Beethoven. Bach. Brahms. Booka Shade. OK, at first glance the last name in that list might seem a little out of place, but like their fellow Germans, Booka Shade are the finest musical exports of their day, composing innovative and largely instrumental music that moves people.
Their third studio album, The Sun & the Neon Light, the follow-up to worldwide dance sensation Movements, offers a surprisingly mellow take on their signature moody electro-soundscapes, yet live Booka Shade still continue to destroy the dance floor with classic anthems like “In White Rooms” and “Mandarine Girl.” Of course, in between all that touring and recording, they keep busy running Get Physical Music with their BFFs and kindred musical spirits M.A.N.D.Y. Here, Arno Kammermeier and Walter Merziger talk about life on the road, the downside of fame, and their not-so-secret “boy-band” past.
The Sun & the Neon Light is definitely less dance-oriented than Movements. It’s almost ambient. Was that a conscious decision?
AK: There were a couple of things we wanted to try out with the album. One major thing was that we didn’t want to come up with a Movements 2. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves. Movements was great, and when we did those songs it was at a time when what is now called electrohouse was really new. It’s done, it’s out there, but for us it was time to try something new and to challenge ourselves. We wanted more songwriting structure, we wanted to try out some vocals. We threw everything out that sounded like the new “Mandarine Girl” or whatever, and also took slower songs. We wanted an album that you could listen to at home really well, then you have more of the club-oriented stuff on the vinyl edition of the album and the limited-edition CD.
WM: We knew it was a risk to do something like that, and it’s not really represented in our live show. It’s a great thing to reach another audience. In the end, you have to do what you think is the best for the band. The best artists I know did this; they did the unexpected. When you’re looking back, some albums you didn’t expect from them, or perhaps hated at the beginning, grow with time.
Is it more important that you’re happy with the way a record comes out or how commercially successful it is?
WM: For us, it’s just about doing what we’ve never done before and enjoying the time we have. It’s not about having hits. We’ve had enough hits in our career, in Germany especially. We’ve had platinum records, but it doesn’t make any sense to us. Now it’s about creativity and pushing ourselves to do different things. That doesn’t mean we’re not doing a dance album again for the next one — it depends how we feel. It’s the greatest time we’ve had so far in our career, because we really just do what we like.
People want to have a trigger. If the first time they heard “Body Language” they kissed a girl, it was a special moment in their life and they want to have this trigger all the time. But we are not there to give them this. If it happens again, fine, but we have seven years in our career where we just produced music for different people and they said what we had to do, and now we are just doing what we feel.
AK: We had the success, but we weren’t really happy with it. We lost the reason that we started doing music. There was this machinery going on and No. 1s. What’s a No. 1? It means nothing to you. It’s not the money that makes you happy at the end of the day. When you like what you do, it falls into place.
Philipp [Jung], our close friend from M.A.N.D.Y. and who we have the record label with, knew us in the days when we were producers. We were always telling him, “God, what shitty music we have to do! Yes. it makes money, but isn’t that horrible?” He used to say, “Guys, if you would stop this shit and only do what you like to do and what you believe in, you’d be way more successful.” After a while, thank God, we listened to him and we started the label Get Physical. We started to think about what we like. We sat down and said, “What are we about? What have we to say?” Now we pretty much know what we like and definitely what we don’t like — that’s also very important.
Your live shows have earned a reputation for being really fun, upbeat and high-energy, and the people in the crowd always look like they are having a phenomenal time: Do you think that’s partly because your onstage enthusiasm is contagious?
AK: We’re 100 percent serious about the music we’re doing, that’s for sure, but we have a lot of fun with the music that we do, and it is uplifting. Sometimes going to the stage, we say, “God, we’re so tired, I wish we could go to bed.” But as soon as you’re on stage and you get the energy from the audience, it hypes you up. For us, it’s still a lot of fun to work with the music.
WM: I think we’ve played “Body Language” 400 times or so, and I still can listen to it and I’m still really proud of the song. We present the songs in different versions: We remix stuff all the time, so it’s not boring for ourselves and always something special. It hypes you up — you see the faces and how much fun and joy we bring them, and perhaps they can forget about their normal life, problems. It’s your job as an entertainer.
Do you do a lot of writing on tour?
AK: The last two years, we’ve always worked while we were on tour. The DJ-Kicks compilation, for example, that was released last year, was basically done in backstage rooms. Like today if we didn’t do an interview, we’d work on the track list for this compilation. Most of the songwriting for the new album was done on tour — there are songs that even remind us of places that we’ve been, like “Comacabana” was actually written in a hotel room overlooking the Copacabana in Rio. We just didn’t have the time to finish the tour then spend six months in the studio. We always wanted to continue working. After awhile, it gets really boring — what do you do on tour? You can’t always get drunk. We like the hour and a half that we’re on stage, but there are a couple of other hours in the day that you can use. We like to use our time in the best possible way.
WM: We have these beautiful moments on tour — of course, the live playing and the situation after the show — but directly in front of the show you’re nervous, and the traveling part is a nightmare. Sometimes you have a headache and you’re completely tired and you ask yourself, “Why should I do this? There’s no reason for it,” but when you’re standing on stage you know it exactly.
AK: There are times when you’re in this kind of robot mode where you just work, get up, go to the airport…
With all the time you spend on the road, what do you do to keep sane?
AK: If we’re not working, reading is a good thing. There’s not a lot of time for doing sports. I remember at the beginning of the first tour I sometimes went jogging — it’s something I can’t even think of now because the tour schedule is so tight and we are so tired.
WM: But you swim sometimes.
AK: Sure, and yoga and stuff like that.
WM: I don’t do this. I just sleep and watch some videos, whatever. You’re really in a tunnel, it’s a completely different life. When you’re at home, it’s a completely different situation. Coming home you need a couple of days to get into your normal life, because you don’t understand it and you’re always looking for a tour manager, “What do I have to do next? Why should I do this on my own? Where’s the manager?” Because everything’s planned — it’s quite a strange situation to switch in between these two modes.
Do you prefer one over the other?
WM: It depends how much you’re doing it. Sometimes you get fed up if one of the things is too much. On tour you can be very isolated. You’re standing on stage, so there’s all this attention; you go backstage and get some drinks; you go into the hotel and close the door; and there’s silence — nobody’s there. This is the biggest problem for artists. Some rock ‘n’ roll artists tend to go the way of drugs, because that is the only way they can keep that level and handle emotions. If you imagine you’re a world-famous star and you can’t even leave the hotel, it’s even harder. I don’t want to change with these guys, to be honest.
AK: Many of the greatest electronic artists you won’t recognize…
WM: That’s the reason Daft Punk has these helmets. They played this festival in Rio with us, then took off their helmets and walked over the fields and looked at the [other] artists, and no one realized it was Daft Punk. That’s the good thing about electronic music.
AK: Nowadays the touring has become a really important part of our lives. My wife told the tour manager, “Always see that they can play at least every three weeks or so,” because when we come home after a tour, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, you don’t want to be together with me. It’s horrible, because I get nervous, I have the feeling as though I should go on stage now. So my wife says, “You better have a show every couple of weeks — then you’ll relax and everything’s good.” Of course, you can’t do it for the rest of your life.
Can we take a minute to talk about your, ahem, “boy band” past? I hear the two of you were in a group called Planet Claire in the early ‘90s.
WM: It’s amazing how Planet Claire’s pretty famous now! [Laughs]
AK: It’s good that you can’t buy the records anymore! No, the first record of Planet Claire is really good.
So was it a traditional boy band in the mold of New Kids on the Block or Take That?
WM: It was more like Erasure or Pet Shop Boys.
AK: Tears for Fears.
WM: No dancing onstage — the music was important. When New Kids and Take That came up, [EMI in Germany] said to us, “Perhaps you need some dance moves.” That was exactly the point where we stopped — we were serious musicians!
AK: We saw ourselves in the root of Tears for Fears. That’s a good example, I think.
WM: Of course it was a teenie alarm. In our region of Germany, we were the first and I think the last who really came out of that region to be in the national charts, to be played on the radio, to play big concerts, and it was something mysterious. I couldn’t go to a shop or something because then they’d take photographs and stuff like that. This was the time when we realized we didn’t want to do this and that’s why we said we’ll go in the background to producing records and not be onstage. I think that was the middle of 1995.
Did you miss the fame aspect?
WM: I remember one day when we came to a mall in our region that was packed with young kids screaming. It was impossible to go through to the backstage, because they would kiss and touch or whatever, and they were really aggressive. These young girls, when they’re like 15 years old they’re completely out of their minds. I think it’s something sexual for them. Hysteria. I didn’t like it at all. It didn’t talk so much about the music, so that’s why we stopped doing it.
Do you think the fame thing is amplified for musicians in Germany, or same as it is anywhere?
AK: I think teenies are crazy everywhere.
WM: Germans are not really groovy. They’re more like precise musicians, and that’s why electronic music is so successful in Germany. If you see German people dancing to R&B, it’s ridiculous.
The general impression is just you’re not producing music in Germany, you’re just selling it there. That’s why it’s so good for us that we have the success in the foreign countries — we have the possibility to travel to the USA, England, all over the world. And this is something amazing for us, still, even if we’re doing it for like the tenth time. It’s still amazing to see this, because for a German artist it’s not really normal. Digitalism is a good example, Modeselektor. Then of course there’s Tokio Hotel, which is the biggest band in Germany, but this is more teen-pop driven. They played here a few months ago and it was all over the place in Germany in the media — even the evening news said something about “they filled the Fillmore.” We filled it, too, but nobody will say anything about it.
AK: It’s the pop machinery.
You’ve been working together for a very long time, so something about your relationship really works. Why do you think you have such great musical chemistry?
AK: When we first met, it was not really love at sight — it took a week! [Laughs] We were 14. It was 1984 when my [family] moved to a different part of Germany — I had just been given a drum kit as a present for Christmas, so my parents thought it would be a good idea [for me] to meet other kids to play in a school band or something. That’s basically how we met: Walter played guitar at that time. It quickly turned out that we clicked, that we both wanted to achieve something with music, not just a hobby, try to make a living with it. We always had this dream of standing on a stage and presenting our music to people, basically. We complement [each other] pretty well. We don’t interfere too much, we basically have the same direction of thinking, we want to achieve the same things.
WM: It’s always about the thing we’re working on; it’s not about ego. I think that’s the most important thing about playing in a band. We’re completely different characters, and this is also a good base for relationships. We have some discussions, but nothing really major. It’s the human being I’ve spent most of my life with. We’ve spent almost every day [together] for 24 years, so it’s natural that you clash and have some discussions, but at the end it always comes to the same point. It’s so much fun to have the opportunity to do what we’re doing — it’s really rare, especially on the level we have it.
Do the two of you have similar musical influences?
AK: The basics are pretty similar. Very electronic. Any sound that came out of Britain in the early ‘80s: New Order, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, The Cure — all very influential. But also classical music, film scores. WM comes from a very classically interested family; my father used to play in a jazz band when he was young, so it was more jazz. And we love soundtracks.
WM: I listen to everything, a lot of pop music. I know if you’re listening to a Coldplay song in America, you’re gay — I’m not! I’m married! But I like some stuff, there are really some great songs that they’ve done. I wouldn’t say that I’m a Coldplay fan, because sometimes for me the music is too cheesy, to be honest, but I want to go to the concert to see what they’re doing. It’s the same with Radiohead. I like some songs of Radiohead, but I wouldn’t say I’m a Radiohead fan, because sometimes you can’t understand a word and it’s too much for me. I pick up the stuff I like.
There’s one band that is a big influence for us always: Depeche Mode. They did the soundtrack to our lives. For me, Martin Gore is one of the best songwriters ever.
As huge Depeche Mode fans, was it pretty exciting to remix Dave Gahan’s “Kingdom”?
WM: We met him and did a 30-minute interview with him — one of the nerve-wracking moments in my life. To meet him was something really special. In Berlin, we opened up for Depeche Mode. These are big moments in our career.
Which new artists do you like?
WM: I think on the label we have some really interesting new artists, like Raz Ohara. I like Trentemøller — we did a tour with him.
AK: Hercules & Love Affair.
WM: Hercules & Love Affair is great. We are not DJs, so the problem is that we sometimes listen to music that is great but don’t know who it is. Claude VonStroke is a very good producer as well, a really good guy. I’m not so much into this M.I.A./Santogold thing, which is so overhyped at the moment. I tried to get into it, but it’s not my cup of tea.
And finally, is there anything people would be really surprised to know about Booka Shade?
WM: We’re both doing yoga. [Laughs]
AK: I love tango.
WM: I’m more the cha cha actually.
AK: Salsa! The Lambada! [Laughs]