Since 2007, Brandon Juhans has recorded mystifying electronic music under the moniker Madbearhanz, or, simply, Hanz. But his interest in experimentation extends back much further.
"Visual art was my original outlet until I picked up music as a teen. I was making these surreal black and white illustration and collages for a long time," he says. "Now I'm making the audio version of those styles."
This week Juhans delivers a new volume of work as Hanz: Plasty I, an EP that's being released by the celebrated New York label Tri-Angle Records. The EP, a follow-up to 2016's acclaimed Reducer, is a step forward and his venture into William Burroughs-style cut-up beatmaking. During the recording, Juhans recorded dozens of songs, only to chop out fragments and tumble them together in unorthodox ways. Plasty I is the first in a two-part series that draws on repeating musical themes and elements that refract in and out. It's heady stuff, but it's also compelling. Where plenty of artists claim in press releases that their music provides a window into their mind and creative process, Juhans actually seems to accomplish that.
Juhans says that two of his big visual influences are surrealist animators Satoshi Kon and Ralph Bakshi. Like those artists, Juhans's work is suffused with a kind of woozy, unknowable horror and absurdism about everyday life. "Plasty" utilizes pedestrian beat ingredients: kick drums, synth plucks, beeps and bloops, arranged in complex, bizarre, nearly comical combinations. Opener "Advice Ad" storms in with what sounds like a buzzing swarm of acoustic guitars. "Your Local Shapeshifter" sounds like drum-and-bass music running off the rails into madness.
Like fellow experimentally minded Tri-Angle label-mates Rabit and Serpentwithfeet, a through line of tradition still lurks below Juhans's subversion. His music scans as informed by classic hip-hop production, if a deformed, unrecognizable version of it. You can almost imagine an adventurous rapper going in over "King Speed," a barbed take on nineties rap. Asked what musicians he looks up to, he mentions the rap group Shabazz Palaces and the Japanese producer Foodman, who both gleefully smash conventional music forms into anarchic collage. He also gives props to the pop singer Björk, who is reportedly a fan of his and has brought out his music in live DJ sets.
Juhans currently resides in Durham, which has bubbled up on the American electronic music map over the last few years thanks to the presence of Moogfest. A common criticism of the festival—one that the organizers have increasingly attempted to remedy with local workshops and other forms of outreach—is that, despite its main attraction as a who's who of international underground talent, it can paint over actual local underground artists and those who do the work of maintaining venues and nurturing talent. More specifically, it can make the local community seem more supportive of leftfield electronic music than it is. Juhans is a bit isolationist about Durham's place in the electronic scene at large.
"I think music scenes are like online communities now, less location based," he says. He doesn't align himself much with local efforts but acknowledges that the state "has a lot of creative potential and it will continue to." Still, he enjoys playing out locally.
"I think everything I've made is meant to be played out loud," he says. "On headphones, there's a lot to hear in the background, but [people] should definitely play this on a system. Everything is different and more physical live. I think it can be fun to test the audience."
As with any ambitious artist, he isn't going to draw an easy-to-follow map for that audience, though. "Plasty I and II have a variety of influences, moods, and personal meanings," he says, "But I want to leave it open to interpretation."