A longtime member of Cologne’s Kompakt family, Tobias Thomas is a DJ and occasional producer. However, DJ & producer-only scratch the surface when dissecting Tobias Thomas’ contribution to music. Having had a career that spans over 20 years and involved festival programming, music press and everything in between it is hard to find someone more in touch with the inner workings of electronic music.
Heading to London on February 01 to play alongside Barnt, Sascha Funke & Rex The Dog as part of the Kompakt records take over (of an unused warehouse space), we took the time to find out about Tobias Thomas life behind the headphones.
Music is a powerful mechanism & appears in every aspect of a person life, however, most do not pursue it as a career. When did you first know you wanted to work in music full time and how have you got from that point to your current position?
Even after 30 years working with and in and around music, I often ask myself if “the music” itself is actually what I was originally aiming for. I believe that music is a vessel, containing various aspects that I have been instinctively drawn to over a long time. Elements such as communication, language, popular culture, rooms and spaces, corporality, transcendence, social closeness. When I first began working in the spheres of music, initially I wanted to become a DJ and a music writer. Both of which are strongly connected to the aspects above.
Already at a very early stage – even before I moved to Cologne and long before I was getting more professional – I found myself being involved in the overall organisation of events. School dances to football tournaments, birthday parties to warehouse raves. Being able to create spaces and environments for others to get together, to communicate, dance, interact or even compete with each other became a very strong drive in my (work) life.
Thanks to all of this I was blessed with an international Dj career that has and continues to span 2 decades, a club night in Cologne that lasted 16 years and defined a generation. It has also given me some great years as an editor of one of the leading pop culture magazines in Germany followed by some really intense and instructive times working for a music festival, also in Cologne. At the very least music has given me a huge wealth of experience.
You are part of the Kompakt inner circle and therefore know what the brand stands for more than most. Why do you think Kompakt has lasted so long & continues to be a progressive force in electronic music?
The original idea of the founding fathers was – as far as I know – to have their own little space – a record store – to hang out and actually sell their own records. Over the years it turned into an expanding family enterprise, an iconic label, a worldwide distribution network, a music publishing house, a mailorder service and a worldwide artist agency. Obviously it was the right mix of people, at the right time. It was also at this time the sound of Cologne and Minimal Techno as a genre was becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Something that coincided with the brands & helped quite a lot.
Here in Cologne we always tried to make a difference, doing things out of passion and commitment rather than making millions of dollars. The music that we released over the last 20 years is full of precious little diamonds that were made with love, emotion and carefulness. And they are represented by quite normal, honest and sweet human beings. I guess some people appreciate that.
Having been a professional DJ since 1990 you have witnessed the growth of electronic music in its various forms. What has been the biggest change for you since you first started DJing?
The biggest game-changer was probably the digitalization in all its forms. It has shaken the music business to its core more than once and has caused a lot of damage and loss but also – like with all disruptions – brought innovation, evolution and new chances. It’s common sense that the digital revolution changed DJ culture forever. It became a completely new game.
The fact that there are still a lot of Vinyl lovers, collectors and buyers around as well as DJs that choose Vinyl as their favourite tool shows how deeply rooted vinyl culture is in electronic music.
You can still feel what an incredible force, what an important and influential thing the physical recording media of the 20th century were: records, tapes, also film, photography. I am always open for the future but you cannot have it without understanding the past.
Would you describe yourself as confident DJs who play in the moment, or are you in the ‘overthinkers’ department, often scrutinising every detail of a set and rarely happy?
Overthinking is a big part of my life but not necessarily when it comes to playing a DJ set. If a night is really going well, like when you are experiencing that magic we are all looking for, then suddenly you will find the ideas and inspirations required to combine and arrange your tracks. Often in ways that you wouldn’t have thought of when preparing at home in a more cognitive state. When the subconsciousness takes over you will find music in your bag that wasn’t there before. Something unexplainable and spiritual happens, something I must say you won’t experience the same way with USB sticks. The digital archive either says yes or no, but the analogue knows the in-between.
What important lessons have you learned over time that has made you a better DJ?
First of all that you should never underestimate your crowd. Just don’t do it.
Second that a set must always be a dialogue between the DJ and the audience. A permanent exchange of questions and answers, proposals and feedback. If one side has nothing to say or remains silent, the communication fails. Which is devastating.
Outside of music, we know you are a keen footballer. Are there any similarities between football and dance music?
The excitement, the euphoria, the simplicity, the passion, there are a lot of emotional and cultural similarities. Both football and dance music are part of popular culture but also became mass entertainment.
I’m glad the digitalization hasn’t changed football the same way it turned music upside down. Sure there are major changes like eSports and streaming, artificial greens, the VAR and above all a brutal global commercialization but the core of the game seems to be indestructible. You can still enjoy it by playing with your friends in the park far away from the big money and the big arenas. It is something beautifully archaic.