The first thing you notice is the whistling: this sprightly ditty that feels familiar at first, but you can’t put your finger on it. Then he rounds the corner, a willowy, relaxed figure with a phlegmatic smile and a wild poof of curly blonde locks. His name is Nick Leng, and though he came of age to legally purchase a beer just weeks ago, he is making some of the most intoxicating and emotionally charged electronic music in town.
“My friends know when I’m coming because I’m always whistling,” Leng says in his distinct Johannesburg accent, “either this one classical piano song by Chopin or just making up little things. But I’m whistling wherever I go.”
The musician moved from South Africa to the Bay Area at age eight and is now in his second year studying music at Point Loma Nazarene University. The campus’s ocean influence shows in his expansive compositions. Beats built from modified field recordings, 12 years of classical piano training, and melodic hooks that murmur into the ears like a coastal zephyr typify Leng’s soundscapes, which unfold with the soporific tranquility of a catnap in a field of diazepam dandelions.
“I’m kind of meshing the whole indie world with the beat world,” says Leng over a cup of coffee in Golden Hill. “I want it to get stuck in your head and induce all these emotions and memories, just throw people back into their heads, into their own zone.”
If SoundCloud stats are any reliable indicator, Leng’s undertaking has been a success. His debut release, “Opium of the Steeple,” was posted less than a year ago, but his follow-up single, “Crawled Out of the Sea,” has already garnered nearly 70,000 listens and over 440 reposts.
“I always like listening for new sounds,” Leng says. “One time I built a whole drum kit from having tea with my friends. I put on my computer and just from the little noises that people make when they’re having tea, I was able to take all those small things and — you wouldn’t be able to recognize it as people having tea — but I was able to build a drum kit with that.”
On top of his home-baked beats, Leng plays a MIDI keyboard into Ableton software while triggering samples and modified vocals on a Novation Launchpad. The result is a breezy amalgamation of several distinct influences: the ethereal swells of Sigur Ros, the modern classical minimalism of Arvo Pärt, the metaphysical experimentation of Youth Lagoon, and Brainfeeder’s cerebral beatwork, to name a few.
“That’s something I’m really thankful for. My parents raised me with such a wide taste. My mom had me listening to classical music when I was little and my dad had me listening to jazz and a bunch of other things. So, I’ve always been open to a lot of styles.”
Leng aims to tour over the summer and eventually move into film scoring, which would be a natural next step for his already cinematic soundtracks. His “Crawled Out of the Sea” video, for example, is a bizarre, comedic short (directed by Swedish filmmaker Christian Svanlund) about a man who, under the influence of a mysterious psychedelic, attempts (and, with more than a touch of slapstick, fails) to skateboard on the beach sand and rocks before discovering a small cage, with which he proceeds to make love.
And while Los Angeles is the de facto destination for film, Leng believes that his music “is more of a San Diego sound than an L.A. sound, because San Diego seems slightly more slowed down, almost hazy in a way, and that’s how my songs are — just laidback and chill. I really like that. It matches who I am.”
Leng’s first show was last summer at Whistle Stop for the debut Astro Jump, a monthly showcase curated by local label Kill Quanti.
“Sonny is such a great guy,” Leng says of Santino “Sonny” Romeri, who manages the label with his Illuminauts bandmates David Peña and Nicky Castaneda. “He found me on Bandcamp, and now I call him one of my friends. I’m really thankful that he reached out. I’m not sure that, if he hadn’t reached out to me, I would be where I’m at today. By asking me to play, he kind of challenged me. That really set me off and gave me focus.”
Over the past five years or so, Kill Quanti has put out limited-run cassette and vinyl releases from exploratory artists such as Mystery Cave, eLan, Killer Swan, DJ Pound, Ultragash, Mr. Brady, and Abjo. They’ve also cultivated a forum for local and touring talent via regular events at venues including Whistle Stop, Soda Bar, Kava Lounge, and the Casbah.
“I’m still surprised that this tiny idea has become anything at all,” Chula Vista native Romeri says. “We may not have massive internet numbers for one reason or another, but I’m even more proud of the fact that Kill Quanti exists tangibly in the real world. It’s been really fulfilling to engage with people and actually exchange physical energies in an increasingly digital age.”
Though the label just released an EP cassette by California-gone-Osaka producer Magical Mistakes (featuring a Leng remix), Romeri says the future is “a bit hazy to me right now, but I’m hopeful. Ideally, I’d like to get back to actually creating more and focusing less on the business side of things. Sometimes I forget that I’m a musician first and foremost. Regardless of whatever’s next, big thanks to everyone who has supported this silly little endeavor of ours. It’s really dictated the course of my life the past few years and opened doors I didn’t even know were there. I’ve never felt so much love for and from San Diego. I’m proud to call it home.”