A !!! show is a hot, sweaty, unhinged freak fest, to which there are only three official rules: “Don’t kick anybody in the face, don’t get each other pregnant and try not to pee your pants,” drummer John Pugh told the crowd at the sold-out El Rey Theater in Los Angeles on Dec. 10.
Fair enough. Honestly, though, it was difficult to obey even those simple caveats as the seven-piece ensemble — whose name is commonly pronounced “Chk Chk Chk,” although any trio of repeated monosyllabic words can be applied — pumped its way through a set that, disappointingly, barely broke the one-hour mark. Bred in the indie rock scene but aspiring to a deeper kind of funkiness than their dance-punk peers, the Sacramento-based septet don’t get their knowledge of groove from second-hand sources like Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd. They go straight to the masters — namely, groups like Chic and Zapp. As a result, !!!’s sound is smoother than it is angular, more like a hardcore dance band with punk leanings than vice-versa. It’s sonically violent enough to elicit moshing, but throbs with enough underlying sexual force to prompt rampant impregnation. And considering that their mantra is “Everybody cut loose,” controlling one’s bladder while they’re playing almost goes against the nature of the music.
Loosening inhibitions wasn’t much of a problem at this show, neither onstage or off. Often, those distinctions blurred, as a cavalcade of hipsters — some wearing fashionable suit jackets, others dressed like they just came from jazzercise class — climbed out of the audience to boogie with singer Nic Offer. With his long, curly hair and stylishly brain dead dude vocals, Offer doesn’t much resemble the party shaman he becomes once the beat kicks in. Same goes for the rest of the band. But as the night progressed, !!! earned each one of its exclamation points, building up and releasing tension with surgical precision. Bassist Justin van der Volgen, Offer’s partner in electronic side project Out Hud, elevated every jam with elastic low-end that recalled a spry Bernard Edwards. The percussionists, who also doubled as a horn section, ping-ponged off van der Volgen’s fluid basslines and Pugh’s relentless quarter-note pulse with vigorous abandon. Offer himself was an unrestrained ball of energy, grooving with each fan who crawled onto the stage — whether they had rhythm or not.
Beneath the surface of !!!’s non-stop celebration, though, is a palpable sense of anger, a feeling of political discontent linking the band to its punk roots. That link was never more palpable than on the intense “Pardon My Freedom,” which saw the crowd shouting along to the immortal line, “You can tell the president to suck my fucking dick.” Talk about a protest song. On their underground hit “Me & Giuliani Down By The Schoolyard (A True Story),” about the former mayor of New York’s crackdown on freakiness, Offer says, “People always ask me, ‘What’s so fucking great about dancing?’” It’s obvious: It makes flipping the bird to authority ten times more fun than it already is.