Exclusive Interview With UMEK
Slovenian DJ Uros Umek, aka Umek, has been in the business for over two decades now. We spoke to Umek about his globetrotting career, a recent ‘lone-wolf’ phase of inspiration, and why his website looks so complicated before he left for his perfomance at The BPM Festival.
Just last week you tweeted a picture from Prague, and this week you’ve posted another from Tokyo, so you’re all over the place. How does it feel to still be going global after more than 20 years at this?
To be honest, travelling is the worst part of this game, especially as I’m not very keen of flying, although now that I have a girlfriend it’s easier and we’ve kind of broke the routine of traveling only with my tour manager all the time. So, now I try to combine traveling to gigs with some sightseeing, to show her nice parts of the world I’ve seen in the past and we are also discovering some new places together. But still, I’d give a fortune for a decent teleportation device – though I enjoy playing music as the first time I’ve got into a DJ booth and the energy I get from the dancefloors all over the world makes it worth being stuck in the plane for hours. The recent Asian tour was great, I always like to go to Tokyo as this is one of the most matchless cities in the world and Hong Kong and Macau have also turned out to be quite exciting cities with people that know how to party.
According to your Soundcloud, you also find yourself making beats while miles above the ground. When did you decide to bring your art to the airplane, and what’s unique about the art you create when in the sky?
I’ve always lost so much time in the airport lounges and on the airplanes so once the technology became available to me and I’ve got my phobia of flying under control, I’ve started producing music on the road and in the air. Most of the people around me spent this time to sleep and meditate while I was panicking. I was trying to read but it didn’t really work for me. Then I discovered producing music is one thing that really takes my mind away and it became a nice help to distract myself from fear of flying. I get so into it when I work on my music that I don’t notice even the turbulence and time flies by. Now that’s already a routine, so producing music on a plane is not much different than when I’m doing it in the studio. There is some noise from the engines in the background that I can’t reduce completely and also some distractions while people are moving around that can affect the choice of sounds I’m using while working on planes. But nothing major and I can quickly fine-tune everything when I get in a studio.
What influences and ideas have gone into your music in the past year?
In the last two or three years I’m trying to find again the perfect kick, baseline and other small but very important elements for my techno tracks. I can’t produce music following certain blueprints as I don’t feel the need to and I get bored of doing things as a routine quickly. So I am experimenting a lot with all the tools that are available to me in the studio, buying new sound packs and software all the time, fiddling with hardware from time to time, trying to do things differently. I’m really focused and when I have a vision of certain sounds I’d like to develop I obsess with that for years until I get where I want to be. This ‘suffering’, if I may call it this, always brings good results – the only question is how long it takes me to get where I want.
Electronica and techno have gone from the underground to the mainstream during your time as a musician. How has your own career changed with this shift?
This obviously had an impact on my career. I remember touring in the states at the time when techno was bound to small underground clubs and as it was not really worth flying there compared to the action in Europe, Japan and Latin America. I’ve kind of neglected this market for almost a decade. But once American audience got hooked up on electronica everything changed. Now I’m touring USA and the rest of the world all the time and I’m playing at the best clubs and the biggest festivals in the world for fans that are supporting me and respond to my music passionately. With the rise of big festivals my sound leaned to the tech-house side, I’ve even done some house tracks, but now I’m back in techno for some time with maturing of the scene in the new markets, where people have started to looking for other sound than everything mainstream. It’s not that I’m responding to demand, I feel I’ve transitioned naturally, but there probably is a connection between the evolution of electronic culture and evolution of my sound. What I like the most is that I can play my music to very different crowds at very different venues in very different corners of the world. My name attracts a lot of attention. My natural environment is underground clubs but I’m used of performing at main stages of major festivals as well. I like to play to techno-heads, but what I like the most nowadays is to present my sound to audience that is not necessarily into techno or even any kind of electronic music, but instead open minded and wiling to at least give me a chance to show them what I do.
Who are the artists whose work you’ve admired over the past years? Why so?
If you’ve checked the list of my releases, you’ll see whom I’ve worked with. Those are artists that I’ve admired and I feel close to, mostly because of their artistic output and qualities. Currently I prefer to work alone. I get a lot of offers to do collaborations but I turn them all down. This doesn’t mean I won’t be doing some joint ventures again in the future but right now I prefer studio solitude.
Recent tracks like “The Drum” and “Mechanical Blade” pound a little harder than your earlier works. Was there a reason these tracks come across a little more aggressive in sound?
Depends what you mean with the earlier works. Music I’ve produced and released at the beginning of my career sounded much harder than this, but compared to my productions released three or four years ago I really sound harder again. I’m leaning more to techno and these two tracks you’ve mentioned are quite representative for what is known as a typical Umek sound.
Your imprint, 1605 is nearly 10 years old. What’s changed about the label over the past 10 years? Do you run anything differently than when you began? How so?
Main difference is that we’re not signing that much other artists right now. I’m releasing all my Umek productions exclusively along with most of my side projects through 1605, so because of that there’s not much slots left for other talents. We started 1605 Music Therapy in 2008, but I could not have predicted where we were going to be in 8 years. I’ve had a certain vision for this label but the reality took us on a totally unexpected joyride, though our success is not a coincidence. We’ve put a lot of energy, time, creativity and artistic input into this project, so that had to bring good results. I’m glad that we are where we are, especially as we release a lot of music from totally unknown artists. We are a gateway label that introduces lots of artists from the periphery of global music industry and gives them a serious chance to draw attention to themselves to get further support of the scene. And what’s most important in this story: we don’t just release music from fresh artists, we give them full support in the Behind the Iron Curtain radio show, my playlists and promotion channels. Since our releases are regularly in top positions on Beatport, people do check who that new guy is on our label.
Has founding a record label changed the way you produce your own music? In what ways?
Not really because I am scouting new music and artists for my sets and Behind the Iron Curtain radio show all the time. The only difference is that now I have a power to support certain artists also through my label.
However, when Beatport emerged and introduced track previews featuring only the middle section it really effected the arrangement of music we all produced and released at the time. Namely we all started producing tracks in a way that we’ve put the highlight of the track in the middle part, so that people got to hear it when previewing it on Beatport. As a label we have promoted this kind of production as this directly influenced the sales figures. I’m digressing a bit from your question but I’d like to point out how can technologies or even just one strong channel for selling music effect the arrangement of whole generation of tracks.
You website puts the user into an interactive, immersive homepage with teasing little headlines that give the illusion of a snarky computer or artificial intelligence. What made you design your site like this, and how do both industry people and fans respond to it?
Nicely put. My website is very puzzling, people get confused and lost looking at it as it goes against all the rules of designing user friendly info websites. But we did that on purpose. People who are searching information about me do so predominately on social networks and some specialized sites that list profiles of various artists, so my homepage is not that important for sharing basic information about me and my work. That’s why we decided to design it in a way that we offer visitors a challenge to hunt down the information they are interested in. It’s more a creative work for people to enjoy than an info point. It goes hand in hand with the identity of Umek as creative brand and me as an artist preferring to be sort of a black sheep rather than move with the herd. A lot of people tell me that we should change this while other like it. I’d probably hate it as a user if that wasn’t my own page, but I invite you, do take couple of minutes for this piece of work and try to enjoy it as it has its advantages. If nothing else it’s very intuitive.
BPM is coming up in January. What are you looking forward to at the festival?
I don’t know what exactly to expect, as this will be my first ever appearance at this hyped festival at all. I usually take the first six weeks of the year off, so that I and everybody who works with me have some time to relax from constant touring and projects we are doing all year around. Promoters of The BPM Festival regularly invited me to come to play there, but that was not possible for before mentioned reason. Since some other plans came together just in this time I caved in this year and I’ll take my annual break later in the year. I’ll be doing two gigs for Toolroom and Tronic and I expect them both to be really good since this is one of the festivals that attracts a lot of audiences that are really into my music and good electronica in general.
Along with BPM and Groovecruise, what other events do you have coming up in 2017?
We have scheduled an intense tour for the first month and a half of the year. I‘ll be playing couple of gigs in Australia over the end of the year – it’s been a while since I’ve been there – and then I’ll fly over to Mexico and a big series of gigs in North America. If I’m lucky I’ll be able to hit a slope or two in the mountains between these gigs to ride some powder with a snowboard. We didn’t get any snow yet back in Slovenia, so I’m already missing this action a bit. After the USA tour I’ll also do couple more gigs in China and then I’m staying in Europe for a month or two.
What else are you looking forward to in 2017, both music and non-music related?
Everything in my life is more or less music-related. ☺ I’ll continue to tour and work on my music, run label and host radio show and if I get any free time I’ll spend it with my girlfriend and friends doing hobbies in between. I’m at a very creative place right now.
I’ll be doing gigs at some venues that I haven’t played for some time, and I’ve been asked to perform at many clubs and festivals in countries I haven’t even visited yet, which is also very exciting. It will definitely be a very different year compared to the past two or three.
What sort of new material can we expect in 2017? Some solo work, or any new collaborations?
As I’ve already mentioned before, I’m in my ‘lone wolf’ phase right now, so don’t expect any collaborations as Umek just yet – although that may change suddenly. If anything is constant with me it’s that I’m changing my mind all the time and doing everything the way I feel I should do. Oh, actually there might be one collaboration coming up: I’m talking with The Advent to do one electro joint venture under my Zeta Reticula moniker.
When not producing, playing events, or travelling what do you do in your free time?
I like doing sports. As my home town Ljubljana is a very small city. I don’t even have a car as I spend every chance I get to ride my bike between the everyday errands. I have a small fitness studio in my home and I really like snowboarding. I like watching TV-shows, movies, playing videogames, I enjoy watching basketball games on TV or live in the arena that is near my house, spending time with my friends and their families, going to a good meal, movies and other usual stuff.
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