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The Key of Q work with pockets of improv

The Charleston electronic band launches its biggest exploration yet

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King Street has been kind to The Key of Q. Their first ever gig was an impromptu affair at the Silver Dollar, called together by a DJ friend who needed a backing band.

That was 10 years ago. The collaboration caught on, taking the name Animal Crackers. In 2001, on my first night out in Charleston, a friend took me to the downtown Kickin' Chicken (then the only one) to see her "new favorite band." The scene immediately impressed me. The rhythm section, with bassist Nick Caruso's confident playing in particular, had me seeking the group out on each return visit.

Flash forward to 2004, when the band was called Dr. Teeth. At the height of their popularity, at the second Contagious Collaboration festival on the Edisto River, they announced that they were changing their name to The Key of Q. Some other Charleston bands were playing all-instrumental music, but with their large ensemble and elaborate, jazzy arrangements, Q seemed to have the most potential in the electronic/dance music scene.

But today, the current seven-piece lays relatively low. They perform Sunday evenings at Chai's and book occasional gigs at the Pour House, where several members have worked on-and-off for years.

"It's not any of our goals to be a touring band," says guitarist Jack Powell. "Someone might wonder, 'Why the hell are you still doing this?' I think I'd say that it's mainly cathartic. It's just fun for us; we still reach that place where it's just fun to do. I don't think any of us have super big expectations, but it's something we all enjoy enough to keep alive."

Powell is one of the brains behind Open Dome Productions, a local multimedia production company that specializes in films shown in immersive, inflatable domes. The Key of Q's Sunday night performance at the Pour House caps the company's official launch party (see story on p 41).

Powell says the night will include upwards of eight projectors, with the room's walls and ceiling bathed in images and video. The band has a full-time VJ, "Soup," who controls the displays, including a live camera feed of the band, in real-time with the music.

"It's definitely going to be the biggest visual experience The Key of Q has ever produced," says Powell.

That's a giant promise from a band known for delivering a full visual/aural experience. Even with everything to look at, the band isn't slacking on their music. They plan to debut new material, as well as drawing deep into their catalog of favorite old tracks.

Fellow guitarist McIver Wells grew up in Chapel Hill with Powell, and the pair have played together for two decades.

With their completely instrumental make-up, including Chris Duvall on keys, two percussionists (Brian Ledbetter on drums and Chris Wildes on percussion), and DJ Kurfu adding samples and textures, The Key of Q often find themselves labeled a jam band. In fact, their songs are tightly structured, drawing more from jazz than loose improvisation, although there's designated space to explore.

"Everything's pretty technical. It's an aggressive funk structure, with a pocket assigned for improv," explains Wells. "A random onlooker might not immediately grasp the complexity of the songs, but that's okay. It's kind of a bonus. They're walking into what they might think is a jam band, but it turns out to be this progressive, complex soundscape that's constantly evolving."

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