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.”
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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.”
Modeselektor isn’t just saving techno. With progressive ideas — and a good dose of humor — this band is rescuing the club world from nights of merely dancing through the motions.
Modeselektor performs in Coachella’s dance tent on Sun., April 27.
WALLFLOWERS OF THE POLO FIELDWHY YOU WON'T SEE L.A.'S DANCE UNDERGROUND AT COACHELLA
There is something brewing in L.A. right now, something that could trigger revolution on the dance floor. Its beats are programmed, its instrumentation is electronic, and the ultimate goal is to make you move, but it can’t be classified as techno, house or electro. The new sound is noisy, frantically rhythmic and difficult to pigeonhole, created by folks as drawn to performance art as they are to drum machines and turntables. Nearly every night in Los Angeles, you can feel its racing pulse inside venues like the Smell and Pehrspace and at parties hosted by the likes of Droid Behavior, Part Time Punks and M/R/X-Wolfpak. You won’t, however, see any of this at Coachella.
Where Coachella has consistently featured the brightest young L.A. rock bands, the city’s dance underground has yet to make as much as a minimal blip on the desert festival’s roster. Although one of the few internationally revered L.A. DJ/producers generally makes an appearance at the annual event, as Sandra Collins is this year, the new crop of dance-music artists, the ones who are redefining the genre, will be left in the warehouses and art spaces back home for the weekend.
After almost a decade since its inaugural festival, Coachella has gone from a regional gathering to a globally recognized event highlighting this year’s hottest emerging artists and a smattering of established stars. In the dance-music realm, this means combining some of the megaclub fan favorites, like Collins, James Zabiela and Junkie XL, with the artists currently generating digital buzz. Paris’ Ed Banger crew will be at Coachella in full force, while Booka Shade and Modeselektor will be representing Germany, and a host of Brits (including M.I.A. and Simian Mobile Disco) will perform. With this in mind, the question isn’t Why is Coachella ignoring Los Angeles but Why can’t Los Angeles play with the big kids?
It isn’t for a lack of vision. Artists like Baseck, Captain Ahab and Birth! are reconfiguring dance beats into unconventional models, replacing the lengthy, syncopated intros and outros that are a genre standard with concise blasts of energy as dance-floor-friendly as they are geared toward highly visual performances. They are toying with elements of L.A.’s long under-discussed dance history — electro, hip-hop, hi-NRG, industrial, techno — without directly referencing the past, pushing not just the sound of dance music but our physical response to extremes. Where the underground is heavy on talent, though, it’s low on exposure. The people who are part of that scene, whether it be as artists, promoters or observers, know that something special is happening, that right at this moment, there is no better place for electronic music than Los Angeles. But they seem to have difficulty spreading the word.
L.A.’s electronic underground speaks with a muffled voice, and this should be no surprise. This is, after all, a city whose reputation relies on myths and stereotypes. L.A. is where you go to get famous, not to make art, we’re led to believe. And what the international dance community knows about our club culture is reflective of this: exclusive nightspots pumping generic music to a crowd of people waiting to see if the latest starlet-in-trouble will projectile vomit while table dancing. The underground is all too aware of its place in the shadows of a celebrity playground, existing with full knowledge that it will perhaps always be ignored in favor of red-carpet door policies and tabloid-friendly exploits.
Whether a conscious effort or not, the L.A. underground is the ultimate act of rebellion against the Hollywood nightlife beast. Cover charges are low, dress codes are nonexistent, and the closest you’ll ever get to bottle service is successfully sneaking a flask into the party. There are no publicists working to garner press for the artists, no hipster bloggers championing the city and its new sound, and few DJs spinning the tracks. MySpace and a limited run of paper fliers distributed at local clubs are the only links between this small but dedicated community and the outside world. Relegated to off-the-radar venues, their music and performance style has developed to fit the needs of their surroundings. Heavy distortion helps mask sound-system deficiencies, and the near-complete eradication of the wall between artist and audience fits with spaces that lack stages. This is a movement that thrives on the moment, where artists create because there is no other way to live and we dance because they have evoked our most primal emotions. No amount of hype could enhance the urgency of the digital freak-outs that exist inside the darkest corners of Los Angeles. Something is happening here, it just won’t take place on Empire Polo Field.