Introducing Jon Hester

Introducing Jon Hester

27-05-2014 | 17.30

The name Jon Hester might not ring any bells to a whole lot of folks yet, but his star is definitely on the rise. With two releases already under his belt, the producer is set to release a third any day now. As the A&R manager of EDEC records, he is exposed to music on a daily basis, but maintains a reserved approach to his own music. Hester is a full-rounded music enthusiast and practitioner on all accounts, starting his training from a classical perspective and moving on to house and techno through his formative years. Not merely content with musical expression, the US-come-Berlin native is also a seasoned dancer and in the interview I learn that dancing is an important of Jon’s work in the DJ booth. I also couldn’t resist asking a question that has been plaguing me for some time.
Hi Jon. What are you listening to right now?
Recently I have been listening to the new Tripeo album Anipintiros; the It’s Not Over We Hustle Harder catalogue from Spencer Parker; Ray Kajioka’s En Route album; HUSH03 from DVS1; and a new track from Dustin Zahn, The Unfailing Light, out soon on Drumcode.

You’ve made the move to Berlin from the States, like many other producers and DJs. What is it about the German city and its music that attracted you to it?
Berlin is a place where I feel at home. As someone from the midwest US, the grey skies, concrete outlines, green spaces, cold winters, celebrated summers, and the culture of a northern city are familiar to me. I specifically came here because this is one of the few places in the world where the music I enjoy is also at home, and needs no introduction, explanation, or flashy packaging to be understood. It is part of the culture here.
How do you compare this to the current musical situation in the States?
Well, referring to techno and house music in the States, the founding efforts and resounding passion that the US has contributed to this music is still resonating worldwide, two current examples being the international recognition of Frankie Knuckles in Chicago following his tragic passing, and the tribute party for Larry Levan in New York not too long ago. American techno and house artists often come from, and are inspired by an underground, do-it-yourself spirit that brings undeniable urgency and intensity to their music. At the Movement festival in Detroit it’s easy to see that the pioneers and newcomers around the country and the world are keeping that spirit alive, it just doesn’t have as many opportunities to be recognized on a larger scale in the States as it does in Europe. 

Meanwhile, I see the EDM craze sweeping the US at the moment as an effort to commodify dance music to fit a pop music marketing strategy. In my opinion EDM shares very little in common with the ethos of techno and house. It also draws a drastically different crowd, but I think some of these people will be interested in digging a little deeper to find music beyond the big drops and instant gratification. 

House and techno are still simmering underground cultures that stay off the general American public’s radar. While on one hand I feel it is a pity that the US never fully embraced this music at home, the fact that it can continue to grow and develop out of the spotlight will maintain its intensity there. 

In Europe, “underground” dance music has a solid footing as a bigger part of popular culture, which means there are more opportunities for it to be heard, and larger audiences who follow it. Europeans get the opportunity to see many more artists perform at clubs and festivals, because the scene is centred here. I think, sometimes it’s easy for well-informed European audiences to take excellent music for granted because it is so prevalent and easily accessible. As an American I have not forgotten how much effort has to be made in the States to keep this culture going strong, and consequently I am thankful to have so much music at my doorstep in Berlin and around Europe.

You, yourself delve into House and Techno and you are a classically trained musician. How did you get into electronic music?
Yeah, I learned to read music playing clarinet, bass, alto saxophone, and tenor sax growing up. I discovered that I liked to dance to hip-hop and disco, and then I heard house music late one night on the radio in Chicago. It wasn’t long before I started regularly staying up to listen to the mix shows and began going out, to whatever clubs I could get into at age 15. Dancing was a big part of going out; people were doing footwork, popping, and breakdancing. I went on a band trip to London in 1996, and got a taste of other kinds of dance music on the radio, especially UK Garage, and while I was there I met a girl from Michigan who played me some mixtapes from Detroit. As soon as I heard techno, I was hooked. When I came back to the States I was hunting for it, and going out more, but it really wasn’t until I went to Minneapolis that I went to parties where I heard lots of proper techno all night long. The huge walls of sound and the creativity of the performances I heard there, reached far wider than what I had been previously exposed to. Minneapolis really showed me what is possible, and inspired me immensely.

You have two releases under your belt so far. Is there a third on the way?
Arthur Kimskii has chosen a track of mine for the third release on his New York / Berlin-based label L.A.G. It will be a V/A with music from members of The Record Loft crew here in Berlin. I’m very happy to be a part of that. I am also working on a remix for Andrew Grant a.k.a. Andreu for EDEC, and more original tracks for an EP.
You’re also the A&R man for EDEC, the label that released your first two EPs. Does it get quite tempting to just put stuff out whenever you’ve finished something? 
Well not really, because I am very critical of my own work, and don’t want to put out anything I make simply because I can. With EDEC, my label partner Andreu and I want to release underground music we believe in, give opportunities to new artists, and build a family with new and old friends that share a common enthusiasm. We have released a broad range of music on EDEC, but all the tracks have rawness and grit that brings them together in spirit. Whether it is from me or anyone else, what comes out on EDEC needs to be fitting for the label.

How do you maintain that critical response to your own music when you approach it as a label boss?
I am more critical of my own music than anyone else’s, so if anything I am even harder on myself regarding what I consider for release. Because of this I send tracks to Andreu for a second opinion, or give them to friends to test drive at gigs in Berlin. Hearing tracks in a club and seeing people’s reactions are the best ways to understand what is already working well and what needs more work.

You must come across a lot of music in that capacity too. Is there anything that is really blowing your mind at the moment? (Something that might find its way into your record bag for Trouw perhaps.) 
Today I just found a record with an intense atmosphere that sets a dramatic tone, “Through the Haze” by Octo Octa on Argot. It’s always a thrill to be surprised by something different and new. I am usually not into broken beats, so to find one I like it has to be just right. This track would definitely sound heady at the right moment in Trouw, we’ll see if that moment presents itself. I am really looking forward to playing at Trouw and building the mood for this incredible weekend of music.

I believe you are also a professional dancer. Do you find it has an effect on your compositions?
Yes, I dance and teach house dance here in Berlin. Dance absolutely has an effect on my compositions, as I try to build tracks with a rhythm that appeals to the body. Whether it is a tough track or a smoother one, there has to be a cyclical energy that gives me no choice but to jump out of the studio chair and start dancing. When that happens I feel happy with where the composition is going.

A lot of DJs believe that it is their job to educate their audience. I can imagine from a dancer’s perspective that could be quite annoying. What are your intentions when you are behind the decks?
Everyone has their own way of performing, and there are audiences to support artists with different methods. Personally, my intentions behind the decks are to use dynamics, diverse music, energetic mixing, and memorable records, giving everything I have until people are dancing, yelling, and enjoying the moment. I want to stay in touch with the crowd, ebbing and flowing with their intensity. I feel that I am there for them, and ultimately their experience is what makes the party great. People can see that I enjoy sharing an evening with them — I am making eye contact, interacting with them, and dancing in the booth. I see the booth as part of the dance floor, not just a place to stand still and be serious. As someone who likes an exhilarating dance session in front of the speaker stacks, that’s the experience I want to deliver for people.
There’s a dance here that has been nicknamed the Rabbit dance. Have you heard of it?
I hadn’t heard of this until now. A quick search led to some interesting results...
A lot of people don’t like it here. I am ambiguous to it myself, but I’m eager to learn what a dancer makes of it. What are your thoughts?
As someone who has not seen this dance in context, my question is; are the people opposed to it dancing in more creative ways in clubs, or are they non-dancers complaining about other people having a good time? After all, if people want to dance it's better than them just standing there!

Text: Mischa Mathys