How Moderat Got Comfortable With Pop on Their Boldest Album Yet
The German trio of Modeselektor and Apparat reflect on their path out of the clubs.
Photo by Flavien Prioreau
A decade and a half after fusing their Apparat and Modeselektor projects into techno's most joyful cerberus, Sascha Ring, Sebastian Szary, and Gernot Bronsert have the casual but deep connection of men who've spent time together in the trenches. When they first started playing together as Moderat in 2002, the Berlin residents were integral members of a vibrant community of musicians who made the city one of techno's pulsing hearts of the world, though their collaborative project would soon take stylistic turns that found them quickly leaving the austere scene behind.
The supergroup started out intending to explore the same twitchy sounds and styles that they already expressed an affinity towards as separate acts (see the tangled glitch bombs of their 2003 EP Auf Kosten Der Gesundheit). But their collaborations took a curious detour as the three explored their willingness to push each other creatively and uncovered an unexpected shared love of pop. Their third album together, fittingly titled III, is both their most innovative and most accessible release yet. Tracky beats share space with gasping live horns, while techno-based songs like "Running" and "Finder" sit comfortably next to more melody-focused cuts like "Eating Hooks" and "The Fool" that wouldn't sound out of place on American pop radio. Most strikingly, Ring's emerged as a full-blown vocalist, versatile enough to handle a sensuous two-step track or a beat made out of glitchy jazz-inflected percussion.
In early February, the trio hunkered down at their label's Greenpoint office for a lengthy conversation about III in advance of its April 1 release on Modeselektor's Monkeytown label and Mute. Dipping and diving between half-translated German idioms, self-deprecating humor, and intense conversation about their songwriting process, Ring and Bronsert bantered and bickered with a cheerful agitation befitting morning talk show hosts or an old married couple, while Szary mostly stayed silent, a sphinx-like figure in an A.P.C. jumpsuit.
THUMP: When did you decide it was time to make another Moderat album?
Sascha Ring: Pretty much right away.
Gernot Bronsert: We realized that we didn't have enough songs to play. It's very simple.
Ring: Also, after the first record we got back into our own projects, and switching back and forth turned out to be such an exhausting thing. We were so used to working together after the first record and then once we separated we felt like, oh, fuck, where's the second opinion? Everybody felt lost in a different way. So this time we decided to go straight into the next record without getting messed up with a different project in the middle.
That's funny because it seems like most musicians I talk to get more independent as they get older, and less into collaborating. What do you get out of working as a group?
Ring: In a way, we're that way, but as a group. We like to have complete control about everything. That's why [Gernot and Sebastian] have the label, [Monkeytown]. The people who work for us are people we've known for decades. We are control freaks, but not as individuals. I gave up on that as I collaborated with other people. I learned to love it.
Bronsert: With Moderat, it's a chance for us to get out of the clubs a little bit. Especially for us, Modeselektor, we've been in the clubs for 15 years. We enjoy pretty much this Moderat life. It's a band, you know? You don't have to play at four in the morning. We just spent the past ten months on DJ tour again, and it was nice and fun because it was kind of a holiday in between the Moderat tours, but last Friday we played from six to nine in the morning in Berlin. Sometimes when you do it every weekend, a hundred shows a year or more, then you are not a human being anymore. Especially not when you run a couple of companies and have families and band projects going on.
You say this is more comfortable, but you also talk about pushing each other creatively. How did that work on the new record? What creative risks did you take on it?
Ring: First of all, we're pushing ourselves through being very critical about everything the others do. We are quite open about that, which sometimes causes a bit of a bad mood from time to time in the studio. For example, I get less and less afraid to be a singer. Before, I was like, no, this isn't really my profession. I was still making these vocal ideas, but I wasn't really intending to use them, which is really weird. And then they just listened to them and they were like, yeah, that's a cool song, let's do it. And I was like, are you sure? Really? So I lost a bit of that. They gave me more security. The last album, [Sebastian] started singing, and now Gernot's started singing. We're getting more brave.
Bronsert: What hasn't changed over the years is our messed up vision. We don't really know what we want, you know? But we know exactly what we don't want. So this makes things on one hand easy, but on the other hand we don't really know. It's a lot about...philosophical stuff we have going on in the studio, talking about shit you cannot really see.
Ring: Since the first record I made, I'm always afraid the next one is too poppy. When I introduced a voice or even a guitar the first time I was like, no I can't do that, I'm an electronic musician and the world is going to hate me for it, or whatever. And it never happened.
Bronsert: I felt sometimes a little like the pop police, someone who's taking care that it's not becoming too cheesy or poppy.
Sebastian Szary: But it's also nice when you work on different types of genres, you have pop and you have the club thing, a pop-structured song has a verse, chorus, verse, and you can follow the path to do that, but you can also experiment with, okay, let's make something different but as a pop song.
Bronsert: For example, we're releasing two singles off this album and both of them weren't supposed to be on the album. I was sitting down until the last day trying to do...knack die nuss?
Ring: Crack the nut?
Szary: Break the ice?
Bronsert: To finish it after a hard moment. It's still a lot of trial and error. We have three different characters and tastes. We just found out that all of us, we all have old-timer cars. And I just realized that every car stands for our personality. Sebastian has an old [Mercedes-Benz] G-Wagon. I have an old Mercedes limousine from the '70s. Sascha has from the '60s Italian Fiat Spider Cabriolet in red.
Ring: Which actually doesn't fit to my personality at all!
Bronsert: It fits. It's a fast car. But no, we have very different characters and music tastes. Szary is pretty much the post-rock guy, post-punk, collecting Steve Albini shit. Sascha is a little bit of, from my point of view, more the cinematic guy, orchestral, new music. And I am pretty much into everything new, from everywhere. I like beats and bass and tracks and dance music. So when this all comes together, it makes an interesting mix.
The lyrics seem very intimate, very emotional. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about where they came from.
Ring: Well, it's an introverted record. Even though it's the three of us, still in the end if you write something it's personal. Basically, my life changed quite a bit after that motorcycle accident I had. I played a whole tour without drinking any alcohol, which I had never done in my life before. I had to figure out a lot of things. Even the process of getting more comfortable with myself singing, there's one song, "Eating Hooks," that's about being comfortable with yourself in general. That's what all these songs are about. They're personal and pretty much about me, but in the end I tried to put them in this context and make them more abstract so that it applies to other themes and [other] people's lives.
Bronsert: In other words, he doesn't want to talk about it.
You've mentioned how in Europe you're considered more of a pop act. There are a couple songs on the new album that feel like they could fit in on American pop radio, now that it's finally really accepted dance music.
Bronsert: Man, I have no clue about Americans. Sorry, I can't give you an answer. It's still a riddle for me. I'm so European, man. I come here to play and I have a lot of friends from here, but I met them all in Berlin, you know? It's even hard for me to understand how the UK works.
Ring: I mean every Katy Perry song or whatever, all the background stuff...the difference is not that big anymore. The whole electronic, and even underground music, has really made its way into pop music. [Pop producers] just do it a little more over the top. That's why the term EDM is a little weird, because everything now is electronic! Yeah, the differences aren't as big anymore. Which is probably good, because I think there's also some innovation going on. The last big innovation was Timbaland. Sorry, but he was a lot more innovative than a lot of underground people. Gernot always says, in the end everyone makes tea with water.