Electronic music duo Modeselektor have multitasked their way to crossover success
It's rare that anybody gets ahead in electronic dance music anymore without having a hat in multiple rings.
True, the culture surrounding club and rave culture has long made multitasking necessary: promotion, D.J.-ing, production, remixing, and running a label (at whatever level of engagement) are each part of the typical dance artist’s quiver. But in the decade or so after 9/11, as ’90s rave culture essentially ground to a halt, it became incumbent for electronic dance artists to be even more D.I.Y. than usual.
Take Modeselektor, the Berlin duo of Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary who played the Music Hall of Williamsburg last night and the Bowery Ballroom tonight. They have crossed over to the indie audience without altering what they do an audible whit. And they’ve done it the way most veteran electronic-dance acts do now: by multitasking.
In addition to three critically acclaimed albums of their own—Hello Mom! (2005), Happy Birthday! (2007), and last September’s Monkeytown, their debut on the self-run label of the same name—Modeselektor have collaborated with fellow Berliner Apparat, as Moderat, issued two official D.J. mixes (2007’s Boogybytes Vol. 3 and 2009’s Body Language Vol. 8) and numerous free mixes (including a jaw-dropping September 2009 installment of Resident Advisor’s podcast), and began to run two serious labels, 50 Weapons (which began in earnest in 2009) and now Monkeytown. They’ve also toured like demons, networking like mad everywhere they go, building a wide and deep web that has helped them gain serious leverage in their world. Call it the Sonic Youth method.
One person they connected with, back in 2008, was Antony Williams, a London producer who has just issued an album, Transistor Weapon, on 50 Weapons under the name Addison Groove. Williams first encountered Modeselektor four years ago; shortly after, they remixed “Prototype,” a dubstep track he’d released as Headhunter.
“Things got a bit more serious when I was bumping into them at festivals,” Williams said. “They started booking me to play on their stage at various places. They start saying, ‘Come on, let's do a release or something.’ It just happened that I had almost enough material for an album.”
Modeselektor’s own music has been as omnivorous as their tastes. Many D.J.-producers start off rooted in one style and then signal their move into others with an alias, but Modeselektor has pretty much always been Modeselektor (except, of course, when they were Moderat). And they’ve pretty much always pulled from all over the electronic-dance map, as apt to try some I.D.M. as some dubstep or straight techno, and scoring with most of it. Monkeytown, for instance, plays like an idiosyncratic survey of the current landscape from loping cyber-R&B (“Berlin”) to unexpectedly juicy electro (“Evil Twin”) to plastic-synth fantasias (the slurping “Grillwalker”), through a sensibility that’s equally brainy and itching to move.
One reason for the group’s recognition outside dance circles is that they have influential fans, Thom Yorke chief among them. Yorke has never made a secret of his fandom for electronic dance, snaring an A-list of hot producers for Radiohead’s The King of Limbs two-C.D. remix project, Modeselektor among them. He appeared on Happy Birthday! and has two spots on Monkeytown—the better of them is "Shipwreck," which Andrew Ryce of Resident Advisor correctly called “possibly the best Radiohead track since ‘Reckoner.’”
Bronsert and Szary met in primary school. “I've never made music with someone else—he is like my brother,” Bronsert said over the phone from Berlin. “I'm actually the total opposite of him. He is not really a communicator. He doesn't like to talk to people, so I do all the interviews. But I would never decide something without his opinion, because I'm very fast. I want to have everything now. And he is like, sleep at night over it. So our relationship is very well balanced. He is interested in totally different things, but when we are Modeselektor we bring everything together. I think the labels work in the same way.”
The first, 50 Weapons, began as a lark. In 2005, after a gig in Manchester, England, the duo hung out with some local distributors. “We were drinking a lot, English-style,” Bronsert recalls. “We ended up having the stupid idea to start a bootleg label to release only 50 Cent bootlegs. So we started 50 Weapons, but we never released a 50 Cent bootleg properly.”
The idea languished for a while as Bronsert and Szary took three years to record and tour with Moderat. It also spelled the end of their contract with Berlin label Bpitch Control, whose blend of new-wave pop and floor-ready dance music has proven a durable model.
“When we decided to do our own label business, we founded Monkeytown,” Bronsert said. “We got so much music from befriended artists, from all over the world, that we needed to open a second platform, and we reanimated 50 Weapons. [For] two years we're working on both.”
For a lot of divided-house electronic labels, the split is typically overt—one for albums and one for singles, let’s say. That’s not quite how Modeselektor’s mini-empire works: “Monkeytown is more for like acts who are like bands, like Mouse on Mars or Lazer Sword or Siriusmo,” Bronsert explained—while 50 Weapons is more apt to accommodate solo performers.
How did Bronser and Szary end up going out on their own? With a little help from their in-laws.
“He’s married to my big sister,” Bronser said of his team’s leader, who had 25 years’ experience managing jazz musicians before taking on Modeselektor.
“He was never involved in electronic music scene,” said Bronser. “But he was the one who helped us to found the company. The girl who is our live manager used to work for a booking company. When she started there, we were an experiment. She was the greenhorn there in 2003. She started working with us from zero. She was building a network around our concerts. Then we have a good friend who used to be the C.E.O. of Beatport, a platform for electronic music downloads. He worked in Denver for the main company and quit his job. We ran into each other in Berlin, and from out of nowhere he asked us what we are doing. We said, ‘Starting a label. Do you want to have a job?’”
Bronser and Szary are relatively hands-off on the label’s day-to-day workings: “We are like little boys, or dreamers. We bring the content, you know? There's a lot of paperwork around that we don't have a clue about, but there are a lot of very cool people we’ve known since always. They make it happen. It’s really interesting to work with people who are not so involved in the electronic music scene.”
Are they—pardon the expression—soberer than dance people tend to be?
“Yes. They are very grounded. They see the reality—they see numbers, they see the facts. It's more like a collective. We decide things together. If [Szary and I] really want something and everybody [else] is against it, then we don't do it.”
Modeselektor’s staunchly independent streak is reflected in both their listeners and the artists they sign.
“Their fan base is different to what I've witnessed because I come from dubstep,” said Williams. “Dubstep came along, this experimental music [that] was designed for sound systems. When you first discovered dubstep you felt like you were part of a secret club, because there weren't that many people into it back in 2005.”
Now, of course, dubstep is big business, as is electronic dance in general. Its poppier peripheries—labels such as Night Slugs, in particular—have provided clear inspiration to parts of Monkeytown. Williams, on the other hand, gained more notice outside of dubstep, with the release of Addison Groove’s “Footcrab” in 2010 (on the label Swamp81). A relentless, jerky takeoff on Chicago’s super-fast juke (the title was a reference to “footwork,” a related, intricate dance style), the track drew a line in the sand that Williams laughed off.
“I was never juke,” he said. “I don't think I'd ever be a juke producer purely because I'm not from Chicago. I'm not making music for people to go and footwork to, but I love the music. It feeds my mind with new ideas, which I can translate into my own world, and it comes out sounding in the region of 120 to 140 B.P.M. As long as I can go out and play it on the weekend, I'm happy.”
Weekends, of course, are what Berlin is notorious for. Still, Bronser’s relationship with his home city—like most of ours’—is highly conflicted.
“I'm born and raised here, so I see the city from a different point of view like someone who just moved to Berlin for a couple of years to spend the money of his parents,” says Bronser. “We had a hard time and really worked for something. I think the very special thing about us and Berlin is that we really hate the international meaning, all these clichés about this town. That's why we call the [album and label] Monkeytown. Monkeytown is Berlin. For a musician who lives here and has no money, it's really hard to survive. It's different for someone from Paris or London or New York who has a totally different amount of money in his bank account.
“It's a very special place that was separated for a long time and this town is still suffering from that separation. A lot of things [are still] not right between both sides, political-wise and social-wise. What I appreciate now is that Berlin has the chance now to become the international city it used to be. We are not looking in the past and just complaining about how great it was and how much freedom we had. Now things are changing. I mean, you are from New York. You know what changes mean. Big changes are happening here every day, and really quick, and that's interesting.”
Modeselektor play Bowery Ballroom tonight at 8 p.m.; Addison Groove plays Glasslands Gallery on Saturday, April 28.