Got a batch of wonderful records (mostly German and electronic) in the mail on Saturday, and one thing in particular ( a nice little album called Touch) shamed me into finally writing this photoessay post that's been stewing in my head for almost two months.
So here's the story of the Kompakt 100 Festival. As great a place to start this story as any is with a gratuitous photo I took of M. Mayer. Aw he has the best smile!
It was raining in Berlin when I left that morning; I zoomed through the German countryside into Cologne on one of those hypermodern ICE trains. The high-speed trains are, well, very techno; the slick confines include a real-time LED display that clocks how fast the train is going at any given moment. It's almost like bpm. 250 kilometers per hour. 260. 254. It seemed like everyone in the train was drinking giant mugs of beer and puffing away (it was about noon). Every seat was hooked up with headphones; when you plugged them in you were automatically tuned into the train's system, which included glitzy Eurotrance and current American pop hits. Cool! Buried in my seat was a German financial newspaper that read 'Kompakt' in big letters. Was it a sign? Tonight was the Kompakt 100 Festival; DJs for the night promised to include Michael Mayer, Superpitcher, Triple R, DJ Koze, Reinhard Voigt, live sets by Alter Ego and The Orb, and, well, pretty much everybody on the Kompakt roster. Missing in action: Justus Koehncke and Wolfgang Voigt (more on these dudes later.)
I get into Cologne. After a few days in beautiful Berlin, Cologne is, well, kind of a letdown to be honest. It looks drab and weedy, kind of like Manchester or something. Everything's sort of brown and tweed-colored, and the grim landscape is dotted with lots of big ugly 1970s architectural monstrosities. Makes sense, after all, since most of the city was leveled and had to be rebuilt in the second half of the 20th century. The subway system is okay, but not nearly as cool as Berlin's, I note. I get to Barbarossaplatz where I meet Ronan who'd just flown in from Ireland (legend!), and soon we head to the Theatre am Tanzbrunnen on the banks of the Rhine river. There are two big event spaces, one at the Tanzbrunnen, and a smaller, weirder one at the Panoramahaus, so named because it's a big glass house that faces the river.
Oddly enough, the neighboring buildings are hosting some sort of international sandcastle-building competition which sort of adds to the surreal nature of everything happening. We see the scrawled set list for the Kompakt festival taped to a door, and gasp and gawk. Superpitcher and Mayer are playing at the same time! What to do? Mayer doesn't go on til 4 or 5! There's something cryptic called 'All Stars,' which we hear is going to be some kind of free-for-all medley where all the Kompakt dudes take turns DJing! Then there's an afterparty from 6 am til noon! This is madness!
When we finally get into the Tanzbrunnen, the floor is still empty. But it looks absolutely beautiful, all dark and washed in red; even the bar was lit up with the trademark Kompakt dots!
It takes a little while to get the party started. But soon there are thousands of people. And you realize this: in Germany, this record label -- this music -- isn't just music for a small conglomeration of music critics, dance fiends, and clued-in beat aesthetes. In Cologne, this is the music that you hear out every night. Here, Kompakt is almost as ubiquitous as the "Cologne specialty" ice cream that they hawk for sixty cents on every street corner. And hell, I have no problems with Kompakt or with ice cream (cf. the droolworthy cover of XLR8R with Phil's great piece), so I'm totally down with this scene.
Can you feel it!!! I do, I do, and the vibe is great -- until I misplace my phone. Then panic sets in. I search around madly, all while thinking to myself "Goddammit, 'I lost my cell phone on a dancefloor in Cologne' sounds like a bad electroclash lyric from 2002!" The vibe seems to get a little harder and darker; whoever's DJing is playing Black Strobe, I think--"The Abwehr Disco"? Freak out. I never did find the phone that night, but I try to get over it soon enough, and go upstairs where Superpitcher is manning the decks like a total pimp.
I can't stop laughing for some reason. He leans over the record and moodily puts his ear to it, swooning over the deck as Marc Bolan's disembodied voice goes "I'm just a jeepster for your loooo---oooove..." Then he picks the needle up and keeps on going with whatever dance track he was playing. Classic Superpitcher.
It wasn't really the best set by him I've heard -- a little too soggy and sappy and wispy and not as sharp on the attack as I would've liked -- so I headed back to the main floor to see what was happening. Who are those old, wizened-looking bald dudes? Oh hey look it's The Orb!
Or rather a stripped-down version of The Orb that they were calling "Le Petit Orb." Now I know The Orb are far past their prime, but I really, really used to like them; Orbvs Terrarvm still holds a soft spot in my heart from my more, ah, neuroscientifically-addled teenage years. Plus I dig the schaffel tracks they've done, like "Cool Harbour." But their set was just awful; an Eminem mash-up in the year 2004?! Get with it, grandpa! They play some old Ultraworld-era stuff, which is great, but if I wanted to hear that I would've stayed home in New York with my records and my synthesizer. And they played "Cool Harbour," which is great but ditto. Dr Alex Patterson how low can you go!
Reinhard Voigt did a live set and it was, well, pretty Rein-hard and bangin', as expected. I really like Voigt's Speicher tracks especially, and was hoping he'd try some of them out on the big system. It ended up Ronan was thinking what I was thinking. "I hope he plays that track that sounds like a dishwasher," Ro says. "How We Rock"! "I love that track! Dishwasher? I always thought it sounded like a washing machine!" I say. "Yeah!!" We hug.
Soon it was time for Alter Ego's live set. ALTER EGO!! People go batshit crazy about "Rocker," and with good reason. The glammier, rockier end of this scene has always intrigued me. We all went nuts, of course. But the best part of the night was yet to come: Mayer's set.
It's hard to figure out what to say about this, because I was so caught in the moment when it was happening. He's a master at building up tension; every track ratchets up the energy just slightly from the track before it. He's impeccable at that particular DJ skill of timing, of understanding where the crowd is going and how to confidently steer it into rapturous pandemonium. When I interviewed him a few days later, he talked a lot about his diehard pop sensibility and his interest in playing and making tracks that had a "beginning middle end." He's splendid technically, at mixing and layering tracks on top of each other, and while this doesn't seem like a big deal, it makes hearing this music live a revelatory experience. There wasn't much schaffel the whole night, and Mayer maybe played one or two schaffel tracks in the entire set, if that. The reason? He's not that big on schaffel these days. In fact, he worries it's starting to get overused, as I found out later (don't expect a Schaffelfieber 3 mix anytime soon.)
I recognized maybe half of what he played. I have particularly fond memories of when "Timecode" dropped at around 6. We were all exhausted and covered in sweat, but the energy kept spiraling up and up and up and up to some inevitable but seemingly unreachable climax, until none of us could take it anymore. Finally, at about 6:30 he played..."Energy Flash"! Mayer grabbed the mic. "Shout-out to Simon R.! N-Y-C!" he yelled. Okay, he didn't say that, but I bet he was thinking it. It was one of those unbelievably perfect moments. And suddenly Cologne was the happiest place on earth. A Disneyland for techno. If you don't believe me, I snapped this shot of the Rhine:
The next day we went to see Schaeben and Voss with Schad Privat at the Panoramahaus, and then headed off to see Ada and the Wighnomy Bros. play at the Areal Records party at Kunstwerk, a little basement space awash in film and video projections. The following day, we saw Ricardo Villalobos and Richie Hawtin play an all-day gig at a children's park on the edge of the Rhine. The day after that, I went to the Kompakt offices, interviewed M. Mayer, and met the Kompakt chef, who cooks their 'minimal meals.' More on all this later in the week!