April 18, 2014

Modeselektor: Berlin Calling

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The world is littered with DJ/producers claiming to be “unique.” But few, if any, can match up to Berlin’s underground-to-overground heroes, Modeselektor. The duo’s DIY approach and explosive, indefinable sound have made them one of the most exciting EDM acts on the planet today.

Modeselektor’s Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary are serial risk-takers, blurring genre boundaries at will, disregarding musical trends and sniggering at the faceless, bandwagon-hopping DJs who follow the rules of others. They’ve also racked up the record sales, toured with Radiohead and scooped international awards for the best part of a decade now—and they’ve achieved all that without making a single sacrifice to their artistic integrity.
In short, Modeselektor represents everything that is vital and exhilarating about dance music in 2011. Monkeytown—the group’s latest and most daring album—has dropped at last, but let’s get a little bit of background info on the mysterious German pranksters before we even discuss that, shall we?

Rewind back to the mid-1990s and you’d find our madcap engineers meeting for the first time at one of Berlin’s notorious, illegal acid house parties. The years of lawlessness and anarchic club culture that followed on from the collapse of the Berlin Wall provided the perfect backdrop for the duo to do exactly as they pleased. There were no rules in their day-to-day lives and that sense of disorder spilled over to dramatic effect when they decided to enter the studio together. Nobody in the dance music industry was prepared for the maverick sonic assaults that were to follow.

Initially regarded as purveyors of wonky, full-throttle electro bangers, it soon became apparent that Modeselektor had an awful lot more to offer than big-room bleeps. They were quickly signed to Berlin’s most prestigious imprint, BPitch Control, as label boss Ellen Allien noted just how fanatical their fanbase was becoming. A handful of EPs had set tongues wagging across the world and, by 2005, their debut full-length Hello Mom! was unveiled. Elements of hip hop, grime, techno, dubstep and even ice-cool R&B had infiltrated their work, and this revolutionary pick ‘n’ mix of electronic music sounded good at home, in the club, in the bath, wherever. Put simply, it sounded like the future.

Critics drooled, clubbers went crazy and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke—a musician from another planet, stylistically—told anyone who’d care to listen that he’d fallen in love with their music, too. Modeselektor had well and truly arrived.

Fast forward to 2011 and their third, feverishly anticipated artist album, Monkeytown, has arrived—it’s a mind-blowing listening experience. Guest appearances from artists as diverse as Miss Platnum, Apparat and, of course, Thom Yorke only hint at the breadth of material on offer, which jumps around from thumping, bass-heavy techno, bad-ass rap and acid house to super-slick soul, heart-rending electronica and beyond. Released on their own, newly-established label (also called Monkeytown) this is the sound of Modeselektor at their fearless, peerless best. As always, every sample has been produced from scratch. Every track recorded with a bewildering mixture of old school and state-of-the-art studio equipment and, almost unbelievably, not a single drum beat is repeated anywhere on the album. Already a painstaking record to put together, Modeselektor has also had to battle some new and unfamiliar demons along the way–burn-out from constant, global touring, a sudden onset of writer’s block in the studio and the pressures of expectation have combined to make this their most demanding recording experience to date. DJ Times travels deep into the heartland of German clubland to chat to Modeselektor’s outspoken main man, Gernot Bronsert, about the studio obsessions that nearly drove him crazy. It went like this:

DJ Times: It’s often the second album that’s considered “difficult.” Why was Monkeytown so tough to finish?

Gernot Bronsert: I was the problem. I had a hardcore case of creative block which lasted for over a year and we actually only finished the album 10 weeks before deadline. I guess we’ve been so busy recently setting up our own label that we somehow forgot about our music. I was burned out and we both just kept on finding reasons not to be in the studio. We were avoiding making music. At one point, we decided to completely rebuild a wall in the studio… when all that really needed to be done was move some speakers. It was, genuinely, crazy behavior and none of our friends believed that we’d ever actually make the record. Thankfully, we’re back in the game now.

DJ Times: What turned it around for you in the end?

Bronsert: Weirdly, it came down to that whole process of re-organizing the studio. We’d collected so much gear over the last five years and hardly used any of it—there were about 20 synthesizers, drum machines, computers and compressors all just sitting there, still sealed in their boxes. Probably the best new find was a synthesiser called Razor, which was developed [in partnership with Native Instruments] by a Berlin producer called Errorsmith. There’s a track on the album called “Evil Twin,” and all it consists of is the Razor, a bunch of vocal samples and a 909—that’s it. All the synth melodies and basslines were made with the Razor and I reckon it’s the most innovative software synthesizer I’ve seen in ages.

DJ Times: Are there any pieces of equipment that you couldn’t stand to be without in the studio?

Bronsert: Probably the classic Roland RE-201 Space Echo. We always use this for our echo and reverb effects. One of the other staple bits of gear we used was the Korg MS-10, which is the best synthesizer for deep bass. That said, you also need to know how to handle it—it definitely needs to warm up for 30 minutes before you start, just to get the tuning absolutely right.

DJ Times: How do you guys approach songwriting? What’s your starting point in the studio?

Bronsert: I’m a bass guy. I absolutely need to have heavy bass in my music, but starting out on a track we basically begin with a beat and just jump on it. We make all out own samples, too, which is harder work, but I’ve always found it so disappointing when you hear a great track and then find out that it’s based on a sample from somewhere else. It really takes the magic away. There’s no drum beat repeated anywhere on the new album either. We didn’t use one snare twice, which is also tough, but worth it for the overall effect.

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