Moderat's Sebastian Szary on the group's cinematic world tour
“It’s like when you learn a language. You might not speak this language for a while, but when you come back to it, it’s still there.”
Mulling over the events surrounding the five month gap in Moderat’s world tour, Sebastian Szary sounds reassuringly positive on the phone as he prepares for the group’s final rehearsal session before recommencing their mammoth run of shows. The break in momentum for Szary and partners Gernot Bronsert and Sascha Ring came in September of last year when Ring suffered a multiple leg fracture following a motorcycle crash in Berlin. Szary speaks of the “deep depression” that engulfed those involved with the tour, which was only a month old when the accident abruptly put things on hold.
Almost half a year down the line though, having worked hard to get back on track, there seems to be a renewed sense of purpose behind the group, whose shared language is one rooted in deeply emotive electronic music and painstakingly well-coordinated live shows. “It’s interesting to see how, when we started the rehearsals again this week, the processes of the live set are still there in our heads. It’s like we can begin to play blind again.”
The increasingly cohesive bond between Szary and Bronsert (who make up techno behemoth Modeselektor) and Ring, who produces his own work as Apparat, is one which was forged over 10 years ago and has continued to gestate organically ever since. “Do you have the time?” jokes Szary when asked to ponder Moderat’s decade long evolution from jamming and playing low key festivals in Germany to travelling the world with their sprawling live production. He recounts familiar tales of how the Modeselektor duo were at first fascinated by Sascha’s gear and technical setup, and how they became more drawn to his music before deciding to hook up and share ideas from unfinished songs the trio had stored on their computers.
“We played a few funny shows and it was very confusing,” he admits. “It was like electronic jazz with drum loops and we would sometimes play for two hours at a time. Sometimes we lost the concept during the set and we had to finish and start again.”
Yet, even back in those formative days, the trio recognised the potential in melding various elements of their respective projects and their debut record, Auf Kosten Der Gesundheit, on Ellen Allien’s BPitch Control label, provided a formal introduction to their sound. This largely instrumental offering was sparse and spacious but contained early glimpses of that epic quality which they have since honed to perfection through their self-titled debut album and last year’s follow up, simply titled II.
“The aim is to send the crowd on a trip; to create the feeling you have while watching a really nice movie – it’s like a soundtrack on tour” – Sebastian Szary
With the introduction of more of Ring’s soaring and earnest vocals in recent work, it is tempting to define the project as a simple marriage of Apparat’s poppy melodic traits with the power of Modeselektor’s pulsing basslines and thumping drum loops. Not quite so, explains Szary. “Now it’s more like three guys – Sascha, Szary and Gernot – making music together; not Apparat and Modeselektor.” He reveals how the beat for the 2013 single, Bad Kingdom, was laid down by Sascha and that all three members’ roles are interchangeable on any given track. “Everybody can contribute different elements – we are divided from our own projects. It’s like we are taking a holiday from our own projects.”
That Sebastian and Gernot are able to juggle so efficiently their work as Modeselektor, the running of two labels (Monkeytown and 50 Weapons) and their "holiday" project with Apparat, alongside their commitments to their respective partners and children, is impressive to say the least. Do their increasing responsibilities and more settled family lives have an impact on the kind of work they produce in tandem or as part of Moderat? “No”, Szary insists. “We see it as two different universes, but sometimes they do overlap.”
Certainly there seems to be no likelihood of the duo departing completely from Modeselektor’s boisterous brand of dancefloor-driven techno any time soon. “Right at this moment I have on my computer a Modeselektor track which has to be finished by tomorrow,” says Szary. “It’s a club burner which Gernot gave to me and we have been working on some ideas for it. So, Modeselektor is still there!”
Where things have perhaps changed a little for Szary is in the realm of time management, he explains that the trio have to make the most of the influences they encounter amid their busy work and personal schedules. “We have less time to put our antennas into the receive mode,” he admits. “Inspiration is the most important thing and to receive new ideas you have to check out different media from the internet, radio, record stores – anything you can listen to or watch.”
Yet no single influence seems to seep in more than any other and Moderat’s sound remains incredibly distinctive in its own right – an often grand synthesis of melody, emotion and atmosphere set amid penetrating percussion and sample-laden soundscapes. It seems Moderat represents the unrestrained collaboration of three artists who refuse to focus on any one strand of the music forms that excite them. “Influences come from everywhere,” Szary affirms. “It can be really strong pop music – chart smashers like Kanye West or whatever – but it can also be abstract, neo-classic modern music or it can just be silence. Our antennas are very open to receive a lot of things and we are not strictly into one genre of music.
“I remember, two years ago, we travelled with Modeselektor to Brighton. From the airport to the venue, I was listening to Slayer in my headphones – the Reign in Blood album. I’m not a big metal fan, but I find it very interesting to listen to. To discover new structures in this music was a key moment for me – so a Slayer album can also be really nice.”
Would he go as far as drawing any parallels between the work of the thrash metal pioneers and his own? “Maybe in terms of sound,” he suggests. “[In modern music production] you have this over-compressed dynamic and I hate it. That Slayer album is from 1986 – it’s almost 30 years old – and I think Rick Rubin produced it very carefully. It’s not over-the-top compressed. You can hear the elements. That’s what we also did for the recent Moderat album.” He stresses the importance of knowing when to hand the work over to someone else to master instead of repeatedly “mixing the track to death.”
Encouragingly, rather than through a blending of specific musical influences, the trio seem to draw most of their inspiration from the process of making music itself – “from the feeling you have in the studio, or maybe later, when producing a track. We always think about it later. Then in the studio we have this movie moment –a soundtrack moment – and that’s perfect. Moderat is a very cinematic project so most of the sounds have a movie-esque feel for us.”
This cinematic quality is something the group have worked hard to incorporate into their live shows and, as with their previous tour, they consider the design collective Pfadfinderei to be a vital component of the current setup. “It’s a very important part of our work to have an audiovisual context and the visual element is 50% of the show,” Szary explains. Pfadfinderei’s contribution to the Moderat world spans minimalist motion-capturing videos filled with captivating shapes and shadows, to vibrant animated storyboards of the type found in the video for Bad Kingdom. Having these visual elements carefully harmonised with their live performances is as crucial to the project as anything else for Szary. “The aim is to send the crowd on a trip; to create the feeling you have while watching a really nice movie – it’s like a soundtrack on tour.”
With such a coordinated live setup, one wonders if they are afforded the opportunity for experimentation and off-the-cuff improvisation on stage. “We approach the show like a timeline and some parts are synchronised with the lights and visuals,” explains Szary. “It’s a complex network from computer to computer and we send [loops] from the stage to a light operator and a video operator. But there are a lot of things we can do in between. We can make parts longer and we mix things differently each time. There is enough space for that and there has to be. We will definitely do things differently from show to show.”
Perhaps most importantly, the shows themselves produce ideas that the trio may work with when they find time to seek the solace of the studio once more. When prompted on the prospect of more material emerging from Moderat, Szary is at first measured in his response. “Let me say...” He pauses. “We are talking about it.” Yet any hesitance he has in discussing the potential for more studio work soon fades as he considers the notion out loud.
“For Sascha and us it’s quality time – to hang out, not just as partners but as friends. I really enjoy the studio time with Moderat. I also enjoy it with Modeselektor, but with a three-pole construction it’s sometimes more interesting.”
Having reminded himself of the joys of the process of collaboration, even for its own sake, Szary seems to become more certain that there is more to come from Moderat. “I think we will get ideas on tour, so you can be sure we will go back,” he decides. For the time being at least, Moderat’s complex network of sounds and images seems set to develop further beyond the notion that they are merely the juxtaposition of two separate electronic music projects. Given the fervour surrounding their current tour – they will now perform a second show for Substance at The Arches due to high demand – it would seem our antennas remain as receptive as theirs.