Berlin-based duo Booka Shade (Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier) have carved out a reputation as one of the most celebrated electronic acts to come out of Europe over the past two decades.
Booka Shade just released their second EP ‘Understanding’ EP on John Digweed’s imprint Bedrock Records and we caught up with them to explore the production process and their musical journey.
Electronic Groove: Hello guys! It’s a pleasure to have you at Electronic Groove. Tell us about the ‘Understanding’ EP project on Digweed’s Bedrock?
Walter: Thanks for inviting us. We were very happy last year when John Digweed asked us to produce an EP for his Bedrock label. The EP was called ‘Rosebud’ and it did really well, so we’re very excited about this new 4-track EP. The sound has a lot of influences of our early 90’s club experiences when we went to parties around Frankfurt, where we lived at that time.
We’re in a constant flow between studio and live shows, it kind of blends into each other. We produce during the week, test it on the weekend, and after a couple of weeks we have a new release finished. It’s a very different approach to how we used to produce until a couple of years ago. In the old days it was more in the old fashioned rock’n’roll scheme: produce an album for 2-3 years, then release it, followed but a couple of singles from the album and then tour the album for 2 years. The way we work now is very liberating, spontaneous and much more creative.
EG: Booka Shade is recognized as being one of the finest pioneering electronic music acts of the past two decades. Tell us about those early days and how do they compare to how the scene is now?
Arno: As kids, for some reason, we always loved music which featured synthesizers, in particular, the UK new wave bands of the early ’80s like Depeche Mode and New Order, but also Kraftwerk. We produced music in our little studio at Walter’s parents’ house and when techno and house came up in the early ’90s, the concept of working anonymously in the studio and releasing music under project names was very appealing. Before techno, you had to be in a band and show your face. You didn’t have to do that in techno, it was all about the music and the DJ (who was NOT a god and superstar in the early ’90s) provided the soundtrack to take you through the night. He wasn’t in the center, but the dancers and the party were – everyone was equal. No VIP tables, we danced together, we sweated together, we shared the same feelings. That’s the spirit of our first label, Get Physical.
However, little did we know that this niche music we were interested in would become a global multi-billion dollar entertainment industry… but it’s amazing to see that decades later, kids still love to explore electronic music, find new musical styles, and young entrepreneurs are still setting up businesses around music – be it events or technologically based ideas. It may sound strange that after approximately 25 years in electronic music we still sound so fascinated and enthusiastic, but it’s true. Every day there’s a new idea that we can bring alive, and via our label or social media, we can tell the world about it. Within seconds an idea can travel around the world and can trigger new ideas, we’re living in a fascinating time.
EG: Going back to those early days, how did your childhood experiences develop your interest in music?
Arno: We both come from musically interested families. Walter’s father listens to classical music (he’s a Wagner expert) and my father was into jazz and played saxophone in a band when he was a student. The love for music and arts, in general, was a very big presence in our families, and we received a lot of support from our parents so we could follow our dream to become musicians.
“You have to be ready for the moment when the magic happens”
EG: When you started creating music, was there a defining moment when you were given the affirmation that this was where you wanted to focus and develop your career?
Arno: I always say, things were decided for me on a Christmas night when my parents gave me a drum kit as a present. I must have been 12 years old or so, but after that, I was totally lost in music.
EG: On reflection, what would you say are some key moments that were pivotal in your career?
Walter: Sónar 2005 in Barcelona was definitely a kickoff point – we played in a small chapel there. Also, the release of our song ‘Body Language’, although it wasn’t a “moment” as such as it took more than one year for the track to become successful. Other than that, there hasn’t really been a “big boom moment”, our career has been a long journey of small steps, which is great because it gives you a firm base to work and grow from, and we plan to continue this journey for quite a while!
EG: Do you find it easy to express your deepest emotions when you make and play music, or is this something that finds an outlet only in certain, special moments?
Walter: For writing and producing music, a certain routine is very important. You have to be ready for the moment when the magic happens. We actually write music every day to get the bad ideas out of the system and wait for the special moments to happen. Out of ten songs, I’d say maybe only one is good enough to release.
EG: Tell us something about the psychological effects of music that totally blows your mind?
Arno: Even after all these years of producing music, one thing that hits me is how immediately and intensely music can touch you, especially instrumental music. There are no cultural barriers, no languages. If it hits you, you feel it. And whilst it’s amazing on the one hand, it can be very frustrating on the other hand. You can work on a track for weeks (or even months) in the studio and it may sound alright, but you play it to an audience once and within minutes it’s obvious whether it works or not. That’s why playing the songs out and testing them in front of an audience is still so important for us.
EG: Of all the music you’ve made over the years could you select 3 key tracks that give a snapshot re what Booka Shade is all about, for the uninitiated?
Walter: ‘Body Language’ for the perfect melody and bassline. ‘In White Rooms’ for the emotional anthem riffs, and ‘Understanding’ for the techno influences of the early ’90s.
EG: Tell us about your studio set-up like?
Walter: In addition to a big variety of old synths which we’ve acquired over the decades, we just bought a Prophet 6 from Sequential Circuits… the Moog Sub 37 is great too! Concerning plug-ins, we are fans of simple and good sounding synths like the Aturia stuff, or for FX the Audio Damage Engines – check out the EOS Reverb!
“Follow your dream…. and if the dream doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough”
EG: What would be your perfect party?
Arno: It would be outside because dancing in the open air is the best, it’d be warm even at night and there would be a perfect sunset and sunrise.
EG: Having grown up through the evolution of the underground scene in Germany what’s your assessment of things now? Is the scene healthy? What could improve it?
Walter: The scene is much more professional than in the early ’00s or even in the early ’90s. Nightlife and DJ culture is bigger than it ever was in Germany (as it is worldwide) and there are less unprofessional promoters ripping off both ravers and DJ’s… the consumer is more aware of where he or she wants to spend their money. Unfortunately, a lot of clubs have to close, partly due to political reasons, and in Berlin especially it’s crazy. People move to the city to experience the “vibrant lifestyle”, for which club culture is a huge part of the Berlin lifestyle, and as soon as they have bought their apartment they complain about the noise in the neighborhood!
On the other hand, big festivals now have, more or less, the same line-ups and have done so over the past few years. It’s an easy situation for promoters but it’s a bit boring for the punters. But this makes it a great time for smaller boutique festivals, as they’re able to offer a more intimate experience.
EG: What new projects should we watch out for from you in 2019?
Arno: Next up on Blaufield is a new compilation concept called ‘FOURTUNES’, four exclusive songs from either young upcoming artists or producer friends we’ve known for a long time. The first edition features 8Kays from Ukraine; LENny (IT) from Italy; A Friend Of Marcus from Australia and Zoo Brazil from Sweden, who we’ve known from the Get Physical days. Soon after, 8Kays will have her own EP out with us. It gives us a lot of pleasure to support new artists and give them a platform on Blaufield, as there’s a lot of talent out there that deserves to be heard.
We’re also constantly working on new Booka Shade releases, which we first try out in the shows for a couple of months, and of course, we’ll be playing festivals throughout the summer, so keep an eye out!
EG: To wrap things up, what’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Follow your dream…. and if the dream doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough.
Booka Shade’s ‘Understanding’ EP is now available on Bedrock Records. Grab your copy here.