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Eminem has said a lot of asinine things over the years, but when he carped, "Nobody listens to techno," he had a point. The style may have been born in Detroit, but as any number of DJs, producers, promoters, and isolated fans can attest, the domestic electronic music scene – itself lagging behind industry-dominating hip hop and a revitalized rock movement – has largely written techno out of the picture in favor of genres like house and trance.
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But while the form has found itself ridiculed (or simply forgotten) at home, Michael Mayer and Kompakt, the Cologne-based label that he runs alongside Wolfgang Voigt and Jürgen Paape, paint a different picture of techno. Kompakt's modus operandi, in contrast to the genre's stereotypical bombast, incorporates hushed romanticism, ominous atmospherics, and unabashed pop indulgences. Now, Mayer is embarking on his first tour of the United States, accompanied by longtime Kompakt artist Reinhard Voigt, giving American audiences – especially those of us here in S.F. who remember the brief glory days of the late '90s, when an ambitious techno underground offered an alternative to the West Coast's ubiquitous funky house – a chance to catch up on the extraordinary state of the art of Cologne techno, which in the past half-decade has proved itself to be one of the most surprising, versatile, and sophisticated movements in electronic music.
Kompakt was born in 1998 as an attempt to streamline a multiplying set of Cologne electronic music projects. Led by Wolfgang Voigt, owner of the city's Delirium record store, a tiny coterie of DJs and producers had come up with a dazzling range of projects, labels, and aliases whose scope belied the crew's small size. Mayer fell in by virtue of being the shop's "first customer and harshest critic," as he puts it, passionately arguing the merits of every record to hit the shelves. Today, Mayer co-directs the label's A&R, plays a large role in its distribution operation, and serves as the company's most visible spokesperson.
As run by Voigt, Paape, and Mayer, Kompakt picked up where Profan, its best-known predecessor, had left off, and quickly became the standard-bearer for minimal techno, arranging the genre's clicks and thumps and blushing chords in a kind of infinitely malleable set of themes and variations that emphasized floating ambience and delicate tone color. Many people think that techno's 4/4 form is its Achilles' heel, but Kompakt dedicated itself to exploring every nook and cranny of the beat through the use of grinding polyrhythms and offhand syncopations.
Yet listeners who haven't checked in with the label since its first few dozen releases might be surprised at how diverse its output has become. Despite the ostensible intention to consolidate its array of projects, Kompakt now boasts a family of themed sublabels including Speicher (anthemic techno and swinging schaffel, or "shuffle" tracks riddled with triplets), Auftreib (hard-boiled, peak-hour tunes), and Kompakt Pop, which offers vocal tunes designed for radio play along with more floor-oriented remixes.
Kompakt's expansion into new sounds, in fact, was a reaction in part to the widespread fetishism of German minimalism. "We never saw the necessity to play only minimal techno all night long," protests Mayer, citing parties so fixated upon skeletal bleeps that they never reached a good rave's essential peak. "Minimal techno is quite limited in its emotional content. So our aim was to stretch the musical spectrum in order to keep things as fresh as possible."
Mayer's mixes demonstrate how broad the definition of techno can be. His contribution to London club Fabric's mix CD series, Fabric 13: Michael Mayer, runs from minimally melodic tracks graced with a sparkling, insistent high-hat to chugging electro-polka to slow-mo tunes that reference the Tom Tom Club and Joy Division. Mayer even transitions from a strings-and-glitch grinder into Westbam and Nena's "Oldschool, Baby" – a shameless piano house tune that was an enormous commercial club hit in Germany. In Mayer's hands, the song is redeemed: Fusing it with darker, more difficult sounds, he somehow manages to make its populism appeal even to the furrowed-brow elitists who normally have nothing to do with dance pop, revealing a truly universalist philosophy. "When we quote pop music, it's serious, not ironic," affirms Mayer. "We still stand behind our history. We don't think it's wrong if we used to listen to Pet Shop Boys. We think it's great music, so there's no reason to transform it to the club universe in an ironic way."
Across Europe, Mayer is an underground superstar, and Kompakt is arguably Germany's most important techno label. (The commercial rave DJ Timo Maas tapped three Kompakt tracks for his most recent mix CD.) But even in a city as cosmopolitan as San Francisco, Mayer and his label have almost no visibility. At Tweekin', the Lower Haight store that specializes in electronic dance music, it's possible to encounter sales associates who have never heard of the label. Amoeba and Aquarius carry the occasional Kompakt single or compilation, but neither restocks often enough to reflect the imprint's prolific output, which averages a new release every other week. The few club nights in San Francisco where you could reliably expect to hear Kompakt tracks – Broker/Dealer's weekly "Pop" and the minimal techno-specializing "Minimal Monday" – are now kaput.
But a recent visit to Detroit – Mayer's first U.S. gig – offered a glimmer of hope. "I was blown away by how we were received there," he says. Then again, Detroit is the birthplace of techno, and thanks to the three-years-running Detroit Electronic Music Festival, it's one of the few places in the States that still supports the genre. "What I learned from Detroit is that we have to be more present in the U.S.," says Mayer. "You can do advertising, you can do promotion, but the best promotion is to be there and play parties and show how we rock." ("How We Rock," fittingly, is the title of one of Reinhard Voigt's recent singles for Kompakt.)
Is North America ready to rock, Kompakt style? Alain Mongeau, director of Montreal's MUTEK festival, which specializes in experimental electronic music and has helped develop North America's most prosperous techno scene, thinks so. "The lesson from Kompakt is that if you remain focused and connected locally, you slowly create links with the outside world. For us, Kompakt is one of the models we use for inspiration. It's a bit like what happened on different scales in San Francisco some years ago, but was since diluted."
Not so long ago, San Francisco did nurture a thriving experimental techno scene: Artists like Kit Clayton, Safety Scissors, Sutekh, and Twerk cranked out records (often for German labels such as Force Inc. and Background) and played parties with regularity, building a creative milieu that echoed Cologne's workshoplike community. But Ryan Fitzgerald, one half of Broker/Dealer, a local group that has recorded for the Kompakt-distributed Traum imprint and will open for Mayer and Voigt in San Francisco, thinks that "things have slowed down," noting that with bars closing at 2 a.m., limited legal after-hours venues, and few unlicensed warehouse events, it's hard for this city to replicate the impact of an eight-hour party that runs techno through all its permutations.
Kompakt's name, which speaks to the compressed, miniaturized sound of its early releases, also conjures up the idea of a social compact, an agreement binding its members and providing direction for collective efforts. Dance music fans can look forward to discovering how Kompakt rocks when Mayer and Voigt come to town, but they'd do well to also attend to the social implications behind the beats. In a city like San Francisco that's been shaken by the dot-com bust and a steady exodus of creative talent, we could use the inspiration. For nightlife idealists, the stakes are neatly encapsulated by two Kompakt tracks: "Streets of Blah," a recent Thomas Fehlmann title, or the more optimistic tone of the label's very first release, "Triumph."
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