A memorable conversation with the charismatic Kompakt main Man(tasy)
It’s as if Michael Mayer does everything in his power to perpetuate ‘the hard-working German’ stereotype. As co-owner of Cologne-based electronic giant Kompakt, Mayer handles the distribution of over 50 labels, signs more music than just about anybody and, when he’s got some spare time, sneaks into the studio to produce his own.
Although he’s now something of a celebrity in the (putatively ‘underground’) world of dance music, Mayer started out in more parochial circumstances. Born in the Black Forest in 1971, Mayer escaped the delicious tyranny of all those gateaux via the emancipatory power of – what else – DJing. Aged 14, by working as a paperboy he bought himself a pair of turntables, a mixer and some records, quickly becoming a regular fixture on the local school disco/birthday party scene.
Fast-forward to the early 1990s and dance music is ever gaining in popularity. Mayer teams up with Tobias Thomas and two others to create the DJing team Friends Xperiment Sound System, moves to Cologne, secures residencies in clubs such as Iz and, by 1993, is working for a record store called Delirium, the progenitor of Kompakt.
Kompakt was established in 1998 but Mayer’s personal fame was to come a bit later. In 2002, Mayer’s Immer mix, now looked back on as one of the most imported mixes of the era, announced his arrival on the world stage, and his 2003 mix for Fabric cemented his reputation for an especially ‘narrative-based’ approach to DJing.
Releases throughout the ‘00s positioned Mayer as production whizz too, particularly after his 2005 debut album Touch and collaborations with Superpitcher (as Supermayer). 2012 has seen the release of his new solo album, the titillatingly-titled Mantasy, so Crack caught up with the man himself to discuss it, Kompakt, the ‘EDM’ circlejerk, Schlager, triskaidekaphobia, and much more besides.
Kompakt is a label/distributor/record store/artist management service/all-round electronic music behemoth that’s been around for a long time. Can you explain how you first got involved? Something about telling-off Wolfgang Voigt for not having a good enough selection of records in his store?
Yes, that’s true. I was the shop’s very first customer when it opened its doors in 1993. I was young, full of hopes and needs. Unfortunately, the selection of records at hand was far away from offering me what I needed. So I went straight up to the counter and gave them a long rant. To my surprise, I must have made a very capable and likeable impression on the guys who ran the shop. Six months later they made me a partner. Ever since I keep complaining about everything and everyone – all the time! I found my life’s purpose in a dodgy record shop. What are the odds?
If you google ‘seminal’ and ‘Kompakt’ you get over 600,000 results. What do you think has been responsible for its longevity and success?
I swear, we’re still running 100% Pfitzer-free. We mostly enjoy what we’re doing and we’re independent as independent can be. Free-range chicken produce larger eggs, right?
Many producers and DJs claim that the environment they’re in has a profound effect on the sort of music they make or play. Do you agree? How much has being in Cologne affected the music you make and release?
That’s hard to tell … another chicken/egg answer. I guess we’ve influenced this city as much as it has shaped our sounds. Cologne sure is a fine place to live. It’s famous for its friendliness and open-mindedness. There’s a million people living there. One half is Turkish, the other one gay. I love it here.
Kompakt has a history of releasing ‘series’: Pop Ambient and Total being just two. Is this a conscious decision? What benefits are there to doing this? Speaking of series, the Kompakt blog announced a couple of months ago that there would be no Total 13 compilation due to ‘triskaidekaphobia’ (fear of the number 13). Are you aware that some fans felt a little short-changed by this explanation? Do you have any ‘ulterior motives’ for not releasing a 13th Total?
Series are great! You don’t need to come up with new names all the time … just change the number, the colours, and bingo! No, seriously, it’s got a lot to do with my partner Wolfgang’s fad with serial concepts. We like to look back at our releases like you read an almanac. Each year is different but there’s always Xmas, Easter and carnival. Except in 2012. But let me ease your tristesse! We’re focussing all our powers on next year’s 20th anniversary festivities. We’ll make it up to you … promised!
The Speicher series has been a favourite of Crack’s for some years, with Kölsch’s Der Alte a particular highlight. How did that track come about? And what is the concept behind the Speiche series (if any)?
Speicher came to life at a time when techno was dominated by tools and loops. We thought that was a very sausage-party friendly environment. We were missing the entertainment factor, the glamour, the sexiness. That’s what Speicher was meant for. Double-headers, only killers, no fillers. So basically, Speicher was incepted through complaint.
You’ve called your new album Mantasy. Playfulness, in fact, seems to be a recurring theme for Kompakt releases (Reinhard Voigt’s Sex Mit M. Mayer being a particularly memorable example). Is this intentional? And is it, indeed, part of a ‘grand plan’ designed to counter myths about ‘po-faced German techno’?
I wouldn’t say that we’re very funny folks. There’s nothing more serious than a good joke. But indeed, we’re totally against any puritan or conservative mindset in the techno world. This music provides a mantastic framework for any sentiment from hysterically cheerful to dead sad and everything in between. It would be a crime to not indulge our every whim.
Back to the album – the lead single, Good Times, features Whomadewho’s Jeppe Kjellberg on vocals. How did this collaboration come about? And are there any other ‘feat.’s we can look forward to?
Jeppe is the only guest on the album, apart from Wolfgang Voigt’s artwork that is. I’ve always loved his voice, long before we’ve signed Whomadewho to Kompakt. At times, he sounds like Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17, one of my all-time favourite bands … I was looking for a steady, manly voice for this song. He turned out to be the perfect match. Initially, I was considering recording lots of background vocalists, I wanted it to sound like Village People meets The Bee Gees. In the end, Jeppe did it all alone, he’s the man of thousand voices. And a damn fine gentleman.
Tell us a bit more about the album itself: is it mainly aimed at the home-listener or the club-goer? Can we expect more songs like ‘Good Times’, or is the rest of the album more melancholic?
Good Times is the carrot. Beware of the stick!
2012 has seen an explosion of ‘EDM’ in the US. A lot of people are very angry about this, about ‘their’ music being commercialised, simplified and re-packaged for a mass market that doesn’t know or understand the roots of their ‘new favourite genre’. Where do you stand on all this?
It probably doesn’t hurt us Germans as much as the others. The musical phenomenon from the 60s and 70s that was called Schlager slowly transformed into a comical version of techno with soft porn lyrics. It’s really dreadful. Please check here. I just had a related discussion with my father. He listened to Mantasy and didn’t find it all that bad. My theory is that he got used to the boomboomboomboom by all the shitty Schlager he’s listening to on the radio. In the mid-90s when rave music went mainstream there were similar discussions like today. Personally, I don’t see any reason to get excited.
Similarly, labels like Hot Creations and Crosstown Rebels have had a hugely successful couple of years, pursuing a contemporary deep house sound that incorporates some elements of older forms of dance music largely ignored by Skrillex and his pals in EDM. But they too have come under fire for being too formulaic. Will the bubble soon burst for Jamie Jones & Co.?
Isn’t it deeply human that we throw mud at those who are successful? I’m not a clairvoyant, but I think Jamie and Damien are smart enough to get out of their corners in time.
The ‘vinyl vs. digital’ debate is an increasingly boring one that has been pursued by a music press hungry for antagonism. Do you have any strong opinions either way? And has this debate affected what technology you choose to use when performing?
Just make sure my turntables are working properly. It ain’t rocket science. I find it very disrespectful towards the DJ if the turntables are not properly hooked up and sound-checked. I hate carrying around 25 kilos of vinyls in vain. If it wasn’t for for the audience that came to hear me playing I would definitely turn around and leave, both middle-fingers erected. Instead, I spend a fortune buying a lot of music in both formats, vinyl and wave file. Well here I am, complaining again …
You’ve previously said that illegal music downloads are ‘very worrying’, and something that ‘really annoys’ you. How do you see Kompakt surviving when consumers seem to think it’s a victimless crime (and that they can get away with it, anyway)?
Fortunately, there are still some people out there that are willing to pay for music. We’re still able to run our business because of these fine people. You pirates out there should thank them and feel ashamed.
When mixing, you tend to opt for longer tracks and avoid sharp cuts, preferring to focus on mood and melody rather than groove and rhythm. Why is this? Do you deliberately seek to create a narrative, to take the listener on a ‘journey’, or are you more about playing music to suit the crowd or atmosphere at whatever given moment?
I like storytelling a lot. But only if the attention is there and the crowd is enjoying it. Ideally, there’s a dialogue between us rather than just me preaching.
And finally, what else has Kompakt got in store for 2012? Any plans for 2013? Immer 4, maybe?
As mentioned before, 2013 will be a big year for us. We’ve got plenty of thrilling ideas for our anniversary. We’ll simply party all year long. Immer 4? I don’t know … it comes when the muses are willing.
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Michael Mayer plays Eastern Electrics Festival at Knebworth, Hertfordshire between August 2nd and 4th, and fabric on February 16 alongside Ben Klock and Futureboogie. Mantasy is out now via Kompakt Records.
Words: Robert Bates
Photo: Carlitos Trujillo