Michael Mayer interview: & Now & Then

In an open and revealing interview, Michael Mayer discussed with Marko Kutlesa his career to date, his forthcoming album and some of the current politics of the dance music scene.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 5th Oct 2016

Image: Michael Mayer Credit: Frederike Wetzels

Michael Mayer was born in the Black Forest in Germany, but aside from his early, local influences, it was upon his arrival in the city of Cologne that his true musical journey began. Remaining a resident of the city to this day, making music in the studio situated in the sub basement of his Kompakt Records offices there, it is forever with Cologne that the globetrotting artist will be associated.

Kompakt Records, which is now also a distribution company and record store, grew out of the Delirium Record store Mayer visited in the early 90s. It was there he met his current business partner Wolfgang Voigt and at a similar time started efforts to produce music in a studio. In the late 90s, at a similar time to the founding of Kompakt, Mayer also co-founded the hometown residency Total Confusion together with Tobias Thomas, a weekly party that ignored genre boundaries and helped spread repute of his talents as a DJ. 

Just a few years later he released the incredibly well received mixed compilation Immer, closely followed by Speicher and fabric 13, which were equally well received. The former two are series he has continued to develop since then as his DJ career has flourished and taken him around the world.

He released his debut artist album in 2004 and is set to release his third this year, this one being a collaborative effort in which he's worked with many different friends and peers on each individual track.

Prior to the album's release and to his appearance alongside Derrick Carter at Micron's birthday in Manchester, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Michael Mayer in his Kompakt studio, which is “like a two minutes walk from my house,” explains Mayer. “I'm actually saving money to build a tunnel from the studio directly to my home, something James Bond style, with a conveyor belt for when I'm tired.”

How did the new album & come about? Did you set out specifically to curate an album of collaborations or did you have several songs you were working on with others and you got the idea to combine them?

No. No, that was the masterplan from the beginning. I was tinkering with the idea of doing a new album, then came up with the idea to challenge myself a little bit and instead of creating a full album with someone else, or doing it all alone again like I did with the last album, I felt the urge to open the doors of my studio and invite friends, people who I love and respect, to come and create something together.

It was a conscious decision which, some weeks after, I wasn't so sure about any more. Because it was a hell of a lot to coordinate with all these people. It really wasn't easy to schedule all of the studio dates, but that was the challenge, that was the idea.

And how many of those people did you end up with in the studio at the same time and how much was e mailing parts backwards and forwards?

I would say two-thirds made it to my studio. The hopeless cases were people such as Andrew Thomas from New Zealand. That was too far to fly him over for a studio date. And Ed MacFarlane also, so it was only two that didn't make it to the studio.

Has it been difficult to give the album an overall sound and theme because you've been working with such different artists who each have such different sounds?

Yeah, that's the risk that's automatically involved when you choose to work with so many different people; that it will end up sounding much more like a compilation than an actual album. But, as I had the final say on every track, that allowed me to create, hopefully, a homogeneous sound for the whole album. It's the sound of the studio. It was important for me to maintain that. 

Were you just very lucky in that having happened? Did you record any material with anyone that didn't make the cut?

I would say I was sensationally lucky. There was only one collaboration that didn't come to life for organisational reasons. The other person was in the middle of finishing up his own album so it just wasn't possible, not even working remotely. But everything else worked like magic. 

How did you choose who you wanted to work with? Some people you've collaborated with before, although maybe only in the capacity of remixes.

It was important for me that I would feel comfortable with this person in the studio. I mainly chose people who have been close to me for a longer period of time, friends, many of whom I actually haven't worked with before.

Someone like Roman Flugel, we've known each other since 1993, but it just never happened, we never made music together. That was the mindset. That I knew we would get along and that we share a musical vision. The rest was relatively easy then. We never had a block with anybody. It was always a very natural and positive vibe in the studio.

Your fabric 13 CD is as well loved as any of your mix CDs and the fabric club was the first UK venue to book you. With that in mind, are desires to keep club nights and club venues open forever not pointless? Isn't the best thing about the club scene that fact that it is constantly reinventing itself and being rejuvenated?

Well, I was always a fan of this idea of 'let's do it while it's really fun and then stop at the peak', but that's not the way Fabric stopped so I consider it to be a big mistake. It's a tragedy. But, in general, yes, there's a time for everything and you have to know when to stop. With fabric it was way too early. There was still a lot of life in that building.

One of the most recent big stories in the dance music media has occurred because a producer, Hannah Wants, has been accused of plagiarism because a track she made with a ghost producer sounds very similar to one that's already released. I don't want to ask you about that specific case, but I would like to ask you about your opinions of both plagiarism in music and about ghost writing in dance music tracks.

That's a very interesting discussion that's going on. I read the comments thread on one site just the other day. I was always a very outspoken person about ghost producing, it's just something I don't understand. Well, I understand it helps you getting gigs, but from an artistic point of view it's just complete betrayal.

It's not a new phenomenon, it's been there since the early days of techno. Take someone like Westbam or DJ Hell, they never learned how to program anything but they had records out and had to build their careers. As much as I respect these guys as DJs this is something that is a bit of a black shadow, from my perspective.

I think the whole ghost producing thing has become an economy of its own. There are so many talented young producers that have difficulty to start a career and get heard, ghost producing might be a way to help them get some attention. But it's also quite disgusting. I've heard cases of guys who worked on albums for bigger.... I won't say artists.... DJs and the DJ would come by every once in a while and say, "This is nice, this is not so nice." Then suddenly, "Oh, I found another guy, sorry, you're out."

I think the army of ghost producers can be in a very precarious, some a dire situation. Most of them don't have contracts, they don't get a lot of money for it. I find it disgusting. The world would be a better place without that. 

And how about the other issue that case threw up, the one of plagiarism?

Well, that's a tough one because where does it start and where does it stop? If we're talking about house music and techno, which can be very similar sounding, you know, there's the four to the floor and the clap comes on the two and the four.... there are limits. And some people say that everything has been done already.

I don't like when people steal ideas, but I'm a big fan of sampling. Taking cues from an existing piece of music and creating something new out of it is totally legit. But outright plagiarism? I don't think that's a good thing, so I think it's OK if they get called out for it.

Isn't this issue symptomatic of a wider problem in dance music, in that DJs are pushed into the role of being producers in order to succeed, when really they are two completely unrelated skills?

Yeah, definitely, but as I said, it's not new. It's always been like this. I started producing at quite a late stage, 1994 I think and I had 10 years as a DJ at my back by that point. Curiosity won in the end, I wanted to know what I sound like, so I locked myself up in the studio and I did it all alone. I always took a lot of pride in that, that I had to learn myself how to create music.

But Djing and producing are completely different things. It's not a surprise that things have gone like this. Back in the day you would have had an arranger, a mixer and a producer in the studio, each one with a very specific task and it's due to the lack of money in our game that everybody has to do everything on their own. I'm not sure if it always helps the music. Sometimes I think it would be better to take help, ask someone who knows about mixing, then your tracks will sound better.

It's sad that DJs are recognised for the work of others and gladly there are some DJs who are just DJs and nothing else, they don't pretend to be something else. 

Is it not counter productive in terms of maintaining a longevity in this business for DJs to price themselves out of small clubs being able to pay their fees?

It's everybody's own decision. I wouldn't feel comfortable only going to play two hour slots at big raves, festivals and bigger clubs. I need my intimacy, I need to play to smaller clubs, from 300 to 1000 capacity. For me, that's the ideal framework in which to shine.

I know I'm earning less money and I'm getting less Facebook likes, because I'm choosing to play smaller places, but it keeps me happy. Spiritually that's my place. I'm happy playing big festivals every once in a while, but I'm not unhappy if I don't do that. But I am unhappy if I don't play smaller clubs for a longer period. I need to play longer sets, I need to exhaust myself. It's a necessity.

I wanted to ask you about how your day job works. Do you alone have full and complete A+R responsibilities for Kompakt and each of its sub labels?

Sometimes there's a misunderstanding about sub labels. At Kompakt there are distributed labels and our in house labels.

Yes, I know. I meant the in house labels. I wouldn't imagine that you do A+R on all the labels Kompakt distributes, it would require 100 of you!

Yes. So, actually it's only Kompakt and Kompakt Extra and yes, I am fully in control of A+R at those. I work hand in hand with my manager, Jon Berry, who's my right hand man at the labels. We hunt down musicians together and decide where the label's going to go. But, yes, that's my role here at Kompakt.

I also used to be responsible for distribution, but that got to be a bit too much for me as I also have a family and I am always travelling a lot, it wasn't reasonable for me to be head of distribution too. 

The Kompakt label is heavily associated with putting Germany back at the centre of electronic music. It was also heavily associated with championing a minimal sound. So, my next question has two parts. Do you think that a German electronic music sound exists in a more pure form in German cities outside Berlin, because the capital has so many international contributors? Did the label face any worry or pressure when you all realised that the peak popularity of the minimal sound had passed?

Can I start with the second part? I think there's also a misunderstanding of Kompakt's role in minimal techno. Our prime days of minimal happened before we started to work under the name of Kompakt. It was from 1993 to 1998. When we started Kompakt we already started to become more elastic with our music. It was created for all of the kinds of music that we love be it ambient or a pop-related thing or banging techno.

The idea of Kompakt was to showcase all that. We played a bigger role as a distributor when the whole minimal craze took off around 2000, but I always felt detached from that type of minimal sound, from that kind of purism, because we already did that. There was a time in Cologne when it was the best thing in the world to play one continuous groove, all night long, no excitement, no snare rolls, no swishes, no swooshes. Just pure monotony. That was sexy in 1995.

Later on we were all, not exactly bored, but to play a full night of minimal wasn't really my cup of tea any more. My partner Wolfgang felt the same about it. We learned a lot from minimal techno, the basics of dance music. We saw the skeleton, but now it's time to put some flesh and clothes on that thing. 

As for the first part of your question, I think there's no such thing as a German electronic music sound. There never has been and there never will. The scene is way too diverse for talking about just one sound. 

You wouldn't say, for instance, that Kraftwerk have a uniquely German electronic music sound?

Yes, of course. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your question. I thought you were talking about one sound, which doesn't exist. There are plenty of interesting German sounds. Before Berlin became capitol there were probably more interesting local scenes, like every city having a scene and a sound, like Munich with DJ Hell, Gigolo and Disko B or Hamburg, which was always more pop driven, with Ladomat.

I don't know if there's something that's unmistakably German right now, I don't think in these terms. Kompakt has become an international institution too, we're working with artists from all over the planet. It's just not of interest any more if something sounds German or not. My partner Wolfgang probably did the most German techno of any by sampling German schlage music, folk music, he had a tuba project and a polka project. That's as German as it can get. It was not about creating a German techno sound, it was just about adding things to the bizarre construct of electronic music. 

One newer element that people have said the Kompakt label introduced into its sound is an element of trance. Does that word hold positive and/or negative connotations to you?

Rather positive than negative. Trance for me means hypnotic music, something that puts you in a trance. That's a great thing, what techno music should be about. Obviously the term got taken over by a type of music that I don't cherish that much, but at Kompakt we always wanted to bring trance back, in a nice way, in a non cheesy way.

That's something we did we projects like Kaito from Japan and now, if you look around, the music has become very, very trancey again. Now nobody lifts an eyebrow if something sounds trancey, it's become normal and free from this big room Tiesto trance world. I think it's managed to rehabilitate the term trance.

What made the Total Confusion parties so special? Are there aspects of that party that you still miss?

I think it's safe to say that Total Confusion is always travelling with me. Why was it so special? It was the right moment, the right place, the right people. It was a moment when scenes collided. Before Total Confusion there was the techno crowd who went to a place called Warehouse, then there were the groovier, more house people who were into the more deeper, soulful side of house music.

With Total Confusion we set out to ignore genre thinking altogether. We would play ambient for the first two hours, sometimes until 2am when the place was already rammed. We'd slowly introduce the beat until it got stronger and stronger. We'd play trance techno at peak times and there was always a place for pop music as well. Odd 80s records would get played. At that time it was just like, "Wow, there are no limits." You could play a Justin Timberlake track two thirds into the night and most techno heads would go with it and understand why we do it.

It had a very free spirit, this party. We had a lot of people from the independent rock scene who would also come, who got introduced to electronic music through that party. It was a social phenomenon, a golden time. It was a weekly party for 9 years, after that we switched to monthly. But these 9 years were very intense. It was built around the resident DJs, Superpitcher and me. We only had guests once a month. That alone allows you to really work on a crowd, make a difference. 

They sound like a very accepting audience. Are other dancefloors you visit generally just as accepting?

Well, it was such a small room. It was a club for 350 people. It was only one room, you entered the place and you were standing on the dancefloor. There was no way to escape. The energy was very intense. No second room, no back room, no escape. You went there and you knew you were going to sweat. That's a totally different mindset from clubs with two rooms of music or even one with a bar room. The energy stays in the room and you can manipulate people better when there's no escape. 

Is that then the best environment for a DJ to play in? When there's no escape?

That's ideal. Absolutely.

What 80s pop tracks might you be tempted to play nowadays on your travels that would remind you of Total Confusion?

Well, apart from the occasional Pet Shop Boys track, maybe something like Sniff 'n' The Tears 'Driver's Seat' or some Italo disco stuff. 'Fotonovela' by Ivan, things like that were huge tracks at Total Confusion. 

So, what's next for Michael Mayer?

Next will be the release tour. I'll do a lot of touring in the next six months. This year I only stayed in Europe, I didn't leave the continent, apart from a US tour in January, so it's time to put on the wings again. I'll go to Asia, Australia, South America, Mexico, the US, that's all coming up now. I'm ready, I'm looking forward to getting on the road again.

And do you have any plans to do any appearances alongside any of the guests you've collaborated with on this album?

That's certainly going to happen. It's not always easy because most of these people are extremely busy, but we'll always try to include one of the collaborators in any of the release parties in the different cities. 

Catch Michael Mayer in Manchester for Micron's 10th birthday. Tickets available below.

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