In music, insists Arno Kammermeier, there can be no compromise.
“You have to reduce everything to its core, and ask yourself, ‘is this what we do?’; ‘do I truly
feel this?’; ‘do we love this 100%?’,” he yammers, in a roundabout attempt to explain the
genesis of Booka Shade’s new artist album, ‘More!’. “Anybody can produce a nice, okay track,
one which works on the dancefloor, but to produce something personal – music that is the very
essence of who you are – that is much more difficult.”
Walter Merziger, his production partner, nods: “We’ve produced thousands of tracks together
and, by now, we have an almost psychic connection, musically. But, still, we are constantly
interrogating what we do. Is it fresh? Is it different? And you have to force yourself to do this;
people are lazy. But when you stop questioning your work, it’s time to give up.”
We could talk about the practical detail of how this all worked – the ban on any sounds Booka
Shade had used previously; 17 months and endless gigabytes of experimentation and
refinement; the long hours sketching ideas in hotel rooms, or working in their Berlin studio -
but, frankly, who cares? The important thing is what ‘More!’ sounds like… and, well, it sounds
There is nothing glib about that title. Yes, this is, literally, more from Booka Shade. It’s their
fourth album, after Memento, Movements and The Sun & The Neon Light, and for those of us
who already love their particular brand of electronic club music – as profound, awe-inspiring
and grave as the grandest European architecture – there is much that will be familiar. But that
title, ‘More!’ was chosen, deliberately, to convey a new seriousness. This is a leaner, keener
Booka Shade. This is Booka Shade, but more so.
With its 11 tracks, and 45 minute running time, ‘More!’ is a complete, self-contained work that
is expecting to be judged, not against the latest faddy dancefloor trends, but against the other
classic albums. Like Bjork’s ‘Debut’; Hot Chip’s ‘The Warning’; or even Massive Attack’s ‘Blue
Lines’, it is an album of modish electronics, strong emotions and rich melodies, which is both
of, and transcends, the dancefloor.
Arno: “Call us dinosaurs, but we believe in the power of an album. Sure, as life gets faster and
faster, and downloading increases, people look more and more for that quick musical fix. But
we want to offer a whole album – a whole world, in fact – and, hopefully, a longer lasting
Naturally, given that it’s been made by two of the men behind the peerless Berlin electronic
label, Get Physical, ‘More!’ is intimately bound up with the sounds of contemporary techno.
Indeed, after taking up DJing recently, this is probably Booka Shade’s most club-inspired work,
for years. “We try and stay away from the Panorama Bar universe,” smiles Arno, of Berlin’s
most (in)famous non-stop club space, “but there have been key inspirational moments DJing,
or going out with Get Physical co-owners/ DJs] M.A.N.D.Y. We started with club music in 1992,
so it’s inside us, but you need reminders, the feelings of a great party. It’s something you can
store and draw upon.”
In contrast to The Sun & The Neon Light, when, reading between the lines, Booka Shade
became a bit too involved in string arrangements, orchestras and the self-conscious business of
trying to make an important record, every track on ‘More!’ has a functional dance music
exoskeleton. They all started as minimalist club grooves – subsequently fleshed out with the
melodies, granular textures and sonic complexity that make Booka Shade so interesting.
This gives the album a fluid, cohesive feel as it evolves and mutates. Like Booka Shade’s
gymnastic techno classic, ‘Body Language’ (now so famous, that, improbably, even Will.I.Am
has sampled it), ‘More!’ offers much in the way of elegant dancefloor design. You will have
probably already heard that perky, pixilated ear-worm, and recent single, ‘Donut’, but the likes
of ‘The Door’, a stern, robotic nod to vintage Street sounds electro, or ‘Bad Love’, an
irresistible, neo-classical vocal house tune, featuring long-term compadre, Chelonis R Jones,
are equally compelling reasons to get physical.
That Booka Shade can make your body move is not news. That, simultaneously, they can break
your heart may be. Certainly, you will have to go a long way, in 2010, to hear anything as
moving as ‘Regenerate’ or ‘Teenage Spaceman’.
The latter – a melancholy masterpiece of suggestion and atmosphere; all thick bass fog and
distant, twinkling digital stars – builds to a breathless, chest-crushing moment, without ever
losing its cool. ‘Regenerate’, meanwhile, which features the odd, fragile vocals of Canadian
Elsieanne Caplette, is the portmanteau avant-garde rave anthem most likely to leave emotional
festival goers in bits, this summer. What starts out as a swampy fug of almost spectral
sadness, slowly clears, and grows, and grows, into this soul-scrunching sunburst of, well,
everything. If great art is meant to articulate the existential intensity of living – love and death,
essentially – then this is great art.
Not that ‘More!’ is a pompous record. Like many serious people, Booka Shade have a finely
honed sense of the ridiculous, as opener ‘Havanna Sex Dwarf’, a sly Soft Cell reference, rather
than a kinky admission, illustrates. Later, on ‘Divine’, you will find Dieter Meier of Yello – the
Swiss duo are real heroes to, and have been a huge influence, on Booka Shade – playing the
part of a rather disconsolate alien.
If this is Booka Shade’s definitive statement, they have, it’s true, taken their time about it.
Arno and Walter grew up together in Saarbruecken, and have been making music together for
almost 25 years. But all that history feeds into ‘More!’. Their familial love of jazz and classical
music; their first synth-pop band, Planet Claire; their techno epiphany on Frankfurt’s legendary
club scene; their long discography of underground dance tracks, their first big crossover hit -
‘Una Musica Senza Ritmo’ as Degeneration; it’s all here. Even their dark period working as
Xenomania-style hit-makers, churning out lucrative, soul-destroying chart fodder for Germany’s
major labels has, likewise, shaped who they are today, whether for good or ill.
Booka Shade loved rave culture, but grew to loathe the formulaic nature of 90’s dance music.
Later, disillusioned and directionless, Booka Shade took the major label dollar and hated
themselves for it. When, in 2002, they, M.A.N.D.Y, Peter Hayo, and then Groove Magazine
editor, Thomas ‘DJ T’ Koch, decamped to Berlin, to form their label/ production house, Get
Physical, it was a creative rebirth for all concerned. “Before that,” says Arno, of their time in
the pay of the majors, “we didn’t give a shit. Now, every note counts.”
Ironically, in Booka Shade’s case that complete artistic freedom has led to them lately,
outgrowing Get Physical. The Prenzlauer Berg label’s HQ and studio is still their base,
workspace and their spiritual home, they still help run the label, but ‘More!’ will actually come
out on Co-Op. It’s simple economics. The bill for the initial run of album CDs could “break the
neck” of a small indie like Get Physical. And no-one wants to take that risk.
Such hard business decisions are a reflection of the anticipation which surrounds ‘More!’.
Thanks to massive underground hits like ‘Mandarine Girl’, Booka Shade already have a serious
cult following in clubland, where, uniquely, you’ll find their tunes being spun by DJs as diverse
as Tiesto and Richie Hawtin, everywhere from Manchester’s Warehouse Project to Berlin’s
Watergate. But, increasingly, they’re crossing over, too. In the last two years, their live show -
Walter on a bank of synthesisers and machines; Arno drumming for his life – has seen them
infiltrate festivals, like Coachella and Glastonbury, where most dance acts would fear to tread.
Booka Shade are now among that select band – Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Daft
Punk – who can take on rock at its own game: playing live.
“Rock Am Ring is a classic example,” says Arno. “It’s this real rock festival: a lot of distorted
guitars everywhere, and when we turned up backstage, with our synthesisers and electronic
drum kit, all the guys were joking with us, but, to our surprise, it worked really well. Even
these kids in Metallica t-shirts were headbanging to ‘Body Language’. I don’t know why. There
is no stupid, banging bass drum, and, compared to the dance acts who normally play the big
stages, it’s rather soft music, but we love the huge live stages, and we love it when people tell
us, after, ‘I always hated club music, but I really enjoy Booka Shade’.”
As the album drops, and the summer hots up, expect many ‘More!’ converts to the cause.
Booka Shade: making exactly the music they want to, for you, since 2002.
photo credit: nicolas kantor