Fiction Lab Australia LABCAST 02 - Mike Callander

by Isabel Thomson-Officer

Mike Callander’s career as a DJ started back in 2001 and ever since then he has been known as one of Australia’s most diverse and consistent selectors. When top international talent tours Australia’s shores, you will no doubt see Callander’s name somewhere on the bill either opening or closing. Most in Australia will remember Callander from his days at Melbourne’s legendary now shuttered Honkytonks and now more recently running Friday nights in the Backroom at Revolver Upstairs.

In 2012, Callander co-founded alongside sound designer David Carbone, School of Synthesis, an educational facility that offers high-end hands-on training to producers and DJs. It wasn’t long before he caught the attention of Ableton who allowed him to become one of only 250 Ableton Certified Trainers in the world.

Fast forward to 2016 and Callander’s production skills saw him tour with The Avalanches playing more than 30 shows in Australia and throughout the world playing at big festivals including Glastonbury, Fuji Rock, Roskilde and more. And now in 2017, Callander has joined forces with Kim Moyes of The Presets fame to start a new label Here To Hell with their first releases to be distributed globally through the highly respected label, Kompakt.

If you haven’t gathered yet, Callander is a pretty busy guy. Between teaching production, his Revolver Upstairs and other sweaty club residencies in Melbourne, not to mention a recent trip to Europe where he spent some time in Berlin, when we approached him to ask for an exclusive mix and an interview, he was more than obliging. We couldn’t be more excited to share this interview and mix from another one of Australia’s leading DJs and producers of the underground sound.

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How would you describe the underground house and techno scene in Australia?
From my perspective it’s become incredibly “overground” these last few years. That’s not to say we’re playing shitty commercial music, instead what I mean is that there’s a lot of support for music that’s got more substance than the EDM festival crap that’s out there, from punters who’d otherwise fit outside this notion of “underground”, especially in Melbourne. It’s great because it means that there’s a sustainable industry that allows people like me to keep working, but at the same time it means the real “underground” is operating on another level and things there are happening without me, and honestly it means I’m not really qualified to comment on it. I’m always shocked and impressed to hear of the parties that are happening in unusual spaces and with relatively unknown artists in both Melbourne and Sydney. Part of me wishes I could be involved a little more, but you can’t have it all, and there needs to be some kind of breeding ground for new talent and new ideas to keep the whole thing moving. So, I guess it’s strong! There are lots of people doing cool parties, despite every effort by some conservative governments to slow it down. 

How would you describe your sound? How has it evolved over the years?
I started DJing in public in 2001, and at the time I was into super-repetitive techno designed for peak times in warehouses. In 2017 I’m still really into repetition, but things are a bit more musical, often slower, and there’s a lot more variety in genre, tempo and subsequent mixing style. 21-year-old Mike would have laughed at the thought of 37-year-old Mike playing the occasional record by Tame Impala or Phoenix or similar, but these days I care a lot less about what anyone thinks and I really try to follow the spirit of each track inspiring me to choose the next. 

Who are some of the Aussie up and coming DJ's and producers America and Australia should be paying attention to?
I’m not sure about how to answer the “up and coming” part of the question, because I don’t take the time to trawl through demos for my new label (I’ll talk more about label stuff in subsequent responses), and the most talented performers I’m seeing on a regular basis are in a music composition degree where I do some mentoring, so they’re still developing their identity and don’t have a clear pathway to the blogs and magazine coverage just yet. I’m confident they’ll be worth watching, but they are probably yet to even choose a production name for themselves.
In the DJ/live performer world there’s an enormous pool of talent in Melbourne, so I could choose different players any day, but today at the front of my mind the interesting names include Luke Stein (who’s also a great live performer but at this stage doesn’t seem to have any plans to release anything) and Honeysmack. Luke plays with me regularly at Revolver, so he gets the club DJing thing very well, but he’s also appearing at concert spaces alongside a modular rig and an accompanying pianist. Honeysmack has been around longer than me, so he’s hardly an up-and-comer, but he’s made some kind of serious resurgence this year, and he is really at the front of my mind when it comes to interesting, world-worthy electronic music. 

You spent a lot of time playing at what is probably alongside Revolver, Melbourne's most legendary club which is now shuttered, Honkytonks. What's a memory from there that really sticks out? What tracks were you spinning back then?
I have told this story before, so it’ll be interesting to compare the memories after many years and see how they stack up, but the best way I can describe the magic of Honkytonks is this: 
In January 2005 I invited Michael Mayer to come and play at Honky’s, and at the same time some people from the Red Bull Music Academy were in town (I assume to scope out the city as Melbourne hosted the RBMA in 2006). When Michael walked into the club, he commented that it was like “Australia’s answer to Robert Johnson” (the legendary nightclub in Offenbach, Germany) and he’d be happy to play “until (his) arms drop off”. I was scheduled to play after Michael, so of course I stepped aside and let him keep going to the club’s official 5am closing time. At 5am they locked the doors and we told Michael to keep playing. At around 7am the security guards were getting tired and came to encourage us to stop, at which point Michael Delany (the owner) left the dancefloor and headed to the bar, where he dropped a wad of cash in the tip jar and instructed the staff to keep going. This kind of thing happened on the regular.

Now, less regular was the appearance of this guy from the RBMA who happened to look exactly like Michael Delany. We don’t know for sure if he knew about his club-owner doppelgänger, or he was just a very confident guy, but either way he had started entering the bar and preparing trays of shots, then walking around the club offering them to punters and us in the booth. Because he looked like Michael Delany, nobody stopped him, including Delany himself who thought it was hilarious. I don’t know many club owners who’d allow that kind of thing to happen, but Delany was always more about the party than the money. There are plenty of other Honkytonks stories, but for me this night sums the place up perfectly. 

In terms of what I was spinning back then, Michael Mayer and Kompakt form an enormous part of that answer too. If you’d like to hear a snapshot recorded live from the club, try this: 

You used to run a label called Haul Music and now recently have started a new venture with Kim Moyes of The Presets. Do you have any exciting releases coming up on the label or talented artists you're working with we should know about?
I stepped aside from Haul and left it in the hands of my buddy, Christian Vance. When the three of us (including Craig McWhinney) started it in 2008 we had a more cohesive vision, but since then we’ve really diversified, and though there’s still some common ground it makes more sense that each of us would start something else. Craig has gone on to be very prolific with Atrophic Society, Christian has an additional outlet and some killer releases with Away, and I have teamed up with Kim Moyes from The Presets to form a new label called Here To Hell. We’ve signed up for worldwide distribution through Kompakt and have four EPs already planned to kick off from early 2018. 
On Here ToHell we’ve got our own productions under the name Zero Percent, plus we’ve remixed the incredible Aussie band The Drones to take a bit of their sound into the club space, and signed up a couple of really original pieces by Rambl and Two Dead Voices. I’m really looking forward to sharing these soon! 

What has been your career highlight to date as a producer and DJ?
I’m very fortunate that the answer to this question keeps changing, and I keep topping these moments where I think it couldn’t get any better. As a producer my most recent highlight has been the opportunity to work on other artist projects and see my skills working on a much bigger platform. I spent a lot of time with The Avalanches to take their studio productions onto the stage and to program a live show that could mix their traditional use of sampling and arrangement to be complemented by a full live band. Then to travel with them across Europe and Japan these last few months to see and hear the whole thing in action at festivals like Glastonbury and Fuji Rock was an incredible thrill. 

As a DJ the recent highlight came from the same trip. When I had a few weeks off from The Avalanches tour I travelled to Berlin to join Christian Vance at a few shows, including a b2b closing set at the Away party alongside Ripperton and Move D. It’s not the biggest show I’ve played, and on paper maybe there are others that are more impressive, but this one was all about the feeling I had while performing. To be playing on the other side of the world alongside my buddy from Melbourne (of probably 17 years) but to feel perfectly at home in this city that I’ve visited at least once a year since 2005, and to have the freedom to play these monumental records to a completely engaged dancefloor, and to share a genuine embrace with someone from the crowd having the best night of their life… that’s what I consider a highlight. 

What are you working on at the moment? Any exciting plans for 2018?
Yes! I wish I could share some of these plans, but superstition and perhaps the experience of not everything always working out how I’d expect means I’m biting my tongue on the details. For now I can say there are new records, there’s travel, and there’s more work on projects that are much bigger than me. I’m really pumped. 

You recently went to Berlin. What was the club scene and music like?
I saw The Mole play live at Panoramabar, which was pretty spectacular, and my fellow Aussie Simon Caldwell absolutely tore the roof off Heidegluhen one Saturday afternoon, but overall I spent more time in bars and house parties than clubs. The last few times I visited Berlin I felt that the clubs were more and more similar to everywhere else, but there are still some special people that I always want to see. I know I’m sounding old, but it’s more that the thrill of partying has changed focus. I’m much more interested in the combination of the artist and the space in which they are performing, rather than the vibe of “let’s just get fucked up”. Berlin has an enormous amount to offer, but not all of it’s for me. 

How does the Melbourne club scene compare to Berlin's? 
I feel like 90% of the time it’s not that different between the cities. There are good and bad gigs and good and bad people. When I was in Berlin last time I spoke on a panel sponsored by the Aussie Embassy and we discussed this in depth, though not everyone agreed with me! We did all agree that Berlin has the critical mass of people with almost nothing stopping them from partying forever, and maybe the sound systems are better, but I’ve played on my share of shitty rigs there too. The fundamental difference seems to be this sense of freedom that you find more prevalent in Berlin, even if it’s only temporary freedom. A lot of Melbourne folk are increasingly crippled by the rising price of everything, and this programmed sense of “I need to knuckle down” or “get a real job”. I guess that’s why so many Aussies who don’t subscribe to that have settled over there, or like me, head over regularly to get a big enough dose of inspiration to want to return home and work hard at music rather than at money-making. 

Berghain or Revolver?
While there’s nowhere on earth like either of these places, I’d choose Revolver. I have had some great nights at Berghain, but Revs has been my weekly home for seven years. I’d love to get that Berghain sound system into the Revs back room though! 

You've been running Friday nights in the backroom at Revolver Upstairs for several years now. What can clubbers expect to hear on your night? Any stand out artists you've booked over the years?
In addition to what I’ve told you about my own DJing and general approach to music I am surrounded by excellent DJs who are also (equally importantly) excellent people. You can imagine that after twenty years in operation there are a lot of people knocking on the door to play at Revs, and there are plenty of skilled DJs in Melbourne, but I really focus on ticking both boxes for skill and personality when I’m choosing my guests, because I am at my second home and I’m spending lots of time there and I want to enjoy it. I want everyone to enjoy it. Historically my favorite Friday night guests have included Cobblestone Jazz, Sammy Dee, Michael Mayer (in an unannounced appearance) and very recently I saw Martin Landsky walk into the room and immediately take control. 

What's your tour schedule like for the rest of 2017?
After two months away for the European summer I’m mostly at home until next year. I’ve got my teaching roles at School of Synthesis and the VCA/MCM to keep me grounded for a few months. I visit Sydney regularly but due to the rest of my schedule I sometimes take the last flight there, head directly to the club and then the first flight back. 

Any plans for a tour Stateside?
Sadly, no. The US visa thing is very prohibitive, so it would only make sense if I intended on an extended stay, and right now I don’t have time. 

Tell us about this exclusive mix you've put together
The Aussie distributor for the Richie Hawtin designed “Model 1” mixer offered to let me play with one for a few days and see what I thought of it, so, knowing that I needed a mix for you too, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and do something practical. It forced me to change my mixing style a bit (which I enjoyed) and because of the mixer’s layout I was able to add some of my own effects to the chain. I normally don’t like hearing too much of a DJ mixer’s built-in effects, but when you can bring your own it’s a different story, because that familiarity means it can be used more deliberately and with more subtlety. So, between the unique filter design of the mixer, the chance to really dial in some nice parameters on my own delays and the drive section on each channel that allowed me to saturate some loops of quieter sections of tracks, I found myself really digging out some nice musical outcomes that would have been otherwise less possible. 

In terms of track selection I approached it the same way I approach any live mix… I didn’t prepare anything except for thinking about the first track and some idea of “who is my audience?” and then I let the music direct me. The outcome from that approach is that I ended up playing some very old stuff and some really new stuff, and that’s a pretty good indication of how I’d play on any night. I like how the behavior of this mixer allowed me to try some ambitious blends, such as the mix from DJ Koze “Zouzou” into Rabo & Snob “Let You Know”. I could hear some real similarities in there amongst so much contrast, and the filters and the sweepable mid range EQ allowed to work those in together. My all-time favourite track is on here – Caribou “Bowls”, and some nice older stuff by Carl Craig and DJ Koze, but I’m also glad I found some space for current stuff by Artbat, Magdalena, Manoo and Raoul K and others. I hope you dig it! 

Axel Boman “In The Dust Of This Planet” – Pampa
Caribou “Bowls” – City Slang
Artbat “Knup” – Suara
Betoko “Muzzika” (Beatamines Remix) – Einmusika
Few Nolder “Clouds” (Boso Reversion) – Get Physical
DJ Koze “Zouzou” – Kompakt
Rabo & Snob “Let You Know” – Whiskey Disco
Magdalena “Morphosfalter” - Leena
Carl Craig “Darkness” – Planet E
Manoo & Raoul K “Toukan” (Trikk Dub) – Innervisions