LAST WEEK, A DEAR friend celebrated her birthday, so I made her a mix tape. Not a CD, but an honest-to-God cassette recorded off vinyl albums. Terribly old-fashioned, I know. But we're both music lovers of a certain age who have not discarded our tape decks, primarily because we still hoard shoe boxes of cherished cassettes compiled by friends. These mixes shaped our tastes and helped make us who we are today: big geeks.

In these halcyon days of file sharing, new musicfrom every era and around the globeis at the fingertips of anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge and a fast connection. But when the birthday girl and I were still in ankle boots, that wasn't the case. Sharing meant more than hitting the "attach" button. We didn't fire up Google to seek out artists we'd never heard. We trawled garage sales and dug through the 99-cent racks at record stores.

This was, and still is, a way of life for the members of !!! (pronounced "Chik Chik Chik" or any other three repetitive sounds), says Mario Andreoni, guitarist for the punk-funk octet. "The best dollar-bin record that I've picked up recently is Eddie Kendricks' People Hold On," he recalls. "I've picked up Clash records in dollar bins, and Donna Summer's Four Seasons of Love. That has one track, 'Autumn Changes,' which is one of my all-time favorite disco songs."

You can hear hints of all three of those artistsas well as everything from Krautrock to Afro-beatin !!!'s propulsive music. Of course, fusing the energy of punk to the rhythms of funk and disco is nothing new. In the '80s, bands like Talking Heads, E.S.G., and Liquid Liquid mapped out the blueprint for this sound, which, two decades later, is enjoying renewed popularity via acts including Radio 4, Hot Hot Heat, and the Rapture. But back when !!! formed, in 1996, they were practically peerless. And not just in their hometown of Sacramento, Calif., but wherever they traveled.

"Indie rock was boring," remembers Andreoni, the band's resident Latin soul fan. "It was stagnating. At a lot of the shows we'd play [early on], all the bands would sound the same." Although originally their sound erred more on the punk end, already the eight-man ensemble was spreading the gospel of the groove. They would warm up audiences with homemade mix tapes, featuring jams like Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock."

"You could just see the excitement of people hearing that for the first time and thinking, 'What the fuck is this?'" he recalls delightedly. "Dance music forces you to react like that. It's really confrontational, but it's a different kind of confrontation. You either hate it or you instantly love it."

The newest offering from !!!, the single "Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)," on Touch and Go Records, bristles with precisely that type of immediacy. The hypnotic, nine-minute track is carried along by scratchy guitar riffs, junkyard percussion, loopy bass licks, and blasts of brass, all topped by exhortations from singer Nic Offer (one of three !!! members who also play in Out Hud) to put your backside in motion.

Given !!!'s reputation as an explosive live band, it's a bit surprising to learn "Me and Giuliani" was created on computers. It all started when Andreoni got the notion to lift a beat off "Hammerhead," from !!!'s self-titled 2000 full-length on Gold Standard Laboratories, and play it backward. "So we flipped it, looped it for a little while, and then me and Nic just started building on it." Later, they passed the track along to the rest of the band, to work out a concert arrangement, which in turn spawned the version preserved on the single.

With six of !!!'s eight players now residing in New York City, Andreoni (who opted to stay in Sacramento with his family) says the band's compositional modus operandi will probably continue to develop in this direction, since opportunities for the whole ensemble to improvise together are now fewer. !!! are currently writing material for their second full-length, and plan to start recording in August, with a tentative spring 2004 release date.

In the meantime, !!!'s Seattle shows mark the penultimate stop in a two-week cross-country trek. Who picks the driving music in the van? "We'll have a crate full of tapes, and it's pretty much whoever grabs one first and says, 'Listen to this!' Since we're all music fanatics, we trust each other," says Andreoni. Right now, dance hall is the current !!! obsession. "And if [guitarist] Tyler [Pope] makes a tape, I love listening to that," he adds. "I've learned a lot in the van." Of course you have, dear. That's the joy of mix tapes: discovery and sharing.


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