It's rare that in the heat of the moment on the dancefloor — at the height of frantic body movements and rhythmic climaxes — that one stops to ask the name of the DJ or producer giving them the rush for the night. You have to let your inhibitions go and surrender to the aural pleasure. This selfish satisfaction is familiar to Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier. While the two are not necessarily engaging in one-night stands with random strangers, their music might as well be. Pumped through speakers and selected by DJs the world over, the German production duo known as Booka Shade has been providing the soundtrack for the flashing lights and uninhibited club scenesters who have made years worth of memorable nights from their grooves. Considered to be champions of the Frankfurt and Berlin electro-house scenes, the veteran music makers just released their latest set, The Sun & The Neon Light (Get Physical), at the end of May. Already solidified as an international hit, the group are proving that good music knows no bounds.
Arno Kammermeier (right) and Walter Merziger
Photo: Dan Reid
“Everything sounds the same nowadays. It's harder to be special. It seems like anyone can do music now,” Merziger says. This is a far cry from the formative and inspirational days the mid-'80s when he and partner Kammermeier first delved into the realm of electronic music after being inspired by groups like Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode and The Cure. Starting their musical journey with only a Korg Poly-800 synthesizer and a drum machine, the two — whose band name was Planet Claire at the time — started to carve out their niche in a new world of electronic sound.
“In the early and mid-'80s, it was so expensive to record in the studios,” Merziger says. “It was almost impossible to get contacts at a record company. They were so arrogant that if you called, you'd only get the cleaning woman. We just used our own equipment. Then we met a guy who had an 8-track recording studio. I had just heard of MIDI at the time. He gave us advice on how to arrange, work with bass lines and such because at that time, there was nothing to read about electronic music. There were no books on it.”
LIFE AFTER PLANET CLAIRE
Taking that DIY approach would pay off almost six years later when the duo landed a deal with EMI in '92 and released “Heaven in Your Hands,” what Merziger calls “a naïve pop song” from their self-titled first album. The song was a success and scored high on the German charts and lead to their second LP, After the Fire. But it turns out that the fire had not been extinguished yet, as label woes would prove to be the demise of Planet Claire.
“At EMI at the time, everything was changing” Merziger says. “It's like new people were working there every week. The guy who was responsible for our project wasn't there anymore and they tried to push us in a direction that we didn't really like. It was a painful experience because we worked over a year on that album.”
There would be a silver lining to the situation, though, because the group took the cash they'd made from the deal and invested it in a 24-track recording studio in Frankfurt and began to try their hand at techno. After doing remixes of Culture Beat's 1993 hit “Mr. Vain,” the duo re-entered the charts but started to feel like the scene was becoming “too big and commercial,” prompting them to leave Frankfurt for greener pastures in Berlin. That would prove to be the musical rebirth of the team, as they started their label Get Physical (after the Olivia Newton John hit) out of Merziger's living room in 2002 with artists DJ T. and M.A.N.D.Y. Producing the first 15 records on the label, the group began to get that itch to once again make music of their own and began to supply dancefloors with more tracks.
“Walter and Arno are complete studio freaks,” says Patrick Bodmer of M.A.N.D.Y. “The two guys are super professionals and never leave the studio without being 100-percent satisfied. They're always super motivated, even if they do the 4,958th version of a song when they think they could improve something.”
It is this dedication to perfection that has led to the group's success. While 2004's Memento was a modest victory, the guys felt that the sound was too intimate. Going back to the drawing board to create a bigger, more heroic sound, the group came up with 2006's Movements, which spawned their highly successful hits “Mandarine Girl” and “Body Language.”
“The Movements album was a reaction to the Memento album that was unplayable live,” says Merziger. “We started with big sampling sessions that would last sometimes for days, just sampling records, sounds, noises, keys, lifts, whatever. It was more summer, more life, more brilliant experiences.”
Appreciating the success of Movements but painstakingly trying to not repeat its sound was the catalyst for The Sun & the Neon Light, which Merziger describes as a more complex album and the midway point between Memento and Movements. The album is less euphoric than its predecessor, but more cinematic.
Primarily using Logic and Pro Tools, Merziger says he played with bass lines, drums and melodies, leaving the arranging and recording process open to “give the accident a chance.” Using the Roland SH-101 synthesizer, Nakamichi ZX7 cassette deck, Fairchild 670 Compressor, Joemeek ThreeQ channel strip, Pluggo plug-ins that he calls “brilliant,” live xylophones and even his son's toys, the pair, who sometimes collaborate from separate studios, pride themselves on combining the unconventional to unearth the unseen possibilities of electronic music.
“The way we used chords, programmed drums, you can recognize it's a Booka Shade record,” he says. “It was important to us not to lose our identity. Sometimes you can get the maximum output with minimum input, so we were very careful not to overproduce the record and exaggerate the emotions. You can play with a small instrument and a cheap synthesizer and sometimes get the same product. Minimal things sometimes make the biggest impact. [Eurythmics] ‘Sweet Dreams’ was made on an 8-track in a hotel room.”
While some producers are careful to edit and EQ out extraneous room noises and headphone bleed, Merziger is all about putting those things in. “Sometimes I just turn the mic on in the studio and record the surroundings just so I can include some of the atmosphere and soul of the studio on the record. It adds texture to the music. We're trying to show people that it's possible to do soulful music with just the computer. I know this album is something that people are going to be talking about.”
LIVING TO PLAY LIVE
Adding to the mystique of the group is their legendary stage show, which is rare for electronic artists. Never ones to idly stand behind a laptop and press buttons, the two are as much of an attraction as their music, capturing the attention of thousands of fans at a time and transforming whole stadiums into intimate dance parties.
“Fifty percent of the reaction that we get at our live shows is because we are living every note up there onstage,” Merziger explains. “We worked on our live show every day for three years. It's probably the biggest thing we've done in our lives.”
“In the techno-house scene, you can do a track in two days and go and play it from your laptop,” he says. “While you're playing it, you can be IM-ing your girlfriend, checking e-mails, and then get the money and just go home. Some people do that. But that's not why I'm doing a live show. That's not why I'm doing music. A strong emotional aspect in music is important. We really try to reinvent and push ourselves. We really want to blow the minds of the people in the audience. They can feel your energy.”
Definitely not new to the scene, Booka Shade have already made an indelible mark on music that, even if they decided to never release another project, would be undoubtedly remembered. But to true musicians, true craftsmen of sound, it's not an option — it's sweet obsession. The pair possesses an insatiable love for music that supersedes barriers, including age and genre. While they may be poster boys for the computer-generated music of the present, their marriage to sound is intact for better or for worse, and their goal is to forge new territory in music, for as long as they both shall live.
“The reason we're doing Booka Shade in our higher age is not because of money; why we do it now is pure fun,” Merziger states emphatically. “There are so many things we want to try out. There are so many rules in the club scene that I don't want to follow because you must take that risk to get to the next level.
“Even with a style of music that I don't like,” he continues, “I can still find elements in it that I find interesting and that I can study and use for my own music. We have a very wide range [of tastes]. We can work with a classical orchestra, vocal coaches, punk-rock bands, guitars, a reggae band…. We're free now; we can do what we want. We want to be known in history. I'm sure that if Bach or Beethoven were alive today, they'd be working with electronic music, too.”
SUN, LIGHT AND STUDIO TANS
Computer, DAWs, recording hardware
Ableton Live software
Apple G5 running Logic software
Digidesign Pro Tools software, 96 I/O
Mackie 32•8 console, Mackie Control software controller
Samplers, drum machine, turntables
Apple Logic EXS24 software sampler
E-mu E4 sampler
Native Instruments Battery drum machine software, Kontakt soft sampler
(2) Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables
Clavia Nord Lead
Dubreq Stylophone Synth
Korg MicroKorg, MS-20, Prophecy
Novation Bass Station, XioSynth
Oberheim Matrix 1000
Roland JD-800, JP-8000, MC-202, MKS-80, SH-101, (2) V-Synth XT
Sequential Circuits Pro-One
(2) Waldorf Pulse
Yamaha DX7, TX81Z
Arturia ARP2600 V, Jupiter-8V, Minimoog V, Moog Modular V, CS-80
Dash Signature daHornet
GForce ImpOSCar, M-Tron, Oddity
LinPlug Albino, Alpha
Native Instruments FM8, Pro-53
Synapse Audio Poly-850
Fender bass guitar, Stratocaster guitar
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Apple Logic Channel, Fat EQ, Space Designer plug-ins
DigiTech Talker vocal synthesis processor
Dunlop Heil Talk Box
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff distortion pedal
Fairchild 670 Compressor
Joemeek ThreeQ channel strip
Lexicon L300 reverb
McDSP E4, F2 EQ plug-ins
Mindprint DTC Dual-Tube Channel preamp
Neumann M 149, U 87 mics
Cycling '74 Pluggo plug-ins
PSP VintageWarmer plug-in
Reußenzehn Suitcase Preamp, Reu-O-Grande Tube-Distortion pedal
SmartElectronix DFX Buffer Override, The MadShifta!, Supatrigga plug-ins
Sony Oxford EQ plug-in
SoundToys Crystallizer, EchoBoy, PhaseMistress plug-ins
TC Electronic M2000 effects processor
Urei LA-4 compressor/limiter
Waves Q10 EQ plug-in
Quested monitors and subwoofer