Unless you’ve holed yourself away in a woodland cabin for the past 14 years, theres a decent chance you’ve heard of the Berlin based house duo Booka Shade, the masterminds behind some of the most beloved club tracks of the 21st century. From the gracefully weaved synth stabs of In White Rooms to the iconic bassline of Body Language alongside Get Physical label mates M.A.N.D.Y, the ever-evolving DJ and Production duo have relentlessly spent a decade and a half populating dance floors globally, with a style that melds elements of house, synth-pop, trance and minimal techno into a sound that somehow enchants the odd Jean-Michel Jarre fan just as much as the most dedicated of club-goers.
With the pair beginning their career in the band Planet Claire alongside film score composer Peter Hayo, their synth-pop roots have followed them throughout their discography as Booka Shade, predominantly with their acclaimed 2008 record The Sun and the Neon Light with irresistibly catchy yet club-friendly tracks such as Charlotte and Sweet Lies. With a musical career spanning over 20 years, Booka Shade have explored a vast expanse of sonic territory just as appropriate for home listening as intimate club environments.
Over a 40 minute Skype call from Berlin to Sydney, we sat down to talk to the enthusiastic Arno Kammermeier about their process, retrofuturism and the relationship between light and dark on their latest full length album Cut the Strings.
Stoney Roads: A lot of the material on the new record is very cinematic and spacey in contrast to past records like The Sun and The Neon Light which was very hook based. What inspired you to explore more ambient territory?
Arno: It’s interesting to hear you say that, I can see what you mean with songs such as Easy Drifter and Confessions, these tracks are quite cinematic. One thing we wanted to achieve was to create a club feeling again, that doesn’t necessarily mean all the tracks have to have a four-to-the-floor rhythm, but always with this darker, more electronic feeling. Tracks like Easy Drifter for example, these are not banging club tracks, but they have these repetitive sequences and arpeggios that people can easily relate to in a club setting, or even after-hour sort of listening. An album like Movements caught a lot of the club vibe, but you can also listen to it at home. Many people have said to us that they’d also like to listen to that album after a club night, and to have a bit of the feeling of a club at home, and we think Cut the Strings has a lot of that as well. After an album like Galvany Street, we felt like we had to do something completely different, so it was a great feeling to return to a sound that Booka Shade is known for.
SR: I’ve noticed that a lot of people have described Cut the Strings as a dark record, but for me it seems to find this middle ground between tranquility and chaos. Is this balance of light and dark something you strive for in your music?
A: Definitely, this is what we call positive melancholy. We picked the title for The Sun and the Neon Light exactly for this reason. We love the night and the day and these dark kind of atmospheres, not a negative kind of atmosphere, but an embracing-the-night kind of atmosphere, and the suspense of a club night. This is what takes us all the way back to the beginning of our work from Get Physical onwards. The very point of Get Physical was to capture the suspense of a club night as well as the positive feeling of a great night with friends, in addition to this physical atmosphere of sweating, dancing, doing something together. This goes through our whole catalogue I think, there’s always this club appeal. I don’t like the negative feelings in a lot of techno, that’s not what we’re like.
SR: What fascinates me about dance music is that while it can be really mechanical and artificial, there’s this human charm to it, almost as if it’s like a meeting place of machines and human beings.
A: Absolutely, what excited us about electronic music when we were teenagers, listening to bands such as Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode was the electronic aspect of it. New Order is a good example of this, they would always have a very electronic side but also this very human side as well. Even if you take Kraftwerk and they have this man-machine side on the one hand, on the other hand you even have this retro science fiction vibe, and if you ever listen to them live, they’re more live than many rock bands who pretend to be a live band when really everything runs from a laptop! (laughs). Of course Kraftwerk have all this technology, but when you hear it, you hear that it’s played live, theres a lot of mistakes every now and again. It’s not super tight as you’d imagine, but that’s the beauty of it, and what we always like to have in our music is this combination of the electronic side but it should still feel human you know? It shouldn’t feel cold.
SR: When listening to the new record, I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between these very vintage sounds mixed with some very contemporary or even futuristic sounds. With Cut the Strings, did you want to find this sort of retrofuturistic balance?
A: It’s of course the tracks we chose for the album, obviously we wrote a lot more tracks than we could fit on one album, but we chose these tracks because they work well together. We definitely still come from an album age (laughs). A cohesive album is very important for us as opposed to just having 11 random songs one after the other. We always think about the track-listing, like whether or not a track should be earlier in the album or a bit later. As for the sound of the album, we’re in a process where we’re bringing a lot more hardware into our music than in the past.
From the second album onwards, a lot of the production was done in the computer because we travel so much, and we like to perform as a band. Recently we’ve stepped a little bit back from that because both of us have families, and we need to prioritise whats more important to us, which means a little bit less travelling. But this also means that we’re in the studio a lot more often and using a lot more hardware. EMS Love for example is titled the way it is because theres a certain vocoder by this company EMS that we used a lot. With the latest album, bringing back the older hardware was fun for us, because it brought together these two sounds, of traveling a lot and using software, but also being in the studio at home.
SR: As a duo you seem to have a liking towards hardware, what are your thoughts on the rise of bedroom producers who create music entirely with software?
A: We use a lot of software ourselves. We like to embrace this sort of technology. A lot of producers out there say they can differentiate between a minimoog and a software synth but I think it’s a lot of talk to be honest (laughs). We’ve been working in production for a good 30 years, and we work with all the Pro Tools and a lot of new technology. We have good technology of course, but I strongly believe that a good idea is a good idea, and if you have an interesting sound it doesn’t matter where it comes from. I mean take a guy who changed the music world like Skrillex, when we met Skrillex he was totally unknown, and we were playing as a support for Deadmau5 in America. Before us was this kid, and Deadmau5 said “hey, you should check out this guy, he’s really cool”, and he showed us his laptop and it was a mess! It was broken, it was falling apart, and he showed us this bass sound that we didn’t understand at all. We thought it was crazy what he was doing, but he changed the electronic music landscape whether you like it or not. The point is, where the sound comes from is not important. If it reaches the heart of an audience and they love it, that’s what it’s all about.
SR: With your sound constantly evolving over the years, how do you think your process has changed since early albums such as Memento or Movements?
A: In the last year and a half or so we came to an understanding that we wanted to release more music in a shorter period of time. Galvany Street was released only a year ago, and this kind of opened up a new world for us. It was so important for us to do Galvany Street in order to break free so-to-speak, and to do something different in order to gain a fresher perspective of what Booka Shade can be, like the club side but also the home listening sort of side. This is what we want to condense a little bit more and make clear for ourselves as well as obviously an audience. So an album like Cut the Strings was a good experience for us, to have something so spontaneous to happen like that. This is what we love and this is what we want to continue with.
SR: Since the remaster of Movements, you seem to have had a strong, consistent output of releases ever since. Do you ever have times when you experience a creative block?
A: We had the creative block around the time of EVE, and it got to the point where we weren’t sure if we could go on creating, but after EVE, which ended up being a really good album retrospectively speaking, with tracks like Love Inc, and it’s our second most successful album after Movements. So after that album we had this period when we were like “well now we have to do something completely different, otherwise it gets boring, and if it’s boring it’s not good”, and then came Galvany Street. But at the moment, the way we’re walking just feels right, so there’s no block. This is why it’s so important to keep doing things and to keep releasing stuff, I mean it’s not as if after EVE we weren’t doing anything, we were constantly working, we just weren’t releasing anything, and that’s what we’re trying to change now. Especially with having our own label now, we can just make music and release it whenever we want.
SR: There’s a lot more of a trance edge to a lot of these new tracks than past records. Was trance music a major influence on the record?
A: I think the trance feeling is present throughout all records, take In White Rooms for example, when we played this track to our label mate DJ T, he called it a sort of neo-trance that in the early 2000’s wasn’t very common at all. This takes us all the way back when Walter and I used to live in Frankfurt. The trancey feel comes from the Frankfurt times in the 90’s when Sven Vath played in his club The Omen, and the Frankfurt sound was always quite melodic, quite trancey. Sven Vath also ran his label called Eye Q with was quite trancey as well, and this was quite a different sound than the Berlin sound in the 90’s, the Berlin sound was quite darker and dirtier whereas Frankfurt was always quite melodic, and this I would say is in the Booka Shade DNA. Sometimes it can be little sequences and riffs like in Mandarin Girl and Love Inc, with these big trancey chords, and on the new album there’s songs like Night Surfing which has all these arpeggios. That kind of trance atmosphere is something we just happen to like.
Image: Adam De Gree
SR: Would you say Frankfurt has shaped your sound more than Berlin? How do you think your sound has changed after living in Berlin for 16 years?
A: Our roots are definitely in the Frankfurt scene. When we first moved to Berlin in 2002, Get Physical had only just started in Frankfurt because everybody actually lived in Frankfurt, DJ T had a club there called The Monza which was actually our living room back in the 90’s, and the sound of Get Physical was created to work in this 300 capacity club, to capture that feeling of having just a few hundred people together and having this great party. So it started in Frankfurt and went to Berlin. I like to believe that the later success of Get Physical along with other Berlin labels influenced our sound a lot, but the roots are definitely set in the Frankfurt sound.
SR: There’s always a very strong visual component to your music also. Do you think your album artworks lend themselves to the nature of the music?
A: Yes definitely, the visual side of the music has always been important to us, so thats why in the first shows onward we’ve always had visuals running alongside the music. This was inspired by how we produced Memento when we had movies running in silence while we created the album, so this cinematic visual element was always very important. Something that runs throughout the album artworks is this balance between an organic side and a mechanical side that we talked about before, except with the music. For us the album art should feel like something you can touch, almost this worn sort of appeal to it, and its never totally clean, its never just one colour, there are always layers and a bit of history to it.
SR: You’ve expressed a liking towards Melbourne’s club scene, namely places like the the Prince Bandroom. What is it about Melbourne’s club scene in particular that you like?
A: There’s just something about Australia that we like, it was just one of the places to tour that for us felt like the next step. Usually people don’t really care about the faces behind electronic music, that’s sort of where techno comes from. Techno was never really about the faces behind the music, but more about the audience having a good time, and the DJ was just the person who provided the music. But Australia was one of those countries very early on where we had a close connection, and people would recognise us in the streets and come to talk to us, and that was a new experience. Basically all the tours and shows we’ve played in Australia have been a great experience, and we have a lot of friends there also.
SR: Do you think we’ll see a Booka Shade Australian tour in the near future?
A: Nothings fixed yet, but I will be disappointed if there isn’t one in at least early next year or so! Walter always finds the travelling a lot to handle, but once he’s there he loves it as well. We’re also coming out with a lot more new music as well, so we’ll have a lot more music to play out. Again, nothings fixed, but let’s see!
Booka Shade’s 7th full length album Cut the Strings is out now Blaufield Music. You can stream it below.