superlatives

The Best, Worst, and Wildest of 3OH!3, According to the Duo

Photo: photofinishrecords/YouTube

It feels like 2008 all over again: The economy is collapsing, Joe Biden is heading to the White House, and 3OH!3 just released a song on independent pop label Photo Finish Records. The Colorado duo’s ahead-of-its-time blend of punk, hip-hop, and synth-pop on their label debut, WANT, became the blueprint for crunkcore that year, and perfectly soundtracked the chaotic hedonism of the moment. They’ve released a steady stream of music since, most recently 2016’s Night Sports on beloved pop-punk and emo label Fueled By Ramen. Now, they’ve bounced back to Photo Finish with a new song, “Lonely Machines,” setting out to recall their early style. “There was this quality that usually goes into songs that we’re happy with in the end: this light, fun atmosphere,” says Sean Foreman, half of the duo. The product, though, ended up being heavier. “I think it was a freestyle — just guttural, pure energy that you were screaming out,” his bandmate Nathaniel Motte remembers.

But the song didn’t fully come together until the band brought on another breakout experimental-pop duo: 100 gecs. Critics couldn’t mention 100 gecs last year without tracing their frenetic stylings back to 3OH!3 (who, unlike the gecs today, were far from acclaimed back in the late ’00s). “It was such news to us,” Foreman says of learning about his band’s reach. 3OH!3 connected with 100 gecs through the producer benny blanco. “It was awesome to be able to connect the dots,” Motte says. “Laura [Les, of 100 gecs] really took it to another place and injected some more energy into the song.” The two bands wouldn’t even meet until they filmed the music video, by that time in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of us never stopped thinking about 3OH!3 since the late ’00s, and it’s not like Motte and Foreman ever took a proper break from making music, anyway. Even when they weren’t releasing new 3OH!3 songs, they racked up writing and producing credits for musicians from Ariana Grande to Lindsey Stirling to Lil Jon. Still, “Lonely Machines” does feel like a return for the duo, full of dirty synths and instant quotables, all building toward a total adrenaline rush of a drop. Ahead of more music to come, Vulture caught up with 3OH!3 for a look back on their career, from their beginnings in the Colorado scene to their best Warped Tour memories to “Lonely Machines” and new music.

Best 3OH!3 song

Nathaniel Motte: Writing this record, we went back and studied some of our older stuff, just to catch some of the raw energy. It’s all about rocking a party. It’s funny — to me, [on] our old songs, we didn’t stitch together narratives all that much. [Laughs] It was more about energy. And I think “Lonely Machines” is a bit of a harkening back to [the energy we captured on] “RICHMAN.” Some of the songs on WANT are like that; our shows before the quarantine, we’d been playing a lot more of those songs, including “COLORADOSUNRISE.” That’s one of my favorites.

S.F.: It’s funny you say that, because I think it is left and right brain between “COLORADOSUNRISE” and “RICHMAN.” If it’s 3OH!3, it’s almost physical, and “RICHMAN” — I remember when we first were making that, I think we probably blew out [producer] Matt Squire’s speakers at the studio. It was just bodied.

“Lonely Machines” is the combination of those two worlds. So I’ll say “COLORADOSUNRISE.” I don’t think we’d be sitting here if we didn’t have the support, early on, of Colorado. It’s almost like an origin story. [In the song] I’m talking about the room that I used to live in [in Brooklyn]. I used to literally live in a closet that I built the plaster walls in, when I first moved to New York [around 2008]. It wasn’t even a closed room, my other roommates could just see me there. It just feels real to me. Even when I perform it, like, “A trainwreck that I am / and I am what I am what I am what I am,” it feels emotional sometimes. I feel like people can relate to feeling that way.

Favorite hometown moment

N.M.: Colorado is such an amazing place because the support for live music there is incredible, and it always has been. I still remember playing our first show at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, where we grew up seeing shows — our first sold-out show. I remember crowdsurfing over to my dad, who was in the first level of the little balcony, and I grabbed his hand and then crowdsurfed back to the stage. For me, those are the most special memories: Just rocking a party and then having your family and friends there. Other people who listen to our music, to me, are just an extension of our family and friends.

S.F.: I agree, man. As much as we want to say Red Rocks — I think as a fan, going to see a show at Red Rocks is the best thing that you can do with music. It seems humble, but it’s our first headlining show at the Fox Theatre, because that’s where we grew up, that’s where we’d go to shows all the time. To be on that stage on the other side of it was bizarre. In high school, I worked for this promotional company that would get me into the hip-hop shows if I [put up flyers around] my high school. I would usually just throw them in the trash when I walked into the high school, [laughs] so I could get in.

Best year of Warped Tour

N.M.: For me, it’s 2008, our first year [on the full tour]. We did one show in 2007, the Colorado show. That was actually the first Warped Tour I’d ever been to as a fan or performer, I didn’t really know anything about it. That opened my eyes. And then 2008 Warped Tour was like our first tour, period. That’s a fucking tour to go on as your first, ‘cause it’s hot, it’s brutal. We’d show up to cities that we’d never played and there’d be a few hundred people there. Then like two, three weeks in, I remember showing up to Houston — we’d never been anywhere near playing in Houston — and there were like a few thousand people at our set.

S.F.: A few thousand, that’s being generous.

N.M.: Yeah. [Laughs] No, there were. And Katy [Perry] was on that tour; we got to be great friends with her. Kind of organically, the guys who played with her on stage started playing with us. Our stage was just a party, every day. The stage manager was like, “I’m going to try to break your stage every day by inviting however many people we can up on the stage.” It was a collective, fun thing, where we just happened to be the guys curating the party. That year was eye-opening, and the parties were crazy.

3OH!3 song that makes crowds go wildest

N.M.: Now, I think it’s probably “DONTTRUSTME.” Obviously, that’s the song that people know the most, but it’s not necessarily the heaviest or hardest song. We have a song called “CHOKECHAIN,” and a song called “PUNKBITCH,” and those [have] that raw energy. They provided a bridge for us on Warped Tour, stylistically. We stood out, our shows were different, but then also, we had an edge to our music.

S.F.: “DONTTRUSTME,” that was that time too where we stole Katy Perry’s backing band, and they played with us on that song. By the end of the tour, we had the weirdest mishmash. We had El Hefe from NOFX play with us on that, we had Katy Perry’s band, we had Cisco [Adler] and Shwayze who were like running around. Like, everyone on tour was there.

Dirtiest synth line in a 3OH!3 song

N.M.: Uh, “PUNKBITCH.” I was working in a [music editing] program called Reason. Actually, for “Lonely Machines,” I dug back into it. Some of those synths that you hear at the end of “DONTTRUSTME,” I reworked those to capture some of that vibe. I was very inspired by heavy music. It was a lot of Nine Inch Nails and Lil Jon, and those are very varied artists in terms of what they do, but there’s a common corollary there, that it’s just heavy. I didn’t own a bunch of synths back then, I just had a laptop, and that program allowed me to express that creative need in a different way. The lead synth line in “CHOKECHAIN” goes crazy. At the end of “Lonely Machines,” I had fun doing that too.

Worst criticism you’ve received

S.F.: We got a zero. Was it Kerrang!?

N.M.: I think it might have been Kerrang! We got fucking trashed.

S.F.: We got a zero out of whatever they give ratings out of, I don’t even know [Ed. note: Kerrang! rates music out of five points]. Which is a badge of honor. We were heading out [to the U.K.] to play Reading and Leeds, and we never had been out there to play a festival. It was a perfect mix of the stuff that we listened to. I think Radiohead were headlining, so it was amazing to even be part of it. We were playing this dance tent, and we got that review. I think the previous year, Panic! at the Disco got bottled off the stage.

N.M.: I remember the article now, it was saying that we had sold more singles than Radiohead ever had.

S.F.: Like, “This music sucks and Radiohead’s awesome, can you believe that they outsold [them], they shouldn’t deserve that.” And we were like, “We agree!” [Laughs]

N.M.: You’ve got a point, we’re not going to fight you on that.

S.F.: We’re not Radiohead. But we were first or second in the tent, and there was no one in there as we sound-checked. I was like, thank God, that’s a better alternative than someone throwing bottles at us. We spent 15 minutes getting ready, and then we walked out and the tent was overflowing with people. They trashed the shit out of us and gave us a zero, but it wasn’t representative of the energy of people coming out and wanting to see us.

Best moment from 3OH!3 Day 2020

S.F.: Our fans are amazing in the sense that they’ll travel. When we did 3OH!3 Day this last March [in Denver], the last show that happened before everything shut down, we walked the line before the show and talked to people who were like, “Oh, just drove in from New Mexico,” “Flew down from Chicago.” We obviously got a lot of fans early on through Warped Tour, and obviously they’re getting older, and they have careers or kids and all these things; I mean we have doctors [for fans]. I think the magic [of being a 3OH!3 fan] is there isn’t a type.

Our buddy Lil Jon, who we’ve worked with and played shows with in the past, came out and performed with us. He opened, along with Breathe Carolina, and they’re actually hometown. It just feels very homey.

N.M.: That collective feel, it’s very tangible in Colorado. People are rabid about live music, and just looking out and seeing people there with the same mantra that we have, that collectivity and that inclusiveness [was a highlight].

S.F.: The funnest thing, though, is we walked to a place down the street to get a drink before the show. We’re walking by groups of people coming out of their Ubers, and it’s nice because we don’t have any [notable physical] qualities — [laughs] I mean, Nat’s six-eight, but no one really recognizes us. In Colorado, there’s this humble quality that we’re part of something. It’s not really our thing to give to anyone. And that’s what we want 3OH!3 to be. We’re just two people in that crowd, and that’s what it felt like.

Best song you’ve written for someone else

N.M.: MAX’s “Lights Down Low” might be one of my favorites. It was just an honest song. Writing it and producing it, I got to use the guitar that my dad gave me for my 21st birthday. And I got to sit and write that song with one of my best friends [Liam O’Donnell], which I’m fortunate to be able to do for 3OH!3 stuff with Sean, too.

I also did a Maroon 5 song [“Love Somebody”] that came about through a Colorado connection as well; I worked on the instrumental section of it with Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic, who [also] kind of grew up in Colorado, and then he took that in with his sessions with Adam [Levine], and that developed into a song. That was a much different process, but equally as rewarding. Working with other people for other artists adds to our creative plot. There’s frustrations that come with either side of them, and they counterbalance each other a little bit. With writing for others, there’s a lot of speculation and it’s a lot of mining for gold — in that you write a lot, and nowhere near as much of what you write is put out. Then with our band, it’s a lot more conducive to writing and releasing music.

S.F.: Uhhh [thinking about the question], for other people?

N.M.: I mean, “Tattooed Heart” [which Foreman co-wrote for Ariana Grande’s Yours Truly] was amazing, dude.

S.F.: Yeah, how it was created was amazing. We were in the studio with Ariana Grande; Matt Squire at the time was executive-producing her album. And I forget, you were running late that day or something, man.

N.M.: Yeah, I had the good fortune. [Ed. note: Motte co-produced the song.] But in my mind, it’s like, Ariana wasn’t considering herself a writer, and you really opened [her up] on that song. It’s like you guys worked with her and allowed her to do what she wanted to do.

S.F.: That was like a true, in-the-moment creation. And obviously, she could sing the alphabet or the dictionary and get a standing ovation with her voice. But she sang [our song] at the White House for Obama and Michelle, and they gave her a standing ovation; then she sang [it] at the AMAs, and Lady Gaga was, like, standing ovation. Seeing our creation take on a life of its own has been pretty amazing.

Weirdest place you’ve heard your music

N.M.: We were on TRL. Remember the first time? We were on a day off, like 2008 Warped Tour. In a hotel, there were like 12 of us, just exhausted, trying sleep. The music video for song “HOLLERTILYOUPASSOUT” was on TRL, and that was pretty crazy. We grew up watching Carson Daly.

S.F.: I actually think the coolest thing is you could go to any karaoke thing and we’re on the karaoke list.

N.M.: That’s pretty sad and pathetic. We should do a whole tour where we just do our own karaoke at bars. [Laughs]

S.F.: I haven’t gotten to the point where I’ve done our own songs at karaoke, but that might be a good thing to do. I think I could do it and someone would be like, “Dude, you don’t sound anything like it, you suck.”

N.M.: I think when we really burn out, and like —

S.F.: — we’re close.

N.M.: Yeah, we’re close. But when our flame is really burned out, I think we’d do that. Then, if we can successfully get booed off the karaoke stage doing our own music, I think that’s when we’ve hit it.

Best word to describe your new music

S.F.: Need.

N.M.: We wanted to take a little bit of the best of both worlds of our own artistry, take some some of the energy and sounds from when we first started releasing music and apply the craft that we’ve honed over the past 10–15 years of working in music [to our new work]. To make a sound that’s big and edgy, and then also inclusive and poppy and catchy; to write songs that are interesting and novel, and sometimes funny, and, hopefully all the time, fun. The thing that’s tied hand to hand with that is those live shows. That’s the greatest reward I think that we can have, is to see people having fun with our music. Obviously those things are very much out of focus now, when we can’t have live music. [But] it’s nice to try to have a purpose of bringing people together. Bringing people a sense of joy, of energy, of smiling, and of that catharsis that we’ve always tried to do with our music.

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The Best, Worst, and Wildest of 3OH!3, According to the Duo