Moderat Bring Warmth and Humanity to German Electronica

Moderat

Moderat. (Flavien Prioreau)

The term “supergroup” gets thrown around a lot these days, and in the electronic dance community you hear it enough to make you sick. But when I meet Moderat, the trio consisting of heavy, glitchy IDM duo Modeselektor and the more ambient, ethereal electronica of Sascha Ring (a.k.a. Apparat), it’s just this chubby Jewish music journalist hanging out with three dry-witted, understated electro-übermenschen from Berlin.

They’ve just finished recording a live DJ set for East Village Radio, and we’re trying to find a low-key bar that opens right at 4 p.m. so we can chat and have a pint.

In these few moments, Apparat casually mentions how the commonly agreed upon story among music journalists—how after a mutually disastrous, toxic experience working together on Moderat’s first LP in 2002, Ring ran into Modeslektor’s Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary by chance at a public pool and they reconnected—is bull. They just never bothered to correct anyone.

It’s a little truth that comes out even before we’re situated, before the bartender turns on his popcorn machine and the sound of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” threatens to overpower their soft-spoken accents on my recorder. Moderat are full of similar seeming incongruities: the commonly-held misconception that vastly different sonic styles make their projects more at odds than simpatico is a big one, which Ring challenges to its very core. All three of them work consciously to subvert the electronic genre standards, he says, standards that are more often than not ascribed to Moderat by the press that defines them, not the guys themselves.

‘It’s the dream of a little boy, what we are doing.’—Sebastian Szary

The Observer spoke to Mr. Ring, Mr. Szary and Mr. Bronsort in advance of their immaculately cathartic yet groovingly cerebral third LP, III. What follows is a window into an electronic collaboration where all players involved truly take the high road less traveled, the road of composers, musicians, bands, artists. It’s a window into the world of a German electro gentry that they gleefully subvert, where Kraftwerk is as foundational as Coca Cola and the party scenes around electronic dance are true communities that one grows up in.

Modeselektor took longer to warm up than the inherently chattier Mr. Ring, but once they did, the dry German wit that they all share emerged, a sense of humor that illuminated their musical curiosities, their cynicism about success and their unwillingness to let their music sound artificial or stale.

When we talk about Modeselektor as bass and glitch and IDM and Apparat as EDM or whatever, all these terms are very nebulous to me, as a writer.

Sascha Ring: That’s a good thing.

Yeah, and I imagine as musicians they don’t mean a whole lot to you either. You make what you make, you like what you like, and you play what you play, right?

Ring: Those are made for other people, for the audience or the press or whatever. You make whatever comes to mind.

But then I look at the press release for the new record and it starts off with you saying, “this is not laptop boy band music.” I have a very hard association with that idea in my head. I think of EDM, I think of dudes with haircuts not playing anything live.

Ring: It comes from back in the days of our 20s, when we met and just played.

Sebastian Szary: No one had a laptop these days, when we started playing. It was not common.

Ring: Yeah, the first laptop show I ever played the audience was like, “wow, so much sound…one laptop!”

‘We wanted to go with the flow and not get completely drawn away by our other projects again. It’s hard, at some point. It confuses you.’—Sascha Ring

Where were you pulling your stems from before then? 

Szary: Tape machines, 8-track tape machines.

Did you ever have fun with those huge analog patch synths that looked like a telephone switchboard? I think of Radiohead circa Hail to the Thief. 

Ring: Those are very fashionable again.

That’s emblematic of the physicality of electronic music to me, which I see less and less of when I go to shows. Less movement, less people playing things. And another thing I read in this release was that Moderat never really started as a recording project. Does that mean it started as a live project?

Ring: That’s what the “laptop boy band” thing meant. It was just the three of us for fun on a stage, and we didn’t even rehearse or prepare, we were just playing files. It was a bit of a fight between each other, also. At some point when we started getting more serious, we had to figure out that we need certain jobs in the band, otherwise it’s gonna be a mess onstage all the time. That’s when we started being a real band.

(l-r) Sebastian Szary, Gernot Bronsert, Sascha Ring

From left: Sebastian Szary, Gernot Bronsert, Sascha Ring. (Flavien Prioreau)

About that fight, the first time you guys came together was 2002? You guys recorded but didn’t work together again for a while, right? Sascha, folks think that your style of songwriting structure is a bit more lucid and dreamy and Modeselektor, your music is a bit heavier and pummeling. Is that why the fighting happened? Did you have different opinions of what a song should sound like?

Ring: Not so much, that’s our image [to] the outside world. Modeselektor are the techno hooligans, and I’m the dreamy whatever. It’s what people thought of us, but there’s much more to it. These guys, the early records they made were pretty melodic, and I was a hard techno DJ before. So there’s lots of other stuff inside we cannot really get out of us because at some point you choose to have a project, and you don’t stray. You don’t start making metal if you have a techno project.

I think that begs the question as to what extent does press and publicity and writers speaking on behalf of artists fail to communicate what music is about.

Ring: Everything is just subjective, that’s what everyone who reads newspapers and watches TV needs to realize.

[The bartender turns on pop music and a popcorn machine, at which point Szary grabs my recorder and walks up to the popcorn machine, capturing the pops.]

What’s changed in the process of this third LP together? How have your styles merged, how you approach composition…is it easier, more challenging?

Ring: At some point you know each other, and then it gets easier for sure, because you don’t really have to find out what everyone likes and doesn’t like. On the other hand, those things change through the years. Whenever we sit down to make a new record, we have to get to know each other a little bit again. This time there wasn’t so much in between because we wanted to try and avoid that. We wanted to go with the flow and not get completely drawn away by our other projects again. It’s hard, at some point. It confuses you.

Moderat's "III" is the dream of a little boy.

Moderat’s III is the dream of a little boy. (Courtesy Moderat)

So on a song like “Ghostmother” that you Modeselektor dudes sing on. Was that a humbling thing? What did the collaboration look like? And a song like “Reminder” has all these polyrhythms going on—

Ring: You’re actually the first interviewer to notice that stuff. One thing we didn’t do before was have complicated measures and rhythms. “Running” is also a 3/4, and for a dance track that’s quite a weird thing.

That’s what’s challenging to me. When you have something with this much of a sense of composition, that’s not traditionally something you find in “club” music.

Szary: Exactly. We always worked against the norms, I think. This is why we met. We are totally different characters and different artists, our point of views are different. But we have one thing in common—we were always swimming against the stream. When we met for the first time in Berlin we were the only two acts in the middle of a world full of techno. This was the electronic underground techno from Berlin.

‘It’s a picture, it’s precision, symmetric, very clean. Maybe very German.’—Sebastian Szary

Is there an expectation of audiences in Germany who go to a lot of shows to perhaps be more invested in the music or more present with it?

Szary: It’s not comparable to the U.S., not at all. We grew up in times when you followed not just the DJ, but the whole crew of DJs in the club. And after a couple of parties you knew everybody, you grew up with them. It was a community, and this is how we grew up, this spirit. We took it with us over the years and didn’t destroy the little boy dream we had. It’s the dream of a little boy, what we are doing.

I can’t help but think about Kraftwerk as the prototypical example of music that’s not only electronica, but deeply cerebral and thought-provoking composition.

Szary: Yeah, but Kraftwerk is more than just music, it’s the cliche itself, you know?

For better or worse?

Szary: No, no voting. It’s like Coca Cola is for soft drinks, you know?

[everyone laughs]

Szary: It’s education. When you hear the term Kraftwerk you have an image in mind. It’s a picture, it’s precision, symmetric, very clean. Maybe very German.

(l-r) Sascha Ring, Gernot Bronsert, Sebastian Szary

Sascha Ring, Gernot Bronsert, Sebastian Szary. (Flavien Prioreau)

But they were subverting a lot of that imagery, too, no? The fascist thing, playing with it with a great awareness. When you talk about the difference between electronic culture in the U.S. and Germany it’s very interesting to me, too, because I think that even in the last 10 years or so there’s been a decline in the seriousness of electronica. I see EDM grow to be more popular, and I’m from Miami so I get the club culture with regards to how easy it is for artists to travel with just a laptop a controller and they’re good. How is it different between countries with regard to how you experiment, and how the crowds respond to it?

Ring: Whenever we happen in the states, we don’t happen in that context, either. The states isn’t only EDM, there always has been some underground scene. That stuff still exists, so there’s not much of a point where those things [overlap]. From that point of view it’s not that much different here.

Well when you go to Miami the expectation is a lot different.

Szary: Bikinis. I go there tomorrow.

‘You can’t generate electronic music the same way you do in the studio, that would be really fucking boring.’—Sascha Ring

I like to think that at venues like Bossa Nova Civic Club in my neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, the crowds are smart. They care about music, they buy wax, they know when sounds are coming from a warm analog device, not a laptop.

Gernot Bronsert: At the time when we started, it was very special to be a laptop band because it wasn’t developed.

How has your live show changed through collaboration? When you think of live musical collaboration you think of a horn section and a guitarist…when DJs and electronic artists collaborate, what wisdom does that bring?

Szary: We were always a very audiovisual band, so we had artists supporting us with visuals and lights. This goes hand in hand with what we developed from the beginning of the careers. But onstage we play our instruments—guitars and synthesizers and sequencers, so it has nothing to do with DJing, not at all. We need eight people to make it happen, yeah?

That’s a good thing.

Moderat on Avenue A outside East Village Radio

Moderat on Avenue A outside East Village Radio. (East Village Radio's Facebook)

Szary: Yeah, so we have all of our friends who grew up with us traveling with us. The back-liner we’ve known for ages, the front of house guy, so we’re a band. We’re traveling on a bus and we have our gear, good monitoring.

Ring: Still, we have to think about the best concept to bring those songs onstage. Because it’s hard.

Szary: This is the challenge we want.

Ring: Every other music you just play onstage, but you can’t generate electronic music the same way you do in the studio, that would be really fucking boring.

Szary: When you reach your horizon with techno, you look for something else. I used to work in a record store, Hard Wax in Berlin, the mothership of all record stores. I grew up with discovering, it’s all about discovering new music and old music.

That’s how you keep it fresh.

Szary: That’s how you keep it alive. Otherwise I would just die, artistically.

‘You’re forced to follow a grid with electronic music, and it’s often a burden.’—Sascha Ring

Which one of you told me outside you hate the new record right now?

Ring: That was me.

Is it because you’re the singer?

Ring: Well I’m not only the singer but also one of the producers, so I have to listen back to it and hear my singing over and over. I listen to everything way too much, it’s true, and that’s part of the reason. But as long as I can remember, since my first record, after a record is done I always hate it. It’s part of the process. After every record and song idea I feel like that, then they come in and say no, this is great, let’s finish it. Alone, on my own I would always throw it away or destroy it.

The ability to take an idea and will it into…I don’t know the word in German, but fruition, you know, make it happen. That’s a benefit of electronic composition not a lot of people think about. You don’t have to sit down and write an arrangement. A lot of the math is handled by the software you use. How do you turn that into a strength instead of a crutch?

Ring: Well you mentioned “Reminder” earlier, and for a long time we struggle finding the right beat for it because it has a strange tempo. At some point we took this wooden thing called a Euro Pallet and just drummed the beat with sticks. We did that the whole time—we just went to the kitchen, picked up stuff and started shaking it. In the end, that’s what we’re talking about—you’re forced to follow a grid with electronic music, and it’s often a burden.

Why do you put yourself through that though, playing on a fucking piece of wood? Why do the work, why is it important?

Ring: Because it’s not quantized, it gives you more ideas. It’s more organic as well, which is an overused word but is important.

Quantization is crazy. Once you know what the term means, you hear it in music all the time. You know when something is clicked to fit in with the beats of a measure. You guys try to stay away from that, as a best practice?

Ring: At least for some parts in the song, it’s important, yeah. Or to have loops that aren’t too clean. Maybe some people don’t notice, but on a subtle level it becomes more human. Less German. [All laugh]

Moderat Bring Warmth and Humanity to German Electronica