The sound sculptor talks about the limitless possibilities of his laptop ahead of the release of his debut album on Software.
Huerco S. seems poised for the big leagues. After releasing a series of excellent, subterranean house records over the last year and a half on labels like Wicked Bass, Future Times and Anthony Naples’ Prohibito imprint, the recent Brooklyn inhabitant is about to release his debut full-length on Software. Called ‘Colonial Patterns', the album sees Huerco S. (a.k.a. Brian Leeds) exploring busted, scuffed and ambient textures for what is certainly his most dancefloor-inaccessible release yet.
Combined with thematic gestures to America’s pre- and early-colonial history—featuring track titles such as Stuck With Deer Lungs, Monks Mound (Arcology) and Fortification III—the record places Leeds within a group of young producers less and less interested in explicit dancefloor functionality. Instead, Leeds has developed a keen attention to sonic detail, and seeing himself as more of a collagist, reworks and recontextualises the sonic and historical legacy of house and techno. I caught up with Leeds to discuss growing up in the Midwest, his sense of the area’s history and his own process and attitudes towards music making.
You're just about to release your first album, which is called 'Colonial Patterns'. Between the album title and track names that allude to America’s pre-European history, it seems like there's a consistent theme you’re alluding to.
Yeah, the titles are a bit of a play on history. I'm a huge history buff, and definitely being from the Midwest, especially Kansas City, I felt like it's a really historic place, so I wanted to encapsulate that with the album. In particular, America before white contact, so from around 600 AD all the way into the mid-1400s, this kind of 800 year span. This idea of an untouched new world seemed really fascinating, but that wasn’t the reality. People think that America was really untouched, but the Native Americans definitely had an infrastructure, they built roads, they built cities, but I think people kind of thought that it was just this completely unscathed landscape, and I just thought that was really interesting.
In contrast to a lot of the tracks you've released so far, there aren't as many 4/4, dancefloor oriented tracks on the new album. Instead there's a lot of ambient and textured sounds. What motivated you to go down that route?
I feel like I've already been going towards that style for a while now. It just felt like a natural progression to not always just make house music, although I still feel like there's a lot of cuts on the album that are kind of in that vein. But it's obviously a bit easier to be more experimental when you're not confining yourself to a beat. Also I really love Shed's LPs, and his 12"s and full-lengths, they're completely different. Whereas the 12"s, like the Wax EPs, are always banging, dancefloor records, his LPs are further reaching. I think the format lead a lot to me wanting to be a bit further reaching. A 12” has a purpose, especially within dance music there has to be at least one song on it that can be a DJ tool or something, that you're going to want to drop. I feel like that pressure's a little off when it's an album, you have a bit more room to breathe.
I was wondering about your musical background growing up. Do you have much of a background in noise and experimental music, which I know is pretty big in the Midwest?
Yeah, punk rock is the biggest thing for everyone. In America you get a guitar really young, especially coming out of the mid-'90s, that whole culmination of grunge and punk and a lot of this pop-punk from Southern California and stuff like that was really big. I was in punk bands as a kid, from maybe 13, 14 on, and then I started getting into more hardcore and noise and metal things, so I did that until I was about 17.
And how did you make the leap into dance music from that?
So I was in a band with this kid and he went to France to visit his aunt or something like that, and then he came back and was really into drum 'n' bass, so he kind of introduced me to drum 'n' bass. We'd always listen to these podcasts and things, especially this one label, Hospital Records. I really dug it, I don't really know why, but I was just getting a bit tired of listening to fucking hardcore and metal all the time, it's draining, so I think I just wanted something else.
How did you find getting into dance music and starting producing and DJing in a place where there was no real dance music culture to speak of?
It was more producing, I never really DJed until well after. There wasn't anywhere to do it, so it was just like, why bother? So I produced for a while, maybe two years, before I even considered DJing. And then it was more like, I didn't really know how to do a live set either, so it was like covering both bases or something. If I wanted to do a performance it would have to have been DJ. It was really difficult but me and a friend of mine finally put together a night in Lawrence, Kansas, where I lived for a while. It was at a really tiny bar, and we had the basement. You could maybe fit 60 people tops, and occasionally we'd have a good turn-out, but as a whole most people don't - I mean there had been dance parties and stuff, but not on a degree of house or techno or any kind of deeper strains. A dance party in the Midwest, that's like party music, throwback to classic hip-hop and disco or something like that. That's generally what people would want to hear, as opposed to just straight techno or something. It was really hard, I guess only being exposed to it via the internet is really the only way that I got into that stuff, which is kind of crazy.
"All my demos were just like complete shit. We used to have this really old Gateway desktop, and we just recorded with the mic that you would use for chat. I guess it seems nostalgic, but that's what I've always been doing, so I've never really wanted to segue into these more like polished things." - Huerco S.
There seems to be a burgeoning group of producers, who you’re often lumped in with, who have a scuffed, lo-fi take on house music. Why do you think so many producers lately—a lot of whom didn't come from a dance music background—are exploring warped, decayed and just generally fucked up sounds within house and techno?
I feel like maybe if you don’t come from a dance music background like myself, that was always just the way you recorded. All my demos were just like complete shit. I remember we had a practice space in my friend’s parents' spare bedroom in the basement, and we used to have this really old Gateway desktop in there, and we just recorded with the mic that you would use for chat back then, everything off of one mic. So I guess it goes back to those original recording processes or something like that. I guess it seems a bit nostalgic or something, but that's what I've always been doing, so I've never really wanted to segue into these more like polished things. And it's also because I never really had the opportunity to work with Pro Tools or something like that.
I was going to ask you about nostalgia, actually. Dance music typically has quite a future-oriented momentum, whereas a lot of recent artists, particularly those associated with “outsider house", people like Actress, the Opal Tapes and L.I.E.S. labels, IVVVO, seem to be looking backwards at dance music history and recontextualising it. How do you see the role of nostalgia within your own music, and also in relation to the historically-minded conceptual framework of Colonial Patterns?
I think just in the namesake—like patterns, colonial patterns—I kind of look at myself almost as a collagist more than an actual composer, especially in the way these sounds aren't necessarily all synthesised, with them being recontextualised from previous samples or something like that. But I think there's just too much good music that has been kind of overlooked and even things that aren't necessarily music have been overlooked, so to go back and then to rediscover these and recontextualise them, I think is still important. And doing that in a good way is still in keeping with the way dance has always been futurist. You can still look at the past, because obviously it's going to repeat itself. That's the biggest thing with history, which is why people study it, is it's going to happen again. I guess to be aware of that, to be conscious, is probably better than just denying that.
You just completed a European tour, was that your first?
Yeah, that was the first time I'd ever been to Europe. It was awesome.
How was that? How did you find the DJ and dance music culture over there compared to the US?
It was a lot of fun, but I think as a whole it seems a bit more receptive or something. People are a bit more genuine when they go out, because they're there for a particular reason, and that's usually to listen to music. In the States in particular most of these events that anyone would play are kind of like—people would go there for the music, but at the same time I feel like it's more of a social thing, and you're going to see who's there, hang out with your friends, and it's not as much of, "Oh yeah, this artist is in town, let's go check him out."
"People are almost a bit surprised when they find out that I don't have a lot of gear, I feel like your computer is your biggest tool and it's often overlooked." - Huerco S.
I find that in New York...
In New York in particular. If you play a show here, there'll be this hum of just chatter just hanging about the venue, but I feel like that didn't exist in Europe.
Do you have a live show?
Not currently. I used to, but I never made music live, so I didn't really know how to break it down or whatever. And I didn't use Ableton, and I feel like that's a really easy tool when it comes to live sets. I was more or less breaking these tracks down into individual stems, like I'd have a drum track from a specific song, and I'd kind of DJ that out with four other decks or something like that, and that was as close to a live set as I ever got. I feel like there's a lot of pressure to do live now within electronic music. And it's really funny, you actually get paid more too. Just from a financial standpoint I feel like people are like, "Yeah, you should do a live set." And people always want to hear your music or whatever, but I just don't really want to cheat people and be the guy with just a laptop and MIDI controller. I've been really disappointed when I show up someplace where the artist is billed as live and they just have a laptop.
Can you talk about your set-up, it's pretty much laptop-based, right? Do you use hardware at all?
Yeah, I have a couple of keyboards. I’ve been using the MicroKORG a lot, a Casio MT-520, and I have this other really shitty Casio. I don't really have any cool features aside from the MicroKORG or anything, but it's mostly for doing melodies or something, or just re-sampling individual key tones and then breaking that down using FL Studio. Going back to that collage thing, building these patterns and loops and kind of re-listening over and over again, just this really repetitive - almost like sculpture or something, just adding and subtracting things. Not a lot of raw synthesis I guess.
Do you use a lot of samples? Some of your tracks sound like you're using disco loops.
Some of them. Like the Royal Crown of Sweden record is definitely a bit more like that, but that's kind of a whole other thing. I wanted it to be like this Paul Johnson EP that I was really influenced by, and it was called just like, 'Simple Beats With Sweet Samples' or something really hilarious. So I was just like, "Yeah, that's a great idea, just keep it really house-y". But for a lot of this record and others I've been trying to sample things that aren't already in that context, so like commercial music or elements from films or something like that.
What do you think of the current trend for analogue hardware house, like what the L.I.E.S. people are doing? Do you feel much of an affiliation with that stuff, despite your different production techniques?
Ron [Morelli]'s always been really supportive. When I found out he was jamming some of my tracks or he'd put them in mixes I was like, "Oh shit, here's this guy that I thought was kind of doing his own thing." I played with Bookworms and Steve Summers and all of those dudes at Cameo Gallery a while ago, and I was like the only guy with like a laptop—that was the last time I did a live set. And actually Willie Burns came up to me and said something like, "It doesn't matter if you're playing off a laptop, at least you're not playing some regurgitated '90s bullshit," and I'm like, "That's cool." I love those guys and the things that they're putting out, but there comes a point where you have this gear, but you can make so many other things. You don't have to just make a dance track, like a Larry Heard-sounding thing. There's so many people doing that right now and I think they feel like they need to have all this gear to do anything, and in reality you could do the same thing with a computer. People are almost a bit surprised when they find out that I don't have a lot of gear, I feel like your computer is your biggest tool and it's often overlooked.
"Dan [Oneohtrix Point Never] sent me a message like, ‘Yo, Hiromi's Theme is a really sick track.’ And I'm like, ‘Alright, cool.’" - Huerco S.
You've just moved to Brooklyn, how are you finding it so far? Have you been hanging out and jamming with any other musicians?
I've been hanging out with my buddy Brian Pineyro a lot, and he's roommates with Aurora Halal, so we'll go over there and we'll all jam together and stuff like that. I hang out with Terekke sometimes, and we're trying to do something. This dude Max Ravitz who makes music as Patricia and actually just had something come out on Opal Tapes. Even people outside of the L.I.E.S crew, there's a lot of people here doing really cool things. There's like three Opal Tapes people here, the dudes from White Material… It's a lot of fun being in Brooklyn, being out of the Midwest.
How did your relationship with Software come about?
Soundcloud. Just a private message. Dan sent me a message like, "Yo, Hiromi's Theme is a really sick track." And I'm like, "Alright, cool." That's like Oneohtrix Point Never being like, "This song is cool," so that was a bit crazy. He was just like, "If you ever want to work on a record, like a full-length, let us know." And at that point no one had really approached me about doing a full-length or anything. It was more like, "Let's do a 12" or something," so I thought that was really nice. I thought it would be a good fit, so I went for it.
And what's in store for the future?
I think I'm going to do another Royal Crown of Sweden record with Anthony [Naples] at the beginning of next year, on his label Proibito. I have a collection of some stuff that is kind of from around the same time as the album. I don't really know yet, I feel like I have a lot of options, but I don't really know exactly what to do right now, and also I kind of want to—not take time off—but just kind of sit and let it happen for a bit. This year's been pretty busy for me in terms of releases I feel like, so I don't have to put out a record every month. It'll be nice to kind of just hang out for a while.
Software will release 'Colonial Patterns' on the 23rd September 2013. It's currently streaming in full over on Dazed Digital.