German electro house legends

During the Barcelonian behemoth that was Sonar – and before the madness set in, as is prone to happen at Sonar – Clash caught up with German electro house legends Booka Shade – Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier – for a chat on a gloriously sunny day, to talk Havanna sex dwarves, miniature Robocops and pimento peppers. And some occasional chat about music as well.

Clash: You guys have played Sonar before, right?
Walter: It’s our second Sonar. The first one was in 2005 and it was our breakthrough show, as it were. It was a really important show for us. We played in a part of a museum that looks like a church. At the beginning everyone was sitting and then we started to play – it was that time when ‘Body Language’ just came out. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and there was one window in the back and the ‘Ray of God’ came through the window and shined through! It was amazing, it was a great show. After that, everything started – so many people started to call and book us. It was a real breakthrough show. And now we’re back and we’re playing Sonar by Night.

Clash: You’re due to play at 4.30 in the morning…
Walter: Yeah, it’s very late, but I think for Spain it’s still very early, so it’s fine. It’s not really easy to play as a live band so late, because your body is not really in shape to do this demanding live show. It’s a different thing to when you’re DJing.

Clash: What can we expect from your set tonight?
Arno: We have brought a big light show – the lights are called ‘Bad Boys’. The lights were originally designed for the U2 show, for the 360 degree show. They’re huge, so we can fill a huge stage.
We had them with us on the US tour when we played a festival outside of Seattle, called Sasquatch. There’s a lot of really good light, so we’re very much looking forward to it.
Walter: They look like little Robocops.
Arno: They’re very stylish. ‘Bad Boys’! And musically we’ll bring songs from the new album – ‘More!’ – about four or five new ones I think: ‘Donut’ of course, ‘Teenage Spaceman’, ‘Bad Love’, ‘Scaramanga’, and of course some classics, also.

Clash: Speaking of the new album, I wanted to ask where the inspiration for the track ‘Havanna Sex Dwarf’ came from? Personal experience, perhaps…?
Walter: [Looks at Arno] It’s your turn to answer.
Arno: Well, there was this one night I went out and…
Walter: He has these fantasies, it’s nothing to do with me!
Arno: Actually it’s quite simple. The lead sound in the song always reminded us of dwarves walking through the woods. And then there’s the song from Soft Cell, called ‘Sex Dwarf’, and we took this even further and ended up with ‘Havanna Sex Dwarf’. But it’s based on the melody line.
Walter: [looking at a figure approaching the table] Oh, we just have to say hello to someone…

[A brief pause while Walter and Arno have a quick chat with none other than Pete Tong, who happens to be walking by. Mildly surreal. For the record, Pete seems like a thoroughly decent chap and is very apologetic about interrupting]

Clash: How do the crowds differ when you play live around Europe?
Walter: People always react in a similar way to the songs, but there’s a different level of power in the reaction. The southern audiences – like in Portugal – they’re really into the music but they’re not showing it so much, but when we play England or Ireland for example, these guys really want to have a party – they celebrate every little hi-hat! In Italy for example, people are really cool, they have their sunglasses, the guys are checking for girls, they’re drinking champagne… So they are more relaxed, but in a nice way. So I think that England, Ireland, Scotland and places like that are really into partying like hell and giving everything, and in other countries I have the feeling they are more reserved but they do enjoy the show as well – they applaud big-time after a song. It’s the same in Asia. We’ve played there twice and the reaction was that they applauded after the songs, but they wanted to respect the set and were quieter while we played. It’s strange seeing how people react differently over the world and that they have a different approach to show how they like the music.

Clash: How about audiences in the US?
Arno: We’ve just come back from the US. It was a condensed, very concentrated tour, with our own headline shows in New York and LA. They were really enthusiastic. On a Tuesday night at 11 o’clock people went completely nuts and invaded the stage – really crazy!
It’s really interesting with the US, because we always feel that they enjoy and appreciate it when they see what’s happening on stage during the performance. With us, you see Walter playing the keyboards, you see me playing the drums, and they seem to really understand this in terms of electronic music. People always say that electronic music is a real niche in the States, and sure – it is a niche, but we always did well there and I get the impression from the people at our shows that it’s growing. We played Red Rocks, a legendary place for 12,000 people in the Rocky Mountains, and the crowd were going wild.
Walter: It was an amazing show. One of the top five concerts we’ve ever played. The sound in there is amazing. We were the first Germans to play there, actually. There’s a ranking of everybody that played there, from The Beatles, to Depeche Mode, The Police, Coldplay, jazz people, big country music people – whoever, everybody’s played there. They have all these tables with the names of everyone who’s played there, and we saw that we were the first Germans.
Arno: Not Kraftwerk, not Rammstein…
Walter: Not the Scorpions…
Arno: It was Booka Shade! It sometimes gives you the feeling that we’re opening up electronic music in some places. Because many times when we play rock festivals, like Lollapalooza in Chicago – which is the biggest rock festival in the States – we were the first electronic musicians to be on a stage there. Sometimes we feel that they say ‘well, if Booka Shade make it, then maybe we’ll bring some more electronic musicians!’
Walter: In a housey kind of way – because you have the Chemical Brothers, Faithless, and these kinds of artists play rock festivals, but we are still a house music act, the only ones with a house beat at these festivals. With some other acts it’s more like an electronic -rock thing, but we are still very housey. The grooves are more for the hips than for the fists. It’s weird but it still really works.

Clash: Is it good to be opening up house music to these new audiences?
Walter: We’ve pushed the music [in a different direction] in the last five years as far as we can, but without losing the aspect of our own music. But we have to push it, because otherwise we won’t really have a chance. We’re not playing on stages with house DJs anymore. We’re playing on stages where we have to compete with electro-rock stuff, or rock bands, or pop-rock. That’s why we have to push our music, but the groove is still house music.
We were headlining the second stage at Rock Werchter festival in Belgium, and on the other stage Rammstein were playing at the same time. So in a way you have to compete. They have pyros and spend half a million or whatever on their show each night, and we’re there as a kind of underground act, so you have to compete with that. So you have to find a way to look big and sound big. That’s why we are very focused on our crew – they’re very professional people who have a lot of experience working with a lot of bands, and that really helps.

Clash: Do you always take the same crew around with you?
Arno: We’d like to but it’s not always possible, because sometimes somebody has to go with another band. But we try to have a core crew.
Walter: This guy who’s doing our lighting at the moment just did a Metallica show in Berlin, so, he’s really one of the best European light engineers – you can’t get him to a point where he will just follow Booka Shade around on tour. He creates stuff, then he travels with us for about three months and then he has to leave, and then you have these operators to work the stuff – it’s all fine.

Clash: Which acts are you looking forward to seeing at Sonar?
Arno: I wanted to see the Plastikman [Richie Hawtin] show, but I’m afraid I won’t make it. Richie played at a show in Detroit and I missed it there and I might miss it this time as well, but this is definitely somebody I wanted to check out.
Walter: Yeah, we’ve only just arrived and we are leaving soon, because Sonar by Night is in two cities now [Barcelona and A Coruña, where Sonar Galicia takes place], so we’re leaving very early tomorrow.
Arno: I think the Chemicals play A Coruña today and they come here tomorrow and we are the other way around, so there’s not so much time!
Walter: You always have to think ‘what can I do with the crew?’ [when you’re on tour] When you’re sitting at the beach, they earn money! Which is ok – they deserve it – but it’s a cost factor, so you can’t have so many days off, because every day off costs you a lot of money. That’s why you’re constantly travelling, constantly playing wherever you can, so there’s not always a lot of time to stay somewhere and watch a festival for three days or so.

Clash: What do you have planned for the rest of 2010? More touring?
Arno: Oh yeah. We’re in the middle of the festival season, so it’s going to be festivals until September, then probably two week off and then we still have to look into doing a real UK tour, then we have to go back to the States to do a proper, long bus tour, because we’re doing quite well there. With America, you have to be in the country to get recognition. Then we have to go to Asia – we haven’t done a lot of Asia in the past, so we want to go there more.
We have our next single coming, ‘Teenage Spaceman’, which should be out in a couple of weeks. The remixes are just coming in.

Clash: Who have you got to remix the track?
Walter: Tim Deluxe does a mix, John Dahlback is doing one, and we do our own as well – a club track B-side – and we’re working on a second edition at the moment. We’re open to everything at the moment, and we don’t have just this ‘underground’ way of thinking like we did in the past.

Clash: What with being in Spain and everything – have you indulged in any tapas yet?
Arno: Not yet, but we’ve had a lot of olives and olive oil, and we’ll have pimentos tonight. They’re very good – they have lots of vitamins in.
Walter: Do they? They’re not cooked out of them?
Arno: Yeah, they have loads of vitamin C. You don’t cook them completely, they’re just grilled quickly.

Clash: Good tour food, perhaps? Getting all your vitamins in one food…
Walter: We always try to get good food on tour but it’s not easy when you’re always in airports – sometimes the food is so bad, it kind of kills you for a while!

Words by Tristan Parker

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