Electronica Goes Punk

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."  

That was fine by Oiwa, who eschews digital sound even as he works in a genre that's identified with it. On the slinky, shuffling "Fortune Cookie," for instance, the band intermingles Oiwa's live theremin riffing with a faraway flute strain borrowed from an obscure Japanese record. According to Oiwa, "We didn't sample; we just used the record." He pauses. "Well, I guess you could say it's sampled, but we didn't put it in a sampler. We do have a cheap, simple sampler, but we try to avoid using it as much as possible, because putting it into a sampler means converting the signal from analog to digital and then back to analog. It's the same thing as the sound difference between CD and record. And we are vinyl people. It's a very subtle difference, but you know how some people really care about vinyl? We are like that. All of our recordings we've done to analog tape.

"Basically, all the equipment we use for recording is from the Sixties," he continues. "The soundboard Calvin has, the microphone--everything he has at Dub Narcotic is from the Sixties. It was kind of funny, how we are trying to make this Nineties music using all this Sixties equipment. We kind of liked that."

The decision to utilize aged gear both in the studio and in concert was inspired by a combination of punk ethics and slender means. "There's so many people around in the electronic-music world--great musicians, sort of bedroom recorders, with thousands of dollars' worth of equipment and computers, making great music," Oiwa remarks. "We have nothing against that, but obviously, we didn't have that much money. Besides, playing live is what we're all about."

The stage is where icu got its start. Before he obtained a beatbox, Oiwa spent his time waving his hands in front of a crude, Japanese-made theremin in a two-person act called the Rockmores, whose moniker pays tribute to Clara Rockmore, the virtuoso apprentice of the contraption's inventor and namesake, Leon Theremin. The duo reached the summit of its success when Theremin, a documentary film about the man who created the device, hit town. Oiwa and his partner played their theremins in advance of the first screening at an Olympia theater, and although Oiwa enjoyed the gig, he concedes that "back then, we weren't really able to play. We just sort of made noises."

The concept that became icu took shape a short time later, when Oiwa attended a party at which a band known as Giant Ant Farm was slated to play. "I had this idea," he remembers. "I had this mixing board, and I had just gotten a cheap sampler, and I said, 'What if I just put a beat in here and played guitar on top of it?' And I got my friend to play bass, so it was a big jamming session, and it was very well-received."

The current icu lineup consists of Swiggs, a drum-and-bass enthusiast, and Hartman, who also plays standup for Old Time Relijun, an outfit that specializes in what Oiwa describes as "acoustic freakout jazz." Friendship laid the groundwork for Hartman's membership. "Aaron became my roommate, and he was a good bass player," Oiwa allows. "He wanted to try out, and we did. Afterwards, it was really great, especially performance-wise, having this big acoustic instrument." Of course, the fact that the hand Hartman uses to hop up and down his fretboard is human places certain constraints on icu, but speed isn't one of them. "He does pretty well," Oiwa attests. "There's one song he does where all his fans yell out his name, and he just goes crazy on the bass.

"There is a limitation," Oiwa goes on, "but that's the part we like, too. The limitation for us, compared to some of the studio-produced electronic music, is that our music just doesn't get bassy enough. But at the same time, that's a sound that we have and they don't."

Live, Hartman's maniacal persona is much like that of Oiwa, who has been known to toy with his drum machine and sampler, handle records, jam on guitar, warble on theremin and chain-smoke during the course of a single song. Fortunately, Oiwa has gotten plenty of practice in musical juggling; he's manned the soundboard at Olympia's Capitol Theatre, best known as the site of the annual Yo Yo A Go Go Festival, for the past four years. "Every weekend I've been doing sound for these bands and tweaking knobs and moving faders," he says. "And that's the idea I had about my band--having a lot of things, like buttons and knobs, to touch. That's who I am, and I also play the guitar. So it was like, hey, I can play this, too. And theremin, I can play this, too...  

"If you look at a photo of the Art Ensemble of Chicago recording, it's like a studio with hundreds of instruments lying around," he says. "They just pick up instruments and play and change instruments in the middle of a song. Right now Aaron is playing only bass, but he wants to start adding more instruments, too. So I think our stage is going to get crazier and crazier as we accumulate more equipment. And the band is going to have to get bigger and bigger."

Shallow pockets have thus far prevented Oiwa from realizing this dream. But he doesn't believe that more folding green would fundamentally change many of the other ways icu operates. "I think for recording, if we had more money, we would use more fancy equipment, not so much for refining the sound but to provide more possibilities for the sounds we have in our heads," he contends. However, the appliance presently topping his personal wish list is a gadget that can duplicate the supposedly futuristic tones of a Moog synthesizer, which many electronica types dismiss as being hopelessly antiquated. "You can plug in the guitar and play guitar and tweak on a knob, and you can make those weird sounds just like a Moog," he marvels.

"We have all been in punk bands and all that, and we got sort of tired of the sound of just a guitar, drums and bass," Oiwa maintains. Yet the indie spirit epitomized by these rock rudiments is very much a part of icu. Whereas most electronica types must struggle to translate their painstaking studio craft into a performance worth watching, Oiwa and company are trying to capture the vitality of their live act on their first long-player, which they are currently mixing. Doing so has not been a cakewalk. In Oiwa's words, "I think it's helping us to reconfigure our songs, because now we're taking them as actual songs with structure rather than as a more spontaneous thing: playing a show, feeding off the energy from the crowd.

"Our songs have always been somewhat loose, with room for change. But in recording, we had to make a decision, and that was hard. We got into a lot of arguments." Oiwa sighs. "If someone listens to our records, then sees us live, they will recognize some songs, but it won't be the same. In recording, we use a lot more variation of equipment. Live, we only have six hands."

icu, with Juno and the Blast-Off Heads. 9 p.m. Monday, March 23, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.

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