I chatted over Skype to Ring and, eventually, Bronsert (childcare duties meant he was running late) about collaboration, R&B, tears in the studio and writing big communal anthems.
People are intrigued by how the three of you collaborate. Is it simply a case of Modeselektor modifying Apparat's elegant introspection with their brashness and beats, or is it more complex than that?
Sascha Ring: Maybe we did the first record that way. It was more of a project between them and me. I'd give them a melodic idea and they would supply the beat. This time we wrote tracks together, from scratch, and once that happened—three of us in the studio at the same time—it was pretty different. Of course, if Gernot starts a song it's mostly a drum idea, and if I start one it's mostly a chord sound or whatever, but I built the beats for some songs, and Gernot and Szary wouldn't necessarily build hard beats just because they're Modeselektor. We grew much closer with this album.
Is that the most significant evolution, that emphasis on songwriting? Certainly the vocal tracks sound carefully crafted, in a refined, classic pop sense.
Sascha Ring: Once I start singing, somehow songs get structured like that. Other people can make open songs—like the way Modeselektor use Thom Yorke's voice as an addition—but even though I'm still a techno kid once I start singing it ends up as some kind of verse-chorus structure.
After a long layoff where you haven't worked with one another, did you have to plot out what you would try and do with II? Was a there grand plan?
Sascha Ring: Not a precise concept. We're not trained musicians so there is a lot of jamming involved, it's spontaneous. But what we've learned is that you need an idea—a sound, an aesthetic masterplan, a beat that sparks an idea —before you begin. We start with a simple loop and it goes from there. Sometimes, as three people, it happens very quickly. Somebody will throw in some ideas and it really inspires the other one, and then I listen to it, and I'm like, "Give it to me!" I have to go to the other room and start singing. Two hours later, you have the rough song.
We had to go through this a few times in the first two months to actually realise how the record would sound. We had an idea. We wanted to keep the open, spacious cinematic thing from the first record, but we wanted to make it less produced, a little more fucked-up sounding in parts, the drums less polished. But in the end, you go with the flow. It's not such a hard record. There's no "A New Error" or "Nr.22," and we didn't really bother to make [one of those songs] because it didn't really happen naturally.
In terms of inspiration, do you talk about music that you all love, and how that might feed into Moderat? For instance, the vocal tracks, and particularly "Let The Light In," have a certain R&B flavour to them.
Sascha Ring: I definitely recognise that. I've said before—[laughs] we're talking about craziness here—that I've found a more soulful way of singing. How did that happen? It's just ideas that come up when someone plays you a track.
You weren't sharing records by The Weeknd and Drake then, and saying, "This is interesting"?
Sascha Ring: Actually, Gernot would sometimes play stuff like that in the studio. Of course, everything you hear inspires you. Sometimes to a dangerous amount. But yeah, I guess that's a little bit what we were listening to and a bit of the common ground we were talking about.
Sascha Ring: It was the shittiest Berlin winter ever. It's a really nice studio and usually you can see Alexanderplatz, but we couldn't see anything but a grey wall in front of our windows. By the way, Gernot has just entered the room...
Bad weather apart, Gernot said in a recent FACT interview that you sometimes struggled to sing in a way that you were happy with, and that at one point you wanted to delete the vocal tracks. Were you joking, Sascha, when you said there were times when you ended-up crying in the next room?
Both: [laughter] No.
Sascha Ring: I think that was surprising for the Modeselektor guys. We knew how it is to sit in a studio for ages working together. But the whole singing part makes everything much more complicated, because it's way more emotional. Sometimes if I couldn't get something done the way I wanted to, I was in the shittiest mood ever—and they had to deal with it. They'd be like, "Hey, this is really good," and I just didn't believe it. I hated the song. Obviously I'm very biased when it comes [to vocal tracks].
One of your new tracks is called "Therapy." Did you have to talk Sascha round and manage him during this sensitive process?
Gernot Bronsert: It was group therapy. We had our own problems while producing this record. Szary and I have children and family and we always had things to do, like picking up this, having a meeting, grabbing kids from kindergarten and shit. This was probably one of the main problems in the beginning. Sascha is still living our old life—the techno, rock & roll musician who tours a lot and makes records—and we spent the first three months finding our rhythm and working flow. We talked a lot and didn't really know which direction the record would go. We took a break in the middle, had a little distance, came back and everything was clear. We could see the bright sky.
Sascha Ring: What Gernot says is partly true. Each day, they went home to their families and had some life. Which is very healthy. I went home very late, woke up and went back to the studio. If you do that for a few months it fucks you up.
The lyrics on II are self-lacerating, Sascha, full of regret and worry. Even the potentially euphoric songs are sad. Do you have a naturally melancholy outlook?
Gernot Bronsert: Let's call it being deep.
Sascha Ring: Yes and no. That's my personality. Like Gernot says, I tend to see the negative things, even though there are a lot of positive things going on in my life and in all of our lives. But I had a good time making this record. It wasn't heavy. The lyrics are partially older, collected over a year or so, and I mostly write in those moments—when I come back drunk and disappointed from a bar or whatever. I don't know what to write if I'm happy.
Several tracks sound as if they were almost designed for festival crowds. They're anthemic, huge in scale. In a parallel universe, I could almost imagine them competing with Coldplay or U2. Were you conscious of that? Were you keen to grapple with writing big anthems, which is a difficult thing to do credibly?
Sascha Ring: It just happens. It's not healthy to think about what happens when the music leaves the studio. Or, suddenly, you have to deal with people's expectations. People talk about the difficult second album and to make that less difficult, it's much easier to not think about that so much.
Sascha Ring: [Laughing] He didn't say that.
Ha. No, I didn't. But unlike many "underground" musicians, you do seem to love those big communal, almost sentimental moments. For instance, when Modeselektor DJ, Szary encourages people to hold their lighters aloft during "Rusty Nails." Is that genuine or ironic?
Gernot Bronsert: I can explain that very easily. When we DJ, Szary brings the drum machine and a few little boxes, but I mainly play the music, so [laughing] he needs to do something while he stands next to me for two hours, like pulling lighters out, spraying champagne, crowdsurfing. But ja, I mean, we like those moments. "Rusty Nails" is important for us, and we do that often with the lighters. People love that. It's not always about being the übercool guy playing the hottest underground music. It's all about having fun and making people happy, you know?
How does all this go down in Berlin? The Berlin scene is perceived as very severe, militantly anti-commercial. Moderat have made an almost pop record. Do you worry about how it will be received?
Gernot Bronsert: No, I think people are waiting for it. It's refreshing. Something colourful with emotions. In Berlin everybody knows where we're from and who we are. I don't think we have to explain or follow the stereotype of Berlin that is written in magazines that you find on aeroplanes.
Sascha Ring: Also, the transition is a slow one. It's not like suddenly we said, "Let's make a pop album." Slowly there are new elements you embrace and put into your music. We made and DJ'd underground parties most of our lives. Other kids can have crazy parties in basements in Neukölln, and it's still fun from time to time to be there, but maybe we've grown out of this a little bit. But I like that Berlin underground mentality. If you have a David Guetta show it's hard to promote that shit here, and I really like that.
Gernot Bronsert: And we're still friends with all these guys from the clubs. We still make music with them or release their music. We have the 50 Weapons label because we're totally like we were ten years ago. We've not changed. It's just now we're playing big festivals and stages. A few weeks ago we played a free party here in a Berlin park. We booked Buraka Som Sistema and a few acts from our label, and we were so surprised because so many people showed up. Five or ten years ago, it wasn't like this.
Even underground clubbers need some melody, some pop music in their lives, right?
Gernot Bronsert: Of course. I don't believe in hierarchies. I don't believe what magazines and blogs are writing, I only follow my inner feelings. I like music which speaks to me and which is honest. We try to do that. There is no concept behind Moderat. Man, if you would really know how we made this record, how the Pfadfinderei artwork came up. From the outside, it looks like a big, tight, well-organised plan [Sascha laughs] but it isn't. Trust me.