The international dance floor domination of the German electro-house duo Booka Shade, as well as that of the record label they co-founded, Get Physical, came serendipitously. "The plan was not to have a plan," says Arno Kammermeier, half of the twosome, of Get Physical's heady early days. It was around the turn of the millennium, and Kammermeier and production partner Walter Merziger had spent years as cogs in their native Germany's major-label record biz, twiddling the knobs on Top 40 pop fare. (Under the pseudonym Perky Park, they even created an authorized remix of Aqua's inescapable 1997 Euro dance hit "Barbie Girl.")
But their real musical passions had always been more eclectic and underground. They first started in the 1980s, as so many others, as a synth pop duo. Called Planet Claire, after the B-52's song of the same name, their sound was steeped in the dance-rock crossover of Depeche Mode and company. "From there," says Kammermeier, "it was a small step towards club music, which we fell in love with around 1992."
While making paper in their day gigs, by the middle of the 1990s they began releasing original dance tracks. Heavily influenced by the earliest trance (before that genre tag was a four-letter word), their sound was dubby, repetitive, and hypnotic, but clearly marked by a melodic sensibility creeping in from pop. Their first releases as Booka Shade came out on a small Dutch label called Touche, followed by tracks on Sven Vath's Frankfurt-based imprint Eye Q.
And along the way, Booka Shade befriended fellow Germans DJ T, and another duo, M.A.N.D.Y. All were fed up with the stagnant nature of dance music after the late 1990s boom -- thus was born Get Physical. "I always have really fond memories of this time, because musically it was very interesting at the time. In 2002 approximately, there was a lot of change in the music, a lot of new sounds were coming up," says Kammermeier.
The label's earliest releases -- DJ T's "Free Mind," Booka Shade and M.A.N.D.Y.'s joint "Body Language," Booka Shade's "Mandarine Girl" -- came to define the Get Physical sound. Based on a four-four somewhere between house and techno the tracks were plated with forceful bass and brain-sticking, twangy synth lines. High-energy but subtle, it was a wake-up call for dancefloor denizens mired in minimal's sparse clicks, and with its in-your-face joy snared an unlikely swath of rock fans.
This has only been helped by Booka Shade's shows, which are live in every sense, and take place in rock venues more than dance clubs. Merziger mans keyboards, synthesizers, and a vocoder, while Kammermeier works the electronic drums and other effects. "There's a lot happening onstage," says Kammermeier. "If you only have a stereo backing track, and you just mime over it, it's completely boring. You can just as well stay home."
Booka Shade will bring its live show to the second day of the Ultra Music Festival, and later that night head to Charcoal Studios to play the annual Get Physical get-down. There, they'll co-headline with M.A.N.D.Y. in a double-tag-team DJ set.
New Times spoke with Kammermeier recently by phone. Here's a full Q&A of the transcript.
Day two of the Ultra Music Festival, Saturday, March 28, at Bicentennial Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Gates open at 4 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday. Tickets cost $89.95 to $350, ultramusicfestival.com
At Embrace and Safe Presents Get Physical Miami 2009: With M.A.N.D.Y., Matthew Dear, Italo Boyz, and Audiofly Saturday, March 28, at Kukaramakara Club, 60 NE 11th St., Miami. Doors open at 10 p.m. Tickets cost $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Ages 21+ with ID, safemusic.us.
New Times: So this is the first time you've been back to Miami since WMC a couple years ago.
Arno Kammermeier: It is. The last time we've been to the states was last summer or something, and it was a great success for us. And when we got the invitation to play the Ultra festival, and also SXSW, we thought it's great to do a spring tour, and then do some more shows.
We had a great show in New York on the last tour, at the Fillmore, so we decided to do this venue again. And there's another festival outside of Los Angeles, in San Bernardino, and we'll play in San Francisco and Chicago also. We play all over the place, basically.
It's gonna be nice, In Chicago for example, it was the Lollapalooza festival last summer and that was great fun. We made a lot of friends there, which we were quite surprised about.
But Chicago is a real house music town.
But Lollapalooza is a real rock festival and we were between rock bands! There was no other electronic act on the bill that I knew of. But it was a great success and there were loads of people.
Well, you mentioned the Fillmore in New York, and it's interesting because that's basically a rock venue too.
We play a lot of rock venues, actually. It's an interesting thing that happened over the years, when we first started to play live. Our careers as producers go back way longer, but we started to play live in late 2004. And in the beginning it was late-night discotheque shows so to speak, for the real club people, the ravers.
The more we progressed and also with the latest album that came out, the Sun and the Neon Light, we turned more and more to the live venues. We did more and more 8 p.m. shows, early evening shows, like rock concerts. In the beginning, many people told us it was going to be really difficult or impossible, because electronic music has to be played late at night. But we thought there has to be an audience who likes to go out early in the evening and listen to the jusic, but not necessarily at three or four in the morning. It was a great experience to see that people do want to come to those shows. So yes, it's more and rock venues and regular concerts.
I was just checking our your Wikipedia a little while ago, and I was a little surprised to see that the article compared you to Underworld, saying you started out as more of a synth pop duo on the Eighties and Nineties. Is that true, and can you tell me a little more about your earliest beginnings?
It's a great honor to be compared to Underworld, because those are great musicians. They also have this pop past. So did we. Walter and I first met in school, in the school band -- I played the drums and at the time, Walter played guitar, and he was also already able to play electric piano. The funny thing is, if you see pictures from this stage, like 1986 or something, when we were really young, if you compare these photos to recent photos, the setup is way bigger, but basically it's the same. I play drums, but it's electronic drums now.
But we were the first ones to really do this music in this small, little part of Germany where we came from. It was in the southwestern part, close to the French border -- that's why we like France a lot and have this connection to France.
As a pop group, we also had success, we were signed to EMI and had radio hits, and later on as producers, we worked a lot in pop music as well, and we had number ones as producers in Germany.
But it came to the point where we didn't want to be involved in this major record company business any more, because we didn't feel like there was a lot of love involved. It was purely a money-making machinery, basically. So we turned around and started this little label called Get Physical with our friends, and lived happily ever after. But basically we're really happy, satisfied people at the moment, because we do what we want to do, and we have control over what we wanted to.
When you were making music together on your own, at what point did you decide to change and focus more strictly on club music?
We always loved electronic music; we grew up with the sound of the 1980s: New Order, all the British stuff, you know, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, but also the Cure -- all these new bands from the 1980s that came out of Britain. Our band was called Planet Claire, after a song by the B-52's.
From there, it was a small step towards the club music, which we fell in love with in 1992. At first, we had underground success, we had songs or tracks basically that were played by all the Sven Vath people, everywhere in the world, but it was all for small labels. Then we had a time where we did a lot of pop music as well. So it was overground, underground, overground, up and down. Now we're really happy with this niche we're in.
It seems like your earliest stuff sounded more minimal, too.
At that time it was simply called techno, there weren't so many differences at that time. We love what is normally called trance music, nowadays. But when people think of trance athey think of Paul Van Dyk, or these Ferry Corsten people and stuff like that. But the original sense of trance is just repetitive music that takes you on a journey, or takes you somewhere. It also musically can be great to listen to, and very harmonic and have a lot of melodies. But the meaning of the word changed over the years, so I always have to be careful with the term "trance." I mean it always in the original sense.
Who were some people who were making this early style of trance you liked?
Back then there was one label out of Holland called Touche, and by coincidence it was the first label that we, as Booka Shade, released our music on. And then there was a label in Frankfurt, Germany, actually run by Sven Vath, and it was called Eye Q. It was the so-called "Frankfurt sound," which was very trancey in the early 1990s.
Why did you finally decide it was time to start your own label?
It was very interesting point, because we run the label with the guys from MANDY, DJ T, and then this sixth guy called Peter.
Just some guy called Peter, eh.
He's more background really, he's our partner in a production company, because own the studios where the music is produced. He doesn't travel and he likes to stay home and stuff.
We all came from different angles, so to speak. DJ T used to run a magazine in Germany called Groove magazine, which was the bible of electronic music at that time. He got bored with it, ran it for already 10 years or something. Then the two guys, Philippe and Patrick from M.A.N.D.Y. had their individual jobs, and wanted to concentrate on their DJ career. We had this history as chart producers, and we had lost, basically, our souls to major record company business.
We had lost interest in music and didn't believe in music any more, and we were listening to something new. So we all got together and played each other music, and they played us music that was played in the club at that time. Everyone wants to change something, and we said let's just get together and start this label, Get Physical.
I always have really fond memories of this time, because musically it was very interesting at the time. There was a lot of change in the music, a lot of new sounds were coming up, We also had the feeling that the music we wanted to release, we just didn't find a label where we thought this music would fit. After a while it was the "Free Mind" record of DJ T, and then "Body Language" by us and M.A.N.D.Y. and our track "Mandarine Girl."
Did you have a sort of manifesto for the label?
The plan was not to have a plan, and it worked great for us. Seriously, it was meant to be a playground for everybody. I always have to say, it's interesting Get Physical has a trademark, but I like to see the trademark more, hopefully, as a quality side. I don't believe all the records have the same musical style. Nowadays we have songwriters or people like Noze who are more like French chanson.
But what people mean, and I can understand that, is the sound that we came up together with other labels at that time was later called electro-house. When we did "Free Mind" for DJ T and stuff like that, this term didn't exist. It's great to be part of something that became a sound that people know. But I believe that we are way further than that, and we don't like to repeat ourselves, and like to come up with new stuff. I see it more as quality, when people say it's a trademark.
How's your new album as Booka Shade going?
It'll come out in the fall, I would say, like September, October. We have good progress at the moment, and we have great fun in the studio. Sometimes it can be real painful, because songwriting and production can be a real pain when you want to try new things, and leave behind what was there, but still have a sound that people can relate to.
With The Sun and the Neon Light, we tried to have more pop structures and also have some more vocals in there, but still sound like Booka Shade. It was more more like a home listening album, this last one.
The new one's gonna be more energetic again. It's like in the old terms, like in the 1970s, people would always say about good bands, "They are great live, but when you listen to the records, it's never as good as when they play live." We always have this feeling, because we're known as a live act, so we're trying to work on translating this at the moment.
We also started DJing also a little bit, here at home, and we're gonna take it on the road. That way at after-shows we can have fun and do our own after-show parties. It's really refreshing for us to work with other people's music and to listen a lot to them and listen to our music and put it into our own vision of music.
What's your live setup?
The basic setup is that Walter plays keyboards, and has a Vocoder, singing through a synthesizer on tracks where there's this sound. And he has the mixing desk and a lot of effect units. And I have the electronic drums, where I also work with effects.
Of course we have a set list, like any other band would have, it's not like we start somewhere, and then it just takes us somewhere. Our music is not so track-oriented. It's basically songs. We want a certain climax to work exactly the way we want it. We have the set list, and the certain arrangements, but with this we can go up and down, and work a lot with the audience.
There's a lot happening onstage. If something is on the Internet, you can only tell how much is live when something goes wrong, like if we play really wrong chords, or something doesn't work properly. It doesn't happen very often, and live we may sound very complete, but it's just because we take really great care that everything works properly. This is the suspense, the fun of playing live, that things can go wrong.
If you only have a stereo backing track, and you just mime over it, it's completely boring, you can just as well stay home. That's why we take all this equipment for us, and have four laptops onstage which run in sync and do the craziest things. We always get sort of a heart attack before the show and hope everything works smoothly.
At the actual Get Physical party, you're doing a Booka Shade vs. M.A.N.D.Y. DJ set. How is that going to work?
That's gonna be real fun. What's happening on Saturday is that we play Ultra first for a full live show, and then we come to the Get Physical party. What we want to try, and we're working on it, as I said, we got into DJing and we have these computers with Traktor. And we want to sync those machines and do something like a ping-pong, back-to-back DJ thing. I believe it's going to be very entertaining, either because it works really well, or something fucks up completely.
Why do you use Traktor instead of Serato?
I don't know Serato so well, and the Traktor people from Native Instruments basically live down the street, and they always come by the studio and show us their latest stuff. I have a new thing called Machina, and it's a special controller with a special software which we can also link and sync with Traktor, and it gives us a lot of possibilities of expression. We work really closely with the guys from Native Instruments.
When you're DJing, what other artists and labels do you like to play?
This question is quite tricky, first of all, because I always like to play not only one style of minimal-blah-blah-blah things. I also want to include interesting unknown tracks from the 1980s which are very electronic, and sometimes you don't even recognize them as being old.
We did a DJ Kicks compilation last year or two years ago, and this was interesting for us, to combine all different kinds of styles and still make it work for home listening or a club purpose.
There's still a certain percentage of Get Physical tracks I would play, and also some older ones from 2002 or 2003, and other labels. I always love Dirty Bird, that's Claude Von Stroke's label. They seem to have a similar taste to ours, because every time I hear something that is great, that has great production and still has a very good musical element, I go to the DJ and ask who is it from. And 95 percent of the time it's Dirty Bird.
There's also this new label called Mothership, which also belongs to Claude Von Stroke, which is basically the same thing. I have great respect for him as a producer. He always combines dance music with still this certain music element that makes it happen, which is what I believe we also like at Get Physical. It's club music, but still with this certain element that you can remember, basically.
A lot of club music is just for dancing and goes on and on and on, but there's nothing you remember. And sometimesa song sticks, out, and many times it's a Dirty Bird song -- if it's not a Get Physical song.
Do you ever get sick of playing "Body Language" or "Mandarine Girl?"
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Well now we have almost two and a half months where we didn't play, since we started playing it in 2004. Before it was never more than three weekends that we didn't play. Constantly we were on the road.
Now, I feel like, OK, we're gonna play "Body Language" again, and see how people react. We are always frightened -- this will never change -- that people won't show up, and people will hate it. It takes one show or two shows until you're in this routine, being into it, you know. Feeling what you do, and having fun with it.
I have to say, with a song like "Body Language," we can be so thankful that people appreciate this song everywhere in the world, in the rainforest or in Russia. Many, many people know this song, although it's a real underground track. It never went to the charts, and never went to number one or anything. We have to be thankful that people like it and appreciate it. You always have to say, hey, we are very privileged to be invited to play for people, so what should we worry about? It's great.