Published on October 19th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Modeselektor are back with Monkeytown, an alternately abrasive and ecstatic slam dunk of a third album and the first to be released on the Berliners’ own label of the same name (‘Monkeytown’, that is – not ‘Modeselektor’ or ‘Berliners’.)
Rocksucker was privileged to get the chance to shoot some questions over the blower to Gernot – one half of Modeselektor along with yer man Scazry – on such diffuse matters as his home town, how much Monkeytown was shaped by the different approach to its genesis, the contributions made by Thom Yorke and Antipop Consortium (just two of the stellar guest artists to appear on the album) and why there was never any doubt about them recording a follow-up to their hugely popular Moderat album with Apparat…
How did you enjoy your recent visit to London? Did you get a chance to sample any of the nightlife?
We didn’t have the time, you know. It’s always an in-and-out thing: arriving, sound check, playing, leaving. London is too fast for me anyway. I actually really like London but I couldn’t imagine living there as the tempo is a little bit too rough for me. And it’s too big – it can take an hour to get somewhere that’s not really that far away from you! London’s a big international city with a lot of influence but I was born right here in Berlin and I would miss the relationship I have with this city. Sometimes I think, “Where could I move to?” but I haven’t found a place yet.
Quite a clichéd question for you now: how much do you think that coming from Berlin has shaped the sound of your music?
I don’t know. I mean, I hate that cliché about Berlin, that international opinion about the sound of Berlin. I read about it in newspapers and cheap airline magazines or whatever, and it’s not really the sound of Berlin that I grew up with. You cannot reduce Berlin to just one sound. Of course you can hear Berlin in our music because we are very influenced by the town, but not by some posh people with tight pants in some fancy clubs.
I think it’s more the vibe of Berlin. I grew up here and none of my friends really worked in a day job – they were students, artists, musicians or self-employees with their own graphics agencies or whatever, so you didn’t need to do that much to have a good life here. That was the perfect background artists who came from all over the world so a lot of the people I know from the United States I met here in Berlin and they all came here for the freedom of the cheap rent, which used to be very popular here but now it’s changing more and more. The prices are going up here so this will change the whole thing, you know?
When the Wall came down in 1990, the town needed fifteen years to get back into a rhythm because everything was upside down here, but there was this niche in the middle of Berlin of people who didn’t want to be too political or any kind of existing style like punk, so there was the techno thing and the spirit of that is still in the air here. The vibe is still here, you just need to look for it a little bit better.
Is there anywhere that you’d recommend to visit?
Yeah, but I won’t tell you in a phone interview! (Laughs) Berlin is not really about the nightlife. You can find that part of it easy – it’s the industry of Berlin – but I think it’s more important to find the right restaurants, the right area in town, the nice spots, the very small bars, you know? I call this ‘the fragile stuff’ because sometimes you have a really nice place coming up and then after six months it’s over.
But then sometimes you have places that survive a long time and these place still exist. Some of them are really old and you won’t find them on some maps. And sometimes the best parties are not in clubs – sometimes you have hotspots like a gallery or something, an artist with an exhibition there who has a lot of musical friends, so for one summer you have a gallery close to a park where all the parties are. This is always changing.
Congratulations on a fantastic new album. Apparently it was the first album that you made while both physically in the studio at the same time. Can you see how this may have affected the overall sound of the album in any way? And do you think this is how you’ll continue to work in the future?
The reason for doing it together in one session this time is because we didn’t have the time to do what we did for the previous albums, which was to separate the production on most of the tracks between us. For example, I would have an idea and we’d finish it together in the studio, but this time we didn’t have the time to do this because we were slacking around for about a year and we didn’t have a really good feeling because we were really burnt out from last year, all the touring and then founding our own label.
We just slacked around for about a year and then we only had ten weeks left to finish an album that we hadn’t even started. We needed to be together in the studio for these three months to finish it. We never really think about how to make music so it wasn’t planned, it just happened like this. We spent a lot of time in the studio together and it affected the sound a lot because I am a very dominant person and Szary is more passive, more Rastafari! But we have one thing in common: we like the same music, but we have totally different personalities.
I think it affected the music a lot that we did this record together because we didn’t have time to think about it too much – we just needed to finish and then say “stop”. It was good because I cannot say “stop” but Szary can say “stop” very easily, so maybe we’ll continue like this. I think working in the studio together as Modeselektor also gave the music a very personal touch, a very unique touch. It doesn’t really compare to the hipster space music coming out, especially in the UK, so we totally skipped that. We are influenced by a lot of stuff but we were concentrating on ourselves.
I love the way your music ‘feels’, if that makes sense. Like the grinding synth on “Blue Clouds” or the descending ‘popping’ sounds on “German Clap”, I think the synesthetic elements of the mix work really well alongside the more traditional arrangements/placements. (If any of that makes sense…) Is that something that you aim for with your music? Do you ever, for example, say something weird like, “This needs to be more fizzy?”
I think it’s very chaotic when we’re in the studio. We’re just happy if something cool comes up. We wait until the magic pops out. We don’t really have a concept. All our sounds and beats – even the whole song sometimes – are based on coincidence, good moments. We’re not like these producers who have a vision about the song in their minds, go into a studio and write it down. We are session musicians. We make sessions, we try new instruments and record some new stuff. It’s always different.We had a lot of gear in our studio for this record – we used a lot of analog equipment and we had to experiment with it because we don’t know how to use some of these instruments! Our records before Moderat were produced mainly on a computer but I would say that this record is seventy per cent analog. It was a totally different way of production because we have a new studio now and a lot of toys.
What’s Thom Yorke like in the studio? Very efficient, gets it all done in a few takes?
Yeah, he’s super quick! I think he spends most of the time finding the lyrics.
How did it make you feel for someone as influential as he is to go on record as saying that you guys are the reason he got obsessed with electronic music? It’s quite an honour!
I know but I cannot really tell because we’ve known him for such a long time now. We’ve toured together and we’ve talked a lot, so this is a normal thing, you know? Of course it feels good but it feels even better to know that he’s a normal guy who makes his tea with water like everyone else. We like the same music and we have huge respect for each other. It’s nice. There’s not a lot to tell about it, actually!It’s cool, he’s the singer of Radiohead and a musical genius, but I think we showed him a lot of stuff he’d never heard before, and he showed us a lot of stuff we’d never heard before. It’s a ‘music buddy’ friendship, I would say. (Laughs)
How about Antipop Consortium?
They came to record vocals while they were on tour with MF Doom, which showed a lot of passion to me and that they really liked the beat that we sent them. Antipop Consortium is a very important hip hop band for us – they’re like the Underground Resistance of hip hop, you know? I’m really proud of working with them.
Do you know if they’re working, or will soon be working, on a new album?
I think they just finished one, although I’m not one hundred per cent sure. I know that they were really busy recording their own stuff but I don’t know exactly what it was.
Are there any plans for a second Moderat album in the near future?
Yeah, I think so. We are going back into the studio with Sascha in the spring to write new songs, find ideas, make some sessions. Or maybe just get drunk together, whatever. But this was always the plan with Moderat. It’s our band, you know? Sascha is playing with a band now, but I think his real band is Moderat. And for us too. This project is very important to us so it was not a one-off thing. We need to have our own experience now, and then we go back to Moderat, of course.
How do you feel your recent American gigs went? Is it ever depressing to play late afternoon slots at festivals in front of not particularly big crowds?
You know what, I wasn’t depressed at all because I realised that we were playing the best music there and that actually gave me a good feeling! I really never wanted to do this tour but I got a little bit forced by our booking agent in the US. They started this new concept of a travelling electronic music festival, with a lot of trucks taking the DJs and bands from venue to venue, and they really wanted us to play there so we said, yeah, okay. Whatever, let’s do it. But yeah, I don’t know. I think it was a really important experience that we needed to have.
Do you and Szary argue much?
You know, we’ve known each other since primary school – we started arguing when we were 14 or 15. This is not a friendship anymore – this is really family business. He’s kind of my big brother or whatever, I don’t know what to call it. So of course we have arguments, because life is full of arguments, but we have a really good team around us who take care of a lot of things.
Finally, if you had to name your top three albums of all time – right now, off the top of your head – which would you pick?
I would say Radiohead – Kid A, Speedy J – A Shocking Hobby and…I don’t know…some Wu-Tang shit. All the Wu-Tang shit!
Gernot, thank you.
Monkeytown is out now on the band’s own Monkeytown Records label. For more information including a list of live dates, please visit modeselektor.com