Label of the Month: Sungate
Label of the Month: SungateFebruary 6, 2023
With its gaudy beachfront cocktail bars and sunshine-drenched holiday vibe, the palm tree-lined port city of Valencia may not seem like an obvious incubator for a headsy techno label. However, it’s currently listed as the home of Sungate — an imprint prone to deep, high-def, weighty electronic excursions that has been spinning on its own axis since 2017.
Sungate’s roster, which comprises an international cast of new and established producers, conveys a timeless quality that’s big on space and atmosphere. Artists like German-born producer and DJ Markus Suckut meld the warmer textures of dub with the colder temperatures of techno, which in turn seems to reflect the label’s own heritage and cultural duality: sun-loving southern Europeans with two feet firmly in northern Europe. “We like how it feels to be in a Berlin club,” says Fran Domingo, who runs Sungate alongside business partner and friend Moy Santana.
The dirgy kicks and delay-enhanced chord patterns that form the label’s DNA may run counter to the Sungate name and address – a restless energy more suited to Berlin clubs in winter, perhaps, rather than a sweltering summer’s day spent lounging at the beach. But when Beatportal connects with the Sungate founders via Zoom, we uncover the hippie-dipped ethos and Ibiza-fuelled hedonism that continues to shape the label’s output.
“The only thing we’re looking for is that the music creates emotion in us,” offers Santana on the A&R process guiding the Sungate roster. “We have to feel that there is love and passion behind the work. Also, there must be a connection with the artists. They should be good people. We don’t want big egos complicating our lives.”
Santana, who was born and raised in Valencia, and Domingo, who grew up in the Costa del Sol hotspot of Malaga, first crossed paths in 2014 while they were both working at Ibiza’s erstwhile clubbing institution, Space. Santana was helping out with the club’s audiovisuals and Domingo was managing its social media and PR. The pair instantly hit it off and began soaking up the White Isle’s world-class scene together, bonding over music. It wasn’t long before they realised they each harboured a desire to start a label.
“In the beginning, I wanted to do a downtempo record label and Moy wanted to do something more electronic/clubby,” recalls Domingo, who is back living in Ibiza following a five-year stint in Madrid. “We decided to work together and focus on one label because we know that if you have various products it’s very difficult to succeed, whereas if you have one very good product with one very good friend, it’s going to be a lot easier.”
Santana and Domingo were on the same page when it came to inspirational labels, namechecking Dutch electro stalwart Clone and minimal mainstay Kompakt among their favourites. Santana also references Madrid’s techno/IDM imprint Semantica Records, Analog Solutions, owned by debut Sungate artist Eduardo de la Calle, as well as Transcendent, the label run by Dutch producer Conforce, whose Wavetable EP – named for is use of wavetable synthesis – came out via Sungate in 2021. “And, of course, the big ones like Ninja Tune and Warp,” adds Domingo.
Photos by: Pablo Gallardo
In 2016, Santana was living in Ibiza to see out the final days of Space, which was forced to close its legendary doors for good after 27 years of unrivalled service. Meanwhile, Domingo had already upped sticks to Madrid, where he was residing up until 2020. The distance has never been an issue; both Santana and Domingo regularly travel around the country and often work on professional projects together outside of running the label. Santana has a film company, and Domingo has a communications and marketing agency.
The pair agreed that Sungate would be a platform to release the “atemporal” music they both liked, avoiding flash-in-the-pan trends that pander to the ephemerality of hype; they were in it for the long haul. They began putting together a “huge” list of artists they were into and reaching out via email. “We sent many many emails!” recalls Domingo. “We were completely unknown but suddenly we got a few responses and began receiving demos.” They started looking to their first release, committed to issuing it on vinyl in spite of the costs. “We know it’s important for our audience because so many of the people that like our sound play vinyl. So not releasing on vinyl would be not fair, let’s say. It would be kind of wrong.”
With no prior experience of running a label or of pressing a vinyl, the pair poured blood, sweat, and tears ino their first release. They christened their arrival on the scene in 2017 with a four-track analogue-driven EP by “one of the best producers ever,” Madrid’s Eduardo de la Calle. Inspired by Hindu mythology, the record spans the deep techno cosmos with glittery sci-fi tracks like “The Main Rasa” garlanded with tinsely synths, and the barrelling warehouse kicks of ‘iadu-purim’ neatly introducing the label’s signature dish of peaktime-meets-afterhours fare.
Releasing their first LP on vinyl wasn’t easy, though. “We worked so hard and it was very difficult to foresee the whole process,” remembers Domingo. “However, once we saw the vinyl in our hands, and it ended up selling out in the shops, we just thought, “man, this is amazing!” We’ve just done one release and it’s already a success; we have to keep going now.”
Photo by: Pablo Gallardo
More than 50% of the music Sungate puts out comes from demos. For their second release, they opted for the nocturnal rolling percussion of EQUAL, the techno alias of Mallorca DJ and producer Dakpa: a friend of a friend. The label evolved “very organically” after that. “We started to receive music and kept on contacting other artists,” remarks Domingo. By now, they had begun making a name for themselves on the scene. For their third offering, they rallied the talents of veteran Polish techno producer Echoplex whose melodic Entering the Sky EP from 2018 remains a label highlight. “When you work with a known artist who has an audience, that’s when then it comes. With patience,” offers Domingo.
Sungate chose Madrid as their initial base as it’s here that they took their first steps as a label, engaging their wider network of friends and making use of the city’s record shop culture. They staged their first two label showcases at the intimate, queer-friendly Sala Republik Club. “People started to know us more in Madrid in the beginning,” says Domingo, who says that it later made sense to make Valencia their official HQ.
Sungate maintains an international focus irrespective of the label’s Spanish provenance. To date, they have released an artist “from every continent” while the overarching sound is techno-adjacent, from stargazing electro to sleek minimal, often tied together with a dubby sensibility. Trømmel’s 2020 bleep-strewn mini-album Trophic Cascade sounds like it’s floating in deep space, and the label recently put out a 2023 split EP from modern techno protagonists Deniro and Voiski, titled Sky Land Sea.
“If you listen to the whole catalogue, the music is a bit emotional, it’s a bit deep, and maybe techno is the beat in common with all of the releases,” offers Domingo. “We don’t want to release music that makes you feel bad or aggressive. When we go to a party, we want to get into a trance.”
Photo by: Abel Gimeno
Santana usually has his eyes on the dancefloor whereas Domingo admits to having “more conservative” tastes. “We never disagree but we have to negotiate sometimes – whether to have three or six tracks on an EP, for example.” Working together, playing together, releasing music together; they subvert the adage of never mixing business with pleasure. “Moy sent me a list of tracks for this feature and I said ‘this is perfect, these are probably the tracks I like the most from the label,’ so at the end of the day, you can see we are just very connected,” says Domingo.
The pair’s influences traverse the full spectrum of electronic music, and beyond, as their bimonthly Observatory show on OpenLab radio can attest. Each episode features a guest artist in the mix for the first hour with the likes of Steffi, CYRK, Mirella Kroes, Katie Drover and Sungate artists Volpe and Fase Bipolar (a Valencian duo comprising Moy Santana and Finalversion3) having all recently stepped up.
“Actually, it’s a funny story because when we met in Ibiza in 2014, we were listening to OpenLab constantly and we were both thinking how great it would be to have a radio show there,” recalls Domingo. “But at that point it felt completely impossible because we were a very small label. Then we wrote to them a few years later and they said they liked the label and gave us a show. Since then, in their words, it’s one of the most successful radio shows on the radio in terms of plays and listeners.”
Honing a strong brand identity is a vital component of any successful label, and the Sungate “visual universe” — bright, surreal, expressive, painterly creations from freelance Almería-based illustrator Abel Fdez — helps to make their discography pop. Domingo met Fdez when they were both working for a start-up in Berlin. “I needed to hire an illustrator so I started looking and asking friends and Abel came to us. Even though it had nothing to do with music, he was just so good that when we launched the label, he was the first person we thought of. Moy and I had a vision and a few ideas and we wanted Abel to do something similar to what we had in mind but after some time working with him we decided it was better to let him do exactly what he liked, give him total freedom to do whatever he wanted.”
He continues: “The difference between him and us is that he is not in the electronic music scene at all. The only electronic music he listens to I think is Sungate. He’s not getting any other input from other labels about what is hyped, what is not, what is trendy, he just listens to the tracks and creates the artwork from scratch. He puts the headphones on, listens to the music from the artist and it comes to him,” says Domingo.
Santana, who recently published a graphic design book about Valencia’s storied party scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s, la ruta del bakalao, brings artistic flair to Sungate while Fdez’s outsider perspective adds a unique dimension to their positioning in the techno universe. In just six years, Sungate has built up a loyal fanbase of discerning electronic music fans who have come to view the label as a stamp of quality. Perhaps the key to making it work is sticking to your guns and never compromising on your vision. Who needs TikTok trends when you’ve got techno stans?
“One of the most important goals for the future is to keep releasing every month, and then we want to make a bigger event, maybe a small festival,” says Domingo. “We’ve had our ups and downs, we’ve kept going and we’ve felt like quitting because of the financial challenges… But seeing the fanbase grow, getting messages from the fans, getting the support from the artists. One of the most important things is that now we have lots of amazing friends, before they were just artists who we admire and now they are friends.”
April Clare Welsh is a freelance music journalist living in Lisbon, Portugal. Find her on Twitter.