“One thing in general that I've noticed wherever I go is that the dance scene is becoming more and more commercialized. The big stages these days are owned by commercial DJs whereas ten years ago they were owned by the likes of Sven Vath, Laurent Garnier, Jeff Mills and Dave Clarke.”
18 years after he started DJing fulltime and 12 after his first international club hit (Bush Records’s release ‘When I Rock’), Thomas Schumacher remains one of the highest profile names in German techno, courtesy of releases on labels such as Riva Starr’s new imprint Snatch and M.A.N.D.Y.’s Berlin power-house Get Physical.
Hooking up with Get Physical in 2004, he’s recently compiled the label’s latest
compilation, in between maintaining a prolific DJing schedule touring on the international super-club circuit. Articulate and thoughtful, he’s a keen observer of the nuances of global culture, reflecting a life that’s seem him thriving everywhere from Japan to the UK as both his own profile and club culture in general has ebbed and flowed.
“Club culture is changing all the time, in every single country, always,” he points out, “For example, I've been touring Australia constantly for the last ten years but even there I can tell how the scene is changing from year to year,” he nods.
“Sometimes they're more European influenced, sometimes German then the next year it will suddenly all be washed away for example as happened recently when they suddenly all became totally into the Crookers,” he continues.
“Nowadays, especially in Australia, you see Deadmau5, Crookers and David Guetta headlining events, whereas the rest of us are nowadays play on the side stages.”
Chatting to Skrufff in the confines of his Prenzlauer Berg studio on a wintry Berlin afternoon, he’s far from morose, however, chatting cheerfully about everything from being sued for using uncleared samples to competing with the new generation of DJs.
“It's not getting any easier,” he smiles, “The younger the DJs are the more predictable they play including some of the very famous ones: probably because of the large amounts of money they get paid. They feel responsible and deliver what's expected."
DJing developments aside, his top priority of the day is promoting his just released new mix CD: Get Physical’s 8th Anniversary compilation. The highly eclectic album features 17 tracks- both old and new, from the Berlin label’s artists, and unusually includes a downtempo electronica selection right in its middle where dance-floor considerations are firmly set aside.
“Last year the Get Physical guys, Patrick and Philipp from M.A.N.D.Y., approached me and said up until then they'd been responsible, but would I like to give it a try doing the compilation, so I said ‘Sure, why not?’, he recalls.
“I've been recording for Get Physical for five years and have close ties with the label and I know their catalogue. But even before I took the decision to do it I thought about the concept and what I like about the label and how it should reflect on the mix and one of the things I realized I liked about the label was the huge range of styles they release, not all of which are dance music,” he says.
“I wanted to include those elements in the compilation, such as tracks by producers like Raz Ohara, for example, or even Damian Lazarus, but then thought 'how do I do it?' If it's supposed to be a DJ mix, I couldn’t. So after lots of brainstorming and thinking about the concept beforehand, somehow in the end it all came together, though not as a straight-forward DJ mix. It actually starts very disco-funk-ish and tech-housey then in the middle of the mix, I just stop it and switch to 15 minutes of electronica,” he explains.
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): It’s been a while since you’ve done a mix compilation, how easy was it doing this one?
Thomas Schumacher: "To be honest I didn't have any idea of how big a challenge it would be because it's totally different from doing a normal mix because you're so much more limited essentially. Get Physical do these label compilations every two years and the concept is to include music that was released after the last one and also exclusive new tracks. So you have a pool of probably 60 tracks to choose from, which is not a lot."
Skrufff: You’ve been DJing full time for 18 years, when you see the likes of the Crookers and Herve coming along and becoming huge, how tempted are you to change styles to try and grab a slice of their crowd?
Thomas Schumacher: "As far as listening to music is concerned I love music generally and whenever I hear something interesting I usually introduce it quickly. So for example, when I first started hearing tracks on Jesse Rose’s label Made To Play, I was blown away and immediately incorporated lots of those tracks into my set. What helps with DJing is that I incorporate sounds and ideas gradually rather than switching too radically. My mixing skills are great and I can blend different styles in easily but still I know that there are a lot of people out there with certain expectations from me. They think 'this is what you're known for, I want 100% of it'.”
I still believe there is a core Thomas Schumacher sound and vibe which people understand whatever I play and that also means I'm not 100% predictable: which I don't want to be. It would make it so boring for myself. It's also more artistically challenging to play different styles, you can deliver a certain energy by juggling different sorts of music. I just talked to my manager about this issue, he's always telling me 'the more you fulfill the expectations of the people the happier they are' and I'm like 'yes, I understand that but I can only play what I feel like playing."
Skrufff: The likes of Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia have 360º deals with EMI, and lots of independent dance labels are now doing them, are you thinking of signing similar deals?
Thomas Schumacher: "(Sighing); Labels approach you and you start talking about the next album and usually at that moment that's when they bring up these 360º type deals. This is the classic line 'since you and I both know that there's not much money to be made from releasing records any more we need to find new ways of making money'. And then you talk about bookings. That's OK for me, but then when labels start talking about doing tours and so on, the question is 'do you have structures in place, do you have a functioning booking agency in place that is as good as my booking agency because my booking agency is doing nothing else apart from bookings and they've been doing it for ten years so they know what they're doing.’
It's interesting, I do understand that labels need to look for new forms of revenue and income; absolutely, but I also believe they have to understand they have to invest as well. I also believe, if both parties are reasonable, and talk things through it must be OK for the artist to say 'I've been working with my booking agency for ten years, they're doing a great job I want to stay with them."
Skrufff: Have you been asked to give up a chunk of your DJ fees in return for releasing music, or is that something you're willing to consider?
Thomas Schumacher: "No, my feeling is and what I hear from colleagues is that a lot of smaller labels are setting up DJ agencies saying 'we're going to invest in promoting your album we want you to be booked through us but at the same time I see a lot of artists releasing their albums themselves. Especially artists like myself who have good managers. It's not rocket science any more to release an album, promotion seems to be the most important thing these days.
It used to be all about sales and it's no longer like that now. I know people who have released albums that didn't sell well at all but the promotion was so good that in the end the benefits for the artist were great. He had worldwide press, he got a lot of gigs so there's the money. Nobody really cares any more whether an artist sells 500 units of 50,000. It's interesting times for sure. One thing I know for sure is that the old concepts don't work any more. The deals you used to be able to do have gone."
Skrufff: The technology for writing music is getting ever easier, how much is that helping you become more creative?
Thomas Schumacher: "Yes and no. Sampling is now a lot easier, sure, but one, fact remains, if you have no ideas, you're stuck. I do not spend too much time worrying about equipment and the latest plug-ins. I still listen to a lot of new music once a week. When I changed from playing vinyl to CDs a couple of years ago within a couple of weeks I found I missed going to record stores so much. I'd been doing it since i was 15, and loved the atmosphere and the ritual. So instead of going to stores to buy music I'm playing I go to more unusual record shops, vintage shops, and bring home lots of records. I hunt for samples, I love samples and weird sounds, whatever I can find."
Skrufff; One of your best known tracks ‘Heat It Up’ is built around a classic hip hop sample, did you get permission beforehand?
Thomas Schumacher: "That was a typical track where we just did it and basically got away with it. But I've had my fair share of trouble from using uncleared samples. I still believe though that in our industry people should just go for it, do it. If it turns out that something you have done becomes commercially successful and someone approaches you then hopefully you can find an agreement where both parties are happy. We're not doing pop music."
Skrufff: What's the worst trouble you've had?
Thomas Schumacher: "I was approached by an artist I sampled on one of my earliest tracks from 1995, which in all fairness became commercially successful here in Germany. This happened six years after it had been in the charts saying 'by the way, you sampled me' and I was like 'yeah, I did'. I was hoping we could sort it out in a gentlemanly manner but it wasn't so. Sometimes Americans can be, er, assholes. So instead of allowing me to be reasonable, we had to fight about it. My feeling was that he just wanted to get as much cash as he could. I explained the whole story to him. He got a big check and he was happy.
But to be honest no-one knows this guy any more. I was hoping I could offer him to make some more tracks together and bring him back on the scene but wasn't interested. Thank God, I had the money to pay him."
I also had a really great situation with a track I did for Bush Records called 'When I Rock' in the 90s which was my biggest track then. I sampled some vocals from a hip hop radio guy called Tony Touchtapes and again one of these situations popped up. We sold 25,000 vinyls at the time and licensed it later to Warners in Germany. Again, years later, my publisher called me and said 'we've had a call from another publisher about that sample from Tony Touchtape'. They said 'on that tape you sampled from Tony Touchtape's Radio Show was the Roots playing live in the studio'.
I was thinking they'd definitely sue me and I was given a phone number to call. I called them up, and one of them, I'm not sure who, picked it up and I discovered they'd never listened to techno music. They were like 'what is it?' I said 'we call it techno' and they said 'it's really cool what you did with the vocal' - because originally it was a reggae style rap', we really like that. They said 'just send us the files and the track itself and they put it as a hidden extra track on one of their albums; Phrenology. Which sold 800,000 albums. That was it. How cool."
Get Physical 8th anniversary compilation mixed by: Thomas Schumacher is out now on Get Physical. His single ‘You Got Me’ is also out now on Get Physical, while Bandera! Is out on Snatch.
(Thomas Schumacher on Soundcloud: listen to clips of the compilation here).
Jonty Skrufff: http://listn.to/JontySkrufff