Ahead of his gig at Motion next week, Umek took time out to chat to The Waveform Transmitter’s Ste Knight about teenage raving in Munich, pirate cassette tapes, and Birmingham techno.
If you’re a techno fan and you haven’t heard of Umek, then there is something seriously amiss. The Slovenian producer and DJ has been on the scene now since 1993 when he started DJing at the tender age of 17.
24 years later and the Slovenian techno powerhouse hasn’t looked back. He has a wealth of releases under his belt under various aliases, has collaborated with some of the most prominent artists both within the techno scene and beyond, and regularly plays events on a global scale.
Most will know Umek for his high-energy brand of techno, but he has also flirted with other styles of electronic music. Having produced tech-house for some time, purists will be delighted to hear that he has returned to his tougher techno-based roots.
You can catch Umek at Motion in Liverpool on March 3rd. He’ll be playing at Underground and you can pick tickets up from Skiddle, here. Get on it quickly, though. The first phase tickets have sold out already so you’ll want to get some snapped up fast if you want to head down and see the man in action.
In the meantime, though, here’s what Umek had to say for himself when he spoke to The Waveform Transmitter.
Waveform: Hi Umek. Thank you for coming and chatting with us. You’re a prolific artist and you spread your message via a number of different channels. But first, let us ask, how did your journey as a DJ and a producer begin?
Umek: I’ve always had an ear for electronic music. I grew up in the 80s and I remember listening to the then popular bands such as Falco, Human League, Modern Talking and some local acts such as Denis & Denis and Videosex, who were using a lot of electronic elements in their mainstream productions (I’m never listening to the lyrics. Even now I still hear voices in songs only as another instrument, the melody, the colour, the hook).
But then, in the early 90s, the borders fell down and the whole generation suddenly became exposed to so many new sounds. It was just the right time when I discovered this new electronic music coming mostly from the Germany. I was a rebelling teenager and I found my calling in rave culture. First as a kid going to raves in Munich but I decided quite soon to get involved as a deejay. I quit school, my basketball training and focused on my only goal – to become this big international DJ figure.
In the beginning, it was really hard for me to be in touch with electronic music as the scene in Slovenia was literally non-existent ‘till the beginning of the 90s when I’ve discovered Cool Night show hosted by Aldo Ivancic, MC Brane, and Primoz Pecovnik on Radio Student. They played all kind of electronic music, from trance, rave, techno, EBM, some really dark stuff.
Soon after, they started their nights in the student union’s club K4. I became regular and after I was introduced to artists such as Jure Havlicek (Anna Lies, Moob, now working in the neo-disco scene under a new moniker, Sare Havlicek) who invited me into his studio and show me how this music is done.
In that time, I was taking my first steps as a producer, using 8-bit Screen Tracker with 4 mono channels and we sampled our sound from the tape cassettes. It was far from being professional but we spent all our time doing music. And when Jure showed me his Roland 808 and 909, and all other legendary machines, I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do in my life.
As there was no copyright legislature in Slovenia at that time I’ve started selling pirate cassettes (for pirate recording label) with my friends and soon gathered enough money to buy my first proper sampler. We’ve bought it from Random Logic and one-half of that project, Gregor Zemljic, later did a lot of mastering of my music.
Looking back now I must say the pioneer years were a very special time. I’m not sure if someone from England can truly comprehend that as you’ve always had a strong music scene, but we had no infrastructure for electronic music at the beginning (no knowledge of producing music, running labels, no pirate radio stations, no magazines, no information, no venues, the nearest records shops were hundreds of kilometres away in Milan, Vienna and Munich. But, just because of that we were able to build the scene on our own terms and in the way we liked it and those were really special times.
Waveform: You worked a lot with Valentino (Kanzyani). How did that partnership come to fruition?
Umek: I used to work a lot with Valentino. We’ve creatively parted a decade ago.
Waveform: You own, or have had input into, several record labels, including Consumer Recreation, Recycled Loops, and 1605, amongst others. Do you think that owning a record label is important for the artistic integrity of a producer or DJ? Do you think it helps understand the industry better?
Umek: Consumer Recreation and Recycled Loops were terminated a long time ago. The only label I’m running since 2008 is my own 1605 Music Therapy. I don’t know if running a label helps you or your audience understand the industry better. The same way I produce tracks based on my own intimate need to express myself trough music, I need platforms to present it.
I do this mostly through my DJ sets, I run a weekly Behind the Iron Curtain radio show and I release music on various labels. In a way running your own label, your own radio show and releasing your own music is similar to handing out your business card – with those you represent your sound and your vision of music.
Owning your own label also gives you the ability to decide when you want to release something, without being limited by the schedules of particular label that is willing to release your track – sometimes it takes even a half of a year or more to get track out – which is in many cases too long of a wait.
We also started 1605 to have a platform to release different music than I’ve released on other labels. And this is also a good tool to support some talents on the scene you want to endorse and give them an opportunity to present their sound to the global audience.
With all these labels and music being released every day there are still many artists, especially from the Eastern Bloc that don’t get an opportunity to present themselves to the global audience on a good label with strong promotion channels. I’m happy 1605 is one of the ‘gateway’ labels that has given opportunities to a lot of young talents in the past. For some, this was the peak of their career but I’m even happier for those who only used it to go further building their name in the scene.
Waveform: How do you think the Slovenian music scene has influenced your sound? Do you think it has influenced you, or would you cite yourself as an ‘influencer’ rather than ‘inflencee’?
Umek: I’m trying to think how could Slovenia influence my sound, as we’ve built the scene form the scratch and dictated the pace on it as performers, producers and event promoters.
In the early days, it has probably influenced me with its non-existence, if I may say so. As I was a more-or-less self-taught producer working with very limited knowledge and equipment on the outskirt of the European scene, I’ve made all the mistakes I could and my sound was rough, different, and special for labels in the west, that signed my releases mostly because of all those mistakes that well-educated producers in the west with the latest equipment wouldn’t even think of making.
But, since I’ve really broken through internationally and grew up as an artist, I’d say I’m more of an influencer than an influence, though this goes both ways all the time when you are part of the scene such as our which relies on playing each other’s music. When your tracks are being played a lot, they sell and chart well. People notice you and try to do something similar. That’s normal.
In the early stages of my career I’ve had some artists that I really liked, though now I can’t say there’s a particular one who influences me really, I get influenced by the sum of everything that I hear and experience and the biggest inspiration to me is the energy I experience playing music to people on the dancefloor.
Waveform: What artists (past and present) do you draw influence from? Are there any artists that you feel have had the most impact on your sound?
Umek: In terms of artists there are few who really influenced me, each in its own way. Todd Terry produced Royal House’s Can You Party was the record that got me into house and electronic dance music. Westbam was the leader of the German techno (rave) movement in the early 90’s and I decided to focus only on techno because of Surgeon, Regis and the rest of Birmingham crew.
As a deejay, I found a lot of inspiration watching Jeff Mills doing his mixing, Carl Cox was the #1 master of building energy on the dancefloor. It was really amazing watching these guys mixing records on three decks at the same time. Claude Young was also an inspiration. Music was the main thing, but I’ve adored deejays that were not afraid of fiddling with knobs and switches. I’ve learned then that every piece of equipment you are using is there to be exploited to the limits.
Waveform: You’re well known for being technically skilful behind the wheels, which your music production courses would attest to. Is that something that came to you naturally when you started DJing?
Umek: I strongly believe I am an example of not so very talented artist who has a strong working ethics. Sure, you need some talent, it doesn’t go without it, but it’s hard work, dedication and stamina that most of the artists need to have if they want to survive in this very competitive scene on the long run.
Now the world is small, quality software and hardware are available to most of the artists and you can learn everything you need to produce music from tutorials on YouTube. The greatest obstacle in the beginning of my career was getting the right information what equipment you need to produce certain sound and how you do it right in the studio. I’ve had some friends who have helped me but I was struggling – surely more than most of the artists of my generation who started careers in Benelux, Germany, or the UK.
Waveform: You dipped your toe into what could arguably called more ‘commercial’ waters; your collaboration with Waka Flocka Flame being a perfect example. How do you feel fans and critics reacted to this move? Did it prompt you to go back to more familiar territory?
Umek: I always produce music that I like. I’ve created this particular track remembering the hip-house of the late 80s and early 90s, which I used to be really into. It’s not that well documented as I’m focusing mostly on techno, but I was also a pioneer of house music in Slovenia and I have a really nice collection of classic house on vinyl, so house is something that I’m really into but I don’t expose this too much not to confuse my audience too much.
So, this release happened naturally, I loved it how it turned out with Waka’s vocal on it and I still stand strongly behind it as I still love it. Sure, when you do a certain turn from what you usually do, there are always people who don’t like it as well as those who do.
But, my opus and track record speak for themselves and I don’t bother too much what people think about one or two tracks that digress a bit from the main path.
The same way some people who liked my banging production were disappointed when I moved into tech house I imagine people who discovered me only then are not necessarily happy hearing me move back to techno in the last year.
Hopefully, critics, journalists and audience understand I can’t produce the same track over and over again for a quarter of the century, as I need to keep myself motivated. I don’t want to be present in all the genres, I only move where I feel comfortable, and I don’t want to be stuck in one particular subgenre, either. I always do what I feel, regardless of commercial or underground labels.
Waveform: You have your own radio show, Behind the Iron Curtain. Is there any difference, do you feel, between producing your radio show and DJing live?
Umek: As I’ve pointed out above, deejaying, producing music, running my label and my own radio show are four channels that help me express myself. The biggest difference between performing as a DJ and hosting radio show is that I don’t get the instant feedback from the crowd.
Deejaying is a two-way relationship. I induce happening on the dance floor and the crowd responds to it giving me back the energy on which I respond again and so on. On the radio show, you don’t have this immediate response so you have to rely on other indicators, which show us if our work is any good.
It seems people like what we do, as we have more and more terrestrial, on-line and satellite radios hosting our show. We are present on over 130 channels, which means Behind the Iron Curtain is one of the biggest shows in the scene I’m part of.
Waveform: You play gigs around the world. Is there a favourite place you enjoy DJing in more than all the rest (obviously, Liverpool will take top spot once you’ve played at Underground on March 3rd)?
Umek: Well, you’ve set the expectations for Liverpool gig very high, what I like – but now I expect the audience to stand to this challenge and help me create a really good energy on the dancefloor. I know you can do it when it comes to pop and rock stars from your city but I am not that familiar with the state of techno scene in the Liverpool, though I always have a great time performing in the UK as you have strong music industry and people know their music.
I do approximately 100 gigs a year, people always greet me passionately wherever I come, promoters treat me good as well, and I don’t have much bad experience globetrotting. So, I experience my best gigs every week.
For example, I played in Slovenia’s second largest city Maribor for 2,500 party animals after four years since the last time I’ve been there and you can imagine how passionate people were because of that. The next day I already played in Fabric Madrid for 8,000 people, which was also mad but totally different experience. And that’s what I experience every couple of days.
The most important thing is that I still enjoy deejaying as much as the first time when I got on stage, to play music for people on the dancefloor and that people are responding to what I do passionately.
Waveform: You are a diverse, versatile DJ, but you must have some tracks you throw into your sets time after time. What are your favourites to play out?
Umek: I don’t have a folder titled Heavy Weapons with a couple of essential tracks. But I do one with a ‘golden oldies’ selection and I throw a classic into my set once in a while. Recently I’ve played Cubic 22’s Night in Motion in a couple of my sets and it always started a rave, and I played Gatex last week in Maribor as a special treat for my home crowd.
I get bored of music quickly, so if there are some tracks in my sets that I play for over a year, that must be something that I really like. I play most of the tracks, which I personally grade with 8 or 9 for a couple of months but I try to keep my sets fresh and full of my own production – released and unreleased stuff.
Waveform: Are there any ‘rising stars’ you think we should look out for?
Umek: I don’t know how old he is and if he’s a star but Jusaï is definitely rising. Lately, I am really liking the sound of this French producer. I play almost everything he releases.
Waveform: What is in the pipeline for Umek for 2017 and beyond?
Umek: I’m in a very creative mood right now, so I am spending a lot of time in the studio producing music. A novelty is that I’ll be releasing a couple of tracks on other labels again (in 2016 I’ve released my music only on 1605 with an exception or two regarding my side project Zeta Reticula).
One Umek track is coming out on Popof’s Form, the next Zeta Reticula on Billy Nasty’s Electrix, and I’ve just confirmed a new Umek track with a bunch of remixes for Funk ‘n’ Depp. This is one very propulsive label that deserves support right now. I’ve noticed I’m playing a lot of their releases, so I decided to do one release with them. I’ll be doing a special Zeta Reticula DJ set for 28th anniversary of K4 Club in my hometown Ljubljana (where I’ve started) on May 25th.
Waveform: Thanks, Umek, for taking time out to answer all of our questions.