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Herb Sundays 67: Michael Mayer
The Kompakt co-founder, producer, and DJ comes with a perfect Herb mix.
“This playlist may serve as a slightly annoying but strangely invigorating backdrop to your hangover breakfast. It's a not-so-divine comedy with all its meanders and misunderstandings. Laughs, tears, and gorgonzola cheese. You should try some strawberry jam on top.” - MM
Kompakt, the Cologne-based record store started in 1993 and became a label when it was rebranded in 1998. Built from the shared experiences of artists and DJs Wolfgang Voigt, Jürgen Paape, and Michael Mayer, a familial aspect has shaped everything Kompakt has done to date.
Wolfgang Voigt (who wears cravates and always looks elegant), made his name in the heady days of 90’s Cologne Acid techno (looking less elegant) and working through myriad aliases like GAS and Mike Ink. As a student of all things Glam and flash including Bowie and Roxy Music, Voigt expounds on the family vision and vertical integration of Kompakt: “There are two aspects around Warhol that interest me. One aspect is the connection with the Kompakt company, the much-cited idea of The Factory. I've always been a bit inspired by that, because that's how I grew up: Living and working under one roof, with friends. The art of company-making in a family context.”
Mayer continues: “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].”
With Jürgen Paape being elusive (though he has produced some of the best schlager-inspired cuts for the label), the label’s twin faces have always been Mayer and Voigt, or the comedy/tragedy masks of the Kompakt empire. According to Wiki, they were born exactly ten years apart which explains their stylistic roots but both are indeed mystics. Voigt, the elder statesman being both serious and Sturm und Drang-y (take in the profound ambient thud of his revered GAS project) and high pomp (the “schaffel” inspiration of old German music is a recurring theme), and Mayer being perpetually boyish one, more ‘80s than ‘70s, like an alt universe John Hughes character. Mayer is the other sly wink of Kompakt, a Black Forest lovesick kid who digs trance a bit, maybe like Sasha on SSRIs, which is high praise in this magazine.
Kompakt became a leading label in the 2000’s “minimal” techno movement, a tag that can feel it trades in heresy, as it originally belonged to more austere stlylists like Detroit’s Robert Hood and Dan Bell. I recall thinking International Style may be a better name, even if cringe, as it evoked the work of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier instead. Regardless, labels like Kompakt, alongside the more psychedelic and impressionistic Perlon from Berlin, Richie Hawtin’s resurgent M-nus brand, and the conceptual pop of Frankfurt’s Playhouse offered a transatlantic feast of quality techno. Kompakt’s records, and the self-similar branding of their releases built a compelling timeline as they all snapped back to a grid.
The early Kompakt releases have held up because of their stately melodic charm, which can work peak-time (Wolfgang’s brother, Reinhard Voigt’s “Supertiel” is a masterclass of grindy techno-trance which around 4:30 becomes weirdly sentient), or in the morning melancholy after a night of hard dancing (check the God Tier glint of Closer Musik’s “Maria” in the back of German taxi at sunrise, your hands dotted in bouncer-borne ink, your eyes as wide and knowing as an owl’s). There’s the ability to be dreamy but tuff, hypnotic even, but always sincere. Much of it comes from Köln’s own character apparently. That humor in its character, slightly askew to the severity of Berlin and it’s brand of techno. Nothing is more serious than a joke.
While I was a student of ‘90s Detroit (and by proxy, Berlin) Techno, which is/was rooted in mystery, anonymity, and certitude, there was something refreshing about Kompakt upon arrival as a counter example. The label in its early days flirted in a form of gay-baiting a bit, which added some needed character to the scene. Like Detroit sounds, these German exports were pivotal inspirations for Ghostly and our Spectral Sound label in the early years, both as global scene creators and pacesetters, but also personally as people, remixing us and vice versa and eventually becoming one of our main record distributors internationally. Mayer always had the time of day for us, a true stateman.
Each release from Kompakt felt like a little event in itself. from the yearly Total series (which I presume took its name from Mayer and Tobias Thomas’ Total Confusion party which ran for over 15 years), to the Pop Ambient series, to just each single, often with evocative photography but always with those iconic dots somewhere. No release came too far out of leftfield, you knew you were getting something strong and well-crafted, the only knock on it (and of most labels of the time) is the white male-ness of the experience, which has been rectified a bit more recently.
Mayer has plenty of great tracks to his name, and it’s often his remixes that shine the brightest. It’s as if he can’t help but collaborate, the consummate curator of other people’s music. More than any of his Kompakt affiliates, a list which includes legends like DJ Koze, Superpitcher, Gui Boratto, and more, Mayer’s career has been defined by his DJ mixes. From his early love for opening sets at Total Confusion, to 17-hour benders, to the comfortable all-nighters, Mayer’s taste is wide-reaching enough not to bore. Mayer is also responsible for two of the most beloved recorded DJ mixes of the ‘00s, or maybe ever. Those two being both IMMER (which has 3 editions) and his 2003 mix for London’s Fabric club series. Both don’t stream (yet), so you’ll have to visit YouTube/SoundCloud/etc or pick up a used CD to enjoy.
Philip Sherburne details Mayer’s deftness for mixes in a review for Pitchfork:
With 2002’s Immer, rightly heralded as a techno classic, he pretty much perfected his aesthetic, one he has built upon on subsequent mixes: deft, surprising, and stylish, equal parts trickster and sensitive soul. The conventional wisdom tends to consider Immer Mayer’s masterpiece, and it’s true that it nails an elusive vibe in a way that few mixes can. Still, all of his mixes confirm the originality and restlessness of Mayer’s tastes. There’s Fabric 13’s gonzo, peak-time flair; Immer 2’s insouciant disco edge; and Immer 3’s procession of goth-tinged torch songs.
Mayer has always worn his heart on his sleeve a little bit with his tunes, its what makes his work irresistible. His Herb entry is no different. My mental image is that of a deep afterparty, somewhere in a snow-draped European ski town. The bar that Mayer and Co. have taken over is maybe a little too small for the endeavor and the system isn’t right for techno, so Mayer pulls from his mental archive of tunes, the aforementioned torch songs and odd standards. Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” emerges as a sing-a-long.
What’s fun about the Herb mixes for me is you can often find trace elements of the curator’s work in the songs they share. A few moments in these cuts share the atomic units of great KOMPAKT songs, even Steve Miller Band’s insanely camp “Abracadabra” has a bridge that feels like the fissure of some of the best Kompakt cuts. That little insanity needed to push these well-mannered tracks over the edge. Robert Palmer, who is becoming a Herb Sundays staple, shows up, and there’s even a Coldplay-sampling Brandy cut for good measure. Mayer was built for this.
The last time I saw Michael Mayer was May 5th, 2019 at a Kompakt open air event in Berlin. Just a passing hello, an old ally in the global indie music forever war. It was the day after we celebrated Ghostly’s 20th anniversary at the nearby Panorama Bar. I haven’t been to Europe since and I hope to see him again soon, ideally when he is behind the decks, and ideally he has all night to play.
In another interview I found out how Mayer interloped his way into becoming part of the Kompakt crew, a mouthy kid with good taste who helped put the puzzle together:
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….
I wasn’t the first customer at Brett Marion’s Neptune Records in Royal Oak Michigan in 1997, I actually came a day early when they hadn’t opened yet. I couldn't make it the following day, but the day after I drove down to the shop straight from my summer job at a men’s clothing store (suits and stuff) in my little pleated pants and tie, and met the crew including Nathan Justice and Michael Segal (who would end up illustrating and designing a lot of Ghostly’s early releases/flyers) who would guide my taste in deep ways until the shop closed in 2006.
As a kid in Michigan in the early ‘00s, if you wanted Detroit Techno you’d likely venture to Record Time (I still keep up with the owner) or Melodies & Memories (where a young Seth Troxler would eventually hold court), but if you wanted titles from Kompakt and related imports, you’d take the trip to Neptune. Though they charted in indie rock and experimental waters, luckily for the area, they also carried each release from the label. Brett, Nathan, Michael and I would go to see the Kompakt crew when they finally came to Detroit. It was a big moment. The transatlantic story of Techno goes both directions. The ball was being served back.
Record stores drove a lot of my music discovery, and still do. I’ve documented around 50 of them so far in photos and words on Ghostly’s Instagram. Many of these have closed already, but more keep opening. There are other types of venues, especially clothing stores and skate shops which continue to serve as hang-outs too.
I’m not naive enough to think that record stores will be where the next scenes and labels grow from. Groups of friends always make the best scenes, wherever they meet. Spectral Sound announced a single this week from Dirty Bird, a Virgina Beach-based producer and DJ, who along with his friends in NYC are building their own scene, show by show, and I was talking with Dee and Yuri from Web3 leaders Zora just last week about the crews that are emerging from Telegram groups and Discord servers.
If you squint at it, you’ll see the makings of the next generation in all this. The same story, just people bonding over the things they love, gently pushing each other forward. I’m grateful I found these places in my youth and its often that I have dreams about a new Neptune Records location opening, somewhere far down Woodward Avenue, emerging in my mind like a lost Arcadia. In these dreams I can walk in and see Brett, Michael, and Nathan holding court with the other fans, shooting the shit, together one more time.
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….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 record shop. I’m going to defend it until my last drop of blood. Maybe Kompakt is going to be the last record store on this planet? - MM 2010 from Dmy
FROM THE FIELD:
Kompakt alumn and affiliate Superpitcher, makes killer reggae mixes.
Noah Brier of Why Is This Interesting, talks about the Immer mix. PS thanks WITI’s Colin Nagy for egging on and igniting this edition of Herb.
BONUS NUGG FROM MAYER:
(I’m not sure why this isn’t streaming rn in the US) “What’s wrong with your country?” - MM
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