Slovenian techno stalwart UMEK isn’t one for cruising through life and dining out on past glories. In fact, one could say he’s hungrier than ever. With 24 years of experience, including 4 albums, 520 singles and EPs, and 95 remixes; a touring history that has seen him travel the equivalent of 62.4 circumnavigations of the planet; 5 awards won at the Beatport, EMPO, and IDM Awards ceremonies respectively; and running his own label (1605), one could be forgiven for thinking that UMEK has done pretty much all there is to do, and could rightly retire on his labour.
This would be the wrong assumption to make, for UMEK is primed to release his new single ‘Shadow Tactics’, on POPOF’S FORM Music label. A driving, gritty, atmospheric stomper, with a dash of drum ‘n’ bass, the latest cut is in keeping with the veteran’s return to techno, having had a temporary dalliance with more widely-appealing genres. This comes hot on the heels of the release of the Viberate app, which uses analytical data to rank electronic music artists, and which is due to expand to include labels and venues, allowing professionals to gauge the state of play at the swipe of a thumb. He also designed a course to help up-and-coming artists make their way into the world of production, imparting his knowledge via the ‘Techno Masterclass with UMEK’. Added to this, he presents a weekly radio show, ‘Behind the Iron Curtain’.
Ahead of the release of his new single, UMEK will be undertaking a short tour of Asia, and kindly chatting to Decoded.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. You’ve been releasing quite a lot of music through your own 1605 label lately. What prompted you to turn to POPOF’s imprint for ‘Shadow Tactics’?
I always like to connect with people who have similar vision of music and scene. We’ve been friends with Popof and his label manager Soliman for years – by the way, he’s a really funny guy, especially in his tweets – I like what they’re doing and it’s not the first time our creative paths have crossed. When they proposed a release of my own track with Popof and Mar-T remixes on Form, I was up for it immediately and the results have proved me right. This track is dark, tough, pure techno, just like it has to be. In the last year and a half I’ve released my music almost exclusively through my own label 1605 as I’ve neglected it a bit before that when I was doing a lot of stuff for other labels.
The Viberate app is a game-changer, and it uses millions of pieces of data to collate statistics. Where did the idea come from, and do you have a large team working on all that data collection and analysis?
It’s nice to hear that it’s becoming known in the industry as a game changer. We’ve been telling this to the Silicon Valley investors for the last couple of months. Yes, the team behind the project is quite big, right now I think we have around 20 people working on it, which borders on outrageous considering we’re a seed stage startup. We are launching a completely redesigned service in the following weeks, where we plan to list and map all worlds’ musicians and music venues in one place and rank them by their online popularity. Viberate will become a standard for the live music industry and soon you won’t be considered a real musician if you won’t have a (free) profile registered with our service. Pretty much like you’re not considered a real actor without an IMDB account.
You are now safely back in the arms of techno, having previously branched out, dabbling with tech-house, playing Tomorrowland and collaborating with Wacka Flocka Flame. Did you feel compelled to re-immerse yourself in the world of techno, and have you seen anything change of late?
Well, that’s the usual story. I got a bit bored with the sound I had been producing in the last couple of years and I’ve leaned back to a bit harder, rougher techno sound. Looking back, I’d say this is conditioned with the environment in which I’m operating. I ended up in tech-house without a plan: at some point I started noticing more and more interesting music from that field. I still focused on techno, purchasing some tech-house tracks along the way for my private collection. At some point I realised I’m buying more tech-house than techno, 80% of releases I bought was tech-house, and being stuck in the situation I couldn’t find enough techno releases I really liked, I ended up introducing more and more tech-house into my sets and radio playlists. After a while, I started noticing more and more interesting techno releases again, so I slowly transitioned back into techno. I’m now buying and playing more than 90% techno tracks in my sets. Nothing was planned, that just happened.
There are countless tutorials online for inexperienced producers. Did you introduce ‘Techno Masterclass with UMEK’ with a view to bringing something new to students, or was it a case of simply wanting to help aspiring producers?
I’m not sure I can teach some really groundbreaking techniques using Logic, but I do maybe use it with certain plug-ins or a combination of couple of tools, in a different way to other producers. Right now I’m noticing that Logic falls behind Ableton and if this goes on I’ll have to shift to Ableton myself as I’m sticking with Logic mostly because I’m used to working with it, while Ableton introduces more and more novelties. Their development is faster and more ground breaking, they have a better community.
Your first forays into DJing and the dance scene in general coincided with Slovenia’s struggle for independence from Yugoslavia. Did you look to clubbing as a means to escape from the unrest, and how large was the scene then?
No, not really. Even if we felt the need or wanted to escape we couldn’t, as all we had was one little club in Ljubljana, though when I discovered electronic music, we already became independent. The tough years for forward thinking artists and people in general were the 80s when we were still living in a communist state. Our problem in the 90s was not suppression but the lack or even non-existence of the scene. Looking back now, I must say the pioneer years were a very special time. I’m not sure if someone in the West 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 doing music, running labels, no pirate radio stations, no magazines, no information, no venues, the nearest records shops were hundreds of kilometers away in Milan, Vienna and Munich), but just because 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.
Where did you first hear electronic music, and what were the kinds of sounds that prompted you to get involved?
I’ve always had an ear for electronic sounds though it was really hard for me to be in touch with this kind of music, as we didn’t have decent record stores and specialised radio stations. In the beginning of the 90s I discovered the Cool Night show hosted by Aldo Ivancic, MC Brane and P-Twin on Radio Student. They played all kinds of electronic music, from trance, rave, techno, EBM, some really dark stuff. Soon after they started their nights in the student unions club, K4. I became a regular there and later on I got introduced to artists such as Jure Havlicek (Anna Lies, Moob, now working in the nu-disco scene as Sare Havlicek) who invited me into his studio and showed me how this music is done. When one of my friend’s parents bought a satellite dish, we were introduced to a whole new world of satellite radio and we instantly fell in love with pirate radio station called Green Apple on which Carl Cox hosted a show called Dance Nation. He played new records, broadcasted his DJ-mixes and now or then even talked to the audience. I really liked what he did, he was an inspiration to me, a then aspiring young DJ. When I was old enough to go to the raves in Germany, I only knew him, Westbam and couple of then big DJs and he was far better than anyone else. I still remember dancing mad to his sets in the first row below the DJ booth. Then my friends scored some backstage passes at a big rave in Munich and that’s when we first met. It meant so much to me that we shook hands. He was my favourite DJ because he was a master of creating amazing energy on the dance floor.
You’ve been known to comfortably find your way around 4 decks. How do you find playing out these days with so many toys at your disposal?
I’m not sure I could even do that right now without seriously practising, as I haven’t done it for at least eight or nine years now. I do play two deck sets for a special occasion now or then and I’m still as good as most of A-list DJs. I could do it on three, but that’s already a bit tougher as my setup and the way I play music now has totally changed. Regarding other toys: there really is so much available to us right now. When something new catches my attention, I go to YouTube and check it out. YouTube has become a demi-god in a sense that it keeps almost all information you need whatever your interest. I check how people are using the novelties, if I like something I order it and test it and if I like it I incorporate it in my studio or live setup. The latest toy I really enjoy using and abusing right now is Native Instrument’s Maschine JAM.
The Sea Star Festival in Croatia is another date for your busy calendar, and Croatia is fast becoming the coolest place in the world in terms of dance events. Coming from the Balkans yourself, can you give us any ideas as to why you think this is?
Croatia was bound to explode as a festival destination. The Eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, from Slovenia to Montenegro is very accessible and one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world, there’s lots of sun, great food and hospitable people, and after the tensions in the Balkans have settled it really opened to that kind of tourism. People like to go where they have not been before and Croatia is a great alternative if not the first choice for people who were spending their summer holidays in Spain or Greece.
You’re a keen basketball player, and indeed were invited to take your place in the Slovene national team when you were 16. Do you think that if you had followed a career on the court, you’d still have ended up behind the decks?
I’m not so sure, at least not on a professional level. Like sports, music career demands your full attention and dedication when you want to do it on a top level. The longer you do it and the better you get doing something, the easier it is. I’m not sure I’d be able to get back seriously into production and deejaying after I’d have finished the basketball career at the age of 33 or 35. I won’t say it’s not possible, but I have a feeling my focus would be elsewhere.
What has been your favourite memory as a techno DJ?
Aaaargh … I create special memories every week when I get in the DJ booth and play music for passionate crowds on the dance floor, so it’s really hard for me to think of something really particular right now.
And is album number 5 a possibility, or are you content enough to release singles for the next while?
To be honest I didn’t even know I’ve released four albums so far. I’ve never seriously thought of releasing an album, all were made totally spontaneously, so I don’t plan another one right now either. I produce a lot of music, so I’d be able to pack something together for an album quickly if I wanted to, but I’m currently focusing on singles and EPs. The last time I thought of putting together an album was when I revived the Zeta Reticula project. I produced 15 tracks and formed them into an album just for myself, but then I threw away a couple of productions and released that music as two and a half EPs. So, no, there’s no number 5 in the pipeline or the blueprints right now.
Huge thanks for the interview, UMEK, and enjoy your summer!!
‘Shadow Tactics’ will be released on 8th May on FORM Music.