There’s an unusual stillness in the anteroom leading out to the main room at Blå, the concert venue in Oslo’s bohemian district. Going through the side door and into the bar, I’m struck by an uncanny quiet, which belies the reality of the situation. The little room is absolutely packed with people, but I am unable to discern a single voice. There’s a palpable energy as bodies exchange physical dialogue, and I realise that everybody is speaking in sign language around me. The subtle plucks from Bendik Baksaas and David Jo’s ambient live show in the main room, trickles in through the silence, but yet it is unable to cut through the imperceptible energy of the room.
The pair of Oslo musicians are currently warming up for Svreca, who I spot loitering around the fringes of the stage. Something snaps without pretext or warning, and Baksaas pushes his drum machine into overdrive, unleashing a formidable onslaught of foreboding four-four kicks that spark static bodies into motion. The room comes alive as one as people pump arms like pistons into the extended space above bobbing heads. It hits hard and its effects are immediate, playing on the youthful exuberance of a cherub-cheeked audience who had just moved in from the cold. The formidable rhythms being coaxed from Baksaas’ machine finds some resonate frequency with the audience as wave after wave spill in from the anteroom onto the main dance floor.
I manage to sequester Svreca in the crowd with a word about how he intends to follow up the excited rhythmic ambush from Baksaas and David. He’s still unsure a few minutes before taking to the booth, and as Bendik Baksaas and Jo David subside into silence and applause, there’s an eerie quiet as the Spanish DJ takes to the decks with a beat-less organism intruding on the silence between the applause. The room goes quiet again save for the music, but the silent energy has swelled through Svreca’s opening track and even he can’t contain it. Bodies are twitching in forceful spasms that appear to goad the DJ and the music. A short interlude and Svreca bursts forth into a maximalist Techno track that immediately fills the cavernous hall of the Oslo venue.
The next day I meet up with the DJ formally known as Enrique Mena for a coffee. He looks well rested for the fact that merely slept a few hours and he’s very eager to talk about the previous night…
One thing that really struck me about the set is that it was a real hard-hitting body set right from the start.
Yes, I had my doubts in the beginning making a transition from the previous live set. People were a bit ecstatic waiting for a storm, because the live show had a lot of dynamics.
At the beginning it seemed that people were a bit confused about what was happening. And that probably would have been better if I started out with some electronics and Techno moving in to the direction of the previous live set, but we didn’t have enough time to plan it.
I imagine that you would like to build it more to get to that point.
I started a kind of prelude at the beginning to warn that my set would start and that it would become Techno very quickly. If I had more time I would have been subtler at the beginning, play some electronics that build to that moment.
Something from the Semantica back-catalogue perhaps?
Yes there is definitely some of the Semantica stuff that could have worked. But that only takes half an hour and then people get hooked on to the sound. It’s pretty different to compare a live set to a DJ set and the way the sound system reacts.
Half an hour into his set and the room is throbbing with limbs and torsos thrusting, contorting into the darkness to a heavy blitz of monstrous Techno selected by Enrique. From his raised pulpit, he looks incredibly focussed, with short, direct movements, physically forcing his entire being into the direction of the next track or loop. His silhouette plays against the cascading visuals behind him, pulsing with the energy of the music and the crowd, a shadowy contour outlining the DJ like an ominous aura. As a figure he looms large over the crowd, but he innately understands his role in the context where “the most important thing is always what’s happening on the dance floor.”
It’s a lifetime’s experience and career, channelled through the artist, DJ and label owner. Enrique Mena’s story in music and DJ’ing starts in his youth when Techno arrived like a “cult movement” in his hometown of Madrid. “It wasn’t merely entertainment, it wasn’t merely music,” he stresses. “It was surrounded by a very serious atmosphere.” Techno was still very much an underground movement at that time, and with no information outlets like the Internet available, it was only accessible for the really dedicated few. MTV gave Enrique his first taste of electronic music through their post-watershed playlist featuring acts like Aphex Twin and Autechre, coaxing the impressionable youth over to this stark electronic music.
Music that was previously “impossible to get on TV in Spain,” turned a curiosity into a passion for the young Enrique and he soon realised that he needed “to find the Spanish side of it.” He started going to clubs as a teen, and eventually made first contact with Oscar Mulero, another DJ and producer from the region that would eventually dominate the Techno genre. Mulero’s “legendary skills” and his first taste of club culture, encouraged Enrique on a similar path as he realised; “I want to be the guy that brings the music.” He began “digging so hard” trying to create his own “map” of Techno and when the Internet arrived he could finally “satisfy” his curiosity with facts.
Shortly after reconstructing the legend of the genre he immediately sought to destabilise it, with his own personal interpretation. Encouraged by the very same curiosity that lead to a career in DJIng, in 2006 he established Semantica, a record label that would go on to pioneer the avant garde in the Techno genre. After the hedonism of minimal and Tech House’s reign, Semantica and similar labels like Stroboscopic Artefacts and Raster-Noton brought Techno back from the brink of Tech-House indulgence to help establish a deep, explorative take on the genre, emboldened by progressive technological advancements and redefining the borders of the genre. “When I select music for Semantica, I don’t put any parameters on the music,“ says Enrique.
The first EP on the label was a collaborative effort with Svreca’s “Eye” right there in the middle, establishing the vision of the record and label for the future. In 2006 that record was like nothing we’ve ever heard before. Alien sonic artefacts connected in some quantum realm to create mesmerising textures that shift like tectonic plates around the stoic beat formations. It’s a record that affirmed the sound of the label and an ethos that has been concurrent through the history of Semantica and Enrique’s music as Svreca. And even though he still considers himself a DJ first, it’s in this ethos and the label where Enrique finds his sanctuary. “I know my limitations as a producer,” he says “ so I spend a lot of time with labels, because that’s my favourite.”
Really, you prefer that to DJ’ing?
Yes, because as a DJ you have to travel, you have to face an audience, you have to wait a lot, there’s always some payment.
I’ve read somewhere that the label is very much informed by your personal tastes. Is that still the case for Semantica and what about the artists that are very close to the label?
It’s true that the label is totally my taste, but I can’t say too much, because if I say something now, it will probably be the opposite next year. I have a group of artists that I follow closely and there are some artists that I’ll work with for four or five years, but that doesn’t mean I’ll work with them forever. It is about the music itself.
Is that why the physical Semantica releases always have this very austere look to them; it’s just about the music for you?
As the years pass an artist probably wants to do different things and those different things probably doesn’t match with your ideas (as a label owner), and it would need to leave and you would need to get other artists to get music you really want. It’s a constant dialogue between you and the artist and you need to find the right ones that are talking the same language as you (at the time). You need to be really really sure about the direction of the music.
You’ve mentioned “technology” quite a few times in our conversation earlier and for me that is exactly what Techno is, it’s this progression in music through technology and there are a few labels that embody that idea for me and Semantica is one of them. Is that the idea behind the label?
Semantica is about offering something that really motivates us to release it. It’s always changing, it’s changed from the way we worked in the past and it’s probably going to change again in the future. I can’t stay working with a formula in the industry. You need to be a thinker and constantly re-define your thoughts.
So the label has to evolve for you and you need to put out a lot of different stuff?
Yes I’ve put out a lot lately, but now I’m going to reduce the quantity slowly. Vinyl releases are experiencing a kind of overdose at the moment, and I don’t want to contribute to the overdose. It’s probably better to reduce the output for a time.
Do you think that it’s become a little saturated with a lot of the stuff sounding the same?
No, I think everyone’s expression is without any doubt very subjective. I can’t say the other stuff is just about putting vinyls in crates and claiming that they are shit, that’s not true. There are plenty of levels. The problem is that there aren’t enough people to buy the records and the market needs to change. I have had a feeling that this has been happening for the last year and the idea is to do less vinyl going forward.
So you’re going to stop putting out vinyl in the future?
I will continue to put out vinyl, but I will be preparing a series of cassettes and digital releases that have more in terms of quantity of tracks. In the past if you do ten tracks, it will force you to do a double vinyl, but in this way we can put it out on a cassette and also give out a digital version, so it’s a kind of vintage thing. I don’t know if it’s going to work, I want to keep releasing a lot of music, but I need to find the right way to do it, because to continue doing a vinyl a month, that’s not working on sales. If something is not working on sales it’s not necessarily bad, it’s probably necessary that you change the way you put it out, not the content.
Enrique and Semantica are gearing up for something inevitable. He is already witnessing a slump in the vinyl market and in the progressive nature of his work across platforms he is taking Semantica and Techno into the next phase of its development. He is launching two new labels which he claims will be “like Semantica, but different” and he can’t reveal their names just yet, for the sake of their own independence. As Svreca he will also be bringing out a new EP in January, which he says is “a tribute to Louise Bourgeois.” Paying homage to the visual artist’s work through the title “unfolding portrait”, Enrique says that the album is a collection of some previously unrealised projects “that really worked well together” on the EP.
When I leave Blå, at the height of the melee, Enrique is showing no sign of coming to an end any time soon. Emboldened by the energy and the youthful exuberance of the night, he’s seemed to reach a higher plane where that principle that courses through everything he does musically resides. His music doesn’t merely operate on a body level, but on some transient level, with a very diverse palette of ideas and influences informing everything he does. As we run out of time during our conversation the next day more is left unsaid and our brief, but informative time together, has left more questions than it answered, but I believe that’s the reason behind the intrigue of this fascinating figure and his musical works.
Enrique Mena is a very progressive figure, and through his labels and his musical works, he always leaves a tantalising thread to that “next thing.” With an unblinking eye always on the horizon, he’s never been one to confirm and as Semantica celebrates sixteen years next year, news of these new labels, and the future of the label, suggest yet another phase for this progressive label and its figurehead. It’s left to be seem where Semantica and Enrique will take us next, but if experience tells us anything, it will be a vision of the future and beyond.