Modeselektor: To The Max(imal)

Publish date:

Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary of Modeselektor are wearing their hearts on their sleeves–but not in the tender, emo sense. Instead, they’re rocking oversized cotton tees emblazoned with a huge slogan: “Minimal My Ass.” This phrase, created by graphic designer Paul Snowden (of “Wasted German Youth” fame), is practically custom tailored for them. It’s simple, loud, and it boldly talks about ass. It could have only come from Berlin. And it defends–with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor–the importance of being maximal: of not toning it down, of keeping it raw and real.

“Berlin is more than the idea of minimal,” says Bronsert exasperatedly, over a shaky phone connection from the duo’s studio. “I’m not talking about just music; I mean, this entire minimal way of life. People think, ‘Let’s come to Berlin and get a $200 apartment. Let’s get fancy clothes and party for three straight days.’ But there’s more to [Berlin] than that, and people don’t always see it.”

Rocking in Rave City
Modeselektor is the other sound of Berlin. Over the last five years, as the cool pace and stripped-down pulse of Richie Hawtin, Luciano, and the Perlon label have defined the German capital to the techno-speaking world, Bronsert and Szary have been stomping in a different direction– reckless and rowdy and chopped and screwed. Constantly floating between zany and serious, hard and soft, Modeselektor’s short attention span rarely settles on any one thing.

Since their 2005 debut album Hello Mom!–with its cover of a partied-out-looking monkey face–the duo has been shoving electro, dancehall, grime, hip-hop, and techno into the same illegal space, collaborating with leftfield French rappers TTC, Basic Channel’s ghost-dub vocalist Paul St. Hilaire, and Satan (made evident by sweatbox jams like “Kill Bill Vol. 4”). On their latest record, Happy Birthday! (BPitch Control), off-the-grid drums and kooky glitch humor pick up where both Hello Mom! and their last mix CD, Boogybytes Vol. 3, left off. “Hyper Hyper”–a cover of a song by Euro-cheese dance act Scooter–pits Otto Von Schirach against percolator clicks and a gabba kick, flitting between grime and warehouse rave beats. “Black Block” is banging industrial, a Knight Rider bassline clipped by piledriver snares and a steady kick. In the end, the album’s wild mix of ideas isn’t a step away from the duo’s previous work for BPitch Control–it’s a refinement.

Given Modeselektor’s love of in-the-trenches bass and artillery effects, it’s no surprise they were initially influenced by Public Enemy. “One of the first [lyrics] that changed our point of view was Chuck D’s [verse from] ‘Don’t Believe the Hype,’” recalls Bronsert. “[Sebastian and] I didn’t have English at school, so we had no idea what it meant. We had to translate it, and [learning] the meaning of ‘don’t believe the hype’ was a big discovery. I guess [that line] is still our aim: to be real, to show something that’s true. We have an old-school mentality–just not in a musical way.”

Open Borders
The Modeselektor attitude–indeed, the attitude of many BPitch Control artists–is a byproduct of the duo coming of age in pre-unification East Berlin. When the Berlin Wall unofficially fell in 1989, Bronsert and Szary were 10 and 14, respectively. Natives of East Berlin, neither had set foot on the west side before then; their only exposure to non-sanctioned pop culture was glimpses through the wall and radio broadcasts from the other side.

“I remember Szary telling me about how he would tune into radio stations broadcasting out of West Berlin,” says NYC-based producer/DJ Matt Shadetek. “The stations had hip-hop DJs, so Szary would save up his money to get blank tapes, which were really expensive in the east, and tape the shows.”

“The west side [of Berlin] was influenced by the GIs and the British soldiers,” explains Bronsert. “They had a proper hip-hop scene with street art and breakdancing and stuff like this. But then, when the wall came down, acid house started happening in the east because there were so many empty warehouses there–tons of buildings with no roof. [It] made the east side the best grounds for subculture and art. Everything was open and new. It was like a gold rush, and we were kids in the middle of it.”

Live and Direct
By 1993, Szary started throwing raves in those roofless buildings while cutting his teeth on production with a Roland TR-909 drum machine and a TB-303 synth. Gernot began DJing around the same time, hearing about Szary through the raves he was throwing. They finally met in 1995–a year later, Modeselektor was born.

“Szary and I did our first stuff at a youth center that had a production studio for hip-hop beats,” says Bronsert. “It was paid [for] by the government, and there was a half-pipe and a basketball court. It was an open space, so these ghetto kids would come to us with really dirty lyrics and we’d make beats for them.”

“Those were funny times–there was a bar nearby, and we’d steal boxes of Red Bull from there,” says Szary. “We drank [that] stuff until our hands were freezing and our teeth were shaking.”

Modeselektor became further immersed in the Berlin electronic music scene, becoming particularly known for their 1999 party series, Labstyle, an open audio/visual collaboration with video collective Pfadfinderei (who still do Modeselektor’s graphic design and visuals). Their live-show reputation quickly spread; by 2002, they were playing BPitch Control’s showcase spot at the Sonar festival with Ellen Allien and Feadz.

“Modeselektor’s popularity has a lot to do with the fact that their live shows are the best you can see in electronic music,” says BPitch labelmate Sascha Ring (a.k.a. Apparat). “They are just depressingly good if you have to play after them… but that’s because they’re stealing my loops,” he adds, half-jokingly.

Besides working with Modeselektor as Moderat, Apparat is the “tech support” for Modeselektor’s live show.“He made us a customized version of his Max/MSP software patch, explains Bronsert. It’s called “Jihad”–the holy war. We use that with a JazzMutant Lemur, which is a really fancy touch-screen MIDI controller. It looks like Star Trek. We had to change the whole patch especially for this controller, and Apparat did it all in one night of work.”

Of Secrets and Systems
Though Modeselektor loves to goof off, the thought they put into production is completely serious. “There are producers that can’t even remember their own tracks,” says Bronsert. “But each one of our tracks is like a little baby–they’re all a piece of our fucking ass.

“Production is like painting–when you use good colors, the painting has a totally different quality,” he continues. “It’s not just about what you paint. Picasso and Jackson Pollock and all these guys… Do you think they used cheap colors? I don’t think so. You need analog stuff to record the right-sounding elements.”

Modeselektor uses all different techniques to get thier sound. They bounce tracks through outboard mixers and tape machines when they need to; they use software and hardware synthesizers depending on what the sound calls for.

“There’s no system to how we work; it’s always different. Maybe that’s why [Szary] and I still make tracks together,” says Bronsert. “[During the making of] Happy Birthday! it was a hard time for Szary because his father died, and he was really fucked up for a while. He couldn’t make music and he was always in a bad mood. So I ended up composing most the tracks on the album, when it’s usually 50/50. But I give up quickly–I’m the nervous type while Szary is laid-back. So he is the one that finishes what I start.”

“There are no secrets–it’s just a lot of work. That’s the secret,” says Szary. “You have to spend a lot of time and nerves.”

The Odd Couple
Modeselektor, the music, is so much a sum of the two dudes in it: Gernot Bronsert–spazzy as hell and full of nervous energy, all jokes and cheeky tangents; Sebastian Szary–serious, deliberate, his epiphanies delivered in careful measures, and always ending with a mumble or grunt.

And somehow this seemingly odd couple is able to create boundary-pushing and ridiculously awesome rave shit–so far removed from musical elitism, so human, and so really, really unafraid to be crazy. “[Gernot] and Szary are like a comedy troupe that knows all each other’s jokes,” says Shadetek. “One time, [we were] coming back from Hamburg and they had tuned in some cheesy techno radio [station] and were having this mad rave in the car. They were taking turns flicking on and off the car light, so it was like a budget strobe. They do that whenever, wherever. There was another party in their kitchen where someone sat and flicked a clamp lamp on and off for hours. Instant rave.”