One of the most influential figures in European electronic music, Michael Mayer is a DJ, producer and the co-owner of Kompakt Records from Cologne, Germany. Originally a record shop called Delirium that started in 1993, the iconic Kompakt label gradually evolved out of the shop's activities and became one of the principal imprints in the minimal techno explosion of the mid-noughties.
To celebrate their de facto 20th anniversary, Kompakt are participating in a whole load of festival stage takeovers in cities all over Europe, and Michael says that getting all the Kompakt artists together for birthday event shows is one of the best things about the celebrations. Michael is also touring solo as a DJ, a purveyor of quality techno, and plays Unknown in Croatia this month amongst several other gigs...
How would you say you've managed to keep Kompakt relevant over the years, particularly after there was a backlash against minimal a few years back?
“When we started the label Kompakt in 1998, as a conclusion of other things we did before, we were already past the peak of minimal techno — in Cologne it was 1995, '96. The first wave — Studio One, Maurizio. When we started Kompakt, we didn't start as a minimal label. If you look at our first 20 releases, they were already quite colourful — there was ambient, there was more poppy disco-related stuff, harder techno. Kompakt was conceived as a label that could release any kind of music we liked, that's how we always kept it. And that's why the minimal backlash didn't hit us very hard.
“How we managed to stay relevant? There's no criteria for a Kompakt release when we sign an artist, it's all about us emotionally relating to the music and feeling that there is a character behind it. We're not following a certain procedure that qualifies an artist as a Kompakt artist, it's really more a question of an emotional connection. As long as the music is able to entertain us, we can expect that someone out there might feel entertained as well.”
Kompakt has had a distinct identity though, hasn't it...
“I think we're quite reliable in a sense, our musical co-ordinate system is quite large. We release almost a record every week, and you never know exactly what you get – but it's certainly something within that system. It could be pop, it could be techno, but you can be sure it's something interesting. It's not a rip-off or a copy of a record you bought last week, we try to find something original. And the artwork has always been important for us, too. We still release almost everything on vinyl.”
As well as a label, Kompakt is also a distributor, booking agency, publisher and shop – is such diversification crucial for record labels these days?
“The set-up we've created here, being our own distributor made us very independent. This was a huge advantage, but also meant we were taking a very high risk. The company here consists of 25 employees, which is a pretty high overhead to have every month. But this was our dream.
“When we started Kompakt, we wanted to be as independent as possible from other distributors. This was based on experiences we had in the early '90s. We always had a knack for slightly strange music, or different techno, and we had all these discussions with our distributors at the time, who were complaining 'We can't sell this shit, it's not techno'. And we would say, 'Yes it is techno, and we like to dance to it'. We got fed up with these discussions, and then in the mid-'90s there was an explosion of creativity in town, everybody and their mother started a label and it started to make sense here to give people a platform where the distribution is run by artists, not by economics. We could then spare these people the discussions we had before with distributors.”
Is Cologne as good as Berlin?
“Totally different cities, not to be compared really. I chose Cologne for many reasons: it's a very beautiful liberal city, very green, very well centred in Europe so that it's easy to travel from here. I love Berlin as a visitor, I love to be there for a weekend or for some days, but it's never really attracted me to live there. I'm very happy with Cologne.”
You're playing at the Unknown festival in Croatia this weekend – have you been to Croatia much?
“Yes, I think it's the first Unknown festival this year, I've played for one of the promoters in Leeds, and I played Electric Elephant in Croatia some weeks ago. It was awesome again. Last year I played Hideout, which is huge, and Electric Elephant is really charming. A group of people stays there for one week, people really get closer to each other, the music is impeccable and the setting is perfect.”
This month we released our drum & bass special. Have you ever played a drum & bass record out?
“Not many. I was into jungle when it started, Shut Up & Dance and all these things and when the tempo was still my tempo I used to play breakbeats, but then when things sped up I bought a few things but I never really played them out. I really like the early Moving Shadow stuff, and the last drum & bass record I bought was called 'Trip To The Moon' – it had a James Bond soundtrack sample in it.”
Have you thought about going EDM?
“Well, I am EDM! I always have been! It's come to mean something else, but it was the same with trance — I used to say, 'I'm playing trance'. Wildpitch was trance music for me, anything that is repetitive and hypnotic is trance, and then at some point it got this bad stigma. 'Electronic dance music' — I don't want to give away that word to the evil side, I'm playing electronic dance music. I don't feel threatened by this American style, it's a totally different part of the world — not geographically, but musically. If one person out of those millions that goes to those stadium gigs discovers Kompakt by chance and decides that this is better for them, then we've already won something.”
What would you do if you got a gig in Vegas?
“Ha ha – take a plane. What would I play? I don't know, I've never been to Vegas, I can't imagine that it's my kind of environment. Would I turn down the gig for €50,000? Yes, I don't think I'd do it, I don't think it would make me happy. I didn't fight for being independent all my life simply in order to sign a contract for a six-month deal in Vegas in a city environment — no. That would be a step back.”