He has been ahead of the game ever since most of us were still playing with Lego. In the nineties he boldly hurled a modest record label into the atmosphere that would soon turn out to be one of the world’s leading, genre-defying labels: Kompakt. Next to co-running the Cologne imprint, Michael Mayer is also a formidable DJ and producer who over the years has never shied away of carrying out his most personal musical ambitions, rejecting cheap hits and easy wins. Even so, he still accomplishes to travel the globe every weekend from gig to gig. Saying that he has played in front of millions in his life wouldn’t be an understatement. I had a talk with the Kompakt visionary about his upbringing, inspirations, commercial festivals and his upcoming performance at Buiten Westen Festival.
Hi Michael! What I first wanted to ask you is what you would like to be Kompakt’s cultural heritage when people look back on dance music in the distant future?
What I would really like is for people to think that the label gave techno music a more human face; a smiling face, as opposed to the machine-like music that people seem to connect to the genre.
And if you yourself look back now, which records would best sum up that philosophy?
Of course that’s a very hard question because I like them all! But some pillars of the label I think are the two compilation series, Total and Pop Ambient, that have been running since 2001, which is like our flagship, an overview of what we have accomplished over the years. A yearbook, so to speak.
You were raised in a town near the Black Forest region of Germany, how has that place shaped you musically in your later years?
Well I wouldn’t say that I’ve been inspired by the trees and the deer, but I got very lucky to have a disco temple in my town, called Drops. It was a very special and crazy discotheque; it had a bizarre lighting show, together with a caged tiger and lion on the dance floor. So that environment, of course together with the music played there, triggered my fantasies from a very stage. A key figure in that period was my neighbour, who used to be a DJ in that club and he hooked me up with mixtapes and such, which really let me discover dance music and helped me grow a bond with it in an early point in my youth. So you could say that that place and my neighbour sort of set out what was going to be my future.
Did you acutally see him play?
Yes, I was granted access to the club even though I wasn’t really allowed to. I saw him mixing 12” records seamlessly, and witnessed the atmosphere that he created with his music. It was a traumatizing experience, of which I never recovered from..
A traumatizing experience??
Yeah, but in the best way possible.
And outside of dance music, which artists have a prime spot in your record collection?
Surely a lot of poppy 80’s bands like ABC, Pet Shop Boys, Alan Parsons Project and the like. But I have to say that I have never been a guy that had real ‘heroes’ as such. I never had posters on my wall of guys I admired or anything. I never stuck with one band or artist. More like buying one ep, discover their music and then carry on with something else that I liked.
From what I’ve read in previous interviews you seem to be pretty outspoken about the more commercial side of dance, like EDM or formulaic music. What was your reaction to Seth Troxler’s open letter to EDM culture last month?
I didn’t read it actually. What can I say? I’m not threatened by this music or anything, and every generation deserves its fair share of shitty music. And I even used to listen to a lot of shitty music in the 80’s.. It’s fair game. What I am threatened by, however, is the amount of money that is injected in the scene, and pillars of dance music being corporatized. But musically speaking, But I really don’t care about the attention or the amount of money that an artist like Avicii gets.
Some people argue that the commercialization is a good thing because it is making dance music known to more and more people across the globe. What’s your take on this?
It’s partly true. My philosophy is is that from those millions of people that are getting involved in EDM, a small percentage of them will eventually discover something more underground or ‘adult’.
But I’ll explain why it’s not my cup of tea, because I have seen it from up close. I had to play at Electric Daisy Carnival in Chicago at one point, and it was a pretty bizarre experience. In between the huge ‘glowstick’ stages there was an underground stage where Cassy, Tale Of Us and myself were playing. And we literally played in front of about 30 people – out of a total of 30.000 visitors if I remember correctly.
Wow. So what was the reaction of the organization after that?
I didn’t even talk to any members of the organization really. It was like an industry. Nobody seemed to notice that it went wrong in our stage, they didn’t care.
A thing that you have vouched for is for the public to understand that downloading music illegally is hurting the system. Isn’t it the responsibility of labels to adapt to the status quo, rather than restricting the public of modern day possibilities?
Labels already do a lot to accommodate listeners nowadays I think. You can stream certain albums for free, you have free downloadable tracks and things like that. I think I’ve grown accustomed to this status quo. I can’t sit here worrying about illegal downloading all the time, so it’s better to just accept it and indeed make the best of it.
Other than that I think that are already great improvements that have been made over the years. There is more awareness of the phenomenon and record sales have actually gone up again.
And why is that?
There is more acknowledgment, even with people that are still very young. We have kids walking in to our record store who come here just to buy vinyl, instead of downloading whole label catalogues for free. Why? Because it makes them happier to dig for vinyl than to download an mp3 file. It’s about the hunt, finding something that you can actually hold, see and have affection for. It’s that bit of nostalgia that you would never get when clicking on something from behind your laptop.
In a month or so you will be in Amsterdam for your gig at Buiten Westen. Do you have any new solo or Kompakt releases that you will surely be playing that day?
We’ve got a pretty busy summer. We’re releasing almost every week at this point. A lot of heavy hitters too! I couldn’t be happier really, the label is still going strong. We’ve got great albums coming up by Gui Boratto, Terranova and many others. There will also appear a new Total compilation in August and EPs by Blond:ish, Maceo Plex and Danny Daze. I’m road-testing a lot of the new stuff these days so you will probably hear some of them come by at Buiten Westen.
On the solo side of things, I barely find time to go into the studio now because of the summer season, which means more gigs and showcases for the label and everything. I do have a couple of remixes coming up though. You will hear more on that soon.
Allright, thanks for your time. See you at the festival next month!
NGHTDVSN Stage: Michael Mayer | Sebastian Mullaert aka Minilogue (DJ-set) | Roman Flügel | Aril Brikha live | Rone live | Arjuna Schiks live | Terry Toner |