Moderat: ‘It’s All About Being Dynamic’
Berlin electronic music trio’s Apparat on stripping it down on their new album, exercising creative control and why they stay away from “flashy strobe lights”
Since releasing their eponymous debut LP in 2009, Moderat have been at the forefront of pushing innovative left-field electronic music. The Berlin-based trio, comprising techno/ IDM heavyweights Modeselektor (Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary) and Apparat, recently released their third and final full-length album III in April, and have been touring with a brand new visual setup designed by Berlin-based design studio Pfadfinderei in support of the album. When I found out that I could catch them live in Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago, I made sure that I did everything I could to make the show.
And I’m glad I did, because I fell in love with music — something that I didn’t think I would experience — all over again.
The show took place at VEGA, one of Copenhagen’s iconic music venues. The venue is housed inside a massive structure that looks like a grey-gable Lego block left in the middle of Copenhagen’s city centre. Originally built in 1956, VEGA opened its doors in 1996 and is divided into three parts — Store VEGA, Lille VEGA and the Ideal Bar. Store VEGA, which is the name given to the great hall, is divided into two sections — the main standing section and a balcony that can accommodate around 150-200 people. Given the fact that they were playing in the city for the second time in a matter of months, I was surprised to see the number of people that had showed up for the gig (I was later told that tickets had sold out for months in advance). That’s a testament to the fact that over the past seven years, Moderat have become one of alternative electronic music’s biggest acts.
As I made my way inside, the band had just started playing a tribal, rolling percussion loop that serves as the introduction to III’s lead single “Reminder.” Immediately, as the first of the haunting visuals designed by Pfadfinderei were projected on screen, I could sense that the show was going to be special. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Moderat then launched into the album’s second offering, titled “Running,” and delivered a phenomenal live edit of the track.
Part of Moderat’s genius is that their songs, while consisting of complex patterns and shoegaze-y synths, are graspable. On III, the trio find themselves creating a sonic ecosystem that is stripped bare and intensely introspective, and subsequently evolves into a blissful, distorted and vibrant symphony. This was evident in the way the band transitioned from “Running” into their remix of Jon Hopkins’s “Abandon Window.” Hopkins’s 2013 Mercury-nominated magnum opus Immunity is a central part of my life. Watching him live at the Bangalore edition of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in 2014 was a spiritual experience, and to have Moderat invoke those familiar emotions again left me reeling.
The trio quickly raced their way through the rest of the new album, with other singles such as “Eating Hooks,” “Ghostmother” and “The Fool” standing out. Older anthems such as “Rusty Nails,” “A New Error” and “A Bad Kingdom” reminded the audience about the trio’s prowess at providing booming, bass-heavy beats. Throughout the show, the crowd remained rooted to the spot.
Moderat’s stage presence highlights the duality between the personalities of Modeselektor’s Bronsert and Szary, and Sascha Ring aka Apparat. While Apparat often comes off as reserved, the banter energy by Bronsert and Szary on the night proved too much for him to resist. With this being the first show on the new tour, Apparat was a force to reckon with, adding to the remarkable visual artistry of the set. For the encore, the trio rampaged through some of my personal favourites. “No. 22” had the roof shaking, and listening to the 11-minute masterclass in minimal techno that is “Milk” was visceral — the distorted synthline at the end reflecting off VEGA’s walls.
Moderat’s III, while being the project’s most pop-oriented effort since its inception in 2002, showcases the work of three phenomenally talented artists who, along with their friends at Pfadfinderei, have created one of the best live shows the world will ever see.
After the show, I caught up with Apparat for a chat on the band’s new album and their changing sound.
The new songs sound more precise, stripped down and compact than your previous albums. Was this a reflection of the way your songwriting process has evolved or did you guys deliberately want to take a new approach for III?
I think that’s what we’ve been trying to do since day one. Since we’re three producers, we usually generate a lot of sounds and layers for songs. Everybody just stacks things up — the difficult part is to start distilling what’s important for the song. Stripping it down is what usually takes the most time. It’s difficult because you have to say goodbye to sounds that you might like. On III, we were just a bit more radical than before I guess.
Lyrically, what was the narrative that you guys wanted to explore with the new record?
Mostly, it deals with personal issues. After my motorcycle accident in 2014, I had a lot of time to myself. I was at home for three months for the first time since 10 years; no shows, nothing. I just processed a lot of stuff that had been happening to me before and never had time to deal with.
With Moderat, you guys have made the collaboration a top priority project for your career. How does this translate in the studio and how do you ensure you’re all making the music that you want to?
A collaboration only works if you respect one another. If your partner wants to do something another way, my way of looking at it is that it gives the song something that I could never do on my own. If you like and respect what they do then that’s quite easy to accomplish. I see every input as something that enriches the piece of music. Of course, everyone has different things that they want to do, but, I guess with Moderat our spectrum is still wide enough to please all of us. Not everyone can be 100 per cent down with every song, but compromise is a part of that process too. At the end of the day, each of us has a song that is dear to us, and then maybe for one or two we had to reach a compromise and let them become somebody else’s darling.
III comes 14 years after you guys first launched Moderat as a project. How has your professional and personal relationship with each other evolved in that time?
In the beginning, like most people that surround us, we were just messing around. There was an interesting spirit in Berlin during those days — total DIY and learning by doing. We’ve been friends for a long time and this hasn’t changed, but the way we work and the way we organize ourselves now is much more professional. During our time in the studio, we still try keep that spirit — of three guys messing around — alive. There is a certain naivety about that but it’s worth keeping.
Watch the official video to the lead single “Reminder” off III here:
You’ve teamed up once again with Pfadfinderei to contribute visuals to the album, plus the live tour. How did this arrangement come into place and how have you guys collaborated to create a visual aesthetic for Moderat?
Since the very beginning, Pfadfinderei has been a part of Moderat. Back in the day, we all hung out together and occasionally organized club nights. At some point, we decided that we wanted to start an audio-visual project together, and that became Moderat. We only give them a bit of input and then it’s always interesting to see what they come up with. I guess it’s just one more angle to the collaboration thing.
Could you tell us a bit about the visual setup that Pfadfinderei has made for the upcoming tour?
The setup for every tour is different. I’d say this time it’s more of a traditional band setup with — me in the middle as the vocalist. There are more things to do on stage so that people can actually see how the music is made. This can be very abstract with electronic music — the whole visual part is divided into video, projection beams, light and lasers. Sometimes, we try to switch everything off as well. It’s all about being dynamic. All these flashy shows that start and end with a lightning of strobes – that wears out an audience pretty quickly.
All three of you have been to India (separately) as part of the Red Bull Music Academy tour and an Indo-German culture festival — how was your experience in the country and what did you make of the music scene? Can we look forward to a Moderat pitstop in the country soon?
To me it seemed like there’s really something substantial that’s starting. I mean, here in Berlin, that kind of spirit disappeared a long time ago so it’s nice to experience it again. I really hope that we can take Moderat to India one day. I really do. It’s tricky with the travelling and bring the bigger production gear as we’re mostly on the road by bus these days. But, there’s always a way!