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A Quietus Interview

Provoking An Emotional Response: Michael Mayer Interviewed
John Doran , November 1st, 2012 06:16

Kompakt co-owner and Cologne lynch-pin Michael Mayer has released a new album, Mantasy. John Doran catches up with him to talk lions in clubs and why he's not goth. Picture courtesy of Carlitos Trujillo

Michael Mayer famously became the buyer for Delirium Records (this incident in this place was the germ that would become the Kompakt organisation) when, as their first ever customer in 1993, he told owners Jörg Burger and Wolfgang & Reinhardt Voigt exactly how appalling he found their choice of stock. (Mayer says: "I was like, 'Where is this? Where is this? Where is this? I already bought this two years ago. You literally don't have any good records.") But if he retains any of that, ah, abruptness some 19 years after this abrasive first meeting it is not on show today, as he is softly spoken, charming and witty. Katie, his press lady tells me that they both have terrible hangovers. After an instore at Phonica Records the night before the pair ended up getting stuck into some impromptu partying. (Mayer claims: "We ran into the wrong people after my set.")

Mayer, grew up in the Black Forest in the 1970s and was a DJ before he even left school thanks to the tutelage of a neighbour and already had chops before techno broke in Germany. In 1990 when it was time to leave his home town, he made the fateful decision to go to Cologne instead of Berlin, unlike many of his friends. ("Berlin was a hard city and very, very competitive back then. I didn't like it. You'd be DJing and go to the toilet and someone else would be on the decks by the time you got back. It was that sort of place.")

After his outburst in Delirium earned him a job, he went on to found Kompakt with Wolfgang and Jürgen Paape some five years later. Since then this has become the umbrella organisation for over 50 smaller independent labels, a distribution powerhouse, a recording studio, a shop and a digital network but most importantly, Kompakt has given Koln a more distinctive and easily recognisable sound than any other German city – Berlin included.

While undoubtedly important as a minimal techno/microhouse label, Kompakt, really, shrugs off easy classification, its Pop Ambient and Total compilation series show casing a wide range of dance styles, with a mischievous, fun Cologne sensibility that included the popularisation of the schaffel micro-scene. This breadth or eclecticism has always been a feature of Mayer's work, whether as a DJ or producer. His high water mark mix CD Immer in 2002 and debut album Touch in 2004, stand in sharp contrast in terms of mood to his second album Mantasy which came out on Kompakt earlier this month.

The album has one foot rooted firmly in the pop camp, as you would expect, and it contains the excellent neo-electro disco track 'Good Times' featuring Jeppe Kjellberg exhorting the crowd to put away their camera phones and to party for the moment. But the album also contains delicious moments of sun dappled Balearic ['Baumhaus'], Moroder and Vangelis referencing proto techno ['Mantasy'] and acid bangers ['Voigt Kampff Test'].

You've described this album as being your debut in some respects even though you've already had an album out before. I was wondering if you could talk me through that?

Michael Mayer: When I did Touch it was more like a compilation of singles which had been released on 12"s and some extra tracks. Mantasy was conceived in one process and Touch was more of a patchwork affair. I rushed myself into releasing the first album and with Mantasy I took my time. For me that was the proper process, so that's why I like to call it the debut.

I guess techno producers have the same problems in this respect that rock bands do; you have all the time in the world to cherry pick songs for your first album but the second album is always going to be the more focussed, time specific affair. How long did it take you to record Mantasy?

MM: Exactly seven months.

Given the number of remixes that you do and all the labels you run under the Kompakt umbrella and the DJing, do you consider seven months to be a luxurious amount of time?

MM: I would have taken more time if I had needed more but I set myself a deadline and I was ready to break it if I needed to. That's the nice luxury of running the label. But for me it was the perfect timeframe. It would have gotten difficult with the label if I'd needed more time off.

What would you say are the main differences in your process between Touch and Mantasy? What have you learned technically?

MM: Oh, I hope a lot! I think it was while I was working on the Supermayer album [Save The World, 2007] that I learned a lot about mixing and for the first time I really felt at home in my studio, that I trusted my speakers, I felt like it was 'my place' for the first time. Before that I was always moving around but form 2007 I settled down in the Kompakt basement. And really the room you work in is so important for the music you make. I like it because there is no daylight. It is a sub-basement with no windows, it feels like you are in a secret place. It has a heavy door which can be locked. It feels like you are locked away from the world.

Is it the techno equivalent of a dark room?

MM: [laughs] It is a techno bunker, yes.

Now, I don't mean this as a comment on the music itself but with titles like 'Mantasy' and 'Wrong Lap', is this a fruity record?

MM: [laughs] Maybe I should explain why the track is called 'Wrong Lap' actually... Before I started working on the record I was trying to think of a theme. And my first idea was telling family stories, giving away the secrets of my family because over the years I have found out so many funny and bizarre stories about my family and I wanted to capture that. The reason that I exist and my father exists is because of a "wrong lap". My grandmother when she was younger was at a party and, as she put it, "sat on the wrong lap" and that is how my father came into this world.

Some time later I hope.

MM: Yes. And I was always wondering why my grandparents were always arguing. They hated each other. Their life was hell... and why my father was the only child. But then suddenly there was an explanation for this.

So not that fruity then. There is another title which is perhaps more cheeky than fruity. There's a track called 'Voigt Kampff Test'... now my rudimentary German tells me that this means Voigt Fight Test. What are you trying to tell us here?

MM: This comes from watching Blade Runner and the Kampff Test is the test to find out if someone is a replicant or a human.

So what you're telling us is basically Wolfgang and his brother are androids. And not even run of the mill androids but rogue mining androids from the Shoulder Of Orion who refuse to be decommissioned?

MM: They are not from our galaxy, that is correct... No, I had to call the song this, it was too tempting.

You've described Mantasy as having cinematic properties. Now you wouldn't be the first person to equate an instrumental electronic album to the cinema so I was wondering if you could explain a bit more about what you mean.

MM: The whole Mantasy idea was triggered by a book I read while I was on holiday. I had finished most of my books and I needed something else to read, so I had a look in the hotel and there was only one German book and that was by Stefan Zweig's biography of Magallan, the great seafarer and discoverer. I got really absorbed by the book which I didn't expect to happen. The unbelievable hardships this man underwent, it really captured my imagination. To pursue his dream of finding passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There was no proof that this passage existed, it was just a rumour. And he took six ships and seven hundred people on this journey into the unknown and in the end only 16 people made it back. He himself got slain after he found the passage. But he became immortal though.

How did he die?

MM: He got killed in an insignificant battle with a tribe. He was on his way home and he just wanted to get another island for his king.

It's always the way. It's always that last island that gets you. It's like when you stop somewhere for one last cocktail on the way home. That's the drink that always ruins you.

MM: These islanders killed him. "Fuck you. We don't want to be Catholic." So I read this book and after that I read another book actually David Toop's Ocean Of Sound.

Ok, well, that's not the easiest of books but it's rewarding reading.

MM: It is. It's so inspiring. What I found was these two books were about journeys. David Toop's book was the journey into yourself and into sound. And the other book was about discovery. So this was the working title of the album, Discovery. I wanted it to suggest adventure, to go where the wind blows you. I didn't set any musical parameters. I really just sat down and let the music take me wherever it wanted. It was quite liberating. That guideline worked pretty well.

As well as conceptually, formally it sounds very cinematic as well because you can recognize the influence of people like Vangelis. But of course, having said that I'd be doing it a massive disservice if I suggested it was just some retro pastiche thing because it has a dizzying range of influences.

MM: That corresponds to my tastes. As a DJ I'm not very strict with myself. I allow myself to mix all kinds of styles and in my private life I listen to so much diverse music. I'm always looking for something I'd never heard before. I've started venturing into jazz music, I'd never done that before.

It comes to us all!

MM: Yes, I have reached that age! I've looked into different territories of music that I never would have considered listening to when I was younger. I don't know if it influences my production or DJing directly but it's always good to broaden your mind and teach your ears.

I was listening to your Immer mix recently and some might say it was quite moody, almost gothic in some respects...

MM: I totally resent that.

You resent it! Wow...

MM: It's quite melancholic I guess.

Ok, your melancholic mix. That's a very good word, thank you. After listening to your melancholic mix Immer, Mantasy sounds irrepressible, buoyant even. Would you say that you're getting more positive as you get older?

MM: Older and milder. Hmmm. Is it really less melancholic?

Yeah! I think so.

MM: I guess it ends on a very positive note, that's for sure.

I think a lot of it's very positive. I feel very positive when I listen to the 'Voigt Kampff Test'. I'll tell you how the album makes me feel... It makes me feel as though I have taken wine with lunch. I feel unnaturally uplifted for that time of day and feel that something unusual might happen in the afternoon because of it.

MM: Interesting. Is that a good thing?

Yes, of course. It's a great thing. It was such a great thing for such a long time in fact that now I am no longer allowed to drink.

MM: [laughing] Ah! Hmmmm...

Do you think I'm right?

MM: I'm not going to lie to you – I'm basically a very happy guy. I'm married. I've got two beautiful children. I enjoy my work.

So it would be wrong of you to make an Alva Noto record?

MM: [laughing] Yeah.

Ok, well tell me about the positive note the album ends on. Who is that singing on Good Times and what's the connection?

MM: Jeppe Kjellberg. I have known him for a long time. He was one of the original singers in WhoMadeWho. But this track was a bit of drama. In the beginning I didn't want any guest musicians or singers on the album at all.

['I Feel Love' by Donna Summer comes on the radio in hotel bar]

How about that!

MM: There it is! Yes! [laughs] One day I wrote this track and it just really called for a singer and I didn't want to do it myself. So I asked this old friend of mine from Paris. He used to be a famous singer, so I said would he do it. And when I phoned him, he was like: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm working on it." And then I'd phone him back every few days for a few months until everything was done apart from this track. So I phoned him up and said: "Is everything ok? Do you want to come to Cologne, I'll fly you in." And he was like: "No! I'm almost there! I'm almost there!" And there was no news from this guy for another five days and I had to finish the album and he just said: "I couldn't come up with anything sorry." It was such a sad moment for me, I thought I wouldn't be able to put this track on the album.

I take it this guy isn't on your Chrsitmas card list anymore?

MM: No.

You're not going to tell me who it is are you?

MM: No.

Lionel Ritchie?

MM: No. But the person who it is... I'd like to see their head on a stake. So I phoned some other friends and Jeppe said he could come over immediately. He came over the next day, flew in, we wrote the song in two days and that was that.

And you got straight on the phone and said: "And that's how fucking easy it is when you put the bong down Hasslehoff."

MM: [laughs]

The lyrics are disparaging about smart phones. Now, I'm recording this interview on a smartphone. You've got a smartphone on the table here. Your press lady Katie has a smartphone on her. Everyone's got a smartphone.

MM: That's the problem. Well, there are two ways to read the song. So it could be a love song. How many times do you sit in a restaurant and you see couples sitting together and both of them are separately looking at their smart phones. They're not looking at each other, they're not hugging, they're not kissing. They're wasting their time checking senseless things up on the internet or by posting pointless photographs. It's the same problem at parties, you look out at the audience and it's a great moment but people are stood there tweeting, "This party's so amazing!" They're not expressing themselves through dancing any more. They're expressing themselves through typing into their smartphones. Or they're taking photos of the people who are dancing.

And they're running it through an app that makes it look like it was taken on a frosty morning in the Black Forest in 1972 as well...

MM: Yeah. All I'm saying is put them away when it's a special occasion.

There should be camera phone free rooms in clubs.

MM: Well, that's the great thing about the Panorama bar in the Berghain, photography is forbidden there.

So the song 'Lamusetwa' relates to a song you first heard when you were two years old?

MM: Ah, you know about this? It was my favourite song when I was about two or three years old. I remember being in a sleeping bag and being on holiday with another family and it was on the radio. And it went something like: "L'amour c'est toi. L'amour c'est toi." It was in French and I was young so I thought she was singing "Lamusetwa". I'm still chasing that song now. I don't know what it is. I've asked so many people in France what it is. I'd like to hear that song again... it drives me nuts.

On the Immer mix album, when you drop the fourth movement from Mahler's Fifth in C#Maj, the music featured in Death In Venice are you making a point about the seriousness of techno or are you making a point about European music in general like Kraftwerk did with their references to Franz Schubert on Trans Europe Express?

MM: There's been a misunderstanding here. I can't take credit for using the Mahler, it's part of the remix of Perfect Lovers' 'Phantom/Ghost' by T Thomas and Superpitcher.

[tearing up notebook] God damn it! That was such a fucking great question!

MM: [laughing]

You got into DJing at parties in the Black Forest at a very early age. How did that happen?

MM: I was 13 or 14. At the very beginning I was DJing whatever was on the radio. Duran Duran. Stock Aitken Waterman. I was really lucky because I had this neighbour who was a proper DJ at a local discotheque with a pool in the middle, with slides going down from different floors to the pool and he would smuggle me in. They had a lion cage.

A fucking lion cage in a nightclub!?

MM: Yes. It had a lion in it.

This is blowing my mind.

MM: Yeah, it would get to a certain point in the evening and the curtain would go back and they had a lion and a tiger.

Well, actually, you know the first place that Depeche Mode ever played was a nightclub in Basildon called Crocs, and they had a really elderly crocodile in a tank in the middle of this club and by all accounts it just looked really depressed. But you had a lion and a tiger?

MM: Yeah, I was really lucky because it was the club of my dreams. And this neighbour used to feed me these tapes of Italo Disco.

I guess a lot of clubs aren't really going to make the grade after you've been to the lion and tiger club when you're 13.

MM: Yeah, it really impressed me quite a lot.