When the disparate electronic talents of Berlin's Modeselektor (aka Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary) first combined with those of Apparat (Sascha Ring) 12 years ago, the protagonists might have been forgiven for not fully foreseeing the rich creative playground that Moderat would become. New album, Moderat III, is a tour de force of intricate electronic components and beautifully-crafted songs topped with Ring's heartfelt vocals.
We travelled to Brighton recently to speak with the band ahead of their sell-out gig at the prestigious (and rather palatial) Dome and witnessed first-hand some of the fervour currently surrounding the band. From the sublime down tempo beats of album opener, Eating Hooks, Moderat took the spellbound faithful on a mesmeric electric trip through the new album and more. They really are a band at the top of their electronic game.
Having previously met Moderat in Berlin to focus on their studio operandi, we caught up with them post-soundcheck to find out more about their live rig and just how they set about choosing (and de-bugging) the tech each of them uses onstage.
Moderat III is wonderful, if a little more downbeat/melancholy than the first two albums. Was that a conscious decision or just how the album evolved?
Sascha: "I think we hear that with every album... [laughs] They always say, 'it's more melancholy than the last one', and that makes me scared of where we'll end up if we keep on making albums. Probably like Bauhaus or something!"
Are you all still operating out of the Berlin Alexanderplatz Modeselektor studio we visited you in for the last album coming out?
Sascha: "[laughs] No...we get a new studio with every album!"
Szary: "We were there four years from 2010. They sold the whole property so we had to move out." Gernot: "The club that was there moved to the top floor and the rooftop so they're still in the building."
Tell us about your new studio space then…
Gernot: "We found a nice spot in Kreuzberg, which is basically an industrial loft and we've turned it into two rooms of studio. There's one good-sounding, clean room and one... [laughs] smoking area!"
Sascha: "...and it sounds as it smells!"
Gernot: "So, there's one rock 'n' roll room and one where you could do mastering if you needed to."
I'm really happy with Soundtoys. Every plug-in they've released is good... they never make shit ones!
So, the whole of Moderat III was done in the new place?
Gernot: "Yeah it was. It was recorded in the main room, which is a control room and recording room in one so it's multi-functional and it sounds really good. It's air-conditioned with fresh air too."
Sascha: "There's not even that much equipment there either as we realised that, in the end, we mostly used the computer and we wanted to have some space for recordings and setting up drum kits, vibraphone or mics. Whenever we wanted analogue stuff we'd go into the smoking room."
Have you acquired any new synths since the last time we spoke?
Gernot: "These guys, especially Sascha, they go a little bit crazy with synths."
Sascha: "After I had my motorcycle accident my mission was to get into the modular thing so I ordered a small Make Noise system and I sat on my couch figuring it out without actually making any music with it. I was pretty much just reading all the manuals, which I've never done before. Since that, I've built a small modular set-up but nothing too crazy. It wasn't supposed to be like another subtractive synth or something as I wanted it to have more crazy shit. So, it's all sample-based and I have one module from Qu-bit, Nebulae, which is a granular sampler. I actually used that on stage in this tour too."
So, some of the modular gear has made its way from the studio to the live rig?
Sascha: "Just a very small bit to regenerate some of the important sounds onstage. Basically, the modular system was used more like a sample manipulator we used a lot for the voice. A lot of sounds were built out of little bits of voices."
I was going to ask how you achieve some of the creative effects on Sascha's voice...
Gernot: "The modular was one way but it wasn't the only way. We used various techniques and ways of recording."
Sascha: "We used an old Korg Kaoss Pad, which is a very classic way of treating the vocals."
Gernot: "We brought that onstage this time too as we decided that on this tour we'd bring some of the gear we used to make the record out live with us."
So talk us through your stage set-ups...
Gernot: "I'm basically doing what I always did and I drive the car! So, I have an MCP40 controller, the new, flat one and I control Ableton Live sessions with 16 channel outputs. I've got a split-signal from Sascha's voice to process it through the Kaoss Pad and through some guitar effects. I have a Maschine controller from Native Instruments to fire some samples out from Ableton."
Szary: "...and you're sending MIDI to me." Gernot: "I send MIDI and audio-sync to Szary..." Sascha: "I don't like MIDI so he just sends me audio-triggers... [laughs]. Everybody gets whathe wants."
Gernot: "I don't have that much gear onstage but what I have gives me a lot of options. I have an Eventide H9... the one with the wheel. You can make your patches with an iPhone so these days you call your guitar effect! I have a Strymon BlueSky reverb that I use too, which is the best reverb I've heard in a box the size of a guitar pedal."
Szary, you were using Korg Volca Beats amongst other things live last tour... How has your set-up changed now?
Szary: "Now I'm opposite to Gernot and receive MIDI from him as well as some side signals from both Sascha and Gernot, which go into a little mixer. On my table I have two delays: a Strymon Timeline, which is a really great hybrid reverb/ delay; there's also a Tech 21 D.L.A. guitar delay that I've used since the first Moderat tour in 2009. It's new for me but I've got an MPC1000 with JJ O.S. That's mainly for additional samples and sounds, which I play on different tracks. There's also an Akai Rhythm Wolf drum machine, which is a fairly limited drum machine... [laughs] but the snare drum's nice!"
Are the H9 and Strymon behind some of the luxurious reverb textures on the new album?
Gernot: "I used a reverb called Fluteverb from the Native Instruments' user library. It's really basic yet powerful but needs shit loads of CPU! Back in the old days it would kill the computer – even with a strong computer you still feel like there's a plug-in running but the sound quality is really good."
Are you running Ableton off Macs for the live shows?
Gernot: "We have two MacBook Pros, which aren't onstage anymore as we're connected to the side of the stage where they are now."
Sascha: "There's a back-up system with switchable DI boxes so, if one computer crashes, it switches over to the other system. Or if the soundcard dies then we have the back-up system."
Nice to have that technological safety net given how vulnerable laptops were when everyone first started using them for live shows?
Gernot: "Yeah, I know, but when you have a complicated system like this then you're often inviting new problem sources for errors that you maybe couldn't find in the first instance."
Is there still any sense of vulnerability using so much tech for gigs?
Gernot: "I have a connection from my set-up with one single wire to the back-up system and the wire died once! We had an optical USB cable but it didn't work so well so we changed it this tour."
Sascha: "[laughs] There are some situations where a little good old-fashioned duct-tape can really help!"
Are you effectively taking the studio sessions out in stems for Ableton?
Gernot: "Not really as we prepare them specifically for the live shows. So, I have a couple of drum channels, a couple of melody/synth sound channels, bass channels and effects/sampler channels."
Have you left yourselves much space for improvisation during the tour?
Sascha: "We have moments for that in the set but not all the time. Especially because it's very song-based now so at some points we have to stick to the concept. We do have a 10-15 minute Techno part where it's really free, which, I guess was important for us to do to avoid getting completely sick of the set really quickly!"
Any keyboards in the set-up?
Szary: "I have one of the new Korg Minilogues, which is a great sounding four-voice synth. The Minilogue is connected with MIDI and with audio-trigger for the arpeggiator and internal sequencer. The audio-trigger comes from the Rhythm Wolf, which is a convertor."
Do you find a lot of the new hardware is tailored more towards performance again as opposed to just studio use?
Szary: "Yeah... that new Korg is one of my favourite synths. They have really good ideas; not new ideas – I mean analogue synthesizers are more than 50 years old now – but they allow you to connect the old world and the new world really well. It all links up really well with the modular system in the studio too."
Could you maybe talk us through your live set-up, Sascha?
Sascha: "My basic system is quite boring actually. Previously I used a lot of different things for vocal effects and I used to take a Nord Modular onstage. This time I wanted to have everything in one piece so I'm using Apple Mainstage. I've built myself a patch for every song so it has the vocal effects already in there and all the keys for all the songs. Now, since it works 95% of the time, it's very convenient but it took a fuck of a long time to set up! That was mainly because of some bugs but now it actually works.
"I'm using the same synthesizers and presets we used in the song and I can modulate them – I have a Native Instruments Kontrol keyboard and eight knobs is enough to deal with the important things.
"There's my little modular system and I stole Szary's Arturia MiniBrute, which I'm using for a few songs. I re-programmed some sounds we used the modular for in the studio. It's nice because you have much more modulation moments. We have one part in Reminder, which we call the 'Chemical Brothers part' as it's full of modulation."
Szary: "[laughs] I just call it the rave part."
These guys, especially Sascha, they go a little bit crazy with synths.
Anything that you've had in previous live shows that hasn't made the cut this time around?
Sascha: "We actually thought about our set-up quite a bit and when we got it all together it worked surprisingly well. I mean, my Mainstage set-up was a bit buggy and Gernot had to figure out whether he wanted to use a small or big Maschine... There was even a thought of him using an MPC at one point. But basically what we wanted to do, that idea of having more access to the sounds, more pads for playing things onstage has all worked out quite well and it was all really easy to integrate.
"Now, everything's very nicely sync'd together. As I said before, Szary wants a MIDI-clock,
I want audio-triggers from Gernot because I think that the clock is never really stable and I hate it! So, I programmed Reaktor synths that don't run on MIDI-clock so Gernot basically sends me envelopes."
Reaktor is such a wonderful rabbit-hole... but it's not for the fainthearted using it live though?
Sascha: "I was a little afraid of using it in the live set-up – inside Mainstage too, and I worried about it getting too messy and buggy but it works really well. I also have a back-up system but I haven't had to use it."
Gernot: "We've become quite well connected to all the companies over the years so Native Instruments are always really helpful."
Sascha: "Even Apple – I did a few Skype sessions with the Mainstage Product Manager, and the Ableton guys came to the studio and helped Gernot a lot too."
Berlin is a real hub for music tech companies, isn't it?
Gernot: "Yes, Native Instruments and Ableton are both based in Berlin. There were a couple of things in Ableton that I couldn't figure out how to do and we invited the Ableton guys along to the studio. They couldn't actually help me do what I wanted to do but they liked the idea so helped find a workaround. The same with Native Instruments. I wanted a special mapping on my Maschine so we had to find the guy who wrote the script for Maschine and him and a friend of mine helped us a lot with it."
Do you guys get fed up with all the technical problems that arise with new gear or software?
Gernot: "Of course you get fed up but it's good experience as you grow. We have custom tables now and they're based on an idea we had based on our experience. So, we didn't do a drawing or anything; we just talked to our sound guy and he made a little metal model of the stage set-up that looked really cool. When we got the tables and started rehearsing I realised within about five minutes that I was standing on the wrong side of the stage because I couldn't play with my left hand. That totally mixed up the concept."
Preferable to finding out it was wrong on the first night of the tour presumably?
Gernot: "[laughs] Yeah but it was bad for Sascha as he needs to see me and now he can't as I'm not on his side anymore. So, it's a little bit mixed up."
Sascha: "It's good for my ears though as I'm listening more now rather than just looking!"
Gernot: "It's a lot of trial and error on a certain level but we collect the experiences all the time and change things if needed."
Sascha: "Even though we've had some people helping us with the actual set-up we still had to use half of our rehearsal time for technical shit. It took, like, two weeks to get everything set up then we had two weeks to actually play music together."
Jumping back to the 15 minute 'free form' section you mentioned earlier. Given that you're all accomplished DJs and improvisers, is it important to have something like that in the show to keep things interesting for you all?
Sascha: "Well, once you've played a bunch of shows, I guess you've got to find some new parts to keep you entertained. It's too much of a mission to crazily change everything as you have to stick to certain things that work. I think you have to find the beauty in the details and sometimes just changing a pattern slightly is enjoyable, then the shows slowly morph until it's a different show after 70 gigs. [laughs] Then you think, fuck, we should have recorded that album now... but that's what every band thinks."
Moderat III is much more song-focused than your first two albums. Do you still jam the tracks as you write them?
Sascha: "It depends, I guess. Some tracks were jams in the beginning and one track, Intruder, we even used a three-minute piece. It took Szary a night and a morning to correct the timing of it and the tuning is still wrong but that was a whole session, for example. The other tracks, it's more like they were put together out of a toolkit where everybody builds a part and we try to fit it together... like Lego! Often, we'd find that there was still something missing so, Szary would go and smoke a cigarette for two days and come back with the missing part. It's construction, really and putting pieces together."
When FM visited you in Berlin you all had set roles within Moderat – has that evolved?
Gernot: "It's definitely changed a little bit... everything changes. Maybe going back to your question about song structure and jam sessions, I always have an awareness to make sure it doesn't become too 'pop'. So, I work from the other side to try and keep a little bit of edge in things. I definitely got the feeling that we all agreed on ideas and changes quicker this time around. Even though, as Sascha said, it took two weeks to set everything up, we still did a proper rehearsal in a hall for the show. We've all toured for a long time so we all know what it means to play a live show but none of us has ever played the set live to an audience prior to the tour starting and we worked hard to rehearse the show." Sascha: "It was a huge effort to set everything up the same in the rehearsal space... the gear, the sound system, the LED light show. We did that for a whole week, playing the entire show and when we came to the first gig on the tour it felt like we'd already been playing for ages."
Gernot: "It was really good and it saved us a lot of energy and nerves! We've also got a really good crew and sound crew. Mez [Ralf Metzler] who is the front-of-house is in charge of all our audio. He's Apparat's sound engineer too and our Modeselektor front-of-house guy is doing all our backline and the monitor mix, which is incredibly important for us as we all use in-ear monitors onstage. We have the two most important jobs in this great crew covered by people we trust 200%!"
This tour has taken everything up several notches in terms of the size of venues etc... How does that feel?
Gernot: "It feels unreal!"
Sascha: "...but you adjust to it really quickly. Once you've played a few shows in bigger venues then get back on a smaller stage you think, 'oh, there's no space anymore'."
Gernot: "When you start a tour and you play a show every night then, of course, you begin to enjoy all the fine details more and more. For me, I'm always back fixing. During every soundcheck I'll fix this or that and after a while you have nothing to fix or optimise anymore. So, then you get creative and this tour I think we're very good at this as we've fixed almost every bug. We set up this show to allow us more freedom than the last tour where we were pretty fixed on timecodes for visuals, video and everything and it wasn't easy for us to stick to it. This time we've found a system that makes it easier for us to work."
There are some situations where a little good old-fashioned duct-tape can really help!
Any favourite plug-ins or soft synths in the Moderat set-up and do you use them live?
Sascha: "That's one area where we haven't changed things very much from previously. We weren't looking for new soft synths particularly; also it's been a while since any really ground-breaking plug-in was released... something that made me think, 'wow, I really need that'. Now, it's just little shades of things we're looking for. I just used the u-he Bazille modular plug-in that sounds very nice but almost breaks my fucking computer as it uses so much CPU! Then, it's still mostly Reaktor. We still love Razor for the basses..."
Gernot: "Diva is great too..."
FM downloaded u-he's Re-Pro 'advance ware' emulation of the Pro One and it's pretty brilliant, if a tad CPU heavy too…
Sascha: "Yeah... the great thing about Urs Heckmann is he doesn't make a big thing out of that; he just says, 'it's meant to be a great synthesizer and it needs CPU... get over it!" That's fine with me, although onstage using Mainstage, with very short latencies I can't afford the CPU power."
So, are we still yet to go beyond CPU worries?
Gernot: "It's still an issue...live and in the studio... 'system overload' happens all the time!"
Sascha: "[laughs] It happens to you all the time..."
Gernot: "[laughs] Maybe I'm doing something wrong then..."
Sascha: "We just finally got an Apollo but we're not using too many Universal Audio plug-ins, mainly due to the fact that we always have to switch the projects. Sometimes we want to be able to open things on laptops and it sucks if they're not native plug-ins in there."
Gernot: "We've stuck with some favourites over the years too. I'm really happy with Soundtoys. Every plug-in they've released is good... they never make shit ones!"
Sascha: "They're really cool too as one time I wrote them saying that I hated iLoks and was there any way to use their beautiful software without an iLok? They sent back saying, 'we hear you', then six months later there were Soundtoys plug-ins you could use without iLok. It's still the iLok system but it's native iLok on your computer so you don't need the dongle anymore. So, they actually listen to the people too.
"I'm using an Eventide plug-in onstage that uses an iLok so now we have two systems with two iLoks and the sound engineer was freaked out in case we lose one... It's like one more burden!"
Moderat III is available now on Monkeytown Records. Check out the Moderat website for more release info.