Herb Sundays 102: Huerco S.
The evasive electronic producer takes you for a drive [season 7 premiere]
Art by Michael Cina
“put it on and go for a cruise…
“There's some bands from the 90's/early 2000's Kansas City/Lawrence, KS scene spread throughout (Giants Chair, Shiner, Shallow, The Casket Lottery, The Appleseed Cast, Frog Pond, Boys Life, The Stella Link, Vitreous Humor)
some classic post-hardcore (Unwound, Far, and Lync)
newer music (Her New Knife, Narrow Head, Stab, Psn15, Lifeguard, Callahan & Witscher feat Ana Roxanne, Eazyhead, Touch Girl Apple Blossom, Sword II)
riyl: post hardcore, slacker rock, emo, math rock, s******e, indie alt post whatever”
-Brian Leeds (aka Huerco S., Pendant, Loidis, etc.)
Brian Leeds’ CV bears some resemblance to other American Electronic Illuminati like Anthony Naples (Herb 99), Galcher Lustwerk (Herb 59), and Laurel Halo in that he has worked through the dance music gauntlet, traveling abroad only to find himself back in the States and has solidly built his own way of doing things. From Kansas to NYC to Paris/Berlin and now in Philadelphia, the man has kept moving and never looks the same in any two photos, that is, if you can find a picture where he’s fully visible at all.
This same wandering obstinance runs through his record label, West Mineral LTD, a Posse Cut of an imprint (named for a city in Cherokee County, Kansas of course) that trades in “everything except for commonly accepted, traditional forms of late 20th / early 21st-century dance music” or as(Herb 80) has remarked, it has "become a hub for similar strains of shadowy ambient (and ambient-adjacent) fare, where genre markers are worn as smooth as limestone, and typical forms of listener-friendliness—melodies, hooks, danceable beats—are locked away in a cabinet of static."
Keeping with this inscrutability, Leeds’ Herb playlist is a rock playlist that asks you to “put it on and go for a cruise…” probably somewhere muddy or rainy with your dog or buddy or both, which tracks. Leeds played in punk and metal bands as a teenager in Kansas before he fell sway to dance music because “it was the opposite of what I’d been involved with for so long. I wanted something more tangible, less abrasive, and more sensual."
But Leeds’ experimental electronic brand is slightly askew from the vaunted and studious traditions of the space. Instead, it’s a burnished, rustic sort of ambient, sans pure bliss, something closer to oblivion; less high-minded reverie and more Cider House Rules ether rag-time.
Hauntology was a British phenomenon, and American ghosts haven't been dead long enough to take on such grandeur; instead, they are unsettled beings that possess Leeds’ sound. His aesthetic caught on quickly though. It didn't hurt that his debut album Colonial Patterns (2013) was issued by the Oneohtix Point Never-curated Software label, which released the founder’s masterful Replica (2011) album a couple of years before, another LP-length parlor trick of loops, equally as baroque and dusted as Patterns. These projects, alongside other insurgent American experimental acts like Emeralds and Belong, helped set a precedent for a darker strain of electronics being considered indie-friendly and accessible, all accepted by, but just outside academia's rarefied clutches.
And this is the appeal of Leeds; it's a generous experimentalism that feels more vagrant than erudite, closer to the gutter than the stars. His debut was reviewed by the great Ruth Saxelby for Pitchfork, who states, “Leeds’ focus is the hidden histories of his homeland in the American midwest. He signposts as much with titles like “Quivira” named for a mythical place “discovered” by a Spanish explorer in the 16th century, “Canticoy”, a word of Native American origin that means a lively social gathering, and “Monks Mound (Arcology)”, which is an ancient earthwork in Illinois. References aside, his music is heavy with layers, symbols, and signals."
I also admire that Leeds' albums are not big statements, though they can amount to something large, at least not on their face, but the art and signifiers can draw you all the way down. While he cut his teeth producing smeared dance tracks (lumped into “outsider” and “lo-fi” house tags) for labels like Opal Tapes and Future Times, his dalliance and still ensuing fistfight with Ambient made him a legend in the process. As both Huerco S. and Pendant, Leeds found a form of the sound that a bio says, carries an"uncertain, but welcoming feeling: neither dread nor relaxation, but somewhere in between, abstracting and arranging rhythm into oblivion." Some of his best work isn’t that easy to source. His most “pure” ambient was a cassette on the Quiet Time cassette label, a room tone wonder.
Three days before Brexit, Leeds released his second album, For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have), which is stone-cold beautiful, but still not without a healthy dose of dread. Released on Naples’ Proibito label, it hit the scene like a bomb and was a reminder that while recent history has said the pandemic was the powderkeg of the ambient boom, it was actually the 2016 election era that necessitated smoother feels. Sam Davies/Bandcamp tells us that the album was compiled from improvised jam sessions at Leeds’ NYC apartment: “Instead of sampling other people, I wanted to sample myself.” He would jam for 45-minute sessions on a range of old machines—including an Ensoniq ESQ-1, a synthesizer from 1985. “In that 45 minutes, I could pull like four or five things out of that,” he says. “Or it could be nothing… It’s easier for me to press record and then at the end of the day press stop and see what I got.”
This Eno-esque approach to systematized performance capture was intentionally meant to help create the album's drifty quality. “A lot of it was like trying to come up with loop points that weren’t just eight or 16 bars….Then you have these weird overlaps where they’ll eventually come back around and sync or phase with each other.”who reviewed the song “Promises Of Fertility” also summons Eno:
“…the type of music that is appropriate to play at a wedding or a funeral. Does that say more about the music, or about those emotions themselves? How can simply feeling deeply be represented by one type of sound? What power do long tones contain? In the hands of most musicians, these ideas are about as boring as they sound, which is why so many people keep reusing Eno's music. Hopefully they'll find Huerco S soon.”
While people wanted Leeds to be Ambient’s savior, he clearly did not care to take on the mantle. He followed the album with Make Me Know You, Sweet under the Pendant alias in 2018 on his own label, which turned up the anxiety slightly and was described by Boomkat (who currently have both Pendant albums in stock on vinyl) as “channeling a latent, esoteric vein of American spirituality [that] is only divined by those who remain open-minded to its effect.” And to show you he still had dancefloor chops, Leeds then released a 12” under the Loidis alias (on which I have good authority will return this year), which I purchased at the sorely missed 2 Bridges Musics Art. Channeling the best dub impulses of Thomas Fehlmann (Herb 74) and parping imagination of Isolée, it is simply one of the best dance singles of the ‘10s.
And yet, dance music doesn't know what to do with Huerco S. His work has less to do with ambient as time goes on, is too primal for IDM, and too wayward for techno. Take his latest album, Plonk (2022). To me, it's a deeply unsettling listen, a real shitkicker with moments of the sublime. For Herb 101, I basically called ML Buch THE “first” music of the 2020s, a tense form of serenity amidst the artificial and obtuse digi-material world, but listening here Plonk again, it sets the tone for the post-Covid age sound, its true spirit of discord. Some songs feel like mid-century electronic compositions but shot through the spangly recesses of ketamine.
The album is definitely a pushback on the ambient tag and a reassertion of his Midwestern/Prairie roots. Yes, even in the “Plonk IX” video, which features DMV rapper Sir E.U, a masked man who I thought was Leeds can be seen doing push-ups on his pickup truck. The bio tells us Plonk “reflects the mournful sodium glow of cities at night, street corners that light up with painful moments of clarity you wish would disappear.” One Huerco-adjacent moment I wish would disappear is vainly taking an Amtrak to Kansas City (Art Institute) from Ann Arbor to chase my college GF, listening to Eno on a yellow Sports Discman. But alas, I’m glad it’s still with me, if only for Herb purposes.
In re-listening, Plonk also recalls feelings of perhaps my favorite Autechre record, 1997’s Chiastic Slide, one of their last with human tissue still attached but slowly dying. "Plonk VIII" soundtracks the imaginary discovery of a locked warehouse floor where you find unmanned machines making 3D-printed replicas of your head. The sort of thing that belongs, valiantly and firmly, in the canon of now.
From The Field:
Speaking of Midwestern electronics, I was heartened to see Jeff Mills’ masterclass 1996 DJ Mix get the Sunday Review treatment in Pitchfork by the wizard. Sadly, there is no official version of the mix on DSPs, but I could see that changing.
I wrote a little about the mix a while back and really appreciate a definitive written document being made available with this review. I eagerly await Gabriel’s forthcoming After Daft book (follow GS’s substack for progress), which probably needs to be updated every 2 weeks at this rate.