Cover Story: Take a Trip Through the Cosmos with the Zenker Brothers
Cover Story: Take a Trip Through the Cosmos with the Zenker BrothersOctober 20, 2020
As the founders of Ilian Tape, the Zenker Brothers are two key figures of German breakbeat-infused techno. After years of touring, they’ve finally found time to finish their second album. Cristina Plett meets them in Munich to talk work-life balance, spirituality, and the importance of family.
After you’ve walked through an abandoned parking lot in a residential neighborhood of Munich, walked through the glass door of a rusty shack, down a flight of stairs, and through a long, narrow hallway, you’re there. The studio of the Zenker Brothers. It’s a room full of gear, carefully placed around a desk with a mixing console and a computer. Jazz music by Brian Blade Fellowship is playing softly in the background as I step inside. It’s warm here, and there are no windows. And with the smell of aroma diffusers filling the air, and red carpets lining the floor, it feels like entering the dark, beating heart of their music.
Marco and Dario Zenker have been spending a lot of time in this room lately. More than usual because, like every other artist, Covid-19 put their tour schedule on hold. And the techno ambassadors of Munich had an album that needed to be finished.
Cosmic Transmission is the result of two very different kinds of phases in their lives. They started working on it when they moved into their current studio in late 2018. But after releasing their debut-LP, Immersion, in 2015, the Zenker Brothers quickly became part of the global techno circuit — touring heavily and barely finding the time to go to the studio, let alone develop their ideas.
Marco, the younger of the pair (who are actual brothers) recalls a typical pre-Covid-week. “On Friday we left, on Sunday we came back. Then on Monday, we did some relaxing and office work. On Tuesdays I always spent time with my girlfriend, then on Wednesday we went to the studio, maybe on Thursday as well and then Friday off again.” It’s a schedule that didn’t leave a lot of room to dive deep into the production of an album, especially considering how the two Zenkers work. Most of the time they jam for hours, and maybe they record something. But it might take months for a recorded jam to become a track. “It’s kind of freestyle, and there are days where it doesn’t work,” Dario explains. “But that’s how we’ve always done it.”
Eventually, the touring threatened to become too much. “Around 2017 we noticed that we were doing less and less music,” Dario says. “It’s a huge privilege to be able to tour. We’ve seen nearly the whole world and met great people, but it’s exhausting if you’re doing it constantly.” Dario Zenker is five years older than his half-brother Marco, and in describing the challenges of touring, seems reflective and down-to-earth. But the younger Marco admits he was a bit burned out. “Not depressed, but I really missed making music,” he says.
Despite continually investing in their studio over the years, Marco felt like he didn’t have time to get to know all their gear. He radiates a dreaminess that contrasts with the pragmatism his brother seems to have, and says that at the end of last year he’d been wishing that things would change for a while.
Things did change. The lockdown that started at the end of March cleared out their schedule and made room for their method of producing. “We came here every day,” Dario says. As everything was closed, one of us cooked at home, brought food for both, and we stayed for hours, disconnecting from the whole madness outside.” Weren’t they afraid of their futures, of the future of clubs? “Back then we hadn’t fully realized the whole dimension of it,” Marco explains. “It was only after finishing the album that I realized what a massive crisis we’re facing.”
This now lost peace of mind comes across throughout the eleven tracks of the album. They feel warm and introspective, part ambient, part moody electro excursions. It’s easy to picture Marco and Dario sitting in their underground studio, encaved yet free to explore, while outside the world ground to a halt. The album doesn’t sound particularly happy; the threat lingering outside is hidden, but it’s there. DJs may be disappointed that there’s hardly a club-banger, but that’s not what the Zenkers are aiming for. “When we’re compiling an album, it’s about a listening experience, not about functionality,” Dario explains.
The same applies to the albums they release via their label Ilian Tape. Having become a well-known label for breakbeat-y and bass-heavy techno a few years ago, the albums on Ilian Tape typically leave room for non-functional dance music. Earlier examples are the critically acclaimed albums Shred and Compro by Skee Mask or recent albums like debut-LPs by Stenny and Andrea. All three artists form part of the gang that the Zenkers have assembled around Ilian Tape. Other affiliated artists include Munich-based Konrad Wehrmeister or Argentinian producer Andrés Zacco. Having a recognizable set of artists associated with the label is a natural result of the philosophy of Ilian Tape. “If we do a release with an artist, we’ll try to do a second one,” Marco explains. Ideally, a relationship in any form follows. For Marco, it’s also a way to create an identity for Ilian Tape. “It’s harder to build an identity if you release 100 records from 100 artists,” he explains.
The Zenkers have had plenty of time to carve out this profile. Dario founded Ilian Tape in 2007, and Marco joined a year later. Around the middle of the 2010s, hype around the label was growing, not only in Germany but internationally. It was in sync with the resurgence of breakbeat and bass-heavy techno. And even though hype tends to be short-lived, Ilian Tape has managed to stay relevant, slowly but steadily putting new artists on the map.
The family spirit comes through in everything they do with their label. Not only are Marco and Dario half-brothers who grew up together. Not only do they try to maintain a bond with their artists and send out some of their records themselves directly from their depot in Dario’s basement. But more importantly, their mother does nearly all the label artwork. The cover of Cosmic Transmission hangs on the door of their studio, a trippy and colorful view down a rabbit hole; other oil paintings are hung across the room. They were all painted by her, showing a dear form of support — the proud sons including their mother in their work, her supporting them. “Our mom is an artist, so she always taught us to rather do something we like than simply doing whatever,” Dario recalls.
When they were 8 and 12 years old, the family moved from Munich to a small town in the Bavarian countryside. At that time Dario, the older one, was already heavily into hip hop. The older sisters of his longest childhood-friend had shown the boys Wu-Tang Clan. Growing up, Marco and Dario weren’t as close, mainly due to their five year age gap. But Marco had no choice but to get into hip hop as well. “Our childhood rooms were next to each other. You had to walk through my room to get to his room, so I had to listen all day to whatever he was listening to,” Marco says. “A kind of brainwash,” Dario adds ironically. At only 10, Marco had also become a fan of Wu-Tang Clan.
The love for the genre has stayed with them. Both still listen to a lot of hip hop, even though they are known as techno DJs. Dario still identifies with the sound. “If you’re a real hip hop fan, it never leaves you,” he says. Soon they will come full circle with their passion and launch an Ilian Tape sublabel for hip hop beats. The first release will be by a young jazz piano player from Munich.
Zenker Brothers and Skee Mask at Dekmantel Festival, 2019
That plays tribute to their roots. Marco Zenker was also once a young guy trying to rap and produce hip hop beats. As a teenager, he messed around with Fruity Loops with a friend until his brother gave him the proper software. They don’t remember if it was Logic or Ableton, but it kickstarted Marco’s interest in production. “I dug deep. After school it grew to be the only thing I wanted to do,” he says.
Dario had already moved back to Munich by then. He’s been part of the Goa and psytrance scene since he was 15 years old. Being underage didn’t stop him from organizing a Goa party with his older friends. “I was very ambitious. [At] 15 I already knew that I wanted to do something related to music.” He laughs as he remembers that his first track to ever be released was on a Goa compilation. It’s still up on YouTube, a progressive dance track with surprisingly house-y chords. At 18, Dario had moved on, musically, and played his first techno party. It wasn’t in some random shack, but one of Munich’s legendary clubs of the late nineties, Ultraschall. His step-aunt had been part of the crew behind it, and to this day she’s part of the team running Rote Sonne, another staple of Munich’s nightlife.
As both grew older, the age gap became increasingly less important. Eventually, Dario invited Marco to join him. “He said, ‘Now you’re old enough, why don’t you come when I play in Munich?’” Marco remembers. The shared interest in music led the way for a closer relationship between the two. “When Marco started producing, we grew closer together,” Dario says. Shortly after, in 2008, they joined their forces under the name Zenker Brothers. And in 2011 they released their first record.
The scene in Munich has accompanied them their whole lives. They’ve never seriously considered moving somewhere else. Marco and Dario had a residency at famed underground Munic institution Harry Klein, did label parties at the now-closed Kong, and have now moved on to Blitz, Munich’s most recent club addition. But the city has a reputation for being conservative. “There are not many freaky people here, plus it’s super expensive. Munich doesn’t attract international artists and it drives away local artists,” Marco explains. Still, Dario says the scene is improving. “It has gotten more open. Some weekends there were even too many parties for too few people.” Was, when clubs were still open.
The Zenker Brothers have been DJing and producing together for more than 10 years, and now they can’t imagine doing it any other way. Splitting up so that one can produce and the other tour like Âme? “That simply wouldn’t make any sense,” Dario says. Sitting in front of them, it’s striking — they seem similar because they actually seem to represent two parts of one, radiating the unity of a true duo. Yet it’s impossible to not spot the differences; how Dario seems more outgoing and speaks with a louder voice than Marco, who in turn has a more contemplative vibe. Marco wears a dark green hoodie with a subtle leo-print, while Dario sports a bright red sweater.
The brothers say that over the past few years they’ve improved their communication. Still, like any other siblings, sometimes they fight. “There has to be friction for something to grow,” Dario says, Marco adding that “There’s a deep trust between us, so it’s easier to fight.”
Throughout the conversation, we touch upon topics where they disagree, and they’re fine with it. But if there is a decision to be made, compromise is key. “We decide everything together and we discuss everything.”
As for the narrative, their productions are sent out with, the Zenker brothers have full control. Marco writes the press releases for the albums on Ilian Tape himself. For example, the text he wrote for Cosmic Transmission states, “[…] always remember we are just a tiny micro spaceship traveling through a gigantic universe. When nothing is safe, all is possible. We are one — one love.” It may sound like a variation of the ever-repeated rave-mantra PLUR, (peace, love, unity, respect), which is rarely more than half-empty party babble. But the Zenker Brothers mean it. “Obviously you can also read it in a cheesy way. But to us, it’s a message we really do believe in.”
This kind of spirituality fits the cover of the album as well as the decoration of their studio. On both sides of the room, they have placed two plants and two salt lamps. “They’re supposed to help against electromagnetic fields with all the electricity here, and of course they have a beautiful light,” Dario says. And in the corner stands a silver statue of a buddha — “a gift,” they say. The Zenker Brothers see themselves as spiritual people. “I think it’s important to be aware of the energy you radiate on other people and how energy-fields can influence each other,” Marco says. “Developing a sense of basic trust and not overthinking everything,” he continues. It’s not an easy task, especially now, he admits. Regardless, it’s more important than ever to think this way. Both inherited this kind of thinking from their mother, and for Dario, being a spiritual person means living his life consciously. “How do I want to live? What do I want to achieve?” he asks.
Looking back at their pre-Covid tour life, it’s hard to imagine space for this kind of ponderance. There was the fast-paced lifestyle, and the music they played: energetic techno, breakbeat, and electro with hints of bass and dub. Smart and meticulous, but able to completely rock a dance floor if they wanted to. And definitely more energetic than the tunes on their new album, which they consciously didn’t produce for the dancefloor. To the Zenkers, there is no contradiction. “Dancing to a rhythm is something naturally human. That’s why we were always interested in DJing,” Marco explains.
The feeling of dancing for hours and not thinking about anything led them to dance music. But since Dario and Marco are now on the other side of the booth, they’re rarely able to dance like ravers. So instead, they try to give that feeling back and even feel something alike. “At a good party, I’m in a very similar state. Ideally, you’re always connected to the dancefloor,” Dario says.
Add the stress of the touring life and you understand why the Zenker Brothers have been wanting to change things for a while. Even though like most touring artists they’ve struggled financially during Covid-19, they seem optimistic. And they’ve made good use of the extra time, first by finishing their album. They also want to start mastering all the records released on Ilian Tape themselves, while offering their services to other artists. They also want to become music publishers as Ilian Tape, to eventually have more control over their catalogue. These ideas are means to an end and would make them less dependent on DJ bookings. “We don’t want to be playing in clubs when we’re 60. Maybe occasionally, but our goal was always to extend the label. The pandemic only speeded up the process,” Dario explains.
The Zenker Brothers have wanted to work in music since they were teenagers. And since then, they’ve managed to not only build a career for themselves, but a home for other artists with Ilian Tape. Now they seem dedicated to not let a pandemic destroy everything they’ve worked for. Poised with a thoughtful and long-term outlook on life, their success might just be written in the cosmos.
Cristina Plett is a freelance journalist living in Berlin/Munich. Find her on Instagram.