BOOKA SHADE with AD/D , KENNY GLASGOW , ON-OFF at the Mod Club Theatre (722 College), Friday (March 16). $20 advance. www.myspace.com/addinc. Rating: NNNNN
When Arno Kammermeier and Walter Merziger turned their backs on the pop music world after falling in love with underground dance music in the mid-90s, they never suspected their path would lead them back to a life strikingly similar to their days as a synth-pop duo.
"In a way, it's come full circle," admits Kammermeier from their Berlin studio, where they're currently working on their third album as Booka Shade and struggling with the high expectations created by the massive success of their 2006 album, Movements.
"In the early 90s we had our first major record deal. The act was called Planet Claire, after the B-52's song. I would love to say it was like Soft Cell, but it was more like Tears for Fears.
"We have pictures here in the studio that we show guests sometimes of us playing in a school band in 1985. I was playing acoustic drums at that point, with big headphones and a drum computer next to me, and Walter played synthesizers. It wasn't very good at that time, but looking at that photo and seeing us now, not very much has changed. What have we been doing for the last 20 years?"
Thankfully, their music has gone through lots of changes even if they do find themselves again playing shows that look suspiciously like synth-pop concerts, and they're big enough now that major pop acts like Depeche Mode are snapping them up as an opening act.
While not pop in the traditional sense (the lack of lyrics will do that), their electronic dance music holds its own alongside the best pop groups and shouldn't provoke any embarrassed blushing when your friends spot it in your disc collection 10 years from now.
Their discs aren't over-the-top collections of club bangers with snare rolls and giant build-ups and breakdowns. Instead, they wisely toned down the excesses of their incendiary live show to record albums with a surprising amount of moodiness and emotion that are as easy to chill out to as shake your ass to.
But Booka Shade went through big changes to get back to this place. After spending the latter half of the 90s producing dance music under various aliases, they'd become disillusioned with the increasingly formulaic and predictable state of the scene. Joining forces with like-minded Germans DJ T and M.A.N.D.Y., they started the Get Physical label, which in its first few years helped launch the trend that for better or worse has been saddled with the electro-house tag.
"I hate this electro-house thing. Of course, we were one of the labels that created this sound, but when I listen to records that come out at the moment in that style, I don't hear Booka Shade.
"I understand that journalists need to find a certain expression for it in order to describe it to people, but I guess it's difficult to do for us. We've always had the best reactions, though, to things that are very different."
We're all a bit sick of musicians protesting that their sound doesn't fit into the genre they've been pegged with, but in this case Kammermeier does have a point. Too melodic to be techno, their music is also too raw to be trance and not disco-influenced enough to fit in with the house scene.
By default they've ended up being linked to electro, despite being much more musical and much subtler in their nods to the 80s than the records they're filed next to in the shops.
A couple of years into running their label, they revived one of their old pseudonyms, Booka Shade, and released the full-length album Memento in 2005. It was promoting that album that led to the pseudo-pop-star life they're now caught up in again.
"We have great respect for the art of DJing, but we leave it for those who actually do it. It's a different art form, and I respect it totally, but we'd rather stick to what we can do. We are musicians, so we rely on our instruments.
"We like this element of a band, this rock and roll element combined with electronic music. We just couldn't think of doing it any other way. If I were standing in the audience, this is what I'd want to see in an electronic band.
"We give a lot of energy onstage, and the people give it back it's like a ping-pong game," says Kammermeier. "We push each other up and up. All this euphoric feeling went into the production of Movements."
Their live show quickly won them attention and a dedicated following, attracting people from outside the traditional club crowd along with dance music types who were also growing tired of the clichés.
Unlike many live electronic shows, there was never any doubt about whether Booka Shade were really just checking their e-mails onstage. Typically, Merziger runs the loops and arrangements as well as playing some keys and occasionally singing, while Kammermeier plays electronic drums and manipulates the live video, which runs in sync with their rhythms.
Reflecting that experience, their second album, Movements, ended up on countless best-of-2006 lists, and singles from it packed dance floors around the world.
"Movements was recorded and produced during the tour for Memento. It wasn't that we played every single song live before we put it on the album. It was more about meeting all these nice people in the electronic scene and travelling all over the world, which isn't something we really did before.
"We were producers and musicians sitting in the studio all year and only getting feedback from the M.A.N.D.Y. guys or DJ T on Mondays when they came back and told us about reactions on the dance floor. Actually seeing it and getting the feedback from the audience was pretty new for us.
"Booka Shade is what we always wanted to do, but when we were young the time wasn't right. It wasn't possible for a German pop group to be big internationally. We're very happy that the independent electronic music scene now allows us to be seen and heard by people all over the world."
Not so long ago, live electronic performances were just barely live. Producers might bring their studios to the stage, but there wasn't much they could do except adjust levels and tweak effects as the pre-sequenced tracks ran.
This all changed in 2001 when the German minimal techno duo Monolake released Ableton Live , a software application written to facilitate their own performances. It was an immediate success and has gone on to become a ubiquitous electronic performance tool, not just in the techno world but also in the background of many mainstream pop acts.
At its core, it's a very simple concept, allowing the triggering of bits of audio in real time and the stretching of loops so their tempos match. What it offered electronic musicians was groundbreaking. Suddenly, they could improvise compositions by combining any audio on their hard drives, making racks of samplers obsolete.
In Booka Shade's case, Live is the backbone of their stage show, over which they play keyboards and electronic drums. It gives them the flexibility to perform like a traditional band, freeing them to vamp on a riff, stretch out a breakdown and completely rearrange their songs night by night.
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Local Producer Noah Pred discusses Ableton Live