John Tejada and Michael Mayer are both significant figures in electronic music today. Tejada has just released his twelfth (!) studio album Signs Under Test which is a wholly beautiful endeavour that surfs on the knowledge accumulated after a lifetime of engaging with his machines on a daily basis. Tejada’s stature as a producer is something that throughout this conversation we’re presenting today, is very much felt by Mayer, a man respected for his role as a DJ and his business sense, which has powered Kompakt to stay strong as one of the most respected electronic imprints of our time (the label turns 22 this year).
Jon Berry: OK guys, I'm going to start with some guidance so let's talk about your early musical roots… how do they compare with each other’s?
John Tejada: The first thing for me was The Beatles and a lot of classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Then there was a lot of early New York hip hop. I just rediscovered the early Keith le Blanc record Major Malfunction too, that was always my biggest inspiration - people who misused samplers early on, that was my biggest curiosity music wise.
Michael Mayer: I kind of share that [interest] too. When they first started to repeat stupid samples in tracks [makes noise that sounds like “uh--uh-uh e--e-e-o-o-o-o-o”] like Nu Shooz ‘I Can't Wait’ and stuff like that. That's something I got really attracted to and I was always wondering 'how the hell are they doing this?' Like ‘how can I sing this?’At least until I found out that there was a little technical help you could get for that…
Tejada: For me there was a question I had that’s related to this, about 10-15 years ago, as well as hearing you play, it seemed that experimentation was really encouraged around the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Now I feel it's almost discouraged, especially as a public performance where that really used to get people excited and now it has the opposite effect. Have you noticed a change with audiences in the last 15 years regarding that? Or is it still more or less the same from your experience?
Mayer: The music I supported [in the] mid ‘90s and ‘00s was still a kind of exotic sound at that time whereas, now, this sound is firmly established so the shocking effect it might have had on you 15 years ago has certainly faded out. But I still try to look for things in music that are challenging in some way, I find nothing more boring than a pure tech house set. I want to be surprised as a dancer and as a DJ I'm constantly trying to surprise myself and throw in curveballs and combine genres.
It certainly became more difficult to really be innovative of course with the incredible amount of music that's being produced on a daily basis. It feels like everything has already been said but then there are always tracks that change the world a tiny little bit again and these are the ones that I'm trying to find.
Tejada: I guess the question wasn't exactly about your performing, it's just whether you think people's ears are still open to experimentation like they once were. But like I guess like you say there's been so much done already that if you were to actually it begs the question of what it would actually sound like…
Mayer: There's an element in electronic music that kind of fell through the cracks in recent years, we used to have chill out rooms at every rave and most of the clubs had music they played that was not functional and I feel that, for that kind of music, there's an auditorium missing these days.
Tejada: I miss that as well.
Mayer: You get ambient and experimental concerts in high cultural places like museums, like seated audience or it's bullshit Cafe Del Mar/Buddha Bar ambient stuff that you don't want to hear. But this playground for experimental music that we used to have with these so called ‘chill out rooms,’ that's dearly missing these days.
"It feels like everything has already been said but then there are always tracks that change the world a tiny little bit again and these are the ones that I'm trying to find.” – Michael Mayer
Tejada: That's a good point I have a lot of fond memories from that, if I did go out, that was what I was most interested in. I was involved with Lynn Hino, my wife, with a live performance space called Public Space where everybody was encouraged to play live every week, it was basically the chill out room at a big event but you were just coming to [go to] the chill out area.
And like you said when it first became sort of more of a high brow sort of sit down, go to the museum thing, at first it was exciting because it seemed like it was accepted as a real thing but like you say it's a bit overkill now. It’s separating it too much whereas when there was a separate area you could go and be experimental and just really trip out or whatever… [laughs] I miss that quite a lot. That was one thing that actually had a strong scene on the west coast, where the dance part for me wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear.
Mayer: In Cologne we used to have the Liquid Sky, which was like the only proper electronic music club in town. It was just a room with some sofas, there was no dancefloor not even a proper sound system but anything was possible in there, musically speaking. That was the time when the Cologne scene mixed a lot between the Mars on Mouse guys and A Music and the more dance minded people like us. We were all in the same room and we listened to each other’s music. It was very interesting time for music here in Cologne or like at Ultraschall in Munich - the amazing back room they had there. I still vividly remember so many great nights there like when Rancho Relaxo Allstars did these improvised sessions in their natural habitat, not on a stage somewhere. It was really interesting and I miss it a lot.
Tejada: Me too.
Berry: Me three, I wasn't even a part of that as I was going to hardcore techno raves then. I think that kind of links into John‘s new album Signs Under Test and how well received the album's been right now. It hasn't been your typical release, not only for Kompakt but also for the standardised aspect to how people are indulging themselves in house and techno today. As you guys were saying there is little room for experimentation. John, at least from my perspective, I find that you are kind of experimental with this record. You’ve taken not only your sound but a genre in a sense to the fringe with this and it's worked.
Also - a lot off the kind of classic Warp artists are having a comeback and acts like the Orb are enjoying a resurgence. Do we call this retrospective or pushing things forward?
Tejada: I think a lot of things kind of come full circle. For myself, trying to put these sounds together for the last 24 years there are certain things that are a fundamental base of what makes something good and those simple ideas are at the core and they come back around. Like, y’know Bob Dylan, what're you doing to over produce Bob Dylan? That doesn't make sense. So I think as people's tastes and technology evolve there's a pressure to get to the next level but then I think you just end up with a bunch of noise and you come back to this fundamentals of what's supposed to be there. For some reason when people do that these days it's seen as retro just because that's kind of where that came from when there were more limitations just because you couldn't do everything you wanted. That’s where I see it really gets dismissed as a retro thing, but for me this record was less retro than anything.
“Just this kind of feeling when things start to click together that is just very joyful and calming and satisfying and it's just kind of an idea kind of locking into place” – John Tejada
For me, in my work, it’s been this really long process of accepting the things I might be good at instinctually or things I might've picked up since I was young and seeing my parents practicing an instrument every day. Michael, in your own work do you have a similar education? Not just in your studies but also pushing away these familiar elements because they may feel easy, but then after a long time embracing [them as they are] what basically makes your voice unique… What's your experience with your inner voice and embracing it or at times maybe pushing it away because it feels a little easy and then realising that's who you are?
Michael: I think for me it’s always been a bit less strict as I’m mainly a DJ and as a DJ I’ve always been able to play [what I wanted.] When I play a long set I can play music from all the ages. I can play a disco track and I can play a house track I used to love from the early ‘90s. I always have the opportunity to be very un-dogmatic in that sense.
Production wise… you know I'm a hobby producer compared to you. I don’t produce all that much music and I don’t spend too much time in the studio. When I used to play the clarinet, I rehearsed every day but with electronic music I never got to that point of mastery or craftsmanship where I just lock myself in the studio for hours a day and try to find a new sound. I've got a more pragmatic approach to production that's why I mainly do remixes that correspond much more to doing what I can, when I can. I can re-imagine other people's music, that's what I do as a DJ, I place other people's music in a certain position in a set and in the studio I can add or take away something that's necessary for me - I can change other people's music the way I feel it.
Berry: I guess this brings up another topic… Michael obviously there's a lot of reasons why you don't spend a lot of time in the studio; as well as you’re helping run a company, DJing a lot and you also have a family and that can also be part of the equation. On the other hand John you're coming very much from the identity of being a live performer and a very prolific producer – so you’re kind of opposites in a sense. What drives you today considering all the things we were talking about to continue this momentum apart from it's something you know how to do...
Tejada: I don't know man it's just something I still keep plugging away at just because I feel like I have to for some reason.
Berry: I'm glad you do.
Tejada: I always kind of felt like that. Whether it was trying to figure out how to DJ super young or playing drums, there was just this feeling when things start to click together that is just very joyful and calming and satisfying; an idea locking into place. Then having something to access later to remember that point or that feeling or that accomplishment, even if it's just a small sketch I think that's just part of my day.
I think that's something I realised from talking to a lot of people recently about music workflow, ever since birth I would see both of my parents practicing their instrument every day and that was just something you did. That's what I do. I have breakfast and I practice my instrument and try to learn something or get better at it and I think it was just ingrained into it from a young age.
Mayer: That's beautiful! I have a question for you, John. At what point did you think the music parents are doing was not at all your thing? Did it cause any friction between you and your parents when you went your electronic way?
Tejada: They split when I was eight but they both did it professionally for some time. I was really lucky that my mother, who I ended up moving to the States with, was so supportive of whatever direction that I wanted to go because a lot of it seemed really silly. I definitely have a lot of musician friends who weren't so lucky, their parents would tell them ‘you're wasting your time’ or ‘turn it down’. So I was never told to turn it down which I think is quite amazing and I had this feeling that I could do this.
“I keep finding myself in the darkest corners of my record collection and totally discovering something I would never have thought I would enjoy listening to again...- Michael Mayer
I think my father is also quite excited by what I do, he’s still in Vienna but I think out of the two, my mother was the one who really got it and even though she has a classical background she always talks about her love for Stockhausen and really contemporary people, so none of it sounded too weird for her I don't think.
I racked my brains to come up with questions that maybe aren't so obvious; this one is from a business sense because you have this kind of incredible tightly oiled machine that you've built. We've all seen changes in the last 20 years but there's a lot of talk of this huge vinyl resurgence but every time I see the numbers and the charts from the industry, at the point where they claim they had their lowest point I think we all had our highest point. And now I hear talk about all the majors booking out all the plants – especially here in the States - so the indies have to wait like a month or three for a test pressing. The word is they're booking this stuff out until the hardware starts to break because it's all metal wear and stuff.
I guess the question is: what's your perspective on all this talk? Do you think there's anything that could save the situation and to get things back to where they were?
Mayer: In the mid ‘90s when the Swedish techno sound came up, Adam Beyer and his peers and I saw all these kids coming to our record store buying tools you know and most of these guys just had one turntable at home. So I imagined them going home with their tools listening to one record after the next I was always wondering, ‘how does that make sense’? Why are they doing this? They can't reproduce an experience they've had at a club night with only one turntable and three Planet Of Rhythm 12 inches. So what happens now is that these tools are mainly sold digitally and a lot of these are used for five or six weeks and then you throw them away. It makes sense to not press them to vinyl.
It makes more sense to buy an album on vinyl because it means that you can sit on your sofa for 20 minutes and listen to what's going on in that record before you have to get up and turn it around. And that corresponds to what we see happening sales wise. Album vinyl is selling stronger than 5 or 7 years ago whereas 12" sales are constantly on a low level. This whole vinyl hype doesn't affect us all that much. It is indeed the industry’s AC-DC reissues and such that clog up the pressing plants. It blows that we have to wait for our product for so long now. I mean, we’ve kept those record plants alive while the industry abandoned the format for so many years and now we're treated as second class customers. It's not a very nice feeling but I would change pressing plant if that wasn't the same thing with all the pressing plants.
Berry: I'm curious, really is it that bad? I thought the US was actually a lot better than Europe was I've been reading a lot of reports and the turnaround in the US seems to be around 6 weeks whereas here we've almost got a 12 week situation.
Tejada: We've got the same here I think if you're doing the big numbers and if you're doing some major indie stuff, they'll get your stuff back to you first but if you're going to do a run of 500 you're at the back and I heard they've booked these places out forever until the parts start to fail in which case they might not get repaired.
Mayer: Don't you think that we're looking at a bubble? Y’know, how many Iron Maiden reissues can you sell?
Berry: I think it's more the oversaturation and how that's affecting new releases going into shops, it's destroying future creativity to an extent. We're getting to the point that by the end of the year vinyl may be the one sole physical product that we're relying on for source income whereas download sales will deplete and we'll be looking at streaming revenue. The unfortunate consequence of that is that it's going to affect creativity as a whole because there won't be money to invest into the recording processes and I think a lot of bands, especially bands who rely on big budgets to record their records, are going to really suffer in the next couple of years.
Mayer: Jon, this is something you could have said ten years ago when the whole downloading thing started. I hope you're wrong [laughs]…
Berry: It is, right?
Tejada: I guess one tiny addition to the info Michael has is that I remember the late ‘90s and all the tool records being the same. I remember vinyl kind of dying at the end of the ‘90s and then it had a really strong come back early 2000s but I don't know if it'll be able to come back that way. Cause I mean it came back really strong...
Mayer: It’s probably because Kompakt started at that time [laughs]...
Berry: What Michael said was really quite sensible because you know technology has caught up to us now. There are many other ways to play music out there. No longer are you reliant on using a 12 inch to be able to go out and DJ with, you've got this aspect and so this is also perpetuated you know. Beatport claim that they have 15,000 plus tracks a week going online so that's kind of just a sign of the unfortunate disposability of what dance music is today. It's a general common sense kind of situation - why should people have to purchase music that they're going to put on their shelf and forget about?
I'm not a DJ and I've got so many. I'm going through my record collection and I'm finding old records from like Parallel in New York - I've not even listened to this in like 20 years but at the same time I'm not getting rid of it. But why am I not getting rid of it? It's just this strange mentality of ownership that exists…
Tejada: It also becomes musical currency, the ones that are worth keeping, but you know if you take care of them they still sound good. They don't crash. You can pick them up and it's like a little piece of art so there's that. It just depends your perspective on it, my happiest moment as a kid was always… like a record store would cheer me up more than anything and for something to be so powerful… like finding music that on its own was very powerful, but to be able to turn your day around or your mood…!?! That's why I feel that a lot of the ones I have, even if I'm not playing them that much, it's not so much a hoarding type of thing but a collection that means something.
Mayer: I keep finding myself in the darkest corners of my record collection and totally discovering something I would never have thought I would enjoy listening to again...