[31 July 2013]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Sadly, the first encounter most people will likely have with the German glitch duo Modeselektor is the tag “that one German group Thom Yorke likes.” (Or, for those keen on the LA club scene, those who were lucky enough to be at Low End Theory that one night Yorke DJed.) Yorke, who collaborated with Modeselektor for two tracks on its last LP, 2011’s Monkeytown, is a big fan of the duo, and his name being attached to some of its work has undoubtedly contributed some profile-raising help.
But while Radiohead’s career has gone in an uninteresting slump following the middling King of Limbs, also released in 2011, Modeselektor continues to get bigger and better, due in large part to its increasingly gonzo ambition. Simplistically structured yet unforgettable jams like “Kill Bill Vol. 4” and “Evil Twin” have been one-upped by killer collaborations like “Pretentious Friends”, which features the loquacious MC Busdriver rapping about turkey bacon bits over rubbery elecro bass.
This creativity does have a price; the very nature of throwing spaghetti at the walls is that not all of it will stick. For the listeners the ride is nonetheless enjoyable, because as the labor of love documentary We are Modeselektor wonderfully captures, these guys are all about fun.
The duo, comprised of Sebastian Szary and Gernot Bronsert, didn’t always seem like the type to turn into the knob-turners that they are today. Both started off in humble, unassuming towns whose signposts are factories and chemical plants: Harlan County, Deutschland. Szary, though often calm and reserved, has an understated sense of humor that is the source of many of the film’s most dryly funny moments. (Especially humorous is his frequently Kangol-capped head, which makes him look like a bodyguard for Saddam Hussein.) Bronsert is the more animated of the two, but when he gets introspective he puts out some of the movie’s best lines.
Despite having an interest in music at a young age, neither come off as the budding artist type. Music, as with many of the other options laid out in front of the two men early on (including a degree in social pedagogy on Bronsert’s end), is one of many ways of life. The two began this way of life at a young age, throwing bass-rumbling parties in locations spanning backyard storage sheds to abandoned factory depots. From there, those ever-indescribable fates conspired to keep Szary and Bronsert together as a musical entity, which turned out to happen amidst a growing German techno scene.
Having no formal training as musicians, Szary and Bronsert channeled their love of music—which involved quite a bit of vinyl crate-digging early on—into digital modulation, computer interfaces, and knob-laden synthesizers. The result, after many years of playing small clubs and community centers in Berlin, is the juggernaut of danceable music that Modeselektor (and all the other work it does with the band’s self-made Monkeytown label) is today.
But though there are snapshots of Modeselektor’s international voyages, with stops in Guadalajara and rural West Virginia amongst others, We are Modeselektor is not about “how the band got big.” Nor is it a self-congratulatory parade of people re-affirming the duo’s excellence, which would have been easy to do. The only internationally recognizable artist that appears here is Apparat‘s Sascha Ring, and amazingly Yorke never graces the screen. His absence, however, is one of the things that keeps the down-to-earth atmosphere of the film so real; this isn’t about favor checks being cashed.
The word “We” in the film’s tile is deceptive, as just by looking from the DVD’s cover art—featuring Szary and Bronsert looking adorably goofy—one might think the movie to be a biography strictly about those two men. What the communitarian, convivial We are Modeselektor is actually about is the large group of people who make Modeselektor’s existence possible. From mothers to label management, from collaborators to admirers—this film brings in a gamut of faces from Szary and Bronsert local scene, giving it a feel much more authentic than a VH1 Behind the Scenes-type affair. The We is as inclusive as possible.
In many ways, We are Modeselektor is a high-quality home movie, a fact helped by the amount of old footage going as far back as Szary and Bronsert’s respective childhoods. Those old reels are a testament to the humble quality of these musicians as performers—champagne showers aside. These guys have always had a fascination with documenting and making art out of life, and even though Modeselektor provides them with an international prowess most aren’t ever likely to achieve in their lives, the minutiae of the everyday still holds their interest. To use Bronsert’s terms, We are Modeseletor is a capturing of “the little Shire” the duo occupies.
“I think that bands can only be successful over a longer period when people feel that there is honesty in it,” Monkeytown employee Gordon Boerger tells the camera. “That the artists also live in a real world, that they are present and that there is not that much of a difference between the people who listen to the music and the ones who make the music—apart from the creativity.” Bronsert echoes a similar sentiment when he describes his best fan encounters: “For me, a success is for example when someone who I never met before says to me: ‘With the song you made I had a really great experience.’ Or: ‘I asked my wife to marry me.’ Or: ‘My kids love your music.’”
Many artists will describe particular works of theirs as “love letters to their fans”, and for all the schmaltzy sentimentality such a description might evoke, it’s the defining truth of We are Modeselektor. Upon hearing about this documentary’s release, I was perplexed. Modeselektor has only three studio LPs to its name, and as far as one can glean from this movie, there’s still plenty of a future for these guys. What story could these guys tell that was already finished?
As it turns out, We are Modeselektor isn’t meant to be definitive. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time, with threads of the past and the future threaded throughout. It’s warm, inviting, and danceable.