Denver, Colorado’s indie scene has a crush on Hot IQs. Within a little over three short years of forming, Hot IQs have worked their way into the heart of the local scene, and into the hearts of Denver fans and press. The trio has taken top honors (or close seconds) in past years from annual “best of” lists in the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, and Westword, and their 2004 debut album, An Argument Between the Brain and Feet, was named Best Album of 2004 by the Boulder Daily Camera. Clearly, Hot IQs have Denver wrapped around their fingers.
Equally impressive, Hot IQs have taken that beguiling charm on the road to audiences around the US, winning over new fans and playing with some of the best bands on the indie circuit today, including Tilly & the Wall, Tegan and Sara, Hot Hot Heat, Spoon, and Built to Spill . Noteworthy performances at South by Southwest, Midwest Music Summit, and the CMJ Music Conference have gathered yet more smitten hearts to their fold. And they’re just getting started.
Seated around the literally homey environs of Uneven Studios—the living-room recording studio of Hot IQs bassist Bryan Feuchtinger’s central Denver house (itself awarded for its recordings of some of Denver’s finest current acts)—the night before hitting the road to play the New Mexico State Fair, the band notes that while continued growth is the goal, for now their ambitions are more realistic.
“We want to do this as our job,” says Eli Mishkin, the band’s guitarist and vocalist. “We’re not talking stardom, we’re talking, like… rent? If we could pay for our houses here, car payments, insurance, and still tour, we’d be more than happy. That would be the fulfillment of the goal for me. And if we’re not able to do that—if we continue to make people excited by what we do, that’s awfully good too.” Feuchtinger adds, “It’s very very difficult just to break even. That’s the real goal, to do it for the fans. But in order to get out there and play, you have to save up money because you need to drive eight hours to get out of this effin’ town.”
Not that Hot IQs are unhappy where they are. “We’re proud to be a Denver band,” Mishkin proclaims. And in recent years, it’s become increasingly viable to be both a local and national act out of Denver. Despite the limitation of geography that Feuchtinger refers to, the city itself has seen the recent growth of a scene that’s become increasingly supportive and spawned dozens of new acts with a diverse range of styles. And while Hot IQs have managed to spread their music further and further into the national scene, they remain grounded in Denver and aware that they owe their existence to the local community.
Coming together in 2003, both Mishkin and drummer Elaine Acosta were resident music geeks working at Radio 1190, the University of Colorado’s Boulder-based student music station, and one of the only outlets for indie music on local airwaves. Though neither had a background as performers, they both shared a love of mid-‘90s indie rock, and as their immersion in the musical world continued to develop, the idea of forming a band of their own took hold.
“It just seemed like a natural progression from liking music to playing music. All the bands we listened to were very DIY, like K Records stuff, and early Built to Spill, and bands like that didn’t sound like they knew what they were doing, though they clearly did, but it made it seem easy,” says Mishkin. Still, the difference between listening to music and playing music is also one of ability and experience, something that neither really had. Acosta explains, “I think they day we started the band was the day I got my drum set. Radio 1190 played such a big role in educating us in music, and the beats were so simple in a lot of the songs, the drums seemed easy, so I got a bunch of tablatures and stuff, and it just seemed really simple.”
With the will, determination, and instruments in place, they set to work learning to play together, starting out trying to emulate some of their favorite music by hammering away at covers of the White Stripes and Weezer. “And we got really frustrated with that, because we couldn’t do it,” Mishkin laughs. Feuchtinger adds, “Covers that never even saw the light of day. Even I’ve never seen them.”
Failure as a cover act led the fledgling band into writing its own material, and deciding on the need for a bassist. Though Feuchtinger is the band’s most seasoned musician, he’d never played bass before either. Having been drawn to an early show on recommendation of a friend, Feuchtinger was intrigued enough to approach Acosta after the performance. “I was talking to Elaine, and she said something about needing a bass player, and I thought, ‘Well, I guess I can play bass,’” he recounts. After being handed the job after one tryout, the band played its first show in its current lineup a mere two weeks later, performing at a local Pavement tribute show. Two months later, they began recording their debut; two months after that, it was completed. The final ingredient came together when the band settled on it’s name.
After discovering that their first moniker choice, the Royal We, had been previously used by a number of bands, they settled on lifting their name from the title of one of their own songs. “‘Hot IQs’ was the first song we ever wrote. We work backwards in this band, so we stole our band name from the song,” Mishkin explains. Resting on a simple hook and the dry wit of the line, “I don’t know about your attitude / We like hot girls with hot IQs”, both the song and band name helped give the trio an identity early on, highlighting their geek-chic presence and emphasis on smart and generally clever lyrics. Mishkin admits, “I think that’s something that migrated from my first passion, which is writing. I’m sort of obsessed with language, so I sort of bastardized that love and brought it over to music.”
That same combination of primitive technique, simple hooks, indie melodies, and lyrics with a wry sense of humor are what characterized An Argument Between the Brain and Feet, and helped sell it to critics and audiences. True to their influences, Acosta’s beats tick along in basic patterns that give the songs an open framework for the terse chords and licks from Mishkin and the low pulse of Feuchtinger’s bass. But the most immediate focal point is Mishkin’s voice, with its low, rounded baritone croon that usually hovers somewhere in the range of Iggy Pop, Interpol’s Paul Banks, Elefant’s Diego Garcia, and Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato. Though undeniably pop, Mishkin’s vocals give a drawling, almost lounge feel to tracks like “Wendy” and “Buyer’s Remorse Code”, even while “Firecracker”, “Fusion & Yeah”, and “The Mascot Is Winning” offer broad slabs of slacker rock tension.
Coming out as it did in 2004, Hot IQs were oddly lumped into some ill-fitting dance-punk comparisons, obscuring the band’s roots in the Pixies, Superchunk, and Archers of Loaf. Feuchtinger quips that he blames it on the short-term memory problems of the press, and adds “I think we have one song that is really dance-y. Maybe two. I guess they use the word ‘dance’ very loosely. It’s puzzling. I don’t know; maybe it’s laziness, or maybe they hear something that we don’t.” Mishkin agrees, “It’s relatively indie pop-ish, I think. Upbeat, fairly melodic, but it certainly isn’t dance-punk, and I don’t think it’s very retro sounding. If it is retro, it’s not from the ‘70s. More like the mid-‘90s.”
But if misappellation was a matter of timing or trends, the band certainly managed to win over Denver media and establish itself as one of the area’s up-and-coming acts in rapid succession. Hot IQs attribute the majority of this initial success to the growth of Denver as a Mountain States music capital. “Personally, I think [the Denver scene] has grown a lot in the last five years,” says Feuchtinger. Acosta confirms, “It’s definitely a good community. The bands are pretty much the fans, and there are just so many bands right now.” Feuchtinger adds, “That’s what makes a scene. Denver’s never really had that before, that support. Scenes only happen when bands support each other.”
Parlaying that local support into national attention is more difficult. Isolated by the mountains to the west, and the plains to the east, Denver has a tough time drawing interest from outside its borders. But more than this, Denver has always stayed fairly under the radar, and is only recently picking up from a slump in local support in past years. In spite of this, thanks to word of mouth and key appearances around the country, Hot IQs have managed to help change a few minds. Feuchtinger notes, “The fans know about Denver a lot more than the bands [we play with]. They’re hearing more good things about Denver, and the music, than the people in the music industry.” Acosta adds, “At the last couple of festivals that we’ve done outside of Denver—South by Southwest and the Midwest Music Summit—the Denver Post is there, the Hi-Dive is there, the Larimer Lounge is there, putting on their own showcases, which is bringing Denver to the forefront of music right now.”
Hot IQs have the chance to continue this outward expansion this Fall, as the band is releasing a new EP, Dangling Modifier, and a second full-length planned for early 2007. The new EP finds the band taking a big step forward in arrangement, crafting more intricate melodies, and having generally congealed into a tighter unit. “Retromuff” continues the tradition of witty lyrical observations, almost sarcastically commenting on the odd genre-lumping that occurred with the first album, while actually riffing on indie fashion statements. “Let’s Inflate” shows their pop sensibilities crystallizing around more intricate guitar parts. And “Elephant in White” merges those strains into a powerful, tight indie rock tune that suggests a well-crafted direction for Hot IQs moving into the future.
As Mishkin states, “It’s more representative of where we’re at now. The old one, we really didn’t know what we were doing. Now we barely know what we’re doing.”
Of course, whatever they’ve done seems to have been right, blind luck or not. Whether Hot IQs will continue to charm the Denver local scene in the face of increasing competition from talented new acts remains to be seen, but the band is already focusing its sights on the broader national and international stage. And with two promising releases to help spread the word, and a slew of road trip touring stops in coming months, chances are the crush will spread and yet more people will confess to liking hot IQs in the coming months.