|Kompakt: An oral history
As it reaches its 20th anniversary, RA tells the story of one of electronic music's most celebrated institutions.
Kompakt. Minimal. Cologne. All three of these words are intertwined in the consciousness of dance music fans. In its heyday, the label became synonymous with the genre and the city. But the story is much more complicated than that. Last month saw Kompakt celebrating its 20th year of existence. It's not an exact anniversary, however. In 1993 Wolfgang Voigt, Jörg Burger and Ingmar Koch opened up a shop called Delerium. Michael Mayer, Jurgen Paape and Reinhard Voigt soon joined them, but it took five long years until they changed the name and Kompakt proper was born.
At the time it made sense to do so. Jörg and Wolfgang had amassed a ridiculous amount of aliases and labels. And in that initial half decade as artists and businessmen, they realized they would be better off consolidating everything under one roof. Literally. Nowadays the Kompakt building houses a shop, a distributor, the label's offices, basement studios and living quarters for some of its staff. To call it a family affair doesn't quite capture it.
On the other hand, some unkind commentators over the years have called it "cult-like." Many of those insults were lobbed around the time that Kompakt was at its height, a label that seemingly delivered a new classic each week. Rex The Dog's "Prototype," Superpitcher's 'Happiness," Michael Mayer's "Lovefood," Justus Köhncke's "2 After 909," everything Jürgen Paape put his hands on. As the Kompakt braintrust says, it all got a bit much at a certain point. What goes up must come down. And when the music industry took a dip, Kompakt took a dip with it. Their initial halfhearted engagement with the world of digital music led to a rough couple of years.
Buoyed by the success of Gui Boratto and The Field, and the strength of their distribution, however, Kompakt is once again on firm footing. Judging by the amount of bands they've signed in the past few years, you might be inclined to call them the German Warp Records. Only time will tell if that's the road they will continue down, because Kompakt at 20 is a story that has no end. What follows is the beginning.
Above: Kompakt HQ, Offices (1F+2F), Shop (Ground), Distribution storage (-1F), Studios (-2F)
Wolfgang Voigt (Kompakt co-founder, artist): I met Jörg Burger in 1981 in Cologne. We were both playing in New Wave bands influenced by Palais Schaumburg and DAF.
Jörg Burger (Kompakt co-founder, artist): In 1983 we did our first song together. At that time I still had this indie pop band, and we were working on several projects. We did this pretty much all through the '80s. It was always stuff like Scritti Politti and Prefab Sprout.
Ralph Christoph (c/o pop head of strategy): If you look at Wolfgang Voigt's genesis as an artist, there were some reference points in his past like Roxy Music and David Bowie.
Wolfgang Voigt: We were very into British pop. I was a fanatic Scritti Politti fan—the philosophical ideas he has behind the lyrics and, of course, the amazing sound. I was much more into programming and artificial pop music. I was not so much into four boys playing guitar.
Jörg Burger: I guess it was in '87 when we first came in contact with acid house, which was like a revelation. We were working in a studio called the White House. Edwyn Collins [of Orange Juice] recorded an album there. There was a club near there which was playing house music and early acid house, and we heard this 303 sound and we thought, "God, what is this?"
Ralph Christoph: There was this club called Rave on the main street, and for Wolfgang and Jörg that was the initial thing of like, "Wow, acid is the thing."
Wolfgang Voigt: Rave was really the first club with this style and this spirit, even if they only played twice a week the music we wanted to hear. I guess it was Wednesday when guys like Roland Casper would play the early acid records. On Friday they started with hip-hop, and then we'd all wait until that music stopped and all of a sudden the bass drum got steady and someone played Baby Ford's "Oochy Koochy" or something.
Ralph Christoph: But after Rave closed, the scene was dead. And then the real techno guys influenced by acid house came in like Sascha [Kösch, AKA Bleed] and Riley [Reinhold, AKA Triple R]. They did a party called Cosmic Orgasm in a squat. Pure techno. Just a strobe, smoke. That's it.
Riley Reinhold (Trapez founder): When I started in '89, I was a bit disillusioned because there were a lot of bands in the city but no one was doing anything. There were some established clubs where you could listen to Marshall Jefferson, like Rave, but it was on a commercial side.
Bleed (De:Bug editor): Riley and I came from a punk background, so it just came natural to do parties in a squat.
Riley Reinhold: Factories, sewers, under bridges. We had a friend who was an electrician, so we were tapping the electricity. We were basically unhappy about the established dance scene in Cologne. We were very keen on doing things all by ourselves and shaping an atmosphere in the way we wanted it. That was our philosophy.
Ingmar Koch (Liquid Sky Berlin): Triple R did great parties in the mid-'90s.
Riley Reinhold: I remember when I first met Wolfgang. We were playing a squatted house, and Wolfgang came there with his brother and Bolz Bolz. They were all coming [to the party] and were basically all lined up in front of the decks like hip-hop guys with folded arms. They were standing there as if they were the judges. And we thought this was funny, because they looked really stupid. The only thing I heard afterwards was that we didn't play the cool Chicago house tunes, which at that time were trendy. We were playing the English stuff because we thought it sounded more futuristic.
Bleed: Wolfgang was a totally serious and weird bloke, in a way.
Jörg Burger: We were indie and pop guys playing guitars, using the studio as well, but coming at it from a totally different angle. We were musicians. But we always saw ourselves as some kind of hipsters in those days. We were always very interested in things. And that is why we went to London for a week to see what was going on in the acid house scene.
Wolfgang Voigt: [At that point] dance music started to get underground for me. Until then, underground music was band music, guitar music.
Bleed: In the beginning there was Ingmar [Koch] as well. He is—and has always been—a very psychedelic person.
Ingmar Koch: I met Wolfgang via Bolz Bolz. He was working for Jörg and Wolfgang in a studio in Cologne. I was working at the time for a commercial record company helping to produce really un-fun music. So I said if I was not able to make commercial music money, then fuck it, let's do whatever. It makes no sense to try to be commercial. Wolfgang taught me how to program a 303 and, three years later, we were doing 303 programming battles. Acid music changed our lives.
Jörg Burger: In '87, '88, '89 we were trying to develop our own style.
Wolfgang Voigt: The first relevant record came out in 1991. We started releasing records on our first labels, Monochrome and Trans Atalantic. And then there was this Frankfurt-based record shop Delirium...
Riley Reinhold: I think Ingmar was the guy that had about 100 ideas, and if you were lucky he got about 50 going. But that was about 50 times more than all the other people in Cologne.
Ingmar Koch: I used to live in Frankfurt, and asked if they were setting up different stores because the Delirium in Frankfurt was doing really well. Of course there were other record stores as well, but we thought it made more sense to open another record store with techno and electronic dance music.
Wolfgang Voigt: Ingmar was very much a business-Frankfurt-based-techno-dealer guy. And we came from serious subculture. Me and Jörg had the credibility and he had the money. And I found this very attractive, this connection. Because he likes our style and he knew the structures. At the time we didn't have so much other stuff to do, so we said, "OK, why not?" We decided overnight that it was a cool idea to have a record shop. We can read, hang out, it's easy to do, you don't have to know so much about it. It happened by chance. It wasn't like we needed to have a record shop, especially not me.
Reinhard Voigt (Kompakt co-founder): I still have in my mind the dinner where Wolfgang and Jörg asked me and Jurgen [Paape] to work with them on the store. We were both going to university. But it was boring for us, so it was very easy to give them the direct answer of "yes," because why not? We found a small store. And with 8000 DM we bought the stuff that we needed: the records, the paint.
Michael Mayer (Kompakt co-founder, artist): I was really excited that there was a new record shop in town, because the shops we had at the time didn't really cater to my needs. I knew Delirium Frankfurt; it was one of the best record shops in the country, so hopes were high that Delirium Cologne would be like the one in Frankfurt.
Reinhard Voigt: Michael came the first day as a customer.
Michael Mayer: I was actually waiting in front of the door until they turned the key. And I was shocked. There were only like three boxes of records and four guys behind the counter. They all had funny hair and funny outfits, but they were nice. So I checked the three boxes they had there, and I went up to the counter and was like, "Are you serious?" There was only like three or four labels in the boxes and that was it. No "hot new imports" or whatever. So I asked if they intended to change that, and they were like, "Yeah, I don't know, we don't really care." Because none of them were DJs. They were more interested in making a place to hang out.
Wolfgang Voigt: We knew from the very first moment that we didn't want to do this alone. We thought it was cool to have a record shop, but it was also good to have a hangout for the young techno scene in Cologne. I'm not a DJ. I'm the opposite of Michael Mayer. He knows every record and, for me, it is the opposite.
Jon Berry (Kompakt label manager, artist management): I'm sure you have heard the story of Michael, the brat, coming into the record shop and telling them what they should have in there.
Michael Mayer: After annoying them a couple times, they just threw a list at me and were like, "Come on, if you know everything better, then you do the orders." So I started jobbing there some hours a week and then quite quickly became a full-time employee. Then after six months I invested a little money I had inherited from my grandmother and I became a partner.
Bleed: It was a pretty ugly shop, really. Because in Cologne to get a good shop is rather difficult they got this ugly thing that was probably a pub before. They had wood panels on the walls, and they painted them some blue/green which made them even more hideous in a way. Me and Riley would go there almost every day for a couple of hours just to hang out.
Justus Köhncke: Michael [Mayer] and Tobi [Tobias Thomas] were hanging out there all the time, they were there literally 24/7. We were there, too, because Cologne is like a village. You'd pop by the Delirium store, and also pop by the Groove Attack store which had more house music.
Matias Aguayo (Kompakt artist): And you could smoke joints there.
Justus Köhncke (Kompakt artist): Wolfgang once said, "It's a nice opportunity to start drinking culturally in the afternoon."
Ralph Christoph: People were meeting there, drinking beer, listening to records, talking, making plans, it was a meeting point.
Michael Mayer: That was the first big achievement of this company, I think. That we didn't have a sense of entering a circle of super-important-people. We were sitting on the counter, smoking a joint, drinking a beer and ready for a chat, whatever.
Tobias Thomas: It was different from the other stores in Cologne. For them, techno was like a cold machine music for people on drugs. The Delirium guys really filled a gap because they were coming from pop culture and pop music from the '80s. That made them quite different. They were smiling, happy, friendly intellectual people you could have a very good conversation with about anything. They were not like those techno guys in the early '90s with special clothes, taking a lot of drugs and only "dun dun dun" techno.
Bleed: I used to buy drum & bass records there, but they basically only bought it for me and two friends of mine. Wolfgang really hated that stuff. He could tell it was really advanced, using samples and stuff, but as a whole it was totally not their music.
Jörg Burger: One month after the shop opened my daughter was born, so I naturally took the part of doing everything reasonable at the store like the accounting. In those days it was mostly my job to keep the whole thing together.
Michael Mayer: Jörg was taking care of the accounting and I did the orders, so he was my natural enemy. He would set a budget for the week and I would always blow it. There was a day when Neuton distribution offered the complete Plus 8 catalogue and I was like, "Wow! All of these classics available again!" I ordered about 5,000 DM when our normal weekly budget was like 500. Jörg was green in the face. "You're going to kill us. This is the end of our business, you're crazy!" And I said, "Jörg, I'm going to sell all of these records, I promise you!" It took eight years until the last copy was gone, but I still think it was worth it.
Dirk Leyers, Matias Aguayo, Olaf Dettinger, Jörg Burger, Michael Mayer.
Hans Nieswandt (DJ, author): Cologne in the early '90s had an incredible pull as a music city, and that had a lot to do with Spex magazine. It is hard to imagine how strong and influential a magazine could be back in the days. That was when there was no internet, there was no music TV.
Michael Mayer: One of the reasons I chose Cologne as my new home was the fact that there were things going on. There was a pretty interesting concentration of music press, Spex for example.
Bleed: Spex was the moral high ground of intellectual writing for music back then.
Ralph Christoph: I think it was the time when everyone was expressing themselves through publications. Spex was the middle of the earth. Every music magazine had the reference point of Spex. Tobias Thomas was a Spex writer as well, but then decided to move out and make his own fanzine.
Jörg Burger: House Attack was a free magazine and was a thing between techno, art, craziness, whatever. Michael [Mayer] wrote for it and Tobias [Thomas] was the editor. In the beginning I was the editor, but then I took myself out of it. It was very open.
Michael Mayer: I think what made such a diverse scene in Cologne was that we didn't have a lot of clubs in town. The worst moment was probably in like 1995/96 when we didn't really have anywhere to dance. But then in came Dr. Walker who introduced Liquid Sky Cologne.
Riley Reinhold: A trashy place.
Michael Mayer: It was like a lousy bar, nothing really special, kaleidoscope light effects everywhere, sofas. Everybody played there.
Matias Aguayo: Everybody went there, but nobody really liked it. [laughs]
Ingmar Koch: My friends Carlos and Claudia were into fashion, and we wanted to open a Liquid Sky fashion club in Cologne, but we got offered a great bar so we were like, "Yeah, fashion is cool, but beer is cooler, so let's have a beer."
Reinhard Voigt: It was like a living room for electronic music lovers.
Tobias Thomas: We often played back-to-back, because otherwise it was too boring. You would play the whole night sitting and everyone was sitting as well. Even if you were playing drum & bass or techno or house you would "sit and bang." We called it sit and bang.
Justus Köhncke: I think it even got a mention in Spiegel in the culture [section] with a picture of the sofas. The text said, "Stockhausen on the Sofa."
Ingmar Koch: You were not allowed to dance in there. We said, "OK, we bought all of these wonderful couches. Sit the fuck down and listen to the music."
Ralph Christoph: It was more of a social event, it wasn't like, "Wow, what a club! It's like the Hacienda!"
Ingmar Koch: I was working at the bar and it was so fucking fun. People were like, "Can I have a coffee?" And I would say, "You want to play jokes with me? You have a fucking beer or go out. Look at me! You really think I am going to give you a coffee? You came here to drink, so drink!"
Michael Mayer: We would all hang out together, we all had drinks together and it really helped to create this energy in the town.
Matias Aguayo: In a way, afterwards, things like that become somehow a legend. But it was good, it was important.
Jörg Burger: In those days Wolfgang's label Profan was very influential. He was also releasing as GAS on Mille Plateaux.
Ralph Christoph: Mike Ink.
Jörg Burger: We were running New Transatlantic together.
Michael Mayer: Studio 1.
Jörg Burger: At that time, Wolfgang and I had already released about 400 records.
Reinhard Voigt: We had created our own sound. And we wanted to do it by ourselves.
Michael Mayer: Delirium was a franchise system. There were maybe seven or eight Delirium record shops in Germany, but musically speaking, they had nothing to do with us. Why should we pay a franchise fee? We have a completely different musical identity.
Wolfgang Voigt: There was a lot of energy and I said, "OK, let's start something new."
Riley Reinhold: I think Wolfgang soon realized that you could only make money if you bring things together. So you have the distribution and the record shop and the label all in one.
Hans Nieswandt: I think it really started when the shop moved and they renamed themselves Kompakt. By that time they were not only ready as producers, but as strategists.
Wolfgang Voigt: We renamed our growing company Kompakt in the summer of '98. This was the same time we started the label Kompakt and also the distribution. But it was my feeling that we always have been Kompakt because we had our own spirit the whole time. We were not so much familiar with the main Delirium idea. It had always been this special Cologne family thing. We were also getting wonderful demos from young people with interesting stuff, so I thought there was a good chance to really make this an interesting growing Kompakt factory, techno factory. I had always dreamed of having a culture factory where I could live with people under one roof. I always had this idea of me as being an Andy Warhol of techno.
Michael Mayer: A lot of things happened in 1998. I did my first mix CD, [Neuhouse] which gave us a lot of momentum, where a lot of people discovered a different side of techno and house, a less dogmatic approach probably. 1995/6 was the peak of minimalism in Cologne. When we really played nothing but concept stuff, Studio 1, Basic Channel stuff, Maurizio. We thought it was the best thing. When we started Kompakt, we were already over the hump. We started to explore ways of combining the idea of minimal dance music with different sounds, other colors.
Wolfgang Voigt: The intention was to be as independent as possible.
Michael Mayer: Imagine starting a distribution company with a quite limited catalogue of weird music. It was not an easy task. Like the Kreisel series. To sell 7-inches almost on a weekly basis for a whole year with almost only Wolfgang's music was quite a task. I think Total 1 was the first proper statement of, "OK, this is us." But mainly it was the 12-inches that ruled our world at the time. There would be a 12-inch almost every week, and every 12-inch was redefining the whole scenery.
Wolfgang Voigt: We always understood Kompakt as somehow a pop label under the circumstances of techno. 51% has to be four-to-the-floor bass drum, the rest don't have to fit. We were really techno from the bottom of our heart, but the pop attitude was a different attitude and this was important for us.
Michael Mayer: I knew Olaf Dettinger from East Germany. Tobias and I went to DJ at a party in a small town and Dettinger was also playing there. At the time he was mixing Relief records with hip-hop skills. Some months later we had a tape in the post from him. We always loved ambient. KLF's Chill Out was a record where everyone inside Kompakt could sing every note. To include ambient into the world of Kompakt was just a logical step for us.
Wolfgang Voigt: The pop ambient idea was like chart pop under the microscope and made very large. Then you get this kind of atmosphere.
Michael Mayer: I think another milestone was when Markus Guentner sent us his demo for "Regensburg." We were sitting in a park with pizzas and a ghetto blaster and listening to demos. And up came Markus and he enchanted us.
Wolfgang Voigt: The sun started to go down and the beer does its job. We felt great and I said to Michael, "Do you hear how great this is?"
Michael Mayer: We had the CD on loop all night, walking around the city, and it was like, "Wow, this is the perfect ambient CD."
Wolfgang Voigt: The ghetto blaster was getting warmer and warmer and the bass was vibrating.
Michael Mayer: Sound quality is something that can be fixed. What is more important is the quality and the idea and the aura of the music. You can perfectly judge that on a ghetto blaster.
Wolfgang Voigt: I used to say Berlin is definitely the capital city of clubs and Cologne is the city of labels and producers. In Cologne things are very small and everything very expensive.
Michael Mayer: We started to organize parties together with Triple R, and we noticed the need for a fixed place. The parties were always jam-packed, and the audience we were pulling was very different from the ordinary techno or house crowd. There were a lot of people that were rock guys, all the editors of Spex, for instance, suddenly losing themselves on the dance floor. Things mixed in a new way again, and then finally Ralph Christoph, a friend of ours, created the opportunity to do a weekly club night at the Studio 672, which before then was a little jazz bar.
Ralph Christoph: I think July 3, 1998 was when we opened the Studio. The concept was clear: To give Michael and Tobias as the leading figures with [their production alias] Forever Sweet, Kompakt and as DJs, a weekly outlet for an event. They called it Total Confusion.
Michael Mayer: We opened in 1998, and it was perfect timing. It was the moment when everything fell in the right place. Studio was a small club: It holds 350 people. It had a pretty good sound system for those days, and the magic thing about it was that it was only a dance floor: there was no place to escape, really. The whole thing was a dance floor, and the energy was amazing.
Ralph Christoph: Between '98 and, let's say, 2000/2001 was the best period for that kind of music. It was the indie-techno sound; when labels like Perlon, Kompakt and Ladomat all started out. The music was very positive at that time. It sounded a bit more indie, fresh, young and naïve. It was a fantastic time and people loved it.
Michael Mayer: I think the dance floor should be about the whole wealth of emotion and not just euphoria. The point I am trying to achieve when I'm playing is this moment where everything comes down in the room and becomes amorphous. It's not hysterical anymore. Hearts are open.
Tobias Thomas: They would maybe even sing along with a reggae tune or something. That became another specialty and passion for Total Confusion. That we would never follow any purist concept. It was never a minimal techno night, that was not the concept. Confusion was the concept.
Michael Mayer: That's when we redefined our DJ styles a lot. We started to do very long ambient warm-ups. I think the record was almost 3 AM with no bass drum. But people would almost endure it and then when the first kick came people were like "Yay!" It was pretty intense, and we had a lot of freedom to do whatever we wanted.
Tobias Thomas: A lot of the mix CDs that we made start without a kick drum because that was a duty of the night. You never come into a club and play the latest house track you just bought and bang into the emptiness. That was prohibited.
DJ Koze (Kompakt artist): The setting of the mood and the euphoria. You can't do this in-and-out fucking and orgasm for more than one or two hours. Tobias really inspired me, the way he told the story of a long set. His mix CDs were a big influence on me.
Ralph Christoph: Ask Berliner DJs. The high culture of warm-up was invented in Cologne.
Tobias Thomas: That was also a time in Cologne where parties still had an end. By law or by the cleaning lady.
Michael Mayer: She was called Edith. An original Kölsch woman. Edith was tiny, but she was this strong elderly woman and you didn't want to fuck with her.
Ralph Christoph: We developed strategies. Like, "Just come with me for a half-hour, we need to tell you a story."
Michael Mayer: The end of the party was always when Edith entered the room and shouted "Get out of here now!" She would throw the bucket in the middle of the dance floor.
Tobias Thomas: To me, Studio 672 is still one of the greatest places in the world. Even though it is not very glamorous, it is not very spectacular, it has no rooftop terrace, it has no fancy furniture, it's not huge, it has no dark rooms, it is nothing special... the shape is perfect for small club parties. The DJ booth is perfect from my point of view. I really love it. That's why we spent eight years of our lives there.
Wolfgang Voigt: In 2003, during our tenth anniversary, we opened the office you see today and our main peak of success started. It was very massive.
Michael Mayer: In 2003, I released my fabric mix. That was a time when the UK woke up and totally jumped on this minimal thing. That opened a lot of doors. Like when they asked me, I was like, "Wow, OK, this could be an interesting moment for the whole thing." That was why I mostly chose music from friend's labels we distributed. I just wanted to put the focus on this new breed of labels and distributors that had nothing to do with UK tech house, and it worked really well.
Reinhard Voigt: We were label of the year in Groove in 2003, 2004 and 2005. 2004 was the "wow" moment. We sold a lot of records, had wonderful times and were able to give young producers from all over the world a chance to release a record. We had the distribution, the record store, the label all under one roof.
Justus Köhncke: Kompakt became a world brand and so big from the outside. It was like you had the Kompakt label on your forehead. People were like, "Cologne, oh my God it must be so happening." It was confusing how much star power that name had. It was kind of scary and exaggerated.
Hans Nieswandt: It was almost like a snowball thing. The more feedback they got back for the aura they created, the more they played it up. I always thought it was really super the way they did it. Because of the early '80s pop thing, you have to think of people like Tony Wilson and Factory Records. The whole idea of great music and great design and great ambition and making an impression and changing up the scene. I think that was quite inspirational.
Bleed: Wolfgang really pushed the label as well as minimal. They always told everybody they were doing minimal at the beginning. And at a certain point it became a genre for people. And this genre, how long did it actually dominate what was happening in Germany? I would say about ten years maybe.
Ralph Christoph: There were three minimal tribes working parallel, like Richie [Hawtin], Kompakt and the Berlin guys.
Hans Nieswandt: People would come from all over the world—Japan, Australia—just to check out the Kompakt store. It was really happening, everyone was buying records like mad.
Jon Berry: Superpitcher's "Heroin."
Rex The Dog (Kompakt artist): Justus Köhncke's "Homogen."
Jon Berry: The Closer Musik album.
Gui Boratto (Kompakt artist): "Lovefood."
Rex The Dog: Michael Mayer's remix of Ferenc's "Yes Sir, I Can Hardcore."
Jon Berry: "Triumph."
Scott Plagenhoef (former Pitchfork editor): "Ballroom Blitz."
Michael Mayer: "So Weit Wie Noch Nie."
Ralph Christoph: "So Weit Wie Noch Nie."
Michael Mayer: I started hating Jürgen Paape. He would do one track a year on every Total compilation and always deliver the biggest moment. I don't know how he does it.
Justus Köhncke: You also cannot express enough the power and importance and genius of Bianca Strauch's artwork.
Ralph Christoph: I love Bianca's style because she was influenced by Peter Saville and all of these graphic designers from the UK. She was the inventor of the Kompakt dots.
Justus Köhncke: She invented that in the back room, working on her blue iMac.
Ralph Christoph: She's maybe the most famous graphic designer in the Cologne techno history.
Thomas Fehlmann (Kompakt artist): Her design had a sort of Germanness. Not making the biggest bang possible, but still something strong. It was understated and refreshing.
Wolfgang Voigt: I had my ideas of visualizing things, of course. I was looking for strong logos and I really wanted to have a corporate identity. I wanted people to know that this is techno, but different. I never wanted to look black and dark and abstract like other labels based in the States or Berlin, and I never wanted to look psychedelic like labels in Frankfurt.
Hans Nieswandt: The quotation of Bauhaus design and the really minimal music approach translated into the graphic design and how they worked with German words and song titles and German project names.
Michael Mayer: That is something people always got wrong. We mean it in a funny way, but it was never meant in an ironic sense. I mean, schlager music, like any genre, there is a lot of terrible stuff but there are some pearls. There are some amazing soulful songs. The French, they have the chanson culture. No French DJ or punk would spit on that. There it's a good thing. In Germany, it's a bad thing because it's a German thing. For us, it was like searching for the good moments and bringing it to the dance floor.
Hans Nieswandt: All of the German bands that became successful on a national level did so because they exposed their Germanness. Like Kraftwerk, Rammstein, Can. The really big German successes on an international level were very much about giving the foreigners the Germans they imagined.
Michael Mayer: We got really big in Germany, thanks to the fact that we had German language on our label, the titles were mostly German and we were the only distribution company sending out German contents on the list and English for the rest of the world. It was always important for us to define ourselves as a German company. We didn't try to pretend that we were from Detroit or whatever.
Jon Berry: Kompakt came from that European school of mystery. There was no answer to any question. There were these artists that had never been in North America, and this music somehow had this small core of people [in North America] that were following it at the label's inception.
Scott Plagenhoef: I think the first time I became aware of Kompakt specifically was around 2000, probably around the time of the Total 2 compilation. I probably first would have learned about it through the I Love Music message board.
Adrienne Day (writer, Spin): David Day at Forced Exposure. I think he was definitely a part of raising their profile [in the States] and Jon Berry as well.
Jon Berry: Pitchfork were important. They have always been very supportive of Kompakt. In 2001/2002 they weren't nearly as influential as they are now, but at the same time we were always getting a lot of support from them and I know that it was a really important part of helping bridge the different audience. The audience in North America that follows Kompakt is a very different breed from what you find in Germany or the Netherlands.
Scott Plagenhoef: I would have certainly known about Burger/Ink before. That was probably because it was on Matador, which coming from an indie rock background was probably my first introduction to anything like that. They also had Pole and Boards of Canada in the States.
Jon Berry: Kompakt had this interesting story being this DIY enterprise. It was very relatable to someone who likes indie. I think it was a story about these guys that set up in a small record shop and then they had some friends that had some records so they decided to start selling them for them. When Michael came over I don't think that he imagined that there was a lot of interest in the label or in him.
Michael Mayer: That was really interesting for us. America was still very far away and we didn't really know much about what was going on there in clubs. Even selling CDs was a new thing to us. The CD buyer was still a very abstract person to us.
Jon Berry: The Spin piece was a big deal on many levels. Adrienne Day, who wrote the piece, flew to Cologne to write it.
Adrienne Day: The way that it had been described to me, through whispers over the internet, was that it was kind of cult-like, very Germanic. I just heard that they all took their meals together and worked together, and yeah, it sounded kind of cult-like and a little scary.
Michael Mayer: There were the weirdest perceptions of our identity.
Jon Berry: None of those guys, apart from Jürgen Paape, had ever really deliberately hidden themselves. But there wasn't any publicity or any information readily available for people to get their hands on.
Adrienne Day: Once I got there I wanted to move in. I was like, "This is the ideal work and living situation." Not everyone lived at the headquarters, but it seemed really great, it seemed like what the modern office should be like, kind of like a family. They had everything under one roof, they had the store, they had the area they all worked, they had an exercise room upstairs. There was an area everyone would dine, and it was all vegetarian.
Jon Berry: In North America, every time I mentioned there was a cook the editor would say, "Ohhh, wow there is a cook! Can we get pictures of the cook?" I think the cook helped get a lot of press.
Wolfgang Voigt: We weren't young techno hippies anymore, hanging around going to the pizza place on the corner. Michael and I have been very tough vegetarians and food-wise we have been very healthy.
Michael Mayer: Shuffle? That's a discussion you should have with Wolfgang, because he created that monster.
Wolfgang Voigt: My musical education starts at the age of ten when Marc Bolan took over. Every second record of T-Rex is shuffle. I love shuffle.
Jon Berry: The T-Rexified bounce and sway.
Wolfgang Voigt: One of the greatest shuffle hits, Michael Mayer's "Love Is Stronger Than Pride," is one of the most successful records on the label.
Michael Mayer: What I like about shuffle is people dance in a different way to it. Nowadays, club nights last for about 12 hours or more, and you always dance to the same beat more or less, and I always think it is quite liberating for people to loosen up, try different steps.
Thomas Fehlmann: I know that shuffle is really hated by some DJs. I still don't know quite why.
Michael Mayer: We were getting, not tired of it, but irritated because all of a sudden it glided out of our hands into Scooter. There were shuffle techno tracks in the charts. So we were like, "OK, let's step back for a moment and wait until it's right to come back again." We received so many demos and all of them had a shuffle track. It just started to become too formulaic and not interesting anymore.
Reinhard Voigt: Of course, we can't be or stay so successful for years. That is not possible. It's normal for a lot of companies—not just the music scene.
Michael Mayer: I was asked to do a cover mount CD for a magazine around that time, and I said, "If we do this now, we will be dead within the next year." I remember what they did with [DJ] Hell and electroclash. Within one year he was God, and then in the next moment they slayed him.
Reinhard Voigt: You see the company peak and everyone is talking about how super it is, then they let you down and it falls down a little bit. But, in our case, I could expect it. For us, it was not a huge surprise.
Tobias Thomas: Kompakt was very important for my personal history and the history of a lot of my friends as a family. But that was maybe Kompakt 1. I think now we are in the phase of Kompakt 2 or Kompakt 3, because times were changing, people were changing, concepts were changing.
Bleed: It went on for a long time... At a certain point when vinyl broke down, the whole mystery of this thing kind of collapsed slowly.
Reinhard Voigt: 2007 and 2008 were very tough years.
Wolfgang Voigt: In 2007/2008, on the business side, we stopped our mp3 shop.
Michael Mayer: I think Bleep were the first ones, and we were the second ones to open up a digital store. It was not a heartfelt decision to do it. At that time, digital music for me was not interesting at all. But we were aware of the fact that our music was available and out there, so we figured it is better to create a legal opportunity than to leave it all to the pirates... it was hell [getting the website together].
Ralph Christoph: Neither Wolfgang nor Michael are like Richie [Hawtin] in that way. And nobody could know at that point that Beatport would dominate that market. The only way could have been to invest so much money into that, to bring it into position, but they didn't like that idea.
Michael Mayer: We shut down Kompakt mp3 because we shut down our old website. Kompakt mp3 was working somehow, but I think we actually lost money rather than saving it because it caused tremendous stress for everybody, and our blood was not in it. Why do something that we don't really believe in? We are already running a record shop, distribution, a record label, an artist agency, publishing—that's enough.
Wolfgang Voigt: It became more and more work with less effect.
Bleed: This whole switch to digital, they just didn't make it, they didn't really know how to handle it, I'd say. I'm pretty sure Wolfgang could have sold it if he wanted to.
Scott Plagenhoef: I think they were kind of in a slump.
Jon Berry: There was this quiet moment, and then the Field and Gui Boratto albums came out and kind of rekindled everything. It was definitely a pivotal moment for the company.
Justus Köhncke: Gui Boratto and The Field, especially The Field, became extremely successful to everyone's surprise, crossing over to indie markets. They sold 18,000 or 20,000 copies of their debut albums.
Jon Berry: I really believed in The Field. The first singles were potentially the worst selling singles ever released on Kompakt, but Wolfgang and I both shared this deep enthusiasm about The Field and both really felt like this guy was coming up with absolute genius stuff.
Wolfgang Voigt: I never expected The Field to get that successful, but I was really twice as happy that it happened because it was a sound that I really wanted to show on the label. I felt it was special and difficult.
Michael Mayer: Sometimes it is just the right record at the right time. It was probably at the time America, or a larger audience in America, discovered our label and were marveling at what "weird people" we are, and The Field was the perfect assumption of weirdness. It was a very good match with a kind of student-y crowd. I didn't see it coming. Jon was sure it was going to be a big record, but I thought it was too odd to be big, but he has the American ears.
Wolfgang Voigt: In the case of Boratto, I wasn't surprised. When the world is a dance floor, then Boratto can rock it.
Michael Mayer: My bets were on Gui. With Gui I was sure that everything was there for a big record. Enormous talent, it looked right, it felt right, it was the right moment.
Gui Boratto: I produced Chromophobia in two months. Because of this album I got more attention, I started to play big festivals and tour non-stop.
Jon Berry: To this day I think that "Beautiful Life" is an anthem that has stood the test of time.
Michael Mayer: That was where the tide turned. Until then we were a 12-inch-driven label and then we began to push the whole thing in a new direction. In the early years of Kompakt, the brand Kompakt overshadowed all of the artists. That's why we started working more in the direction of album projects.
DJ Koze: Kompakt is like many labels. They are a little bit fed up with formulas, and they are open to new influences like WhoMadeWho or Gus Gus.
Who is Rex The Dog?
Rex The Dog:
There was just a vibe about Kompakt. That Justus Köhncke sleeve
where it was basically a guy washing another guy's hair? It was electronic music, but it was an approach where they were obviously letting anyone do whatever they wanted within a broad aesthetic. So I sent them a CD and I didn't send it to anyone else. I didn't expect them to get back to me.
The story I heard was that it sat on Michael's desk for ages in a pile of CDs. But I drew a cartoon on the cover and I think that is why he picked it up again. I think it was something they liked but it didn't fit on the label. But I read quite a lot about Michael Mayer being into pop, specifically '80s pop and Pet Shop Boys. But they took absolutely ages. I kind of forgot I had sent it to them.
It wasn't a plan at all to be anonymous. I just didn't want to put my name on the records at that point. But when Kompakt started saying, "Oh, we can't tell you who it is," I think people started thinking "Oh, it's going to be someone very interesting."
Rex The Dog:
Daniel Miller was one that people were suggesting, which is obviously really flattering.
People actually did mention Aphex Twin, which—for all the things he had done sonically—made no sense.
Rex The Dog:
There was a thread
on a message board at the time called "Who is Rex The Dog?" And I have to admit I was actually into it for a little bit until someone added, "Who cares?" after a year or something. Then I decided to steer clear.
Bleed: It was always totally electronic-based, but now they are starting to have more and more bands in their portfolio.
Jon Berry: I don't think the mission of the label has really veered off. We have some bands now, but I think we are still on the same path that the company started with.
Michael Mayer: Right now we are in the Danish invasion. Most of the artists I've signed in the last two years have been from Copenhagen.
Jon Berry: I think the way music is evolving, that grey area that exists out there seems to just get bigger and bigger. You have acts out there, that are making house music that indie kids are going to see, that have never played in a club before. The cross pollination of different genres is creating a wider range of listeners and making things more interesting.
Matias Aguayo: There is an openness from the audience and I think Kompakt has contributed to that. You go to a Kompakt party and you know it won't be the same BPM all night and there will be surprises.
Ralph Christoph: I think the move to bring in stuff like Rainbow Arabia and WhoMadeWho and Gus Gus was a good one, but a little bit too late probably. Warp showed us how to do it, showed the world how to do it, without losing their reputation and actually gaining more attraction and publicity and a different audience in a way.
Tobias Thomas: It is a great achievement that Kompakt still exists because a lot of others are gone. Michael and Wolfgang can be very proud that the ship is still afloat and crossing the ocean, but the vibe is not the same as 15 years ago. It is not so mysterious or magical or closed anymore, it has become more regular.
Justus Köhncke: It's a rare virtue to deal with success in a proper way and not freak out.
Rex The Dog: They have a sort of integrity, in the sense that they do everything their own way and have this sort of family feel, but at the same time they have a Teutonic discipline as well. So I guess it is a combination of being very open and enthusiastic and passionate, but at the same time also being very consistent.
Tobias Thomas: I think there were a lot of decisions made in the successful years that still protect against a lot of things. Like to build up the distribution.
Reinhard Voigt: We survived because we could save some money from the successful days for the bad days to pay the bills.
Matias Aguayo: The continuity is even more important than growth. That's what makes it stable. It's a very German attitude, actually.
Tobias Thomas: Kompakt was very successful. The foundation made it so strong that it could not fail when everything became very difficult.
Michael Mayer: As you can see, a lot of labels crashed or suffered a lot from all of these distribution crashes. It is a tricky business. You can lose all of your money in one day. We lost a lot of money as well, but we have many different sources of income and thanks to that fact we are still alive.
Scott Plagenhoef: Their eclecticism has always really allowed them to stick around I think.
Wolfgang Voigt: The booking agency is going very well. We also have publishing in-house. Kompakt is still a successful name in the market, even though we have a peak behind us. The label still has strength. For example, in the industry we sold a lot of sync for car commercials. Business-wise, you lose money on one side and collect money on the other side.
Bleed: It is really hard to talk about Kompakt in a couple of words… It's not over.
Jörg Burger: I would say that the amazing thing about Kompakt is that it is still run by a bunch of friends. And even if people think it is a big business company now, the people are still very down to earth.
Ingmar Koch: What I like about Kompakt was that there was an idea of brotherhood. Work takes more time than your private life; you should not waste it with fights and a bad atmosphere. You should enjoy working together.
Michael Mayer: The most motivating thing about this company is the people who work at the company. Some of them are with us more than ten years. It is a cliché, but it is a family business. I would put my hand in the fire for all of them, and that is a really good thing.
Wolfgang Voigt: Do it yourself, don't care what the others say, understand the business. Don't satisfy people's expectations, get complicated.
Michael Mayer: There is a lot to explore. I still have this hunger for development, for interesting music. Why should I stop running a label as long as people don't throw the records back in our faces?
Wolfgang Voigt: Forward ever, backwards never.
Wolfgang Voigt, Jörg Burger, Reinhard Voigt.
Published / Monday, 15 April 2013
Photo credits / Liquid Sky - Der Spiegel
Studio 672, Delirium & scans - Kompakt
Portraits & current office - Paul Clement