Dance

Gaiser on the Transformative Power of Techno & His New 'III' Album

Jon Gaiser
Courtesy of Jon Gaiser

Jon Gaiser

Jon Gaiser can still remember his initial exposure to the alluring power of techno. "The first time I heard techno I liked was [from] Richie [Hawtin]; he was playing a lot of 303 acid records and stuff like that," Gaiser recalls, speaking over the phone from his Michigan home. "I was surprised. As a punk drummer [at the time], I liked to blast out, and I needed the energy. This was intense and overwhelming: the pumping energy of the rhythm, these crazy mind-bending sounds over the top."

Attending that party, at Michigan State University in East Lansing, was the start of a long and fruitful relationship between Gaiser, Hawtin, and a focused, precisely articulated edge of electronic music. When Gaiser releases his new album, III, on Friday, it will come out on MINUS, the label founded by Hawtin in 1998. In fact, almost everything Gaiser has ever released has come out in MINUS. He has never even sent out a demo.

That's just one of several qualities that sets Gaiser apart from your average maker of electronic music. When most producers go on tour, they DJ, but Gaiser prefers to play live. "If I've got gigs this weekend and I want to play something new, I have to write something new," he says matter-of-factly.

And though remixing is standard practice throughout most of electronic music, Gaiser has never let anyone remix his music. He only just recently relaxed his rule for the first time, allowing another techno luminary, Dubfire, to rework the III single "On the Way."

"I've been lucky enough to have people around me who are doing things like doing labels and releasing music," Gaiser tells Billboard Dance as he reflects on his impressively idiosyncratic career. "I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to have the right influences right near me."

The place was Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was within striking distance of Detroit -- "an hour and a half," Gaiser says, "if you have a lead foot and there's no traffic." The time was the '90s, when techno continued to flourish in the city's music scene. And the influences were the DJs in clubs and the men and women hunting for vinyl in Detroit's record stores. 

Gaiser wasn't born a techno-head: initially he was committed to extreme rock and roll. "I was a kid growing up in the '80s, skating, listening to punk," he remembers. "They didn't teach punk at school, otherwise I would've taken that class." Instead, he played drums in the school symphony; outside of school, he handled percussion in the band Allergic, which Gaiser describes as "half hardcore punk, half acid rock, half death metal." 

The group enjoyed local success, opening for groups like The Jesus Lizard and Napalm Death. But band life had its downsides. "You had to argue with three other guys about what you should do for a particular track," Gaiser recalls. "You spend more time arguing than you do actually writing music." 

He felt aesthetic limitations as well. "How many times can you make a guitar sound different than a guitar, and drums sound different than a drum?" he wonders. To the dismay of Gaiser's bandmates, he started to lose interest in Allergic. Hawtin's East Lansing DJ set accelerated the process.

Soon Gaiser was buying synthesizers and experimenting with his own techno compositions. On the weekends, he hung out at Record Time, a Detroit must-stop for anyone interested in electronic music. For a time, Hawtin's Plus Eight label had offices in the back of the store. "I would play some of the stuff that I was working on, and eventually Rich was like, 'let's do something with it,'" Gaiser says. "It was a fall-in-your-lap experience."

Since 2005, when Gaiser debuted on MINUS, he's released a steady stream of music through the label; he puts out a full-length every three years like clockwork. His music is austere, taut, and often described as "minimal." "Unfortunately the word 'minimal' became a bit of a swear word at the end of the 2000s," Gaiser says. "So many people thought it was so easy to make minimal because you just need two or three sounds, and it turned to shit. It coined a really boring, dry landscape of music which became overdone."

But Gaiser stands by the original goal of minimalism, even if he doesn't condone all the work that claims association with the title. "Minimalism is the idea of having all the things you need and none of the things you don't," he asserts. "That's my goal in making music: clean, clear, to the point." 

Those three tent-poles work well for III, an exacting, carefully paced album. The record's title is a structural reference: "I thought of [the album] as a three chapter mini-series," Gaiser says. "The way people take in media these days is binge-watching a series. I wanted to create a beginning and a middle and an end, so I thought of creating an album with three chapters, three tracks each."

Accordingly, he spends time building energy. "Stringtest," the album's second track, is a slow-burn internal combustion chamber. The beat thickens and swells, then recedes; each time it intensifies, the high tide reaches slightly further than before. A DJ could play this several times in a row and drive a club gradually into a frenzy. 

Most tracks are reduced to uncompromising, hang-tough rhythm and one or two lines of melody, creating a spare environment in which the impact of small changes is magnified. "Rubdown" brings a low, distorted human voice into the mix to issue instructions: "cut it, slice it, flip it up." In the context of the music around it, these vocals slide in with the rude force of an avalanche.

"For Balance" incorporates a chiming effect that wouldn't be out of place on a New Age record. But here, in its own alluringly modest way, the chiming sound mimics the atmosphere-changing impact of the intrusive voice on "Rubdown."

On III, Gaiser is still animated by the same impulse that drew him to Hawtin's techno over two decades ago. "I want to hear something totally weird where I have no idea what made it," he declares. "I really want to create more double-takes, where people go, 'what the hell was that?'"