A Quick Chat with Booka Shade
By Brendan Power . May 7, 2014
Last week I sat down with Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier, better known as the energetic electronic act, Booka Shade. We talked about the past, the present and the future, Daft Punk, EDM, Deadmaus, breaking through in the US, the Berlin effect, and much much more.
B:You guys have been living in Berlin since 2002, but you started in Frankfurt. Did you came here with friends specifically to start your record label Get Physical or did that come afterwards?
W: No, I left Frankfurt because I split up with my girlfriend. I just couldn’t stand the city anymore and Berlin was just coming up and there were a lot of things going on, so we said let’s just move there, a friend said he would love to check out Berlin, so I followed. You (Arno) waited a little while, but at that time it was really a good moment to move to Berlin.
B:I read that you had a sort of synthpop band in the years before Booka Shade?
A: Yeah, the first band that we had, one very early one called Indian Summer, then Planet Claire, which was in the early 90s, signed to EMI. You can imagine a little like Tears for Fears, a little like Depeche Mode. Someone just posted a really old video of footage of an old live concert we did, and it had a bit of a Depeche flavour to it I would say, haha!
B: Have you ever thought about going back to explore that kind of sound, after all your experience with Booka Shade?
A: We explore things all the time, only lately we played with Lang Lang for example, who is a classical pianist, at one of our shows, and we always try out new things because as an electronic act, we kept saying “Of course you do your shows as and you travel the world and play great shows to your audience, but in a way you also want to move further and develop as an artist”. For this reason, on the album we just did for example, we worked differently in different studios, particularly one studio which gave us a different input, and that’s something we want to continue, and explore new territory.
W: We like to leave the comfort zone. It’s very important. I remember we played this festival in Germany called Rock am Ring/Rock am Park, which we play in June again this year. They asked us in 2005 to play there, and I think we were the first house music act ever in the festival. I think not even Sven Vath had been there. It was really really new for them, they said “yeah now we have a club tent” and then we found out it was not really a club tent. They just called it a club tent because we played in between dark metal bands, with long hair like propellers when they played hard rock riffs, and then we saw Metallica fans dancing to our track Body Language. So we always tried news things, and of course some times you fail, and it can be very painful but in the end it is more interesting than to play the same club again and again.
B: So what was so special about Eve studios, where you did the last album, what helped you take a new direction there?
A: The reason that we went there was that in previous albums we had explored the technology of working with the laptop to extremes, because we travelled a lot and we play a lot of shows, so over the years the previous albums were always recorded somewhere in the world and then finished in our studio. But a lot of the pre-production and song-writing was done on the road. For the new album, after a couple of months into the production, we realized that we needed a new input, a new push to mix things up. Then Walter read about this studio in an English production magazine, and it just seemed perfect for us, because it was full of equipment and the owner’s very crazy and creative, just the right person that we needed to show us all this equipment, which was not only synthesizers but any kind of electronic and acoustic gear you can imagine and not imagine- some gadgets from Japan and really crazy stuff like that.
W: They had the EMS reverb from Manfred Mann’s band, so it was in his garage and at that time in the 50s they had metal plates that you put smaller and closer together and so the room could be smaller or bigger, and there was a button that you could press and you could hear in the garage that “Znnnngghgghhhhh” kind of noise of these two metal plates moving.
B: The collaboration with Vodafone next week, what can you tell us about that?
A: We were approached with this idea to play a show and at a certain point with our equipment, we control the smartphones of the audience, not only with visual effects, so there will be light and flashing at certain points in the show, but also the audience can download an app, with pre-produced audio content of ours, like sounds from Nightfalls and Body Language and other of our songs, and at some point we will trigger this. This is an experiment (laughs) so nobody knows how it will sound when 600 phones play the same thing at the same time, nobody has done that before, thats why its a first. It’s one of the series that Vodafone does at the moment, but we thought, its crazy enough to try it out and we always look for these new interesting ideas. I’m sure it will be fun. We’re still working on some of the sounds, so there will be more rehearsals next week. I am sure it will be entertaining!!
W: We’ve been told 300 phones will not be loud enough, in some of the parts it will be only the phones, then we continue with the regular show. It works but we still have some latency issues, but that is exactly the challenge, you know? If you do something for the first time you always have some things that you need to work around.
B: So we are getting into the realm of new uses of technology, its a little bit Sci-Fi, you guys have described your sound before as science fiction house. Are you guys science fiction fans?
W: Actually we used to be, we come from that age like Star Wars, and we more or less saw the originals when they actually came out (laughs) haha not really, but we saw those films when they were new. Star Trek and Deep Space Nine, that kind of stuff. It’s not that we are watching sci-fi movies all the time though.
B: Would writing a soundtrack for a movie be something you would ever consider, sci-fi or otherwise?
W: We can tell a story, should I tell the story about Tron?
A: (Laughs) OK yeah!
W: We were actually in the pitch for the movie Tron. Do you remember the second one?
B: Of course, and of course I know who you were competing against hehe.
W: The plan was that we probably would do something together with M83 at that time, and we already talked and had a good feel about it, because Daft Punk said no we won’t do it. And of course that’s perfect to have two robots to do the music for this type of movie, but they said no in the beginning and so they asked us. But Daft Punk eventually came back and said “Ahhh I think we’ll do it” and so we were out of the game, but that’s not the end of the world. Probably there’s another Tron and we can jump on the train.
B: Personally I am a big fan of DP, as a lot of people are, but I wasn’t impressed by this Tron album, do you think you would have done a better job?
A: It’s hard to say, they’re great, absolutely great and amazing. We’d love to work for movies doing sound as well, we’ve done it in the past for shorter movies before, but yeah it would have been great.
W: But in the end you have to say these big Hollywood studios, they built them a whole studio with all the analogue equipment with all their needs with a big orchestra and everything, they had their own studio for 1 and 1/2 years and it costs you a fortune. Hollywood movies are so involved in the cost that they also say or tell you what you have to do, probably this was another issue that they couldn’t really do what they wanted to do.
B: So we’ve been talking about some high level stuff and you guys have experienced some serious success in the last 10 years or more. Have either of you ever caught the other one acting a bit ego, like a bit big for your boots? Have you ever gotten carried away?
A: Well not in the ego superstar way. We know each other for 30 years since we met in school, so theres always ups and downs, but then again who has been with any partner for 30 years! Considering that we’re doing pretty well. We’re moving in phases, there’s the Walter Mathau – Jack Lemon phase, there’s the Jagger – Richards phase, stuff like that.
B: I saw you guys for the first time in 2005, in Watergate as tourist on my first visit to Berlin. All the Get Physical guys were there, DJ T, M.A.N.D.Y, and Dinky, it was only something like 5 or 6 euros entry which blew my mind at the time because nothing like that in Dublin was less than 15-20 euro. I know you’ve explained that most clubs don’t have the right space for the stage you guys need, but do you miss playing in the less pressure, lower profile parties these days?
W: Well we just did a London show that was smaller, we did a tour in America for 31 days with 26 shows, almost a show every day, in these big arenas outside of the big cities, they call them sheds over there. Normally you have like, Whitesnake or Rod Stewart, these 20,000 capacity venues are all over the country. I think we played the tour from east to west, not our own show but with a festival, and we had every day the same procedure, the only question was where’s the catering, on the left side or the right side? And after 26 shows you say, OK it would be nice to play smaller venues again. After a while it would be nice to be in a smaller, sweaty club. I mean we do DJ shows too, sometimes in front of maybe 500 people, for example Wednesday night somewhere like in Stockholm. It’s still fun, I think the most important thing with getting bored is that you change things and challenge yourself, because routine can be very negative for your creativity, so we re always looking for new adventures.
B: Sticking with the USA can you tell me about Coachella, was that a special experience or just another festival?
A: That was actually special because last year we headlined the stage, so that was pretty special. Also for a German band, you know? There are not so many German bands that are invited to do this, and Coachella itself is also quite special. Its an amazing place in the desert and during the day its quite hot, but at night its warm and dry and you have an amazing crowd all over the festival. That’s one of the only festivals where I really like to walk around and see the other stages and just walk through the fields, it’s just amazing.
W: That’s something that you know will be great, but the big surprises are sometimes places where you go, I remember maybe 6-7 years ago we played Lollapalooza in Chicago, its an amazing alternative rock festival, and we played a stage with a band called The Drums (?) I think, no, anyway this big rock band, and we again we were the only electronic act again. It was in the afternoon, I think the fee was only $3,000 , so we actually paid $7,000 to play there. But it was just the feel, we said Lollapalooza that’s an alternative festival and it sounds good. So we played there and I remember there were 100 people in front of us in the huge field, and by the third song we had people coming out of all the tents and we had 8,000 people in the end. It was such a great show that even the organizer of the festival, the guitarist from Jane’s Addiction, even he sent us a message about how great it was, so sometimes its totally unpredictable, and it’s just a feeling that you have that it’s a good thing to do, and this helped more than any other festival, to break through in America and it’s not about the money.
B: Switching to people who do seem to be all about the money, you’ve spoken before about EDM megastars who arrive in a private jet and leave in their porsche, they don’t really booze, just turn up and play the same show. A Guy Called Gerald once said “Never trust a DJ who doesn’t dance”.
A: They don’t even sweat, that’s the most amazing thing?
B: So what sets you apart from these guys?
W: I would say its the opposite, actually, they ONLY jump around, as far as I can see when we are in America they only jump around with champagne bottles and making little hearts, they probably jump and dance around too much in my opinion. The should do something more than just having a CD running on stage. I think it’s not about dancing or not. There is Radiohead, the guy’s dancing, but in the past Thom Yorke was just fixed on the floor, but they did amazing music. I think its more about what you say and do with the instruments and that it comes from the heart. If it’s calculated then it’s wrong, it has to be real, most of these acts in my opinion, they are made by management groups and other people and that’s boring. So it’s always the same procedure, you have your first success, then you break through to a wider audience, and then you are sort of un-coolish, then a management comes in and they change the music to make it bigger. It’s always the same process, and you have to say, the more important you get, you have to say more no than yes. It’s more important to say no than to say yes. you have to be very careful what you do and re-think everything a few times, if it’s right and good for your career. The money and these cases you just mentioned it’s just about the money.
B: Booka Shade started as an underground act, was there a specific point that you realized that you couldn’t consider yourself underground anymore?
A: We have these discussions all the time, what is underground? If Richie Hawtin attracts maybe 5-10,000 people, is that underground or is that popular music in a way, even if it’s not poppy like it’s played on the radio? So how do you calculate that in a way? and it refers to your previous question as well. It’s quite remarkable for us to have a career with Booka Shade for the last 10 years already, with not very, you know, poppy music in a way, of course we have melodies, but it was never intended to be played on the radio, there are not particularly a lot of vocals, so it’s not music that’s designed to be spread out to millions of people, like in the EDM scene for example. So somehow it has to find its own way, and I think that is very healthy, and that makes this question with underground obsolete in a way, because we do our thing, and then people come to the show, sometimes the songs are played on the radio, but we don’t even know how the other songs even reached the people. Some people come along to the shows and they are so young, and they sing along to Body Language, we know they weren’t old enough to hear it in the clubs or the radio, so it has to be the internet. It’s word of mouth and that’s the best promotion we can always have. Of course we have discussions of “How far can we go?” but I think we found a way to be true to ourselves and trust ourselves in what we do, and bring it across in a natural way, and I think that works best.
W: One thing relating to that, was when we played this show in Chicago with Deadmaus and there was this one young guy with glasses, who was saying shit like “Yeah look what I can do with Ableton” and I had obviously seen the program before, but I had never seen it being used in this way before. His laptop was also held together with all with gaffer-tape and almost broken. He told us really excitedly- “Yeah I’ll play this show tonight, Joel Zimmerman (Deadmaus)has just signed me to Maustrap Records”, and we said wow, that’s pretty cool, then Deadmaus told us “You should really watch this guy, he’s really cool”, so we went down because he was playing before us, and watching it we thought “Wow, we’ve never sen that before, it’s really weird music”. It was not my taste but it was really impressive. And of course the name of the guy was Skrillex. I checked his Facebook the next day and he had like 500 friends or something, then he gave me his CD telling me I had to listen, “maybe we will see each other again”. So then after a month later I went to his Facebook site again and there was 1 million fans or something. Nowadays you can listen to his music in every car ad- is that the mistake or the fault of Skrillex? He created something new, he really created new music. You can like it or not, but it is his style and you recognize it immediately, and this is a huge success. Of course the problem he has now is that everyone copied that style a million times, and he was probably too successful with 6 Grammys, so everything moves too fast, but you can’t really blame him for that. It’s always the same, the more important and interesting you get for the audience, the more people come in and try to copy it or do the same in a different way, and suddenly the sound that you did, was probably fresh in 2005, and in 2010 it’s not anymore, but that’s why you have to challenge yourself and try new things that you can later say it was not the right decision , but to stay always on the same level, you have to force yourself to do things differently.
B: What impact has Berlin had on your music, would it have made a difference if you had moved to, say, Hamburg instead?
A: People don’t really know where we are from and after the show they ask us where we are from, and when we tell them Berlin, the reaction is always the same, “Oh of course Berlin, how can this this sound not from Berlin”. We started Get Physical when we were still in Frankfurt, so I like to believe that we would have still had a certain amount of success if we had moved to Hamburg or somewhere else in the world, because the music is strong. On the other hand, it certainly does nothing bad if you are in Berlin, and of course the whole surrounding, it helps to have all these contacts, and meet all these people, and work together and come up with new ideas.
W: In fact, our first few big records were produced in Frankfurt, we were back and forth, but they were written in Frankfurt. It’s not exactly essential but at the time the vibe was really vibrant in Berlin…
B: And now, how is Berlin for you?
W: Well to be honest I actually recently moved out of Berlin because it was too noisy, and when you get older and have a familiy it is not the exactly the ideal city, it helps if you are vry young. For me it was the right move to go back more to the nature, and because we travel so much, living in airports like that. For me it was the natural decision to move to the countryside, and Arno has also kind of moved out that way too.
B: What was it about the music scene in Berlin at that time?
W: We started Get Physical because we weren’t getting signed, no one wanted to release it because it was so weird, that’s why we formed the label, we sent it out to other labels but no one else would release it. So you have to see that at that time techno had a huge success in Germany, and suddenly everything was minimal or schranz, and even Sven Vath played really hard techno at that time. So we came out at the same time with probably 3 other labels with a slower tempo and a bass-line that was a completely a different flavour, we brought in the old Italo-Disco stuff because DJ T was such a fan, he said I wanna do this again. Of course there was Chicken Lips as a sort of blueprint for us, but that was all we had. It was difficult to get a disco loop right?It was not existing on sample CDs or something. Everything is much more commercialized now, you can have it all at the same time, and what we more or less created with other people, this kind of release for people who are bored on the dance-floor, that was already there in the 80s, but in a new way at the beginning of 2000, it was really refreshing, it was a worldwide phenomenon. Everybody in the whole world was probably waiting for a new wave with the tempo down , a little more music, time for melodies again, riffs that were different and the bass-line not so prominent anymore. I think it was just the right time, we were very very lucky. If we released Body Language today, I am not sure it would have the same success again.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street from Rokkit on Vimeo.
B: One final question, what was the last record that gave you an emotional response, or caused you to shed a tear?
A: It was certainly not club music! It was Nick Cave – Jubliee Street record, and I really like this Luna – Bombay Bicycle Club, it’s got this really big English festival chords in it. It’s a rather poppy act, I’m not sure if the entire album is so great, but this song is amazing.
W: They are really famous, and even stole our technician!
B: Any plans to steal him back?
A: Well, we stole him from The Prodigy actually!
Booka Shade’s new album, Eve, is out now.