The Heaven and Hell Ball w/Lifesavas, the Long Winters, the Decemberists, guests

Wed Dec 31, Consolidated Works, 8 pm, $20 adv/$25 DOS ($5 off for members).

IQU's Michiko Swiggs and Kento Oiwa bonded at a noise rave in Osaka, Japan. If you know IQU's music--quirkily melodic, feel-good sampadelia--you'll find the image of these amiable pop lovers digging Merzbow and Masonna's sonic hellstorms to be bizarre. But this anecdote demonstrates the band's eclectic tastes and open-mindedness. It was the unlikely start of a lovely musical relationship.

Back in 1998 when they were called ICU, guitarist/turntablist/theremin player Kento and keyboardist/vocalist Michiko (along with departed bassist Aaron Hartman) issued one of those rare debuts that you could call fresh without sounding like a hyperbolic fool. Chotto Matte a Moment! (one of the best releases in K Records' catalog) made raw, lo-fi rock and primitive breakbeat-fueled electronica sound much more exotic and dynamic than those humble styles have a right to sound. The Calvin Johnson-produced album garnered rave reviews and IQU triumphantly toured America with the awesome Hovercraft--and held their own.

The world could've been theirs if they'd built on the momentum gained from Chotto and subsequent tours with Mouse on Mars, Chicks on Speed, and FCS North. But, alas, IQU (pronounced ee-koo) floundered with the annoying musical drama EP Girls on Dates (K, 1999) with Miranda July. Teenage Dream (K, 2000) was better, as a bunch of talented remixers toyed with IQU's odd, Japanese-kitsch-pop/disco jam with power- chording guitar eruptions. But a disc of variations on two songs is never going to match the alien-pop thrills Chotto provided in spades.

After Hartman split for Old Time Relijun in 2000, Kento and Michiko put IQU on hiatus: Kento scored a commissioned soundtrack for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and launched a busy DJ career while Michiko got involved with the visual-art community, especially New York-based flash animator Mumbleboy and Seattleite Chuck Dong.

Fast-forward to fall 2003, and IQU are bursting with pride over their new sonic baby, Sun Q, even as they field offers from labels and try to determine which one can best market their darling offspring. IQU's fans surely want to know why there's been such a long wait between releases.

"We were trying to figure out our new relationship, as more of a collaboration than a band," Michiko explains in Kento's record-strewn Capitol Hill apartment. "It took us a long time to work through that." The duo tried to enlist other musicians, but concluded that IQU functioned best as a twosome, though Kento claims they benefited from Seattle's "good creative force."

"Before we moved to Seattle [IQU left Olympia in 2000]," Kento says, "IQU used to be my thing. The past three years it's become more equal. It's become a concept, a product--which is 50 percent [Michiko], if not more now," he says with a laugh.

"I think [IQU] has finally become a product of our relationship," says Michiko. "It was bumpy at times."

Like any romantic relationship, right? Uh, no. I--and many others, apparently--mistakenly thought Kento and Michiko were not only band partners, but also lovers, as they seem so compatible onstage and while out in public together. However, Michiko does admit IQU is "almost like a marriage." Kento counters, "We're surrogate siblings, but I don't want to play it off like the White Stripes do." He pauses. "I hope this isn't decreasing my chances of getting dates."

There's no doubting these Japanese Americans are still making beautiful music together in the studio, as immersion in Sun Q proves. Mixed by lauded Portland knob twiddler Tony Lash (Dandy Warhols, Quasi), the new disc flaunts a glittery patina over its Leftfield disco and Paisley Park funk. (Kento and Michiko praise Lash's "crazy stereo placements.") IQU may have traded their chintzy analog gear for ProTools, but they've not muted their playful pop instincts at all: A sing-along euphoria deluges Sun Q. Besides adding more keyboards, Michiko and Kento decided to sing like an Asian Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood this time rather than sample voices from their vast record collection. Kento's theremin figures more heavily here, too, particularly on the ethereal cover of Minnie Riperton's stunningly gorgeous "Loving You."

"I just wanted to make a pretty, fun record," Kento states.

But is that what the kids want?

"I don't know," he says. "I don't care what the kids think. The guy who runs Vice Records said our album was 'nice, but too sugary.' I like Vice's aesthetics, but we're nice people making nice music. Maybe being nice will be hip."