Huerco S. and the Earth of Dance Music, by Nick Felaris
A magenta sky smeared into an amber mustard-gold. Sunbeams ribboned through bony cedarwood fingers, streaking onto two concrete cylinders wedged in a dirt mound. It was a beautiful Sunday morning. I perched, coffee in hand, on American land artist Nancy Holt’s 1979 sculpture, Star-Crossed, outside of Miami University’s art museum. And I listened to Kansas musician Huerco S.'s 2016 album, For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have).
Huerco S. (real name Brian Leeds) digs deep into dance music’s earth. An archaeologist in outsider house — a subgenre of house that favors lo-fi production — Leeds brings a refreshingly “earthy” sound to dance music. Leeds and his Internet outsider house contemporaries represent a milestone in dance and ambient music: a movement that asks listeners to pay closer attention to sonic texture and detail.
Leeds’ hometown of Emporia, Kansas, lies miles away from outsider houses’s electronic music influences: ambient music and IDM (intelligent dance music). Long after Frankie Knuckles’ Chicago deep house mixes from the 1980s, Warp Records premiered its 1992 compilation, Artificial Intelligence. Warp’s IDM compilation and its artists, namely Aphex Twin, tested dance music’s limits through ambient soundscapes.
As author Marc Weidenbaum describes in his book on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II , “chillout rooms” from raves played a role in dance music’s ambient influences:
“Raves were dark, murkily architected, often expansive spaces in which sensory overload and disorientation was a common goal… Side spots became part of the organizational infrastructure, sometimes more akin to VIP rooms, which led to yet another branch of rave music…”
By the time “outsider house” became a genre, it had been primarily fueled by Internet discussions on challenging genres, namely ambient, techno and dubstep. In 2013, long after Selected Ambient Works Vol. II blossomed from Weidenbaum’s “chillout rooms,” The Guardian writer Lanre Bakare first identified “outsider house” in 2013. Namedropping Hessle Audio’s Ben UFO, who likened lo-fi production to the “outsider house” artistic movement, Bakare reflected on DIY lo-fi producers with this “outsider artist” perspective:
“Outsider house might sound like another pretentious microgenre, but its proponents are continuing dance music's long lo-fi lineage.”
For a moment, set aside any inner cynicism you may have against our current generation’s idea of what “dance music” is: a multimillion-a-year, EDM festival-infused, David-Guetta-Eiffel-65-interpolated, deadmau5-driving-a-Nyan-Cat-Lamborghini celebrity culture. Weidenbaum and Bakare praise dance music that exists in microgenres outside of the club and beyond the excess of partying. In reality, the history of dance music exists in chillout rooms and urban environments. Between Frankie Knuckles’ Chicago groovy R&B remixes and Aphex Twin’s chillout rooms, the most publicized dance music has always thrived in one specific environment: the city.
In other words, nowhere near Leeds’ hometown of Emporia.
Emporia is where Leeds developed an interest in punk-rock and Native American earth monuments. Leeds released 2013’s Colonial Patterns through producer Oneohtrix Point Never’s now-defunct record label, Software. During this time, Leeds reflected on land art and punk-rock to Spin:
“I looked at these geographic structures, and the way they built structures and applied that to sounds using a very sculptural process for making music… I think dance music, experimental music, is more punk rock than anything else, because it’s rebelling or going against what is considered a ‘song’ or a ‘standard.’”
Evoking pre-Colonial pottery and indigenous earthworks, Colonial Patterns embodies Leeds’ “sculptural” dance music philosophy. The opener, “Struck With Deer Lungs,” rasps and wheezes with a gravelly synthesizer loop. “Plucked From the Ground, Towards the Sun” transforms its bumpy electronic heartbeat into a flatland of atmosphere.
Understanding a “beat” in Colonial Patterns is like finding an arrowhead: its pointed shape juts out in an ambiance of earth and clay. For example, “Ragtime U.S.A. (Warning)” is an unexpected-180-of-a-banger whose “warning, warning, warning” vocal sample mantra pounds against its queasy drone.
Leeds’ imagery is only strengthened through his use of titles. “Canticoy,” according to Pitchfork, is “a word of Native American origin that means a lively social gathering.” “Monks Mound (Archaeology)” references a real Mesoamerican mound in Collinsville, Illinois.
Colonial Patterns is Leeds’ response to dance music’s sheen veneer. It highlights the then-22-year-old’s remarkable abilities and challenges the listener to view dance music as a living, breathing element.
In 2016, Leeds moved away from Kansas to a small Brooklyn apartment, where he would later release For Those of You… under Anthony Naples’ Proibito label. Soon after, Leeds founded his own label, West Mineral Ltd. and began experimenting under ambient pseudonyms (such as Pendant) while giving fellow outsider house friends (such as Pontiac Streator) an opportunity to create playful dance music experiments.
For Those of You… takes all of Leeds’ new experiences during this period and beams them through Colonial Patterns’ muddy house skeleton.
“A Sea of Love” is, frankly, a gorgeous opener: an ambient opus whose mournful choir drone, cascading seafoam background crackle, and bashful synth melody fill the listener with an insatiable longing. Looping melodies on “Lifeblood (Naïve Melody)” and “On the Embankment” snake and rattle, building dry landscapes. Moments of solace such as “Promises of Fertility” console the listener.
Once again, Leeds’ evocative titles conjure vivid rural imagery. The looping synthesizer in “Cubist Camouflage” samples sound like a Cézanne painting’s smeary landscape. As a whole, For Those of You… feels unusually comforting. It’s something more natural than dance music.
Holt, the artist behind Star-Crossed, was a key figure in the land art movement: a late 20th-century modern art movement that combined man-made structures with earth materials. Holt’s site-specific installations involve concrete tubes, often built into the ground or on flat land. For Star-Crossed, Holt constructed a reflecting pool and positioned each concrete tube to precise 20-degree angles. She took painstaking detail to transform these concrete cylinders into part of the land itself.
Like Holt’s fusion of man-made materials and earth, Leeds uses his “sculptural music” philosophy and applies it to ambient music and dance music alike. Using drum patterns and ambiance, Leeds’ Midwestern outsider house style evokes nature and earth. Outsider house musicians as a whole are disinterested in EDM’s tropes and clubs. They have an approach to dance music that simply feels more natural. I’m willing to bet Huerco S. is the next best thing in the genre. Huerco S. records feel like “healing music.”
By the time I walked down to Star-Crossed, I’d had a rough couple of weeks. My computer broke. I missed my friends in Toledo, Ohio. I had bills due the next week. “A Sea of Love” began with its reassuring choir drone. I gazed north above Star-Crossed’s hill, into the mustard-gold sky, and I felt better.
Up on Star-Crossed, I reflected on Leeds’ quote about dance music being “more punk than punk.” A Midwesterner raised on punk and dance music myself, I can’t help but agree. Steam seeped into my eyes. Coffee in the crisp Sunday air. I’m in Leeds’ Midwest: an area detached from city culture that’s quiet and sheltered from nightlife. It is a peaceful flatland away from the club, where we hope to be liked, meet people for connections, party for connections, connections, connections. City worries melt into a sea of soil and cedarwoods and love. I’m home.