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Semantica: Symbolic Language

Semantica is one of the few truly underground techno labels.

At a time when the idea of imprints acting as filters for great music becomes increasingly redundant thanks to the immeasurable number of labels spewing out digital releases, it has bucked the trend. Synonymous with a DiY culture that is rare nowadays, its owner’s A&R skills means that it has achieved buy on sight status. From ERP’s widescreen electro to Developer’s big room techno via Orphx’s abrasive industrial and Andy Stott’s deep, dreamy dub, the Madrid label’s approach is the direct opposite of 99 per cent of labels that slavishly follow a pre-ordained micro-genre.

It also differs from most operations in that it places particular value on its vinyl releases, with limited editions for sale directly via its website. Last year Semantica celebrated its fifth birthday with a five-vinyl release series that included tracks from long-term label collaborators like ERP, Oscar Mulero, Plant43 and Vladislav Delay, as well as contributions from Silent Servant and Karl O’Connor, while 2012 has seen Semantica champion newcomers like Developer, Aiken, NX1 and Architectural. Where did Semantica come from and how in a few short years does its catalogue boast so many great electronic music producers? To find out these answers, Richard Brophy spoke to label owner Svreca.

By his own admission, his background is ‘mainly techno’ and the Madrid DJ/producer’s road to Damascus moment came thanks to Jeff Mills. “It all changed when I discovered the Live at The Liquid Rooms, the Mix To CD series with Oscar Mulero and Angel Molina, and the first Tresor albums and compilations. Those recordings really changed the way I looked at music,” he says.

At the time, Svreca’s hometown, Madrid, was undergoing ‘a real golden age’ during which he attended the city’s best techno events. The scene in the Spanish capital during the 90s, with DJs like Mulero at the helm, provided the inspiration for other local techno producers like Alex Under and Damian Schwartz and laid the basis for their Net 28 distribution hub. However, Svreca was not part of this group; “I met with Damian sometimes at local record shops, but we never really played at the same parties,” he explains.

Instead of looking inwards, Svreca decided to set up a label as a means to communicate with the outside world. “I set up Semantica to establish my own platform for music and design. It’s an extension of my taste in electronic music and my DJ sets. Today it’s a full-time job, hopefully tomorrow that will still be the case,” he adds ruefully.

The approach and thinking behind Semantica was derived from other great imprints and Svreca admits that “there are a lot of labels that have influenced me; Tresor, Downwards, Skam, Warp, Raster-Noton, Axis and Dynamic Tension. I love all the work of Karl O’Connor and I love the music and the concept behind Downwards and Sandwell District. For me, Karl is on another level”. When asked about current labels, Svreca is equally enthusiastic, name checking the likes of Our Circula Sound, Kontra Musik, MDR, Echocord, Stroboscopic Artefacts, Prologue and Blackest Ever Black among others.

The first release on the label was in 2006, at the height of the minimal techno explosion, but he says that this had no bearing on Semantica’s artistic direction. “I set it [Semantica] up in my own way. I remember that year, offbeat techno started to disappear, and many labels stopped or changed their sound,” he recalls.

As more and more labels joined in the scramble to put out keta-minimal, Svreca’s label pushed in the opposite direction, releasing everything from Detroit electro to harder techno and abstract electronic music. Is this approach deliberate, that Semantica just releases whatever sounds right?

“Yes, it’s a deliberate feature of the label, and it was a risk with the first releases because people may not understand a label that changes a lot with every release. But now the message is clear, Semantica is an entirely open label for electronic music. The sound of the label may change every year due my taste, and the kind of music I receive or sign,” he explains.

Does he run the label like a fan and are the artists whose music he releases the same ones whose music he would buy anyway? “I like a lot of artists for their work, but I don’t buy records by a name, I buy records for the music,” he claims. “The quality of the music is the key, the names are secondary but sometimes necessary to catch the attention of people.”

While some of the first releases featured domestic artists like Annie Hall, Boris Divider and Oscar Mulero, Finnish producer Vladislav Delay made an early appearance, as did ERP aka Convextion. Was it Svreca’s stated aim to give Semantica an international focus rather than being a reflection of Spanish electronic music? “I always try to keep the  quality high in every release, but [focusing on Spanish artists] is not part of a plan. Sometimes you can find great work in your city, and on other occasions you need to look for it in another continent.”

In this regard, Semantica is a typically modern label, as Svreca initially contacted some of the big names like Silent Servant and ERP online. “Later I met with them and it was great, but initially they trusted in my work behind the label,” he says. When I ask him if there was any producer who turned down the opportunity to release on the label, he cryptically replies: “There are a few artists. I prefer not reveal names, because I’m sure in the future we will work together” – but when asked about the one artist he wishes he had signed, his answer is unambiguous. “Without a doubt, it’s Drexciya. I love the life and soul in their productions, it’s something we will never hear again. Only Convextion’s music gives me a similar feeling, but the music is quite different.”

Having secured the services of well-known names like ERP and Vladislav Delay others followed, and artists like Regis, Orphx and Female have remixed other artists on the label. One of the common features of Semantica releases is that they have a lot of remixes. “I love the concept of remixes – you can see many remixes by lesser-known artists too – and don’t forget that Semantica is a little label I run on my own,” he explains. One of the main differences between Semantica and other techno labels is its DiY approach. Svreca sells releases directly to customers via the label’s website and does all the artwork himself. The decision to sell and, until last year, self-distribute was arrived at by accident rather than design.

“Due to a problem with my distributor early on I decided to try the mail order with limited editions,” he says. “Last year I sold directly to stores and currently, Semantica is distributed by Clone. I sell a collector’s edition of every release via the website as well as exclusive additions only via mail order,” Svreca adds.

Despite this hands-on approach, it must be financially risky to run a vinyl label these days – does the cost of mastering and pressing as well as the artist’s fee make it difficult to make ends meet? “Running a physical label is quite expensive –  you must invest a lot of money over a period of years and try to find a balance to make the label sustainable. You need to work up the trust of your customers, and try to captivate new ones, and that’s not easy,” he admits.

None of these challenges have caused the label to slow down its output. In fact, the opposite is true and its schedule is becoming more hectic: in 2010 it had 12 releases and there were 18 releases last year. “I think I’ve found a good balance,” Svreca says. “I have a lot of support and five years of background.”

He is also unconcerned that Semantica will release too many records and subsequently let its standards slip. “I’ve never had this feeling; I work a lot behind every release to find a perfect balance. I request and receive a lot of music, and it takes me hours and hours to put together a new release,” he explains. “I want to continue releasing two records per month, but if I don’t have enough quality music to do this, I’ll stop.”

It’s obvious that a lot of effort goes into each record: from the artwork which Svreca himself designs – “I use Neubau Typo, inspiration from many sources and illustrations I receive from the artists” – to the 75mm inlay on each record issued by the label and the limited-edition runs, Semantica’s presentation feels more like the by-product of a modern art atelier than a techno label. “I always try to set new physical details – it’s very important for me,” he admits.

Like a visual artist producing limited prints, Svreca feels that Semantica’s audience is not drawn from a typical electronic music demographic. Are the label’s releases targeted at collectors rather than DJs? “I prefer to put out limited editions at the moment and keep things safe. If a release becomes a best-seller, we’ll make more copies or release a different edition,” he says, outlining the approach. “But I think vinyl and CD formats are now an 80 per cent collectors market, and digital sales are focused on DJs. That’s why in the last few years you’ve see a lot of clear or coloured vinyl editions, or releases with a great design or sleeve – it’s obviously focusing on collectors.”

Given that Semantica’s releases are objects of desire for collectors rather than DJs, is he worried that the limited edition runs are going for high prices on websites like Discogs? “Maybe this happened at the beginning, with the initial 100 copy editions, but now I think we put out the exactly number of copies that people will buy,” he believes.

Irrespective of whether the label’s approach to formats is the right one, there is no doubt that Semantica’s output is sonically ahead of the curveball. While the past two years have seen many techno producers retreat from their purist dance floor leanings and towards an abstract sound, Semantica and its owner’s own music has predated this trend. When I put it to him that his label and music effected this situation, Svreca is self-effacing.

“I’ve been into abstract music for many years, but I don’t think Semantica had an effect on this. But I have to say that we are experiencing a new wave of techno music – maybe we are approaching a new golden era, and Semantica will be seriously involved in that.” Whether or not Semantica will help to usher in a new golden age for techno in Spain is less probable. With rising unemployment levels – among younger age groups, the figure is up to 50 per cent – it seems that both Svreca and Semantica are more likely to make an impact internationally rather than locally.

“The techno scene in Madrid disappeared many years ago, before the financial crisis. So now we have a few interesting events, but it’s really hard for techno to work again like a real scene,” he explains, adding that “I would love to have a place where I can play as resident DJ but at the moment, there are more possibilities outside Spain”.

Svreca has established Semantica as a respected techno label globally, but he seems content to remain in the shadows himself. He has done very few interviews – this writer struggled to find any at all in English – and he appears to only have two mixes available online, hosted on Clubbing Spain and Modifyer. Given that he also has a small but diverse catalogue as an artist- including broken beats, abstract sounds and tunnelling techno – his low profile is even harder to understand. Is he content to remain one of electronic music’s backroom boys? “I’ve nothing against interviews and I never say no to an interview request,” he claims. “But online mixes are different: I don’t like them too much. I think recorded sets create a very concrete image of the DJ, and I don’t like this idea. Online sets are a great idea for promotion but sometimes people expect the same sounds that feature on recorded mixes when they hear you in a gig, and this could be disappointing for them, and for you.”

But if there is a connection between Svreca in a live environment and the three hours’ worth of music that features on the Clubbing Spain mix, then anyone who catches him in a club is in for a treat. Moving from ambient soundtracks scattered with eerie vocals to pensive electro and into broken beats, it’s only in the final hour that he steps up the tempo and drops tough, dense techno. “If I have the chance to open a club, and play for three hours or more, that is perfect for me,” he remarks. Until those opportunities appear, he’ll continue to release great music on Semantica, with new work lined up from Morphology, Arcanoid, Plant43 and NX1. “At the moment, I feel really proud of every Semantica release,” he says, and it’s not hard to understand why he feels this way.

Word of Mouth: What The Techno Community Thinks of Semantica

Developer (Modularz):

“A friend of mine Juan Mendez (Silent Servant) had released previously on Semantica and told me that Enrique (Svreca) liked my music and wanted to get a hold of me. I keep a low profile online so I emailed him and soon after met him in Madrid and played at one of his events during one of my tours, and shortly after he released the Trade Beliefs EP.”

“I feel the label has a great art aesthetic connected with the music. This is something that I myself also do with my label and find very important in this day and age. It’s a model that I think more labels should follow. When you buy a record it shouldn’t just be a record, but a piece of art.”

Chris (Mnml Ssgs):

“I have been in contact and working with Enrique through mnml ssgs for a few years now. I finally saw him DJ in March of this year. After moving below the radar for a while, it seems that people have really been noticing Semantica in the last 18 months and rightly so. The label is very representative and reflective of the current zeitgeist in techno, but it distinguishes itself by having its own aesthetic and vision, one which obviously has been influenced by labels like Downwards and Sandwell, but also draws on a very rich Spanish tradition of techno.

“And whereas Spain has tended to stay stuck in the era of 135-140 slamming techno, Svreca has really updated the very pure Spanish take on techno and incorporated it with these other elements from Berlin, the UK and so on. I think this is particularly clear in the way there is still a strong aspect of pure electro on the label, a sound that many have forgotten about. So I think the innovative dimension of Semantica comes more from the way Svreca synthesises, combines and draws together a number of significant strands in techno and electro to create the distinctive Semantica aesthetic.

“And in a similar way, as a DJ, it is not having amazing unknown records that distinguish him, it is the way he combines and brings together what is out there. I was so impressed by his DJing. But his record bag is not so different to other people, it is the way he plays and combines the records. There is daring, courage and insight into the way he presents and combines music. This is what distinguishes Svreca as a DJ and I guess his label too.”

Rich Oddie – Orphx:

“My only experience working with Semantica is through the two remixes that we’ve recently done for Svreca. He contacted us, presumably after hearing our Sonic Groove releases. They have offered to release my solo work in future so that might happen in the next year.

“My impression of Semantica is that it’s a label that puts a lot of thought into their visual and musical aesthetic. I appreciate that they bring together a diversity of musical styles, ranging from harder techno to electro, broken beat and more abstract and experimental sounds. They are choosing artists with some common ground between them, but not confining themselves to a narrow spectrum of electronic music, as so many labels do. At the same time, the releases are tied together by Semantica’s excellent visual presentation. As I’m about to start my own label, I’m also thinking about their approach of making limited edition releases that are highly collectable, because of the small numbers and the care put into the packaging and presentation.”

Perc (Perc Trax):

“I first came across Semantica via the Marcel Dettmann remix of Svreca’s “Obscur” in 2010. As always when I stumble upon a label that is new to me I look through their back catalogue and whilst I can definitely hear a Semantica sound running through the releases, they cover more ground than most techno labels, which is part of their appeal to me. I certainly don’t like everything they release but that normally means my interest in a label will last a lot longer.

“The track I play the most is probably “Trust Ourselves” by Aiken which was tucked away on the B2 of Semantica 38, but the track I love the most has to be the Steven Porter remix of Jimmy Edgar (Semantica 09 B2), which is just amazing and led me to tracking down one half of the Steven Porter duo when I was recently in Japan.

“The low profile, DIY thing works well for Semantica as they have enough big artists and remixers appearing to keep people’s attention. If you are on their email list then you get enough updates to keep you informed, but you never feel like you are being bombarded with propaganda.”

Mike Parker (Geophone/Prologue):

“I have a high regard for the Semantica label because it’s really obvious that the project is driven by excellence, attention to detail and respect for the artists it represents.  The sound quality is outstanding, both in mastering and vinyl pressings. The aesthetics are equally cared for with a similar detailed precision.  Svreca can be proud of his accomplishments.  It was my pleasure to contribute to Semantica and I hope to do so again in the future.”

Richard Brophy