From left: Moderat's Gernot Bronsert, Sascha Ring, and Sebastian Szary. Photo by Samuel John Butt.
Over the winter of 2012, nestled in the center of Berlin, Sascha Ring (aka Apparat) and Modeselektor's Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian "Charlie" Szary reconvened as electronic super-trio Moderat. It was time to record their second LP, the aptly-titled II. Four long years separate this album from the group's self-titled debut and back-to-back EPs, Rusty Nails and Sea Monkeys; but the music goes down slick and easy. At this point, Moderat is a well-oiled machine, a perfect admixture of Apparat's melodic sensibilities and Modeselektor's bombastic, hyperactive genre-hopping.
By all stretches of the imagination Moderat shouldn't work. Ring's public persona and music belie a thoughtful, reserved character, while Modeselektor's Gernot and Charlie seem to relish their roles as electronic music's pied-piping pranksters. Where the debut and EPs reveal a group occasionally struggling to reach cohesive stasis, II finds each of the three relinquishing control. On II, they allow their disparate musical DNA to become entangled in highly organic ways. No one was precious about the work on this record, and it clearly shows.
On "Versions," for instance, Apparat's penchant for ascendant melodies collides with Burial-inspired UK dubstep swing. The gradual percussive build in the ten-minutes of "Milk" plays against the silken, beautiful texture that begs for dozens of remixes from ambitious DJs. With the track "Ilona," Apparat dips Modeselektor's grittier, more industrial impulses in whispy, haunting synthesizers.
Around the time of II's release, Sascha Ring and I spoke over the phone about resurrecting the cultural ghost of Berlin, the importance of the deadline, and how Modeselektor's Charlie always manages to insert prankster weirdness into a track. Ring also told me about the moment when they finished the album track "Bad Kingdom," and thought, "Fuck, this is the single."
Thump: Are you guys in Germany right now?
Sascha Ring: Yeah, we're in Berlin. We're about to start touring really hard.
You guys had a BBQ for your record release party in a pretty interesting venue, right?
Yes, there is this place called Platoon, a huge space that our friends built out of freight containers. It's all green. They also built one in Seoul, Korea, and we've played there as well. They've been doing this for ten years.
How are these shipping containers arranged to create the space?
Well, since the containers are opened up, Platoon can hold probably 500 people. They have parties, but not really crazy techno parties because it is located in the middle of Berlin. With the gentrification problem there would be noise complaints. [laughs]
Really? Is there a crackdown currently under way against Berlin's club culture?
Well, in Berlin the authorities are aware of the fact that the club scene is a very, very important tourist attraction for the city. If Berlin were to kill the club scene, the city wouldn't have much else aside from some other cultural offerings. It's not the most interesting city in the world, but it does have a lot of freedom, as well as the spirit of free art and music and stuff. And I think it's going to stay like that because it's really liberal.
But, the only thing is that it's not so easy to have a random party in the middle of city because people with lots of money started moving there and kind of want to keep their old, quiet atmosphere they brought from the fucking village they came from. They want to have the same feeling in the center of the city.
It definitely doesn't make sense, but it happens in every city. It happened in the East Village and the Lower East Side, too. It's happened multiple times in New York. But, in Berlin, it's kind of a young city. It has only existed in its current form for 20 years, so the effects of gentrification are new.
Right, the city mutated from its previous incarnation.
Yeah, people are really surprised about the situation. Nobody can really believe what is going on here.
That reminds me of the fact that you recorded your last Apparat record in Mexico in a beach community, far away from the city. Do these urban forces influence how you record solo and with Modeselektor as Moderat?
Yes, between 1998 and 2007 or something, a lot of places in Berlin were temporary spaces. I was allowed to use old, fucked-up buildings because the ownership wasn't really clear, so they rented it out to artists and musicians for very little money. And back in the day the city was still quite gray. It had this cold feeling to it, you know? It was a pretty melancholy place, especially in the winter when the streets were abandoned, and it was gray and dirty. For ten years, I made music in four or five different spaces in this particular Berlin spirit.
At some point spaces like that didn't exist anymore, because all of them were sold. That's when I decided, "Fuck it, the original Berlin spirit is either non-existent or hard to find," so I went to Mexico to make a record in the sunshine. [laughs] But, you know, the funny thing is that the album didn't sound much different in the end.
The intersection of environment and music is interesting, or with other types of artistic media for that matter. A space can trigger creativity even if the mood isn't ultimately much different.
It's all about the little moments when you get ideas. It doesn't really happen when you're sitting in your apartment and you have a nice view. I have the feeling that it happens when tension is involved.
When did Moderat come together to record this album?
It was our first record that was planned and scheduled. We knew two years ago that we were going to make a record, and we had six months of studio time. We were in Modeselektor's studio in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, which still looks really East German. You have to imagine this place that looks really depressing and gray. So, we had this original spirit of Berlin again. We brought it back.
One of you guys mentioned in the past that in early Moderat performances, you three linked laptops together via Ableton Live. So, I'm curious if the recording process on this album was very digital, or were you working with a variety of recording techniques?
I have to make one correction: when we met 12 years ago, there was no Ableton Live. There was only a software patch that I programmed, which was kind of the grandfather of Ableton. I used that for my live shows. So, when we met at a festival, Modeselektor saw me using it and said, "Fuck, you can play a live set just with a laptop?" I gave the software to them and we kind of connected through technology, because of the nerd thing. And that's when we started playing live shows—because we could. Then, of course, things changed because I started working with a lot of instruments and real musicians, and Modeselektor built a studio with lots of analog gear and old drum machines. Charlie is a collector of a lot of old stuff. These days everything is possible in the studio.
When we start a song, it's mostly on a computer because we typically start songs on our own. One of us might be in a hotel room or an airport. Charlie will connect everything and then we'll have a jam session. Everything is allowed, even guitars and drums. At some point, everything goes back into the computer, because the way we work needs total recall, and everybody needs the same setup on his computer to be able to exchange songs. For instance, one day Charlie might be working on a song, and in the evening he'll say, "Man, I'm sick of the song—please take it home with you," and the next day you might have a new idea.
It's almost as if you're guys are remixing each other's ideas.
That was 100% correct for the last album. But, for this record there were no old Modeselektor or Apparat songs. We went to the studio with ideas on a hard drive and exchanged everything. A loop might trigger an idea, and all three of us would work on it. There was some remixing, but most of the record happened between the three of us in the studio at the same time.
Are there well-defined roles in the studio, or is it more of a free-for-all?
We kind of have roles. Whenever Gernot starts a song idea, it will always start with a beat. When I start a song idea, it's always a melody. It's a chord or sound. Charlie will always come up with some weird, nerd-type stuff. This is how we tend to distribute the work in the studio, but there are a lot of exceptions. We always like to mix things up because it leads to the most interesting results.
Was there a pre-determined vision going into the studio sessions?
We do have different visions, but there is stuff that all of us like. Of course when we talked about the record in advance we tried to focus on the stuff we have in common, which is still the space, the reverb, the layers, and the cinematic feel to it. We still all like this post-dubstep kind of music from the UK, and you can definitely hear that in the beats. When I say that there is a little bit of soul in the new record it sounds a bit bold, and I would normally never really say that. But, it's a feeling that all of us had, and that is why we wanted to put it in the record.
We only collect a few ideas, write them down, and that's basically it—that's our concept. From there, it's a lot of improvisation and finding where we end up.
What are your thoughts about the album as a whole?
When you make an album between three people you have to compromise. In the beginning of our careers we were very naïve. We thought we'd make a record that would please all of us, and we'd love all the songs equally. But, of course, that is not going to happen. When you release that record there will be stuff on it that one of us isn't sure about it. After the release you get so many reactions and and so much input from people, and then you realize that this is maybe a good thing.
If you make a record and you're in love with every little detail, it's probably very personal and it's very you. But, maybe the magic of Moderat is that it is the parts of everyone, and there are parts in there that not everyone would agree on. So, that is the tension again, and it makes it more interesting. And that's what I just realized again when the record was released. People told me it was an amazing record and the reviews were very good, but I was very insecure this time.
Were there any tracks where you three looked at each other and thought, "Holy shit, we've really got something here?"
A lot of these tracks were a long time in the making, because we started the ideas early on and had at least four months to finish them. "Bad Kingdom," which is sort of the single, was written three days before deadline. Sometimes it is bliss to not have enough time. If we had written that track early on, I'm sure it would be destroyed. We would have thought it was too simple and needed more layers or more edge. And then in the end you destroy it.
It's important to have simple ideas and keep them simple. All of us thought, "Fuck, this is the single." It totally made sense. Also, at that point, we'd learned enough over six months of production to not question it, to be happy about a moment like that when something just happens.