Synth History is a magazine, podcast and website focusing on synthesizers and the musicians who use them. Founded and curated by musician and producer Danz CM, the Recommends Series is a special segment in Synth History's yearly printed magazine.
Last year in May, I had quite an experience at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, CA—an iconic bar/restaurant and music venue right in the middle of the desert near Joshua Tree National Park. Not only would it be my first concert experience since the 2020 pandemic, not only would I get to see The Shins perform live right underneath the stars early in the evening—a band who had saturated my ears in high school—but I’d also catch the amazing dance-punk band !!! (Chk Chk Chk), who were performing at Pappy and Harriet’s later that night. After an intimate and easygoing performance by The Shins, !!! set off what felt like a full-fledged dance party. It was honestly refreshing to listen to live music and dance again amongst other people, something I hadn't really done much of—that a lot of people hadn’t really done much of—in quite a while.
Right near the big BBQ pit outside Pappy and Harriet’s I spoke with Nic Offer and Rafael Cohen from !!! about making music, synths and more. Later in the interview, I’m joined by !!!’s drummer Chris Egan, who answers a few questions relating to drum machines (Chris and I go way back, actually—he played drums for my Computer Magic project at one point.) In 2011, Computer Magic even opened for !!! at The Bell House in Brooklyn.
It was cool to catch up with everyone. Without further ado.
An Interview with !!! (Chk Chk Chk)
Synth History/Danz: Ok, so the first question, which I tend to ask everyone—what was your first synthesizer?
Raf: SH-101! I found it at a store for $300 or something. Late ‘90s or early 2000’s. I didn’t know anything about it and I tried to play a chord on it, and I was really disappointed when it wouldn’t. I was like, “Wait, it only plays one note at a time?!” I grew to really love it…and then it got stolen out of the back of someone’s car.
Synth History: Oh no!
Raf: Yeah, so I don’t have it anymore. But I grew to really—it’s the first synth that I really knew how to use like back and forth, you know? And I really loved that. Then I realized, because I thought I was like, “Oh I have this synth no one has. It doesn’t play chords!”. But…turns out that wasn’t the case at all.
Nic: Mine was whatever Casio cost $139 in 1985/86 and had a graphic equalizer on it. That was its kinda cool function. Which was actually cool, cause it was like…it was the only thing that made it kinda akin to a synth now, where you’re twisting the knobs and stuff.
Raf: Was it one of the ones, the white ones with buttons?
Nic: It was smaller keys and it had beats and it was kind of a grayish brown? Like a browner gray than the SH-101. That’s what they were doing at the time.
[Above: Polaroids of !!! in the studio]
Synth History: When did you first start performing together?
Raf: 2010. But the band’s been around, that’s just when I joined the band.
Synth History: Where did you meet?
Raf: We met in Brooklyn, I think.
Nic: Yeah, we met at the Warsaw, at an ADULT. show.
Nic: Adult period [ADULT.] with Trans-Am.
Raf: Any synth heads out there will love ADULT.
Synth History: What is currently your go-to instrument in the studio?
Nic: I guess…I’m fast through them, but lately in the last couple months it’s been the Roland JD800. I also just got the Behringer SH-101 and I mess around with that and the Behringer RD-8. Those have been the three in rotation before we started touring.
[Above: The Roland JD-800 and Korg Polysix in !!!'s studio, alongside Nic]
Raf: A friend of mine just lent me the reissue of the Oberheim SEM, the desktop one. I’m trying to use it because I know he’s going to ask—every time he comes over, he’s like “I gotta get that back.” So I’m trying to keep using it while I still can. I really love that thing a lot. I think it’s really cool. Just for doing passes of long, weird synth stuff. Again, it only plays one note.
Synth History: Are there any synths that you perform live with that you don't use in the studio or vice versa?
Raf: Yeah. We don’t bring all the synths we use on the record with us to recreate the exact sounds or whatever. We kinda adapt them to a couple different synths. Do you do that? Do you bring them? [to Danz]
Synth History: Oh no way. Not all of them. It’d be too scary. I’d be too scared for a drink to spill on them or something.
Synth History: What is one of the shows you’ve seen in the past 10–15 years that has absolutely blown you away?
Raf: Like synth-wise or just in general?
Synth History: In general.
Raf: I mean, you could say D’angelo. I don’t think that’s what you’re after exactly.
Synth History: Could be one of your friends maybe?
Nic: You know what, I have to say, I saw this band at Primavera and the fucking drummer was just fucking whacking it and was just laying into it and I was like, "Man, this guy’s good. This drummer is fucking sick. If I could play with that drummer." That band was called Blood Orange. And that band was super good. [laughs] And that’s a true story. [Ed.: referencing Chris Egan, !!!’s current drummer]
Synth History: What was the first concert that you ever went to?
Raf: Corrosion of Conformity at the 9:30 Club in DC. I was 12 and standing front row center. Somebody was like, “You’re gonna have to move over here kid, or else you’re gonna get killed,” and I was like, “What do you mean?” And then the music started and I was like, “Oh.”
Nic: That’s why he still walks funny. [laughs] Mine was a Synth History-noteworthy one. It was Depeche Mode with OMD opening. I have to not ask the question, because everyone’s always like, “Oh, mine's embarrassing, it was like Poison or something,” and mine is really cool, so I can’t be the one who asks that question. But yeah, that was, I mean, you couldn’t tell me there was something better to see. It was incredible.
Raf: Well, you could’ve seen Corrosion of Conformity.
Synth History: Mine was Blink-182, so you got me.
Nic: I’m always like, Blink is better than Green Day and everyone’s like, “Oh, quit trolling us,” but don’t you think there’s a case to be made for that?
Synth History: I mean, I grew up listening to Blink-182. I loved Enema of the State. I would draw the Blink-182 pill on all my binders at school.
Raf: What about Green Day? You didn’t?
Synth History: I thought they were cool, but I didn’t get into them as much.
Nic: Did you not get into them as much because they kinda suck? [laughs]
Raf: So how many synths did Depeche Mode and OMD have on stage? Were they one of those bands that has all the synths on them?
Nic: They didn’t have a ton because at the time they were performing to tape. They said at the time that they kind of performed just enough to keep it interesting for themselves. I don’t think they were running MIDI even. I think it was more common for bands to run on that or something.
Synth History: [They] Just put the tape machine on?
Synth History: I saw an interview with them once where they were talking about it. They were like, “these are our invisible backing tracks.”
Raf: It makes sense, you see interviews with New Order and they’re like, “We had to cancel every other show,” because the stuff would break.
Nic: But I’ve noticed from reading all the books from back then that all the bands dogged Depeche mode. New Order dogs them, Pet Shop Boys dogged them, like…it seems like they were the one that…they weren’t as popular in England. They’re selling out arenas in America that I was going to, but they were not doing as much in the UK so I think they were always kinda looked at. New Order was like, “We’re more live and Depeche Mode is just playing to tape.” Did you read the Stephen Morris book?
Synth History: I haven’t yet.
Nic: It’s a good one, but he goes into long detail where they’re programming for days then they push one button and then everything erases. His is a good one, because it’s fun, but he also talks a lot of gear stuff. It was better than Bernard’s, depending on what you think of Hooky. It definitely talks more about the music than either of the other two.
Synth History: What were your main influences growing up?
Raf: Punk music I guess. Punk rock. I grew up in DC so stuff from there mostly, then also synth-wise, I do remember one time in high school when a friend of mine explained to me how Aphex Twin made his music, and he showed me a keyboard and he explained to me, “So the drums are all mapped out here,” you know? He had one of those big Kurzweils and I remember being like…”No. What? How?”
Synth History: Your mind was blown!
Raf: My mind was totally blown. That was the first synth guy I got into, Aphex. I mean, I was never a synthpop guy.
[Above: Korg MS-10 atop a Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo in !!!'s studio]
Nic: I was very into all that stuff, but when I went punk I became very against synths kind of, against drum machines. I was a part of that whole ‘90s “has to be real” thing, and then I kind of got led back to it through Kraftwerk. Tortoise made Kraftwerk cool. You’d see Kraftwerk records for a dollar in the ‘90s. The covers were cool so you would buy it, and then Bjork and Aphex and Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx, those kinds of bands started happening and all that started leading to think, “Maybe this stuff isn’t so bad.” Then when you’re getting into dub and stuff, that’s kinda leading you to synthesizers because post-punk grew through using it.
I had a phase with everything, but it was definitely like, you know, you pick a year and that would be the influence that year. I’m not gonna answer the whole thing because you’d get bored, “And then in 6th grade I got into Prince,” you know. It was lots of stuff.
Raf: It’s funny to think about people going through the same evolution from punk in the sense that those people went through in the '70s, but just having to go through it in your own timeline in your own way and having to be like, “I reject all of this!” then, “Wait, I think this is actually cool!” then, “Wait, I’m gonna use this to make punk music! Wait a second!” It wasn’t the first go-around of that happening. What was your first synth? [to Danz]
Synth History: My first synth was the microKorg.
Nic: So how do you rate that now?
Synth History: I sold it a long time ago unfortunately. It’s cool, it’s a great beginner's synth. Prior to that I was just using Ableton and soft synths. That was the first hardware synth that I ever bought.
Raf: I will say that’s the synth I’ve purchased the most then returned to Guitar Center at the end of a tour. Sorry Korg! I like that synth, though. I thought it was cool. I remember I saw the guy from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds still uses it and he plays it on his lap. And it seems like he just formed a connection to that one keyboard. I always think that’s cool when you have that one keyboard.
Synth History: It’s a good tour synth. It’s not pricey and you don’t have to worry too much about it. Let’s see…what are a few tips on conquering writer’s block?
Nic: Get a new synth.
Raf: You [to Nic] were just saying that there’s no such thing as a bad synth.
Nic: We do have a theory. Our theory is that there’s no such thing as a bad synth. This developed because I showed up to jam with Mario [Andreoni] one time and there was a fucking shitty Oberheim, when Oberheim tried to make like, late ‘80s, ‘90s, “Let’s make a cheap version that we can sell to a more novice whatever,” and I fucking hated it. I was like, “what can I do with this thing?", but because I couldn’t do my usual things with it. But I did do a lot of things I wouldn’t normally have done. The next time I showed up to jam with Chris in Barcelona we asked, “What do you have?” and they gave us two crappy synths. What was that, Micro-X?
Raf: Micro-X, which you ended up buying!
Nic: Which I ended up buying! Because it had so many things that aren’t cool, but maybe played differently. So yeah, we jammed that week on those synths, when we said, “What do you have? We’ll just use them,” and ever since then.
[Above: Danz of Synth History interviewing Nic and Raf from !!!]
Synth History: So you guys are out here in Pioneertown. Have you ever been here before?
Raf: Yeah, we played here once a while ago, and we played a couple shows nearby, and our old drummer lives around here.
Synth History: Is there any new gear that you brought to this show that you’re excited about playing with?
Raf: This Korg one that we can’t remember the name of [Ed. it was a Modal Argon8]. We’re actually using Chris’s Behringer 303 knockoff, which I think is funny because I didn’t realize it at the time, but you write songs on the 303 and then you end up having to figure out how to program the MIDI on it because you’re using the onboard sequencer. You know, I’m not gonna bring the one I have at home. But we sound checked it, and the Behringer one sounds incredible.
Synth History: This is a big topic in the synth community. How do you feel about Behringer putting out these?
Raf: C’mon. Totally pro…we’re punks!
Synth History: [laughs]
Nic: Fuck you! And fuck Roland! You know, god bless them, but fuck them! [laughs]
[Above: Behringer gear in !!!'s studio]
Raf: You know it’s like, they [synth manufacturers] have a barrier of entry, and Behringer’s found a way around it, and I’d rather more people got out and use the equipment to make stuff. I’m not interested in there being some price point to be able to make an acid track, so to me it’s great.
Nic: I mean, genres were formed around these instruments that were the cheapest thing you could get, if people still want kids to get their hands on things then things have to be cheap. And they sound good!
Raf: Maybe what these companies need to do is figure out ways to make synthesizers that do different things. If Behringer is going to recycle the old synths in ways that they can make money, then I think that Korg synth I can’t remember the name of—
Nic: It’s the Argon8.
Raf: But the one Gorman uses, the Minilogue, I think that synth’s actually made to be an interesting new way of everything interacting. It would behoove companies to do stuff like that rather than try to milk thousands of dollars off someone to recreate their old keyboards.
Nic: You want to hear an insider tip we heard, too? A friend of ours who has money to spend is friends with Richard D. James, and he was like, “Should I go modular?” And Richard said, “Get the Minilogue.”
Raf: Richard made a set of patches for the new one too.
Nic: I thought it was interesting because, you know, the whole modular thing is a place for people to spend money. Surely it’s a good creative thing too, but…
Raf: Do you have a modular setup [to Danz]?
Synth History: No, it’s too much for me. I recently got the Mother-32, a little entry point.
Raf: Oh yeah! I like that thing. My friend who lent me the SEM has that one too.
Synth History: And the Moog Grandmother. I can kind of dip my toes in a little bit. But I haven’t started any big modular setup or anything like that.
Raf: We worked with a guy in the studio who had a modular setup and I remember I was like, “So?” And he was trying to convince me. He was like, “I can set you up with a really good beginner’s setup that you can then build out. I’ll start you out, you’ll have this thing,” or whatever, and I was like, “Alright,” and he said, “Alright, so you give me $2500,” and I was like, “You fucking… how about no.”
Synth History: It does get really expensive. You just want to keep adding to it.
Nic: It’s for people with GAS! [Ed. "Gear Acquisition Syndrome"]
Synth History: What’s the best way to approach a new synthesizer that you’re unfamiliar with?
Nic: YouTube, baby. That’s what I do. I mean, I’ll read a manual, too, but YouTube usually sorts it out. I always say when people are like, “I think the learning curve on that one is just too much,” I say spend an hour a day, or like 20 minutes on YouTube, and then mess with it for an hour and then learn something different the next day with a different tutorial.
Raf: I like giving a go at it without anything first, then eventually you have to do the tutorial.
Nic: I mean that’s definitely the more Eno way of doing it.
Raf: I’m definitely an Eno figure.
Nic: And I’m the Bryan Ferry.
Synth History: Now going to drummer Chris Egan. Ok Chris, do you still have that OG 909?
Chris: I sold it a long time ago when I needed rent, then I bought the [boutique] 909 which is cool. What’s nice about it is that the kick drum actually works because the original, it was old.
Synth History: What are your top three favorite drum machines?
Chris: Well the original Linn Drum, the first one is maybe the best drum machine I’ve ever had. The LM-1. There’s a band called Holy Ghost! that owned one that I got to use when I did a tribute to Prince. I did "Sign 'O' the Times." We used it live, and I got to hold onto it and just play with it for a month. I could not believe how good it was. They didn’t make a lot because they were too expensive, but they’re perfect drum machines. They’re so tight and those sounds are incredible.
We figured out the way Prince did it on "Sign 'O' the Times," on "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker." He programmed a beat and had that looping, then he’d play on top of it. You could do that on the LM-1. You could loop and then play it live, press the buttons and controls. Oh man, so cool. And then the 808. You gotta do the 808. Although I like doing [the list] backwards…so it’s the 808 then the 909.
Synth History: The originals are so expensive now!
Chris: It’s crazy! If I held onto my 909 I could’ve bought like 100 bitcoins now. Or maybe a thousand?
Synth History: [laughs] What do you think is a good way to make acoustic drums sounds and electric drums sounds blend together?
Chris: That’s a great question. Well, tonight I’m playing like a jazz bop kit. A very small 18” kick drum, and we found that actually sits up [in the mix]. We have drum tracks, like 808 tracks and a higher pitched kick sits a lot better against a lower resonant kick. They don’t fight each other. And then snare, I find that tuning the snare down fits better with an 808 snappy snare, or a 909 snare which is also pretty fat and loose, if you want it to be. And then, generally dead toms. Cymbals can get tricky because they just take up all the frequencies and so deadening cymbals works a little bit, like dryer cymbals blend a little easier or better.
[Above: a selection of rack gear in !!!'s studio]
Synth History: What about you, do you have any additional tips for overcoming writer’s block?
Chris: You know, like what Nic was talking about, having a machine do something that you have not thought about can really inspire you. Or like, quantizing something in a really weird way, like in 5/13 or whatever the heck you can do. It’ll give you weird grooves that you’ve never considered and it gets you out of your comfort zone.
Raf: [To Danz] What’s your favorite anti-writer’s block tip you’ve learned from these interviews?
Synth History: I recently did one with Claude VonStroke who said, “Just don’t be afraid to be terrible, and even if it sounds really bad—whether it’s your 8th beat or your 80th beat or 800th beat—at least you’re doing something.”
Raf: That’s true, you gotta fail a million times. It’s interesting he would say that because some of his stuff is based around such weird stuff. And it does sound like he’s pretty fearless to me. Like he’s down to be a little goofy.
Nic: I forget where I heard that before, but writer’s block is the fear of being bad.
Synth History: Like you’re just thinking about it too much or something.
Nic: I always find whenever people are too obsessed with being original, those are my friends who get blocked.
Chris: Or if you’re too worried about something like, “Oh, it sounds like this. It sounds like that.” Then you’re just fighting this thing that’s getting in the way of creativity. You’re supposed to just be spitting stuff out and then throw it away.
Nic: I’ve found it’s always better to overwrite. Just write tons of keyboard parts you’re not gonna use, then be like “this is the one that keeps drawing me back”. You know how it is with Ableton, when you have the clip view. That’s what I like to do with the synth. Just go through the presets and have my beat running and just write a melody, just get all these things that you don’t ever use but you’re following that sound. Just make a bunch of garbage, no one has to see it. And don’t shove it all down people’s throats. See what pulls you back.
Synth History exclusive. Interview conducted by Danz.
Thanks to Synth History
Thanks to Synth History for another amazing interview with inspiring musicians. Again, if you haven't already, check out the Synth History website for more interviews, a rad podcast, and much more—all curated by Danz.
And of course, if you're looking to pick up a hard copy of the Synth History magazine, you can also check out Synth History at Perfect Circuit!