Electronica Goes Punk

Kento Oiwa of icu uses old methods to make new sounds.

Electronica has evolved faster than fruit flies multiply, but its hybrids are no longer raising eyebrows: If a synthesized sonic bouillabaisse pops up in ads for television or corporately owned radio, it can no longer be considered the coveted province of elitist club-crawlers. One of the main reasons that this process has occurred so quickly is the rise of the sample, a great leveler that frees sounds from the subcultures that generated them. The techniques and technologies previously associated with specific genres now collide on the same platters--and Kento Oiwa, a turntablist, guitarist and theremin player for the K Records combo called icu, is cheered by the results. "It might be pompous to say," he ventures, "but I think the future of pop music is when the rock-music scene, the rave scene and the dance scene finally merge together."

Based in Olympia, Washington, icu (Oiwa, upright bassist Aaron Hartman and organist/synthesist Michiko Swiggs) is not to be confused with I.C.U., a humorless hard-rock outfit from New York. The sounds produced by the Pacific Northwest trio, whose handle is actually a Japanese word related to "going" that contains a sexual innuendo about "coming," are far more compelling--electronic music made with a shoestring budget and a punk approach. These characteristics, coupled with the band's preference for analog and emphasis on live performance (values heretofore anathema to techno), have endeared icu to indie rockers in their hometown. But Oiwa, who guested as DJ on the latest Modest Mouse album, is not about to rest on these laurels. As he puts it, "We are playing this kind of music, and as far as I am concerned, it's not quite done yet. My ambition is so much higher." He adds, "Every time I play a show, I have this frustration. A lot of those people don't listen to electronic music much." As such, he worries that icu's fans don't have the reference points necessary to assess the quality of his group's machine-driven yield: "That is my fear. The preciseness and fineness of the music--how would we sound for the people who are used to that sort of very precise, computer-sequenced music?

"It's pretty underground here," acknowledges Oiwa, who emigrated to the U.S. ten years ago, when he was seventeen. "And those rock guys used to hate techno. They used to hate each other--rock and techno. They were two complete and separate worlds, but now it's finally starting to change. I was in Tokyo about two years ago, and it was a big shock to me. There were so many bands like us. A techno DJ would open for a punk band. And at a Boredoms show, the Boredoms opened up for a techno DJ from Europe, and stuff like that. It's so exciting to me."

Many of those who attend icu gigs are voting for this stylistic blend with their feet. "We never try to make them dance," Oiwa claims. "But so far, everyone's dancing--and that's great. We're called in Olympia 'the band the crowd actually dances to,' because Olympia is famous for nobody dancing at shows. But if everyone just sits and listens to our music, we won't get offended at all, because a lot of our music is kind of spacey." He laughs as he notes that "this guy who works at K called our music kraut-hop--and we really liked the term."

To date, album buyers have been unable to decide for themselves if this descriptive applies to icu; the act has only a K-issued seven-inch single, Despite the Smell of Colors...Vol: 1, to its credit. But that will change in the coming months. Selector Dub Narcotic, a compilation due from K in May, is scheduled to include an icu track that should whet folks' appetites for the threesome's debut full-length, which arrives in August. Oiwa, who has worked at K for over a year, is characteristically casual about the relationship between the company, founded by Westword profile subject Calvin Johnson ("System's Normal," October 16, 1997), and his band. "We were all friends with Calvin," he points out. "We liked him. He wanted to record us and put out our records, so we said yeah. There wasn't much thought involved." But the compatibility goes beyond mere acquaintance with Johnson, who makes music with the Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Halo Benders in addition to running K. That's because K has accepted electronica without drawing boundaries around it. "I don't like to be in a category," Oiwa states. "When I was in punk, I never dressed punk--and now I'm in electronic music, but I don't dress in rave clothing. Same as with record labels. I really like what K has done for their philosophy."

As the first act of its kind to record at Dub Narcotic studio, an Olympia institution, icu found that the tools at hand were more lo-fi than high-tech. For that reason, Oiwa says, "we really didn't do it in an electronic way, in the sense that we didn't use a computer and we didn't use a sequencer. We recorded everything pretty much the way we record punk rock. It's the same deal, except that instead of a drum kit, we use a drum machine. But we all play the instruments and mike the amp. So it wasn't like how most electronic music is made, which is a guy sitting at a computer and he takes the soundboard and just places it on the screen with a sixteen-track chart so that everything is right on time."

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