Interview: Tom Bonaty (Prologue)

Tom Bonaty is the label head of one of modern techno’s most fascinating labels, Prologue. Known for their deep sound, the label has released EPs and albums by contemporary techno legends such as Mike Parker, Voices from the Lake, and Cio D’or.

In preparing for this interview, I found myself reading your bio, of course. And it talks about your early influences, but as a young American there are some things included that I never really had access to. The first of these is the Ultraschall club, which was one of the first techno clubs in Munich and had a major influence on the development of your musical preferences and the future output of your labels. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about what that club was like, both visually and musically.

It was not just the first techno club in Munich, but I would say it was the first legendary club in Germany. In the 90’s, it had a status that was maybe like Berghain today. It was a club that was placed where the former airport was, and it was somehow a big rest room. Basically the people who were working at the airport would take showers in the area that became the club. There were no windows really, and the club itself was divided into two spaces – one with a straight club music environment and also an ambient music environment with visuals.

So then it was a pretty different atmosphere than something like Tresor, which was much more industrial?

Absolutely. During this time Tresor was also somewhat legendary, even before they switched to the new location. And of course there was the Love Parade feeling in Germany, and everybody had the feeling they belonged to something special. For me, it was always like vacation to be in there, because the music was so new. Every vinyl played was something special at this time. It had a pretty strange atmosphere at this point, because electronic music was completely new to all of us in Munich. This was 1991 or 1992, and the acid sound came more and more to Munich and Germany. The club was new, the atmosphere was new, the DJ was new, and the music was new. Sven Vath, for example, was one of the regular DJs there. And I think it had an influence over the trajectory of techno in Munich.

So before Prologue, there was your first label, called Treibsand. This translates to “quicksand,” in English. What’s the meaning behind this name?

There was the idea to “lose your head” on the dance floor. Like if you stand on quicksand, you can’t go anywhere, because the music is too good. We had a strong connection to all the vinyl shops at the time, of which there were many in Munich. The label was developed in a shop called Parasound. The idea was developed with friends, but I had the idea to have a label since I was 13 years old. I always thought that Def Jam itself was cooler than The Beastie Boys, who were artists on Def Jam.

And Treibsand was much faster techno. Was that the speed that techno was being played in Munich at that time?

Yes. And one of the legendary labels at the time was Sven Vath’s Harthouse. And this second one was Eye Q, which was more deep trance-related at this time. Both labels had a big influence, and continue to have an influence on Prologue. I tried to combine both ideas, Harthouse and Eye Q. One having techno and one having pretty deep stuff. This is what Prologue is now, one of the deepest techno labels.

I was looking through the Treibsand discography, and I noticed that there’s a release by the Detroit artist Fanon Flowers. And this was pretty early, in 1999 or 2000. How did that connection come out?

Through Parasound, the vinyl shop. We met each other there and I knew about his label Mechanisms Industries at this time (which I think he’s still running). Don’t ask me why he was in Munich. He had a pretty good connection to Jay Denham as well, who was another Detroit artist who was a friend. And we asked him if he would do a release.

So this record store, Parasound, keeps on coming up. I was wondering if we could hear more about that – how does it compare to the famed German record shops today like Hard Wax?

In the past we used to have a lot of really good record stores in Munich, and now we only have one, called Optimal Records. It is run by the Ultraschall crew, who are also now running some other clubs in Munich. The sad thing is that it was a marketplace to meet each other, and this is gone. Hard Wax is still working on that and they have that place in Berlin, but in Munich it is no longer available. Parasound was simply a place where people came together, met each other, and talked about music and DJ’ing.

Would you say that the techno scenes in Berlin and Munich are pretty distinct? Or does it sort of blur together?

Munich is more of a house-related sound than techno. Of course there is techno as well but you can’t compare. It is a pretty local town – we have a lot of techno artists that support each other within the boundaries of Munich, but that’s all. It’s a pretty isolated scene. I was aware of that and I told myself, “If I start another label, I would not do it to have an isolated label in just in Munich for Munich artists, but to try to make a global label with artists from everywhere in the world.”

So Treibsand had its last release in 2000, and Prologue had its first almost a decade later. What happened to make Treibsand stop releasing, and what was going on during that decade between the labels?

Treibsand stopped because of some tax issues. At this time we were three people involved. I was more music-related and A&R but others were running the back office, and we ran into tax problems and had to stop. Another reason was just regular work. All I do for music is really hobby-related, it is passion-related. I have a profession and job. I have a family and kids, and I have to take care of that first. And then comes my “shocking hobby,” as I call it. I was moving to a global financial institute as a job in 2000, and I was concentrating on that. But I always had it in my mind to start another label. I knew since I was 13 that I had to run a label, and then in 2008 I knew it was time to start again.

Why choose the name Prologue?

There was a track I think by Female on Regis’ label Downwards in the early nineties called “Prologue.” I really loved that track, and I thought if I start another label, I will use that name. But also because of the name itself – Prologue is for playing the first two hours of club music. Not completely hard techno, more deep related. If you look to the Tour de France for instance, the prologue is the beginning of everything. It’s a good name to explain the idea of the label Prologue.

Speaking of artists that have had an influence on Prologue, I’ve read that you’ve known Cio D’or for almost 20 years.

Yes, I met her in the Ultraschall club. She was a DJ and was also part of the Parasound family. She was a big fan of Treibsand. Then she moved to Cologne around 2000, and we were losing contact. I later found her on MySpace and said hello, and told her that we have a label again.

Besides running Prologue, you’re also a DJ. And there’s rumors you do production work as well – have you released anything?

No, never. I was involved in the Treibsand releases as Chronobios, but I think I’m too bad. In my case, it’s simply time. I don’t really have time, as I’m so busy running the label. I’ve stopped DJ’ing as well. In my opinion, I was not born for producing really good music. I have extremely good ears, and I’m a good A&R, and I’m a pretty good DJ, but I don’t know if I have the energy to finish a track to perfection. As high as the standard is for releasing on Prologue, it has to be that high for me as well. Because it would not be fair to release my tracks on Prologue [if they were not as good].

Let’s talk about some of the trends in techno labels right now. Some newer labels are doing these cassette releases. For instance, Abdullah Rashim (who is a Prologue artist) has a label called Northern Electronics that offers some releases on cassette. What are your thoughts on cassette labels – is it worth doing?

It’s a difficult question. I wouldn’t do it on Prologue. I’m not sure if we even have a tape deck at home. Maybe cassettes could be done in order to have a unique characteristic for the label or release. But I think the bigger trend is vinyl growing in popularity. Going through pressing plants, it now takes so long to have a 12″ in the shops. The pressing plants are so busy now. In the beginning it took four weeks, but now we need three months sometimes. That is the real trend, and that is good I think.

That has to be a hard part of having a vinyl label – how long is it from the point when you receive the music from the artist to release?

It can be a year. It’s difficult for me, personally, because if I’ve been listening to a track often for a year then by the time it comes out it’s old to me. But I’ve learned more and more to deal with that. But the planning is always the challenge for a label like us. Every artist is demanding to release as fast as possible, and as A&R I have to handle all the politics and demands and managing it.

How does the process go of getting a demo, making the decision to release, etc?

In our case, we meet regularly and talk about it and plan things. For example, a Cassegrain album is coming in October or November. We talked about that a year ago now. In the case of Mike Parker, I was just checking when he released his last album, which was a decade ago, and I just told him, “OK Mike, we need to do an album.” The Voices from the Lake album was also my idea. They sent me a live set and I told them they needed to do an album.

So as a final question: which upcoming artists are you excited about right now?

All Prologue artists… and Cassegrain, for sure with the upcoming album in autumn. I’m also talking to Terrence Fixmer at the moment about having an album as well. At the moment I’m looking for some new artists. I would like to give one or two new artists a chance at being a part of the Prologue group.

Are you just looking for people to send you demos?

Yes, but I get maybe 20 demos per week. I always try to listen to everything just in case there’s an artist with the potential for being on Prologue. But I also just ask people, simply. Etapp Kyle for example. We think he has a very good future, he’s extremely good at production and fits well into the philosophy of Prologue. It’s not always just music, it’s also people related – how the artist fits in and how you can work with them. I travel pretty often to Berlin, so if there’s someone playing who is not often in Berlin, I try to meet with them. Go to dinner or lunch and talk about the future. So that personal contact is extremely important to us.