Perfect Sound Forever


photo by Birgit Kaulfuss

or How I Found Myself on the Dancefloor
By Jacob Blumberg
(February 2011)

"One of the many trajectories along which music develops is its social dimension. New forms of music can be new in many different ways, and one of them is what role they are intended to play in a listener's life, or… what use the listener will put them to." Brian Eno, The Ambient Century
10:20 P.M. -
Coming out of the main ballroom, it's not my ears that need a break, it's my body. There are four DJ stages in this gutted hotel, each with sound systems that look and sound more like warring battleships than amplification devices. The bass from the stage below shakes the ground beneath my feet as I wait in line for what I hope is the bathroom. It's a party, but it's also an endurance test.

Techno arose out of necessity. A genre born out of the physical and mental desolation brought on by the violence and numbing effects of World War II just as much as disco, glam, and art-school post-punk, techno redefined the boundaries of music, dance, and drugs for the 20th century, and again in the 21st. It's easy to get poetic about techno – its reductionist approach to sound, the hyper-reality created by studio magic and a skilled DJ, the imagery of thousands of people going crazy for one man (although there have been some women to ascend to this position) and his machines. It's also easy to belittle techno – the monotonous formula tailored to easy mixing and maximal aural excitement, the lack of formal structure or adherence to pop (read radio-friendly) rules, and the culture of ravers and techno-heads in general, which many say is dangerous and deadly because of its association with drugs, naïveté, and also the greater gay community.

Techno in the 21st century still has its steadfast supporters and vehement detractors, but out of a simple underground beginning has branched into an unmappable tangle of subgenres, cross-genres, and maybe new genres altogether that owe their conception to techno but thrive in a self-sustaining environment with their own fans, press, and celebrities. It is on one of these far-flung branches that the Dub-Hip-Hop-Ambient-Monkey-inspired group Modeselektor arose.

12:45 A.M. -
I enjoy these long raves because I like to study the approaches of the different acts – the techniques that these guys seem to be able to master even while belligerently drunk or high out of their minds. Upon reflection, maybe it's less technique and more instinct, not the tools but the melding of them to the DJ's consciousness.

Modeselektor is mainly Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary, but at times it's also singer Thom Yorke (from Radiohead fame), Berlin rappers Puppetmastaz, French rap crew TTC, electro group Sirisumo, a wide variety of samples, vintage synthesizers, and eagerness to record and manipulate everything they touch. Modeselektor is not techno by traditional definitions; only occasionally do they foray into the four-on-the-floor kick and the looped synth patterns popularized by Mirwais or Daft Punk. I could spend too many pages listing what their sound does and doesn't sound like, but categorization is not what Bronsert and Szary aim for. In 2007 they told an interviewer that their influences were "50 Cent, Sonic Youth, and Mötorhead" and that their genre was "happy metal, hard rap, country-ambient, and Russian crunk." And while they might have delivered that line with a smile, you see all of it in their production, their image, and their live show, which is more a party than a showcase of musical talent. Many times they don't even pretend to fiddle with faders or computers, and just start popping champagne corks like a rapper in a 1999 music video.

Behind the humor, however, are two men who take their work seriously. As others have proven, to be successful in a genre as fragmented as techno, the DJ must take any and all work, producing, remixing, and performing to hazardous level. Modeselektor are constantly moving around the globe to perform at even 500-seat venues, collaborating under various project names (Moderat being the most obvious), and generally causing mischief and mayhem in interviews, radio appearances, and the documentary film Speaking in Code, directed by Amy Grill, which debuted last year.

In a candid interview with XLR8R magazine, Bronsert and Szary talk about growing up on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall in the '70s and '80s. Bronsert remembers screaming over the wall from the east so he could talk to friends on the other side, listening to pirate radio shows and learning about the "forbidden fruit" that was electronic music. Berlin was in many ways the epicenter of the techno movement – when the war ended, the skeletons of warehouses, office buildings, and homes took in a generation of confused kids and housed the first large-scale raves. The police were paralyzed – no one could say what, if anything, was illegal about this new disco club.

2:05 A.M. -
When you listen to some music, at one moment or another, a message from your lower back or your toes or your forehead swims to your brain telling you that something real and special is going on and that you'd better pay attention to it. This music makes me shake and jump and cringe my face in response to the disgusting, abrasive sounds screaming out of the speakers, forcing my skin to tingle in a new and primitive way.

Bronsert and Szary would be the first to call themselves outlaws. They felt they were doing something new, different, and underground back in the early days of the group (McKibbin, 1). They felt like they "could build their own society" in the midst of a destroyed Berlin. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton support this idea in Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, where they describe the political influence of the DJ--his power to gather large numbers of people, suspend the realities of daily life, and instill within the dancers a basic set of primal desires . What Brewster and Broughton are describing is the subversive power of mass participation, where everything becomes less complicated simply because so many people are involved. We revert back to simpler modes of thinking, following herders and listening to orders. Breathing, eating, and procreating are the only things we think about. Drugs and alcohol may heighten and lubricate this experience, but the driving force is the DJ, providing the space and the soundtrack that beckons you to join in.

The electronic dance music culture comes straight from the clubs and discos of Detroit, where the outlaws – the gays and the blacks – were dancing their troubles away. But it also had roots firmly in the musique concrete of the 1950s and 60s, taking cues from American hip hop, early Berlin house, and disco. In France the production team known as the French Touch began to pioneer simple, fat, and most importantly electronic hip hop and dance music. Producer/engineer Philippe Zdar and artists like MC Solaar, Hubert Boombass, and the innovatve trip-hop group La Funk Mob relied heavily on stripped-down electronic composition to back sample-based hip-hop and minimal drum loops that became the sought-after sound in the late '90s.

Whether they know it or not (and they probably do), Modeselektor draws on this rich French history of subversive hop-hop production. They effortlessly jump between stripped-down electro house and messy, wobbly hip-hop beats. The common thread is the tracks' underground feel. Their work with the French rap outfit TTC is fitting, because it showcases both crews at their finest - Modeselektor making danceable, Grime hip-hop for French gangstas.

3:34 A.M. -
I thought I had reached a point where, since the music has been so loud for so long, I had stopped processing the sounds as anything like art and more like background noise. But I stepped into one of the smaller rooms, where a bearded DJ in a red baseball hat and sweaty T-shirt was playing what seemed to my tired ears to be like glitchy breakbeats – not my favorite to dance to, but to its credit an intricate and expressive sub-genre. But as I let my body collapse against a wall, I began to hear the pulse, only implied, that made this music swing. It was evolving, or my ears were uncovering hidden layers, into a music hinting of rich polyrhythm, groove-- funk even-- just below its metallic surface.

I've been calling Modeselektor DJs, which isn't untrue. Their live show is very much a DJ set, or at the very least a collection of music to dance to. But I fear that this discredits their production, songwriting, and performing talents. They sample other artists and they hardly use sounds we would recognize as being "traditional," but as artists, Modeselektor find ways to originally adapt hip-hop and techno aesthetic into the shell of something resembling a rock song. As a governing rule, Modeselektor is an eclectic group that prefers composition, sound, and feel to gimmicks or "safe" choices.

Modeselektor structures its songs using a mix of house-style, loop-based exposition and rock verse-chorus-verse. They add layers slowly but then will switch direction leading to a glorious release that recalls a great pop ballad, only here the bass drum is tight like a closed fist and unrelenting. They dress structure with sounds at once dirty and pristine. By itself, each sound is analog, raw, subject to timing errors on occasion –a little too human for techno. But Modeselektor adds these all together in a magical formula that gives the track life. You can sense the air in between the sounds; each one plays in its own level along the frequency spectrum. Bronsert and Szary share an endless curiosity, forever tinkering with noises, technology, and the analog synthesizers that are the main tools of their trade in order to create this breathing room within a frantic house track riddled with glitches, synth distortions, and epic build-ups and break-downs for the crowd's enjoyment.

In between their constant touring and festival schedule, Modeselektor has made time for two albums, Hello Mom! and Happy Birthday!, both released on the BPitch Control label out of Berlin. I was hooked by the first track of the first album, a collaboration with TTC, which featured them rapping over an instrumental that could never decide whether it wanted to be techno or hip-hop. "Dancingbox" was the perfect Modeselektor song because it threw everything at you – the rap, the techno, the chorus, the samples, the bass drum! – and all it asked you to do in return was to dance like your life depended on it. It was to perfect soundtrack to a raver's night out or a nerdy American boy's night in.

4:52 A.M. -
I'm almost completely sober, and I'm too afraid to try to score anything in this crowd. It's not that everyone isn't nice – raves are one of those magic places like Disneyland where everyone is really pleasant and polite, which is impressive considering the amount of drugs and alcohol consumed. I'm trying to stay up until my favorite DJs go on at 8 A.M. and I'm scared of trying the harder rave stuff. The weed smoke is thick in the basement, where the dubstep is playing. But everyone is dancing upstairs on the main floor, where they have projections and lasers set up to move in time with the pounding bass. I seem to believe that if I keep on dancing, I'll make it, and so I stay in the main room, and try and make my way to the girls hula-hooping in the middle of the dancefloor.

The connection between electronic music and drugs is often played down, or ignored. For the artist, drugs are used - often relied on - as lubrication into a mindset that supports creation without insecurity or judgment and expedites a journey to new, sometimes brilliant ideas. But drugs are less and less in the forefront of the production of house music. Actually, many electronic music producers today are straight-edge, nerdy kids with a passion for electronics and a collection of experimental records uncovered in their parent's collections. What made Techno known as a drug genre in the late 80s and 90s was that its birth coincided with the birth of Ecstasy, and the two met quickly on the dancefloor, where audience members and performers alike started experimenting.

It was at this point, Mark Prendergast argues in The Ambient Century, that the DJs started acting like rock stars – the combination of techno and Ecstasy was a cultural "phenomenon that seemed to have no end." Celebrity DJs and producers existed before, but the dancefloor culture was fundamentally altered when everyone was high. Music rose and fell, carried you with it through all its turns and undulations. The dancer gave up all control to the DJ, and in return they were satiated with the unreal sounds, the pounding bass, the disorienting high frequencies, the lights, the people. Ravers like to surrender control, to escape into the unreal. They live for it - they'll pay $30 for it on a weekly basis. "Normal" people don't like to feel that way, and this fundamental difference made people wary of techno and the kids who listened to it. The music was tailor made for the dancefloor, not the office or radio.

Modeselektor like to live it up when they tour. They like to fill themselves up with life, experience the highs with the lows with the bass and the treble. They party on-stage, off-stage, sometimes all day into the night at festivals. In their music you can hear the party going on, desperate to keep going on, and usually succeeding. However, in their second album, Happy Birthday!, they take some time off from the party, which is only human, and healthy. But these tracks don't have any weight to them, and they feel like a breath before the next rave. They give us a second to think, to calm our hearts, to regain control of our bodies and emotions.

In general, techno music is about a lack of control. It's artists giving more of the musical spotlight to machines and mechanical structures. It's people starting clubs in Paris or raves in Berlin warehouses without permission or previous experience. It's feeling crazy and extremely happy and a little scared – larger than life surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people feeling the same thing. A crazed, sleep-deprived mass who all seem to agree to the unwritten rules of the dancefloor. The biggest lesson of techno is humility. Learning to take pleasure in the simple things, not to force feelings or actions, and interact with an audience as equal participants. For a little bit, a DJ can use that bond to entrance the crowd and ask them to do anything. We'd probably do it too, but they're always content to just see us cheer and dance like our lives depended on it.

See more about Modeselektor at their website

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