OKAY, let’s cut to the chase. Who has the biggest record collection in Snacks?
“Aljoscha, definitely, without a doubt,” says Rene Corbett, the New Zealand half of the Berlin-based DJing/production duo. “He’s been buying up large of late. I don’t know how many he’s got now. Every week he’s definitely adding to it. He’s such a good digger.
“He has a thirst for new music. He’s also got a good ear for what people are playing. It’s helped us develop a really cool set, the Snacks kind of sound, so I’m constantly learning a lot from him.”
Who is the best dancer in Snacks?
“Rene,” says the German half of Snacks, Aljoscha Babel. “He used to do ballet. But we both wouldn’t win any prizes”.
“I have to say Aljoscha,” says Rene. “If I get to a certain point, if I’ve had enough to drink, I sort of get better. As most of us do.”
Who can drink the most and still maintain?
“We both drink a bit,” admits Rene. “When you’re playing all night you lose track. I always get to a certain point and think, okay, I’ve had enough. You get passed shots and I’ll say cheers with everyone and just take a little sip and put my shot down. Aljoscha just keeps going. Right through to the early hours of the morning.”
Who is the best cook in Snacks?
“Cock?” asks Aljoscha, with a nervous laugh.
“That’s definitely, Aljoscha,” says Rene, who does not mishear my question. Skype lolz. Although the pair do share a flat in Kreuzberg, so …
Let’s not go there.
“I’ve become really lazy since I moved over here, eating out is so cheap,” continues Rene. “My cooking has gone down hill. In Wellington, I once swapped drumming lessons for cooking lessons from a really good friend.
“She was a chef, so we’d go to each other’s houses, I’d give her an hour’s drumming lesson and then we’d cook something to eat. I did learn some stuff but I’ve lost it all.”
Aljoscha would respectfully disagree with his flatmate:
“In Stuttgart, you make Käse Spätzle – it’s noodles with cheese. It’s a traditional dish from my home town, from the area, and Rene loves Käse Spätzle and he’s brilliant at making it. I like to experiment more and try things out.
“I do a lot of cooking. For me, cooking and washing the dishes is kind of like meditation, you’re not on the computer, you’re not on your phone, and this is the time for me to be relaxed.”
I first came across Snacks (not to be confused with the Berghain club night SNAX, “the centrepiece of Berlin’s annual Easter leather/fetish/weekend”) when their debut single Purdie leapt out of the racks at Manchester’s premier purveyor of superfresh vinyl grooviness, Piccadilly Records. And I mean literally leapt out.
In a very neat marriage of form and content by Magic Jams, the label behind the release, Purdie’s sleeve features a striking and colourful illustration by Steve Harrington – it has the look of tight close up of a tripped-out Groucho Marx – precisely mirroring the sweetly-exuberant, fun-filled, slightly bananas grooves within.
“It was suggested by the label, by David Noema,” says Aljoscha of the sleeve art. “He sent us different paintings from Steve Harrington, and was like, oh man, look at this artist from San Francisco, it looks great, maybe I can write him and ask him if we could use one of his pieces. And then we sent him the music I think, and he liked the music, and it was okay.”
Harrington’s distinctive and vibrant artwork is the perfect match for the EP’s distinctive and vibrant title track, which is built around a drum solo by the guy who laid down the rhythms for Aretha on Young, Gifted and Black and Miles on Bitches Brew – “the world’s most recorded drummer” Bernard Purdie.
The story goes that Aljoscha and Rene were on a 10-hour trip to a gig in Warsaw and, taking advantage of the free wifi on the bus, they found one of Purdie’s drumming tutorials and sampled a few sections (before radically reworking them). This combination of inquisitiveness, serendipity, technology and mad skillz is, it seems, very Snacks.
Aljoscha grew up in Kirchheim unter Teck near Stuttgart, obsessed by German hip hop, and primarily concerned with the traditional teenage pursuits of “scratching and skateboarding and smoking weed”. He remembers night after night of honing his turntable skills in his bedroom.
“I was also in a hip hop group, T&M Productions – it stood for Tosh, my nickname, and Matteo – and I was also DJing for other hip hop bands. I was always more into the funky side of hip hop,” he tells me.
“I was quite slow getting into music,” remembers Rene. “The first things I remember listening to are my mum’s Cliff Richard tapes and John Farnham. Then Queen were a huge influence, and by high school I started listening to lots of grunge and rock – Nirvana, Oasis, Pearl Jam. I started playing drums at 13 and soon after started playing in the church band.”
Rene’s first proper band, specialising in Nirvana covers, was named, brilliantly, Crust.
Meanwhile, Aljoscha grew up at a time when Germany required its young people to do national service, either in the community or in the armed forces.
“I chose to do social work. I was already into electronic music, and I thought, I would love to go to Berlin to see what’s happening, and enjoy the city and do electronic music in Berlin,” he says. “So I moved to Berlin like eight years ago and did social work here. I did another three years of school after that and since four years I’ve been doing what I’m doing now.”
Rene had always been fascinated by Europe and Berlin in particular.
“There was a law change in Holland and it meant that I qualified for a Dutch passport. I jumped at the chance and got that in 2012 and left NZ a few months later.
“I was intending to just come and check the place out for three months. My job was kept open for me in NZ. At the end of three months, I asked my work if I could stay another three months – and that was fine. After the six months, I just stayed.”
“I think he really enjoyed Berlin,” laughs Aljoscha. “He kept saying, I love Berlin, and I want to do music.”
“It was the cheap living, the electronic music scene and the opportunities that attracted me here – opportunities and an electronic music industry that did not exist back home. I decided to stay because some interesting things were starting to happen musically and I was really enjoying my time, a new city to explore. Socially, I felt much more satisfied.”
The pair met one fateful Tuesday evening when they ended up playing ping pong against each other at some kind of table tennis-themed sports bar named Balkon Tripps.
“We weren’t so much into the same kind of music actually,” says Aljoscha. “I remember he was really into Siriusmo.”
“There was some talk of Siriusmo and Justice,” confirms Rene. “Aljoscha is a really friendly, passionate about music kind of guy. He has a great vision and hunger for music and gear. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries and that kind of attitude made me excited to work with him.”
Songs and ideas were duly exchanged.
“We were really inspired by the stuff he sent us, of him, which was well produced, really nice,” continues Aljoscha. “Maybe structure-wise, it was sometimes too complicated, too weird, too crazy, but it was great. Rene loves the rhythms, as a drummer he’s really into that. I’m a bit more simple, like taking one bassline and saying, okay, this bassline is the whole song.
“I asked Rene to play drums for another act we used to have, that was more electronic I would say. Not so funky, it was bit darker. So he brought a drum kit and started playing with us. I really like Cobblestone Jazz and back in the days we were more in this kind of direction. The act was called Gati Masina – Moving Machine – it’s still on Facebook.”
And also Resident Advisor. The live jam with Howard Sie on the player is worth a listen for an early indication of the playful, idiosyncratic direction they would later go in.
Rene and Aljoscha, feeling they wanted to work on “more positive music”, became a duo and renamed themselves Snacks. They began working with an Octatrack sampler, drum machines, a Moog Minitaur, a SH101, a Prophet 08 and drum pads, playing a very jazzy and soulful amalgam of live disco and house.
They seem to have contrasting approaches to making music. One interviewer characterised Rene as very precise and exact, while Aljoscha is responsible for bringing the chaos. Although, given that he’s a self-taught pianist, probably not total chaos.
“It’s true,” says Aljoscha, “but it depends on the project and the songs we’re working on. For example on Purdie, we started both together and then I went on a beach tour – for another project of mine – with the trumpet player and the singer, and on the way we recorded them live, in a hotel room. I recorded the Moog baseline, and Rene rebuilt the percussion.
“I’m mostly like the guy with the synthesisers who sets up little sequences and more random stuff. It can be annoying but it can be nice as well. I lose myself in that. Rene is more concentrated and brings it together. He’s awesome in terms of musicality and theory. I’m the one who is just taking a piece of hardware and playing around with until I say, this is a nice bassline. Now we can continue and record it, in the moment.
“In the end, I might not get a song out of it, but I had a nice time in the studio.”
“I bring a more traditional music background,” agrees Rene. “I would say we are quite opposite in our approaches. This works well because we both have strengths and can help each other when one is stuck on an idea. Aljoscha will reach for a hardware synth and I will use my software, or he’ll use a chord generator and I’ll write out a chord progression or play it in using a keyboard.
“There’s quite a contrast, but I think that makes us a good team.”
Whatever it is they do individually and collectively, it’s clearly doing the trick, with Snack’s warmly melodic analogue grooves winning them a string of remixes and releases for Hafendisko, Pusic and House of Disco. As a result, they’ve ended up with a busy DJing schedule, meaning they play live less than they once did.
“Playing live was quite difficult because we always had problems soundwise,” says Aljoscha. “It’s fine but then you go to another club, another location, and the sounds are always different. So then we started to use Ableton, and now it’s more like a combination between drum machines, synthesisers, which we play live, and drum pads and Ableton as a controller.”
“It’s good to do variations of the live set. We would like to do more live than we are right now, but we realised that sometimes the songs are good as they are. You can practice to make the songs better but it won’t really make them better by playing them live.”
Aljoscha says that the idea of forgetting their own songs and simply jamming live is a very attractive one. However, while they occasionally do live work with Berlin singer Magga Marv, they’re not at the stage where hauling lots of people and equipment from gig to gig is financially viable.
Finding good singers is, says Aljoscha, “hard, especially for our kind of music. You can have a singer with a really good soul voice, but the funkiness is missing. Or the lyrics aren’t good.”
The guy who sings on Purdie has a great voice. That falsetto!
“He’s my best friend, Matteo Caprioli, he’s a German singer,” says Aljoscha. It turns out Matteo was the Matteo in T&M Productions, only now, “he does more like folk, hip hop soul sort of stuff. On purpose he sings really high – usually he doesn’t sing so high like that – and then when he sang it, we were like woah, let’s record this.
“So he recorded it in his studio and sent it over, and in the end we did something else out of the vocal, but it works pretty good. And we used also a lot of samples.”
The duo are also understandably enthusiastic about their current single, We Want Love on Boogie Angst, and Get Me High, the track they recorded with Kraak & Smaak vocalist Ivar Vermeulen, in particular.
“It’s three songs, all originals, and it’s more kind of modern funk,” says Rene. “It’s a little bit different from our house stuff, I guess, but it’s still really funky and playful. We Want Love uses like an old disco vocal sample, and Get Me High has Ivar, with a great soulful voice.”
The release is something of a triumph. Noticeably slower in tempo than much of their previously released work, its three tracks (and one extended version) have more in common with the expansive R&B of the late eighties and early nineties than anything else – although, having said that, the low-slung instrumental Chatter is perhaps cut from similar (sequinned) cloth to some of the nouveau disco coming from Europe of late. Simply put, the whole thing is fucking brilliant.
And my missus loves it. There is no greater recommendation.
The key to a good collaboration is, says Aljoscha, “Funkiness. As a producer, I really like loops. Rene has the musical knowledge, but we sometimes need more musical knowledge or an instrumentalist to play a solo. And we’re always looking for singers, because we love vocals.”
This seems like an appropriate point to mention Aljoscha and Rene’s all-time, solid gold, 100% guaranteed, destroy-the-dancefloor disco jams:
“Ingram’s Music Has The Power is a special record and I only just bought the record lately,” says Aljoscha, after some deliberation. “I really love it and I play it a lot. It’s more funk than disco. When we DJ, for me, this tune is really big.
“We played with Rainer Truby, and we were talking about music, and I mentioned this record and he just pulled it out of his record box. He had the same record. And it’s really a rarity from 1977. I didn’t know there was anyone else playing it.”
“Leon Haywood’s Don’t Push It Don’t Force It is one of my favourite disco records,” says Rene. “This is the best online version I can find. It sounds way too pitched up though. It should be slower.”
“It has all the classic funk hallmarks – horns, Rhodes, guitar, a great bassline, heaps of fills and hits. It has a beautiful vocal melody and lyrics with sweet backing vocals. It puts a smile on your face within a few seconds and gets you moving.”
Aljoscha has an alternative selection:
“For me, Can’t Take The Feeling by Geraldine Hunt is a really emotional tune. I always have the record in my bag, whether I play it or not, it’s always there. It gives me positive energy.”
Despite always having the feeling that, as Rene puts it, “maybe our music was more for other places than Berlin,” it seems unlikely Snacks could have happened anywhere else.
“Stuttgart has a really small scene but the people are super friendly and there’s good music coming from Stuttgart right now, some good artists. And my family is there,” says Aljoscha. “But for inspiration, Berlin is a way bigger melting pot, where all different kinds of culture and musicians coming together.
“In Berlin, you can live really cheap, and also you can live as an artist, and believe in yourself as an artist. You can create a space around you and you can easily get shows, because there are so many venues. You can create something in Berlin easily.”
“In the studio house where we are now, there’s like a trombone player from the Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble, there’s the jazz trio Rusconi – you have a lot of inspiration. There are two or three electronic acts but the rest is all classical.
“But also, sometimes Berlin can be like, too much. You can party here like seven days a week. If you want to. But you can also enjoy the lakes. Or,” he laughs, “just spend the whole summer in a dark studio.”
Dark studio or not, Snacks’ music isn’t perhaps the kind of thing you’d necessarily expect to come out of Berlin. Does where you are have an effect on what you do?
“The usual music which is coming out of Berlin is different than Snacks,” agrees Aljoscha. “It’s more about techno, deep house, minimal house.”
“Berlin is really famous for all that,” adds Rene. “We wanted to do something a little different, a little bit more fun, because we felt that was missing in our lives. It’s what we wanted to hear more of when we went out. That’s how we started with this whole kind of fun vibe. I’ve got a lot of respect for that music, but you get a bit sick of it if you hear it all the time.
“We wanted to make something fun, have fun on the dance floor and make people smile. There’s that dark side of Berlin, but there’s room for something else as well.”
“My girlfriend is really into techno music, so I sometimes dig as well the techno catalogues in the stores, to find a good record for her,” says Aljoscha, “but a lot of the records are too dark or they are just missing the funk.
“Our sound is more like Amsterdam, for example, where you have Detroit Swindle, Soultage, Fouk, there are some artists there who are really inspiring for us. Like Art of Tones, from France. We really like their funkiness.”
“Playing this music has exposed us to more people who are doing similar things, which is great,” says Rene.
Aljoscha says it’s not all loop after loop minimalism in Berlin, pointing to the “great” disco and house parties thrown by Get Deep at About Blank and pretty much anything that goes on at Prince Charles. However, he’s cautious about characterising Snacks’ vibe as purely a reaction to the city’s predominant sound.
“I wouldn’t say that we do the music we do because we want to be different,” he says carefully. “We can have an influence from a techno song.”
“We went to a festival last weekend and saw Bambounou. He’s on 50 Weapons. I’ve never heard his music and he played electronic music, I suppose it was house that was a bit techno. But in the beginning his set was a bit African, kind of house techno, but then he played some Ovum records from like 2007 and it was really minimalistic – but he kept the funk.
“I was dancing and I realised that this music has wild funkiness, you know? I was really impressed by the set. I’ve listened to a few of his sets, so like we could maybe find a tune for us to play too. So far, I haven’t been successful.”
The Snacks sound, says Aljoscha, is perhaps best summed up by the remix they did for Fouk’s song, Gruff.
“It has a funk start but gets more electronic and gets this kind of rave feeling. They work the arpeggio and then it all opens up and you’re not sure where you are – and that’s how our DJ sets are. And that’s also like the production. We like it to have this funkiness but we also like it when it’s really rocking.”
I wonder if there’s anyone who’s career trajectory they would wish to emulate? And is it a straight choice between mainstream and popular or leftfield and cool?
“It’s important to not worry about it too much,” says Rene. “You put stuff out there and some people will love it and other won’t like it at all. You’ve kind of got to not let it get to you. But I love a lot of commercial stuff and of course, I love a lot of left field music too.
“I don’t know about a career trajectory but I’ve always wanted to do music and make a living from that. When I moved here, one of my things was that i didn’t want to go back to music teaching and I didn’t want to take another job outside of music.
“It’s been about exploring different avenues of how I can do this. I love playing drums, I love DJing, I love producing. I really enjoy all the different aspects of music. I really love the variety.
“It’s still quite a struggle, with music it can be very up and down, and you’re working for yourself. I just want to continue being able to make a living out of our musical adventures.”
“I think you can be mainstream and cool and still be leftfield,” says Aljoscha. “As long as you do music and it makes you feel happy, then you should do what you like. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing pop music or anything else, as long as it makes you happy.”
How much of Snacks is about having fun?
“A lot of it,” says Rene. “It’s about not taking ourselves too seriously. We don’t want to be artist who aren’t allowed to smile because they’re trying to keep up that image. Me and Aljoscha have a lot of fun. I think that’s what makes it work so well.”
“For us, it’s really serious and important as well,” says Aljoscha. “But yes, we have fun while we’re doing it and don’t stress ourselves too much. We are always laughing in the studio. And DJing and playing live are like big celebrations for us.”
Aljoscha and Rene seem to be thoroughly nice lads who care about what they do, and they definitely have their heads screwed on. For what it’s worth, I think the sky’s the limit for them. Their playful and inventive music brings together melody and rhythm in a very wonderful way, they’re top DJs and their new record is just great.