All photos via the Zenker Brothers, apart from this one which is by August Castell-Castell. This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
By and large, time may have been remarkably kind to techno, but it can be less forgiving to those operating the machine from within. Two of the genre's brightest underground stars, Dario and Marco Zenker, founders of influential label, collective and booking agency, Ilian Tape, are, at 33 and 28, far from out the woods yet. They have never had a breakthrough Ibiza hit, they never had any music licensed from a TV commercial and they're completely uninterested in any of that. Nonetheless, the Zenker Brothers are currently in the midst of an exhausting European tour that will see them DJ in 35 cities, accompanied by a close group of pals, many of whom have been traditionally rooted in the brothers' musical stock in trade—an unusual parallel of ambience and breakbeat ahead of hands in the air breakdowns. Suddenly—naturally for some, unexpectedly for others—these sounds the pair have stood by are finding their way back into the record bags of bedroom and club DJs the world over. It's probably fair to say that things haven't always been this way.
"I don't think we ever had a hype thing," Dario Zenker reflects when asked if he can recall any moment that the Ilian Tape approach suddenly appeared to click. "Hype comes very quick. And that's not the case for Ilian Tape. It's been growing for years, and it will still grow and we will look for new things." In a world where label after label vanishes after ten or so releases, Ilian is proof that quickly-grabbed attention might not be the best business model. "I think our way, both for the label and artistically, is the better thing, to build it slowly with a long term view," he says.
It's not that the Munich-based pair have been complacent in opting for a schedule that's more strictly-when-necessary than Strictly Rhythm. Instead, now in-demand artists such as Stenny have been under their creative umbrella since the beginning, while newer, younger signings such as Skee Mask are afforded enormous freedom. The Zenkers want you to spend as much time with their music as they do, or perhaps more. Notably, each order from the Ilian Tape website over 30 euros is complimented by a pack of branded extra length rolling papers, tellingly one of the few pieces of merchandise made available.
"Compare it to a good wine that needs time to age, or a football team that needs to grow together," explains Dario, the older, slightly chattier Zenker, responsible for founding the once fledgling imprint. "We had to leave our first distributor, we lost a lot of money. And I think when we started doing vinyl again in 2010, it started to go somewhere. It was somewhere before too, but that was really important for growing up and also for the whole development of the label, to go through all this, that running a label is not just putting out records and letting them go." Investment of money, of power, is a necessity. And, as Dario stresses, to keep things interesting, you've always got to remain focused on being as creative as possible.
If Ilian is to finally have a capital-M moment, 2017 might be the natural occasion. Having been in operation for ten years, the past twelve months have not only seen the label's regulars hit a creative high, but the young, enviably talented Skee Mask reach outside underground parameters, finishing at #20 on Time Out New York's end of year album list for 2016 with his blistering LP, Shred. Now, the initially professionally casual Zenkers have directed their tight circle off associates to produce a A Decade Ilian Tape compilation, an LP paced trip through the various, interconnected sounds and tempos within their immediate universe, ranging from Roger23's prickly electronica, panel banging techno from Rupcy and something approaching fucked up filter house from Argentinian producer Andres Zacco. The brothers themselves deliver two individual tracks and together, perhaps the record's weirdest, wildest combination, Haras. Despite the occasional banging moment, the groove throughout is assured and easy going, much like the Zenkers themselves.
Munich is perhaps known as a more buttoned up German metropolis in comparison to the hedonistic freedom and techno heritage of Berlin, or the experimental electronica and krautrock indebted Cologne. Indeed, despite having family associated with a still healthy rave scene, both brothers gravitated to both rap and skate punk before landing in their corner of dance music. Still based in the city, the pair are true to their heritage in sound, drawing parallels that might not seem instantaneous to those hearing their atmospheric if more understandably four-to-the-floor based sets at clubs and festivals
"I think the DIY thing is quite similar," Dario explains. "The whole Wu Tang thing began in a basement with basically nothing. And that's how we started too. We just tried to build something out of nothing, just with creativity and some ideas. And I think there are Ilian Tape records with that rough edge. Not big studio, not engineered stuff, in terms of sound."
As teenagers, these eternally futurist sounds bled through the thin walls between the brothers' bedrooms, although it was only later that the pair began to creatively collaborate, eventually, successfully transitioning to back-to-back sets only in 2012.
"When we were teenagers, five years was a big gap," explains Marco. "So we didn't really do much together. We didn't hang out much until I was 17. And then it just developed naturally."
The Zenkers' close bond is a necessary blessing both on the road, travelling internationally every weekend, as well as in the studio. Their own, increasingly leftfield productions remain a priority in spite of their increasingly ridiculous schedule of engagements in Europe's best clubs. Good news not only for Ilian's dedicated fans, but colleagues such as Marcel Dettmann. "If I want to change the pace of a set, or interrupt a steady flow of straight, pounding techno without losing the groove, the Zenker Brothers are my weapon of choice," the Berghain resident revealed in a 2015 interview.
An easy going approach coupled with a natural confidence is more rare in the wider dance music community than many would have you believe. Throughout their twenties, the Zenkers have retained a calm, measured approach to their craft, and one that has paid off hugely. Quite simply, they have quietly retained their integrity, without the requisite social media posts explaining as much. Instead, the world and sound they have created speaks for itself.
"I mean, we've done this now for ten years, and the early years were always quite a struggle," recalls Marco. "We both had to work besides, we had jobs too, but we both really focused on the musical career. We wanted to make a living out of it, but only with the stuff we want to do. We never wanted to change our sound, but to develop. And you need patience for that, but you also need to believe in what you are doing, and then, I think you have patience. We don't really think about anything else. We just want to keep making it better, for ourselves and for others."
For the cover of the compilations, the brothers have sourced even closer to home than usual, enlisting their own mother to paint the vivid, charming artwork. For both, it serves as a humble reminder on a worthy anniversary.
"Our Mum, she always painted," recalls Marco fondly. "She mostly had to work beside that, but she always did it. There were periods in which she made good money with her art and times when she didn't make so much, but she always kept on doing it, because she loves it. She always taught us that in a way. That it's not about money or success, but it's about doing something you love. And even if sometimes you struggle and you don't have enough money, it's better than being unhappy and doing something you're not into."
A Decade Ilian Tape is out now.
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