Portland last heard from IQU in 2001 when the band toured with dance-pop/performance art group Chicks on Speed. The band had just released its remix EP Teenage Dream and seemed on the cusp of an exciting new direction when remaining members DJ Kento Oiwa and keyboardist Michiko Swiggs moved from Olympia to Seattle and the band suddenly disappeared.
Finally, IQU (pronounced ee-koo) has made good on the promise of Teenage Dream, shopping a completed album (entitled Sun Q) to record labels and playing a handful of shows in Seattle. So how will 2004 IQU compare to 2001 IQU?
"We do not have any performance art planned for the upcoming Portland show," says Oiwa. An innocent enough statement, to be sure, but difficult to believe. Consider that, in addition to the planned aerial choreography, IQU used its New Year's Eve show in Seattle to stage a hijacking with the help of DJs on Strike. If the band's recent show at the Seattle Art Museum and collaboration with installation artist the Groovetube in the last month are any indication, it's completely reasonable to expect a little something extra from an IQU show.
During the group's three-year downtime, Swiggs dove headfirst into her graphic-design career and Oiwa honed his chops as DJ K.O., hitting the clubs and soundtracking the classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the Seattle International Film Festival. His mix tape For Wearing a Phone w/Q displayed Oiwa's growing musical range as much as it did his extensive record collection, exploring a variety of moods that were foreign to IQU's trademark laid-back lounge timbres.
IQU's debut album, 1998's Chotto Matte, A Moment!, built danceable sampletronica around since-departed Aaron Hartman's stand-up bass, dragging jazz, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. The album stripped away the atmospheric impressionism of the trip-hop of the day (i.e., Massive Attack or Portishead) and let the basslines and beats do the talking. The band stayed the course on its follow-up, Girls on Dates, a collaborative EP with performance artist Miranda July. IQU's spare sounds and July's psychodramatic mini-play made sweet music together and flaunted the flexibility of the band's repertoire.
In 2000, IQU recruited a host of electronic artists to help rethink and further its sound. In the hands of full-time laptoppers, IQU's free-form electronic jams became more fully realized and ordered compositions. Then Hartman split the band to join Old Time Relijun, while Oiwa and Swiggs just sort of split.
Musically, the band is picking up where it left off three years ago. Oiwa describes Sun Q as "a lot more song-oriented, less noodling and more composed. It definitely reflects what we've been into musically the last few years." Gone is the jazzy improvisation of Chotto Matte and Girls on Dates (of which Hartman's bass was the crux) in favor of the more intricately composed DJ-oriented work hinted at on Teenage Dream.
In the wake of Hartman's departure, IQU has brought Oiwa's theremin to the forefront. "It is almost another singer for us," says Oiwa. "Its sound is so like nothing else and I am so in love with [it]." While Oiwa's front-and-center theremin upsets the band's previously careful balance between analog and digital, IQU has taken proper steps to ensure that a more computerized sound doesn't mean a less swinging sound. The band enlisted Dub Narcotic Sound System's Brian Weber to play Rhodes organ and, as a result, Sun Q takes on a Gainbourgian flavor. Oiwa and Swiggs' boy-girl vocal performance adds to the '60s French film feel, with Swiggs playing the coy and provocative Ye-Ye girl to Oiwa's sophisticated chanteur. Drawing from the emotional range of the DJ K.O. mix tape, IQU more than ever shows Oiwa and Swiggs' individual personalities and the force of its music draws from their interplay.
IQU's 2004 model takes on myriad new directions: artful and unpredictable, meticulous and composed, emotional and dramatic, at once cutting-edge and electronic and throwback pop. After three years of IQU withdrawal, it's almost too much to handle. Almost.
IQU plays with the Lovemakers and Seksu Roba on Sunday, Jan. 25, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 8 pm. $10. 21+.