It wasn't always champagne and roses, though. Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier started life as an unmemorable synth pop duo, releasing forgotten records on heralded imprints. But then the duo went into business with some clubbing-inclined friends, and things began to take off. The name of the business? Get Physical Music.
It's a well-known story, but the partnership with M.A.N.D.Y. and DJ T. and its importance can't be understated. Given a push to produce for themselves again after a few years behind the boards of releases from various artists, Booka Shade came up with some of the most indelible tunes in the imprint's history: "Mandarine Girl," "Body Language," "In White Rooms."
But more fascinating than their impeccable productions is their inimitable live show. Performing all of their biggest hits, the duo provide a muscular, rock version of the tunes that have become clubland favorites. It's a show that has getting better and better over time, culminating in a collection of high-profile headlining gigs that only looks set to continue when they begin their inevitable tour after the release of their fourth album, which is tentatively set for release in early 2010.
Before that, though, the boys will be tearing through a series of dates this month, including one at Get Loaded in the Park. They're calling it the "Big Balls" tour. Never one to shy away from a conversation about balls, we called up Kammermeier to find out more.
I hear you're working on a new album.
Yes. We are here in the studio on a regular afternoon. We've got plenty of stuff to do actually. We always hop from one thing to the other. In the last couple of weeks we rehearsed for the new show. We had our first performance last weekend at the Glade festival.
What is the new show like?
We have a whole new set-up. New instruments and bigger drums. But the big change is that we have a new stage set-up with a matrix of balls which are illuminated with LEDs. Each ball is individually programmable so it's been a lot of work. We had somebody from Los Angles come over to help us with it.
That sounds interesting. Are you guys controlling the balls then?
No. It's the guy who programs it. That would be a bit much. [laughs] We of course tell him what we'd like to see in all this stuff, though. There are shapes, illuminated shapes, on the stage which refer to the Booka Shade logo, which are up to two meters big.
We are having so many jokes, though, with the set-up that we have because it consists of these huge balls, so we always say, "Come and see our big balls, they are illuminated very nice." The whole tour is called the Big Balls tour. [laughs]
So the live show just keeps getting bigger and bigger?
It does! [laughs] We had a break in between albums, and we're not playing that much this summer but we still wanted to take a chance with them and present a bigger show. To show people, OK, you know now it goes a bit up the ladder. It goes in small steps, which is very nice.
I was reading that you keep upgrading your drums for the live show. That you have special customized controllers now to allow you to improvise more easily.
Yeah, that comes from the fact that we came to the point where we said that up to now we were in this bizarre situation where we played like a band, but travelled like DJs. So we always have this situation where we wanted to have it look as big as possible, but to have everything be as light as possible to bring it on the planes. We've finally said "Alright, you know we play all these big stages, so you know somehow it has to you know it has to be big, it has to fill the stage." And that's why the drums are just purely…I mean I don't play so many different things, it's just bigger. It looks nicer for the audience also, and now I have things like real cymbals. Instead of those electronic cymbals. It looks and sounds a bit rockier, which is quite nice. We like that.
When did you start drumming?
I was like 6 or 7. I got on everybody's nerves at home. It's a cliché now, but I would drum on pots and pans in the kitchen, and I would always tell my parents the greatest mistake they made was to give me a drum set for Christmas at the age of 12. I was never going to have a real job after that.
Were there some drummers that you looked up to in particular?
Yeah, of course. I had an older brother and an older sister, so a lot of my musical education came from them. Anything they heard, I heard as well. There was a group called Emerson Lake and Palmer. Carl Palmer was the drummer, and he always had this huge drum set. I admired him very much. The same goes for Stewart Copeland from The Police. The other drummer I find absolutely crazy is the guy from the Cure, Lol Tolhurst, because he was somebody who played like a drum machine. Listen to a song like "The Forest," and you'll hear him play the same beat for eight minutes.
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Yes. We've progressed quite a bit actually. We want to have it finished by the end of August or September. But it won't be out before February, although a single could be released before the end of the year. With this album we are looking to bring the concert feeling that people get when they come to the show. It will be more energetic.
With The Sun and the Neon Light we experimented more with pop structures, and it was mellow. For home listening. But now we're excited about this, because we aren't playing live much at the moment, so it's very fresh. We want to make it so that the people—when they come home from the live show and they haven't heard everything from us before—can relive that experience.
Are you playing like a band in the studio? Live to tape? Or is it still very much computerized?
Yeah, I mean already on the last album we used the computer as a recording tool. Of course everybody does that, but we did more live sessions with synthesizers. We didn't put everything in the sequencer. We play a lot live and we still do, we take a lot of other outboard equipment, and also play a couple of those drums or you know some fills or whatever to give it a bit more of a live feeling, but of course it will still be a very electronic album.
I think the sound of Booka Shade is always quite a designed sound, a rich sound. Not a dirty and raw spontaneous sound. That stuff is great, I also love that sound. But I think with Booka Shade it's more that we think about every detail in the production so we do a lot of these live sessions and also bring in other equipment. We don't only use the soft synths for the reverb, and everything that is in the computer. Many times we feel that it's so very predictable. Many times we hear music and we can immediately know that it's this preset and that reverb. We try to get away from that.
I remember reading that last time there was a lot of pain and blood in the studio. Has the new album been the same way?
It's very interesting looking back. If I listen to The Sun and the Neon Light, I hear a little bit of that in the album. I mean, not in a song like "Charlotte," but I remember we were quite tense. We weren't so sure of the direction. We felt a lot of pressure after Movements and everything that happened. I'm very happy this time. The last tour was extremely successful, we played for loads and loads of people and we took the steps that we wanted to take.
And The Sun and the Neon Light actually sold more than the Movements, even though "Charlotte" was the only sort of hit on it. But still the album in its entirety sold even better. So we're much more relaxed, we're much more aware of what we want to do and we also know how we can get there. I wonder if you'll be able to hear it in the end when the album comes out, but at the moment the mood is very high.
I wanted to ask you about your involvement with Get Physical these days. I was reading that M.A.N.D.Y. and DJ T. seem to take care of the 12-inches, because they are DJing in the clubs. Are you still having a lot of input with regards to what comes out albums-wise?
With albums that we release everyone has to say yes. Everybody has to agree. We discuss those releases in detail because they always mean an investment—time and money. So you want to be sure that the investment you make is in something you really like. With the 12-inches, we're not very involved. Sometimes the guys will play something in the studio, and we'll hear it and walk by. They have one room where they have their DJ set-up, and sometimes I will go to the room and ask what they're playing. And they'll say it's a new demo for Get Physical. That's always a good sign.
Yes, I remember one of the Tiger Stripes tracks that did very well was there. Then there was also a remix from Silversurfer that we liked quite a bit. It's very interesting because we've started to DJ a little bit, although we always said we would never do it. But during this time when we aren't playing that much live, we want to try out our new songs also in a convenient and in an easy way so now we can also check those demos ourselves. In the past it was always T. and M.A.N.D.Y. who would do that, and now we can also take some tracks with us and try them out.
I had noticed that you seemed to have been doing a bit more DJing. You had a DJ chart recently, you did an RA podcast. When the DJ Kicks compilation came out, there was a lot of talk that you guys weren't DJs, that you did the mix in the studio.
Yes, the DJ Kicks mix was always more like a producer's mix. A lot of the editing you wouldn't be able to do when you just have two records or two CDs. What happened was that after the last tour we said, "Ah, you know, we've played all these concerts and we've been listening to our own music excessively, it would be great to listen to some music and get some fresh ideas." So that's how we got into DJing. In another room next to our studio, we set-up turntables, and now it's very inspiring when we do something in the studio and we take it over to the other room and compare the sound and the groove, and how the groove works with other records.
It's actually quite a bit of fun to take other people's music and throw something in, and combine things. It gives us the opportunity to try out the new songs that we do for the album before we release them, and before we put them in the live show. In the old days, we would have a new song and to bring it into the live show was a lot of work. Because you would have all these individual tracks for the bass drum, for the snare, for the bass. And, for the keyboards, it's not like we have a stereo file. When we play live it's a lot of individual talent. And, in the past, we had visuals where we had to think about what would happen with those when we added a new song. So it was a lot of work just to see if a song works. Now we can just throw it in when we do a DJ set, get a very instant response and then go back to the studio and figure out what we need to work on.