Candle light and chandeliers it is this time. From the monumental facade of Berlin’s Volksbühne on the opposite side of the road, a red and blueish glow shimmers through the big glass window. A piano is quietly resonating in the background, along with the sound of champagne flutes clinking over a snow white table cloth. It feels a bit like being in a Luchino Visconti film, in one of those chamber play like banquet scenes, in which almost anything and definitely the unexpected can happen. Sascha Ring aka Apparat, and Sebastian Szary and Gernot Bronsert aka Modeselektor, are the main characters of this scene. And as they raise their glasses of Kaisersekt and elderberry syrup, to drink to the release of their joint debut album as Moderat, one can tell that they are still somewhat surprised they’ve made it into this movie – and that a neverending story finally ended up in an actual project.
Modeselektor plus Apparat equals Moderat. From a purely linguistic point of view, it’s a subtraction rather than an addition: something gets cut from both artist names, and the result is a somewhat shy, little word. It’s an ironic footnote to what is in fact one of the more ambitious projects of recent times. Modeselektor plus Apparat equals Moderat. To everyone who’s just slightly familiar with the history of electronic music in Germany, that is quite a big deal. Add to this the visual art of Berlin collective Pfadfinderei, and it becomes pretty clear that Moderat want it all – the best sound, the best visuals, the best show. They want dance music to become the full package, designed to work on a theater stage just as well as in a festival tent. It has to cater to dubstep fans and shoegazers alike, to techno utopians and emo boys. It’s about taking a sound that started as techno to the big stage, in the truest sense of the word. With such ambition and diversity, WTF moments are bound to happen. But Modeselektor couldn’t be more determined to take on this challenge.
Spaghetti bolognese for me, please!
Let’s however start from the very beginning. Bronsert, Szary and Ring, originally met around the year 2000 at one of the “Bärenmarke” events, the now-defunct showcase for the avant-garde of Berlin’s electronic music scene organised by Gudrun Gut, Thomas Fehlmann and Daniel Meteo. For Sascha Ring, who had moved to Berlin from the Harz area a couple of years earlier and, based on his own statement, had never found the way out from his studio into the outside world, it was a night of first contact with the scene. All at once he got to know Ellen Allien and her BPitch Control clique, the graphic and video artists of Pfadfinderei, and not the least, the two Modeselektor guys.
“When I asked Gernot what kind of thing they were doing, he said ‘We make noise.’,” Ring recalls. “I just thought: How cool is that answer?” And Bronsert remembers: “That was one of our first Modeselektor live gigs, kind of gabba-breakcore-hip-hop-whatever. I found pretty incredible what Sascha was doing. It was totally soft, shallow almost. Now I don’t want to say elevator music, but something like girly electro-IDM. I thought it was really great.”
The mutual admiration quickly turned into joint action. Moderat came to exist. The project has existed ever since: a loose on-and-off constellation of like-minded creative minds and friends. In 2003 for example it took shape in a video called 6 Minuten Terrine. Apparat and Modeselektor mixed up onions, garlic, tomatoes, meats and boiling water with their sample-mincer, while Pfadfinderei cut up images with the precision of a freshly grinded cleaver – here were the audiovisual spaghetti bolognese. Their occasional live shows were approached with the same spirit. A piece of software developed by Ring himself, the “Looperat”, was the tool of choice, and Bronsert, Szary and Ring made extensive use of it, indulging in truly anarchic jam sessions.
“Ultimately, this piece of software is responsible for the way in which we make music”, says Bronsert. “It would be unthinkable for me to work with anything else.” It sounds like a mere technicality, but the shared love for studio nerdery has always worked as a strong conceptual bond for Moderat. When it comes to production techniques, they’ve been speaking the same language right from the start – and the fact that they’ve used this language to tell entirely different stories has only added to this unlikely supergroup’s unique charm. “How would they sound together?” – that’s a question that has been intriguing both fans and the artists themselves for a while.
In addition to this genuine curiosity, Moderat also served as a welcome break from public expectations, Bronsert admits: “We were happy to not have to go in all the time, to not always stand in front of a crowd of Modeselektor fans ready to rip their t-shirts off.” Similarly, Ring happily took the opportunity to break out of his accustomed IDM circles and add a whole new facet to his artist persona.
A debilitating process
Moderat’s approach to music is spontaneous and cheeky by default. It has always been. And while this might be a perfect breeding ground for creativity per se, it proved to also be a challenge when it came to taking things to a more serious level, read: some sort of release in 2002. “Up to that point Moderat existed only in the form of an improvised live project”, says Sascha Ring between a piece of Wiener Schnitzel and a bite of Kaiser potatoes with parsley. “Putting this on vinyl took quite a while. We all didn’t exactly know what we were doing, and the more people were getting involved the more complicated it obviously got. It was an insanely long and difficult process.” As a matter of fact, it was such a difficult and draining one, that the resulting EP was released with the self-explanatory title Auf Kosten der Gesundheit (“To the costs of health”). Szary has vivid memories of a traumatic bike ride across Kreuzberg’s cobbled pavements, trying to deliver the finished tracks in time for an early morning cutting session at Dubplates & Mastering, after several night shifts. At that point, all three say, they had exhausted all their creative forces and were ready to symbolically enter a looney bin.
Back then, in 2002, the big breakthrough for both individual acts had yet to happen. It took Modeselektor another three years to release their first album, Hello Mom! which pulled in a substantially larger audience through its unheard combination of stabby basslines, broken beats and unapologetic rave sounds. The album got the nod of approval from Berlin techno heads and Paris avant garde rappers, gabba ravers from Miami and Maximo Park singer Paul Smith alike. Eventually even Thom Yorke came out as a Modeselektor fan, offering a vocal contribution in exchange for a remix, as well as inviting Bronsert and Szary to open for Radiohead on their world tour. Apparat in the meantime enhanced his shoegaze laptop tinkering by bringing back the good ol’ six-string and putting together a full band with live drums, keyboards and the singer Raz Ohara. His third album, Walls, was the type of stuff that brings die-hard indie-rock fans to tears – while his Orchestra of Bubbles project together with Ellen Allien almost simultaneously showed that he felt like raving again.
When Apparat and Modeselektor would work together again, was just a matter of synchronising schedules. The idea of a bigger project had been in the back of their minds for a while. So what was the tipping point to starting Moderat in its current form in the end? Bronsert is as honest about it as he is pragmatic: “It was the success that we had as individual acts. The right point for us to get started with something like that had come. Simply because we now had the opportunity and it was interesting to us.”
Moderat "Les Grandes Marches" from Pfadfinderei on Vimeo.
My bassdrum, your bassdrum
In contrast to the production of the EP, nobody got ill while recording Moderat’s self-titled debut album. However, everyone still worked up to the very last bit. You can hear that in the sighs, as the three put down their champagne glasses after toasting to their mutual workbaby. “We started working on the album over a year ago”, says Szary. “We exchanged the first files in the beginning of February 2008, and the board’s decision was to give it another half year.” That plan didn’t quite pan out. But to anyone only vaguely familiar with the trio’s creative process, it must feel like a miracle they got to finish the record at all.
Bronsert: We are all really stubborn. We sometimes argued about the sound of snare. And really maliciously too. About a snare!
Ring: And I could never pick a bass drum. I did make one though.
Bronsert: Really? Which one?!
Ring: The Out Of Sight bass drum.
Szary: Dat Mumpfeteil? (Ed. note: untranslatable)
Ring: Yes, that cool mumpf bass drum (Ed. note: untranslatable). You actually changed it later on, to the better, but I started it.
Bronsert: Forget it! I completely replaced it.
Ring: No way, you just mixed it!
Gernot: See? Here we go again...
And the madness didn’t stop with this nerve-wrecking attention to detail in finishing off the tracks. Moderat had barely wrapped up the album production when the rehearsals for the live shows commenced. With no less than 50 shows scheduled over the course of four months, they were less willing to take risks than previously. Moreover, the music was only part of the bigger package, as Moderat's ambition is to address all senses. Hence they recruited the entire Pfadfinderei team to work on their visuals for three consecutive months.
“We cancelled all other jobs and drained the piggy bank to have the time and money for this project”, say Pfadfinderei’s Codec and Honza who, after finishing their schnitzel, join our conversation to talk about the joys and pains of the production process. After providing Modeselektor and other BPitch Control acts with live visuals for six years, they felt it was about time again to produce something less ephemeral; something that people could touch and buy in a shop. Five films were shot and edited specifically for the DVD version of the album, also providing source material for the visualisation of the stage show. You will see endless, scattered landscapes, close-ups of bursting wood or exploding concrete in slow motion. The Pfadfinders casually refer to these films as “studies on materiality”. Just like their counterparts in the sonic department, to them it’s all about breaking down boundaries in a club scene that’s oftentimes all too narrow-minded .
“Another idea was to bring some of the fundamental topics in the history of the image to a more contemporary context in an almost analogue way, i.e. without much 3D technology or vector graphics”, explains Codec. “There are many cross-references. But at the end of the day it’s all brain masturbation. I don’t give a damn. It just has to great great and be fun, that is our ultimate goal. People should see a fantastic live show and get carried away audio-visually.”
Is post-techno the new stadium rock?
So here are three studio nerds and a group of visual geeks, suddenly giving interviews as a band. They talk about how it will be the seven or eight of them on the road—finally also including their own lighting engineer—and how one books a show in a 1,000+ capacity live music venue in the US. They almost go head over heels as they give detailed accounts of the gorgeous set design, the months-long effort, and the last-minute stress, all to provide fans with a strong all-round experience. This is when, as a Berlin techno person, you can’t help but starting to be baffled. We’re talking about an electronic music album, and all of a sudden you find yourself using terms such as “rehearsal studio” or “tour bus” without any hint of embarrassment. Wasn’t this the jargon of a world that techno once set out to counteract? Did post-techno indeed become the new stadium rock, and we all just didn’t notice?
Gernot Bronsert does not struggle with an answer: “With Modeselektor, we’ve already seen that it works. We’ve opened for Radiohead in Berlin, Spain and Japan at 5pm in front of 20,000 people. It worked perfectly. So yes, I do think that things are going in that direction. Although at the same time I could imagine Thom Yorke looking at the Moderat record in a rather critical way. Radiohead are into our harder stuff, our fatter sound. During the tour we made an effort to try and build really aesthetic intros, until they came to us and said: ‘Hey, just let this take off, damn it!’”
The first track on Moderat is called A New Error. In typical Modeselektor fashion this could also suggest “a new era”, with a tiny bit of cheeky megalomania. But at the same time there’s nothing megalomaniac about this music. It doesn’t kick in with a bang. The album works more like a classic pop album, to which of course also applies the old cliche? of the several spins one has to give it. And through those spins you can clearly hear how techno has almost entirely morphed into something that might be best described as “sentimental synthpop 2.0”. If Moderat were to curate a festival with artists that have influenced this record, then Surgeon, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Zomby, Stereolab and Rustie would be equally likely to play – with Pfadfinderei sharing VJ duties with the Lumiere brothers, Max Ernst, Oskar Fischinger und Kurt Schwitters.
There’s a tiny bit of rumbling in this music, but it’s a very sensitive rumbling. Moderat purr gently, they evoke slurs of rave nostalgia, indulge in indie rock rehearsal room like drones, only to let a 303 chirp as if that was the most obvious thing to do. It all sounds very surprising – but at the same time it sounds exactly like the music Modeselektor and Apparat inevitably had to come up with when locked up in one room. Call it dubstep to cry to.
A four-letter word called “grown up”
“Sophisticated”, “serious”, “prudent”, “grown up” even – all these words have come up in the conversation with Sascha Ring, Sebastian Szary and Gernot Bronsert. Honza and Cadec declared “deceleration” the leitmotif of their work, and they happily agree they’re enjoying this “new calm” despite all the stress of putting together what is easily their most complex piece of work to date. It’s apparent that they all have grown with the fundamentally democratic and therefore arduous team work. Moderat’s top rule is that everyone has to be completely happy with everything. Or at least “98% happy” – a phrase that has developed into a running gag throughout the recording process. Being patient, accepting other people’s opinions, not turning the bass up too loud: there were simply human lessons to be learned from one another.
“I find that record to be quite human”, says Bronsert. “It’s difficult to make techno that is human. Very few manage to add something that’s organic and warm and alive, without it getting cheesy. I often had to bite my tongue in a way; I would have usually pushed to make the sound harder. But at some point I thought it was cool to say: ‘Hey, let’s just leave it like that!’ This all sounds pretty easy. But In Modeselektor terms, it definitely was a process.” This is exactly where the double entendre of the band name comes in.
On the other hand, if we stick to wordplay for a second, the enterprise itself isn’t that moderate at all. On the contrary, actually. Is this going to be the Berlin sound of the future? Are Moderat the Pink Floyd of the 21st century? Will it all lead to world domination? Easy, easy! For the moment, the self-declared “grown-up men” are totally content with a great festival season ahead, and how they’re using self-created terms from their own parallel universe to describe their music—“mumpfig”, “Atompilz”, “Bunsenbrenner”—has a playful, almost childlike energy.
And still, here they stand on their big day, all neatly lined up in the middle of their own tempest of sounds: techno b-boy Bronsert, style-conscious Szary in his suspenders, Ring as a melancholic bird from paradise. It’s a beautiful sight. But is it one for eternity? After such a long prologue, it’s pretty safe to say that Moderat are not going anywhere all too soon. And after all, a grown-up life can last…
Words: Arno Raffeiner
This article was originally published in Germany’s Groove Magazine in April 2009.