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Nerd Up

Want to see a paradox in action? Try giving IQ tests to Hot IQs.

After staring at the photocopied, stapled piles of paper incomprehensibly for a few seconds, the band's three members -- bassist Bryan Feuchtinger, drummer Elaine Acosta and singer/guitarist Eli Mishkin -- finally figure out what they're looking at. Then they slowly lift the No. 2 pencils in their hands as if someone had just asked them to dig a ditch with them.

Maybe this is the wrong time to spring a test of intellect on the trio. After all, it is one in the morning. Acosta, sick, just got back into town from the East Coast and drove straight from the airport to take part in the interview. Feuchtinger is leaving at sunrise to catch a flight to Alaska. And Mishkin, although not as much of a jet-setter as the others, has achieved an altitude of his own since everyone started downing bottles of Corona two hours ago.

"Oh, I think I've taken this one before; I have a 126," Acosta exclaims, somehow still chirpy. She turns the first page of the IQ test and digs in. Good-naturedly, her bandmates follow, summoning the strength and patience to strain their brains just a few minutes longer.

"What exactly is genius level supposed to be, anyway?" Feuchtinger queries. "What is an Intelligence Quotient even a quotient of?"

They may be in the final throes of mental exhaustion, but the guys in Hot IQs aren't dumb. In fact, you get the hunch that they used to be those kids who wore puke-green velour shirts to school, the ones who smelled like milk and did other kids' homework for them. You know: the dweebs, the spazzes, the Urkels. The nerds.

"I was a straight-A student and that sort of thing," Acosta, a New York native, recalls. "My parents really pushed me. I did ballet and piano for years. I tried to do sports, but I'm not very athletic. In high school I was a cheerleader for a month, but I quit after homecoming because I thought all the girls were fucking bitches.

"I also went to Catholic school," she adds, "but I only believed in God for about four years, maybe between the ages of four to eight. I would pray to God and ask him to send me Ricky Schroeder and Michael Jackson, but he never did. Finally, when I was eight, I was like, 'God so does not exist.' And that's how I became an atheist. I was so in love with those two boys, but I never got them."

The young Feuchtinger, on the other hand, was not as smitten with the Gloved One. "The video for 'Thriller' scared the living crap out of me," he confesses. "When I was a little kid, I was more into the Miami Vice soundtrack. I also used to listen to the radio all day, waiting for Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" to come on so I could tape it."

As if an obsession with Lionel Richie weren't embarrassing enough, Feuchtinger then sheepishly recounts an even dorkier incident from his youth: "I wore glasses for ten years growing up because our optometrist in Texas was trying to milk some extra money out of my parents. When I moved to Colorado, an eye doctor told me that I never really needed them, that I had been wearing glasses the whole time for nothing."

Mishkin was never four-eyed as a kid, but he still had no problem getting his geek on. The group's only Denver native, he spent a huge chunk of his adolescence in Phoenix, and it was there that he began playing a musical instrument -- although it wasn't the kind that won him any popularity contests.

"I started violin when I was twelve, but I quickly learned that it was so uncool to carry a big violin case to school every day," he relates. "There was a lot of taunting. So I dropped that. Pretty soon after, I got into gangsta rap. I went out and got a high-top fade with lines shaved in the side."

The mind boggles. And yet, while listening to Hot IQs' debut full-length, An Argument Between the Brain and the Feet, it's not that tough to pick out Mishkin's love of beats and words. The disc's ten tracks are blasts of torque-whipped rhythms and fragmented melody that have open tabs with Archers of Loaf, Talking Heads and the tones of early '80s post-punk -- only lush and fuzzy instead of grim and antiseptic. Acosta and Feuchtinger mesh like a disco rack and pinion, kicking out the low-end thump with a floor-filling verve. The whole thing is smothered in Mishkin's smoky, husky croon, a mingling of Nick Cave, Ric Ocasek and Dean Martin that rolls in like some velvet-lined, martini-scented fog.

And the lyrics are as gripping as the voice that envelops them. A big fan of wordplay and double entendre, the erstwhile English major rattles off hellishly clever couplets like "I hope you don't hate me/Like I hate you" and "Your breasts were the best I've ever seen/But there's nothing in between." For all the gray matter gushing out of Hot IQs' songs, though, there's a weird sensuousness, a clumsy chemistry that infuses their tunes with a fevered and nearly delirious euphoria. If smart is the new sexy, Hot IQs are the new fucking Duran Duran.

Argument's precision and poise might lead you to believe that its creators are vets of the indie-rock circuit, but Mishkin and Acosta had never played in a real band prior to forming Hot IQs; in fact, Acosta had never even sat behind a drum kit in her life. The two met in 1998 while deejaying at the fledgling Radio 1190 and were friends for years before the idea of playing music together ever sprang up. But after casually tinkering with three songs toward the end of 2002, the duo made its live debut that November under the name Just Odessa -- a moniker that still makes Acosta cringe. "It was horrible, but we couldn't think of anything else," she comments. "We just liked the word 'Odessa.'"

By January 2003, Just Odessa got ditched in favor of the Royal We; soon after, Feuchtinger jumped on board. Unlike Acosta and Mishkin, he'd been around the block a few times as the drummer of local pop outfit Thank God for Astronauts, not to mention the maven behind Uneven Studios, where Argument was recorded. As seasoned as he was, however, he had never seriously played bass before joining Hot IQs.

"We knew we needed a bass player," Mishkin explains, "but we were in this weird position. If we found someone who could actually play their instrument, they were going to be pissed off that we were such amateurs. We needed someone who had good taste in music and could play decently, but not too decently. Then Bryan came along and fit that mold perfectly."

Perfectly, indeed. Since jelling into the Royal We, the trio has found itself steadily becoming one of the best loved indie bands in town. But after touring with Denver rock powerhouse the Symptoms and contributing to the locally produced film Tough Talk, the group decided to change its name yet again -- this time, to avoid any potential litigation with any of the several acts around the country wielding the same handle. Plagiarizing the title of one of its own songs, the Royal We officially became Hot IQs this spring.

"Bryan came up with it," Mishkin says. "It was a stroke of genius."

"You mean a stroke of laziness," Acosta jabs.

"We were actually worried that the name might be pretentious," Mishkin continues. "One would hope that people realize it's kind of silly. If you meet us or hear us, then you know we're not pretentious. What we do is anti-pretentious. It's poking fun at the posturing in rock and roll, where success has to do with your fashion sense or how cool you are. We're all about shifting that to your mind, to your brain."

Apparently, there are plenty of nerd-lovers in Denver, because Mishkin's approach is working. Granted, it's not as depressing to be a dweeb now as it was in grade school -- to paraphrase Huey Lewis himself, it's gotten pretty hip to be square.

"Between Revenge of the Nerds and Weezer, something happened," Feuchtinger theorizes. "But that's just in the mainstream. Where I came from, it was always cool to wear glasses. It was always cool to be nerdy."

"I always had crushes on boys with glasses," Acosta admits.

Mishkin agrees. "Yeah, usually the dorks are far more interesting."

Speaking of dorks, as the clock creeps farther past one, the members of Hot IQs seem to be growing increasingly frustrated with their pop quizzes. Questions get answered, erased, pondered, skipped. Eyes bleary with fatigue and beer begin to lose focus. Eventually they all chuck their stapled Xeroxes into a pile and call it a night, content in the knowledge that -- like all true nerds -- they have nothing to prove to anyone.

And as for their final grades? Um...let's just say that Hot IQs are definitely hot.