Umek is renowned for his exceptional technical skills behind the decks, as well as having a huge back catalogue of productions on highly popular labels, such as Consumer Recreation, Recycled Loops, 1605 and Astrodisco. Umek's style has evolved steadily over the years (he started out in 1993 at the age of 17) from the original old skool loop techno to what he terms ‘astrodisco’. On his journey Umek has championed techno music in all its incarnations and sees the current resurgence of the genre as just the beginnings of an inexorable rise.
Although he's been seducing the masses with his own blend of techno for more than a decade, despite many rumours Umek still hasn’t released an artist album following his 2002 debut album “Neuro!” But in 2009 it looks like everything is coming together for Umek, starting with a new mix compilation for the Italian Hell Yeah label, and a new artist album in production. I caught up with Umek in his hometown of Llubjana to find out more.
The first thing you notice about Umek is his imposing stature (he used to be a talented basketball player), but his reputation as a ‘gentle giant’ precedes him, and sitting in his studio sipping a civilised cup of tea, it soon becomes obvious that the big man is bubbling with enthusiasm for his new mix album, and is full of ideas and opinions about the music scene.
‘It’s been quite a while since I’ve released my last compilation, so I tried to achieve several goals with this new one for Hell Yeah. As always, I tried to go further than any time before and at the same time present what I do nowadays as a producer and DJ. Because I now use Traktor for my gigs, I tried to create my own story by putting together a lot more tracks than is common for a typical DJ mix compilation. The basic approach was totally different to mixing vinyl or CDs, as this set up allows me to build the soundtrack from the whole tracks or just parts of them. I can, for example, use just a bassline from one recording and high-hat from other one, so it’s not unusual for my sets, and on this compilation as well, to hear four tracks running in the mix at the same time. This is all about what I do in the clubs, so the record really can’t be labelled as an easy home listening project.’
Umek is a firm believer that what makes a great compilation is the same thing that makes a great DJ: everything starts with the selection of tracks that you plan to present to the audience. Great mixing is also essential, along with some elements of surprise. He agrees that the competition nowadays is really strong, but knows that people always look for something new, different, fresh, shocking even. ‘Using effects does help but I strongly believe that it’s still the individual human factor that makes my own story special. If you don’t have a vision, then all the equipment in the world won’t help you create something really special and your own.’
For Umek, a technical perfectionist, the process of actually putting the mix together is a work of art. ‘I had more than 100 tracks to choose from and a lot of my favourites didn’t make it on the CD because they just didn’t work along other tracks in a way that I would like them to. There are recordings that sound amazing when played solo but there’s no way I could use them in a mix. Everything was done very carefully, and I always take notice how good the production is on any single track. There’s no room for badly produced tracks.’
The Italian Hell Yeah label has a strong reputation in techno circles, and was an obvious creative choice for Umek. ‘I’ve known Marco (the boss) for a long time – I made some records for him in the past and I really like how we work together. So we sat down and started thinking about how this mix should sound. We instantly decided to put together two CDs, and also to include on the second some of my unreleased stuff as a gift for those who will buy the original CD.’ Umek has included rare bonus tracks that somehow didn’t make it to vinyl or digital releases, but at the same time feels they shouldn’t be lost on some old computer disc for eternity.
Umek’s diverse style has sometimes (rather too conveniently) been labelled the ‘Slovenian techno sound’, a tag that perhaps misses the bigger picture. It’s his blending of elements from different schools of techno that keep things evolving. ‘I didn’t do minimal when it was at its peak but I did take elements from it and incorporated them into my sound, which was always a unique blend of at least two genres, and I intend to keep it that way in the future, too. I’m playing techno but this genre really does change, everything is very dynamic and there are always some boundaries to be pushed a bit further.’
You have to understand how the Slovenian scene has developed over the past few years to really understand where Umek’s music has come from and how it has developed.
‘When I started going out, we had only one electronic music club night and it was happening during the week, so even that one was empty. Nowadays we have many nights, top DJs coming over every weekend; we have some really cool festivals and some excellent domestic producers/DJs, which is one of the best kept secrets of the European music scene. Slovenia’s electronic music scene was always dominated by techno and still is, although the genre and variety of events, artists and their productions are spread across the board nowadays.’
In May 2008 Umek launched the annual ‘Day Of Electronic’ after having the idea that Slovenia could have an official national day dedicated to electronic music culture. This annual party takes place in an amazing, magical venue called Krizanke. ‘This was a base camp for crusaders in the middle ages and later rebuilt by our most important architect Joze Plecnik, who also did a lot of work in Vienna and Prague in the classicistic style.’ This event is not just a party though, it’s a gathering of most vanguard music and visual artists from all over the world, and is dedicated to present the richness of electronic music culture for all to experience. And there’s another twist to it. ‘We’re collecting signatures of support so we can eventually go to the state parliament and ask for our official day of electronic to be included in the legislature.’
It’s refreshing to hear that electronic music culture is in such dedicated hands, especially when tales of doom and gloom are ever present in the music industry today. There is no doubt that everything has changed so much in the last few years. But where is it all going?
‘I don’t really know where it will go but I’m sure there will be some new, fresh, young producers who will change the way music is and the way it’s produced. Young people have a different attitude towards music than me. They almost don’t know any more what an original copy of a CD looks like. Vinyl is science fiction for them. I can’t wait to see what happens next. More and more companies will make crazy plug-ins and programmes. Ableton Live and Reaktor have changed electronic production. And there’s one other important thing we shouldn’t overlook. Beatport is changing things too, in the way they allow customers to listen to a clip of each track from the second to the fourth minute – it’s really important what happens in that part of the track. So if you have a less interesting part of the track at that interval you won’t sell well on Beatport! Sooner or later people will think about that and adapt their music if Beatport doesn’t change this.’
Even after fifteen years in the industry, Umek is still as motivated as ever to make and play his music. ‘I still go to my studio almost every day and still really enjoy it. Every gig in my hometown Ljubljana is very special. And the pinnacle of it all is my annual six hour solo open air gig in the city central park Tivoli that happens every last Saturday in August. The party is called Zur z Razlogom (or Party With A Cause) and it’s a charity event that supports various organizations that help young people in distress. Last year more than 30,000 people came to party and we’ve gathered a lot of charity money collecting the SMS donations. That’s magical: it’s a fabulous event and we help other people by having fun at the same time.’
Umek’s enthusiasm is infectious, and his attitude refreshing in an industry that is often overrun with uncontrolled egos. This is a man who is doing things for the right reasons, and there’s just enough time to dig a little deeper and find out about the other projects he’s working on now he has this exciting Hell Yeah mix compilation in the bag. ‘I’m working on a remix for Wave Music and Popof now. At the same time I’m working on various tracks for my next artist album. It’s going to be a dance floor album that will represent what I’ve been doing in the studio for the past couple of years.’
There have also been rumours of a new artist album for a while now, but it looks like things are finally falling into place. ‘Actually it’s the third version of this album that I’m producing right now. I’ve already done two complete song oriented albums that feature many talented artists, but my sound changed so much in between that I decided not to release these as I’m afraid I could confuse the audience with it too much. Luckily the third one will fit the time and place in the universal plan and you will be able to enjoy it later this year.’
For updates and info about all Umek’s activities visit www.umek.si and www.myspace.com/djumek
Interview by Gregor Zalokar