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Modeselektor: Dance-Floor Saviors 

Saving the spirit of techno

Wednesday, Apr 16 2008
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Last October, we were on the terrace of the Hollywood club Avalon waiting for Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary, otherwise known as Modeselektor, to finish sound check. This was the German duo’s first L.A. gig, a hotly anticipated event, and something was amiss with the sound system, which was burying the body-rockin’ bass under layers of unattractive noise. As Bronsert and Szary resolved the issue, local DJ Derek Michael turned to my companion and me and virtually shouted over the distortion, “These guys are saving techno.”

Ragnar Schmuck

(Click to enlarge)

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From the depths of Teutonic hell come Gernot Bronsert (left) and Sebastian Szary.

Michael might be a little biased. He is an old friend of the duo, an early supporter who placed Modeselektor on the first release of his Detroit Underground record label in 2003 and the reason that Bronsert and Szary booked this gig, promoted by the local DJ and underground party crew Droid Behavior. However, his assessment of Modeselektor, which plays Coachella on April 27, isn’t off base. With more than 20 years of history, it’s only natural that a genre, even one as subdivided as techno, could fall prey to redundancy. Modeselektor, with its shape-shifting rhythms and warped melodies, stands in defiance of the commonplace and has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Justice and Daft Punk as the next Coachella dance-tent phenomenon.

“We’re trying to save the idea of techno, the spirit,” answered Bronsert, when asked about Michael’s statement.

“The word,” added Szary.

Bronsert and Szary came of age in post-Wall Germany, when an abundance of decrepit buildings and general chaos led to the birth of a rave scene that remains world-renowned. Szary began working as a DJ in 1991, and Bronsert did the same two years later. Their paths eventually crossed, which led to the formation of Modeselektor in 1996. For the bulk of this decade, the duo has been closely associated with BPitch Control, the label run by Berlin tastemaker Ellen Allien, and has been capturing the energy of illegal parties in rundown warehouses without resorting to any of the retro-modern trappings of “new rave.”

“It’s complicated,” says Michael of Modeselektor’s music, “and it’s not saying anything other than let’s move forward.”

Modeselektor boldly eschews the four-on-the-floor formula, with its required mega-breakdown at the three-and-a-half-minute mark, and does not abide by the hypnotic minimalism for which its hometown is known. Its sophomore effort, Happy Birthday!, was a standout release of 2007, filled with static electric beats that creep and crawl through speakers and a disparate group of guest performers (Thom Yorke, Brit-pop outfit Maximo Park and breakcore artist Otto von Schirach) who, when woven through Bronsert and Szary’s laptops, sound inseparable.

Bronsert emphatically refers to Modeselektor as a “band.” That the two perform with MSP software enhanced by fellow Berlin-based musician Sascha Ring (a.k.a. Apparat) isn’t a contradiction. On the terrace, Bronsert and Szary reconfigured beats and melodies inside a micro space intended for DJs, all the while thrusting their arms across the barriers and jumping on top of the monitors as though they yearned to break the imagined wall between audience and artist. It was obvious then that their music was not simply created for the dance floor but created on the dance floor.

“When you play very often, you can’t listen to your music anymore after a while, so you need to change it always, and you’re always looking for new plans, new beats, new melodies,” Bronsert explains. “So we’re always creating new stuff, just for playing live. We don’t create a complete song, just elements of it — material, loops.”

“That’s the starting point for every song,” Szary adds, “mostly in the hotel room on tour, or the kitchen.”

That Happy Birthday! took its initial shape during Modeselektor’s seemingly endless world tour is perhaps what makes the album so unpredictable. Just as the band typically jumps from Europe to Asia to the Americas in a span of a few weeks, so does Happy Birthday! shift quickly and purposely from the sublime to the heart-pounding. There are some downright strange moments on the album, like the ambient interlude “Em Ocean,” which ends with a hearty belch and throaty cough, and “Hyper Hyper,” a cover of the international hit from Euro-trance outfit Scooter. Where the original was filled with the arena-size vocals and runaway keyboards that screamed jock jam, Modeselektor’s version strips the piece to echoing beats and incorporates von Schirach’s devilish vocal delivery. But as weird as Modeselektor can be, Bronsert and Szary’s music is incredibly accessible. The music has already filtered into indie hit-oriented clubs like Clockwork Orange and Blue Mondays, where resident DJ Johnny Jewel recently mashed up the duo’s remix of Apparat’s track “Holdon” with Too $hort’s “Don’t Fight the Feeling.”

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