In an age in which Tiesto bigs up Kompakt, it’s hard to believe that the imprint used to be pretty minority stuff. Back in the nineties, the label was the exclusive preserve of minimal freaks trading obscure 12"s, but ten years and hundreds of releases later, it’s the most imperial of German dance imprints: they distribute over two hundred other labels, they run successful record stores in Cologne and online, and, most importantly, they have a sound of their own: lush, pop-inflected techno that’s been a gateway into dance music for many. Mayer’s tastes might have got him chucked out of the room by angry promoters when he first started DJing, but he’s stuck to his guns, and nowadays he’s a draw at the largest techno festivals around the world. So does Mayer swallow his pride and bang it out bigroom style when he plays to 10,000 people at events like Wire or Mayday? "Once in a while I enjoy playing the big parties. But…you might know I’m not the rave king."
There’s a stubborn streak to Kompakt: Don’t go looking for Mayer’s latest mix ‘Immer 2’ on iTunes – the Kompakt catalogue is only available digitally at their own online store. His own music remains stubbornly idiosyncratic too: He seems to enjoy screwing our heads – remaking an old Alan Parsons track as trance (‘Touch’) or inserting rehabilitated MOR like Sniff N Tears’ ‘Driver’s Seat’ or Chicago’s ’If You Leave Me Now’ into techno sets. Not exactly likely to endear you to purist techno circles, Michael. “Driver’s Seat. Yeah!” Mayer enthuses. “I can’t help it. I need to entertain myself as well. I think it really opens some doors, like in the middle of a techno set or after six hours of boom boom boom, it’s different information coming out. It gives it some extra emotion you could not provoke playing all techno.” I tell him he’s probably the only DJ ever to have spun Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ at a techno party (let the record note it was at Stink in March 2006 and, no, it didn’t work). “That was Damian,” Mayer says urgently. “I wasn’t even there at the party when he played that. No.” Neil Diamond: officially beyond rehabilitation.
Yet Mayer’s resolve to do things his own way has paid off. Just think: how many styles of dance music get to claim a whole city? There’s Detroit techno and Chicago house, but if a German city has achieved this distinctiveness, it’s not Berlin; it’s Cologne. The capital might have minimal and Frankfurt the tuneful techno of Cocoon, but when it comes to an official civic sound, Köln has trumped them both with Cologne techno. And Kompakt pretty much invented it. Yet in 2007, with the legendary Total Confusion nights at Studio 672 in the city no more, somehow it seems the label has now moved from its place of birth out into the world. So what exactly does the world think of it?
Europe got used to Kompakt long ago – the label has well established residencies in Germany, France and Spain, including tonight’s Kompakt night in Barcelona (resident: DJ Fra, aka Ferenc from the stable). In the UK, Mayer’s monthly Stink parties with Damian Lazarus, as well as support from unlikely quarters – progressive house DJs – have raised the profile of Kompakt enormously. But the label is also spreading further afield to places less comfortable with techno: Didn’t Mayer just play Earthcore, the Australian psychedelic trance party in the bush? Forty-five trance DJs and one Michael Mayer sounds like an odd combo. “I think in Australia it’s really difficult to get gigs otherwise. It’s a very long distance to fly. So it’s become a sort of a tradition that I play at psytrance festivals there,” Mayer explains. “It’s so weird. It’s in the bush, full of freaks with long grey beards. I was playing there Sunday afternoon after they all had partied three days non-stop. I don’t know why they booked me but…it worked. I don’t mind playing for them. They’re really nice people.”
With pop hooks to hold onto, Kompakt also increasingly appeals to the non-dance demographic, especially in America: Kompakt get coverage in the indie rock press, no mean feat for a dance label, and Mayer was even booked to play to the intelligentsia at the ‘New Yorker Dance Party’ run by the highbrow New Yorker magazine. Er, come again? “Yeah, it’s mainly spoken word talks and writer panels. I think there’s always only one musical event a day.” Didn’t the party close at like two o’clock? “Well, that’s New York!” So how does the US react to the Kompakt sound in generally? "It’s very diverse. You can’t compare Detroit to the West Coast. The Chicago, New York, Detroit triangle, they’re good places to play. But I did a very extensive tour in 2005. I played in an Irish Pub, I played in a place where housewives get their fingernails done in the daytime. In general, I’d say techno is really almost not happening at all there. I feel very sorry for them". His voice drops to a whisper. "Every time they come to Europe and they see what’s going on, they’re like…shit!”
Yet the world domination plan has hit a few snags too. It’s in the nature of the music: Kompakt might have been the default sound of clubbing in Cologne, but for club cultures weaned on different traditions, perhaps its popness, artiness and peaklessness will always remain a minority taste. One such place is Ibiza, where Mayer tried to transplant Stink in the summer of 2006. Called Stink with the concept that the DJs wouldn’t wash before the gig, it wasn’t exactly the girls-in-champagne-glasses entertainment on offer elsewhere on the island. After three weeks, the party closed, citing insufficient numbers. Let’s talk about Ibiza, Michael. "Oh." Mayer grimaces. “I think we were a bit naïve. After the first night, DC-10 decided that they didn’t like the sound and that they were not going to promote the party, and that broke our neck. If you want success in Ibiza, you’ve got to play the game. I won’t play so I don’t think we even had a chance there.” A hint of bitterness creeps into Mayer’s voice. “DC-10 - they weren’t partners. I don’t like them that much. They can do the Monday afterparty thing but I think when they reach out for the Friday night, they won’t have people come. I don’t know.” He throws up his hands. "There are just so many conspiracy theories about why it didn’t work. Clubs. Club culture!"
The Kompakt has filtered out, true, but other influences have filtered in, too – the label has always nodded towards the zeitgeist: electrohouse, minimal techno, space disco. We get talking about Kompakt minimal techno offshoot K2. Mayer denies launching the label in response to the popularity of the "minimal" genre: "There’s a new breed of minimal that is derivated from Richie Hawtin’s minimal stuff, which is considered to be the minimal sound now. But there was minimal before that, you know? I’m not for straight minimal, and K2 is following the minimal idea we want to have." John Dahlback or Oxia isn’t particularly minimal though, is it? “Well, to me the label is minimal techno. Sure, I’d agree something like Hug is not very minimal, but then something like Hervé AK is minimal music – it’s sparse with not so much information.” Not the case with the latest single, Maxime Dangles’ ‘POF 807’ – it might have Wolfgang Voigt in its DNA, but the effect is less minimal than…huge. And on the B-side Kompakt returns to schaffel – the triplet-techno Kompakt popularized five years ago. Didn’t you say you didn’t want to release schaffel anymore? “Yeah. It got really to the point where it was really annoying. Like everybody was doing shuffle. Goldfrapp, even Modern Talking, everyone. A wave shot out. I didn’t like it too much. I thought it was better to step back. Because Kompakt was always endangered to be put into one corner, like hey, Kompakt is a minimal label, Kompakt is a shuffle label, Kompakt is blah blah blah, and we’re not like this. But as for Maxime," Mayer smiles, "we were never that dogmatic that we’d never release a shuffle track again.”
Someone famous once said artists start out anxious about copying other people, but end up anxious about copying themselves. Mayer’s new mix CD ‘Immer 2’ had the tough task of following up, frankly, one of the best mix CDs ever made, and it seems his strategy was to take a defiant route, breaking the flow of the usual Kompakt sound halfway through with, er, the Norwegian space disco of Todd Terje. Did Mayer worry that the move would be jarring for Kompakt purists? "’Another Station’ is just the record that totally broke my heart in 2006. I’ve loved disco since I was very young. I had to try pretty hard to get licensing, but I would have stopped the whole CD without this track I think. It was very important for me. And I knew it was going to be the track where lots of people would say 'I hate this' and others would say 'I love this'. But I’m sure that some people that first say 'I hate this', after a while, they will get into it again later on. It’s my favourite track on the CD." With the weight of that expectation, I ask Mayer if he ever thought of naming the mix something else: “Hmm. There are other German words I could have used. For example, ‘shlimmer’ which means ‘worse’.” Much laughter. “No, even when the first one was done I was sure that there was going to be a second one. But yes, I was worrying a bit last year, that maybe expectations were too high to live up to.”
It’s time for us to shuffle out. Later Mayer arrives onstage to huge cheers from the Kompakt faithful: his sound might still be a curiosity in the Australian bush, but in Barcelona it’s very much at home. Tonight his set is more stubborn reinvention: he doesn’t play any schaffel, no seventies pop, in fact not much that sounds like ‘Immer 2’ at all: instead he throws out track after track of loping, insistent, bass-heavy tranciness – miles away from anything I’d heard him play before. And he was enjoying himself – even busting out those strange Superpitcher hand sweeps to squeals of delight from the audience. Maybe not quite the rave king, but in a minimal techno town like Barcelona, Michael Mayer is as close as it comes.