Booka Shade Talk
As you might not be aware, music journalism comes with very few perks these days. Yes, you might get sent some music and you might get into clubs for free, but you try paying your rent with those ‘perks’. And as for getting paid, well, that’s about as easy as getting laid in an American teen movie from the mid-90s, so when I got an email inviting me out to Berlin for a Booka Shade gig sponsored by Vodafone, I was already packing my bag as I was hitting ‘reply’…
So there I was at Umspannwerk in Kreuzberg at the beginning of May; ready to check out Booka Shade’s participation in the Vodafone Firsts initiative, which allows people to do things for the first time – so far there’s been everything from an amusing viral film of two Dutch grandmothers flying for the first time to a woman starting a female fight club, in order to encourage female self-defence in India . This was in a different, more musical league though – we, the invited music hacks (a charming bunch of characters, by the rather marginal standards of our business…) would get to be part of a 600-capacity live show that would see the duo behind the mighty Get Physical’s early hits play a gig that allowed the audience to participate with the music, via an app on their phones. Light and sound would come from the phones, each of which would add to the sonic and visual ‘orchestra of phones’.
We caught up Booka Shade them for a quick chat before the event… which ended up being more like a standard live show than anything else, but that’s technology for you. Still, when it’s standard practice at gigs I’ll be selling my services as an ‘experiential consultant’ or some such nonsense, so there you go.
Booka Shade’s Arno and Walter explain…
…how they came to be involved with Vodafone Firsts?
Arno: The idea was brought to us at a very early stage and we’re always looking for new ideas; as a band you can do your shows, you can travel the world, you can release an album… but it’s those special new ideas that you look for. We’re technically interested in new things to try out and we thought it’s just crazy enough to work! It’s very interesting and these guys [Makelight Interactive, the tech company behind the phone-music interface] do a brilliant job, it was good fun and we had great times with them. They came to early rehearsals, we had meetings in London. It was good to have the process, we had to create our own samples from the productions and send it to them so that they could put them into the app and try and see if the sound and everything was alright. That’s how the project started.
Walter: And of course it’s interesting for us that it’s all documented, so there’s a movie coming out 48 hours after the show. Which was interesting for us as well, you can really see it. This one special event, documented properly for everyone to see.
…has anyone done anything like this before?
Arno: It’s the first time ever that somebody’s played the phone because the app or programme wasn’t there to do it before.
…how the app was tested?
Arno: They experimented with lights but not together with sound. Also, it’s not one sound like an mp3 player, it’s all individual sounds. Walter will have his controller when he plays the bassline and I have drum sounds so it’s like 8 sounds at a time that can play. That’s different to just a stereo file.
…how, if everyone has the same app on a smartphone and it’s the same sounds, does the sonic experience come together?
Arno [smiles]: We can’t promise that it will sound good because we’ve never actually been able to try it out!
Walter: We couldn’t find 600 people to come here to test it before [laughs].
Arno: The phones are all different models. We tested it with these phones, it worked but they’re all Vodafones. There’s a different system on iPhones, iOS etc. We will see how it sounds. There might be a delay on each mobile but when they all play together it’s like a choir singing. When a choir sings they are not completely precise on every night but it still sounds good; I hope that’s the effect we have here – a choir of phones.
Walter: We do intros and short bits with these sounds and then they’re ready to use in the real show. We’ll start with the phones, the first song will be by phones and then atmospheres and then we go into the real song. It’s not going to be 45 minutes only with the phones.
…how they prepared for a live show with so many variables?
Walter: You can do this thing for a certain period of time really, you can’t tell the joke so many times, so we always have to try and find new ways of getting the audience involved if possible. Bringing the lights down, making it intimate so the audience feels part of it and then we’re going to see how it is! When you stand in a crowd with all those phones around you, hopefully people will hold them up so you can hear it.
Arno: Every phone has a loudspeaker now because we realised in the rehearsal that the phones weren’t loud enough and we have these ones with even bigger loudspeakers, because you have to hear it better. What we do here is a test; it’s just an idea of how you can implement phones because they’re all over the place on this planet. How can you use phones for live concerts?
[First few bars of Body Language BLASTS in the background as they’re doing their soundcheck as we speak]
Arno: It’s more a test, it’s not like we play a whole show with the phones. There’s an idea behind it that’s for the future, working together with the audience and the phones they have. It’s an interesting aspect to include the audience.
Walter: When people start arriving they’ll be in section 1-8 so if you’re a 2 or 3, when you load up the app you select the right number. It’ll come up on your phone saying ‘4, time to press go’ and it’ll light up.
Arno: At the moment people can see the app on their phones but they can’t do anything with it. As soon as they come into the building, it opens up – it connects to the wifi. At the moment you just get the countdown.
Walter: We can see the sectors because we’re here – most people can’t, yet.
… how the idea of different sections for different audience members within the venue will work?
Arno: With the sounds we decided in every section it’s the same sound, otherwise it would be chaos. With the lights, stay in your zone because then in the rainbow where it should be red there’s just this one blue guy.
Walter: Imagine if you’re here on the balcony, there will be phones all over the place. Sometimes you have a rainbow coming over certain segments and you should be able to see this and even in the crowd you should see what’s happening around you.
… how they went about breaking down their tracks into 8-10 sounds each, for the audience participation aspect to work?
Arno: We had to choose very carefully what sounds we use because at the moment the number of sounds is quite limited. We had to find out what’s at the core [of a track], how to strip it down musically, and also the way we play. As you can imagine if you have all these phones by different brands, we have to be very careful with pitches – the sound shouldn’t be too snappy and it has to be melodic, they have to be at a certain frequency slot (sub-bass etc.). We looked at our songs, by coincidence our songs are very much driven by basslines which are harmonic so they are a bit higher, which can be heard on the phones quite well. For example, for a song like Body Language, what we’re going to play is this melodic bassline and we have a couple of other sounds to blend together and a couple of percussive sounds which I can play on the pads, as you will see later on.
Walter: You won’t hear a full song of course, because we have just four hands. We play live so everything you hear over the phones is live because we didn’t want to send any mp3 backing to the phones, it should be a live thing, so we just trigger certain elements of our songs and play this together for a few rounds then go back into the song. It’s a test.
… how this is a new way of working for a very experienced band like themselves?
Arno: That’s exactly why we do this here, because there’s nothing more boring than to play the same set-list every night. We change the songs all the time, we remix it, include new songs, drop some songs then bring them back after three years. We always change. We just played a show with Lang Lang, the pianist, in Berlin where we just combined classical piano with one of our songs. Sometimes it works, sometimes not but it makes it more interesting. It’s a challenge.
Walter: During the production we found that if we are limited with the sounds we can use and we still wanted some harmonic change, we recorded some guitars in addition. Although the song is structured in a different way, we can have the guitars play in so that we have a different structure. When you break down your own songs to the very core, you come up with these ideas.
…that they relished chance to hone some of their tracks for this new live experience?
Walter: Yeah, we did some extra stuff. Many of our songs have long harmonic changes, some we wouldn’t be able to play with this app because the whole structure goes over 16 bars or so, meaning we can’t do it. We have to choose a song like Body Language, which also has a longer bassline, but we could strip it down into individual parts.
Arno: 8 sounds per song is not really a lot to be honest, a proper drum set has more sounds. That’s why we were very limited, the app is quite new so they couldn’t implement more sounds but I think people will get it, they will recognise the songs. That was important for us, that they immediately realise things like the bassline is the melody from that song and so on. Of course we had to shift it around so that we didn’t play a piano on a cymbal; it would look a bit weird so we had to change things a little bit because we had to react to certain things.
….how the Booka Shade visuals affect the experience?
Arno: Our visuals are here with us, we play our show and just interrupt the programme for the bit with the phones. What we can do with the phones, because they have different colours and different sounds, you can do things like a rainbow or everything flashing a certain colour. Things like that. Many people won’t hold the phone or they’re just texting, you can’t control it. If there’s a good reaction from the audience and people aren’t too stiff, as they have to follow the rules, we hope that it’s a good show and people enjoy it and not think about their phone all the time. It’s a nice little gimmick for the show. It’s a simple idea and people should take it easy, not think ‘Oh my god I can’t go to the toilet! I am the blue one!’
The way it works is that there’s one camera on top of the screen which will show the audience and there are a couple of cameras concentrated on the show. It will be seen on the screen and it blends over onto our tour visuals, which are based on the album artwork. A lot of this is animated – for different songs we have taken visuals from the original artwork and animated certain parts and we have special visuals for each individual song.
…whether this technology will make a gig more of an individual, rather than a communal experience?
Arno: If you have a certain part in the show, I can also imagine that people trigger some crazy sounds and say ‘Hey, do some noise!’, because people will film anyway. We just went to a Prince concert in Seattle and they took away a woman’s phone because they said he’s not willing to allow any phones out in the room. We never had any problem when people filmed the show. Sometimes when you do DJ shows and you are much closer to the audience, normally there is a bigger distance; there are guys who hold a fucking mobile in your face for one hour. Just like this [demonstrates] they want to hear a certain song and then you have to say, ‘Sorry, this is not possible’. But if people take pictures, it’s fine for me. People’s reliance on their phones is a crazy thing nowadays, though. For example, my son lives entirely on his phone…
Walter: It’s this Shazam thing at DJ shows; they always want to know which track you play so they hold phones in the air to Shazam your song. It is how it is, but we said, ‘People will do this anyway, why don’t we do some more with it and make it part of the show?’ instead of just recording the show.
…whether this is a progression from people DJing on their phones?
Arno: There are many DJs that tried it, they had these little controllers for phones and actually we did a DJ set a few years ago for a brand we can’t mention… [laughs, as does Walter]. Anyway, we did a DJ set with 2 phones so we’re always trying out new things and are open for new technologies. It’s more-or-less… I don’t know yet, we just tried it out for the first time but it gives people an idea of what comes next. It’s a technology that is everywhere –restaurants, concert halls, museums, everybody has a mobile with them and you can do much more with these phones than people would think of. I think that’s the first step and as far as I can say it will be very interesting to see and to hear.
Walter: Who would have imagined a couple of years back that DJs would now work with computers on stage? When the first computers came up everybody thought they must be crazy to use them. Now it’s pretty much standard, things are moving forward obviously for us as producers for example; when we’re not doing live shows we do DJ sets as well and we use computers there because for us, coming from the producers side, it wouldn’t make sense to play with vinyl or CD because computers give us a lot more flexibility. There are programmes where you can just jump back and forth, it’s a benefit for us and how we approach music because it’s not just linear. Also, in the live show we have a couple of laptops, we tried out wi-fi in the old days but we couldn’t get away with it because there was too much interference. That’s also a special thing, if you want something rock solid on stage. If you want to mess around, trying crazy things, then all this new technology is definitely there. Also, a lot of the synthesisers, I bought a couple of apps, to mess around with which are great!
Arno: Probably some day you can have the sound in different part of the concert hall though an iPad system and you just control it from the stage. It’s the first start to control things, before that it wasn’t possible, and we’ll see how far we can go. It’s not the end; it’s just the start with new technology. There were DJs who played out of a mobile controller but for a whole show it was just a bit boring because it’s just the mobile in the DJs hand, there’s nothing to see. That’s why we have drums and keyboards and we play live music. That’s probably why Vodafone asked us to do this because they thought ‘These are the right guys, they play electronic music in a way not as DJs; they play house music with instruments’ and that made it interesting for them to ask us. It’s a combination of these things, to give the people new things to see and experience. You can do a DJ show in Madrid and you can play Coachella and it’s all good but sometimes you have to leave the comfort zone and that’s what we do today.
…whether live electronic acts will eventually have their own app that fans can buy before the show or will it be a niche experience?
Arno: We’ll see! They asked us already if we could imagine doing it for a bigger audience, it’s a question of the technology – the latency is a problem, the limited sounds, it’s very complex but it’s very simple in the end, but complex to make it happen. It’s always the same in the beginning of any technology, I remember when there was the first video recorder – it was very complex and unstable but nowadays it’s such an easy thing. It doesn’t really exist anymore but the last series of video recorders was high definition and easy to work with. It’s a start, a test, and probably somebody else will think it’s a great idea and they can improve it through the technology further down the road. Another band could do a whole concert with it.
I could imagine that especially around a show it could be interesting, to get more information about the show. I would hope that still the experience of a live show will be there. We’re pretty old school with our music and we perform on the stage. People listen and we share the experience together, we also have the techno background where we grew up with techno and house music so the experience we have in the club is unlike anything. The world is outside, people are in the club and that’s it. It’s a pretty amazing experience and I’m lucky to have had this experience. In the early 90s mobiles were nothing and there were a couple of hundred people who go crazy to music and that was the universe; [smiles] it couldn’t get any better. Nowadays it’s very different. If I walk through clubs it’s very rare that you get the same experience as back in the 90s, when the roof took off, everybody was exactly in the same state of mind and everybody was absolutely in it and felt the same and it was so positive. I’m happy I experienced this and I’m sure people have this now as well, it’s just getting more difficult to get everybody concentrating, well not concentrating, but you have to be in this mood. You have to let yourself go and you always have to contact people and tell them how great it is and send them pictures – you’re very distracted.
Walter: It’s the same with the cinema; we’re just trying out an alternative. It’s not the new concept of live performance at all but you can go to a 2D, 3D or 4D cinema so there are all kinds of different things you can imagine, holograms are probably the next big things and Michael Jackson will probably come back to earth as a hologram so these are all concepts people do just to make it a little bit different. It’s something that’s nice entertainment.
…whether this will be a big influence on how they make their next album?
Arno: I don’t think so, no. I would never write a song for technology. I write a song because I have the feeling that I have to write that song. I never think about the audience, technology or the sound system.
…that there’s no part of them that thinks ‘that would have worked better with that show’?
Arno: If I would think like that I wouldn’t be creative any more.
Walter: The good thing actually is [that] we want to do something especially for this show which gave us input for something we might do for a real show. You never do anything totally in vain, there’s always something you can take out of it.
Arno: In the future we will do this, and we already did, we will go to the front [of the] stage during a song and play some sounds and go back to the big set-up so we have this movement between small and big set-up. Between acoustic set and electronic set, a little bit like that. This is something that we will keep for sure and it’s one thing that will stay with us from this experience.
Manu Ekanayake ended up in Prince Charles at Todd Terry’s Reminder event after the Booka Shade gig. You can ask him about it on Twitter, but his recollections are probably a bit vague. He does recall that Todd nailed it, mind.