||His off-kilter, minimal techno has been labeled arty by the conventional German techno tribe. He's often compared to the experimental '70s rock group Can and the avant-electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, yet the only thing Wolfgang feels he shares with them is his hometown, Cologne. He employs numerous aliases - from Mike Ink to Gas - under which he produces his disparate sounds.
In recent years, the success of Kompakt, the umbrella under which his labels, store, and distribution hub operate, has finally shown the mysterious Voigt to be what he really is - a practical visionary at the heart of Germany's techno culture.
—Voigt finds a moment in his music mogul schedule to talk things over with techno-expert Meredith Danluck.
MEREDITH: You have so many different labels and aliases, from Studio Eins and Profan, to Kompakt and Auftrieb more recently.
WOLFGANG: It can get a bit confusing. Sometimes I use label names as aliases.
MEREDITH: Your Auftrieb records have a really heavy but dark quality to them. They remind me of something like The Normal, that synth-pop band from the '70s.
WOLFGANG: I started Auftrieb in 1997 so I could create a dirty, sexy, club-rockin' sound.
MEREDITH: It seems like a perverse direction for you to take because a lot of your music is very sparse.
WOLFGANG: When I started Profan in 1993, my very first independent label, it wasn't really meant to be techno. I wanted to find the gaps in music - to discover musical territories where no one had been before. I love and live techno - I go to clubs and have parties. But my background is more musical than the typical techno producer. In Germany, my music - especially my work on the Profan and Studio Eins labels - was always considered arty compared to the official German techno.
MEREDITH: By "official" German techno, do you mean what was coming out of Frankfurt in the early '90s?
WOLFGANG: Yes, Splintback and all that stuff. I didn't want to be thought of as arty. So I founded Auftrieb to say, "I'm not interested in arty techno, I like Vodka techno." [laughs] Auftrieb's sexy and tasteless. It's techno for beer drinkers.
MEREDITH: Like your record Oktoberfest?
WOLFGANG: Yes, Oktoberfest was really tasteless.
MEREDITH: It's brilliant - I can sense the humor there.
WOLFGANG: I went to Oktoberfest in Munich in the '90s and I got inspired. It was the biggest party ever. So much alcohol! I loved it - the German folk music and the beer. Some people in Cologne hated me for that record. They thought it was too much like rock music.
MEREDITH: I've heard that you have a thing for German folk music. That seems pretty unusual for a techno head.
WOLFGANG: Yeah, I've always had an interest in combining traditional German styles, like Schlager - which is beer-hall band music - with techno, because it's kind of unexpected.
MEREDITH: In other projects it seems like you're bringing in references to Germany as an industrial landscape. Kraftwerk called their studio the Kling Klang studio, and I can hear some of those machine sounds in your music.
WOLFGANG: I do love Kraftwerk. But I have to say I don't see much similarity to my own music.
MEREDITH: You probably also get linked with Can, the experimental psychedelic synth-rock group from Cologne.
WOLFGANG: As soon as Cologne minimal techno became internationally successful in the mid-'90s, all the music magazines tried to connect us to what Can did. Can was great, but we would have done the same thing here in Cologne even if Can had never existed. For me, linking us to Can is like connecting acid house of the late '80s to early jazz. You wouldn't ask DJ Pierre, just because he's from Chicago, if he was influenced by the Chicago jazz heroes of the '30s.
MEREDITH: You were into acid house for a while.
WOLFGANG: I had been really into British pop in the '80s. I played drums in a couple of bands, trying to create music like Scritti Politti and ABC. That was my world. Then, practically overnight I developed this massive crush on acid house in 1988. I experienced a kind of culture shock. It totally reoriented my world.
MEREDITH: Where did you first encounter it?
WOLFGANG: There wasn't much acid house in Cologne, but one place called The Rave Club played it once or twice a week - original acid house from Chicago like Future and
The Creator. I couldn't live without it.
MEREDITH: Did you prefer the acid house coming from the UK or Chicago?
WOLFGANG: The stuff coming out of the UK was so overhyped. The smiley-face T-shirt movement - which was brilliant for a couple of weeks - just spun out of control.
MEREDITH: The hype dampened your interest.
WOLFGANG: Don't get me wrong. I love hype. In fact, part of what makes techno interesting is that it was an underground music scene which was brought into the mainstream through hype. Yet it managed not to hype itself out of existence after two years. One branch of techno is still underground and innovative, while another branch is mainstream.
MEREDITH: It must have been interesting for you to see German techno gain international attention in the '90s.
WOLFGANG: We're very proud of what happened with techno music in Cologne. Before that, there was so much creativity around here but no real outlet for it. Nobody even had proper production equipment. As the years passed, we were able to get better equipment and make a more distinctive sound. Eventually, every city in Germany created its own sound.
MEREDITH: Cologne is about minimal techno. A lot of it traces back to you. With all these names and aliases you work under, is there any project that you feel is the most personal?
WOLFGANG: Gas is the most personal project I've ever done. It's one hundred percent me.
MEREDITH: Gas is headphone music. It's the kind of music you want to listen to at home by yourself, or with one other person.
WOLFGANG: It's chill-out, ambient music, but with a very deep, heavy element. There are massive string and harmony samples running over very minimal, hypnotic bass drum structures. It makes me think of a lonely man in a forest, on acid. [laughs]
MEREDITH: It also seems to contain a lot of memories.
WOLFGANG: It's flowing music, like a fairy tale without a beginning or an end. I want you to feel like you're lost in a warm rain, in the fresh air among the trees.
MEREDITH: You make me long to be out of the city. When I look out my window, I just see bricks.
WOLFGANG: Get in your car or take a train to the country and listen to Gas! Then you'll see what I'm talking about.
MEREDITH: For me, your B-side Loikum noise track on one of your Auftrieb releases also stands out.
WOLFGANG: That's ugly pop music. I really like the early twentieth-century twelve-tone music, like Schoenberg. I like the dissonance. That's why the Loikum track sounds so heavy and disharmonic. I'll take a normal harmony, then build and build on it, until it gets bigger and bigger. I'll finish the track, or maybe finish a loop, but after an hour I won't like it anymore. I'll think, "How can I make it higher, deeper, and harder?"
MEREDITH: It's almost like the opposite of Gas.
WOLFGANG: Even though it's the same guy doing both.
MEREDITH: As an artist, I always wonder how things are actually constructed. Is there a consistent approach to your work in the studio?
WOLFGANG: When I create music, I usually have a very intense, focused time up to the point when I go into the studio. Once I'm in the studio I work very fast - I don't spend four weeks on one bass drum, you know? I don't have much equipment. My main instrument is the sampler. I'm not interested in using complicated mixes and effects. In fact, it's more that I need a certain technical element in order to convey my ideas. I usually just combine a few tracks on the mixer in my own way.
MEREDITH: So many people have home studios, music software, and digital equipment right now. Is that a good thing?
WOLFGANG: I'm the first one to say that it's good that production is getting easier. Anyone with a thousand dollars can make a record, but not everyone with a thousand dollars has good ideas. In this jungle of one million new records every week, it's not easy to keep it all straight.
MEREDITH: It's certainly more work when you go record shopping. You've got to have someone at your local record shop that you trust.
WOLFGANG: Exactly. An important part of Kompakt, my music company, is the record shop. The guys who work there know what the regular customers are looking for - they won't try and sell them any bullshit records they won't like.
MEREDITH: How did Kompakt start?
WOLFGANG: By 1996, we had so many labels, projects, and shops that we decided to combine everything under one roof and build a new company with one name, Kompakt.
MEREDITH: Who is the "we" you're talking about?
WOLFGANG: There are three owners. Around fifteen people work at Kompakt. All the producers, musicians, even the guys who work in the shop and do distribution, have their own labels and they all contribute to Kompakt. It's like a big family. One of the ideas behind Kompakt is to shorten the distance between the creator of the music and the consumer buying the record.
MEREDITH: Do you buy many records?
WOLFGANG: I don't need to collect them because I have every record I could ever want in the shop. At home, I try to keep my head free of techno. I need to have some time when I'm not listening to it - otherwise I'd lose my ability to judge the good from the bad. So I buy Schlager and pop music. I love Bach as well. If I collected all the records I like, I would need three flats. [both laugh]
MEREDITH: Kompakt has just relocated to a bigger space in Cologne.
WOLFGANG: Yeah, our old place was much too small, especially after we started the distribution arm of the company a few years ago. It was hard to find the right space, since we needed a shop with a street entrance, spaces for the office and mail order, and a big storeroom for distribution.
MEREDITH: Is the studio there as well?
WOLFGANG: Yes, we were really lucky to find a space with a deep basement. We built the studio down there so we can be as loud as we want and not disturb anybody.
MEREDITH: Owning your company gives you the freedom to release what you want when you want. Was that part of the impetus for starting Kompakt?
WOLFGANG: The way we've structured Kompakt allows us to make decisions quickly, without having to get the okay from the head of a record label. A track might be right only for a certain moment, and six months later it's not so important. You say, "Okay this thing feels really cool - this is what we'll do this week." Then, three months later we'll be doing something else. It's one of the best weapons against boring music.
MEREDITH: So what's next for Kompakt?
WOLFGANG: Getting bigger, getting better, while keeping our independence. What else? When I was younger I had two different visions of what I would become. One was to become a pop star, like George Michael, and stand onstage and have everybody love me. In the other, I imagined becoming somebody who stays in the background, like Andy Warhol. Now I'm old enough to know that I prefer the second option. At the moment, I'm building up my factory around me, surrounding myself with creative people, and establishing an interesting company. The same energy that I would normally put into making records is being directed toward building up Kompakt. For me, that's just as creative as designing a CD cover or producing a record.
MEREDITH: So you're taking a break from making music.
WOLFGANG: What I'm doing now is more like practicing. There is still a lot of music I want to do, but I don't feel like making an important record. I'm working on a few things with my brother, Reinhard, at the moment.
MEREDITH: Is Reinhard younger than you?
WOLFGANG: Yeah. He's very hot right now. He's constantly making records, going to parties, and satisfying the girls, or so he says. [laughs] Reinhard works at night in the clubs, while I work during the day at Kompakt. But in the end it's the same philosophy.