Booka Shade featuring Craig Walker

The dynamic duo from Frankfurt are casting new shadows on the streets of Copenhagen.

Published: April 24, 2017Words: Helena Sokol

There’s something magical about discovering new music, particularly when it comes to taking the time to explore the unknown landscapes of a genre. Somehow music brings me home to an unfamiliar place, ignoring all the humdrum of space and time.

Booka Shade’s song “Regenerate” showed up on my radar sometime in 2011, and it was a sort of catalyst, whirling me into at least two hours near mania of finding similar artists, more of the same artist and creating a (in my opinion) spectacular playlist called Naturalis. Although it is far down my list of playlists by now, I still return to it and can recall feelings and thoughts I normally would otherwise have lost to different music. Booka Shade, Simian Mobile Disco, Underworld and Mint Royale was for parties, for studying, for everything.

I was, therefore, more than thrilled to hear that Booka Shade would be gracing the Copenhagen scene in early May, and was adamant to spread the good news. They dropped their 12th album, Galvany Street, earlier this month, and listening to it brought both surprise and a fresh curiosity.

Thanks to the internet, it was possible for me to get in contact to one of the band members, Arno, who was willing to answer a few questions leading up to their performance at Pumpehuset the 3rd of May.

But before I get too excited, I want to slow down; to bring it back and take you on a journey back to the late 70’s in South Germany. Arno Kammermeier and Walter Merziger, the duo behind Booka Shade, both grew up in music-interested families, and from a very early age started to experiment for themselves and together.

“In Walter´s family, it was classical music, especially Wagner, whereas my father was a big jazz fan. He played saxophone in a band during his student times and continued to love the music. Everybody in my family played an instrument – my mother and sister played piano, my brother plays guitar.”

Coming from a similar family myself, I am always interested in the intimate moments that people have with music. I used to walk with my mother in shops with instruments, touching the pianos and looking at all the elegant curves and hollow spaces that somehow make coherent noises.

“When I was about 12 years old, my brother had a band who rehearsed in the basement of our house. Everybody left their instruments during the week, so I started to play around with the drums. There seemed to be a natural feeling for this instrument, so I continued.
At the age of 15, Walter and I met in a school band, where he played guitar and piano and took lessons in those. I only took drum lessons a short while, but I didn´t like it very much. I played along to the records that my older brother bought instead.”

We quickly realized that we shared a passion for music, and started to write very basic songs which we recorded on a cassette recorder (.. a lot of tape noise!). Later we experimented with a Fostex 4 track cassette recorder which my father had bought for himself, but he allowed us to use it.

While Belin is often thought of as the main German city of house and techno because of the strong foundation of Echtzeitmusik (real time music), Booka Shade has been one of the dominating forces on the Frankfurt scene. Before that, however, they found themselves in a strong current of inspiration that pushed them towards their own sound. Their love for 80’s synth like Kraftwerk, New Order, and Tears for Fears gave way for development into electronics and techno, and they initially made music under the name Planet Claire.

We first fell in love with techno and house in the early 90´s, when the whole movement was rather fresh. We drove from the little city in the Southwest of Germany to Frankfurt, where Sven Vaeth had his legendary club THE OMEN. This was where we got socialized with the new music. It was an exciting time because every week new groundbreaking music would be released. Labels such as R&S, EyeQ, and Harthouse were inspiring for us, and bands such as Underworld were fascinating.

Collaborating with names like DJ T, M.A.N.D.Y and Peter Havo, they established the record label Get Physical, where they were able to get around the techno virus that caught on at that time and experiment on their own productions.

In the 90´s, all our music was released on all kinds of labels, but the reason for starting Get Physical was simply that no label wanted to release the music we started to produce then. We combined disco beats and storytelling bass lines, and it was overall more uplifting than the ‘schranz’ (hard atonal techno) which was dominant at that time. We were very lucky that our music, later on, called electro house by the media, would become very fashionable throughout the world.

Walter is the main songwriter in the band and he’s the one to start the productions, often based on ideas we discuss together previously.

Their album Memento was published through Get Physical in 2004 and became their breakthrough. It is a many-faceted experience to listen through, from the dark, hollow bassline of “Noisy Man” to the demanding run-through of “double identity”. Booka Shade set themselves apart from their earlier inspirations and built up an atmosphere around themselves that was hard to ignore. They’ve earlier stated that they like to have a bit of “positive melancholy”, something to wallow in, but not make you sad. With Memento, they received critical acclaim and started playing bigger scenes like Sonar 2005 and performed as a warm-up for Depeche Mode. In between their shows and their label, I find it amazing that they have found the time to create one of their most iconic albums, Movements. They spend three months on the tracklist alone because they wanted it to be a perfect journey. Starting off with two of what would be their most popular songs, “Night Falls” and “Body Language”, the album has layers and layers of sound and melody to dive into. As Arno stated earlier, the basslines are the real storytellers here, and the build-up to each peak is electric. Like the title implies, it is impossible not to link the sounds to movements in the body, whether it is a nod of the head or the tap of a foot. It comes as no surprise that even more than ten years after, some of the songs are played in clubs.

MOVEMENTS 10 was dropped last year and was a series of remixes of the songs by some rather heavy names and friends in the business – Nils Frahm, M.A.N.D.Y, Deetron and Hunter/Game, to mention a few.

We personally didn´t rework any of the songs, because we feel the album is still a statement. That´s why we left it up to the remixers to show new aspects of the songs.

The remixing artists chose which song to work on themselves, so it was a matter of handing over an important piece of work to artists they respected and trust to receive it back.

That was our work during spring & summer of 2016. In between, we kept working on new songs.
The Movements celebration had, quite naturally, a retrospective feel to it. The tour started with a massive show in June at Sonar 2016 in Barcelona with a special synchronized light show, and ended in Australia just after New Year’s Eve, in early 2017.

Revisting the Movements album was a great opportunity to close a chapter. To celebrate the past, and now look into an exciting future. It’s important for us as artists to look into the future, so after the ‘retrospective 2016’, we wanted to release GALVANY STREET straight away in spring 2017.

Just a few days after I contacted Booka Shade, Galvany Street came out, and by the first listen, I realized what they had meant when they wanted to close a chapter behind them. Although their sound is clear, it was darker and more sophisticated in terms of the atmosphere. There hasn’t been an overwhelming amount of vocals on the previous albums, which was actually something that I liked, but when I heard the first song, “Digging a Hole”, I found it to be interesting, and well-fitting.

Walter and I started the writing sessions for a new album already shortly after the release of our previous album, EVE. We knew that we wanted more vocals and more song structure, so we tried out a lot of vocalists, female and male. We realized that we wanted a male sound for the album, grown-up, serious, a bit dark.

After our 2013 album EVE, we had the feeling that we have explored tech house/techno to great depth – we have said a lot, we wrote instrumental club hits that still today, 10 years later, have relevance. DJs still play the music, young talents such as JAX JONES use the bass line of ´Body Language ´ and makes it a worldwide hit. But we feel that for the moment, we have said what we could, we need new challenges. Booka Shade is always about strong melodies, but we don´t find tech house grooves very inspiring these days.

At the same time, we miss the songwriting that we have done in our early days. We wanted to explore song structures again.

Craig moved to Berlin in late 2015 and rented a studio room in the same studio complex where I have my studio, at Riverside, Berlin. We got introduced, we realized that we had respect for each other’s history (he was the singer in the band Archive in the early 00´s).

He tried out a vocal on one of the backing tracks and we instantly knew – he is the one!
Most of the time we would start with an instrumental backing track which we´d give to him, he would write his vocal on it, give it back to us – and in 90% of the cases we would then change the music again because we got inspired by the vocal. It was a very enjoyable and creative work process.

The overall feeling of the album is rather the one of a band, which is what we like about it. There is an indie band sound combined with typical Booka Shade electronic sounds, which creates something new. You can dance to most of the tunes, but it´s disco, not tech house.

Both the name and the album cover art is an omen to what you’re about to hear in terms of a heavier melancholy – the lyrics drag your heart in the gravel at times, like with “Loneliest Boy” – but they maintain a light in the dark all the time. “Magnolia” is bound to lift the spirits, and “Babylon” is pure disco; impossible not to dance to.

Galvany Street is a made-up word which plays with the galvanic process – chemical energy (Booka Shade and Craig Walker) is converted to electrical energy (the music).

With their massive performances at festivals and large venues, I was rather surprised to hear that they were to play at Pumpehuset, a venue with space for an intimate 1000 people at most. Booka Shade played at Roskilde Festival in 2007 and has visited both Copenhagen and Århus before.

In order to present the album, we have just finished a first run of headline club shows in Europe, playing in Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, and Paris.

Except for the venue in London (Printworks – a new very hot venue everybody raves about), the concerts were all held in small intimate venues.
 This was a conscious decision – it’s all about the music, about presenting Craig’s vocal.
No big show around it. We’ll save that for the festival season.

Together with Craig Walker on vocals and bass, we have the opportunity for the first time to play as a real band, which is a lot of fun. Even the classic instrumental tracks sound quite different!

Even though initially I was hoping to recreate my own Frankfurt-electro-rave at Booka Shade at Pumpehuset in May, I must admit that after hearing the full story, I’d probably also be exhausted by the amount of techno/house. It’s funny how a band almost becomes a bit of your property, that you’d rather not see changing. However, Booka Shade has been changing all along in the shadows, with side- and solo-projects and trying it all – producing with symphony orchestras and punk bands.

We also once performed live music for a silent movie at the London BFI (British Film Institute). We enjoy doing these projects from time to time.

There were four years in between the album Eve and Galvany Street, and it left me wondering if the change in style, closing up on their clean electronic beat, also had brought about a change of pace in terms of touring. With DJs being more like rock stars than ever, the performance of DJs has changed. Although I have mostly experienced live mixing in small venues, I’ve been to a few live concerts too; the first one I was at, I felt straight up surreal, looking at a guy behind a table on a massive scene. Booka Shade has talked about this before – and tells me that most of the time, live shows have to be more focused, while DJ’ing is easy – but they’ll be jumping around no matter what. (Either way, next time you’re at a DJ live concert, try turning your back to the DJ and dance with your friend – it looks fantastic with so many people).

This time the experience will change again completely, with Booka Shade and band, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of show they will be bringing.

And what is next for the duo?

Lately, we enjoy spending more time in the studio again, with songwriting and production, It’s quite likely that we’ll do less touring in the future, but whenever we play live, it’s always a wonderful experience. We are privileged to have played a lot of wonderful venues.

Besides, we’re family men now. Over the years we have found a much healthier work/life balance, and we take care to spend a lot of time with the family and do sports. Life is too short and family is too important to spend all your time on tour or in the studio!