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For all its sonic nuances and ever-expanding taxonomy of subgenres, electronic music is, at its core, body music. When it manages to stimulate both the mind and the posterior, then you’ve got something spectacular. Few artists understand and execute this principle like the German duo of Arno Kammermeier and Walter Merziger, better known as Booka Shade.
The pair have been creating music together for nearly 20 years; they co-founded the highly influential Get Physical label in 2002 with compatriots DJ T, Peter Hayo and M.A.N.D.Y. Booka Shade’s music, a heady combination of static and swing, draws from a palette of bounding pulses, micro-rhythms and synth patterns that sound like they were grown not in a studio, but in a biochemistry lab.
“What you call swing is what we call the sexy beat,” says Kammermeier with a laugh. “It’s for the hips. The essence of the sound is house music, but with rather soft beats. You don’t have the big bass drum that goes all the way through. It’s rather small compared to other music that’s usually played on the big floors, but it seems to have the emotion and the appeal that an audience can relate to.”
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With festival credentials ranging from Sónar and Glastonbury to a 2008 Lollapalooza gig that Kammermeier dubs one of their finest live moments, “seems” feels like an understatement. On Friday, Booka Shade bring those sexy beats to a headlining spot at Lightning In a Bottle, a four-day, community-driven, music-and-art festival created by local collective the Do LaB. (The group will also perform Thursday, May 27 at the Music Box in Hollywood.)
“We’ve all been fans of Booka Shade for several years now,” says Do LaB co-founder Jesse Flemming. “We’ve actually tried to get them in the past, but it didn’t work out. I think their sound works well for Lightning In a Bottle because it’s not aggressive and it’s fun to dance to.”
More!—Booka Shade’s fourth and latest LP—is a step away from the more orchestrated, introspective moods featured on 2007’s The Sun & the Neon Light, and homes in on the unique style of tech-house they’ve spent the past six years perfecting with global hits such as “Body Language” and “Night Falls.” The album’s first single, “Bad Love,” features longtime Get Physical vocalist Chelonis R. Jones over an instrumental that sounds like three different dance-music eras folded into one shimmering slice of disco pop. “Regenerate,” released as a free download in February, re-defines the sound of new-school breaks, while the track “This Is Not the Time” is destined to be a set-closing summer anthem.
“When I hear certain tracks on [online electronic-music store] Beatport, or when we prepare a DJ set now and then, I often realize how similar everything sounds,” says Kammermeier. “That’s partly because it became very easy to create dance music. I’d like to think we put a lot of effort into sound creation. If you hear them isolated, some of the sounds we make are very simple, but it’s all the textures and layers that create an atmosphere. I think the beats [on More!] are very modern, but around the beats, there’s a whole universe of sounds that aren’t pointed directly at the dance floor.”
Their affiliation with tastemaking labels such as Harthouse, R&S and Music Man may have given Booka Shade an impressive 12-inch pedigree, but Kammermeier and Merziger’s mid-’90s plunge through the mainstream wash cycle is what honed their ear for melody, as well as steeled their resolve to reclaim their independence by any means necessary. Major-label money lined their pockets, but it wasn’t paying dividends in the soul. (Try to dig up a copy of their self-titled album as Planet Claire.) That creative shift helped to spark the creation of Get Physical.
“We came to this point where we got so frustrated with the music industry and the majors,” remembers Kammermeier. “We were just whores of the music industry. Very successful, but there was no love. We wanted a change, and the time was just right.”
Fortunately, the underground scene was also ready for something new. The big-room techno of the late ’90s had run its course; new software was altering the depth at which musicians could deconstruct, re-sequence and perform music; and clubland had fallen in love (again) with ’80s disco. It provided a perfect atmosphere in which their label—and their artistry—could thrive, and Booka Shade haven’t looked back since.
“Coming from big chart success back to the underground, where you sell only 1,000 records in the beginning, is a real decision to be made,” says Kammermeier. “It was a real step back, but we never regretted it. There was no other way.”
Booka Shade perform at Lightning In a Bottle, featuring the Album Leaf, the Glitch Mob, Lucent Dossier and more, at Oak Canyon Ranch, 5305 Santiago Canyon Rd., Irvine; www.lightninginabottle.org. Fri., 7 a.m. Through Mon., 5 p.m. $190-$205.
This article appeared in print as "Groove Is In the Art: Booka Shade want you to move your body at dance-music fest Lightning In a Bottle."