Get Physical: Electric Company
- Words: Vivian Host
Every once in a while, a label comes along that we can't stop loving. We fiend for their next release. Their 12"s capture something in eight minutes that entire albums can't capture in over an hour, and we are forced to listen to them over and over. Their anthems define important moments for us, in and out of the club. Over the last two years, that label has been Get Physical. First, they bombarded us with DJ T.'s electrifying Boogie Playground album and massive anthems from Booka Shade ("Mandarine Girl") and M.A.N.D.Y. ("Body Language"). Now they're branching out with new releases from Fuck Pony, Snax & Ianeq, and Discemi (Jori Hulkonnen and Tuomas Salmela), as well as a sub-label called Kindisch (which translates as "childish"). Here's the story of the people behind the little German electro-house imprint that rocked the world.
Get Physical's power duo makes everything go right.
With apologies to Lindstrøm, Trentemøller, and Isolée, no single track was more emblematic of minimal techno and electro-house in 2005 than Booka Shade's "Mandarine Girl." Boasting a pneumatic synth line and one of the most pervasive melodies of the year, its rushy allure cemented public opinion on Booka Shade's–and, by extension, Get Physical's–undeniable dancefloor power.
Its dual-pronged effect also robbed members Arno Kammermeier and Walter Merzinger of what little sleep they were getting. In addition to touring as a live band and co-managing Get Physical, the duo functions as the label's resident engineers, producing everything by label co-owners DJ T. and M.A.N.D.Y. as well as output from Chelonis R. Jones and Sunset People. Add to that their ownership stake in the Berlin-based commercial music house Perky Park and it's a wonder they have time to write tracks as Booka Shade at all.
Yet here they are, one year after "Mandarine Girl," wielding a brand new full-length that's brimming with an improbable collection of highs. Whether in the twerky electro of "Night Falls," the gothic shimmer of "Darko," or the trancey workout of the massive "In White Rooms," Movements is a looser, larger record than 2005's Memento, its sound specifically born out of the duo's touring experience. "The reaction we got during the live show is all in this album," enthuses Merzinger. "That's why it's more positive and more open."
It's a career milestone that's been a long time coming. Although the name has only come into prominence over the past few years, Kammermeier and Merzinger have been recording as Booka Shade since the mid-'90s and have been making music together since they were young. United in the mid-'80s by a shared love of Human League, Tears For Fears, and Depeche Mode, they spent countless hours making music in their teens. "Walter had two cassette recorders, so we'd play the one and record it onto the other," Kammermeier laughs. "We'd do it 10 times and in the end you wouldn't hear anything but noise."
Out of high school, the pair flirted briefly with national pop stardom when their synth-pop outfit Planet Claire (named after a B-52's song) scored a minor chart hit, but it wasn't long before the major label grind wore them down. After Planet Claire's "difficult second album" left the charts unbothered, they sought refuge in Berlin's blossoming techno scene. "That's when we decided we'd rather be in the studio working as songwriters and producers than actual artists," says Kammermeier.
Together, he and Merzinger spent the next decade flitting between the electronic music world–releasing 12"s for labels like Abfahrt, Le Petit Prince, and Sven Väth's Eye-Q–and the pop world, where they worked as songwriters/producers-for-hire for Culture Beat and German Pop Idol winners No Angels. While they relished the thrill of writing for the charts, they despised the attendant label machinations. Perversely, they quit on the eve of their first number one single for No Angels. "Even though it was my biggest wish to be number one, it [meant] nothing more than a good bank account and a number on a paper," says Merzinger. "I wasn't really happy so after that experience we decided never to do it again. Money-wise, it was very successful but artistically it was nothing."
It took a chance visit from old friends to make them realize electronic music hadn't entirely run aground. "One night Philip and Patrick from M.A.N.D.Y. came over and played us the right records again," Merzinger recalls. "We were blown away by Metro Area and Chicken Lips, and suddenly it seemed like a very good time for electronic music again." The duo joined forces with M.A.N.D.Y. and DJ T., and out of that partnership came Get Physical.
Fast forward five years and Booka Shade is leading electronic music's latest charge, something Merzinger still hasn't quite wrapped his head around. "It's quite strange for German producers," he explains. "Normally, Germans consume music but we don't produce it. But it's changed–suddenly we're on the table, people recognize us, and they like the music." For his part, Kammermeier savors the chance to lead the party. "I can always take pleasure out of the fact that there are people being very childish and letting loose and going wild and that we can write the soundtrack a little bit for that," he says.
Their dalliances in the pop world are now eons away ("We have to face the fact that we most probably will never sell as many records as Michael Jackson," jokes Kammermeier), but Booka Shade is steadily injecting pop back into techno. And despite everything going on with their label, their ballooning profile, and their familial obligations (Kammermeier has a son), they're having the most fun they've ever had as musicians. "I keep telling my wife when I go off every weekend that it's the dream we had as kids coming true," Kammermeier says. "The funny thing is, we have some very old photos of us playing live when we were 16 or so and the setup hasn't changed very much. I still play drums and Walter plays keyboards. We haven't really come a long way."
Since Booka Shade spends approximately 89% of their waking lives in the studio, we thought we'd tap them for a few recording tips. Here's Arno Kammermeier on the band's favorite software and studio techniques.
"Our favorite destructive FX tools are the Camel Audio series: CamelSpace (beautiful for dubby delay FX) and CamelPhat (very good for distorted and lo-fi FX). There's also [Smart Electronix's] DFX Buffer Override (very simple but very good for granulizing) and the Filter Freak series by Sound Toys. Another affordable but very effective plug-in is the SFX Machine."
"A normal Booka Shade studio session starts with effecting, bouncing, reversing, and bitcrushing samples so that we can fiddle around with our own phrases. The track 'Trespass 06' is a perfect example [of how this works]–the main riff is just an accident from an FX machine. We shortened the sequence to less than one bar so it was always moving around the beat and changing the riff."
"To get real punch and warmth we use Fairchild compressors (on Pro Tools HD3), Joe Meek EQs, and the PSP VintageWarmer. Sometimes I put a lo-fi plug-in in the master section before the compressor and limiter to have more dirt. The filter bank from Mac DSP is very helpful, too. Having a bit of bitcrushing in a bus after a reverb FX can also make the sound rough and noisy."
DASH Signature's daHornet Plug-In
"This is one of our most favorite synth plug-ins. It sounds really cheap, quite individual and unique, and the price is ridiculous–around $20, I think. The main melodies and riffs off 'Darko' are from this machine. It's actually an emulation of an '80s synth called Wasp."
Arturia's Minimoog V plug-in
"An amazing synth plug-in from Arturia with very good filters and some extras [that] the original Minimoog didn't have. Sometimes we use it for drum sounds, especially hi-hats. The synth hats on 'Mandarine Girl' are from the Minimoog."
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The label's rambunctious pair wants to party all the time.
"Hold on a second–Philipp just walked in and I've got to steal a cigarette!" interrupts Patrick Bodmer of M.A.N.D.Y., who's speaking to me on the phone from Get Physical's Berlin office. He's been jonesing for a beer and a smoke all night, and with good reason. He and partner Philipp Jung have been put through the ringer lately, having just finished a U.S. tour with Booka Shade that kicked off at Miami's Winter Music Conference–a week wherein, by some accounts, their white-hot 12" "Body Language" was the most frequently played record.
Miami glory notwithstanding, their Stateside gigs were a tad rough around the edges, in both the best and worst senses. Take Los Angeles, for example: "The police got noise complaints, so we were forced to play on these shitty monitors for about 150 people," explains Bodmer. "Nobody could hear a thing! So we got on the mic and started announcing, 'Here comes the next song' or 'Now the bass is coming in!' It was so funny that pretty soon everyone was having an incredible time!"
Such a cheerfully rough approach is pure M.A.N.D.Y. Bodmer and Jung have a rep as the rambunctious element of the Get Physical camp; and their back story reads like a series of happy highjinks, a music career accidentally born from the shenanigans of boys who never grew up. The two have been best mates since they played in the same Saarbruecken tennis club at age 13; labelmate and Booka Shade producer Walter Merziger befriended them after Bodmer threw a particularly impressive rager at his parents' house during secondary school. The seeds of M.A.N.D.Y. were sown in 1990 as a way for old school friends to keep in touch after graduation. (The acronym is anyone's guess, though; it's a boyhood in-joke that the two are notoriously tightlipped about.)
"We were university students raving our asses off, and we just said, 'Hey, we have these friends with a studio, let's make some music with them,'" Bodmer recalls. "Arno [Kammermeier, of Booka Shade] and Walter had a synth pop band back then–they wanted to be like Depeche Mode! But when we came in and started pushing buttons, somehow what came out was techno."
In the past few years, along with their Get Physical labelmates, M.A.N.D.Y. has propelled the electro-house sound to center stage, rescuing house from the operating-table sterility of the micro formula and putting it back on the dancefloor with plenty of retro-acid arpeggiation, muscular rhythms, and just enough swing. Tracks such as the vocoder-led "Don't Stop" or "Put Put Put," heard on M.A.N.D.Y.'s first mix compilation for the label in 2004, recall sweaty clubs of past decades while maneuvering smartly past nostalgia. It's a brand of chutzpah that has since brought the duo steady work as remixers for folks like Fischerspooner, Freeform Five, Rex the Dog, and Röyksopp.
With the release of their third DJ mix, Get Physical Vol. II, Jung and Bodmer view the "electro-house" moniker with the suspicion of Dr. Frankenstein beholding his monster. "We've been talking lately about how to get out of this 'electro-house' trap," says Bodmer. "In the beginning it was the right term, because the music had a more electronic sound; [it had] the energy of techno but was still danceable. But now producers everywhere are just injecting these big basslines into house music, and it's become soulless."
Though he offers the term "science-fiction disco" as an alternative, Bodmer suggests that dance music has now inbred to such an extent that genres are beside the point. "At this point, you don't need a house music revolution anymore," he offers. "Why should you need a new name for it, when some of the best records we play are from 20 years ago? Let's just call it house music from 2006!"
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Chelonis R. Jones
An iconoclastic vocalist banishes bedroom techno once and for all.
Chelonis R. Jones has been Get Physical's underdog since his first two Booka Shade-produced singles, 2002's "One & One" and its follow-up, "I Don't Know." The tracks pulse with a voice rarely heard in Germany's minimal techno scene–a melancholy falsetto more akin to Chicago house diva Robert Owens than L'uomo's pop whispers.
Jones' unique sound is shaped by his history. After growing up in California, he moved to Europe by way of NYC in the mid-'90s to chase artistic dreams. Now stationed in Frankfurt, he creates music and art inspired by a difficult adolescence, rough times on the street, avoiding skinheads in Berlin and Frankfurt, and the more than 25 bands he's played with throughout his career. Still, he says the biggest coup in his career was moving to Europe in the first place. "[In New York]' would've been buried underneath [the competition] in one year," he says. "Because I was so strange for the German electronic scene, it gave me a chance to actually surface."
Jones still remains relatively unheard of in the States, despite the European success of his 2005 debut album, Dislocated Genius. The outspoken record pairs frank, thought-provoking lyrics with of-the-moment dance arrangements, delivering directives to "Move your body" and "Use your mind" at the same time. Jones says that the depth of his lyrical content often got lost amidst the grooves. "A lot of people think Dislocated was the party album of the year, which I find utterly offensive," he balks.
Dislocated explores themes of race, identity, and the loneliness that comes with eccentricity, carrying on a dialogue begun on past singles like "Black Sabrina," which honored Harlem renaissance poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. "Blackface" tackles racism head-on, as does the incendiary album art, which features a painting Jones made of a "darkie" eating a slice of watermelon. "You get racism everywhere you go," Jones says. "Even in Europe it still exists. If you're beautiful or not, the first thing you are to people is black."
Though his lyrics are rarely gender-specific, Chelonis R. Jones can nonetheless be extremely camp. He doesn't mind the inevitable curiosity about his upfront sexuality. "I'm a cosmo-sexual," he laughs, when asked about his orientation. "I can't decide so I don't think about it anymore. It takes too much time."
Indeed, time is valuable to Jones, whose next focus is popularizing himself in his homeland. This looks likely to happen later this year when Get Physical releases Chatterton, a new album which Jones promises will be "even more scandalous."
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A no-nonsense mixmaster condenses 20 years of house into a distinctive style all his own.
Thomas Koch (a.k.a. DJ T.) says the movie character he most identifies with is Star Wars' C-3P0. Perhaps it's not surprising that Koch feels like a droid at the moment–he's been on the road for months, from New York to Sydney to Jakarta, spreading the gospel of Get Physical, all the while listening to every demo that comes through the label's mailbox.
Koch is the real DJ star of the crew, delivering shimmering, flawlessly executed sets that expose the label's ethos as they span the gamut of house, from Italo to acid to futurist robot funk. These same influences informed his electrifying debut, December, 2005 Boogie Playground, whose titles–"Galaga," "Rave D'Amour," "Rimini Rimini Rimini"–speak volumes about the '80s underground influences that lie within.
"I feel like I have more in common with artists like Joakim and Tomas Barfod than with all these electro-housers," says 36-year-old Koch when I quiz him about his place in the genre. "For most of the current producers, electro-house means only bringing maximum functional beats and fat synth basslines together. It reminds of middle-to-late-'80s pop–very clean. What gets released under this category is all pretty much the same formula; it's too cold, too sterile for my sets. I miss the butt-moving grooves, as well as the warm elements and organic and hypnotic [vibes]."
For a DJ/producer, Koch has quite clear ideas of what he likes and doesn't like, which translate into some helpful advice for up-and-coming DJs. "Staying in the international market over decades is all about developing your own unique style," he counsels. "If your style can be confounded with somebody else's, then you can of course still do a proper thing, but you will never reach the top class. Don't fall into the common trap of trying to play a mix up of everything that seems to be hip. Have faith to your roots and express your roots in your music."
Then again, while Koch spends most of his working life in nightclubs, he's quite content to sit at home with his "ridiculously huge" DVD collection during his off hours. "To be honest, there is not much motivation to go to nightclubs when I'm not playing," he avers. "On the other hand, I'm sure that I will never stop doing it completely. I'm too fascinated by the night as a medium to ever live only a daytime life."
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