On white planes

Pub date March 13, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

By Johnny Ray Huston

› johnny@sfbg.com

Life on tour isn’t just about partying. It’s partly about crafty use of time and space. In that sense, the German electronic duo Booka Shade are expert pragmatists. Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier don’t just attempt to write songs while they’re on planes or in hotel rooms — they’ll record them as well. "In a traditional studio you always have the same atmosphere. Day and night changes, of course, yet it’s basically the same," Kammermeier explains over the phone from Berlin. "But if you travel and have a laptop with you, you can look out the window and see a new, completely different thing while recording."

Such flexibility is at the core of Booka Shade’s second album, on their self-run label, Get Physical. Its very title, Movements, reflects a recording process propelled by the touring connected with flagship club hits such as "Body Language" and the irresistible dance floor stormer "Mandarine Girl," which boasts a melody that sounds like it was made with a gargantuan electronic woodwind. "We had a good time meeting people internationally, and all that energy went into Movements," Kammermeier says, discussing the record, which like most of the group’s releases sports Hannah Hoch–like cut-with-a-kitchen-knife body parts on its sleeve art. "That’s probably why it’s a lot less dark than Memento [the duo’s 2004 debut] and has more drive."

It would be hard for Movements to be darker than Memento, considering Booka Shade’s first album, complete with a name that might have been borrowed from Christopher Nolan, repeatedly digs into the realm of film ("16MM") and especially film noir ("Vertigo"). "It’s not like we have a library of 10,000 DVDs, but we like the combination of pictures and music," says Kammermeier, who also scores commercials with Merziger. "One thing we did for [Memento] was put a film on with the sound off and watch the pictures while we were working — that atmosphere gave us a lot of inspiration."


Booka Shade’s inspiration and reputation stem from their label as much as their music. In recent years Get Physical has garnered a critical rep that calls to mind canonical imprints such as Warp and the still thriving house-inflected Kompakt. This praise is due to Booka Shade’s constant collaborations with mix-oriented labelmates such as DJ T and M.A.N.D.Y. and to their production work on tracks such as a pair of classic early singles by Chelonis R. Jones, "One and One" and "I Don’t Know?" Those tracks are peerless in both a pop and a club sense, with "I Don’t Know?" suggesting what would happen if a male diva from the heyday of Chicago house who possessed encyclopedic brilliance hooked up with "Blue Monday"–era New Order. "The chorus of ‘One and One’ wasn’t originally a chorus as Chelonis had sung it," Kammermeier says while discussing the collaborations. "We placed it there, like part of a puzzle."

Working with a talent as singular as Jones is a far cry from the duo’s early days in the music business, when they created Europop for Spice Girls–esque major-label prefab acts such as No Angels, a girl group for whom they designed a cover of Alison Moyet’s "All Cried Out." The dead-end results of those efforts and of Merziger and Kammermeier’s first venture as a group, called Planet Claire, led them to start Get Physical. That, and a desire to broaden the formulaic boundaries of techno in particular and electronic music in general — a desire further sparked on hearing well-arranged ’70s- and ’80s-tinged tracks by the likes of Metro Area.

"Walter and I were both kids of the ’80s," says Kammermeier, who grew up with a jazz musician father and guitar- and piano-playing siblings, while Merziger was raised by a Richard Wagner–loving father. "Anything that came out of England — Soft Cell, the Smiths, Depeche Mode — was very influential to us." Last year the duo’s ’80s influences came full circle when Booka Shade remixed and shared concert bills with the last group. And it turns out Kammermeier is listening to Soft Cell again, having recently downloaded both their underrated aggro 1984 finale, This Last Night in Sodom, which includes early studio work by the influential producer Flood, and their 1983 sophomore effort, The Art of Falling Apart. "I just listened to [Art] again," Kammermeier admits. "There’s so much frustration and darkness in those songs."


There’s so much frustration that it might seep into Booka Shade’s sound, if song titles are worthwhile clues. One single from The Art of Falling Apart was the club ho litany "Numbers," and it turns out the first single from Booka Shade’s next full-length recording will bear the same name. "We want to introduce a vocal side on the next album," Kammermeier says when describing "Numbers" and some of the group’s other songs, including a track created by Merziger in a Rio hotel room. "We’ll introduce it in a different way — not verse-chorus vocal but little parts that we perform. We’re not great fans of these ‘featured artist’ albums, where people just get a handful of star vocalists to perform on different tracks. Also, we can’t bring a bunch of vocalists or a session vocalist on the road."

That said, Booka Shade do aim to put their show on the road in the old-school sense — an ambitious plan at a time when many of the best electronic music makers are still better off DJing than pulling rock star poses on a stage. "People always ask what instrument I play, and I say, ‘I’m one of those guys who hangs out with musicians — I’m a drummer,’ " Kammermeier jokes. He’ll have to put that joke into practice as he and Merziger embark on their second US tour — and maybe he’ll write and record some songs while in flight as well. *


With Future Force and Hours of Worship

March 23, 9 p.m., $14 advance


444 Jessie, SF

(415) 625-8880


For a top 10 list from Booka Shade’s Get Physical labelmate Chelonis R. Jones, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/music.