Reel Good Music

Modeselektor’s masterful ode to mixtape culture

Words By Emma Robertson
Photos By Mario Heller

Not too long ago, Gernot Bronset, one half of the German electronic duo Modeselektor, was packing boxes to move flats. Based in Berlin since forever, Gernot, like everyone who lives here, has moved house a handful of times, packed and unpacked countless boxes, including what Gernot calls time capsules (“all the stuff you don’t really need but you still carry with you throughout your entire life,” he explains). It was during this most recent move that he unearthed from a time capsule something particularly special. Amongst the old trinkets was a cassette mixtape — probably one of Gernot’s oldest tapes that still plays. The label read 21 October, 1995. Caught up in a moment of nostalgia, Gernot stuck the tape in a deck and hit play.

Listening to the cassette was the catalyst for Modeselektor’s new release, a mammoth 27 track “mixtape” consisting of entirely of their own unreleased work. A release of this kind is a dream that Gernot and Sebastian Szary, the duo’s other half whose friends address him simply by his surname, have shared for some time. The pair has been friends for decades, having met around the time that Gernot’s old mixtape was made in 1995.

“I still remember each and every track on this tape,” Gernot explains. “Listening to the tape again, all those memories, and smells of incense and weed, came back immediately,” he grins. “I was 16 at the time when I recorded it, still in school and living with my parents. Me and all my friends were ravers, we used to hang out together in this old barn on my parents’ property, that’s where this tape was created.” When I press Gernot for more details, he emails me a photo of the mixtape along with a YouTube playlist of all its tracks, names like Laurent Garnier, Dave Clarke, Ken Ishii and Surgeon pop up. For a 16 year old, Gernot had impeccable taste.

Gernot’s teenage creation comes from a well–established tradition within musical circles. In fact, the mixtape as we know it has been around since seventies. Its roots can be traced to bigger and more specialised recording instruments of the 1960s like the reel–to–reel or the 8–track, cumbersome pieces of equipment which, given their size and cost, were virtually inaccessible to your average consumer, let alone a teenager living with his parents. By the 1980s, cassette tapes and tape recorders had become popular, whittling the recording process down to a neat science. You only needed a cassette, a tape deck, and a radio to make a mixtape of your very own. All you had to do was wait, sometimes all day, for your favourite song to come on the radio and hit record.

I grew up in the East part of Germany, behind the Wall. During the GDR times, there wasn’t much of a music market.

By the late eighties, mixtapes were invariably ingrained in our music culture: every genre from hardcore to synth pop had its own treasures. But hip hop, especially in America, was where the mixtape ushered in a movement thanks to figures like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Africa Bambaataa, and later on, DJ Clue, and Doo Wop (to name a few). DJs began recording their club performances on tape and selling them to the public. They used them to show off their beatmatching skills, to create mashups and what we know today as remixes. It wasn’t long before record labels started using tapes for artist compilations. Among these music communities, mixtapes were being swapped like trading cards, becoming a symbol of the US musical underground in a way commercial music could only dream of.

But over in Germany, where Soviet forces controlled parts of the country, mixtape culture caught on more slowly. “I grew up in the East part of Germany, behind the Wall. During the GDR times, there wasn’t much of a music market,” explains Szary. “It wasn’t really until the nineties that we had access to radio stations from France, Great Britain, United States, and of course Russia. I remember every Friday I would record a hip hop radio show by Tim Westwood! You would sit by the radio, hit record and then stop whilst  the presenter talked, then start again. There were always lots of glitches!” he adds,  laughing at the memory. “But cassette tapes were also very expensive, about 20 Marks, which is a lot, so we’d mostly share them among our friends.”

 Rave Partners

Once the Wall came down and the country reunified, the culture of swapping music flourished through tapes, though later on,and perhaps more importantly, through raves – especially in Berlin, where young people wanted to “give the middle finger to communism,” as Gernot describes it. Once techno made its way to Berlin, things changed. “There was a certain energy at the time. It wasn’t acid, it wasn’t hip hop or grunge, it was techno. It was all about techno, it became a culture, especially in our community. There were all these old industrial areas, empty halls and abandoned places,” he continues. Many young techno lovers, including Szary, started throwing parties in these disused buildings. “That was around 92, 93. There were no cell phones, only flyers and word of mouth, but still you’d have five, six, seven hundred people there,” Szary muses. 

It was here that the furore around coveting electronic music burgeoned more than ever. Ravers got the chance to hear their favourite tracks played out, they talked about and shared music, and mixtapes from the DJs who played let the party live on. “There weren’t raves every weekend like they are now,” says Gernot. “They were rare occasions for us with huge gaps of time in between, so we needed these mixtapes because they were like an extension of the rave, an extension of that feeling we got when we were there.”

Gernot and Szary first met at one of these famed parties. Szary was DJing, performing under the moniker Fundamental Knowledge. He had black dreadlocks and a bomber jacket. Gernot, only 15 or 16 at the time having just snuck out of his parents’ house to party, was in awe. They’re both laughing now. “I remember I started smoking that day,” Gernot jokes, “At that moment, I was thinking this is the greatest ever. I didn’t want anything else in the world, just this.” Szary picks up the story. “It’s a combination between smell, light, dark, and exactly that sound that keeps you up. That feeling… remember Gernot, sometimes when we’re in the studio listening to a record on a turntable and there’s something in the air? Like, that’s the sound. That’s the sound.” It’s quiet for a moment while they both contemplate, before Gernot pipes up again: “We’re speaking like we’re old school guys, but we’re not that old!”

The two have been close friends ever since. Gernot picked up DJing, which had fascinated him for years. He joined forces with Szary, already an experienced selector, and by the turn of the century, Modeselektor was making a name for itself. They met Berlin mainstay Ellen Allien, whose label BPitch Control was taking off, and released a handful of EPs and remixes with her in those early days. Working as producers and spending all their spare time in the studio was an exciting new chapter for Modeselektor, and marked the creation of an expansive catalogue of work that waited patiently on their harddrives for years until the right moment. Turns out, that moment is now.

 Building Bridges

“Before we started touring and having success, we were in the studio all the time in our early twenties,” Szary explains. “We had folders and folders on our harddrives of unfinished and unreleased tracks that we had never really dug into because we just didn’t have time. But now with the pandemic and being in lockdown, we had a look into all of those archives and decided to put everything together to create a mixtape of our own past work.” The mixtape is called Extended. And it’s just that, clocking in at over an hour, accompanied by a handful of remix EPs produced by friends. It’s to be released over the next several months. The album’s 27 tracks represent the core inspiration, the bones of the project, each one resulting in its own dedicated EP and other material like music videos, including the incredible 60 minute dance video by American performer Corey Scott–Gilbert. It’s a true melting pot of creativity.

The album’s 27 tracks cover all the bases. There’s dancehall vibes on opening track “Minibus”, classic rave atmosphere on “Paradiso,” while “Copper,” is a deep number with an almost trancey melody. A couple of tracks, like “Movement” featuring dub pioneer Paul St. Hilaire, and “Hood” featuring Jackson and His Computer Band, are old projects started with friends in the mid 2000s. But it’s “Mean” that brings the techno foundation we know and love from Modeselektor — and it’s this track that gets the first treatment, reinterpreted as Mean Friend. Its remixes open things up even more as artists spanning the electronic music spectrum provide their take on the track, with Telefon Tel Aviv, DJ Stingray, and Giant Swan getting involved, and no less than Berlin musical luminary, Blixa Bargeld.

Blixa Bargeld is the stage name of German musician Christian Emmerich. Down the years he’s worked with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ANBB, and Einstürzende Neubauten, an iconic experimental group founded in the 1980s. His oeuvre is  the stuff of Berlin legend. Gernot and Szary describe it as the industrial DNA of the city. They’ve loved his work since they were young. When they approached him about collaborating, they knew there was a chance he’d say no. “I can imagine that this guy hates techno and all that culture,” laughs Gernot.

Listening to the tape again, all those memories, and smells of incense and weed, came back immediately.

Luckily, Blixa loved the track, adding his own booming vocals to a chopped up remix of the original. “In fact, he made exactly what I was hoping for,” Gernot continues, “you know that type of house track, I call them preacher man tracks. Something sounding like early Green Velvet, where you have a preacher holding mass and he’s reciting to the congregation.” Gernot does his best Fingers Inc. impression. “‘In the beginning there was Jack,’ but in German, so he sounds a little bit like Klaus Kinski. I think Blixa’s track is infused with the DNA of Berlin in that way, and I hope that we’re also part of that DNA, just from different generations. That’s why this experiment between us worked so well.”

Experiments and experiences in collaboration have always been at the heart of what Modeselektor are doing. After starting out alongside Ellen Allien, they formed their own label where working closely together with other artists is key to their success. They’ve released singles with the likes of Flohio, Sasha Perrera, Puppetmastaz, and Tommy Cash. On the other side of the coin, they’ve remixed for Radiohead, Björk, Trentemøller, Boys Noize, and Miss Kittin. Perhaps their best known collaborative effort, though, is with fellow German musician Sascha Ring, also known as Apparat. They formed a trio, aptly called Moderat, and went on to release three studio albums together and tour the world as a live act.

But touring so much, especially as a live band, took a lot out of the pair. They were constantly on the road, with soundchecks taking double or triple the time as they did for a DJ set. Even after Moderat took an indefinite hiatus in 2017, and Gernot and Szary began touring as DJs, they felt the pressure. Plus, recovery time was longer than it used to be. “We’re  not 28 anymore!” jokes Szary. The guys had less and less time to spend making music, listening to music, and sharing music. In a way, they explain, the pandemic was something of a blessing, allowing them to slow down and get back to the roots of what made them fall in love with music in the first place.

It always was and still is important to me. When you share music, especially your own, it’s a map of your tastes and feelings. You open up and share your current state of mind.

Sharing music with each other has become something of a love language for Gernot and Szary. Most of their collaborations, as well as the artists they discover and choose to release, crop up naturally through sharing tunes. Even within their families, it’s the most important pastime. “Music is such an essential part of our life. Especially with my kids, I have a 14 year old and a nine year old, and they grew up around records,turntables, and the culture around music. My 14 year old son is really into old school hip hop and new rap music, he’s super nerdy about it. And I support it even if I don’t know anything about the new rappers! I think when you discover music on your own, and you fall in love with it.This is the only valuable thing I can give to my children, honestly. I don’t want to direct them in any way, I want them to be free and decide for themselves,” Gernot says. 

Szary’s on the same page as his counterpart, adding that he loves sharing his music with his kids because their opinions and judgements are pure. “It always was and still is important to me. When you share music, especially your own, it’s a map of your tastes and feelings. You open up and share your current state of mind.”

It’s this philosophy that’s at the heart of Extended, a record Modeselektor hopes will connect people, and build bridges not borders. This is especially relevant as club culture starts to rise out of pandemic slumber, and the world awakens to a new threat in Ukraine. “For us, music has no borders. Sometimes we wonder what it is  that keeps us doing this job for so long. It’s all about those little magic moments on the dancefloor or at shows.” Modeselktor’s message is one of collaboration, diversity, togetherness, and just generally mixing it up. Sonically speaking, what could be a better panacea for the times we live in? 

Hit up for Modeselektor goodies and follow the pair on Instagram. And don’t forget that the supergroup Moderat, of which Modeselektor comprise two thirds, are on tour again in support of their amazing new album.