At the century's turn, when he was transitioning from club sensation to full-fledged recording artist, German DJ and producer Timo Maas spent much of his free time collecting wine. Thanks to his peripatetic lifestyle, which took him to world capitals and exotic locales on a regular basis, he was able to build an eclectic, world-class collection that's lovingly preserved in his Hannover home. But these days, he no longer devotes the hours he once might have to hunting down the perfect Pinot.
"The priorities in life changed," Maas says in a heavily inflected voice that sounds eerily like that of a certain Governator. "I became a father four months ago, and I've got a super-sweet daughter -- and I've been married for half a year, as well. Now I go to baby stores, not wine stores."
But just because the thirty-something Maas has gone from the world of candy pacifiers to the real things doesn't mean he's no longer interested in bringing his version of the dance gospel to a wider audience. With the help of his longtime creative partner, Martin Buttrich, he's just completed a new collection of original songs called Pictures, and when he's asked about the CD, which he's been tinkering with since 2002, he says, "For us, personally, it's a maasterpiece."
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There's no telling if his delivery of this last word is a self-referential joke or an amusing fluke caused by his Germanic accent. Still, Maas appreciates the pun potential of his moniker -- he's put out two mix sets under the catch-all title Music for the Maases -- and he uses it to differentiate himself from generic deck masters around the globe. He hopes his forthcoming disc, which contains vocals by an intriguing cast led by Neneh Cherry, Placebo's Brian Molko and "Milkshake" maker Kelis, will continue that process. "We tried to do something that we feel is cool and that we think has a pop appeal, because we want to sell albums," he notes. "We invested so much money in the album that we, of course, want to get something back from it. We didn't spend two and a half years of our lives to put it in the cupboard and never look at it again."
Such comments are sure to irritate purists who think DJs obsessed with broadening their fan base betray the dance scene. While Maas concedes that defending his approach "is not a discussion that is really interesting to me," he does so anyhow. "Let's come back to the basics," he says. "As soon as you start releasing records on a label, it is a sellout already. Unless you're only making music for yourself, everything else is commercial. But when you've got a good song and that song is successful, that's a good thing, not a sellout, as long as you are happy with what you're doing -- and I am very happy. My sense of quality, my sense of coolness, is right there where it always was. Trust me, I'm not selling my ass."
Nevertheless, Maas has been around the block a time or two. He got into music through an older brother with artsy tastes before discovering the '80s version of big beat. By his early teens, he was already deejaying on a semi-regular basis, and he stuck with the trade through the early rave years before finally landing a marquee slot at the Tunnel, a major venue in Hamburg, circa the mid-'90s. His initial single, 1995's "The Final XS," led to a series of efforts under his name and others' throughout the remainder of the decade, but it wasn't until his reimagining of Azzido Da Bass's "Dooms Night" that he wound up on the remixers A-list. The track, which kicks off the initial Music for the Maases, made for Hope Recordings and issued in the States on the Kinetic imprint, still sounds great thanks to a moody opening that blends into spare, inventive trance rhythms that quicken heart rates on contact.
The double-disc Maases, which also features some effective solo joints and numbers from previous Maas projects, including Mad Dogs ("Better Make Room") and Orinoko ("Mama Konda"), established him as a mixer on the come, and celebs began seeking him out. Over the years, he's done dance-floor makeovers on ditties by Madonna ("Don't Tell Me"), Fatboy Slim ("Star 69") and even Tori Amos; he and Buttrich were nominated for a 2004 Grammy award in the "Best Remixed Recording (Non-Classical)" category for their variation on Amos's "Don't Make Me Come to Vegas."
Yet Maas wasn't satisfied with being merely a behind-the-scenes savior, and with 2002's Loud, he stepped into the spotlight. He describes the CD as "an artist album," and indeed, the focus is on actual songs, not just lethal grooves. Kelis -- whose Neptunes-penned "Young, Fresh n' New" (from the U.K.-only disc Wanderland) had previously received the Timo treatment -- croons lead on "Help Me," a mock sci-fi number that manages to be simultaneously seductive and sinister, while idiosyncratic soul man Finley Quaye hops aboard the evocative "Caravan." The disc sported its share of "Old School Vibes," as one cut was dubbed, but it also demonstrated that Maas was more than just an expert dial-twister.
Loud sold just under 200,000 copies worldwide -- a significant figure by dance standards, but too modest to turn the heads of American music-company honchos, who were souring on the idea that DJs could easily be transformed into pop stars. The industry's schizophrenia made life tough for some spinners, but Maas says he wasn't fazed. According to him, "It wasn't like we wanted to push anything or were trying to top anybody or anything like that. Martin and I were living more or less in a little cocoon, a little microcosm, just doing our thing and trying to realize our ideas in the most perfect possible way -- what was financially and technically possible for us."
Music for the Maases 2 came out in 2003, but its lineup of high-profile remixes for the likes of Garbage, BT and Moby marked it as more of a stopgap than a genuine sequel to Loud. Meanwhile, Maas and Buttrich were assembling new material and recording much of it with live musicians -- even a ten-piece string section. In addition, they put in calls to performers with whom they'd worked in the past, but didn't always receive the answers they wanted to hear. "We wrote something for Tori Amos, because we thought we had a personal connection, and we talked with her a couple of times when we did the remix," he says. "But we sent it to her, and she completely ignored us."
The partners had better luck with Kelis, even though she'd become an MTV favorite since Loud. "She came back to the old friendship, which is great," Maas points out. Her vocals wound up on a song called "For Your Ears," while the semi-reclusive Cherry (remembered for the '80s pop/hip-hop hybrid "Buffalo Stance") surfaced for the recording of "High Drama." As for Molko -- who got to know Maas when he remixed Placebo's "Special K," which concludes the second Maases -- he's at the forefront of three offerings. The most prominent of these is the lead single, "First Day," in which he and newcomer Jo Kate perform "perfect vocals on top of a really rocking, '80s-oriented breakbeat track," Maas says.
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Elsewhere, he continues, "we tried to push the usual boundaries of dance music and electronic music in different directions -- in directions of rock, in directions of hip-hop, in all directions, really. We weren't happy how dance music was building in the last two or three years. We wanted to do something else." In his opinion, "There was a lack of a good dance album with crossover appeal without being cheesy. You might hear a song and think, ŒIt's not bad, it's pretty catchy, but there are those high-pitched vocals again, and that's kind of boring. They need a new idea.'"
Maas boosters in Europe can evaluate his concepts for themselves beginning in late June, when Hope Recordings expects to put out Pictures. The domestic-release schedule is less certain, because negotiations with U.S. labels and distributors are ongoing, but Maas thinks Americans will be able to hear the disc by summer's end -- and he plans to slip "First Day" and some other CD previews into his current DJ sets. Being on the road keeps him away from his wife and daughter in Germany, but they provide him with more of an incentive to keep going than a bottle of vino ever did. "Everything makes a bit more sense now than it did a few years ago," he says. "It's like I know what I'm doing all this stuff for. I'm working really hard, I'm traveling a lot, and I try to play for many people because it's for the future, and the future is my family."