Sebastian Szary is concerned. After 16 wildly successful years with Modeselektor, one of the most original, genre-melting groups alive today, you might think he would want to take it easy for a while.
During their ascension from teenage rascals – busy commandeering basements for illegal raves – to techno’s all-conquering overlords, he and partner Gernot Bronsert have done it all. Very few other artists have spread the word of techno quite as far as Modeselektor, and none with the same brand of breakneck, balls-to-the-wall live performance. But Szary is not as contented as you might imagine.
He is worried about the youth of Berlin – namely, that the freedoms he enjoyed during his own post-Wall adolescence no longer exist, and that music will suffer for it. “Once the wall came down there was a lot of lawlessness” he says. “The police were doing other things, they were dealing with the reunification , so if you set up speakers and a smoke machine in an abandoned building somewhere, they didn’t stop you.”
Szary’s latest project, Moderat, releases its sophomore LP this August, and sees the Modeselektor duo once again team up with Apparat (aka Sascha Ring), a long term friend and collaborator. But as Szary explains to me from his studio in Berlin, this project developed in an environment now increasingly under threat.
“The government used to be too busy to keep an eye on young people too much. But now they want to take Berlin in a different direction; they want to make it a big money-making city like London or Paris.” And while Szary sums it up when he says “it’s hard to get investors to put money in the city if kids are having parties in your factories”, this isn’t just about curtailing a few teenagers’ night-time exploits. It’s a change that could have permanent repercussions for the city’s creative nature.
“Moderat might not exist if we hadn’t grown up in that atmosphere,” he declares. “Me and Gonsert are how we are because we were living in Berlin at that time, where we were always meeting people doing these amazing things.”
If there was anything Szary could say to illustrate this atmosphere at its best, it is what he tells me now, as we delve into his pre-Moderat past: “The Moderat project is something between Modeselektor and Apparat… but also Pfadfinerei“, explains Szary, “it is a relationship between three groups, not two”. Pfadfinderei, he explains, is a seven-man arts collective, specialising in every aspect of visual performance, whether it be music videos, artwork, or light shows. Szary and Pfadfinderei, he explains, share many of the same roots, having been neighbours in a Berlin tower block in the mid-nineties. “We had a really, really big flat back then, I think about 150 square meters or something… so it was a great place for all the people we liked to come and hang out,” he says. “Most of the Pfadfinderei guys were at other universities, although I don’t think any of them finished. That wasn’t important anyway, what was important was that they would come to hang out in our huge flat, and drink coffee in our filthy kitchen.”
Casual friendships soon blossomed into creative partnerships. The late nineties saw the birth of the Labland series, a run of club nights staged in a small Berlin venue that fused Modeselektor’s cutting edge techno with Pfadfinderei’s trance-like visual loops. The series was, in effect, a violently synaesthetic demolition of the barriers between art and music that instantly won a core of diehard followers. It even spawned a collaborative DVD, an 11-track release of Pfadfinderei visual animations set to Modeselektor techno cuts, thus immortalising the Labland project on disk.
The key to this partnership, Szary tells me, was the self-perpetuating creativity engendered by the fall of the Wall. “We ended up sharing studio space at BPitch Control as well, and when we worked through the night on different projects of our own, we would knock on each other’s doors and we would get inspiration from each other’s work,” Szary recalls. “Those days were very important to us as musicians.”
So far during this interview, Szary’s mood has been downcast, tied up with concerns. After discussing Pfadfinderei however, talk inevitably turns to the next chapter in this long-running collaboration, and the tone brightens. Moderat II drops on 05 August, and is one of the most highly anticipated electronic albums of the year – although it is only now becoming clear just how high the trio have set their sights for this project. Far from being just a straightforward collaboration between producers, this is a project with a far wider scope.
With the Pfadfinderei collective working as the unofficial ’3rd member’ of the group, Moderat have been working to overhaul the traditional dynamic of live performances. Although Szary is keen to keep specifics under wraps for the time being, it’s clear that Pfadfinderei’s influence is leading to a comprehensive overhaul. “I can’t tell you much about the live show – it’s a secret,” he taunts, “but I can tell you that we’re trying to change the idea of what a live performance is. Usually the best place to be at a gig is at the front, near the centre – we want to make it so different interesting things happen at different parts of the venue”.
While Szary keeps resolutely quiet on the changes to Moderat’s live set, there’s no hiding the sheer promise that the new album brings with it. There’s a sense of class and pedigree preceding this record – everyone that has come into contact with it, it seems, is one part mortal, one part living techno legend.
Szary and Bronsert’s Modeselektor have already forged themselves a formidable reputation for genre-dismissive, cutting edge techno, and the duo are certain Apparat provides the perfect complement. “When we first met Sascha, about ten years ago, we were so impressed with his set-up,” explains Szary; “we always used to say that Modeselektor makes noise – but Apparat makes sound.” With this balance in place, the group certainly struck gold on Moderat’s debut album; Modeselektor brought their tried and tested brand of glitch-techno, while Apparat provided the counterweight – his ambient influenced production lending the collaboration a subtler dimension. Couple this with the Pfadfinderei’s intriguing work on the group’s live show, and that the record is being masterminded from the studios of the legendary BPitch Control imprint, and you have a record that comes with the impression of unassailable class.
Szary has got things on his mind; this much is obvious. At the crux of the matter, Szary is certain that he is a product of his environment – someone born from the creative crucible of nineties Berlin. With such a strong affinity for that place and time, it is easy to understand how protective he can become. But maybe this is the final contradiction of the city that has, for so long, been so crippled by its own incompatibilities – where projects like Moderat mean people like Szary find themselves much less the product of their environment, and more architect of it.
Moderat II will be released on 05 August through Monkeytown Records. Pre-order the album here.