Modeselektor capture the varied sounds of Berlin on ‘Monkeytown’

Boston Globe, April 13, 2012

There’s a track called “Berlin” on “Monkeytown,” the new album by German electronic music duo Modeselektor. Considering that the pair of Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary grew up in Berlin, and are among the top ambassadors of the city’s vibrant arts scene — with three albums, their own record label, and big-name boosters like Radiohead singer Thom Yorke — the song can be interpreted as something of an anthem for the city.

Or at least, for Berlin as seen by the duo, who play Royale on Thursday midway through a North American tour that also includes two stops at the Coachella festival. Their Berlin, it turns out, is different from the hipster image of a low-cost, high-energy creative paradise throbbing to the pulse of rapid, hard-edge techno.

“Berlin,” the song, is a light dance track, almost summery, with a subtext of low grumbles and glitches offset by the perky voice of a singer named Miss Platnum.

The distinction might be lost on those untrained in fine variations of the dance music scene, but for those steeped in that world, says Modeselektor’s Bronsert, there is a signal that the two are very deliberately sending.

“It doesn’t sound like a song which is from Berlin,” Bronsert says by phone from his home. “We wanted to say something about all this hype you have in the world about Berlin, electronic music, 78-hour raves, etc. This cliche of ‘Let’s move to Berlin, get a huge, very cheap flat, buy the tightest pants we can wear, and make party!’”

“I’m not a hater,” he adds. Berlin’s arts boom has been good to Bronsert and Szary, childhood pals who spent their early years in East Berlin before the wall came down, and emerged as teenagers into the early techno and rave scene.

They’ve become local fixtures, along with their friends in graphic design collective Pfadfinderei, who supply their concert visuals. This has afforded them a front-row view of the city’s transformation, with some of the native’s bemusement at waves of outsiders who have swarmed in.

The same mix, of enthusiasm with a slight contrarian edge and an absurdist sense of humor, describes Modeselektor’s take on dance music and its Byzantine sub-genres. “Monkeytown” is an extremely diverse record, with elements of dense techno, spare and more conceptual IDM (or “intelligent dance music,” as it’s called), hip-hop, and more.

It’s rich on vocals, with contributions by rappers Busdriver and Anti-Pop Consortium, as well as two tracks, “Shipwreck” and “This,” that feature Yorke himself, operating in a kind of plaintive falsetto.

The Radiohead leader was the only guest to actually join them in the studio as opposed to collaborating remotely. “He’s a very normal guy, he’s grounded, we speak the same language,” Bronsert says. “He’s one of the people who saw very early what we were doing — maybe before we saw it ourselves.”

For Modeselektor, making electronic music isn’t about fitting into one trend or another. “We got fed up with techno already in the 1990s,” Bronsert says. Rather, it’s the result of a belief that today’s equipment offers song-making possibilities that exceed anything the classic guitar-bass-drums lineup could do.

“When you have the computer, lots of synthesizers, samplers, weird little machines, you can do everything,” Bronsert says. “We try to say as much as possible.”

In doing so, the pair count Pfadfinderei as equal creative partners. The seven-strong crew is sought after by corporate clients, but sends two or three members on tour with Modeselektor. Unlike the screen projections one usually sees in such settings, images at a Modeselektor concert are managed live by the visual artists, never automatically triggered by the music.

“We don’t feed our system with sound inputs, we use the human interface of the performer,” says a Pfadfinderei member by e-mail, asking to be identified by the group’s collective moniker. “The improvisation takes place within the tracks, as Modeselektor play live. So no show is exactly the same.”

For Pfadfinderei, the Bronsert and Szary’s broad musical appetites and sense of humor is precisely what makes them enjoyable to work with over the years. “Their diversity is interesting to visualize because it never gets boring. They manage to produce solid sounds with a twinkle in the eye.”

On “Monkeytown,” this shows up on “Pretentious Friends,” a satire delivered by the Los Angeles MC Busdriver. Or it appears in the sonic contrast between the moody Yorke tracks, the propulsive “German Clap,” or the airy, uplifting “Blue Clouds.”

None of this makes Modeselektor’s music suitable for purists, but that isn’t what the duo are looking for, Bronsert says.

He says they revel in the pairings they experience on bills around Europe: on a given weekend, he says, they might play in Finland alongside Motörhead, in London with dubstep pioneers Benga and Skream, then in Spain with minimalist DJ Richie Hawtin.

They’re embarking on this US tour in the same open spirit, Bronsert says.

“It’s like being on a mission,” he says. “I really want to reach not the overdosed electronic music pack, but the people who are not so much into it—and show them the excitement.”

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