As musical instruments go, it’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen.
The B. Meowsic electronic piano is a toy keyboard with a big orange tabby-striped feline face, on which the black and white keys form a wide Cheshire cat’s grin. I come across the absurd instrument on Charlotte synthwave artist Christopher Gurney’s Facebook post. Gurney, who composes and performs as IIOIOIOII (pronounced Eye-Oh), is wondering if he should get the keyboard, solder a mic and potentiometer to it and bring it onstage when he plays his brand of melodic electronic pop at The Milestone on Jan. 15.
He’s joking of course. Can you imagine seeing a crazy cat keyboard in the middle of a lushly romantic goth/darkwave/synthpop video or live gig? It would be like Hello Kitty parachuting into the middle of a film noir. Gurney’s FB post is characteristic of the 36-year-old musician. It highlights his playfulness, good humor and open-minded attitude — qualities that Gurney also attributes to Charlotte’s frequently misunderstood dark music scene.
Goth rock and synthwave music is often misconstrued or lumped together with other genres that are more aggressive, Gurney says. The lyrical content of the city’s darkwave artists is not about anger or violence, he continues. “Instead it embraces self-resolution and acceptance.”
A close look at Gurney’s work seems to confirm his thesis. The 2015 video for his song “We Are the One” depicts nature in full bloom, and not the clichéd Wuthering Heights-style forbidding moors or blasted heath that darkwave’s detractors might expect. The bucolic vistas in the video provide a backdrop for Gurney’s soaring yet soothing melody, danceable mid-tempo beats and fine-grained vocals. The lyrics, unsurprisingly, are about embracing people different than you and practicing acceptance.
Acceptance is a word Gurney uses a lot when describing the message imparted by his music, perhaps because he was so readily accepted by Charlotte’s dark scene once he took the plunge into live performance.
“A lot of people didn’t even know I had a music project until a couple years ago,” says Gurney, who started IIOIOIOII as an electronic bedroom project in 2012. Once word got out about his darkwave project, the scene proved highly supportive, he continues. Gurney credits former Milestone owner and current soundman Jonathan Hughes for encouraging his 2016 entry into live performance, when he persuaded IIOIOIOII to play a show with self-described “nerdy bass-music duo” Crunk Witch. As luck or fate would have it, IIOIOIOII will be sharing the Milestone stage again with the playful Presque Isle, Maine-based performers, almost two years to the day of Gurney’s debut live show.
Nowadays, Gurney considers The Milestone a home away from home for himself and his wife Niki, who plays keyboards in the live configuration of IIOIOIOII. “During the writing process, it’s basically me holed up in a corner by myself,” Gurney confides. “But when we play live I like to have more people onstage. Plus she’s a better piano player than me.”
In some ways, Gurney’s life can be seen as preparation for IIOIOIOII. Born an army brat in Dertingen, Germany, Gurney split his childhood between Germany and the States. His German-born mother and American father were both musicians, but Gurney discovered goth rock, industrial and electronic artists on his own, becoming a fan of the U.K. and European artists featured on German MTV — 1980s synthpop bands like Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears made a particularly indelible impression, he says. But when Gurney moved to America for high school and subsequently college at the Art Institute of Charlotte, he only dabbled in garage rock bands, focusing instead on his design studies.
That explains the origin of his project’s name, a moniker that resembles a string of binary code, Gurney maintains.
“Originally, when I came up with a concept for my band name, it was IIO because I liked the way the letters looked together,” he says. “It was aesthetically pleasing to me.”
Gurney soon discovered that another producer already had dibs on his chosen name. “So I started slapping more and more letters onto the band name until I found something that wasn’t trademarked or copyrighted,” he concludes. Gurney funded his music by buying broken synthesizers and fixing them up, then reselling them at a profit.
“I’m a jack of all trades,” he explains, dismissing the notion that he’s an electronic genius who can turn a cat-faced keyboard into a viable instrument. In his field he has to have a well-rounded understanding of electronics, he insists, mostly because electronic devices break. Gurney’s on-the-job musical training accelerated once he started playing live. Further instruction came courtesy of Hughes.
“When I started playing out I would spend 20 minutes grabbing stuff and wiring everything up,” Gurney remembers. “Jonathan gave me tips and tricks for speeding things up.”
Now he can rig a stage set-up, complete with lights, in 10 minutes. Breakdown is just as efficient. Gurney claims he only leaves his footprints behind. “You don’t want to leave too much for anybody else to have to deal with.”
Initially a studio-only project, IIOIOIOI started releasing material on a series of albums and EPs seven years ago. In 2012, after sharing his music on an online forum, Gurney was approached by the owner of U.K.-based independent label Juggernaut. Gurney signed on, and Juggernaut released IIOIOIOII’s self-titled EP along with its follow-up album Reflect that year. The Rising Sky/Stardust EP came out just before the Sun full-length in 2013. The last two releases were meant to be a breakthrough, Gurney remembers, IIOIOIOII’s commercial coming out party, but instead Juggernaut went belly-up at the end of 2013. Gurney was without a label until late 2015 when he signed with the English label and artist collective Analogue Trash.
“They’re inclusive with all genres, especially electronic music,” Gurney says of his current label. Analogue Trash released the expanded edition of the Post Brimstone EP, which initially got lost in the wake of the Juggernaut debacle. The updated 2016 edition of the EP features remixes of IIOIOIOII tracks by veteran UK synthpop group Nature of Wires, San Diego electronic duo Aimon’s side project Solve, and others.
“Remix work is a big part of the electronic music scene and it’s a great way to make new friends and learn from other artists,” says Gurney, who embraces the collaborative spirit that remixing provides. Through this string of releases, Gurney’s music evolved. When he started the IIOIOIOII project, Gurney favored the traditional, hard-hitting industrial route favored by Skinny Puppy, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, he says. As Gurney developed, he abandoned those performers’ raspy growl for his current melodic vocal approach.
He turned to the ’80s synthwave performers he grew up with for inspiration. Today, even when his voice is compressed or electronically altered, the vocals convey an inviting and all-too-human warmth. The accessible vocals boast the added plus of being easier to sing and less damaging to his vocal chords, Gurney says.
“What sets me apart from the synthwave crowd, usually to my detriment, is that I like to incorporate other genres into my music,” Gurney says.
He’s a big fan of film scores, which explains the cinematic sweep of his music. He has also embraced elements of some of the newer dark genres like witch house, which Gurney describes as the second coming of goth rock. Gurney enthusiastically introduces his discoveries to other bands on the scene, who have been receptive to the new and unusual. Gurney also realized that while live gigs helped him hone his chops, they had also become essential for getting his music heard. It’s a signal to noise equation, Gurney explains.
“When it comes to promoting yourself online, unless you’re dumping a ton of money into promotion, you’re going to get lost in a sea of other bands that are trying to do the exact same thing you are,” he says. From being sequestered away and making music in his bedroom a few years ago, Gurney has now racked up gigs at Snug Harbor, Petra’s and Tommy’s Pub in addition to his beloved Milestone. IIOIOIOII has moved around a bit, as well, playing in N.C. cities like Winston-Salem and as far as Charlottesville, Virginia.
Last fall, The New Beat Productions booked Gurney and his wife to play a Dallas, Texas, show where the couple played with two of Gurney’s inspirations: Belgian industrial music pioneers Front 242 and Danish electronic body music veterans Leaether Strip. In March, IIOIOIOII will return to Texas to play a pair of shows with German synthpop group And One. Early 2019 will also see the release of a new album, Chroma, a collection that Gurney promises will be bigger sounding and more theatrical than his previous work.
Throughout these whirlwind events IIOIOIOII’s mission remains unchanged, Gurney says. It can be heard on Gurney’s song “Path to Lose,” released on the Analogue Trash label sampler in December 2017. Despite the song’s ethereal and pensive feel, swirling cloud layer of synths and ominous roiling undertones, the song is oddly uplifting. The lyrics address the political and social climate that we’ve been building for ourselves in the past few years, says Gurney. The message is grounded yet hopeful.
“If we continue down this path, things are going to get worse. We’re going to hurt people that are part of our community,” Gurney explains. “We need to look inside ourselves.”
Once there, we will find the answer to our predicament, he continues. We will discover that we need to be more inclusive. Despite its ominous-sounding name, Charlotte’s darkwave scene is onboard with this upbeat solution, Gurney believes. It’s an attitude reflected in his shows.
“I’m not bringing chaos onto the stage or into my songs,” he insists. “I just want everyone to enjoy themselves.”
He proves as much on Dec. 28, when he posts a picture of the aforementioned B. Meowsic keyboard with a caption admitting that he bought the bizarre keyboard. He blames peer pressure, but one gets the feeling it was the plan all along.