On white planes

Booka Shade fly the friendly skies
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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."

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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.

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