Dario, 30, is the elder of the Zenker pair. While very friendly, he's also the most outspoken. Scroll through the Ilian Tape website or Facebook page, and you'll see him calling out those who misspell the label's name, and expressing his annoyance over Ilian Tape releases not being reviewed. Marco, 25, is more reserved. Softly spoken and calm, it's obvious he thinks deeply about the music he makes and releases. Marco is the lesser known of the two, but with his more recent work he's given Ilian Tape some of its biggest tracks ("Landwehr" was picked up for Cassy's fabric 71, for example). The brothers obviously make a good team. They've grown what was a relatively unknown, digital-only label into one of the most respected and popular German techno imprints operating today.
Despite gaining plenty of club play, Ilian Tape's output is, for the most part, a far cry from the more immediate, hook-laden techno rinsed in nightclubs each week. Its tracks stand out for other reasons, whether through the glistening melodies of something like the Zenker Brothers' "Berg 10," or a booming but warm broken beat like the one on Andrea's "Hera."
When telling Ilian Tape's story, Dario and Marco constantly use words like "hard work" and "struggle." It's not surprising considering the important lessons they learned early on. Not long after a successful debut—Lee Van Dowski & Dachshund's Confusion Is Sex EP—they took a huge financial hit, coinciding with the sharp downturn in vinyl sales across Europe. Soon after Ilian Tape's fourth release, the label owed its distributor several thousand Euros due to unsold records. Until then, Ilian Tape had been Dario's project. But at that point Marco, then aged 18, joined him. The pair decided that releasing digitally could help recoup the label's losses. The operation also became very DIY.
"It was a classic learning-by-doing thing," Dario says. "Because we owed so much, we didn't have a lot of money to invest into the label. So I decided to do the mastering myself. I downloaded a tutorial and jumped into it. It turned out well. That's how we were able to get the money back in. We didn't spend anything on mastering, and it would've been a lot when you think about how much a ten-track compilation costs. We also wrote our own press text and didn't have to pay for the artwork."
"We did most of the stuff ourselves," Marco continues. "Nowadays, a lot of labels pop up and they're completely planned through. They have a budget for PR, they have a professional designer—everything is sorted. That's the opposite of what we did."
Ilian Tape covered a lot of musical ground on the way to its current techno-focussed style. Dario and Marco liken this development to a continuing story, in which they are constantly looking to explore new territory, but with a clear vision for longevity in mind. As such, there are clear differences between the Ilian Tape of 2007, 2010 and 2014. The label's first three releases were low-slung minimal in line with the popular style of the late '00s. As time went on, things became dubbier and more techno-oriented. Ilian Tape released a series of compilations featuring tracks by producers from across the world. Argentinians Jonas Kopp and Franco Cinelli were the most high-profile contributors, with others from Spain, Japan, Germany and the US. Of all the old associates from that time, just Kopp (who released 55 Dias on the label in March) and Regen, a Serbian producer and frequent guest at Ilian Tape parties, remain in the picture. "There were lots of people coming and going," Marco says. "After a while everyone went in different directions. Some people started making straight-up house music that didn't really fit into our sound, so it was natural that it split up."
In April 2010, Ilian Tape released one of its best and most important records. Jichael Mackson's Plex EP was the label's first vinyl release in close to three years. Though more stripped-back than most of what's followed, it has the same driving, broken and densely atmospheric sound that's since been honed by the Zenker brothers and some of the label's newer artists. "It had been laying around for a while," Dario says about "A Snake In Da System," the A-side of Plex EP. "Boris [Jichael] was never really sure about releasing it, but one day he told me that we could. Marco and I have both been fans of his music for a while, and think "A Snake In Da System" is one of his best tracks he ever made. We love all the records we've released so far, but the Jichael Mackson is a very special one, as he is not releasing much at all. We really think that he and this record totally sound like Munich."
The Ilian Tape roster is much more condensed now than it was a few years ago. Between 2008 and 2010, dozens of artists appeared on the label; in the past two years, just a handful have contributed. At the moment, Stenny and Andrea, both Italians, are two of the most vital. Stenny met the Zenkers while working as their driver during an Italian gig in 2011. A long-time fan of Ilian Tape, he kept in touch with Dario and Marco. "He showed us some stuff then that was cool but nothing spectacular," Dario says. "But he kept sending us music, and suddenly it became very good."
Another Italian, Andrea, is also a big part of the Zenkers' plans. Both Stenny's and Andrea's music is a great fit for Ilian Tape. Like Dario and Marco, they work with big, often broken beats, and thick, occasionally euphoric atmospherics. This is particularly apparent on Vostok Smokescreen, a joint 12-inch they dropped last year. And like Dario and Marco, their work is cloaked in a dubby haze, separating it from the hard-edged techno that generally fills DJ bags. "It was important for us from the beginning to tell them just how much we were into their music," Marco says. "We really tried to build that relationship so we could work together closely and build a crew."
"The communication we have is perfect and really clear," Stenny told me over email. "It feels like teamwork when we do a release. I've always liked the label's approach. It has nothing to do with trends. It's all about releasing good music, and taking care about every aspect of the process."
While agreeing that the sound has changed over time, Dario and Marco are quick to assert that there are fundamental similarities between the Ilian Tape of today and the minimal released seven years ago. "Of course it's a different sound now," Dario says bluntly. "But the atmospheric techno sound was always there. If we would start now, it would be totally different. Of course there are some things that have happened that wouldn't today—some of the artwork, or maybe one or two tracks. But looking back, when you see everything together it makes sense. There are many great labels, but they just have one sound—one techno sound, for example. For us, it was always about breaking out."
"It's not about finding one sound then making everything fit into that," Marco muses. "It's more exciting to challenge yourself and try new things, not just repeat yourself and master the one sound you've found. It's about developing and taking in new influences."
"We grew up with the label," Dario then says carefully. "When you grow up, you change your character; the way you talk, dress, the music you listen to. It's a natural evolution. A label grows the same way."
The Zenkers proudly say they've never benefited from hype and have never been influenced by trends. Dario frequently refers to unnamed "other labels," bemoaning those who he deems to work with insincere formulas in the pursuit of fast success. He's been earning a living in dance music for over ten years, so it feels like he's gained some clarity on the topic. "There are two ways to run a label," Dario says. "There's the safe way, where you can make a lot of money and get a lot of gigs, and grow a successful label pretty quickly. Or you can take the difficult way, really believing in something and following a vision while being patient. That's the way we've done it."
"Of course we want to be successful," Marco concludes. "But it's more important to stay true to yourself. Then, if you really believe in it, it can become even bigger than something that's hyped. It was never about, 'How can I be successful?' It was about how can I do my stuff, and then try to make that successful."
Long-time Ilian Tape associate Regen delivers a tough but vibrant selection of techno—exactly the kind the label specialises in. Look out for cuts from Rupcy, Stenny and the Zenkers.
Filesize: 109.9 MB
Zenker Brothers - Watz
Rupcy - Assemblage
Myles Serge - Breakfast With Audy
Dario Zenker - Chris De Slurgh
Stenny - Local Fields
Zenker Brothers - Berg 10
Thigpen - Trak
Marco Zenker - Night Vision
Rupcy - Can
Sciahri - Mind
Marco Zenker - Morpho
Dario Zenker - Karlim
Stenny - Trilithe (Paul Du Lac Rhythm Remix)
Stenny & Andrea - SEA (The Time Gate)
Regen - Black Puff
Dario Zenker - Give 6
Machine Love: Svengalisghost
At Sónar in Barcelona this year, the L.I.E.S. producer showed us how he keeps dance floors hypnotized.
Top 10 September 2014 Festivals
We count down our ten favourites in the month of September.
My Favourite DJ, Volume IX
Claude VonStroke, FaltyDL, Ryan Elliott and others pick their favourite DJs.
Playing Favourites: Marcel Dettmann
We hear the records that laid the foundation for the Berghain resident's singular sound.
Label of the month
Label of the month: Casa Voyager
Matt Unicomb dials up Casablanca to find out about an exciting new label pushing techno and electro.
Label of the month: Halcyon Veil
Andrew Ryce profiles Rabit's label, which has become an outpost for young queer electronic artists around the world.
Label of the month: Basic Channel
On its 25th anniversary, we examine the roots and philosophy behind one of techno's most beloved labels.
Label of the month: Version
Will Lynch checks in with one of Germany's best sources for sub-heavy sounds.
Label of the month: Kranky
Andrew Ryce talks to the artists behind the influential label as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.