If you were given the task of picking out the leading global dance music hubs, Munich may not feature too high up your list. It has a reputation for being leafy, relaxed, conservative. But there’s a boldness and sense of assurance to the city: in the towering Alpine mountains bordering the horizon, its world-conquering Fußball club, and the strong-minded Bavarian mentality. The Zenker Brothers have embodied this conviction typical of their hometown over the past decade, and in doing so have firmly positioned themselves and the Ilian Tape imprint they co-helm at the forefront of the international techno underground.
A freewheeling confidence has underpinned the direction of Ilian Tape since Dario Zenker, the elder and more animated brother, founded the label in 2007. The two siblings are sharing a smoke outside when I arrive at the Farringdon hotel they’re staying in prior to the fabric leg of the label’s 10-year anniversary tour, and Dario leads the way up to his room. Once inside he darts around for a few moments, rummaging in a tabletop bag and crouching down to offer me a pick of the floor-level minibar, while Marco stations himself on edge of the bed and waits for the interview to begin.
Dario didn’t get on with the education system, or being told what to do by superiors, and from the age of 15 he was certain that music was the only life route he wanted to pursue. After a number of years of regularly DJing, throwing parties, and making and releasing music, Dario started the imprint aged 23, with a desire for personal autonomy among his main motivations. “I wanted to do it in my own way,” he tells me.
Marco joined the operation the following year upon finishing school, deciding he felt more passionately about making music than he did about continuing his studies. From this point forward the Zenkers have worked in unison to build Ilian Tape into one of Europe’s best-loved outlets, with close to 70 diverse releases among its decade-spanning discography by artists hailing from Argentina to Japan.
Difficulties have flared along the way, including a hefty vinyl distribution debt around the time of the financial crisis in 2007 that forced the label to go digital-only for a number of releases, but the Zenkers’ resolve never wavered. “It was a struggle at certain points, but we always wanted to do it and would do everything to keep it running,” Marco says matter-of-factly. “We just kind of believed in it,” continues Dario, “we didn't have much attention back then, but every small step was nice for us, every track sold and every bit of feedback made us happy. It was worth it.”
The driving force at the heart of this slowly-realised success has been the Zenkers’ appetite for exploring music, which has been the unerring constant from the start. It’s a kingdom built upon the foundation of their tastes, comprising a mesh of “house, techno, breakbeat, electro, drum 'n' bass, ambient.” There’s been no breakout hit records heaping attention on the label, but gradually Ilian Tape’s star has risen, drawing in devoted followers with its artful curation and consistent quality.
Dario and Marco have been big hip hop fans since their youth, and have taken inspiration from the aesthetic and the non-commercial approach of East Coast groups such as Gang Starr and Wu-Tang Clan in their label management mindset. “They just did what they wanted to do,” says Marco, and this attitude courses through the veins of Ilian Tape. “We know what's right to do even though we cannot explain it in a way,” he says. “We're not looking for the perfectly mixed-down dancefloor smasher that's super functional and has the sound of the moment, we look for something like a feeling, something we can connect with, some kind of vibe.” There’s been no master plan or mapped out vision in place, but a journey of personal discovery, with the label growing and developing in line with the brothers, taking in the sum of their inspirations.
“It’s become part of our identity,” says Marco. “We grew up through the label and the label has grown with us,” adds his brother. The Zenkers do have some loose familial connections in the world of techno. Their aunt Dorle Zenker was involved in running seminal Munich nightspot Ultraschall and US techno DJs would often stay at their Dad’s house when passing through the city. But the brothers spent a significant part of their childhood living with their mother in a small countryside village 60 kilometres outside of Munich that had “like 20 houses or something”, only visiting their father on weekends and having little to no contact with his sister. “All I remember from that time is that my Dad had some guests at his house and I met them, some American guys or whatever,” says Marco, referring to the likes of Anthony “Shake” Shakir and Jay Denham. At five years his senior, Dario has some more vivid memories, but for the most part these just relate to hanging out in the DJs’ company, and there was no life-changing interaction that pushed him towards techno.
When Dario did take up DJing, he first specialised in psytrance, following a “groundbreaking” outing to an open air rave playing the fast-paced music aged 15. He still loves it, to this day getting lost in YouTube vortexes watching festival clips. Marco, a later arrival to clubbing during the minimal era, is not keen, but thanks to the thinness of their adolescent bedroom walls Dario reckons the genre has influenced them both. “He didn't like it but he heard it all the time!”
Stylistic entry points aside, the common formative thread that really shaped the Zenkers and got them hooked on pursuing music is immersing themselves in the nightlife Munich had to offer after moving back to the city. Over time their interests crystallised in the sphere of techno; there was no carved-out path or contacts giving them a leg up when the label started out. “We both worked several jobs to survive and make this happen. We did it from our own energy.” Ilian Tape is intrinsically Dario and Marco Zenker. It’s a mirror unto themselves.
The cohesion between the brothers is clear in the way they talk about the label. They listen intently to each other, never disagreeing but often helping to focus or expand upon the other’s points. If one brother falters mid-thought then the other provides the word he’s looking for and the conversation resumes its flow instantly from there, as if the sentence has been carried uninterrupted by one individual. Sometimes they answer questions in unison.
They take on different roles in the day-to-day running of the imprint. Marco handles administrative matters like financial invoices, the website and social media, while Dario deals with the mastering studio, pressing plant and graphic designers, but the music direction is completely equal and they agree on almost everything.
Upon the label’s decade anniversary, the signs that they’ve built something special are plain to see. The occasion was marked with a 24-date tour through all of Europe’s finest clubs, including stops at Berghain, Concrete, De School, fabric and Lux, and a stunning 12-track compilation featuring the bulk of its current roster of core artists with a debut appearance from influential producer René Pawlowitz aka Shed.
Praise is regularly heaped upon Ilian Tape from big players across the European circuit, with Sam Binga, B.Traits, Midland and fellow Munich local tINI among its vocal fan base. Daniel Avery is another greater admirer of the imprint: “I love the atmosphere of Ilian Tape records; there's a broken beauty to all of them,” the Divided Love boss tells me. “The music is intense but always with a feeling of hope buried inside. It's a special label.”
Although there is now a main group of artists signed to the label, including Andrea, Andrés Zacco, Sciahri, Skee Mask and Stenny, with demos not currently being accepted, the openness that has always defined Ilian Tape remains, with the Zenkers not imposing any limitations on their roster.
Some common threads have emerged in recent years – booming kicks, warm analogue textures, rough grooves, broken beats – but every release adds something new to the catalogue, whether that’s treading uncharted territory like the warped eccentricity of Roger 23’s recent contributions, or more subtle adjustments in speed, sound and atmosphere. “You don't eat the same stuff every day or you don't dress the same your whole life. You always want to move on, and it’s the same with the label,” explains Dario.
Italian artist Stenny first met the brothers when he picked them up as the driver for a gig in Turin, and a friendship developed from there. He was also DJing and producing at the time, and found the Zenkers very receptive to his music, offering encouragement and constructive criticism without compromising his personal vision. “They never gave me a guideline,” says Stenny. “They always motivated me to let go and be as spontaneous as possible and not really focus on a specific sound. I always felt completely free.”
Another artist thriving off this liberty is Skee Mask, who was producing under a different name before linking up with the Zenkers. His 2016 album ‘Shred’ ranked high among the year’s finest releases, managing to unite styles spanning goosebump-inducing ambience to powerful floor-primed techno in a way that felt totally natural, even when within the same track. Last month Ilian Tape launched the Skee Series sublabel exclusively for his productions, which looks set to allow the Bavarian native to flex the full range of his artistry.
The Zenkers influence on his music has not always been conventional, especially in the case of ‘Shred’ cut ‘Zenker Haze Trak’. “On the day I made the track I didn't have weed, so I asked Dario and he gave me a lot of stuff, then I made that really kind of funny, uplifting, swinging house track,” explains Skee Mask, snickering throughout the sentence. “I'm also really bad with names so that's why I called it that,” he adds of the track that clocks in at a length of four minutes and 20 seconds.
Ilian Tape’s lack of restriction translates into its artists’ DJ sets. Skee Mask picks out an all-night back-to-back session with the Zenker Brothers in Edinburgh in which experimental tangents were explored as a tour highlight: “It was amazing to build a whole night just out of our tastes. People really liked it.”
Marco describes his sets with Dario as a “constant exchange”. They’re always unplanned, and it’s common that each brother won’t know a number of the records the other draws for. “It's very intuitive and you have to react in the moment,” continues Marco, “sometimes you know immediately, ok now I'm going to play this. And sometimes you're like ok shit, what should I play now?! But I think that's really exciting.”
Perhaps due to the nature of the club and the flash-on Snapchatting audience members in attendance, the fabric party during the 10th anniversary tour is firmly dancefloor-orientated. Heavy bass, rattling percussion and crashing breaks permeate through the night, with the likes of Leibniz’s ‘Bat’ and Pearson Sound’s ‘Learn 2 Luv’ remix aired. But there are forays into wider territory. Djrum is opening up with some sparkling melodies and vocal tracks as I arrive, Stenny crafts sweeping ambient soundscapes on a vast array of gear to begin his live set, and I swear at one point I can hear Skee Mask layering Jay-Z’s ‘Hovi Baby’ over rampant jungle foundations. (He’s previously been known to play AJ Tracey and Nadia Rose at Berghain.)
The Zenker Brothers stand among the crowd at points of each set, getting a feel for the room and its sonics. When they step up at 4am they’re in full headline mode, surging through a vigorous selection of percussion-led tracks to devastating effect. Special Request’s ‘Ride VIP’ sparks a particularly incendiary response.
Something the Ilian Tape tour reflects is the depth of commitment each core artist makes to the label. There’s an Ilian Tape booking agency they’re all signed to, Stenny and Andrea have never released elsewhere, and neither has Skee Mask if you discount the anonymous producer’s wider work. There’s a real sense of community and friendship underpinning its success. When talking to the artists, the notion of “inspiring” each other comes up a lot.
The Zenker Brothers naturally represent a strong family element within Ilian Tape, which is supplemented by their mother Bettina Zenker painting the release artwork. And this familial feeling spreads throughout the label.
“For us it's about building something together. We are not label bosses who tell them what do, they contribute a part to the label just as we do,” says Dario. “They really focus on the label, but we focus on them too. We are very lucky to have this group of friends around us; it's not common.”
Stenny, who has moved to Munich from his hometown Turin, echoes this sentiment. “There's a really close relationship between all of us living in Munich. We hang out, we listen to other music, we make fun of each other,” he says. “When somebody comes up with some new material we all listen to it and talk about it.”
Marco first got in contact with Skee Mask, who lives just outside Munich, through SoundCloud and they connected and began hanging out IRL. “The first time that I met him we just like played FIFA and smoked joints,” reveals Skee.
“It's just an amazing feeling to be on this label,” he continues, “it’s its own, really unique thing. And that doesn't happen much in Munich to be honest!” Skee Mask’s words reflect the work Ilian Tape is doing to help put Munich on the map and reverse its sleepy, commercial reputation, building on the foundations laid by the likes of DJ Hell, Richard Bartz and Ultraschall.
“I definitely think it's the sound of Munich today,” says Dario, referring to the label. And with impressive-looking new club Blitz freshly opened beneath the city’s biggest museum with the Zenker Brothers, Skee Mask and Stenny signed up as residents, their impact is only growing. “The location is incredible, and the concept and philosophy of Blitz is pretty special. It will be a dope new addition to the nightlife,” Dario tells me a month on from our initial interview over e-mail.
That said, the influence the Zenkers are having on Munich’s status on the world stage doesn’t really factor into their concerns. Love of music is their motivation, and they’ll continue to run Ilian Tape and seek out new and exciting sounds no matter what.
With the decade milestone hit, Marco is both reflective and forwardly upbeat. He brings up the closing of the 10 year chapter, pauses, then contemplates, “what's coming next, it doesn't necessarily have to be different, but it also can go anywhere. I think that's always really important, to just stay open and keep on developing.”
I pose the question, will they make it to two decades? Marco doesn’t blink. “We don't have any plan but we certainly can keep it going!” Instinct has served them well so far.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter