As one of Australia’s most prolific DJ’s, producer and live act, Mike Callander is a true lifer within Australia’s electronic music industry.
Over his extensive tenure, he has had his fingers in many pies, as a promoter, DJ, producer, record label boss, live act and most recently an Ableton certified trainer & teacher as the co-founder of the sound production and DJ school “School of Synthesis”
In the studio his new live rig has also spawned a string of forthcoming releases, with 3 EPs set for the first half of 2015 on Australian labels Revolver, Power Station and Motorik. Other recent work includes collaborations with Bertie Blackman and SubAudible Hum frontman Danny Griffith.
Mike has been around for a long time and certainly has a few stories to tell (which he covers extensively in the interview). He is someone who we have admired since our beginnings so we are rapt to have him on board as our guest for this, our 10th interview.
B. What are you doing now, apart from answering these questions?
I’m re-installing software on one of the iMacs at School of Synthesis after it crashed HARD. It’s an absolute ball ache, but it’s also kind of relaxing after I spent all of yesterday on the road from Sydney to transport an old organ that I bought… and it gives me the chance to answer some questions.
B. What was your first experience with music as a child?
I grew up in a house full of people that loved music but weren’t musical. We had a beautiful old electric organ that nobody could play, but everybody loved to hear. This probably explains why I was on the road with a vintage organ yesterday. It’s some kind of nostalgic addiction that I have. I buy organs that I simply ‘must have’ and then dump them at my parents’ house. I think I have 8 sitting there, plus a couple at my place. Anyway, as a child I heard a LOT of pop music from my brother, and country from my Dad. In some strange way I feel like those were both a really positive influence.
B. What was your first exposure to electronic music?
That depends on what you call electronic music… So much of the 1980s stuff that my older brother and sister were into I’d call electronic now, but didn’t realize it then. The first music I engaged with on a production level was The Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique, but I don’t know if you’d call that ‘electronic’ either, because while it was heavy on samples and scratching, it was also heavy on ‘real’ instruments. I was in grade 5, and I remember reading the album notes and asking questions about how it was made, rather than the content of the lyrics. As far as dance music goes, my brother lived in London in the early nineties, and returned home with a bunch of mix CDs, including the first Ministry of Sound mix by Tony Humphries. That definitely changed my life.
B. Did you play any other instruments before you begun DJ’ing?
I made a lot of noise with that organ, and I had brief flirtations with a guitar and drum kit, but never had the discipline to ‘play’ (which is true even today). Though, back then I really loved to make noise with any instrument, and I still do. Instead of learning to play, I generally just bash away until I hear a sound that I like, then I record it.
B. Between 2001 – 2003 you co-ran weekly techno parties with Luke Rivett called “Fokus”. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Over the years I have been asked this question a lot, and now I’m wondering if my answers were the same each time. It’s funny which aspects of a memory are important at different times. Right now what comes to mind is that I started a weekly techno night with my best buddy, and even though we had no idea what we were doing, somehow it was incredible, and it really brought a lot of good people together. I just wanted somewhere to play because I couldn’t get a gig, but Luke’s motivation still confuses and interests me. I think he did it to support me at first, and then really grew to love it.
The concept of it seems cliché to me now, but at the time it struck a chord with people. We felt like techno was perceived by many people to be “mindless” and repetitive, so we tried to intellectualize it. We called it “intelligent techno” which excited some people, and offended others, but at least it got people talking. These days I’d probably called it “adult techno”, but I’m also happy to say that what I love most about techno is its repetitive nature. Since I learned a thing or two about producing music I have become fascinated with subtlety more than anything else. We also promoted the night differently to lot of the other techno we’d seen. Our first flyer was a sticker on a 7-inch record. We bought thousands of these 7’s from a now-defunct pressing plant, and the only thing they had in common was the sticker. If anyone had played the record for a taste of our music they would have been incredibly confused by the rock, punk and country music.
B. The final Fokus party was held at Prince in April 2003, how was that?
The only thing I really remember about it was that I was forced to make a speech at the end when the lights came on. I was not in any fit state to be making speeches, so I hope it was OK. I think that show was also Craig McWhinney’s first gig, and we also hosted Simon Caldwell and Christian Vance’s old band, Phunk dE Sonique.
B. You were a resident at one of Melbourne’s club institutions from yesteryear, “Honky Tonks”. Can you tell us how that came to be?
I still don’t really know how I became so lucky to end up a resident of Honky’s. I’d been playing there as an occasional guest, and absolutely loved the place, but I don’t know why Michael Delany picked me (and Aram) out of everyone to play there every week. He just approached me one night and said something like “Saturday nights are changing and I wanna know if you’d be a resident.” Though he doesn’t really talk like that, so it was probably more playful. In any case, it was a genuine dream-come-true moment. I’ve said before that on a list of fantastical goals I had set myself as a DJ, a residency at Honkytonks was item number one. That time felt like “the golden era” for music in my opinion, so maybe that’s the point at which I was at the top of my game, and everything else is an echo.
B. How did you feel when it closed?
It was sad, of course, because I don’t think there’ll ever be another experience like this in Melbourne, because it really innovated in a way that, by definition, can’t be repeated. But it was also sweet to finish on a high (literally). The cloud of pending closure was hanging over everyone’s heads (because of lease stuff rather than club stuff) and I was happy to farewell a legend than see it fizzle out while everyone hung on.
B. People still talk about Honky Tonks to this day, it’s a testament to just how good a nightclub it was, do you think still about it from time to time or is it all in the past now?
It was really magical for me, so I still do fantasise about going back there for one more night, but what happened then was also the beginning of an incredible network that carries on, and today I enjoy important friendships with lots of the old characters. I am still very grateful to Michael for giving me an enormous ‘leg up’ in my music career, but more importantly he’s one of my dearest friends. Plus, if I was out at dinner in the last month (or the next) and looked around the table, I can tell you that sometimes half the faces would be people I met first at Honkytonks.
B. “Third Class” was born in the ashes of Honky Tonks and was the polar opposite of it’s predecessor; stripped back black walls, minimal decor, fluro spray painted graffiti plastered all over the walls, dark & dingy, sticky & shitty it really was a 3rd class nightclub. It created its own style of fashion (who remembers Schwipe?) and was wildly successful as a breeding ground for Melbourne’s French Electro House craze of 2007-2009. What did you make of it?
It wasn’t the same for me, but I can certainly appreciate that for a different gang of people it was similarly emotive and important, and if I were to look around the rest of my composite dinner table from the last months, many of the faces would come from Third Class too. I played there a bit, but it wasn’t a place I’d lose a whole night on a night I wasn’t playing like I did at Honkytonks.
B. For a number of years you were the go to guy for extended sets often playing for 4 – 5 hours at a time. Having the freedom to play for so long would have given you the ability to really cut your teeth. Do you think these opportunities played a significant role in helping further define you as a DJ?
I actually think that these sets and my history have achieved the opposite… I haven’t been able to define anything! But perhaps that’s where my good fortune lies in terms of longevity. I’ve honestly always felt a little on the outer, and I’ve never been a purist, so while I personally identify with various sub-genres, I don’t know if the die-hard proponents of those groups necessarily identify with me. On the upside, this means that I’ve been relatively immune to the mini cultural shifts and backlashes against this sound or that, and I’ve always been able to keep working. I also don’t take for granted the luxury of getting to play for several hours while some of the younger DJs are lucky to have an hour on their own.
B. “Pretty Simple” at the now defunct Ffour (now New Guernica) was another party that you worked closely with, I remember listening to & attending many 4+ hour Mike Callander vs Dave Pham sets hosted there and as someone who was just discovering techno at the time, they proved to be very educational to me. Unfortunately, these sort of extended sets with other DJ’s going back to back are few & far between nowadays, why do you think this is?
I really feel like Melbourne could do with a few more local heroes, and in a perfect world, some promoters who recognise their talents and give them the opportunity to do this kind of thing. The Pham/Callander thing worked because we were good mates and totally appreciated each other’s talents. I still credit Pham as one of my key inspirations as a DJ who had the balls to play music from any genre, and when we got together there was a genuine camaraderie mixed with a healthy rivalry to outdo each other with great musical finds and great DJ performances.
B. You’ve been running the weekly Revolver Fridays for quite a number of years now. Weekly parties in Melbourne are not an easy thing to maintain, what do you think is the key to its success?
It’ll be 5 years come October! I’m very, very happy with that result. I would have to attribute this success to the patience of Revolver’s management. My night didn’t set the world on fire right away, it was a slow build with organic growth, so they worked with me to grow it without forcing it. Part of that is also because I’m really not a natural promoter-type. I tell people what’s happening and suggest they come down because I am genuinely going to have a ripper night, because I still love DJ’ing and I still love to party, not because I’m getting paid per head. I work there as a DJ and get paid the same whether it’s empty or full, so the incentive is to make it great on a qualitative level because that’s way more fun for everyone, rather than jamming heads through the door. We don’t have a team of promoters or hosts who are selling this “get paid to party” bullshit. Instead we have a fantastic crew of people who love coming along and love playing there. And of course, Revolver has a history and infrastructure of nearly two decades, so they know when to focus on the business and when to leave it alone.
B. School of Synthesis is one of Melbourne’s premiere Audio Production & DJ schools, filling a void in the market it is going from strength to strength. What was the catalyst for beginning this business?
From your excellent questions it has occurred to me that there’s a bit of a theme happening… whenever I do something worthwhile, there’s someone older and wiser than me who presents an opportunity. I have always been pretty adventurous when it comes to challenging projects, so I guess I bring to the table a bit of a ‘can-do’ attitude. In this case the wise man was Davide Carbone, who I knew by reputation as one of Melbourne’s true pioneers of techno, and who I met long after in person as my teacher in Sound Design at RMIT. Davide’s class was my standout favourite in my Advanced Diploma of Sound Production, so I was certainly aware of his talent as a teacher and as a sound designer, and we had a rapport, so I figured if I hung around him long enough he’d probably give me a job, because around the same time I started my residency at Revolver I also started thinking about life outside the clubs.
Instead of a job, Davide suggested we start a business, because we had spent much of our two-year student-teacher relationship talking about how music production could be taught in a manner that was better, faster and more intense than the way it was offered by the big schools. We wanted to have the latest software at our disposal, and we wanted the person teaching that software to be an expert user who was working outside of teaching. So that’s the blueprint for School of Synthesis.
B. What’s missing from Melbourne’s electronic music scene that was present when you first became involved that you would like to see make a return?
Green Mitsubishis. Ha! Seriously though, it’s not so different between now and then. If dance music is more mainstream, it means there’s more happening and more work to do. But if I could lament on the past at all, I’d say people were more inclined to stick around for longer back then. People definitely still party as much and as hard, but there’s this impatience that sees them disappear to another club or to a kick-on. Nothing wrong with that, but when you can keep a whole gang of people on a shared musical mission, there’s something really special about it.
B. What’s next for you?
Disc ‘M’ from the Komplete 10 installation on this bloody iMac, then I’m gonna spend some time with my new favourite instrument, the Moog Sub 37. I want to include it in my live rig for my next show in Sydney at Spice, so I really need to get to know it back to front.