Discover: Kompakt

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 11.15.13 in Collections

Since it was founded in 1998, Cologne’s Kompakt has become both a dance-music icon and an empire of sorts; today, the enterprise includes not only the record label (and its many sub-labels) but also a distribution company, booking agency, mail-order operation and retail record shop. Kompakt’s influence looms so large in independent dance music that it’s easy to forget, however, how humble its origins really are. It began with a record store called Delirium, the local franchise of a Frankfurt shop of the same name. And when Delirium Cologne opened its doors, remembers Michael Mayer, its entire stock consisted of three measly crates of vinyl: one box of Force Inc. records, one box of Fax and one box of “monotone hardcore acid” from the Structure label. “I said, ‘Come on, guys, you can’t open a record store like this!’” he laughs.

“I was the first customer waiting in front of the door for them to open, and I immediately started complaining about their shitty selection,” says Mayer. “They didn’t have anything I wanted. That’s how I started working there. After two weeks I was doing orders for the shop, and half a year later I became a partner,” alongside founders Wolfgang Voigt, Reinhard Voigt, Jörg Burger and Jürgen Paape.

In 1993, techno was sweeping Germany, but Cologne lacked a store that catered to the style. That changed with the opening of Delirium, and soon, the crew around the shop was putting its own stamp on the nation’s dance music. Wolfgang Voigt and Burger had already begun putting out raw, unhinged acid records on their Trance Atlantic label, “and then things picked up quickly,” recalls Mayer. “New Trance Atlantic, which was the actual predecessor to Kompakt, was founded in 1994, and around more or less the same time, Wolfgang started Profan. Jörg Burger had his labels Eat Raw, Popular Musik, and God knows what. [My own] Further Sweet was founded at the same time. So within a couple of years we suddenly found ourselves with two hands full of small labels releasing music on a regular basis. We felt that it was time to clean up, to finally make the name change. We really didn’t have much to do with the other Deliriums — just the name. It was a good name, because the mothership in Frankfurt had a good reputation, so it made sense at the time to be part of the system. But as our identity grew and became more defined, and this “Sound of Cologne” thing was about to explode, we felt that it was time to make it a bit easier for people to follow us. If someone asks what you’re doing and you say, ‘Well, I’m running parties called Friends Experiment, a record shop called Delirium, and labels called Further Sweet and New Trance Atlantic, it’s just way too much information. So in 1998 we changed our name and founded Kompakt.”

The rest, of course, is history: Nearly 500 releases (and counting) that range from brittle minimal techno to brightly hued electronic pop. Along the way, they’ve paid homage to T. Rex, indulged a yen for campy Schlager, kept up a steady stream of “pop-ambient” comfort music, and contributed innumerable classic anthems to the club-music canon. We asked Mayer to weigh in on some of the label’s key releases.

Köln Kompakt 1 "was meant to showcase our part of the so-called 'Sound of Cologne'," says Mayer. "We were never really happy with that term; it was something the press created to describe a phenomenon that was not exactly a musical genre, but rather a creative explosion in town that concerned lots of different genres. Sound of Cologne was equally Kompakt, Mouse on Mars and Air Liquide, or [the experimental record shop] A-Musik — completely different, diverse outfits, but it was all coming from the same city. For us it was important to set a framework for our view on things. We didn't want to claim the name 'Sound of Cologne,' it was more like, this is us. This is Kompakt. When I look at the track list, there's people like Matthias Schaffhäuser on it, someone we knew for many years, who was always around, so it was a logical step to include him. It's really a snapshot of the scene that surrounded us at the time."

Thanks to Cologne's fluid social circle of the late '90s, even Dr. Walker and Freddy Fresh turn up with a hip-hop-inspired track that's worlds away from anything most listeners would associate with Kompakt. "That was the unique thing about Cologne in those days," says Mayer: "There was no proper club scene at that time. The Warehouse [a dance club from earlier in the '90s] was long gone, closed for drug-related stuff. So we always met in bars like Six Pack, Liquid Sky — small places with no proper dance floor or even a proper sound system. It was just hanging out somewhere. At Liquid Sky, there would be the A-Musik crew, Air Liquide, the Kompakt guys, Atom Heart — everyone was there. Thomas Brinkmann was there smoking cigarettes. Everybody talked about music. It was a very free-spirited moment in Cologne. People met and things overlapped, but only for that short period of time. Also rock critics, the editors of SPEX magazine, those people that were never interested in electronic music or club culture, they were suddenly attracted by what was going on. It was a lot of fresh air and a lot of interesting exchange going on in the city, just because of the fact that there was nothing going on."

Mayer: "Justus is an old friend. He was one of the first people I met when I moved to Cologne. He was part of the Whirlpool Productions gang that kind of abducted Tobias [Thomas] and me at the time when we moved to Cologne. He lived in a flat-sharing community with Triple-R [founder of Traum, Trapez, MBF etc.] and [future De:Bug editor] Bleed. The first Whirlpool records, all the 909 songs were sampled from Mike Ink's 909. There were a lot of links between us before we started working together. Justus was a regular at our Total Konfusion night at Club 672; he was always there. So at some point he turned up at the club with a dubplate of what would become his first single for Kompakt, "Flesh of My Flesh." I played it the same night, and that was it. Working with Justus is one of the most beautiful things I've experienced at Kompakt. He's a true artist. He can be very diva, very difficult to handle sometimes, but there's so much reward. No one else would have dared to sing German gay disco songs on a Kompakt record. He just did that. It's something I'm really grateful for. He pushed the boundaries for what's possible on the label. You want a duet with Tocotronic's Dirk von Lowtzow? There you go, you can have it! He covered 'Albatross' by Fleetwood Mac, and it ended up on a Speicher side. That's Justus. He's always good for a surprise."

Mayer: "I remember the day when we received the demo CD. He's one of the examples that the dream can come true. You send the demo to a label, and you get signed. There's quite a few cases like that on Kompakt: Gui Boratto, Kaito, the Field, Rex the Dog. We've signed some of our biggest artists like this, which is something that makes me happy and proud. We received the Field's first demo, and we instantly fell in love with it, because it reminded us so much of the very early Kompakt sound, or even pre-Kompakt sound. There was a very strong Profan influence. The way he was working with samples was a lot like what Wolfgang [Voigt] used to do, but then combined with this very pop aura, this simplicity and easy feeling to it. The first record was not as shoegazy as he became later. The first one was really an experimental dance record. We decided to release it, but we had no expectations whatsoever. For us, it was more one of those things we released because we'd love to release it, but we didn't expect it to blow up like this. As a matter of fact, the Field's first album is still our number one album in sales. But the whole transformation of him becoming a band — it was amazing to watch that happen."

So, too, was the Field's transformation into a bona fide indie star. "That's probably why we didn't see it coming," says Mayer, "because we weren't so familiar with the situation in America. Jon [Berry, the label's former publicist, now a label manager] kept saying, 'This is the shit, this is it,' and he was right. For us it was just something we always used to do; it was a beautiful record but not so particular, nothing so new."

Mayer: "Matias, what can I say. He's a very dear friend of mine since ages, pre-dating Kompakt. We did our first record together [Zimt's "U.O.A.A."] in 1997, on Ladomat. Matias always had this magic touch. Even before he had proper gear to make music with, he just experimented with loops and a microphone, and he did unbelievable things just with that. He's luckily managed to learn a lot about production. He knows exactly what he wants. He's really following a musical master plan, from Closer Musik to where he is now. It didn't just happen, it's something he worked very hard on and trained himself for. He discovered his Latin roots. At some point he got really unhappy. This hidden past, this dark side: He had to go there, a soul search. It did him so much good. He came back and he was like a different person. He had a different self-confidence. His grooves got so tight, suddenly. After his first visit to Chile, he changed so much. For the better! He got complete, somehow."

That trip led, in turn, to Aguayo developing his own label collective, the pan-American Cómeme, which he co-runs with Mexico's Rebolledo. "They're on a roll," says Mayer. "He's gathering such a great group of artists around him. He just spent some months in Colombia somewhere in the countryside — rented a little house, set up a studio. He does that every winter, and he's coming back with bags full of music. I'm super happy for him, he's such a complete artist and a great person."

Mayer: "Melancholia is something that was always an important expression of Kompakt. We were always pro-sadness on the dancefloor. Why exclude such a large part of your feelings? We always hated this happiness dominance in clubs, like you have to be in a good mood when you go to the club. Why? I'm not in a good mood or I'm sad or I'm not feeling well, but I'm still happy to be in the club. And now I find a space where I can unfold my depression — perfect. That's something which shouldn't be forbidden. And Axel's album completely nailed that thought: That it's OK. There's this dark, sad side of techno that is materialized with that album."

In 2007, Michael Mayer and Superpitcher teamed up as Supermayer and gave us Save the World, an album full of cheeky electro-pop experiments and unhinged club jams. "You can really hear the fun we had in the studio while doing it," Mayer says. "It was just a jolly good time. It had to be exactly like this. No rules, just let the ideas flow. The more madness the better, and we'll see if we can edit after. It was a great experience. It remains a mystery to me, as well. It seems very far away right now. Supermayer is having a break. Axel is in Paris these days, so we're remote. I don't know, maybe one day we'll put on the suits again."

In 2012, Michael Mayer finally followed up his debut album, Touch, with Mantasy. "Eight years after the first record," he notes. "Yeah, that was kind of overdue. I started collecting ideas right after we finished working with Supermayer, in 2007. But that's the story of my life: I never have enough time for studio work. It's terrible. Around the end of 2011, I started to become really unhappy about that fact, that I don't even manage to do a 12-inch for my own label. So we had to take some hard measures and really ice me out of that company for as long as possible. It wouldn't be possible for me to work full time and do an album in the evenings. Finally, it worked. The first half of last year, I mostly spent in the studio. The company survived! It's still there, which is something that made me extremely happy, the feeling of being able to let go. It's something you have to learn. It's not easy, especially for me. I'm not a control freak, but I like to think that I'm needed. But it was a very liberating experience to see that things run smoothly even if I'm not there. I'm a more relaxed person since then. I'm really intending not to go another eight years before my next album, but you never know.

"Most of the album tracks are not very obvious hits. You need to discover them and you need to find a good place for them as a DJ. They're probably not so easy to put into a set. But that's the music I'm interested in. I'm always pro- going sideways. The album release tour was all about all-night-long sets. It was an amazing experience. I played all my favorite clubs in Europe, all night long. I'm wondering what comes next, if I can handle playing two hours again. It's so normal for me now to be able to unfold myself over such a long time. They were all at least six hours, and the longest one was 13. Playing long sets is something I always took a lot of pleasure in, and to do this over the course of several months, to really focus on this, you're getting to different levels. The intensity, keeping your concentration for such a long time. That's something you get used to. I'm a bit scared to let go now, to go back to two hours. It's not very satisfying."

Mayer: "For all three Immers, there was always a moment when the CD became kind of tangible. I was playing in a club, and suddenly I knew exactly what the next Immer should be, the core of the CD. Maybe a combination of three tracks I've just played that suddenly gave me that signal: Wow, I'm onto something. Now it's worth putting down a tracklist, elaborating it. There was always this idea of a sound, like a core musical message that touched me at some point in the club."

Will there be an Immer 4? "I'll wait for the next moment. I'm not planning those, but I think they're going to come when they're ready. Maybe there isn't going to be a fourth one. Mix CDs are a sad chapter. I still think it's a great format that can't be replaced by podcasts or live mixes on the internet; the mix CD is a format of its own. A good mix CD is there forever. It's nothing you just stream or keep on your iPod for a few days; it's something you can actually put into your record collection. There's somebody who put a lot of effort and thought into this product. A podcast is a snapshot taken with your mobile camera, and a mix CD is a proper portrait taken with an expensive camera in a studio."

In keeping with Mayer's belief that "a good mix CD is there forever," Kompakt's mix CDs stand out in a crowded field. Instead of being simple snapshots of a rousing night out, or marketing-minded roundups of a season's dance-floor hits, Kompakt's mixes are right up there with its artist albums in terms of their expressive potential. Ada's Adaptations – Mixtape #1 draws from both her remixes of other artists (Tracey Thorn, Booka Shade, Alex Smoke) and remixes of her own work by by friends like DJ Koze, Tobias Thomas and Michael Mayer; she rounds out the set with two unreleased songs, "Living It Up" and "Forty Winks." The hybrid approach perfectly suits Ada's style, allowing her to slip seamlessly between sparkling electro pop, surprisingly forceful club thumpers and wispy electro-acoustic experiments. Like the title suggests, it has the lived-in air of a much-loved C90 with a handwritten cover.

Since its origins, Kompakt has operated more like a family than a typical record label — consider, for instance, the daily vegetarian meals that an in-house chef cooks for Kompakt's label, distribution, booking, retail and warehouse staff. Rather than being a closed clique, though, Kompakt just seems to keep widening its circle. Thomas Fehlmann's own career vastly predates Kompakt; between 1981-84, he was a member of the post-punk band Palais Schaumburg (alongside Holger Hiller and Basic Channel's Moritz von Oswald), and he spent the '90s recording techno with von Oswald, Juan Atkins, Eddie Flashin Fowlkes and as a sometime member of The Orb. Visions of Blah proves him to be an obvious fit for the label, though. Its sense of swing highlights the DNA that Fehlmann shares with all of the Kompakt artists who have been bitten by the "shuffle fever" bug (or Schaffel Fieber, the title of a pair of compilations on the label), while its daubed-on colors and dubby undercurrents take the label's trademark sounds to new extremes of full-body bliss.

Dettinger's 1999 album Intershop isn't among Kompakt's best-known releases, but it's a crucial piece of the puzzle, and one of the most emblematic recordings of the label's early years. This is Kompakt's first purely ambient release, setting the tone for its lauded Pop Ambient series as well as beatless, ethereal long-players from the likes of Ulf Lohman and Andrew Thomas. In contrast to Dettinger's "Blond," "Totentanz" and "Puma" singles, which stretched out shirred tones over crunchy, hardscrabble machine rhythms, Intershop proposes a kind of cryogenic techno, with slow-motion beats looped, reversed, and set adrift in suspended animation. Its crackly synthesizers and tinny drum hits sound lo-fi by contemporary standards, but that's part of the album's inscrutable charm.

Like The Field, Gui Boratto got signed to Kompakt after sending in a demo. (Unlike anyone else on the label, Boratto hails from Brazil, making him a notable outlier on the Cologne-centric roster.) Boratto's debut album, from 2007, is titled Chromophobia, but don't believe it: super-saturated colors burst forth from every bar of the album. Boratto's finely-detailed drum programming often finds him getting lumped in with techno's minimalist faction, but his melodic and harmonic sensibilities have more in common with pop music. The front half of the album is loaded with flickering progressive house anthems best experienced with stars overhead and sand underfoot, while "Acrostico," "Xilo" and "Beautiful Life" introduce the winsome, indie-pop style Boratto will pursue on his subsequent albums, Take My Breath Away and III.

Kompakt, with its labyrinthine corridors of sub-labels and pseudonyms, has long been the perfect place for artists to reinvent themselves. In 2004, Jake Williams — best known as the rave producer JX, of the 1996 UK No. 4 hit "There's Nothing I Won't Do" — adopted the alias Rex the Dog for a string of anonymous singles. Kölsch, who recorded EPs for Kompakt's Speicher series in 2010 and 2011, makes for an even stranger bedfellow: He's best known for his dance-pop alias Rune, of the 2003 crossover hit "Calabria." (Mashed up with Alex Gaudino and Crystal Waters's "Destination Unknown," it was reissued as "Destination Calabria" in 2005; then, in 2007, Rune re-released the song with vocals from the Danish reggae singer Natasja Saad. "Calabria 2007" went all the way to No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100.) But Speicher, also known as Kompakt Extra, was the perfect platform for a producer like Kölsch to strut his stuff, given the sub-label's focus on powerful, big-room tracks.

Mayer explains, "The impulse to start Kompakt Extra was that we felt there was less and less room on Kompakt for classic techno 12-inches, due to the fact that we started releasing more and more albums and album-related releases — what you might call 'author' techno. This was something we wanted to develop on the label, to get away from just releasing club fodder. We were terribly bored with techno, harder techno, at the time. It was all about Ben Sims, Adam Beyer, loop techno — no structure, no narrative element, nothing to hold onto. Just grooves, tools. At the same time, we were missing techno, so we felt inclined to inject some ideas there."

When Kompakt announced Kompakt 20 Jahre Kollektion, a compilation of what the label calls not its greatest hits but its "proudest moments," Michael Mayer says he heard one complaint: "Where the hell is Closer Musik?" Not to worry: The duo will be represented in an upcoming volume of the anthology. But that initial dismay from Kompakt's most stalwart fans is understandable. Closer Musik's 2000 single "One Two Three (No Gravity)," their 2002 album After Love and that year's B-side "Maria" are among the most iconic releases in the label's entire catalog. The duo of Matias Aguayo and Dirk Leyers only put out those three records, but they succeeded in creating a singular sound with their fusion of throbbing, metallic drums, melancholic synthesizer melodies, and Aguayo's suggestive purring. After Love pairs the queasy, lo-fi sensibilities of the Netherlands' Bunker label with a dusky sensuality unique to the duo; years later, you can hear the influence of their plaintive "Departures" everywhere from Hamburg's Smallville roster to Detroit's Omar-S.

Kompakt jumped the gun a bit when they decided to celebrate 20 years in business in 2013: The label wasn't actually founded until 1998, even though the crew first came together with the opening of Cologne's Delirium record store in 1993. But Kompakt's founders clearly love any excuse to celebrate (as their annual Total parties make abundantly clear). In 2004, to mark the label's 100th release, they invited the label's roster to pick favorite tracks from the back catalog and have their way with them, yielding in a double-CD set of dreams finally realized. The results are as diverse as the label, from The Orb's gently pulsing rework of Ulf Lohmann's "Because Before" to reclusive co-founder Jürgen Paape's storming rave update of Schaeben & Voss' understated "The World Is Crazy"; Justus Köhncke proves the infinite malleability of Kompakt's aesthetic by taking Freiland's stomping, shuffling "Frei" and turning it into a Schlager-inspired cover of T. Rex's "Hot Love."

Mayer: "There's a young man here from Cologne, he's a concert pianist and composer, classical composer. He approached us last year and said, 'Hey, I'm a big fan of your label for many years, and I did some cover versions of Kompakt tracks on my piano.' I'm like, oh, interesting. Then I listened to it and I was like, 'Wow, amazing, it really works.' We asked him if he would be interested in doing a proper project for our 20th anniversary, so he spent the last year recording himself on piano, string ensemble, gamelan orchestra, brass band, flute players, all kinds of stuff. It's basically acoustic renditions of some of Kompakt's greatest hits. It turned out beautifully. I'm really happy with the result."