We Quizzed Michael Mayer About Some of the Friends Who Helped Him Build His Best Album Yet
The Kompakt domo breaks down the art of collaboration on (and off) his best album yet.
Dance music is the province of producers working alone in bedroom studios, but even in that ultra-DIY setting, few people do it alone. Take Michael Mayer, the Cologne native who wears many hats—DJ, producer, retailer, label head, distributor, and remixer—under the umbrella of Kompakt, the entity he co-founded in 1993. His partners were Jürgen Paape, Jörg Burger, and brothers Reinhard and Wolfgang Voigt, owners of the shop Delirium, which changed its name to Kompakt in 1998, right when the label began. As a producer, Mayer has collaborated widely, teaming up on 12-inches, compilation tracks, and remixes with Tobias Thomas, Ada, and Kompakt co-founder Jörg Burger, and more, in addition to a full-length collaboration with Superpitcher, 2007's SuperMayer Saves the World.
Yet despite having his name on a double-fistful of classic tracks ("Amanda," for one) and remixes (e.g. his and Tobias Thomas's version of Ada's cover of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps"), Mayer's solo albums have felt less satisfying in sum than his best 12-inches or DJ sets, the music often good but somehow inconclusive. Happily, the brand new &, which Studio !K7 released near the end of October, reverses that trend. It's easily his sharpest and most playful full-length, moving as one continuous thing rather than sounding merely like a collection of songs, as when the sighing ballad "Mind Games" (sung by Ed McFarlane of Friendly Fires) melts into the driving, heavily EQ'd near-trance of "Germination" (produced with Kompakt mainstay Kölsch), which then veers into the emotionally charged "Voyage Interiur," featuring Miss Kittin on spoken vocals.
It's an album that moves like a DJ set, and Mayer agrees. "I'm the same guy when I'm in the studio as I am at the turntables, so similar patterns are running in my brain," he says over Skype from his office at Kompakt HQ. One reason & breathes so easily is that, true to form, he brings in a bevy of collaborators. Only instead of going to his trusty Rolodex, Mayer wanted fresh voices. Even his Kompakt partners, who appear on &'s second track, "Disco Dancers" (credited to Mayer & Burger / Voigt & Voigt), had never, as a group, made a track with Mayer before. "There are people [missing]—say, Superpitcher, or Matias Aguayo—that I've collaborated with on a frequent basis," Mayer says. "But I wanted to take the more difficult route and challenge myself, I wanted to do something different from what I did before." But the best thing about & is the way it not only showcases Mayer's artistry but serves as a summation of the scene he and his collaborators played major roles in creating.
To get at the heart of the album—and of Mayer's career to date—we quizzed him about a number of his collaborators, on and prior to &.
1. Jürgen Paape, Jörg Burger, Reinhard Voigt, and Wolfgang Voigt, Kompakt co-founders
Michael Mayer: I met all of them at the same time, actually. I was the first customer when the [Delirium] record shop opened in 1993. Jurgen Paape, [Kompakt producer] Jorg Burger, and Reinhard and Wolfgang Voigt were all behind the counter when I entered the store. My hopes were high that Cologne finally got the record store it deserved. So I started immediately complaining about the selection at hand—pretty poor. They were like, "We're producers, not DJs. We're not really interested in other people's music." They pushed the distributor's list at me and said, "Just make your choices, and we'll order what you want." Two weeks later, I started doing the orders for the whole record store, and six months later I became a partner.
We instantly got along super-well. I think the other guys were wearing longer hair, except for Wolfgang, who was shaved. It was all about long-sleeved shirts with prints at the time. One long-sleeved shirt that was really popular in Cologne in those days was this acid label [co-founded by Burger and Voigt] called Structure. I think these guys were all wearing that shirt. I was probably wearing my [NYC house label] Nervous Records shirt. I was always between house and techno, but definitely leaning more toward house, at least tempo-wise. The other guys at that time were producing acid at 150 BPM. I liked my music between 120 and 130. We realized that despite the huge tempo difference, we had the same, or very similar roots. We all used to love DJ Pierre's early acid records, and 80s pop. Very quickly, we discovered we had a lot in common and became friends.
We moved [into the current Kompakt building] in 2003. When we took over, the offices were still offices; now it's one open-space office, but at the time, it looked more like a police station, very tiny rooms. So the first thing we did was tear down all the walls. We did everything ourselves—we didn't have a designer or architect come in. We had some professional help, but everything else we did alone. It's mostly Wolfgang's thing. He loves construction work—both [doing and supervising it].
[For &'s "Disco Dancers," credited to Mayer & Burger / Voigt & Voigt] I wanted to do one track with the boys. It happened in my studio, in the basement of Kompakt—the gear's all mine, but the room itself is the company's—on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. I knew the album would not be released on Kompakt, that I would be cheating on my company for the first time in 24 years, so I absolutely wanted to have them on board. At the same time, it was probably the collaboration I was most nervous about. Despite the fact that we've known each other for such a long time, we've never collaborated together. I used to work with [Wolfgang's brother] Reinhard a bit, and [I'd worked] only once with Burger, so I had no clue what was going to happen if the four of us ended up together in the studio. We needed to have a couple of drinks to get comfortable with the situation—it was a bit awkward at first. But then we started playing around, and all of a sudden we had this disco jam going on. None of them had really done a disco track before, but it just came to them. That's the beauty of improvisation and collaborations: that the unexpected can happen.
2. Tobias Thomas, DJ and co-producer
I started making records in 1994 or 1995. My first contact with producing was the Techno Boy group we formed with Reinhart Voigt and my old DJ partner, Tobias Thomas. We started this project called Forever Sweet. That was my first encounter with proper techno gear. I made one attempt in 1991, still in the Black Forest region [where I grew up]—but it took me two hours to explain to the technician what a kick drum was. He came from a rock background; he was talking about a normal drum kit's kick drum. I was like, 'No, this is not it. Listen to this record—this is a kick drum.' It was a hopeless, hopeless case.
[Tobias and I] knew each other from the Black Forest days. We were in different high schools, and he was throwing the cool parties for his high school, and I was throwing parties for mine. It was like a Romeo and Juliet thing: You don't talk to these guys from the other school. He was the local competition, so to say. Once we were done with school, I ran into him for the first time and came to realize that he was a super-nice guy, and we befriended each other and started DJing together.
3. Torsten Pröfrock, Hard Wax Records manager
In 1998 we renamed the company Kompakt. That's when we decided to start distribution, first for our own labels. It was just a reaction to the sad reality out there at the time that we always had battles with our former distribution partners, who tried to push us to create more streamlined techno, like, "This is not really techno. We can't sell this shit. It's too experimental." We were like, "We're too old to have these guys have these kind of discussions."
At first, distribution was just me and a fax machine and a telephone. Maybe we already had one computer in the company. You'd play records over the phone, and then you waited for a fax, and then you boxed [up the records]. Eventually, I stopped working in the record store and concentrated my time completely to build up the distribution. [We sold to] all the German stores like Ultima and Hard Wax, [whose buyer] was Torsten at the time. We had a very small list; the first year, we only had the Kompakt releases, Wolfgang's Freiland series, and some bits and bobs, but nothing major. All the shops that were ordering from us were ordering the same records.
4. Jon Berry, Kompakt label manager and Mayer's manager
I knew Jon Berry from his time at [the Frankfurt techno label] Force Inc., when he used to work for Achim Szepanski. We met each other when he came to Cologne for [annual record biz convention] PopComm. We'd heard he'd gone back to Canada and was running this freelance promotion company. We needed some help in [North America], so we asked him if he'd like to take that job—just on a small basis. That's how we grew to like each other. When I embarked on my first U.S. tour in 2002—that was when we fell in love, so to [speak]. He was my road manager—making sure there were drinks onstage and that the turntables were working, making sure that I made my flight. Soon after, we brought him back to Germany, and since then he's worked here full-time for us.
Jon is what I would call a social monster. He's just amazing with people. He knows everyone in this business, and he has a 3D view on things. He's a very savvy guy to have by your side.
5. Judy Griffith, fabric London promotion manager
Judy was my go-to person [when I made the Fabric 13 mix CD in 2003]. I had to fight pretty hard for [the final] version of the mix; there was one track that didn't go down well with the Fabric people: WestBam and Nena, "Oldschool, Baby" The names didn't really represent what was going on at Fabric: WestBam had never played Fabric; Nena is a pop artist. [Judy said], "Oh, this doesn't really represent the sound of our club." Are you kidding? I played this track the last time I played at Fabric, and it went down like hell! In the end, I think it's become everybody's favorite track on the mix.
6. Will Saul, Studio !K7 A&R man and DJ
Will Saul is the current A&R for !K7. I met him in person, not too long ago—I think it was last summer in Morocco, at a festival in Marrakesh. He'd asked me to do a remix for one of his Aus Music releases. My album wasn't on the table yet.
The whole idea about cheating on Kompakt was, I wanted to be just the artist for once. For the last 24 years, I've always taken care of everything concerning my releases, from marketing plans to promotion and distribution. I was involved in all levels of the record's life. During my last album, I found it uncomfortable. It was just too much, you know? I had Jon Berry putting out feelers to see which label could be a good fit. We very quickly came to the conclusion that !K7 was the perfect home. They're a great structure, they're very experienced, they're big but not too big—a lot like us in many ways. We didn't expect !K7 to come up with some crazy contractual details. It was straightforward and easy.
7. Miss Kittin, guest vocalist on &'s "Voyage Interiur"
I've known Miss Kittin since 2001. I met her after she broke through with the Champagne! EP on [International Deejay] Gigolo. She played our party, Total Confusion, here in Cologne. The scene was much smaller in those days, so we naturally ran into each other more often. I knew her records fairly well, and people she was surrounded by at the time, like DJ Hell, were people I respected a lot. It was just before electroclash became a thing. I expected her to play a lot of classic-sounding stuff—electro and Italodisco—which is what she did. It was a really good set, I remember.
I sent her a sketch of ["Voyage Interiur"], which I came up with, with her in mind. That's what I did with almost all my collaborators: I sat down and prepared sketches with [each] person in mind. In Caroline's case, the track was already pretty much done; I was just looking for vocals.
I called her to invite her to the project on the day of the Brussels attacks. That killed my idea of doing this carefree 80s electro-disco song; we both agreed it was not the right time for that project. She sat down right after we hung up, and wrote this French poem about how she's dealing with the fear and the shock of the brutality of the world right now—which I found very touching, because she recorded a song in her mother language. It makes it even more authentic and personal.
8. Roman Flügel, co-producer of &'s "We Like to Party"
I've known Roman since 1993. I remember exactly when first I met him, at a pretty bad rave in a small town north of Cologne. He was playing there as Acid Jesus with his former partner, [Jörn Elling Wuttke]. I think we both felt we were kindred spirits. We didn't look like the others—we didn't have funny techno haircuts. He looked like he just finished high school, and maybe me too. But since that moment, we've been in constant touch. We've had him over to play in Cologne so many times. He's a true companion—great guy.
I had [started a song for the album] for Roman, but then I urgently needed a track for the Total 16 compilation, so I took the sketch and finished it alone. It's called "Action." When Roman came, I had nothing for him—which was just perfect, in fact, because we both instantly felt so comfortable in the studio that even before dinner break, we had 70 percent of ["We Like to Party," &'s opening track].
9. Hauschka, co-producer of &'s "La Compostela"
There were only two collaborations on & that weren't [done face-to-face]. Funnily, the collaborators that were farthest away from me and the closest didn't make it to my studio. Andrew Thomas [co-producer of &'s "Cicadella"] lives in New Zealand, and it would have killed the budget to fly him in, so we decided to send files back and forth. And Hauschka lives in Düsseldorf, which is a half-hour away from Cologne. The Dusseldorf scene was always a little more highbrow. Now, there's [the Dusseldorf club night] Salon des Amateurs, which is more or less directly linked to the art school in Dusseldorf.
With Hauschka [who plays piano on "La Compostela"], it's not so easy to take a piano on the train with you. It's a grand piano—a prepared piano. He's putting nails and tapes into his piano to make it his piano. He couldn't just play any piano. We decided it was better to send files back and forth and have a coffee another time—and I'm still waiting for it! He's been very busy.
10. Prins Thomas, co-producer
I've known Prins Thomas a long time. I wasn't sure exactly what to do with him [for &]. But then I thought of working on this track with my friend, the singer Irene Kalisvaart. I got stuck—I did 20 versions of the song, and just couldn't nail it. That's how Thomas came back to my mind. He can turn shit into gold. And I was sure that he would understand where I wanted to take this song, which was split somewhere between Italo disco and Joni Mitchell folk. It ended up being the most polarizing track on the album—it's a love or hate thing, apparently. A lot of people say, "This is my favorite track on the album," but I know as many people who say, "I love the album, but this one track? I don't get it."