Moderat: “We surf through Bandcamp and take inspiration but don’t translate it like-for-like”
Sebastian Szary reveals the production secrets of Moderat’s fourth album, MORE D4TA and tells us how the group stays inspired.
Moderat. Image: Birgit Kaulfuss
“I think it’s still the cinematic sound”, says Sebastian Szary, musing over the thread that connects Moderat’s work. “You know, after four albums, it’s still the soundtrack for a movie that hasn’t been written yet.”
It’s something that can be heard across the band’s music, in the way the energy ebbs and flows, the way emotional synths combine with grand, percussive gestures. It’s hard to pinpoint the sound exactly but it involves electronic soundscapes, haunting vocals and textured beats.
Szary is one-third of German electronic music supergroup Moderat, alongside Gernot Bronsert, who he works with as Modeselektor, and Sascha Ring, otherwise known as Apparat.
He sits in a studio used by renowned techno producer Marcel Dettmann in Berlin, which is next to the office for Modeselektor’s own label, Monkeytown Records. It’s a quiet space away from the mass of kit in their own studio next door, which is currently being setup ready for rehearsals. “Over in our main studio, the stage setup for Moderat is set up with all the tables, a mixer, samplers, synthesizers, and modular. It’s kind of complicated.”
Complicated but unsurprising, given that all three members are electronic music veterans known for their production prowess and experimental use of electronics. With new album MORE D4TA out May 13, they are about to embark on an epic global tour for the remainder of the year. MORE D4TA comes off the back of a prolific year of heavyweight Modeselektor releases, including their 2021 albums Extended and EXTLP, plus a string of EPs. And prior to that, Apparat released four Soundtrack albums in 2020 that weaves atmospheric moods with intricate percussion.
The trio first started working together back in 2003 with the release of the Auf Kosten der Gesundheit EP. This was followed by three successful albums in 2009, 2013 and 2016, and extensive touring that saw the trio performing at some of the world’s biggest festivals. However, after performing their final hometown concert in Berlin in 2017, the group announced a hiatus that many thought signalled the end of Moderat. Two years later, though, the seed was being sown for creating more music.
“We met in summer 2019,” says Szary, “Sasha and Gernot and me, and we started talking about should we go back in the studio with Moderat. At this time, each of us had been on tour with our own projects, with Modeselektor and with Apparat.”
At that point, they had no idea that the pandemic would bring an end to their upcoming shows and disrupt the entire industry. They could, however, get back in the studio. In March 2020, Moderat finished the first draft of Fast Land, the track that would become the opener of MORE D4TA.
“Then after this, it was a little bit of silence,” says Szary. We finished our [Modeselektor] album Extended and Sasha became a daddy. Then in the summer, we started to come back to the Moderat table.”
Despite all three members being involved with the composition and production of the tracks, Sascha Ring takes the lead when it comes to vocals and lyrics. His delicate voice can be heard on most tracks on the new album, sometimes with clear messages, other times intricately processed, pitched and manipulated to become part of the music itself.
A lot of Ring’s inspiration came from frequent trips to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie museum, often with his infant daughter. It’s here that he sought solace from the outside world and spent time with the great paintings of the past – the track More Love was partly inspired by Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Szary was also looking to art for inspiration and, like the rest of the world, doing some soul-searching during lockdown. “Sometimes you discover new things and you see them from another angle. I got into the Romantic period with German Romantic painting. In 2020 when you hang around and nothing’s happened, it’s only you and you find yourself. It was like a trip, and then I found the layer I can work on and bring to Moderat.”
All these elements come together on the new album, which seamlessly blends experimental modular work, field recordings and intricate processing and signal degradation with emotive pop melodies and compelling chord progressions.
Szary lists the band Low as another influence, particularly the albums Double Negative and Hey What. “They are located more in the indie/guitar-cosm. The composition and also the engineering is grandiose, it’s fantastic. That was really inspiring”.
Monkeytown Records is known for championing acts that value experimental music and production, so it’s no surprise that the band spent time hunting down unique music from all corners of the internet for MORE D4TA. “We also took influences from contemporary music from all the platforms. Especially when you’re surfing through Bandcamp and you find a lot of talented musicians. You take inspiration but you don’t translate them one to one.”
The trio use Bandcamp to brilliant effect. Last year, they released unreleased Modeselektor material from the Extended project exclusively on the platform.
With all these ideas and inspiration from different sources spread across three members, the band had to find a way to bring it all together. Luckily, after three albums of material, they have developed a distinct workflow that allows them to refine their ideas.
“The process was to put ideas and sketches from the past in a folder and then to ask, ‘Is it relevant for the new album or not?’” says Szary. “That was point zero, and then we came into creating something new from scratch.”
The new tracks and ideas were then created on different platforms at different times and all added into the shared folder. When the band listened back, if they felt inspired and that a song fit with the vision for the album, they’d develop it into a full piece.
From the beginning of 2021, Moderat held weekly sessions to work on the material, with splinter sessions for developing specific elements.
There are examples of experimental sound design and modular sound on the album, plus detailed, subtle glitch effects. “My part was to concentrate on the things in between. That space you have when you listen to sound where you can experiment. Like when a file is interrupting and you’re looking for some errors or some bad bounces. I tried to convert sample rate and bit rates so you have artefacts.”
At its core, MORE D4TA is an album that wrestles with feelings of isolation and the idea of information overload. “The title came quite late. And we thought, ‘Okay, we are really stressed out by too much input, too much data input’. So you can have input when you go out on the streets but when you switch on all your platforms or your messaging, it’s sometimes too much data. Then we translate the name, Moderat 4 into More Data. It’s an anagram.”
Given the success of the previous tour for the album III, it was inevitable that MORE D4TA would make the transition from studio to stage. It’s mostly Gernot’s role to work out how best to make this happen but Szary points out that you have to have different points of view at the composing stage.
“We have to think about how it sounds as a solo track and how to make the album playlist run like a soundtrack,” he says. “And then at the same time, how can we make it work on stage and how can we connect it with other tracks we already have from three previous albums?”
A lot of the tracks on the album are dynamic, with constant movement and modulation in the synthlines and textures. Szary says that Moderat use the album tracks as fingerprints to translate a perfect copy to the stage, before working out if there’s space to take it in different directions. Macros allow control of multiple parameters at once.
“I work on the MPC live. So I have the possibility to have macros on these little dials. Sasha also has macros on his digital setup, but we keep it as simple as possible. So when we add new equipment, we have to remember that every human being only has two hands.”
To keep the performances interesting, the band leaves space for improvisation. Some sections can be held for longer on stage, for example, but the structure and key musical moments remain essential. “I think the secret of the show is that you have fixed moments you can trust.”
With more than 50 shows lined up for 2022, Moderat has a busy year ahead. After a break from touring during the pandemic, the opportunity to play a few Modeselektor shows last year helped with preparations.
“It was nice to see the LED wall from the backside on some stages and to smell parts of a concert – and to be backstage and to have your damaged ears the next day. It was like being on stage for the first time. So I think we are prepared. And we have a really good team.”
This involves PFA Studio, formerly Pfadfinderei, developing some visual delights that will help to elevate the music and make the shows more of a spectacle.
It seems the hiatus has been beneficial to Moderat, as their fourth album is perhaps their most creative, intricate and hopeful-sounding release to date.
MORE D4TA is out now. Catch Moderat on tour from May to December.
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