n 1998, the Kompakt label was borne out of the many projects spearheaded by the Voigt brothers (Reinhard and Wolfgang), Michael Mayer and Juergen Paape. Collecting the myriad of ideas and sounds associated, however, proved to be a difficult task. As such, the label has come to be known for its wide-ranging tastes, running the gamut between its Pop Ambient series to the glam-limp Schaffel sound to the banging techno of its sub-label’s Speicher series. Upon its most recent trip to America, however, the label’s artists (Mayer and Reinhard Voigt included) stuck mostly to the latter sound, helping to leave each city decimated by this hard-hitting side of the Kompakt sound. Andy Battaglia caught up with the duo on the New York stop of their tour and asked them a few questions about the Cologne, minimal pasta and the origin of schaffel.
Andy Battaglia: What’s Cologne like?
Michael Mayer: It’s a multitude of things. There are 1,000,000 people living there and the center is very small. You can reach everything by bike. It’s very friendly and warm, and there are lots of parks, so the living quality is quite high. It got 80 percent destroyed during World War II, so there’s not much nice architecture left. The mixture of what’s left and the ’50-’60s architecture is quite bizarre sometimes… not really ugly, but really special. It used to be a very rich and beautiful city, but it looks different now.
Life on the street is almost Mediterranean in a way. People are very friendly. In the summer everybody’s hanging out in the street. It almost feels Italian… Cologne is said to be the most northern city of Italy. There’s a lot of Turkish people living there, as well.
It could be more glamorous maybe, but there’s enough night clubs… four or five really cool places. The underground scene has always been very vital. It used to be more of a rock city, but by the beginning of the ’90s it started to be one of the capitals for techno and house in Germany. We still profit from this infrastructure that emerged… magazines, shops, club culture.
How does it differ from, say, Berlin?
Mayer: There’s a sound of Berlin and a sound of Cologne, but there are many sounds of both. Maybe it’s because of the compressed situation in Cologne, that everybody’s living next door more or less, so you meet everybody on the street or at the corner shop. The whole communication is quite close. In Berlin it’s more anonymous. Cologne people try to stick together—it’s this Italian thing again, like a family vibe.
What are the clubs like? Big or loungy?
Mayer: Not really loungy. The club are real clubs, made to dance. There’s no chance to escape, no room for hanging around and talking. Sensor is the biggest one, for around 700 people. There are other bigger places, but they’re house clubs with really cheesy stuff, not that interesting.
How did Kompakt start?
Mayer: We started in 1993, when we opened a record shop and the first labels. But Kompakt started in 1998, when we changed names. Before everything was very fragmented… different names for different activities, the labels and parties.
Reinhard Voigt: We had begun with only the record store, and when Kompakt started in 1998 we moved to another store and started the label and the distribution. In the beginning of this year we moved to a new house, which is where all the activities work under one roof—distribution, the record store, the studios. It’s a very good situation for us.
Mayer: It’s quite big, this house.
What are both of your roles in Kompakt, in choosing artists and so forth?
Mayer: There’s three owners: Wolfgang Voigt, Jurgen Paape, and me. Jurgen Paape takes care of the record shop, I’m doing all the buying for distribution, Wolfgang is sort of the chairman. It’s very democratic: we decide together what to release and what to work on, with the owners and all our associates. It keeps us away from growing into factions; this way it’s more hearty and human in a way. From the outside lots of people say it looks like a sect. The parameters in which the family works are quite defined. We’re all vegetarians, we all have a similar look. So it might look odd to some people. It’s important for us, this identification… especially regarding nutrition. We love to cook. We have a kitchen in our office and cook for all 15 people who work there every day. This way we have a very good lunch every day. We have cooking competitions between Wolfgang and me to see who can cook the best minimal pasta dish.
What are you listening for when you’re going through demos? How do you articulate what Kompakt does that’s very much it’s own?
Mayer: Well, there’s quite a large spectrum. But all these records have in common a certain originality, something that jumps at us and attracts us. You can always feel the artist trying to add a very personal edge to his music. Not copying a style, or having too technical an approach. There’s this very special sentiment that makes all the tracks different from other tracks, very personal handwriting.
How do you think of Kompakt in the techno continuum? What sounds different to you from what’s come before? How conscious of that are you?
Mayer: We’ve always been a bastard brother of techno in a way. The purpose from the beginning was to be very unique, not to rip off the Detroit sound or sound like British producers—especially Wolfgang, who showed the way to create something that would be different from what you could take from America or France or anywhere else. It’s a German sound maybe, which is not rooted in black music, but maybe German folk music and polka. We’re searching a lot for rhythms and aesthetics from what surrounds us. All the records since the early ’90s sound much different from the other continents. But it’s still mixable… you can mix a Cologne record with a Detroit record, which is absolutely what we want, that people don’t play Cologne minimal records from the beginning of the night to the end. We always regard ourselves as a part of the whole spectrum, as an addition and an alternative, something that will be freaky and cued by experimentation or something that brings back a smile when it gets too serious. We like to balance things out; when it gets too serious or too scientific, we’ll be the ones to sing German lyrics or play a really nice melody. Schaffel, for instance, is a good example of creating an alternative to classic four-to-the-floor techno. It’s something you can play in a techno set, but it makes a difference.
Where do you place the origin of the schaffel beat?
Mayer: It was always Wolfgang’s domain. Wolfgang did schaffel tracks since the very beginning, 10 years or so. It was big juvenile love for T. Rex and Gary Glitter and stuff like this. Then in maybe 1998 or 1999 it became more and more important. It became fun to play a half hour of schaffel in a night, and the effects were quite surprising. At first people were stumbling… “I can’t dance to this.” Then by the fifth or sixth night they would totally go for it, and almost wait for the schaffel to hit. It’s been a very slow development and more and more artists got into it. It’s not a hype, it’s more that everybody appreciates this addition to what they do. It’s a slow revolution in a way, and it brings lots of rock people back on the dance floor as it starts to cross over in very bizarre directions. You’ll find it in top 10 charts hits in Germany. S Club 7 in the U.K. did a schaffel track.
What’s your impression of dance music in the U.S.?
Mayer: I find it a bit sad. The U.S. always used to be the origin of great dance music, something that inspired Europe for decades. It’s reached a point now where, if we take away R&B; and hip-hop, which is still creative and innovative, there’s not much. The four-to-the-floor classic disco stuff and house came to be stuck in a sort of dead-end. U.S. house got really boring, nothing really changed over the past 10 years. It used to be a reliable source of modern, fresh, exciting new sounds. But at a certain point it shut its ears and eyes and stuck to a formula. It’s sad, because they don’t really witness what happened on the other continent, this progression, this joy. Innovation became the motor in Europe for the club scene, and people are thirsty for new sounds always. With stuff like the DFA there is a spark, especially in New York. There’s all this cool new music with a rock cross-over.
What’s your take on that?
Mayer: Everything in good doses. [Laughs.] I don’t like when it gets too retro, but it has made a good change to club music. This electroclash phenomenon sensitizes people for songs, vocals, more organic sounds…it broke a lot of patterns and habits, which is good, especially now that electroclash is over. People can start to look out for something new. Things can get more diverse again. It’s not just one sound; there will 1,000 micro-trends once again. That’s when I like the scene most…when it happens in small circles, but everybody’s working on a new science of how to make cool new club music.
The notion of “goth” gets attached to Kompakt a lot, especially your Immer mix. Is that something you recognize?
Mayer: [Blank, puzzled stare.] This is very surprising. Maybe it’s just a melancholy vibe. But that’s always been part of the Cologne sound, where every track should have a certain emotional sentiment. It’s important. It’s not really sad, more like a dreamy state, like looking into the ocean, thinking about your girlfriend…sad in a good way.
What are you working on now?
Mayer: Recently we’ve been getting more and more into country. It’s something I never touched in my life, but Johnny Cash made me a believer. With Wolfgang as well, we’ve been getting into this country type of lonesome guitar, sound echoing and galloping out somewhere.
Interview conducted on November 25, 2003
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By: Andy Battaglia
Published on: 2004-06-28