Power of two

Seattle duo IQU gets its groove back

Kento "KO" Oiwa and Michiko Swiggs — the Seattle-based recording duo known as IQU (pronounced EE-koo) — are not brother and sister, man and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend; not even in a Jack and Meg White vaguely incestuous way. Since randomly moving across the street from one another in Olympia, Wash. and bonding over their love of fringe arts and endeavors, they have become an intimate union of sensibilities. Think solids and stripes or plaids and paisleys.

When the group emerged in 1997 (as a trio spelled "ICU"), the band immediately garnered attention with a fresh-faced sound it called as "drum 'n' haze." Early material was beguiling because of its lo-fi analog melodicism imbued with a childlike giddiness. It mixed gritty guitars with squelchy synths, all thrown over a roughly hewn breakbeat. The group represented the eclecticism crossbreeding within the semi-isolated Northwest indie scene.

Now releasing Sun Q, after a nearly four-year hiatus, Oiwa and Swiggs have created a work of bricolage bop. The album is textured by the duo's keen ear for stitching disparate sounds, a reflection of their finely nuanced collaborative relationship. But the process of making the album was more involved than either of them thought it would be. It involved not only fine-tuning the music but also strengthening the bond between them.

"Part of the reason this album took so long to make was that the relationship between Michiko and myself needed to become more advanced," says Oiwa by phone from Seattle. "It's not that we weren't working on music in the last few years, it was just that the melodies and beats were like scraps of paper, half-finished ideas, because they were each coming from only one of us."

Since their collaborations were becoming stagnant, the two turned to other projects. Oiwa did some solo recording and DJ stints, and Swiggs logged hours working with computer graphics and flash animation.

What got them working on IQU again was something rather unexpected. Oiwa and Swiggs were scheduled to take a trip to Japan together. (Oiwa was raised there, and Swiggs — who is of New Zealand and Japanese descent but grew up in port cities around the Pacific — wanted to learn more about the culture.) Before they were scheduled to head off, however, Oiwa was unable to go because of some work commitments. Swiggs went alone and ended up spending a great deal of time with Oiwa's mother. Once Swiggs returned, the two quickly slipped back into a groove, thanks largely to her new insight into Oiwa's background.

"It sounds trite, but we needed that natural progress, because as soon as we started working together again on Michiko's return ... the newer material flowed more freely," says Oiwa, who admitted that he had been a control freak in the early years. "Now it's a more collective effort, but it feels like it comes from one mind."

The resulting album marks a maturing step from the twosome. The first album, Chotto Matte a Moment!, was accomplished, yet seemed a little shortsighted, mesmerized by swerving flits of fancy. Sun Q is more measured, still unabashedly pop, but with a greater steadiness and polish. Tone and texture remain paramount with synth squeals and squiggles, breakbeat-influenced percussion and wispy vocals.

"This album contains a much more personal statement about where we are together," says Oiwa, referring to how Sun Q is a 50/50 effort to the point that some songs are actual call-and-response conversations between the two. Oiwa thinks that their earlier estrangement helped them both become rededicated to the group. "Michiko and I got to that point, looked to each other and decided to keep doing it," he states. "And now we have made an album that says, 'This is what we do.'"