Mike Shannon and DeWalta are a musical duo who possess the effortless ease of a married couple, and they ooze a warmth that is seemingly at odds with their penchant for thunderous techno that has been eked out of intimidatingly monolithic hardware. Both prodigious electronic musicians in their own right, Ontario-born Mike Shannon first met DeWalta (the alias of native German David Koch) through friends in Berlin the best part of a decade ago, and the two have been working together ever since.
Over the past 15 years Mike Shannon has positioned himself at the apex of the techno landscape with an internationally recognised back catalogue of wildly successful albums, singles and remixes shared across the genre’s finest labels, including Plus 8, Force Inc. and ~Scape. The Canadian has juggled this with acting as head of the consistently excellent Cynosure label, deploying his intrinsic understanding of what whips up dancefloors into some nifty A&R work. DeWalta in comparison is a newbie to the scene, but no less talented. Bubbling up in 2007, the conservatory-trained jazz musician quickly turned his hand to making house and techno bombs. It wasn’t long before he was snapped up by a host of imprints including Vakant, Salon, Kalk Pets/Karaoke Kalk and his own well-received label Meander.
United by a mutual (and borderline unhealthy) passion for whirring and beeping electronic hardware, the two stand as proof that techno is a weapon can be wielded live. With a relentless musicality and gut-wrenching energy, Shannon and DeWalta have smashed dancefloors across Europe – Meoko were lucky enough to have a catch up with them while they caught their breath. We spoke about their partnership, the challenges and opportunities of live electronic music, and gloriously unhealthy cheese steak sandwiches. Enjoy:
Apart from sharing the same love for machines and jazz, what other niche interests do you both have?
Mike: I think with both of a niche interest in Donuts and Coffee. We have ritual of coffee and donuts at some point when we’re working in the studio. Proving once again that David is the most Canadian acting German guy I know.
David: Huh… I’d say there are lots of things, like the donuts, but I could maybe mention Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches. Hehe… Kind of the same ritual, depending on our appetite before or during a session. Mike brings these amazingly yummy, greasy, instant-heart-attack Steak Sandwiches over to the studio these days. Those set you up for a good long 5 hour session at the studio without having to snack in between all the time. You know, we are two skinny, pretty hungry guys… Gotta eat!
To what extent has music been an influencing factor in your musical partnership, as well as your friendship?
Mike: Well I think that music has been what has brought us together in the first place and continues to be what motivates to keep working together. We dj together more and more often now and are constantly keep each other up to speed with new solo productions and releases on our labels. It’s nice to check the drop box and see a few new secret Dewalta weapons for the weekend.
David: Yes, it has been music that brought us together. Like music does in this world. Music brings people together. I am so happy it happened for us, even though sometimes I feel I could know Mike from the far past, or a former life or something. Pretty funny also how we met, because Mike was a bit sceptical at first about this young German dude, who had met his wife before we actually met. I got a couple of testing-looks and uber-fun-sarcastic Canadian jokes and after an hour we were friends. I am happy to have found a brother, also besides the music.
Do you find group work more challenging yet more rewarding than individual work? How do you work out any differences in opinions or tastes?
Mike: Well usually it starts with a vicious argument followed by some alpha male style territorial dispute followed by bloody violence, ending in tears… just kidding. Actually we rarely have creative differences. Most of the time we’re both on the same page with what we’re working on. One of the main reasons why we work together as often as we do I think. Occasionally I’ll do something that is completely out of order and David usually makes a really polite comment about how whack or wrong that it is. It’s usually me making a fault some how musically… doing something incorrect. But I think that’s where the partnership excels… David has trained his ears to never make those musical mistakes but sometimes a particular sound can’t be achieved when things are too perfect. That’s where I come in I guess 😉
David: Comparing group work to individual work is tricky, but one thing has become clear to me over the years: music is a social thing and sharing it with someone you are close to and you can hang out with is always, for me, really always beneficial. Obviously I’m speaking for myself here! In that regard, our group-work goes further than just our D&S tracks. We talk about synthesis or new things, technology, new sounds, new tricks or our solo-tracks. We share information we maybe usually wouldn’t share with everybody. Mike is probably the guy I share most things with anyway. So this has always helped the process of making music and actually helped me being ok with the music I made, as well as helped the music itself. Always, sharing with your close friends is great!
As Mike is saying, there are only very rare occasions of creative differences. Maybe because we have become friends, things are naturally just more aligned. I do come from a different background and my ears work differently than his. Mike’s excellent intuition and North-American Techno- and House Producer-approach has saved our ass many times, so I have learnt to shut up and watch. On the other hand I could chime in with some classic jazz-music education here and there, keyboards as well as some crazy modular things nowadays. And to be honest: Even if there are differences, we always give each other the feeling of letting the other do whatever we think the song needs. Giving freedom and space is the key here. Even if we have two solo-versions in the end – giving space can only be beneficial to the music and to us.
Can you describe how you work together during a live show? Do you take on particular, individual tasks?
Mike: Yes, I’m mostly working on the basslines and lead synths in the tracks from my modular set up. I also do some vocals in a few tracks and work the mixing desk… David is working the drum machines, PUSH and his own modular as well as playing the saxophone. It’s almost like David needs two more hands with everything he has going on. The mixer and our main sequencer are in the middle so we can both jump in and change something if needed.
David: We have had the idea of playing live a while back already, since we had content, the vibe, many great studio session over the years and some records out already. It made sense, but how to put it together? What setup? Which machines? We knew it needed to be a “real live act” as opposed to some computer software based pre-planned set. We wanted it to be as live as possible. Improvisation and things that come up in the moment needed to be in there as well as some tracks of ours. In order to do that we had to assign some tasks, but also leave space for both of us to operate the same machines…
That said: In details, it’s basically as Mike explained above. We have separate setups, but still both operate the mixing desk, some Ableton PUSH as well as EFX.
What makes you attracted to playing live, and why have you decided to perform music in this way?
Mike: I enjoy sharing my music in the right context and I really enjoy getting the gear on stage and see what you can do with it on the fly. When you’re improvising with electronics the results can be very rewarding sometimes. I think that’s what makes me keep coming back to playing live this way.
David: I had been playing LIVE the past years SOLO and didn’t enjoy it as much anymore in the end. I always was more easy and relaxed with playing DJ shows. I enjoyed playing other peoples music and not just my own stuff all the time.
Since I come from a background of real LIVE BANDS I had the feeling, that many ravers are kidding themselves, listening to a laptop LIVE, thinking its real LIVE. I personally, would rather have a great DJ mix records then. Or at least don’t call it LIVE, as its not LIVE!…. The word “Live” always meant something to me, that happens in the moment, something not planned, something “live”. For that I wanted interaction!
Interaction on stage makes things come alive and it only works with at least two people.
This one man Live-show thing just didn’t kick me anymore. It was just me, who was uncomfortable in the situation, so I stopped playing Solo Live shows completely. Don’t get me wrong, there are great Solo – LIVE shows out there, but I as DeWalta couldn’t do it anymore.
Now: the idea of bringing our studio-sessions with Mike on stage, with 2 drum machines, 2 modular synthesisers, 3, 4 effect-machines, 3 sequencers, a saxophone, processers and synthesisers changes the game completely!! This setup is a whole new approach to the LIVE ACT situation I have known before and it has changed the way I look at playing live. It has re-opened doors.
You both play live separately. What makes your duo live shows different to your solo ones?
Mike: Well, my solo live act obviously is just my own tracks and not the tracks that we perform together. I still bring a few machines on board but my personal live act is more centered around Ableton for the drums and sequences and not as much on hardware.
David: as mentioned I don’t intent to play Solo LIVE-shows anytime soon. I want to have interaction with someone to have a jam-session, a live-session, that brings the vibe along. The “me, myself and I show” did not work for me so much anymore in the end…
I intend to play live with Mike and get very far with that project. Besides I love playing DJ shows!
Can you tell us about the hardware you use for your live shows? What does your typical set up look like, and does it vary from gig to gig?
Mike: We use two different modular synthesizer rigs with an array of oscillators, filters and processors. My set up is more tailored to basslines, leads and effects. David’s set up is making some syncopated lead sounds, atmospheres and effects. But the set up is so versatile that David can easily drop in some bass or anything else he wants to do. That’s the beauty of having a set up like this… we can easily change rolls any moment. Things are so rigid. The drums are coming from an MFB Tanzbar and Ableton. Which we run through a cv controlled compressor gate from Cwejman called DP-2. We use Ableton’s push controller for sequencing the modular and drums. I have two doepfer darktime sequencers that I write everything with. We have a few effect pedals from Eventide on stage too. David plays he sax through a few of those pedals and as well my vocoder in my modular rig.
Things with the sax get really warped and spacey.
David: Mike pretty much explained everything here. I am trying now more and more to integrate some new bits and pieces of gear here. Since I am Secquencing my modular with the “Make Noise Rene” and receiving CV gates from the Drum-machines I am currently integrating another small sequencer from Arturia. A simple, small little tool. But as Mike was saying, with the current setup I got my hands pretty full already 😉
You incorporate live instruments such as the saxophone into your house & techno productions. Do you think it is important for producers to use analogue sounds in electronic music?
Mike: Yes. Very important. Couldn’t imagine not using analogue sounds. That would be like trying to drive a car with no tires? Or a bird trying to fly without wings.
David: Have you ever thought about what comes out of a speaker? Or a Piano? That stuff, that makes your ears ring after a loud club-night – that´s pure analogue music!
I have to agree with Mike! Many analogue sounds, or at least “analogue treated” sounds still have a sonically higher “richness” or “aliveness” to them. Don’t get me wrong: there are many great digital oscillators or digital synthesisers EFX etc. The old discussion of analogue vs. digital (sorry for my English) is bullshit! I love my digital synthesisers, BUT there are certain tasks, that just sound better when they are dealt with in the analogue domain. As an example: Even the nicest digital synths have analogue filters or VCA´s after the digital oscillat
r, to “fatten things up”, to “treat the digitally produced sounds” and soften or sharpen the
Analogue filters will always sound better!
To really understand a synthesiser, or an instrument, you need to study its origins a bit. And until today these original analogue designs from the past are still on top of the game!
Have you ever thought of playing live instruments during a house and techno set?
Mike: Yes of course.
David: Depends on what you mean. In a LIVE set up of course!! On top of a DJ Set I personally probably would not do it. But I remember seeing Kerry Chandler having his Sax Player jam along his Dj Set at Panorama Bar already 8 years ago. It was pretty authentic how they pulled it off… NY style…
One piece of equipment you just can’t live without?
Mike: I would have to say my Intellijel Atlantis synth. I really have gotten comfortable with this synth and it’s so flexible. Like a Roland 101 but on steroids… it’s quite a powerful sounding machine and really can deliver some out of this world fm style bass. I love it. Can’t live without it.
David: Uff… that’s a tough one: I will say my “Ken Macbeth” Oscillator, paired with a Cwejman QMMF Filter / Resonator. “Macbeth” from Scotland just builds the most powerful, round, warm sounding Oscillators and monophonic Synthesisers I have come across yet. Pure Balls!
Wowa Cwejmans modules I adore for their “precision” and “cleanness”.
Oh and my “200A Wurlitzer Piano” from the seventies…
One instrument you would love to learn how to play?
Mike: Tambourine I’ve been dying to be a professional Tambourine player for years. I always had a soft spot for the cowbell also. An underestimated member of the band that has a very underrated roll. And by far one of the most sonically gratifying and rewarding instruments to play.
David: I always wanted to learn how to play the EMS VCS 3, Synthi 100 or “The Delaware”. Oh and, I’d need to own one, to practice 😉
One piece of hardware you are dying to get your hands on?
Mike: Buchla’s Music Easel
David: Buchla’s Music 200e System 7
Let’s talk a bit about your productions… You produced four EPs together since 2011. What has been your favourite one so far, and why?
Mike: My favourite would be “Slicks” on Meander. I just remember how it came together so naturally and quickly. And how every time I played it out people just started freakin when that bassline would drop. I made it with a Cwejman S1. It wasn’t an easy record to master because of that bassline actually… the kick almost doesn’t exist because of the size of that bass sound that drops on the one. Also the melodies that David played are dreamy in that tune… one synth line coming from a Juno 106 and another that he played originally with a Rhodes soft synth called lounge lizard and then I patched that midi to my Nord Lead 3 and made the notes he was playing sound really sci-fi like they were played in the future.
David: Since Mike already mentioned “Slicks” I’m going to say my favourite would be “No rest for the wicked” on Cynosure. This is on our first EP and I remember jumping on my bike, riding through the cold winter, up to Berlin-Mitte, where Mike had his studio at that time. Those days we worked at his Studio. I was always excited (still am!) and especially when coming home at 3 at night happy about how much we had achieved and how much I had learned again, just from jamming and collaborating.
One night I went to Panorama bar and heard Ricardo Villalobos play that (still for me unfinished) song, since Mike had given it to him already… It sounded fine. I learned a lot from those days. “No rest for the wicked” also had that winter Berlin vibe in it. The cold, and dark. Was important times!
Do you think playing live and producing music are two similar skills?
Mike: Very similar but one can be done without so much pressure. Sometimes people can really crack under pressure or have the adrenaline of the crowd push them to perform in a way they they just can’t do it in the studio. I think it’s a real art form to be able to perform well with all kinds of pressure situations.
I used to perform with a drummer that would always rehearse like shit in the studio and never really nail in rehearsal but then when it was time to rock on stage he really would nail it every time.
It really used to make me nervous. It takes years of practice to become flawless on stage and I have a ton of respect for the musicians and performers out there that do it so naturally.
David: I´d say producing and performing are actually pretty different things, if we look at it from the conventional angle. I was taught and educated at the conservatory to be a performer, not a producer. At some point it pissed me off, not being allowed and able to see the overview a producer has. I wanted to see the bigger picture. As a performer it was like playing one part for a greater thing. If all the performers could see this greater thing, something amazing could happen. But each and everyone needed the overview. In general, a performer has quite a different approach than the producer.
Of course in our small electronic music scene these things get blurred and in order to play LIVE one should have produced a couple of records, know how to operate a synthesiser or drum machine etc. But the qualities needed on stage are quite different than the ones in the studio.
What do you prefer, producing music or playing live music in front of a crowd?
Mike: I think I’m more of a studio guy personally. I like to play music on stage and on big sound systems but I don’t think I’m the best at dealing with a lot of the other BS that goes along with being an entertainer in the spot light.
I come from the school of djs that didn’t have to have a dance routine to entertain a crowd.
At the end of the day I’m a studio guy and a old school dj… I’m not a flashy jazz performance musician like my partner. I think that’s why the combination works so well.
David: Tough call again: As mentioned earlier my musical career has changed quite a lot and I really enjoyed leaving the only-performing part behind for a while (as a musician). I am a huge studio-rat and I live for my studio. Still, going out and playing music for the people is what gives me energy and makes me happy. The job is amazing! But, just playing and touring without any Studio – no way! It’s hard to say what I prefer. I would say – I need both, the studio and the performing. It needs to coexist.
You mentioned that you are working on an album. This is exciting news! Why have you chosen to present music in this way? Do you know which label you will release it on?
Mike: We’re working on a new album yes but there is still some work to be done. We’re hoping to have it all set up for a fall release in 2015. As for where it will come out exactly is a good question. We have a few labels very interested but at the moment things are too early to discuss exactly where it will drop but from the looks of things we won’t be doing this on either of our labels.
David: Oh ha! Did I mention any album somewhere else before..?! Or who was that?! haha… No, seriously. Yes, that’s the plan and we do have some nice new material in the pipeline, as well as previously released content we would like to include in some kind of way. But we need a bit more time and at this point we cannot give any further information about where and when it will be released.