Label Love #30: Ilian Tape
Dario and Marco Zenker are two of the finest techno artists around at the moment. End of. They grew up in Munich and their shared love of the genre has seen them join together to run one of the most exciting techno labels of the past few years: Ilian Tape. Now that the guys are just getting round to releasing their first joint album together it felt like the perfect time to catch up with them to talk about the long player, the label and much else besides.
First off, this is your first album right?
What made you come to do this album? You guys have been doing stuff for quite a while so why was it now that you thought you’d some together and do something a bit longer?
D: I was thinking about doing an album for many years by myself and I was working on it for 4-5 years but it never really became serious. We’d been talking about it for quite a white and we just moved our studios together early last year and it was just the next logical step.
M: I think that it was really essential that we moved the studios together and then we put all the machines we’ve collected over the years together and linked it all up together so we met there quite often and made music together and it became really natural for us to think about doing a full length album. For me it would be much more difficult to finish an album on my own, I think for Dario it’s the same. Together you can always push each other and inspire each other.
You need someone else to motivate you?
D: Yeah, that’s what I was just saying. I’d been trying to finish an album for about 5 years and it never really became anywhere near a kind of structure.
SO YOU ACTUALLY STARTED THE ALBUM BUT IT NEVER WENT ANYWHERE UNTIL YOU STARTED WORKING TOGETHER?
D:No the idea of my solo album had nothing to do with our album together. i just was having that thought in my mind for some years to do one. when we started our album is was a total separate thing.
Did you both work in your homes before? Has moving to an external space helped?
M: It’s a different situation because now we have a separate room where our office is, it’s next to Dario’s flat but it’s not part of it. It’s not in the bedroom or something. That definitely helps, together you have a lot of space there and it’s just fun to jam. We made some tracks and then pretty fast we thought about doing an album and how we want it to sound and we really focused on that and just really let it go. We didn’t have a master plan or anything, we just had it in mind that we didn’t want to do just a collection of dancefloor tracks or anything but really work with the format. Really try to explore different things and make a storyline from the first to the last track, a complete package.
I was thinking of that when I was listening to the album. There’s definitely dancefloor tracks on there, stuff that you can play in a club, but also it has a timeline over the whole thing and you can just sit down and listen and lose yourself to it as well. Was that really important to you guys?
D: Yeah it was because we’re both DJs and the stuff we release on Ilian Tape is not just DJ tools but it’s all playable. When we compile a 12” we really try to get the right balance of tracks, we have some dancefloor stuff, some ambient stuff… But with the album we really had the intention to do something that works in the club, works in the car, works while you cook, just a thing to listen to. Some of the other Ilian Tape stuff is not the sort of thing you sit down at home and listen to, it’s pretty clubby. The intention for the album was to break out of that and do something that works wherever, something you can really listen to.
M: I think also the approach was different, when we work on an EP you have maybe 2 tracks you really want to release and then you try to make another 2 tracks to really balance it out and during the album we were completely free. We just said ‘let’s make tracks, let it go and go wherever it takes us and then, after a certain period, when we have enough we’ll decide what we’re definitely going to pick and maybe what we still need’. The whole process from the beginning was really free.
I was also going to ask you what other albums, electronic or otherwise, have you lived with over the years and are really close to you?
D: It’s funny because we just did an interview about 8 of our favourite albums and more than half of it was hip-hop albums. We’re really inspired by hop-hop music from the 90s sound-wise and aesthetic-wise, and also from the story. There aren’t too many techno albums that we’ll sit down and listen to at home from start to finish.
M: I think quite often it’s disappointing with techno albums because they’re not really using the format very creatively.
D: A lot of techno albums are just a compilation of dance tracks, it could have come out on 2 12”s.
Yeah, definitely. I can’t think of that many that really pull it off but it’s quite interesting because you guys have taken techno and put it into a listening format as well.
M: There’s one new album we really liked that was Special Request "Soul Music" which is a really cool album and we listened to that a lot during our holidays and the summer last year.
Did you enjoy the process?
D: Absolutely! We worked on it for 6 months in total, producing it, mixing it. We made about 18 tracks and in the end we chose 10 to put out. It was a great process, we always cooked together and ate together and we talked. We’d lose track of 3-4 hours because we’d be talking, it’s more like hanging out for us as friends.
M: We even listen to music together when we’re producing, we just take time off and listen to other tracks – all kinds of music — so it’s not like a straight producing process.
When you’re in the studio it can be quite hard to translate ideas – do you feel like you guys are on the same wavelength?
D: Yeah, totally.
M: We don’t really talk about what we want to do, we just explore and that’s the good thing about having a lot of machines – you can just work on the machines and try different things and you get a feeling, sometimes you take something out because you don’t like it and then you change something but most of the time it just happens that we find each other and it gets really exciting.
D: We actually talk more about other things than which direction we want to go in with the track, that’s always a good input. It’s always very relaxed and natural. A really important thing is that we laugh a lot – when we make music, we make jokes and it’s always combined with a lot of fun when we work together.
That’s funny because the music can sound very serious with this dark techno, you can imagine you both sitting there with no smiles on your faces…
D: No no no, we smile and laugh a lot!
The last thing I wanted to talk about with the album, if you guys wanted to do another one, what would you do differently?
M: I think it would change naturally because our studio also changes all the time as we buy and sell some stuff and through that the working process changes. But the way of doing it? I don’t think we’d change that much because it’s a personal thing and you try and get into a personal state and be creative.
Now over to the label… Firstly, Ilian Tape. Where does the name come from?
D: It’s a fantasy name, it just came up in a certain moment 8 years ago when we had to find a name. I was running a label before and we had to stop it and so we had to find a name really quick, it’s a long story behind that but it’s not really important. It’s a fantasy name because we both grew up with tapes and Ilian – there was an album from Kode9 and The Spaceape which was one of the first really good dubstep albums. Spaceape was doing vocals on it and there was patois and slang, Ilian is a word that I actually heard for the first time in one of the tracks. This word was just sticking in my head and I was just thinking about a name for the label and Ilian Tape just came up. It had no meaning, the only meaning it has is that we grew up with tapes.
You’ve been doing the label for 8 years, how comes you’re still doing it after all this time? What’s kept you going?
M: I think it changed a lot, at the beginning we had a really tough period with distribution and we had to change – we couldn’t do vinyl for a long period and just switched to digital, that was when I really started producing and that was the first platform, for me, to release music on. It’s really exciting still because it has changed a lot over the years, how we work together, what kind of vision we have and what we want to do. I think right now it’s more exciting than ever and there’s no way of stopping it. It’s just the beginning. Even with the album format, we can explore that much further with other artists as well and we have a really exciting group of artists now that contribute mainly to the label and that are all young and really motivated. It’s really exciting at the moment.
It’s funny you mentioned having problems with distribution to start with, I was going to ask a bit about setting up the label. Was it a hard learning process? I know, Dario, you mentioned that you’ve done it a bit before. Were you learning on the way?
D: It wasn’t very easy at all, it was like jumping in cold water. We were learning by doing and making a lot of mistakes, trying to find a way to run it and be satisfied with it. It’s a long life process and you’ll never come to a point where you say ‘that’s it, it’s running perfect now’. For me, back then when I started it it was the next logical step because I’d been DJing for many years and putting out records. It was logical to do my own thing and to be in control of everything.
Also you mentioned that you were interested in exploring the album format with other artists, are there any definite plans with that yet?
M: Stenny is working on one at the moment, we don’t know when it’s going to be finished but it’s really exciting. Nothing more specific yet but I’m sure there will be more. Skee Mask is doing a lot of really exciting stuff so at one point we can probably do an album with him too, and with others like Andrea, Dario wants to do a solo one at some point as well. We will see.
You guys have done quite a lot of stuff that’s just digital and quite a lot of stuff that’s vinyl, what makes you choose with each release if you’re going to do one or the other or both? Is it important to be on both formats at the moment?
D: We stopped doing digital only stuff some years ago. The digital only stuff came about because we lost a lot of money and we had a lot of debt to the distributor and we had to just get back the money and we simply didn’t have the money to put in ourselves because we put all the work in. Then we started doing digital stuff, I was mastering myself and we did everything ourselves, and got the artwork done by a friend. We got the money back in to pay the debts and we were able to move on.
It seems like you’ve got quite a close group of people you work with, do you look for stuff outside of that or are you just sticking to a close group of friends who you want to release with?
M: At the moment this group is really productive so there’s really not much space. If something comes across then we are open to it but we’re not really looking for it at the moment.
So within that, does everyone listen to each other’s stuff? How do you go about choosing when you get sent something from one of these friends?
D: We listen to it alone and we also listen to it together, we take quite a while to compile the record.
M: It takes some time to compile it and put it together.
You seem to have had quite a consistent use of artwork over the past few releases, is it you guys that do the artwork? How important is the look of the release as well as the sound of it?
D: This is actually done by our Mum – she’s a painter and she’s painting that. From release 20 we started using her artwork. As I said before, it’s a long life process and we are always trying new things and we are open to new things so when you watch the artwork from Ilian Tape #1 to now, it’s a really big process. It’s great to see because I started the label when I was 22, now I’m 31, and I was a totally different person back then. It’s funny if you look at the history of the label, both musically and from the artwork. It’s a process. I think we will change in the next year, we’ll always change.
When I was looking I could see the massive change and progression that you’ve had and I always ask people, and they always hate me asking it, where are you guys going to be in 5 years time with Ilian Tape?
D: You never know but we’re very happy and very confident and we always look for a specific thing and not to repeat ourselves and not to repeat things on the label, when it comes to artwork and when it comes to music. I think we will move forward the same way that we move forward in our lives, the label is a reflection of who we are. It’s hard to say, you never know, but I think we’ll just move on from where we are now.
Marco, you said you’ve been having a nice time away from touring but you guys do travel and tour quite a bit – is it ever hard to keep everything going with the label whilst you’re also travelling all over the place? Or is there enough space between the two to keep them both running nicely?
M: Yeah, it’s alright. Some of the organisational stuff we have split up and we know what we have to do when we make a record so it works. It’s a lot of work because we both also have other jobs and a social life and we want to make music as well but we love to do it so it works. It has to work!
It does, and it is working! What have you got coming up on Ilian Tape?
D: We have the album coming on 10th February, in March we have an EP from Stenny coming, in April there’s a new Skee Mask coming, in May there’s a solo record coming from me and then in June we have Roger23 coming in, that’s a new artist on the label. That’s it for the first half of the year, the second half we don’t have concrete plans but there’ll be a record from Marco, Andrea probably… Let’s see what happens.
One final question – please describe the label in 5 words and 5 pictures (you can see the pictures dispersed throughout the article).