is the original Thriller. It really just uses the same blueprint of disco pop songs as Off the Wall, but [producer Quincy Jones] and MJ pushed it to sound different. You could strip 'Billie Jean' and 'Beat It' down and make them sound like disco songs but in 1983, the world didn't really need another disco record." And in 2013? "It didn't seem like another disco-punk record was really needed."
More urgent, though, was a lifechanging experience for the band's singer. "I wanted an adventure and it's been that," writes Offer about his African sojourn. "I swam stoned under the stars on deserted beaches. I saw more trash than I've ever seen in my life. I danced in clubs to absolutely insane Nigerian pop. I handed over my half-finished plates to crowds of boys who stood there waiting for whatever I didn't finish. I drove through beautiful jungles stuffed in bush-taxis that held twice as many [people] as the punkest vans I've toured in. I drank the finest Coca-Cola known to man. I turned down a hundred marriage proposals. And I had diarrhea. Oh, and I met several people who wanted me to tell America that Africa is suffering. Now you know."
Offer will be traveling again starting in April, when !!! will bring Thr!!!er to audiences as part of a U.S. spring tour. "The story of bands spending most of their careers chasing after their initial inspiration to increasingly diminishing returns is common," argues Offer, "but there's another thing that can happen: You can get even better, you can challenge yourselves and find things you didn't think we're possible. Maybe we've grown into band that can pull things like that off."