UMEK – Exclusive InterviewApril 7, 2017
What’s 2 m tall, lives Behind the Iron Curtain, has 1605 reasons to run an awesome label and *fucking flies*? Meet UMEK, a techno legend from Slovenia. UMEK is personally responsible for kickstarting the electronic music scene in his home country by first organizing illegal raves and then becoming one of Slovenia’s most wanted export products and number one music ambassador to the whole world. And he does fly! Around 100 times per year, visiting almost every continent each year. His gig diary ranges from dark underground clubs in Berlin to massive techno stages on world’s most renowned festivals. Apart from making his name in the DJ booth, he’s also a tireless producer. He mostly releases on his own imprint 1605, where he often gives the opportunity to talented producers, unknown to the broader public. His signature sound as well as his label’s production can regularly be heard on UMEK’s widely popular weekly radio show Behind the Iron Curtain, which is now featured on more than 150 radio stations across the world.
We sat down with the man recently to get the latest…
Mike Mannix; Cheers UMEK you’re a very busy guy so thanks for talking to us at Iconic Underground magazine, it’s an honour, can you tell us looking back, what initially attracted and influenced you onto the decks, and eventually into the studio to produce your own tracks?
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 electro-pop productions. But then, in the early 90s, the iron curtain fell down, borders opened and the whole generation suddenly became exposed to so many new sounds and blossoming pop culture. It was just the right time for me to get hooked on 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 trainings 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-existing ‘till the beginning of 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’ve got introduced to artists such as Jure Havlicek (Anna Lies, Moob, now working in the neo-disco scene under a moniker Sare Havlicek) who invited me into his studio and showed me how this music is done. At that time I was doing 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’ve spent all the time doing music. And when Jure showed me his Roland 808 and 909 and all the other legendary machines, I knew that this is exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. As there was no copyright legislature in Slovenia at that time I started selling pirate cassettes (for pirate recording label) with my friends and soon gathered enough money to buy my first proper sampler. We bought it from Random Logic and one half of that pioneering techno project, Gregor Zemljic, who later did a lot of mastering of my music. I learned a lot from him, as he’s a world-class studio guru.
MM: What DJ’s / Artists / Producers are behind your ever driving passion for the scene, and who would you like to work with in the studio?
U: In terms of artists there are a few who really influenced me in the past, 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 movement in the early 90’s and I focused on techno because of Surgeon and the rest of the 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. Nowadays I don’t have role models, I get most of my inspiration from watching and listening people on the dancefloor responding to my music. Right now I just want to work alone, so I’m rejecting all the offers for various collaborations I get daily. I guess I’m just at that phase right now that I really enjoy working alone in the studio where I’m experimenting on a couple of things and developing some fresh ideas. This doesn’t mean I won’t be collaborating again in the future, but right now I’m perfectly happy to work as a lone wolf.
MM: When you are in the studio creating a new track what’s your process from the analogue outboard, midi, samples and DAW you use and why. What is key in the whole production process?
U: This changes through time, mostly depending on the genre I’m producing. Now that I’m back into harder techno stuff I’m paying a lot of attention to finding the perfect kick. For some time now I’m struggling to develop the sound that I want. I have a perfect idea of that, but the materialization of this idea is quite a challenge. I know that might sound a bit weird after all these years producing music, but every artist has an idea of perfect sound that he wants to produce. I’m working on this particular sound that I want to develop for over a year now and I’m at some 80-90% of what I’m looking for, but I’m sure I’ll get where I want in the next six months to a year. So, I get in the studio most of the days I’m not touring, I start by listening to different bass and kick sounds, and I try to produce something special. Couple of times lately I’ve got so hooked on a particular melody while watching TV-series that I’ve stormed into my basement studio, turned on the computer and synth and just started fiddling knobs until something good came out. But yes, working on sample based tech-house track or techno production from original sounds is not the same.
MM: Describe how important the Techno scene has been to your career?
U: Techno gave me most of what I am as an artist and it influenced me as a person as well – I have no idea what would I do if it weren’t for techno. Techno was always the dominating force in my music, even when I side-lined a bit to some other genres from time to time. When I’ve discovered Surgeon’s records back in 95/96, techno really got under my skin. At that time I didn’t tour outside Slovenia, our scene was small and quite isolated and it was common to mix all electronic genres in one set. And then I’ve discovered dark techno and realized I have no clue about this music. Specializing for rougher, alternative sound I’ve alienated most of my crowd but I was focused on reaching my goals and I’ve succeeded. A couple of times in my career I’ve decided to cut the past and start doing something fresh and every time I’ve alienated big part of my followers – but I’ve always developed something fresh and interesting reaching an even bigger crowd by doing so.
Looking back it would be much easier to just do what people expected me to, but that just wouldn’t be me. It seems that I need to struggle and thread the harder paths to really enjoy this game. Routine really bothers me, so I’m always looking how to escape it and do things differently.
MM: In your opinion, what’s your greatest track/production and why?
U: Some say my best productions are Gatex and Lanicor, but I have probably felt the great personal satisfaction when I’ve finished Ricochet Effect and this track still works. That’s a track from Print This Story EP that was released almost a decade ago. It’s really interesting that I still enjoy listening to it at least couple of times a year – which is something that I don’t do at all when it comes to most of my productions. I practically never listen to my music after I stop playing it. But producing this one I developed some intensive feelings and I can still always recall them by listening to Ricochet Effect. I really like emotions, melody, arrangement in this one … Though I don’t believe I’ve already produced my best track, so there will be one even better than this one at some point of my career.
MM: Back in the day, a DJ really had to put in some seriously long hours and dedication to learning the beautiful art and skills of using their ears to beat match and mix vinyl. Now with the advent of digital decks and beat matching software, are today’s electronic DJ’s at a disadvantage?
U: No, I don’t think so. I understand the art of deejaying and beat matching, but that’s just a segment of what we do. If it was all about that, the lists of top DJs wouldn’t look as they do as many of top acts are not paying much attention to this if at all. Now that I can use technology to beat match for me (if I choose to use that), I can focus on what more I can bring to the table. I can introduce additional elements into my set, I can edit parts of tracks on the go, I can use FXs or not, skip particular part of the track … I can do much more in my performance than just perfectly mix and play everything I’ve prepared before I came to the gig. I can enjoy listening to someone mixing tracks perfectly on the decks, but to me that was done, it’s not challenging enough and it is to limiting me in what I can do. I need more dynamics in my music. But yes,
every young DJ should start with the basics by beat matching, they’ll learn about the basic track structures, and develop feeling for rhythm and much more.
There are many good DJs on vinyl and digital platforms as there are many awful ones in both worlds.
What advice would you give the aspiring DJ / Producer today on how to be creatively original in an already saturated market?
U: In this day and age it’s all about being as original as possible. That’s about the state of mind, being resourceful and finding ways to develop sound and structures in a way others don’t. That’s very hard as almost everything was already done, but not totally impossible as there’s still some room for doing things differently. Every now and then a new synth, software or a piece of hardware triggers a revolution that results in a totally new subgenre. Young people hear music in different way as we do, who are in the game for ten, twenty years or even longer, and they have a different mindset. When Native Instruments’ Massive synth came out that instantly reflected in the rise of the dubstep scene, which used and abused its cold, clinical, spacey sounds. The same happened with progressive-electro house after the Silent synth was introduced. Now or then a piece of gear or software like this comes out and kids find the way to use it a bit differently.
Nowadays it’s hard to break through because of saturated market – back in the days it was just as hard to break through because of closed markets, borders and not be able to get your hands on particular synth or even information about the scene. It was always hard to break through but I’m happy I was part of the old wave that started even before the Internet got to every corner of the world.
MM: How is the underground Techno scene today progressing and where do you see it evolving?
U: It’s interesting how this ‘bastard of electronic music’, the most rebellious, elusive and abstract genre of electronica rose from the underground subculture has now formed into a major music force. Now you can produce major techno festivals for tens of thousands of fans or a big techno stage at the festival such as EDC and that arenas are packed. So, techno is progressing, but at the same time many techno artists are sticking to their guns, want to stay in the underground and they are developing alternative models for everything in this art and industry we call techno. So tip the hat to all the artists that keep the rebellious and innovative spirit of techno spirit alive.
MM: Heres a scenario, UMEK, what if you ended up trapped on a godforsaken island with only your decks, a crate of spirits and your vinyl fly case to your name, what would be the top essential cuts that you must have to survive and why?
U: Joey Beltram’s ‘Caliber’ EP released on Warp,
Jeff Mills & Robert Hood’s ‘Drama’ EP on Axis,
Cubic 22’s ‘Night In Motion’,
Underground Resistance 3 and I’m still waiting for Dave Clarke to repack Red 1, 2 and 3 into one release, so that would only count as one record. Actually, I can buy his album ‘Archive One’ which includes those three releases and we’re all set for the party.
MM: Is there any mentalness that happens on tour??
U: My life on tour is actually very calm, at some cities that are not so big and cool it can actually be quite boring. But that’s me, as I don’t socialize that much with the locals and I don’t go to diners, pre and after parties with them. If we have time and chance, I rent a car and take my tour manager for a trip around the city, find some good sushi restaurant and hour or so away, so that we have a destination to drive to. Then we might check out the inventory at Foot Locker’s 45 minutes away … and so we might spend the whole afternoon on the road just driving around and chilling. My tour manager Bizzy and I go way back, we’re friends since we were teenagers, we grew up together in the studio and on the road, and we still enjoy each other’s company while travelling around the world. I know when he gets grumpy so as he does when I need some time for myself and we know how to act so that we don’t get on our nerves. He fights his moody moments by playing video games and I go shopping for sneakers. J
MM: What drives and motivates you, and how do you maintain your balance with your hectic lifestyle and schedule?
U: Right now I’m driven mostly by those missing 10 percent to develop mu new sound. I’m a geek and now or then that breaks out as I get really intrigued by stuff like this and that can keep me going for a year or even more until I’m totally satisfied with the results. I know that’s hard to understand and yes there are manuals and formulas that I should follow, but it doesn’t work as I’d like to and I’ll keep working on that until it does. That’s a proper suffering and that’s currently my main motivation.
MM: UMEK, does dance music still give you a hard on haha?
U: Yes! Absolutely. I still get goose bumps when I discover a record that I really like or at some special moments in the club or a festival. That doesn’t happen every week, I get or find a track like that once every two months or so and for the last year or so those are more or less electro productions. Techno production might be very dark and often without any proper emotions as you get quickly labeled with commercial or trance stamp if there’s a nice melody in your techno sound. While in electro I find more of tracks that stand out.
MM: Tell us about your label 1605?
U: I’ve created this project in 2008, when I changed my sound quite a bit and after the termination of Recycled Loops label. At that time I’ve felt I needed to do something that would be just mine and personally very connected to (all my previous labels I ran with some colleagues of mine). Hence the name 1605 which is a numeric inscription of my birth date – 16th of May, which symbolically declares the 1605 project is “fruit of my loins” and I’m personally devoted to it. But that doesn’t mean I do all the work. We have a good label manager, couple of crafty people taking care of promotion and some other guys that believed in this project from the start or got on board later. We actually didn’t expect this story to evolve so successfully so fast, but we’re happy 1605 – Sixteenofive became noticeable player on the scene as we put a lot of time, money, effort as well as energy into it. You can select and release the best music around, but if you want to do it in a way people will notice that, you need a good team and right promotion channels if you don’t want to rely solely on luck. And that’s what we do.
After being a bit more active on other labels in recent couple of years I decided in the beginning of 2016 to release my own music produced under various monikers (UMEK, electro driven Zeta Reticula, rougher techno oriented Alba Patera) exclusively on 1605. So, the sound of is defined mostly by my own production, with additional releases from artists such as Steve Mulder, Mark Knight, D-Unity, Tomy DeClerque, Joey Beltram and Siniša Tamamović, to name just some of the latest contributors.
MM: How do you see the underground scene today compare to the hedonistic and heady days of the late 80’s early 90’s and where do you see it evolving?
U: Hedonism is still present on the scene today, at least to some extent. But I don’t like this fake elitism on the underground scene. Nowadays it’s all about who’s cool and who’s not and I don’t like that. I don’t want to think all the time who I hang out or collaborate with and how will that influence my status, brand, being seen by others … Oh, who I hate this snobbism and there’s so much of it! Today it’s sometimes easier to break through based on who are you hanging with and based on who endorses you than on your creative output, which is really bad for music. I’ve performed on the same stages with the biggest names in the industry and I’ve never seen so much fake elitism and snobbism among commercial acts as I do in the underground scene. It’s easier to get respect and thumbs up from a millionaire than somebody who doesn’t even have to show any proper output. 15.
MM: Do you have a view on EDM?
U: I don’t have any beef with the rise of EDM as this music and movement behind it opened many doors for all electronic artists. EDM attracts young audience and many of those continue discovering less commercial genres through time and often become passionate supporters of more underground sounding artists. I was one of those kids in the 90s. So let there be a lot of EDM as strong commercial scene strengthens the rebellious underground.
MM: With the ease of releasing tracks on digital platforms, how has this impacted the quality of the electronic music scene in general, considering so many people today call themselves record label owners, music producers, and sound engineers all from the comfort of their bedrooms – What is the future of electronic music?
U: People like to nag about this with the argument they used to believe in the era of vinyl, as not everything could get released, as printing vinyl was expensive compared to digital releases and there had to be some selection. Well true, but did you ever think how much vinyl has gone to waste and how un-ecological that was? That was such a waste of vinyl! If I only think of that times when we’ve sold 1.500 copies of our releases, and we were small label, how much of crap did we release in those days! I also remember the time I had to travel 500 km to the closest decent record shop to Munich and how I always cut my fingers on the sleeves and my hands being black of going to all that vinyl. At some point of my career I was sent some 200 promos each month and less than 10 were good enough for me to play. The rest of them I passed to my colleagues and most of them ended up in the waste. So, thank god for digital music! And if you are into conspiracy theories:
is it only me or do you also find it weird that a lot of the artists that are still playing on vinyl promote healthy life and are involved in ecology projects – while at the same time they are playing music from the medium that is so eco-unfriendly. Somebody should really start a campaign titled “Save the planet – kill the vinyl!”
I say this as a joke but you must admit it, there is some truth in all this. Though I must confess I’m eagerly waiting for a pack of five fresh vinyl releases myself. I’ve ordered those as they are vinyl only releases and then I’ll have to rip them for my digital sets, which is dreadful as the quality of sounds is not as good as in digital originals. And to answer the second part of your question: one of the predictions I can made based on the trends of digital sales is that on the long term most of the music will be available for free and artists will make money by streaming, doing gigs and if lucky enough by publishing their music for TV projects, movies and video games.
MM: And finally UMEK, what have you got coming up that you can talk about events and projects etc?
U: One very interesting project I’m involved in and co-founding is Viberate.com, a new DJ analytic service that will come handy to everybody in the music industry. We’ve released it a couple of weeks ago at the Amsterdam Dance Event. The base for this venture is our Topdeejays database, which grew into one of the most useful analytic tools in the electronic music business. Viberate is much bigger project and I’m glad my team is developing it. These guys are all statistic junkies, they’ve developed a good initial idea, got some seed capital and it seems this is going to be another successful story developed by our team. Also check out my latest releases on 1605 and come to my gigs in Europe, Australia and North America, including BPM festival and Groove Cruise in time of and just after the holiday season.
Follow UMEK on his website at www.umek.si,
Facebook – www.facebook.com/umek.si
Twitter – @UMEK_1605 and Instagram – @UMEK_1605.
Mike Mannix – Interview -Editing – Dax Malone – Transcribing