Nathaniel Motte on the essence of 3OH!3: "Sean and I just having fun in a basement in Colorado"

3OH!3 (due this Saturday, November 16, at Summit Music Hall) formed in 2004 as an irreverent, outrageously humorous dance pop band. Founded by Boulder natives Nathaniel Motte and Sean Foreman, 3OH!3 quickly caught on with audiences locally and then well outside of Colorado with its 2007 debut, 3OH!3. But it wasn't until the group's 2008 album that the band rose to fame on a national scale, partly due to joining the Warped Tour that summer, where it shared the stage with future pop star Katy Perry.

This year, the band released its most refined and sonically interesting album to date, Omens. In advance of tomorrow night's show, we spoke with Motte about how the new album is more reflective of the way that he and Foreman made music in one of their basements for fun, how the pair made unlikely connections with Katy Perry and Ke$ha before they were both household names and how they came to work with Lil Jon.

Westword: You put out a new album, Omens, this year and many people have remarked how it sounds so very different from your earlier music, but it sounds like you've made a pretty natural progression in some ways.

Nathaniel Motte: On all of our records, we try to do different things and we try to make a progression in songwriting and production style. We've always produced our own music, and it's been really close to our hearts from the beginning. On this record, a lot of the songs and the way we wrote the songs, we kind of went back to some old techniques and ways of making music. Ninety-five percent of what we did was at my studio at my house in Boulder.

It was nice to get back to that because that's the essence of what this is: Sean [Foreman] and I just having fun in a basement in Colorado, making music and experimenting and fucking around, and hopefully finding something that's fun and hopefully a little bit different sounding, and catchy and a bit edgy, and extrapolating that to other people listening to the songs in the live setting.

That new album cover is definitely one of the most interesting to have come out lately. Who did the design for you?

Actually, since day one, we've worked with two people: my brother Nicholas Motte and our friend Andrew Kimmel. They've done kind of all our visual stuff. So, this one, I guess we came up with the name Omen because we felt the songs themselves were like omens, and make something hopefully representative of the aesthetic of the record, musically, something epic and a little bit strange.

I guess it's just kind of big and epic, and we sent them a bunch of design ideas, and they came up with a kind of crazy collage of a bunch of different eras and places, including something from when my brother went to Mexico; he used some weird, 12th century medicinal handbook for part of the cover.

It looks like maybe he took a picture of that ancient Mayan observatory at Chichén Itzá.

I don't know where he took that, but it may have been there. He had a lot of fun with it and the forms and the different meanings.

You have a song called "Black Hole" on the new album. Is that a reference to the Charles Burns comic book series.

I know about that, but actually it's not. We make our songs instrumentally as we're writing lyrics. That song was a little bit more finished, and very frenetic and crazy, and the "black hole" feeling came from there. But maybe we should just lie and say it came from that. It would be a better story.

You went to CU and got a degree in a very specific field of biology and were on track to go to medical school. Is that something you may pursue again at some point?

3OH!3, for me -- it was a bit different for Sean -- was very much a hobby that gradually developed into what it is now. I was going to go to med school when we went on our first tour. I was accepted to the University of Colorado in Denver. I was going to go, but halfway through, things [got going with the band], and I contacted them, and they gave me a year deferral, and then three consecutive years after that.

At that point, they finally kind of asked me to get my shit together and tell them what I wanted to do. So I ended passing on the med school route for now. I think I would have to go through that process again if I wanted to try that again. I think Sean and I are both very interested in and passionate about making music both for our band and the collaborations and production we've done with and for other artists and other projects in generally. Hopefully this develops into a long term career for us.

When some of us were first hearing about you guys, it was before, or as, you were playing the Fox Theatre in Boulder and places smaller. Where did you first start playing out live?

You know, I think the first thing we ever did was a house party in Denver off of Inca Street. I think it's called the Inca House. I don't think it's the same one called that currently. It was just a house party when we were in college, and there was a naked guy running around during the set as we were playing. There were only twenty people and a bunch of girls got their purses stolen by someone that ended up being a friend of ours later. It was kind of a shit show.

Growing up in Colorado, you know, I think the music scene is so wonderful. It's always been such a great place for live music and supportive of live music. We grew up going to great shows, so it was kind of a dream for us playing the Fox because we've seen so many shows there. To be able to grow up in a place like that and become an active member of that community was really amazing.

Is that Inca House you were mentioning the place where Alan Andrews of the Photo Atlas was living or perhaps is still living?

Yeah. We've had some great nights there and practice sessions and we've remained friends with them.

You guys have worked with Katy Perry, Lil' John and Ke$ha, and you, yourself, co-wrote a song with Maroon 5. How does that kind of stuff come about for you guys?

It's kind of different for every one. The Maroon 5 thing, I actually worked with Ryan Tedder, who is from Colorado and lives in Colorado, on the instrumental portion of that song. We did that together, and we did the session with Maroon 5, and it's been kind of a calling card for me. Ryan was kind of on another level, in terms of songwriting.

The collaborations with our band has come about in different ways. Lil Jon was incredible because he was one of our biggest influences when we started making music and playing live shows because we felt like he made rap fun again in the early 2000s. We heard he was listening to our music, and we got hooked up to work with some producers to work on his record, which is incredible.

That's one thing that when we get older and live and operate in the music world -- it's a community, and it's nice to be able to really call your friends and work on music. I thank my lucky stars that I'm able to have a lot fun with this.

How did you get to work with Ke$ha and Katy?

The Ke$ha thing, we had written that song, and we were looking for a female part for the song, and the producer we were working with said, "I know a girl who would be perfect. That was kind of before they had released any of her music and were working with us first. So she came in, and we just had a good time from that and became [friends].

Same thing with Katy. We were on Warped Tour in 2008. That was our first real tour on a national level. She was on that tour, as well, on the same stage, and that was very magical. We got to be really good friends with her, and her band would leave their stuff up on stage and play with us during our set.

At that time, we were just a pure electronic act live, and from there we've molded our live set to be an amalgam of rock and electronic elements now. But we got to be really good friends with her and her whole crew. The option came to remix all those songs. It's nice to have those connections in that organic way.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.