23.02.2010, Words by Charlie Jones

Michael Mayer interview: "I'm going to defend it until my last drop of blood."

Always arriving at a time when we need it the most, Kompakt’s halcyonic Pop Ambient series emerged from the cold for its annual installment last month. Wolfgang Voigt came up with the idea 10 years ago, and under his guidance the series has successfully cornered the market of ambient music for techno lovers. In a wider sense, it has fostered a desire for more-of-the-same in a music culture that moves faster than ever before.

If you listened to Pop Ambient 2001 and then followed that with 2010 you might not notice too much in terms of sound progression over the years, beautiful sounds yes, evolutionary no. This makes the Pop Ambient series something of anomaly in the realms of Kompakt, for the label is renowned for pushing boundaries without outsider compromise and continually redefining its trademark sound. In the process it has become a truly transcendent electronic music label. What’s more, Kompakt has firmly embraced the unavoidable digital age, setting up stall online as well as providing distribution for over 100 other labels. Kompakt is prospering, but how did it all start?

The story goes that in 1993 Michael Mayer was the first customer into the newly opened Kompakt record shop in Cologne, run by Wolfgang Voigt. Unhappy at the selection on offer, Michael voiced his thoughts. Following his forthright views he was offered a job on the side working at Kompakt sorting out orders for the shop before becoming a partner in the business 18 months down the line. Later still in 1998, after dabbling with a few releases under various labels such as Profan and New Transatlantic, it was decided to simply house them all under the Kompakt name. Years of hard work ensued, but it paid off as Mayer, Voigt and the Kompakt family slowly built up one of the most respected labels around. Mayer himself has earned a great reputation for his inspirational DJ sets that, like a lot of Kompakt’s output, have pop undertones seeping from its core, also his productions along the way have been of the highest order further reinforcing the uniqueness of the Kompakt sound (SuperMayer’s Two Of Us still gets me every time).

So with his feet firmly entrenched in the dance music scene, and his name written in minimal techno lore we wondered what Michael Mayer’s thoughts were on Pop Ambient and also what is next for Kompakt. We caught up with him for a few questions….

Hi Michael, how is 2010 treating you so far?

Can’t complain really… I’ve started the year off touring and relaxing in lovely Brazil and just got Cologne’s Carneval shenanigans behind me. Now I’m ready for work!

Ah the life of a jetsetting DJ! Kompakt is big business these days, what with the digital and distribution side of things really taking off. You guys must work pretty hard, just how does it all work over at the Kompakt offices?

Indeed, things changed a lot compared to the early days. In the 90s, all you needed to run a label was a fax machine. Now we’ve got five fax machines, 26 phones & computers and god knows how many hole punchers… It just got tremendously more complicated since the digital age has begun. Instead of administrating whatever, 2000 sold albums of Project X, you’re dealing with tenthousands of trackdownloads with microscopic paybacks. It’s a pretty insane
scenario but I can proudly say that my team has got it under control. You’ve got to be competent if you want to survive in this business… We’re all autodidacts and it’s still of the utmost importance to us that we run this company from an artistic point of view, not just out of commercial interests.

So, Pop Ambient has turned 10, congratulations on yet another Kompakt milestone. Were you surprised by it’s success? Or was it always intended to be an annual compilation?

Like the Total comps, it was meant to become a series from the start. This is mainly due to my partner Wolfgang Voigt’s craze for serial concepts. You know, for us Total and Pop Ambient are like Easter, Christmas, Carnival or birthdays – recurrent highlights of the year. It’d feel strange to skip or stop these series. Unless the music gets boring and redundant, then – I promise – we’ll shut up.

Yeah I’ve noticed an affection for series! I count a number of your Speicher Series as personal favourites. Could you tell me a little about the artist selection process for each of the Pop Ambient series?

It’s basically the same procedure every year. It begins with getting in touch with the Kompakt artist family to see who’s inspired and who’s not. There are artists like Thomas Fehlmann, Triola, Popnoname, Mikkel Metal and of course Wolfgang Voigt who are the series mainstays and then there’s floaters like DJ Koze or Juergen Paape which sometimes are in the mood for a quiet moment and sometimes not. Then we have a look at who recently impressed us on the ‘outside’ and check if they’d be into contributing to the new compilation. This year bvDub made the race… we’ve listened a lot to his releases on Quietus releases at Kompakt HQ. And he turned out to be a very nice person, too.

That’s great, it’s certainly a winning formula! And a superb choice with bvDub too, his work has been consistently breathtaking. But will we see a contribution from yourself on Pop Ambient? I’m sure lots of people would be curious to hear one.

Every year I’m tempted to give it a shot but then I’ve already got so many things on my plate… You can’t have it all, right? Maybe next year…

This is true. You are mostly seen behind the decks playing dance music. When and where does ambient music fit in for you?

I’m listening to ambient a lot: at home, on the road, at the office. I like to surround myself with music all the time, all kinds of different music. But then there are moments when everything is too much, i.e. after a long day of listening to demos. These are the moments where Pop Ambient is indispensable. For me it works as both aural furniture and music I can listen to in a concentrated fashion. When I get the chance to play the warm up I’d certainly play ambient for a while, too. It was a great pleasure to play the opening set at Berghain’s 5 years anniversary. That’s a great place to enjoy this kind of music – in this cathedral of sound…

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head there when you say Pop Ambient is indispensible, it never seems inappropriate or too much and I think everyone who listens to it would also agree. An ambient set at Berghain…I can picture it now, I think! Actually, do you reckon the Pop Ambient concept could work out as a live show or tour, and has it been considered?

Actually, we think about it every year but we never managed to put it together. Shame on us. I could totally imagine this being a great experience… three weeks on valium in a furry nightliner with shag rugs and pillows everywhere, hehe. Sounds like a plan!

Kompakt Slumber Party! So what other sounds and styles in music are exciting you at the moment?

I’m about to move appartments and I’m planning to get rid of a third of my record collection before doing so. That means that I have to go through all my records, everything I ever bought or been sent to. It’s a rough ticket… but it’s also fascinating to dig out tunes I didn’t listen to in 10 to 20 years. So naturally, I’m coming across old school rap, disco, 80s pop 12“s, early house stuff and let’s say EBM or dodgy euro dance stuff alike. Quite a trip…

Can we buy your offcasts?? Sounds arduous, but theres nothing like hearing a long forgotten gem! It seems those long forgotten gems are in fact inspiring a lot of new artists and spawning a host of hybrid techno-disco-house-whatever. As someone who has been in the game for a long time i’m curious about your opinion on the current state of dance music…

I guess it’s safe to say that dance music has never been as diverse as today: more good stuff, much more bad stuff. It gets increasingly difficult to find what you want. There’s so much formulaic crap jamming the channels and unfortunately that’s what most (digital) DJs play. They’re mainly playing what’s in their inbox, not what they passionately hunted down. Now, the music comes to the DJ, back in the days the DJ had to find the music. Personally, I find it pretty fatiguing to shop music online unless I already know exactly what I want. And that’s only one of many reasons why I’m happy to run my own recordshop. I’m going to defend it until my last drop of blood. Maybe Kompakt is going to be the last recordstore on this planet?

Finally, what else might we expect in the coming year from Kompakt? Any big returns or promising debuts?

Looks like it’s going to be another busy year for us with both debuts and comebacks. We’ll kick off quietly with longplayers by Andrew Thomas and Thomas Fehlmann. Ewan Pearson just released his first amazing mix CD on Kompakt. Finally, Superpitcher will grace us with his sophomore album in May. There’s the debut album by our great new signing Walls from London and I’m also about to start preparations for my third Immer mix CD. This doesn’t sound like a boring first semester to me…

A lot to look forward to. In the meantime, thanks for your time and all the best with the move.

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