The Return of Q
Photo by Jeanne RiceWe bitch too often about "the music industry" and not enough about hometown fans, whose mercurial affections, jealousy and ignorance can be the real art killers. Consider Q, the Fullerton-based studio wizard behind techno project Überzone. Although Q is the first artist in the small but vibrant local techno community to score a bona fide dance hit (1998's "Freakz Believe in Beatz"), he can shop unmolested in any record store in Orange County. During his last formal concert in the county—Fullerton's EarthDay 2000 fest—Q and DJ Davey Dave played in front of 20 or so fans. One stage over, more than 500 people watched Dramarama front man John Easdale tune his guitar. But Q (born Timothy Wiles) just waited for the next opportunity to prove himself.
That time is now. Q's debut full-length album Faith In the Futuredrops Tuesday from Astralwerks, America's top techno label and U.S. home to Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. It's built on the foundation of the breakbeat techno that made Q a superstar DJ, from singles like "Botz" in 1995 and "2Kool4Skool" in 1998.
Faith also aspires to the multihued depth of the best rock albums. It packs the faux classical synthesizer sweeps of the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack next to the body-popping, jerky beats of old-school hip-hop. Along with forays into quasi-romantic synth ballads, ethereal dream pop and stadium-sized big beats, it features a cast of characters including Jamaican toaster Beenie Man, who chants his way through "Science Fiction"; Afrika Bambaataa, flexing some old-school muscle in a remix of "2Kool4Skool"; and former Helmet front man Paige Hamilton, who sings some rock noir in "Frequency."
Q has been dreaming about producing an album like Faith since he first got serious about music in the mid-1980s. But he's not gloating.
"I've stayed humble because I know how difficult it can be to stay in the music industry and do what you want," said the 34-year-old, whose obsession with machines earned him the name Q, just like James Bond's famous gadgeteer. "I haven't had to compromise on anything."
Q is a straight arrow living in a party scene, a son of salt-of-the-earth South Dakotans searching to make important music in an industry obsessed with disposable hits. He developed a singular obsession with electronic music at Anaheim's Loara High School in the mid-1980s. His friends in marching band, Gwen and Eric Stefani, were falling under the spell of the ska that inspired No Doubt. Jazz-band buddy Jeff Buckley was listening to a lot of rock and reggae before he embarked on a solo music career cut short by his drowning death in 1997. But Q's lonesome interest in electronica started with a Kraftwerk tape his neighbor bought as a joke. The German band's mechanical sound grabbed him. But replicating it required the purchase of expensive synthesizers.
Q spent years slaving at lousy jobs—working at a paint store, clerking at Kmart, getting fired from a salad chef's gig—while learning to mimic the sounds of Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa and Depeche Mode.
"I look back, and it seems cruel compared with the way things are now," Q notes. "There was no music software; everything was based on knowing the gear. You had to be a mad scientist back then."
So Q became an electronics expert. "He is by far the most technically oriented dance producer I know," said Daniel Bremmer, a former KUCI DJ who often invited Q to play on his show Space Disco for Fish Tacos. "That's what made people take note of 'Botz.' You can hear his subatomic attention to detail in every measure."
While many DJs wrote songs by splicing beats, Q painstakingly built his music from scratch, tweaking vintage synths and drum machines used by other breakbeat artists and later blending the pop breakbeat style with the complex sound manipulation of such avant-garde composers as Aphex Twin.
But even wizards need guidance. Q had cool ideas but tended to analyze them to death. "Everything I did was too premeditated," he said.
Up-and-coming A&R guy/British expat Justin King came to the rescue. He was then launching the LA-based City of Angels label and nudged and browbeat Q into writing songs. A lot of basement tapes came out of the collaboration, songs like "Earache" and proto-Überzone projects like Senator Pickle.
Inspired by the yield, Q created the music collective he dubbed Überzone. "It means Overzone—'all-encompassing,' 'atmosphere,' even 'heaven,' which is kind of cool," he said. And he hoped to get different creative types to sing over his tracks. But King and business partner Steven Melrose didn't want to wait for a grand statement. They wanted dance hits—pronto.
So with much encouragement, they produced "Botz," an underground dance-floor hit. Strangely, Q didn't go crazy after achieving success, even though Orange County's techno scene was at its peak, with the Irvine nightclub Metropolis regularly hosting acts like the Chemical Brothers.
"He was a quiet guy. There was a party scene, but he was never there. He was straightforward in telling us that he didn't drink or take drugs. No one was opposed to it, but we never invited him to our drug parties," said Dennis Barton of Costa Mesa-based rave project Skylab 2000, half-joking.
However, after the release of the EP Brain Dust, Q began to suspect that people might be getting the wrong idea about his music. So he printed this message on the sleeve of Space Cadet: "Überzone is an anti-drug advocate and does not condone or support use of illegal drugs." (Later, concluding that legal drugs like alcohol did more damage than pot or Ecstasy, he added this note to Faith In the Future: "Überzone supports an anti-drug lifestyle.")
Despite his solid Protestant work ethic, by 1999, Q was no closer to a full-length release. He was bogged down in procrastination, and City of Angels was fighting a breach-of-contract suit filed by its top act, the Crystal Method, who eventually walked.
That's when Astralwerks official Todd Roberts offered Überzone a contract. "I had stuck around the label for a long time and demonstrated all the loyalty I could," said Q, who believed City of Angels lacked the means to support a full-length album. After excruciating negotiations with City of Angels, Q won his freedom. (City of Angels did not return calls for this article.)
Will Überzone's long absence from the airwaves hurt Faith In the Future? Not likely, says electronica A&R guy Andrew Jervis. "There have been no superstars hogging the spotlight," said Jervis, vice president for Newport Beach-based indie label Ubiquity. "So I don't think there's too much of a problem if the record's good."
Q's taking all the right steps to reconnect with his old fans, embarking on the Seven Day Tweekend national tour with his buddies the Crystal Method, still one of the few techno acts to get prime-time play on top-rated KROQ. Astralwerks has promised to flex its marketing muscle.
Faith is an album wrapped in a contradiction. Although produced with machines complex enough to require a degree, Q seeks to communicate youthful simplicity.
"I want to present a wide-eyed, childlike view of the world," Q says, "the innocent me when I was a kid, the wonder, the excitement and the looking forward to all the new things coming up."
Überzone performs with the Crystal Method at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700; www.sun-theatre.com. Wed., 8 p.m. $35. All ages.
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