Modeselektor‘s Sebastian Szary had a busy day at the studio when I caught up with him for this interview. Besides the release of their new ‘Modeselektion Vol. 2’ compilation on their label Monkeytown records, the Modeselektor was right in the middle of preparing a new live set for A.T.O.L. — the joint project of Modeselektor, Marcel Dettmann, and Shed. During a moment of silence, we spoke about Szary’s teen days, the evolution of Modeselektor into a business, and the interconnectivity of music and people.
When I was prepping for this interview I came across our Slices Modeselektor video feature from seven years ago. Back then your mother said that you could have been a great craftsman. Do you reflect on your musical career in terms of craftsmanship?
Sebastian Szary: My mother’s right — she’s almost always right! But she wasn’t right that one time. Shortly after the Wall came down I made some money in precast concrete construction. When you’re from the mining-town of Rüdersdorf near Berlin, you know why someone would do this kind of job. Pretty much everyone from Rüdersdorf is somehow connected to that kind of industry. I didn’t even get a high school diploma, since reunification and the ailing East German economy had a very big influence on me. I also didn’t give a shit about school. But since everybody needs to do something in life, I did this apprenticeship as a bricklayer. This whipped me into shape for life in general. I think everybody should experience this kind of ‘school of real life’ for at least three years.
You mean in order to get to the next chapter in life? To know how to accomplish something?
Well, in order to experience a ‘real project’ in the first place I guess, as well as to have the experience of working together with others on a single task. Who knows — maybe you’ll become an alcoholic or be bullied in the process, but you start doing your own stuff as well. I bought myself tons of musical equipment that I couldn’t really talk about with my colleagues — it’s not really an interesting topic for the average construction worker. After work I went home and did music, or spent the rest of my money on vinyl. Meanwhile my mother was always saying “Those records are so expensive and your apprenticeship pay is so low” — I earned 360 deutschmarks a month in my first year of training. I was living with my mother, and I’d spent around 200 marks on records alone. When she saw me returning with all those records from Hard Wax, I was always like “Well, I need them for DJing!” It’s a classic parent-child-conflict — everybody experienced this I guess. After enough good gigs, the money invested starts coming back to you. That’s what it’s all about.
Did you have a vision where your musical career might lead when you started DJing with Gernot [Bronsert] in 1995?
I think so. Gernot certainly did. He’s three years younger than I am, and back then he always had this juvenile touch. He kick-started the whole thing, I’d say, and I brought in the technical know-how. From my apprenticeship days I learned that when you work on something, be it a house or a song, the first thing you need is a foundation. When you’re dealing with concrete you have to keep stirring, otherwise it’ll dry up and you’ll need to throw it away. My life is based on that, I think. To be honest, I love concrete, the smell and texture of it. It’s a kind of fetish.
Besides Modeselektor, Moderat and A.T.O.L., you’re pushing the enterprise further with your labels Monkeytown and 50 Weapons …
You’re right, we’re carrying a much bigger responsibility these days, and we’re realizing how short time is. All those meetings, studio hours, and rehearsals … they take up a lot of time. A while ago we started building a team around us to take over some of our tasks and to-dos, but there’s still loads of stuff that we need to take care of ourselves. On the other hand we just want to make music, so we’re constantly asking ourselves: is this really what we want to do? Looking back on the days when we left BPitch Control and started our own label, it was absolutely the right decision — maybe the only one we could have made. But on days like today with studio time, meetings and press interviews, we’re on our last legs. [phone starts beeping] Lo and behold, there’s a new text message. It’s the next interviewer!
From a strategic point of view, how do you look for artists you’d like to sign? Just how much can/do you want to do as music entrepreneurs?
On the one hand there’s our vision, on the other our lives. The current combination means that we’re at the end of our tethers. Besides our company, there’s also family. Gernot will become a father for the second time soon. I’d say that we’re doing some things in life differently from one another, but we’re working 365 days a year. That’s 52 weekends full of shows, sometimes two or three shows a weekend. But in the end it’s all about the adrenaline kick of getting little tasks done. It’s tough! [beeping again] Fuck, another text message …
You’ve just released your second Modeselektion compilation – which is, on the whole, a darker and tougher listening experience than the 2010 edition. Is this a reflection of your own change in taste, or influenced by more general things … a Zeitgeist change in contemporary club music?
When we started compiling the record and asking people about their tracks, we simply dragged them into a chronological playlist as they came in. We soon realized that they blended together really well. The track list ‘as is’ is a fragment of the very start of the playlist, with each successive track building up to something, having a great flow, etc. Listening to the tracks we were sent, we couldn’t help wondering what was wrong. People’s music is getting darker and darker — something changed in comparison to two years ago. Of course, things changed for us, too. Our new track ‘Maik the Chicken’ was recorded in a session during one day. That might sound a bit careless, but that’s just how we wanted it to go down.
The compilation comes with a lot of more well-known artists like Clark, Monolake, Prefuse 73 and Mouse On Mars, but also more left-field choices like Soft Circle, Diamond Version, Frikstailers, and Dark Sky. Soft Circle especially are more an underground connection — how did you guys meet?
We got to know each other over the years. Modeselektion is a kind of portrait of our travels, too. Like a scrapbook. We met Hisham Bharoocha when we were staying in New York City. He’s a lovely person, a great photographer and a very interesting musician. I think he was in Animal Collective, but he also played in Lightning Bolt and Black Dice … all music that I listened to back in the day.
I like the idea of listening to music in contexts where you don’t expect it, not just within their respective musical ghettos … when you remove genres from their normal situations.
Another thing that caught my attention on the compilation is Diamond Version, Alva Noto and Byetone’s new project, which Mute Records is releasing soon. Modeselektion somehow seems to serve as a kind of launching pad.
We intensely discussed releasing their album ourselves, but eventually it was too late. But of course, we support each other. We met up with Olaf [Bender] and Carsten [Nicolai] regularly when we were on the road with Moderat, but we also live close to each other here in Germany as well. They’re a great live act … they remind us of ourselves. Also, it was also very important to us to rep German acts on the record.
With the new edition of Melt! Festival you’ll once again be hosting the ‘Melt! Selektor’ stage. On your recent Modeselektor tour, you had a bunch of artists joining you at the live shows. I was wondering when this will become, say, its own format – where you as Modeselektor don’t even need to be present anymore.
The routine at a festival goes something like this: travel there, rush to the hotel, have a shower, get to festival, jump on the stage, perform, leave. What do you remember from the whole experience? Nothing. When we’re touring with Modeselektor or Modeselektion, we want to have friends and a comfortable flow every night. That’s something that we always wanted to have. When nobody knows each other at an event, everybody feels uncomfortable with the situation. We like the idea of curating. That’s very important to us.
‘Modeselektion Vol. 2’ by Modeselektor has just been released on Monkeytown Records. Watch them play live at one of these dates, and watch out for their live show at our Electronic Beats Festivals in fall 2012.
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Photo: © Kevin Lake / Image editing: Electronic Beats