The End of Moderat?

The iconic Berlin trio on their indefinite hiatus

Gesine Kühne / Maggie DevlinRobert Rieger

This summer, Berlin loses one of its most iconic acts to an undetermined hiatus. As Moderat begins what could be their final festival tour, we join them and talk transitions: past to present, and urban sprawls to garden walls.

Moderat: the chimeric brainchild of techno giants Modeselektor and Apparat. Although their name means ‘moderate’ in German, their sound is anything but: sombre and sophisticated, exciting and often painfully lush. Moderat is a play on words, on genre, on sound and vision, and on what it means to be a live band.

By definition a supergroup, the Berlin-based producers wear their status as ambassadors of the city with a casual air. They smile and cajole off stage, and let their music do the serious talking. Like many of Berlin’s closely-cherished heroes, they are of the city but not from it, hailing from small-town Germany and finding their futures in the grimy basement parties of the late ‘90s.

Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary’s Modeselektor is all punch, sex, grit and grime. A cross-section of ‘90s boom bap, stuttering vocal samples and bass drops that can feel like G-force training, as euphoric synths wrench the listener in all directions. It’s a union of blissful paradox – where Modeselektor thumps, Apparat whispers. Sascha Ring’s soulful dream-pop delights the ear with vocals that walk the line between the acrobatic and the strained, on a tapestry of nimble beats. Apparat skirts the radio mainstream but always manages to keep things off-centre, cementing his place as one of music’s countercultural superstars.

Moderat lives an amphibious existence between both sounds: all the sensitivity and intricacy of Apparat, delivered with the take-no-prisoners moxie of Modeselektor. It’s a cocktail that wins hearts across the globe, and last year sold out Berlin’s massive Velodrom in a matter of minutes. Make no mistake: this band is loved in this town, a fact that makes this a painful year for fans. On September 2nd, Moderat will take to the stage at Wuhlheide where they’ll say an indefinite Auf wiedersehen. Until then, they’ll court the summer festivals, filling parks and melting heads with their visually stunning live set.

The environment we’re in and what’s in front of our door plays an important role – for example, no drunk tourists having the summer of their lives in Berlin.

We join them on the road to Reims in the heart of provincial France, where they will headline La Magnifique Society. It’s a brief foray: a weekend getaway with a 14-hour drive each way. It’s a lot of distance to cover for a one-hour set, but it’s the kick-off for festival season, and with a further 28 shows to go, Moderat have more experience and grit than to quiver at overnight bus journeys, sleeping to the ambient hum of an engine a metre or so beneath their pillows.

What is life on the road for Moderat? Backpacks with fresh underwear, packets of cigarettes and pressed baguettes from a sandwich toaster say ‘student digs’ rather than ‘club circuit celebrities’. Laughing, Szary insists that the toaster is one of the bus’s most valuable possessions: “A sandwich gets about 300% better when you grill it in a sandwich maker!” Compared to the band’s early days, he has a point – a sandwich toaster is a step up. “In the very beginning, we drove ourselves and shared a hotel room,” says Sascha.

The Moderat project began in 2002 – the trio writing their own software so they could jam together, since what they needed wasn’t available off-the-shelf. They produced their first EP the following year. Auf Kosten der Gesundheit (At the Cost of Health) emerged to a flood of positive reviews, but the title and subsequent six-year hiatus hinted at a trying time behind studio doors. Nevertheless, in 2009, Moderat released their first full-length record: a self-titled opus of post-minimal, club-ready hits. Trampolining off the success of the first EP, Modeselektor’s Hello Mom and Happy Birthday!, as well as Apparat’s collaborative LP, Orchestra of Bubbles with Ellen Allien, Moderat was an unquestionable success.

Despite their decade-long success, Gernot, Szary and Sascha have managed to remain grounded, avoiding the tropes of inflated egos with characteristic nonchalance. They still leave their hotel rooms to explore the surroundings of their latest gig, be it a city or somewhere more remote.

“I mean, I grew up in a village, kind of, so I always have a need for green,” Sascha says. “Previously, I satisfied that desire by motorcycling into the woods, for example. Now I’ve found something that fits my age better. I drive to my piece of land, to my garden.” All three members have bought land just outside Berlin where they’ve each built houses – Sascha’s, next to a pond; Gernot’s, near the open countryside.

“I realised that my job is done all over the world, but 99.9% of everything happens in huge cities, so I don’t need to live in one any more,” Gernot says. “Back in the day, we destructively exploited our bodies,” he adds, explaining some of the reasons why the trio have turned away from urban living. “We only worked at night, then when we were done around five or six in the morning, we’d have another kebab and a beer and go to bed. We’d get up around two or three in the afternoon. We wasted so much time this way, but now we’re trying to optimise our lives. The environment we’re in and what’s in front of our door plays an important role; for example, no drunk tourists having the summer of their lives in Berlin.”

We still get very euphoric about our job on stage. It still gives us a huge kick.

Gernot continues, “That’s why the photos for LOLA were shot where we feel comfortable; where no one lives, where we don’t have to talk, and where no one recognises us. It happens a lot in the city: we go for a coffee, and all of a sudden we get a coffee for free because someone else offers to pay. That’s not bad, of course, but on the other hand you feel watched the whole time. Where we live now, north of Berlin, there is a little organic supermarket and they don’t care at all who shops there. They leave you alone,” he says, then laughs. “Unless you touch the vegetables.”

As much as Gernot, Szary and Sascha love their newfound sanctuaries with their families, they equally love being on tour. “It is Tourlaub,” or ‘tour holiday’, Gernot says, smiling. “That’s the term our wives came up with. They don’t see touring as work.” But Sascha interjects, clarifying: “We wouldn’t call it Tourlaub, I mean, we are talking about sometimes playing every day for three weeks in a row. That really wears you out.” However, even on the road they manage to find a routine: “We have learned to live with a certain rhythm,” says Sascha. “During the day we wind down, and we still get very euphoric about our job on stage. It still gives us a huge kick.”

“We are touring professionals,” adds Gernot. “We toured as Modeselektor and Apparat before and during Moderat, and we know all forms of touring: as a band, as DJs with USB sticks, on buses, trains, planes, jets and boats. We haven’t had a helicopter yet,” he laughs. “When we get home the mode switches instantly because our kids take over, and they aren’t interested in what happened at Fabric, for example. Switching modes quickly is actually quite nice.”

Szary agrees: “When I get home the first thing I do is I make myself some coffee. Then I go outside, drink it, and smoke a cigarette. Then I say, ‘Kids, come over, sit down on my lap, because Papi would like to explain to you what he has experienced.’ And after that, it is back to normal: clearing out the dishwasher…”

In addition to giving them plenty to tell their children about when they return home, Tourlaub allows them to escape the routines of work, the record label, studio and family time, to travel with friends. And like friends, they listen carefully when any of the crew members have personal matters to talk about. “We are dependent on the crew,” Gernot explains. “They have to give 110% so we can deliver 120%. Trust and being nice to each other is essential.”

“There’s no one in our crew who is just a worker,” Sascha adds. “They are all people we have known for ages. Most of them are part of the crew for exactly that reason. We grew together. We rarely have changes within the crew, and that’s important.”

Moderat was planned as a recovery project from our individual ones … And now we have to recover from Moderat!

From the production manager to the technicians, the crew work with the kind of intimacy that comes from years of knowing each other. And Moderat is the fulcrum, the three characters creating the kind of balance needed to get through such punishing tour schedules. Sascha is the contemplative maverick who maintains the overview of production plans and costs. Szary pursues new interests and broadens his knowledge over coffee and cigarettes. His interest in foreign climes has made him the so-called travel minister, checking routes and researching hotels for the band. Then there’s Gernot, the cheeky, bright-eyed joker, who listens carefully and is able to parse out solutions to whichever obstacles happen to present themselves. His demeanour and outgoing nature make him the perfect candidate for handling press and communication.

Maintaining a jovial spirit isn’t always easy. Back on the bus, the clock reads half-past-midnight, and Sascha looks uneasy. “I’m really worried that I won’t get enough sleep,” he announces, sitting at the small table on the lower deck of the double-decker bus, a white nightliner with tinted windows. Christoph, the lighting technician, points silently towards a bottle of whiskey, but Sascha leaves the bottle untouched and goes to bed in the tiny bunk that’s only just long enough for his tall frame. He closes the curtain behind him with a bright ‘shink!’, the heavy piece of fabric creating something close to a private space in the closed space of the bus. Sascha doesn’t like touring on buses. “I don’t sleep very well on them,” he mutters, from within his ersatz sanctuary.

The next morning, we cross the Belgian border. Szary and Sascha are still sleeping, but Gernot is already on the task at hand, discussing the gig, now mere hours away. He’s reviewing the changes to the set, because as soon as the crew arrives at their destination, the trio will vanish into separate hotel rooms for hours of preparatory isolation.

Hardened tour-bodies notwithstanding, the trip to Reims is taxing. After all those hours of travel, when nine-to-five office workers would call it a day, they get to work giving interviews, having final consultations with the production manager, and warming up their voices.

At around midnight, Sascha is practising his high notes. They don’t come easy tonight; he’s coming down with a cold. Szary stares at the middle distance, focused. Quiet. “I’m not nervous,” he assures us. “Just very concentrated. I’m going over everything in my head.”

It’s almost time for the headline act to go up. Out front, hungry fans wait for Moderat to start their set. As soon as the first notes of their intro can be heard, the whole crew gathers around the band. Everyone high-fives each other, a long-practiced ritual. As they stand in their circle, Moderat and the crew are close-knit, tight as a fist. On their faces, appreciation and unquestioning readiness. Just seconds later, Gernot, Szary and Sascha vanish into the white fog that spills out from the wings. The crowd roars.

The music world runs in phases. An album is a certain phase, and this one is coming to an end.

Do they think about transitioning back to their respective projects? Switching between outfits can have its downsides. “After the first album we went back to our own projects,” Sascha explains. “And for me it was really hard to get back to the work with Apparat, to be alone in the studio, because I really got used to the dynamic between three people. So because of that experience we didn’t want to make the switch back again to Apparat and Modeselektor after II. It just took too much energy. The music world runs in phases. An album is a certain phase, and this one is coming to an end. That means it will be the last chance to see us for a while.” In fact, Modeselektor are already in the studio again, eager to get back to their techno roots.

“Moderat was planned as a recovery project from our individual ones,” Sascha tells us the following day, everyone recovered from their high-energy set at the festival. Gernot picks up Sascha’s thought: “And now we have to recover from Moderat! We’re all clear about a hiatus for the time being. It doesn’t have a set timeframe; we don’t yet know when we will continue with Moderat, and we also can’t say ‘if’. So this Berlin concert will be like the end of an era!”

It’s time, they say, for Moderat to take a pause. The trio didn’t take a break following the release of II in 2013, touring instead for two years and going straight into the studio again to record III, which they released in the spring of 2016. They’re still touring, clocking up 150 live shows and more than one trip around the world.

That’s not to say the trio aren’t relishing the joys of the Moderat era. Gernot, Szary and Sascha love to play, and every single time they approach the stage seeking to “shred the audience,” as Gernot says. “Like at our most recent gig at Coachella, there were so many people and we were still able to create something like a studio atmosphere, where we didn’t feel watched, where we all push each other to play even better. It’s our little bubble. That’s why Sascha sometimes forgets to interact with the audience, to get his Dave Gahan on,” he laughs. “We have something like an electronic grandeur. I realised at Coachella that I don’t give a fuck how many people there are. It works – still.”

There are plenty more shows ahead of the three musicians before they step onto the stage in Berlin for their final night of the tour. The September 2nd gig will be a huge event in Berlin’s live music calendar. Not only in terms of size – although the Wuhlheide holds 17,000 people. The Berlin crowd’s energy is different. The audience is full of friends and long-term fans, so it’s inevitably a unique experience for the band. “We were asked to play Lollapalooza, but we decided against it. To play Wuhlheide was always our dream,” says Gernot. “We want it to be a grand finale. We booked a support: Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force. Mark Ernestus is a legend. He’s the owner of the Hard Wax record shop. He’s a musical genius.”

The home-crowd can also bring some nerves. “I find it uncomfortable sometimes,” says Sascha. “I get the feeling we’re being properly watched, because the audience knows us so well. The feedback in Berlin was always quite personal,” he adds. “But now I’m more relaxed, and it is nice to play in Berlin. Maybe that’s a sign of growing up, that I’m not afraid to play in my hometown any more.”

“Berlin is unbelievably special!” adds Szary. “If it’s in front of 9,000 people, like last year at Velodrom – that was rad – or if it is in a small club in front of just 200, Berlin is always so intense. Berlin ist einfach unsere Heimat!” Heimat – the place where you feel you belong.

Get your tickets for the Berlin show via moderat.fm/live and follow the tour on Instagram with #teambadkingdom