Portrait: Mike Shannon, Cynosure Recordings
by Guest Blogger
Mike Shannon hates interviews. A DJ, producer and label boss for over 15 years, Mike is the kind of artist that prefers to let the music do the talking. When I ask him about it over coffee at his flat in Kreuzberg, he laughs. “Sometimes when art is over-conceptualised,” he says, “It takes away from the actual art itself.” Luckily for us, his music speaks volumes on its own.
It’s not that Mike is shy — in a city like Berlin where everything is in excess, there’s no room for timidity. Mike chooses to stand out in a different way. His particular brand of music doesn’t jump on trends or ride the bandwagon. A pioneer in the Canadian techno scene, his career has seen a steady upwards trajectory over the years and much of that has to do with the authenticity of his music: “For me, what I’ve been doing… I haven’t really moved around. I’ve stuck with it, and in a city like this, people appreciate that. Even if it doesn’t make you stand out, it earns you a different kind of recognition: respect.” It’s for that reason that when people write about Mike Shannon, they call him a DJ’s DJ. His technique, creativity, and understanding of music are very special. The art of performance is something he will never compromise.
As a DJ and a live act, you must experience a lot of pressure in your life: creatively, on stage, in the studio, in the office… What’s your favourite kind of pressure?
Favourite pressure? I don’t know if I like pressure at all! (Laughs) My favourite would have to be the way we’ve been doing things lately with my live act with David DeWalta! We only know more or less half of what we’re gonna do… Maybe less! The other half is wide open territory! There is a certain amount of pressure when you’re improvising like that that creates the best possible situations. When you’re in unknown territory, it’s amazing what can happen.
At the same time, though, you’ve talked previously about your move to Berlin lending you a sense of calm, particularly when you’re DJing.
Sure. That’s an example of a pressure that I’ve felt very relieved from playing in Berlin. There’s a big difference to the way things are here, as far as DJing is concerned. You play six, seven, eight hour sets. You pace things very differently. You take your time. There’s a different school here for that sort of thing. You play a whole lot differently than you would in an hour-long timeslot, for example.
Does that sort of energy affect you?
Totally. When you’re playing an hour-long DJ set, you have to get to the same point in a fraction of the time. There’s less time to tell the same story. I always prefer the sessions where you have time to build up to those explosive moments.
Is it difficult to maintain an element of surprise with your sets?
Digital culture has kind of exploded, so it’s definitely hard to pull out tracks that no one’s heard before. People are just generally way more aware of things than ever before. It’s easier to get access, which is kind of cool but it also means that the only way I truly surprise anyone these days is when I play my own things that no one’s heard before.
We talked about improvising earlier… Does that play into your DJ sets as well?
Yeah! I think there are certain combinations of records that I always somehow go back to putting together. They’re two things that fit together like a glove so it’s hard to separate them, but otherwise, even my DJ sets are pretty much entirely improvised.
I know you love to just get the gear on stage and see how things go on the fly, particularly with the live act with DeWalta that you mentioned earlier.
It’s funny, once we were playing at this Arma17 event in Moscow and we were on after this really amazing experimental jazz band. We changed the plan last minute and just did half an hour of ambient stuff and we had this really long droney intro. The transition that happened there was really amazing. We did it all on the fly, right then and there. It’s funny how those things just work out sometimes.
Born and raised in the suburbs of Ontario, Canada, Mike’s career has taken him everywhere from Montreal to Santiago. He fell under Berlin’s spell in the mid 2000s: he’s happily made a home here with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, and likewise carved out a niche for the distinct type of techno that he creates, collects, and shares through his labels Cynosure Recordings and Haunt Music. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, though. His days in Kitchener-Waterloo throwing parties, booking his idols from across the river in Detroit, and cultivating a music community with like-minded friends has done a lot to propel him to where he’s at now.
Do you feel at home here in Berlin?
I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else really. I’ve planted a lot of roots here. I can’t imagine having the same kind of quality, even in Canadian cities like Toronto or Montreal. There’s no way I would have the culmination that I have here anywhere else.
It was always a struggle for me to make a living as an artist in Canada. The sound that I was playing, that wasn’t really happening enough to sustain myself the way that I can here. In terms of success, of course it depends on how you gauge those things. But it’s funny, the grass is always greener on the other side, you know? You become a bigger artist in Canada when you’re away from it. People get excited about something that’s from somewhere else. You’re never famous where you’re from! (Laughs)
Do you think that your hometown, Kitchener, Ontario, had any influence on you, creatively or musically?
It’s a small town, so there were many moments where you had a lot of time on your hands! We built the scene there. We really built that ourselves! We had our headquarters downtown in a record shop… It was a meeting point for so many people. It became a community. And that was something that really influenced us. You realise how important it is all these years later, to have that kind of community around.
Can you tell me about the parties you used to throw back then?
We threw all kinds of parties, from warehouse events to art scene kind of nights. We were very lucky in terms of where we were geographically, we had connections with those artists that were just south of our border in Detroit, and they weren’t huge artists at the time either: Theo Parrish, Mike Huckabee, D-Wynn, Boo Williams, Robert Hood… Those guys would drive up sometimes, you know what I mean? I remember a party way back when Dan Bell played and he was cool with, like, a case of beer basically! (Laughs)
Wow. Times have changed!
Way different times. Those were the days! We were able to bring in high-calibre people. That’s what made it special, too, just having those deep connections and having those DJs come up and play what they wanted to play. We just kept plugging in the things that we loved and our heroes that we wanted to have play there. Every time we had the opportunity to take advantage of that, we would.
Like most music producers, Mike is a nerd at heart. His studio space recently relocated to a small room in his home in Kreuzberg, and when he brings me downstairs for the grand tour, his face lights up. He can barely keep his hands off the gear: even when he’s talking to me, he’s tinkering around on his self-built modular system or on his laptop.
Tell me about your studio set-up. What’s going on here?
Sure, yeah! Everything is based around my computer. I do a lot of sequencing and sound design with computer editing. Next to it, I’ve got this modular system that I’ve been building for years. I add a little bit to it over time, and recently I’ve gotten into building some of those elements from scratch, which is really interesting. I’m getting even deeper into the nerd thing! (Laughs) More than ever before!
Is this where you feel most at home?
Probably! I love being in the studio. For me, when things are getting stressful, or when things are getting to be too much, I disappear in there. It’s the best way to relieve some of my daily stresses. It’s my escape. For the moments that I’m in there, it’s an escape.
You just moved your studio back here, right? How important is it to have this space in your home?
It’s been a big change for me. There’s certain moments where you have an idea and you can bounce on it right away! Whereas before, the time it would take me to go down the street to the studio, I’d lose the momentum or get completely distracted… It’s perfect to have this ability to wake up in the middle of the night and work on something right away if I want to. It’s easier to act on creativity in this environment.
In another interview of yours from years ago, you said that, “My goal is to make a track that won’t be forgotten after one play, a record that you could put on years from now and still get the same feeling.” Do you think your productions so far have accomplished that?
Not everything has been timeless, no. There are certain things that I slightly regret that definitely sound like they’re from a very specific time. I think if you can put a date on it, then it’s not timeless. It’s not so easy! But I do think I’ve made some tracks that are timeless. I hope there’s one at least!
Mike is a vinylphile. His record collection spans multiple walls in his office, and it’s not uncommon to leave his place with a stack of CDs or records that he just has to have you listen to. He grew up in a musical household — a tradition that he carries on in his own home. There’s always some kind of melody floating around, whether it’s a Bohren & der Club of Gore track, a tune he’s working on with his daughter, or the latest release from his label. Ever since buying his first record (Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two”) when he was young, Mike was hooked on vinyl. He’s become a regular at Space Hall in Kreuzberg, so he takes us on a quick tour of his favourite sections. Flipping through the house and techno crates, he’s completely in his own world.
I read that you used to listen to Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless. You said something funny, which was that it was “a record that would fuel your little world.”
It really was! I still have that record in my office! (Laughs) I still listen to it. I put on “Windpower” and it changes everything! I’m moving in the office when I put that on!
Is there a record that kind of accomplishes the same thing for you today?
I think probably the coolest record that that I listen to endlessly is The Hearts of Empty from these guys called Dakota Suite. It’s on a label called Karaoke Kalk, which is by far my favourite German label. I’m rarely disappointed with the records they put out.
Let’s talk about Space Hall for a bit —
This is my favourite record store in the world! I buy all kinds of different records here — you can buy just about any genre here. That’s the best thing about this place is that they have a massive backstock that really expands all the way through every genre. Their techno and house section is particularly good, which is what I like to buy mostly. The guys that work here are crazy as hell! It’s a very relaxed atmosphere.
It’s my first time here and I feel very welcomed. I’m always secretly a bit intimidated coming into record shops for some reason.
I’ve totally been there. People get really scared! Some people get really intimidated in record stores, especially these famous shops; you walk in and your tension goes up and you’re scared to talk to anybody. There are definitely certain shops in Berlin that are like that but at Space Hall, it’s way more relaxed. I can light up a smoke in the shop and be completely at ease with what I’m doing there. I can almost always find what I want to find, too.
When you’re shopping, where do you start? Do you know what you’re looking for?
No, no, no. I almost never know exactly what I’m looking for in there. I start by looking at everything that’s new in house and techno, I look through and listen to all of them. I skip through and I like to shop maybe twice or three times a week. I start there in the morning and go through as much as I can. I could spend days at Space Hall and not get bored.
There’s definitely a certain romance about wax. Those who love it really love it.
There’s something about flipping through records in my bag or at the shop, something about that whole process that I find way more comfortable than scanning through CDs or files. I try to do that! I’ve had a couple of situations where my records didn’t come and I had to try to play with just burning some CDs… I couldn’t do it well at all. Totally lost on how I organise myself. With vinyl, you’re touching it and feeling it. There’s something really special about that.