Berlin: falling walls and relentless techno. Germany’s cold war compromise has always been hailed as the crux of the European divide, yet despite its location the music since the ’80s has been famed for its very linear electronic form and its very esoteric nature.
In a constant exercise of refining a musical aesthetic, Techno in Berlin has been trimmed, mechanised, fattened, splintered; smoothed, then glitched and broken - again and again.
Modeselektor, AKA Gernod and Zsary, however have had enough. These are two men who are sick of all the rhythmic doctrinaires and their own craving for the ever-changing beat has led them down an impressively mutated musical path, which is now bearing fruits more tantalising than those of Eden.
Berlin is like an old lady that drinks a lot of alcohol and smokes a lot of cigarettes but still looks really sexy.
The self-proclaimed black sheep of Techno, they consistently go against the grain in the lion’s den of dance music, as the baby-faced Gernod explains: “The time for genres is over! The guys that just do one style are fascists! It’s not about genres anymore. Everyone hates ‘minimal’ now but you still have good minimal choons!”
Trying to describe Modeselektor’s records without sounding like a literary wanker is hard. ‘Acid Dancehall’? ‘Bastard Rap’? ‘Mutated Techno’? They prefer to simply call it: ‘Advanced Dance Music’ but that doesn’t reveal anywhere near enough of their transmogrified productions that smash together (via their own software patch called Jihad) disparate genres such as Dancehall, IDM, Acid, Reggae, Techno and anything else they can dismember for their own perverse delight.
Their new and second album, ‘Happy Birthday’, is in their own words “fucked up” – rife with high profile collaborations such as Dominican Rasta-lord Tikiman, local theatrical rappers Puppetmastaz, indie rockers Maximo Park over a distinctly Dubsteppin’ track (I think Hell just got colder), as well as noise-core artist Otto Von Schriach, French rap legends TTC and a small man called Thom Yorke.
This latter’s involvement may come as a shock to some but there’s a mutual respect that’s been boiling under for years now, Gernod continues: “We did a mix for him for his LP ‘Eraser’. He’s maybe one of the reasons why we continued making music. In 2001 he was on prime time TV and he said his favourite music was: “Liars, Asian Dub Foundation and there’s a guy from Berlin called Modeselektor - and his stuff is THE shit!”
“We were DJing in a club and we were so surprised because our phones were non-stop ringing during our set, and since then he is always talking about us. So we realised that our music makes sense and what we were doing was not bullshit.”
Several years ago when Berlin was still in a tightly regimented techno thrall Modeselektor still always failed to conform. Even on their home label of BPitch Control - the imprint ran by one of the toughest women in dance music, Ellen Allien – they found it impossible to tow the line.
“I can give you tracks from us three or four years ago with Dubstep rhythms in them,” says Gernod. “Ellen was always trying to get us to do Techno and we were like “Eeeugghhh! We CAN’T!”
Twisting from schizophrenic rap shattered floor-fillers to lush string-laden IDM and on to their signature dancehall inflected dance music, their debut ‘Hello Mom’ seemed to be released eons AFTER their impressive live reputation had already stretched halfway around the world.
They have released relatively few records yet the pair admit that they never designed their long awaited debut to be played in clubs. In fact ‘Hello Mom’ was comprised of all the songs they could never be bothered to finish - so they rounded them off and just released them onto their first LP.
The result of ‘Hello Mom’ was dizzying for everyone. Including them. And their second LP is heavily influenced by its success. Gernod explains the differences in albums: “Last year we made over 120 shows. Our relationship now is crazy. When I am back in Berlin I still see him more than my girlfriend and when we are on the road we go for dinner – we always order the same, no matter if we sit on opposite sides of the restaurant. So after all these shows we were really burnt out and really hated music. I said, “OK I STOP LISTENING TO MUSIC!” And went on holiday and we didn’t see each other for a while.”
And as brave as the inseparable duo are in the studio, they are perhaps even braver for moving their studio INTO Gernod’s home, complete with a very pregnant girlfriend! The soon-to-be-father sheepishly explains: “We came back and made ‘Happy Birthday’ in three months in my house but my partner wasn’t too happy. Me and Zsary hadn’t seen each other for a few months so we were making non-stop music and drinking beer and smoking cigarettes all the time. After two months she was waiting every day for the finish: “Oh my God, you have worked for three weeks on just that ONE track!” This was 10am till 6pm everyday AND she’s pregnant!”
Zsary picks up the point to explain another of their new approaches. “We tried only to make things for the album. So we brought ideas and laid them out on the floor, one piece of paper per track and what’s missing, what should happen. This was a new way for us to work.”
Their crude approach has gestated an astonishing mongrel of sounds and influences. Like magpies, they steal and twist elements to make their own, at some points riddled with nostalgia; at others forging new rhythms that would flummox your common car park raver.
The time for genres is over! The guys that just do one style are fascists!
Their sound distinctly bridges new with old. And as Berliners they have firmly taken the mantle from their predecessors in having to progress their scene and force the hand of their nation’s sound. After Techno’s inaugural explosion in Europe at the end of the 1980s, it wasn’t long before it became mechanical and sanitised of soul, as ecstasy and dance drug culture tightened its grip over its pummelling message. It began to haemorrhage its progressive nature and consequent inherent creativity.
Enter the likes of Basic Channel, the local owners of vital vinyl distributors Hardwax and Dub Reggae aficionados. They slowed down Techno’s tempo and injected massive Jamaican influence; bringing back the soul and opening the floodgates of Dub infused dance music. An act that still reverberates through dance music to this very day.
Modeselektor have had to face their own challenge in retaining interest in the dance music which they grew up with, as the younger Gernod explains. “Of course, we did the IDM and electronica thing because we were so tired of Techno in ’96 and ’97 - so tired of 4/4 back then. We are always the black sheep. So we tried to get into Jungle and Hip-hop and then Autechre and stuff.”
“We made IDM big in Berlin! We did! We were the first people back in 2000 to book Jamie Lidell; we booked the show and for 800 people, we’d play IDM for five years, every week on a Thursday… that was during my Uni when I was care worker for autistic children. Every week and that was the start, in the end we had to move clubs all the way to WMF where 800 people would come every Thursday.”
“But the techno we know doesn’t exist anymore. A few years ago it wasn’t full of tourists, you had some very famous DJs from Berlin; the scene was very underground, all from the underground. Now Berlin clubs are full of Berlin DJs but not from here; like Ritchie Hawtin, Matthew Jonson, - all the guys write Berlin after their name to be fancy.”
“It’s important that Berlin is becoming more international because it used to be really fucked up. Lot of people who were creative but all these new people are not just musicians but rich people buying everything up, try to do something underground, to catch the mood to make money.”
Zsary met Gernod at a rave called ‘Seilscheibenpfeiler’, which he organised in an old factory; Zsary would later take the name for his first label, which he translates for us: “The label means the name of the building where the party was. It was a coal mine and literally translated means ‘rope-pulley-puller’. It was the only release on that label. It’s a good record.”
Gernod, who at the time was a young raver tearing around the wonderland of East Berlin, enjoying all the freedom and amazing party after party, speaks excitedly: “I was a raver there and I remember you played a track by Mike Paradinas AKA Mu-Ziq. We put it on the last mix CD. And that was the first time I was on the dance floor, it was in ’91 or something with the all the lights I was like, ‘Oooohhhaaaaa!’ Zsary’s music was like B12 influenced techno. When I saw him DJing I didn’t know him, but in ’95 we DJ’d together and started making music, we played for two days with a Dub loop: for two days I controlled this space echo effect – wow! – it was the first connection we had over making music.”
Although that youthful desire to constantly chase the beat remains, the boys have grown up in other ways. They don’t gig as much in their home city anymore, despite it always being “their capital” - nostalgia again plays a massive part as certainly their golden age of DIY freedom has peaked.
Gernod speaks sadly when he says: “When we used to be young DJs we never had any money but there was always the flavour of adventure in the air, every week a new location; an empty house; a fresh cellar; a gap in a wall… We used to go each weekend to many different places, temporary clubs in empty flats where you needed a key to get in. Every Wednesday you’d buy a key for five marks and you could there with two friends - but these concept clubs have disappeared. The ‘secret tips scene’ has gone; there were all these tiny places through cellars - “You should go there! You should go here” - we were whispering this all the time. But this era is over – this makes me sad. If you are born here then you see a subculture dying, it breaks your heart. But Berlin is like an old lady that drinks a lot of alcohol and smokes a lot of cigarettes but still looks really sexy, and we should keep her safe because she is amazing.”
With their reputation as one of the best live dance acts around, their boundless energy to innovate and arguably the strongest of dance album yet unleashed in 2007, there can be no stopping Modeselektor. A product of their hedonistic environment, they have absorbed all the best elements of Berlin and beyond and refined them to beggar belief.
Their devilish dancehall rhythms will certainly influence a generation of digital freaks, all hell bent on following in the same corrupted steps… But then I know for a fact that Satan has some magic and distinctly dirty dance moves.