'Dazed & Confused', the new EP by Iko, is the perfect introduction to a band that has bubbled along in the margins this past decade, but whose time at last has come. It starts quietly, just piano and rolling drumbeat, before the
voice comes in, a voice of high pitch and quivering tremolo that sounds
female but likely isn't, and then it ebbs and flows with impeccable restraint
for four very precise minutes. Like the three other songs on their new EP -
'Lightning Bolts', 'Kites', 'Country Wedding' – 'Dazed and Confused' is quite
so pronouncedly beautiful because of its elegiac simplicity, a simplicity that
tells you here is a band that knows precisely what it is doing.
The EP surfaces at a good time, the lead track has been picked up by hit US
TV show Grey's Anatomy and another of their songs, 'Heart of Stone', finds
itself on the soundtrack to the final Twilight movie - a nice way to get
yourself noticed before an audience of millions: via a moment of rarefied
fragility slap bang in the middle of a film about vampire sex.
In an era where so many bands clamour for attention by boasting aural
pyrotechnics and a vocal that shouts to be heard, Iko are the glaring
exception, a glorious anomaly. By the time they release their third album,
'The Victory Hall', early next year, this will be abundantly clear to all.
Iko is a duo, both of them men: Kieran Scragg, singer, and Neil Reed,
pianist. Based in Devon they have endured the kind of gradual gestation that
may have frequently frustrated them while they were living through it, but
which has allowed them time to develop, and grow, and hone. They emerge
now, consequently, as something close to whispered perfection.
Their professional union dates back to the late 1990s; their personal union
even earlier still. "We've actually known each other since we were teenagers," says Kieran. "Neil came to see me play in my first band." He reddens slightly
when he admits: "We were influenced by The Levellers. I was 15."
Neil forgave this arguable stylistic transgression, and the two became firm
friends. Kieran was the offspring of hippie parents who introduced him to
music early, gave him the middle name Marc after Marc Bolan, and exposed
him to music festivals at an impressionable age. Neil's own youth unfolded
with an absence of pop influence. Instead, his was an entirely classical bent. "I studied piano, and went all the way through to grade 8," he says.
Prodigiously talented, he went on to study for both a degree and a Masters in
music, and developed a devoted appreciation of movie soundtracks that
continues to inform his songwriting today.
By 1999, the pair, along with family friends and the woman that would one
day become Kieran's wife, became Buffseeds, a frothy, infectious indie pop
confection whose beguiling debut, and only, album, 'The Picture Show',
received plenty of Radio 1 Evening Session endorsement, and sent them on
several international tours. "We were 19, 20," Kieran recalls, "and so touring
Europe and America was a lot of fun."
But Buffseeds' trajectory would soon ingloriously stall. This was the year
2004, after all, and music was still in the grip of The White Stripes and too
many bands perhaps a little too in awe of them. Where, precisely, would a
folk-inspired indie act fit in? "We timed it badly, didn't we?" Kieran concedes.
And so, disillusioned, they split up, and returned to the real world, and real
jobs. "I cut sheets of plastic at four o'clock in the morning on a freezing
factory floor," Kieran recalls. "Playing gigs in New York was, quite frankly,
Neil, meanwhile, landed a job teaching music. But acquiring new students
proved arduous. "I was making £14 a week," he says. "And then one day I got
the opportunity to work in a paint factory, which would have paid more. It
was my girlfriend who reminded me that I'd never fallen out of love with
music, and should stay focused."
Iko, then, was essentially born out of necessity. That, and the fact that here
were two natural musicians for whom the overriding urge to write songs was
never going to wane. Born out of a shared love of Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley,
Damien Rice and Smashing Pumpkins, Iko were markedly different from their
previous incarnation, less frothy, more wrought, more introspective - better.
"I've always loved sad music, and whenever I play the piano it's rarely happy," Neil admits, with a disarming smile on his face. "I suppose it reflects my
personality, though I wouldn't say I'm miserable. I am, however, drawn to the
melancholic." His songwriting partner is, too. "I've always admired people
whose music comes from a real place," says Kieran. "And that's what we've
always striven to do ourselves."
This is more than evident from the music they have so far made. To date,
they have released two albums, 'I Am Zero' in 2006, and 'Ludo Says Hi' five
years later. Both are intimate and intricate, sad but blissfully so, and in songs
like 'Damage Report - Hymn At Death's Door' and 'All Time Low' from the
first record, and 'Medicine' and 'Harpoon' from the latter, they sound, much
like all the best songwriters do, as if they have suffered for their art.
And yet, in person, Iko seem bright and effusive, fairly well-adjusted souls.
Misery does not pour obviously from them. "I suppose," says Kieran, "it's true
that sometimes I haven't felt as if enough bad stuff has happened in my life
to make me sing the way I do…" But immediately, he reconsiders. "That's a
dangerous thing to say, isn't it? Not least as I did actually go through a
period in life when many things did go wrong, in all sorts of ways."
These were personal, family matters. Suffice to say there was turmoil, and
depression, and drink, and from this he found much to draw on. "Ultimately,
I want our songs to sound real and heartfelt," he says. "Otherwise, what's the
Their songs have certainly struck a chord, several album tracks subsequently
licensed to major international TV shows, among them Grey's Anatomy and
FlashForward. More seem likely to follow: Evan Katz, one of the producers of
24, and a major Hollywood player, is a huge fan. This pleases music
soundtrack aficionado Neil in particular. "Oh, it's very gratifying," he says. "It
suggests we are doing something right."
Early next year, Iko will release their third album, 'The Victory Hall', their
most fully realised work to date. Produced by honorary third member Sean
Genockey (Manic Street Preachers, Suede, Tom McRae), it once again extols
the many virtues of poise and understatement, and the raw power that
comes from a band so keenly aware of its own strengths. "So many upcoming
bands often try to make it big by jumping into the back of a tour van and
playing every toilet in the country," says Genockey. "But not every band has
to go down that same traditional route. Iko is the perfect case in point. There
is a beauty and honesty to their music that doesn't need the toilet circuit to
shine in. I believe that with their new album they really can go out there and
reach people simply on the strength of its songs."
He’s right. They will.