Mike Shannon: "For me, techno has always been a faceless thing."

As XLR8R Festival 2016 approaches, the head of the Cynosure label muses on his beginnings, his ethos, and the advantages of musical naiveté..
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Mike Shannon

Nowadays, he's one of the most respected guys in techno; as a kid growing up in Ontario, however, it's a safe bet that dance-music greatness was probably the last thing on Mike Shannon's mind. It was time spent in an all-ages spot in his hometown of Kitchener that set him on the path to clubland glory (more on that below). But glory is probably the wrong term to use when talking about the Shannon, now based in Berlin. Though he's the proverbial DJ's DJ, a talented live artist, and a great producer of musically rich techno and house—since 2000, he's slowly built up the kind of small yet selective discography, with releases on Force Inc., ~scape, Plus 8, Wagon Repair, and his own Cynosure and Haunt labels, that's the envy of his peers—he's the kind of guy who's content to let the music do the talking. (And with music like his, why not?) Along with his frequent parnter DeWalta, as well as Dauwd, Clovis, Roam, Rob Garza and Blond:ish, Shannon will be playing at the rapidly approaching XLR8R Festival 2016 in Tulum, so we figured this would be the perfect time to catch up with one of our favorite artists.

Do you remember your earliest experiences with electronic music?
Absolutely. The very first experience was at my local club, a place called Club Abstract in Kitchener, which had an all-ages night. I was around 12 or 13, and I would lie to my parents and tell them that I was staying over at my friend’s house, so I could go to this thing. That was where I first heard this stuff.

They weren’t playing real-deal techno there, were they? That sounds pretty advanced for an all-ages club in Kitchener.
Well, it was cheesy techno, but they played some things like LFO and other early Warp artists. That really stuck out for me; I was freaking out over that music. So I started searching around, and discovered a radio program that was Chris Sheppard and Terry Kelly doing this live-to-air broadcast of Toronto rave parties. I was really into that, so I started to try and find the records that they were playing.

And so it begins.
Yeah! Then, about a year later, I actually got a job where I was bussing tables at another place that also had an all-ages night. I would pressure the DJ to play these records that I would bring in—I would give him a handful of records, and early in the night when there was nobody there, we would just freak out and dance up on stage.

Do you remember what the songs were?
This was the beginning of when XL Recordings was happening, so things like John + Julie, T99’s “Anasthasia”…and a lot of Warp, of course. It was the beginning of the hardcore-rave sound that was really in your face. That was the gateway for me. I liked it because there was nothing else going on like that.

How did that morph into DJing?
It was at that same place. The DJ was a complete fuck-up, and would sometimes show up an hour late. I’d be there, and I kind of knew how to operate turntables and a mixer, so I would just start playing. It turned out the guy was cool with me doing that, and he’d take hour-long breaks and I would have my techno moment.

mike shannon

And the crowd was accepting of what you were playing?
They were loving it. They definitely weren’t screaming at me or throwing bottles. It probably helped that I had a lot of friends there, backing me up…but it was really working.

How old were you at that point?
I was 13 or 14—it was around ’92 or ’93.

So you’ve actually been DJing for most of your life. Did you think you would make a career out of it when you were fourteen years old?
I never would have guessed in a million years that this was going to lead to everything that happened. But we did have this attitude that we were on the cutting edge of the future—that we were of the generation that was going to change everything. Everybody involved in that little scene had this utopian attitude towards the future. We thought we were making a big difference; there seemed to be some kind of movement behind this music. But I never would have thought that it would progress to where things are now for me.

Speaking of being on the cutting edge, weren’t you one of the first Canadian techno guys to make the move in Berlin?
There were a couple of guys that came over before me, like Jeremy Caulfield—he was one of the very first, I think, and Konrad Black was pretty early. But there eventually was this serious migration that happened, and a lot of people realized, all around the same time, that there was really something happening there. People saw how much easier it was to do what we do in Berlin.

It wasn’t just Canadians who realized that—a lot of electronic-music people from the States migrated in a massive wave sometime in the ’00s, as well.
Definitely; it was a worldwide wave. But in terms of the Canadians, there was an awful lot of them, and I knew a quite a lot of them. It was kind of like this group of friends who all followed each other; before Berlin, we all went to Montreal together, too. Like Deadbeat—he comes from my hometown, and he was there during that time I was talking about at the all-ages club.

Having been there for about a decade, do you consider Berlin to be your home?
Yeah, things are really comfortable here. There are some issues…like, just in terms of communication, I still have a long way to go. But I have a family here, and it’s definitely home—at the same time, I can’t take the Canadian out of me, as much as I try and as embarrassing as it is!

"Techno was never about how cool your haircut was; it's the opposite of that."

This is probably an extreme overgeneralization about producers from your own country, but one of the Canadian traits that you may have retained is that you’re not necessarily the flashiest person around, but you always seem to keep your head down and do good work.
It’s the school that I came from. For me, techno has always been a faceless thing. Techno was never about how cool your haircut was; it's the opposite of that. We didn’t want people to know about us. Everything was in the shadows. It’s the Underground Resistance ethic, which a lot of British producers followed as well. It’s was a more humble, almost samurai way of doing things. Now, it’s different—you have to play the game, at least to some extent. But I still like that faceless ideal of the early ’90s. Techno is meant to be faceless. That was part of the magic, and that’s part of what made it better than pop music—it was something different, something beyond that.

You've been releasing music for the past decade and a half. How do you think your sound has evolved over that time?
I think it’s largely been an evolution based on the technology that I’ve been using. In the beginning, I was working with a guy named Jason Hunsberger, and we had a studio where we put all of our machines together. We were using all hardware, including the sequencer. Then a couple of years later, things really shifted to being in the box—and you can really hear that shift in sound. I was more or less using the same formulas, but the actual quality of that sound changed. I think it was diminished, really. The other day, I was listening to one of the first tracks we put out, which was all-analog and done the old-school way—and it had this certain sound that you can’t get when you are in the box. But now things are evolving back, at least for me, and the quality of the sound in the evolution of things has gotten a lot better.But as far as the formula goes, I think that’s been pretty steady.

mike Shannon

Your output tends to have an innate musicality to it. Do you have much in the way of musical training?
No, not of any kind. I just kind of feel my way through things. I work with DeWalta a lot, and he’s really trained—so sometimes he’ll hear me do something and say, “No, you can really do that.” We’ll get into these arguments about which notes are correct, or what key something should be in.

"There are certain directions that you might not think of going in if you know you aren’t really supposed to."

Do you think there’s some advantage to not having that kind of training?
I do think that's true. There are certain directions that you might not think of going in if you know you aren’t really supposed to—and that might stop you from getting an interesting, unique, warped sound, which is what I’m drawn to.

What’s up with the Haunt label? It seems to have been a bit quiet over the past couple of years.
It’s still there, but it’s a real ghost of a label. [laughs] I like to take my time with what I put out there. It’s been like that with Cynosure, too. We’ll only put out a few records a year; we don’t like to flood the market and put out a digital release every week or anything. It seems like there’s been a real emphasis on quantity over quality lately, but I’m more interested in just exposing the music that I’m really into. Having said all that, there is music in the pipeline for Haunt.

You be playing our XLR8R Festival 2016 in Tulum in just a couple of weeks. Have you ever been down there before?
I’ve actually played down there before; the Mole and I did a showcase at the BPM festival just a few years ago. I absolutely love that place—it’s really beautiful.

Will this be a DJ set, or will you be hauling your gear with you?
This one will be DJing. I figure that at the beach, it’s probably a good idea to keep the sand out of the gear! I’ll be playing records.

Your frequent partner DeWalta will be down there as well; will you two be spinning back–to-back at all?
These are solo sets, but hopefully we’ll be able to do a little bit of both, really—we’ll have to see if we can work that out. I do really feel comfortable playing with each other; we’ve done entire nights where we’re playing records together. We’ll have to see! Whatever happens, I’m really looking forward to it.

What else do you have coming up?
The big thing is a new album that’s coming up from me and DeWalta. We’ve been working on this for quite a few years, and I have to say that it takes things to another level. I think it’s really special—I’m very proud of it. It should be coming out on March, and then we’re going to do a big tour in support of it. It’s licensed to a label from Barcelona called Indigo Raw.

Indigo Raw is a great label.
Yeah, they really are. It’s an amazing group of people. and they’ve been doing a lot of great stuff lately. Working with them has given us more momentum, but we’ve been able to retain the same sort of creative control that we would have if we put it out ourselves. I can’t wait to get it out there—I’m really excited.

It sounds like 2016 is going to be a big year for you.
I hope so! I think it will be a lot of fun. As long as you don’t get jaded, and as long as you keep having fun, then it’s good. There’s no looking back, really!

All photos: Intissare Aamri; clothes: Aurelia Paumelle