Dario and Marco Zenker are a potent partnership.
The Munich siblings have carved out a position as one of the most exciting emerging acts in techno, and their natural, no-frills attitude shines through in both their uncompromising productions and their ever-consistent Ilian Tape imprint, which has operated since 2007. The Zenker Brothers’ rugged, rhythmic and atmospheric sound eschews much of the austerity present in techno in favour of a refreshing and irresistible playfulness.
Dario and Marco Zenker both released a string of fantastic solo records before joining forces in 2011 for an EP on Ilian Tape, followed by a pair of EPs for Tresor in 2013 and 2014. The brothers’ combined powers were fully realised on their impressive debut full-length, Immersion, released in March via Ilian Tape. The album lives up to its title: sparse and beatless numbers like ‘Erbquake’ and heady opener ‘Minto’ offer moments to surface for air between the hazy throb of ‘TSV WB’ and ‘Innef Runs’, while their rhythmic sensibilities are showcased throughout, coming to the fore on peak-time bomb ‘High Club’ and the broken rhythms of ‘Ebbman’.
We caught up with the Zenker Brothers to discuss Immersion, their influences, Ilian Tape and the importance of letting things happen naturally.
You both released solo records for a few years before putting out anything you’d collaborated on. How long have you been making music together?
Marco: Dario started making music way earlier than me. When I started I was still living in the countryside, one hour away from Munich, and Dario was already living in Munich. That was really the time when we started to hang out more again because we are almost five years apart and during our teenage years we didn’t really hang out much. But it took some time, we didn’t force it at all, it was just a natural development.
You’ve stated in the past that you have no preference in terms of old or new gear, but you do buy a lot of it. How did you handle the production of the new LP?
Dario: All of the sounds come out of machines. We record in Ableton Live but for the production itself we just used machines. We used some plug-ins inside the sequencer, maybe some reverbs and delay and stuff like that, but the sound itself comes out of machines only.
The Ilian Tape name is a reference to Spaceape. What influence does UK dance music have on your output?
Marco: We’re very open to everything. We love the UK stuff but we also love different things—US stuff, European stuff, other electronic music and hip-hop. And for the album I think it was really important to try something else and to break out. But the UK stuff has always had a really nice twist on things.
You’ve mentioned previously that your sound is inspired by 90s hip-hop, particularly a lot of stuff from New York. What’s some of the hip-hop you keep going back to?
Marco: Early Wu-Tang stuff, Gang Starr, Group Home.
Dario: Jeru The Damaja. Most of the Premier stuff, some West Coast stuff too but we mostly had a New York focus.
Marco: I just re-discovered the Group Home album and I’ve listened to it a lot recently, but I also listened to it a lot eight years ago and I loved it then. Sometimes you rediscover some old records and you still love them. And just the sound aesthetic, the vibe, and the realness—I think you can really hear in the music that they’re not there for the money or to be famous. They just have something to say and really want to express that, and you can hear it.
It’s quite a pure sound; it’s not too perfect or polished.
Dario: Totally. It’s real, you know. It’s out of the ghetto, it’s out of the basement. The production is really authentic. This music is authentic as hip-hop can be, I think. Early 90s New York rap stuff is really authentic because it was very dangerous there, the people didn’t have any money, it was a pretty hard life for them I think. And of course there was a lot of dark stuff too, but they still made a lot of really positive music. Especially Gang Starr and Premier. Wu-Tang wasn’t really positive, it was more gang, ghetto stuff, more dark and violent. But Gang Starr was never violent. It was really intelligent, very positive, out of a hard life and a struggle.
“I don’t know if it was destiny or if we were lucky, but everything just came together really nicely.” Marco Zenker
Turning the focus on to your label, Ilian Tape, what is the process like when it comes to deciding what to release?
Marco: It depends on the artist. Some artists send more than others. Skee Mask is very productive; he makes a lot of music. So for him we have to choose from a big range of tracks when deciding what to put on the record. With other artists we don’t have that many tracks to choose from, but they send us music and we let the tracks sit for a while. We take a lot of time to compile it and decide the order of tracks, and take the time to put together a nice, diverse, cool record. We have a really similar vision and vibe concerning the label so there isn’t much fighting involved. We just talk about it and we always agree at one point.
Skee Mask only has a couple of records but he sounds like a very special producer.
Marco: I really like the approach of Skee Mask because sometimes it sounds really free of any club rules. He’s just enjoying breaking out and trying different things.
Dario: We make music in a more loopy way but Skee Mask is very arranged. The tracks are very constructed. Sometimes a kick comes in for five seconds, then there’s another break and another break. Its not DJ tool music, and I think that’s why it gets received so well, because it is a very unusual way of constructing techno tracks. It’s very icy and textural. It’s super complex, the arrangements are just insane. I love the Skee Mask stuff but I couldn’t make music like that because I need some steady thing going, in a way. It’s not DJ music, I would say. I don’t hear many DJs playing it.
You have an Italian contingent that includes artists like Stenny and Andrea, and you worked with Night Slugs’ Helix very early in his career. It all seems like a very natural fit.
Marco: The Helix/Thigpen connection came through Simple, who sent a demo through. It was a nice message and we listened to it and we got in contact. It was quite a while ago, but he is a friend of Helix and he sent us the track they made together. That’s how we got connected with him, and then we also put out a track from Thigpen on a compilation. And the other guys, we met Stenny and Andrea when we were touring in Italy, we had a label night there.
Sometimes we check emails and demos but lately not really, because we get so much stuff and most of the messages are really the same. It is impossible to listen to all of it. Sometimes we listen if there is a really cool, nice message but most of it is crappy shit that has been sent to 500 labels by people that just want to release music not because they are really passionate producers but because they want to be famous.
Dario: Nowadays everybody is a DJ and producer, which is not a bad thing. Technology has made things easier over the past few years. But then you have a huge amount of shit coming out.
Marco: Sometimes I check it for fun, but honestly the music they send us, sometimes I can’t understand how they have come to send it to us because it is so far from anything we release. It seems to me like they randomly pick email addresses online and send it to as many people as possible hoping someone will agree to release it. That’s the most stupid way to do it. It’s hard to find new artists through a demo, but it sometimes happens.
“Nowadays everybody is a DJ and producer – you have a huge amount of shit coming out.” Dario Zenker
It sounds as though it’s very much a filtration process and letting things roll.
Dario: It’s not about quantity or releasing as many artists as possible, but about releasing quality stuff and building something together with the artists. We have a small booking agency, we do label nights; it’s more like a long-term thing where we want to develop something. Many crews do that; have a core group of artists. I think that makes it really interesting, more special in a way.
What does the future have in store for Ilian Tape? I hear there’s a Stenny full-length on the way.
Marco: He’s working on it, but we don’t know when it’s going to come out.
Dario: Skee Mask is also working on a full-length. Besides that, I’ll do a new record and there will be a new one from Andrea and maybe a new compilation. Nothing’s really ready yet but there will be a few more records this year.
Marco: We’re going step-by-step because we had a really long tour and we’re really busy playing every weekend until August. For this year we did one album and two records and that’s really enough for the first half of the year, so we don’t stress at all. We never think like “OK, we have to put out records”. There’s no need to stay on a schedule—we’ll do a record when it’s ready and when we feel it.
Dario: It’s not about releasing as much as possible but about releasing strong records.
The one thing that sticks out is that you like to let everything happen naturally.
Marco: Totally, I mean we put a lot of work into it but what else can we do other than let it flow?
Dario: We force ourselves in terms of finishing tracks and running the label. But the artists, you can’t put any pressure on them because nothing will come out of that.
Marco: And it’s much better to think in the long-term rather than the short-term. In the long-term, it’s better to have a break between the records and make sure that they are really good and strong than to think about the short term and make sure you put out a record every month and stay on the news lines. We were always more focused on the long-term thing and trying to make it last.
We’ve come back to quality over quantity.
Dario: Totally, and if the quantity is there too its no problem. But the quality always has to be there.
You’re playing at Found Festival. For those that have never experienced a Zenker Bros DJ set, what can we expect?
Marco: Techno but more melodic, and more happy than in a dark club.
Catch the Zenker Brothers at Found Festival in London on June 13.