PUFF DADDY TAUGHT US that "It's all about the Benjamins." But how does a musician keep those Benjamins flowing into the bank? It's all about the crossover, baby. In Puffy's case, this involved mainstream pop fans embracing his watered-down version of street music, hip-hop. The members of Olympia's IQU—it's pronounced "ee-koo"—favor artistic goals over financial planning, but they also realize the benefits of stylistic malleability as they find success as a techno/indie-rock hybrid.
Sunday 2:45-3:30pm. Rock Arena.
The band's 1998 debut, Chotto Matte a Moment! (on K Records), merged the type of steady, pulsing beats indigenous to electronic dance music with jazzy acoustic bass, the occasional rock guitar, and lots of genre-straddling samples and keyboard parts. Group founder, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Kento Oiwa testifies to the importance of such crossover efforts.
"The lines between genres of music are becoming more and more blurry," he says from a tour stop in New York. "People want to try new things."
And they've been trying out IQU's panoramic musical offerings in increasing numbers. The rise in popularity of electronic dance music in the United States signaled a growing restlessness with the standard rock formula, and that made this unorthodox Olympia band ripe for discovery. Walking into an IQU show cold, it's hard not to have one's interest piqued: Oiwa earnestly shuffles between turntables, breaking away to toy with a theremin or a guitar; Michiko Swiggs hovers over a bank of keyboards, gazing at the keys like a stern seductress; Aaron Hartman (who has just left the band, but more about that in a minute) twirls his double-bass, massaging a subtle rhythm from the instrument.
If it sounds coyly postmodern (read: pretentious), check out a song like "Flower and Moon," which propels forward on a wave of thumping beats, stitched through with a melody that's breezy enough to transport dandelion seeds. Or check out IQU's just-released Girls on Dates, another crossover effort that finds the band providing a whimsical backdrop for personality-hopping Portland performance artist Miranda July. The EP playfully fuses electronic pop and spoken word narrative, making it a younger cousin to Laurie Anderson's 1982 breakthrough, Big Science.
IQU's genial music seems to come naturally to them, but the band's development has included some unexpected and unwelcome twists.
Oiwa started experimenting with a more open-minded musical format after churning out riffs as a guitarist, a job he tired of quickly.
"Being in a rock band in Olympia never felt like what I wanted to do," he says. "It didn't feel comfortable. Then I got into DJing and started doing the IQU thing with different people, playing pop music with an electronic beat."
Eventually he settled on Swiggs and Hartman as band mates, and the trio began playing out as icu. During their most critically lauded show to date, a high-profile festival appearance in New York City last winter, another band with the same name served Oiwa with papers demanding that he find another tag. The trio changed the c to a q, opted to abandon the lowercase syntax, and carried on.
Things looked up for the trio when the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne chose IQU as opener on a six-week nationwide tour featuring some of the biggest draws in offbeat rock, including the Lips, Sebadoh, and Robyn Hitchcock. Playing to upwards of a thousand people each night has brought IQU not only exposure but the assurance that their peculiar creation appeals to an audience that comes to hear rock.
But in another setback, Oiwa and Swiggs had to part ways with Hartman, citing "musical and personal differences." For their Bumbershoot appearance and the month-long headlining tour that follows, they've managed to secure a jazz bassist who also happens to be adept at electronics, Sheri Ozeki. Swiggs points out that Ozeki turns IQU into an entire band of first-generation Japanese Americans.
Such uniformity won't deter IQU from its quest to craft dance music that's applicable to the tastes of the average rock fan. Oiwa insists that such a crossover is entirely feasible, even necessary.
"Ultimately, we want to write a song," he says. "Whether it's electronic or rock or experimental, we believe in starting out with the song rather than a lot of techno beats."
By doing so, IQU can attract the DJ while helping sustain the other source of their influences. "I don't think indie-rock is dead," Oiwa says. "That's media hype. Kids like good music."
Coincidentally, the "kids" are starting to like IQU.