Michael Mayer on New Album '&' and Learning to Go With the Flow

Frederike Wetzels
Michael Mayer

Michael Mayer, the DJ, producer, and co-founder of the lauded German electronic music label Kompakt, speaks about spinning records in terms of autocracy. "I often compare DJing with dictatorship," he says. "As a DJ, you need to be a control freak. I like playing clubs that only have one room where people can't escape."

Mayer's new album, out Friday, is not nearly so ominous -- it's an exercise in ceding authority. The record is titled &, since every track is made in conjunction with another artist. And despite his rhetoric, Mayer admits he has a history of playing well with others. "I used to collaborate a lot, starting with my first ever production, Forever Sweet, which consisted of Tobias Thomas, Reinhard Voigt, and me," he says, speaking to Billboard Dance over Skype while smoking a cigarette in his studio. "Later on I collaborated with Superpitcher as Supermayer. It's something that's very common in my life. I'm a very social person." 

But attempting to build a name as a solo artist pushed Mayer to become a more antisocial producer. "I felt like I needed to shut myself in a room: don't let anybody in," he remembers. "I had to force myself to be selfish, otherwise I couldn't come up with anything."

Over time, Mayer "started to feel a bit lonely in the studio." "I started playing more and more back to back sets, which is something I was also very picky about in the past," he continues. "My famous quote is: 'I only play back to back with people I want to go to bed with.' I decided it's probably time to open the door a bit more. Playing back to back means you have to go with the flow and react to what the other guy's doing. I did some test drives, and I really enjoyed myself. So I said, 'Don't be such a lonesome ranger here.'"

A collaboration with Danish producer Kölsch — who has been releasing music through Kompakt since 2010 — helped get the ball rolling. "That was one of the ignition moments for this album, the 'Dogma' tracks [out earlier this year]," Mayer says. "We only had one day, and we could've done two more tracks. It was super productive and easy. There was no arguing, no discussion about should the kick [drum] be louder or not."

Kölsch is one of 12 artists who worked with Mayer on &. (An unnamed 13th agreed, but couldn't make the timing work.) It's a mixed group — like Kölsch, the Brazilian techno producer Gui Boratto has released music through Kompakt, but that's not a requirement. In fact, some artists involved aren't best known for working in the techno space: you'll find singing from Hot Chip's Joe Goddard, and even Irene Kalisvaart, "one of the best baroque guitarists in Germany."

Mayer describes teaming up with Goddard as "probably the riskiest collaboration." "He's not [as] much of a friend as Gui Boratto or Roman Flügel," the Kompakt founder adds. "But we've met a few times, and I could feel that he's one of these kindred spirits." Goddard, responding to questions over email, presented himself as a longtime admirer of Mayer's productions. "He was always around being a bad man, like oxygen — or Batman," Goddard noted. "He has that Carl Craig thing of maintaining your interest whilst developing subtly, something that I find difficult to do. I thought I might learn from him."

Almost every collaboration happened in person, and Mayer relied on a few rules to govern the proceedings. "The mindset was always: I'm meeting an old friend, and then we'll go to the studio after a nice dinner and see what happens. I always made the first step, prepared something and sent the sketch to a collaborator. This was the standard procedure." According to Goddard, the studio environment was cozy: "lots of red wine, sushi, ABC 12-inches — [Mayer] was the perfect host."

After quaffing wine and downing sushi with a wide-ranging crew of producers and vocalists, Mayer had what might be labeled a dance album — something he considers a dangerous prospect. "There's often a problem with dance albums," he says. "I personally don't enjoy listening to them too much. You get three bangers, one experimental track, and maybe one with vocals."

"I didn't try to turn these vocal tracks into big club tracks," he explains of his attempt to avoid the usual formula. "I wanted them to be a proper song, not too long." Accordingly, & encompasses squirting, guitar-flecked disco with Burger and Voigt & Voigt, dramatic, swooning pop with Prins Thomas and Kalisvaart, and playful techno with Boratto.

Making the song with Borrato wasn't entirely frictionless: "In Gui's case, the sketch I sent him was a very wonky, disco-y track," Mayer recalls. "But Gui Boratto wouldn't be Gui Boratto if he didn't quantize everything. He was like, 'What did you do there?' 'It doesn't need to be quantized all the time, I thought we'd do something else.' He said, 'I can't do it!'"

In the end, Boratto got his way. But it wouldn't be a truly collaborative album if Mayer got to call all the shots.