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UMEK: From Behind The Iron Curtain To Playing EDC (Interview)

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UMEK: From Behind The Iron Curtain To Playing EDC

This weekend, UMEK will be headed to Electric Daisy Carnival to perform his now worldwide music to an American audience. He's been playing these events in different cities for years now to countless lovers of dance music, but we can guarantee only a handful know and understand his deep rooted history in the world of techno.

The Slovenian producer is just on the verge of turning 40, but his journey to global ascension started with humble roots while living in a place with a non-existent dance scene. He didn't have the benefit of growing up in a place where techno and house music were thriving. Some would call this a challenge. Others would call this an opportunity.

Either way, UMEK and his group of friends saw something was missing and they dedicated their lives to help build what would become a legendary hub for techno. This started with minimal equipment in a place with no Internet, but learning from mistakes and building his own sound and record label would stem from this.

He continues to push the boundaries of modern techno and house music, evolving from his roots but never forgetting where he came from. Below you can read our interview with UMEK, just days before he will take the stage at EDC New York. He has come a long way, but his legendary journey still has a long way to go.

1. Can you recall the distinct point in your life when you realized music was your biggest passion?

Absolutely. I can remember couple of those moments looking back to my growing up. I wasn’t even aware of them at the time, but from today’s point of view I can see them. I can think of the time when I was 7 and my mother bought me Daniel’s single "Julie," which was Yugoslavian contribution to the Eurosong contest in 1983 and became big European radio hit. I don’t remember that many things from my childhood, but I still have a very clear picture of how me and my cousin imitated playing guitars on our tennis rackets and singing along this track. This was a moment, when I realized I really like music

Then I remember the first time I’ve heard Todd Terry pres. Royal House’s "Can You Party," which really got me into proper electronic music, first house, acid house and hip-house and later techno, happy hardcore, early 90s breakbeat and later really hard, dark techno.

I can think of going to Mayday for the first time, entering the Westfalenhalle (huge indoor arena) in Dortmund, Germany. I’ve been to big parties before, but this was my initiation as a raver. This was in early 90s, when pilgrimage to Mayday and Berlin Love Parade were a must for every decent raver in Europe. And going to Mayday, seeing the DJs taking control of tens of thousands of people I decided I wanted to be on that podium someday and that was my motivation for years – until I’ve finally made it and I didn’t know to enjoy that as much as I actually should as I really worked hard to get there. By the way, my set from Mayday 2002 is still one of my mostly shared DJ sets from that era on the web, along the one from I Love Techno 2001. If you want to check out what kind of music I produced and played 15 years ago, those two are kind of referential.

2. What separated you from the rest during your rise to success in the 90s?

Probably the fact I was the biggest weirdo far and wide and nobody believed I’d achieve anything in my life. In the global scale probably also the fact that I started producing music without any knowledge of music in an environment where information about techno was scarce and we only got couple the basic studio equipment. We’ve had to learn everything our own, from our own mistakes, improvising a lot along the way. From the point of view of professional producer from the west that maybe even meant my tracks were full of mistakes and technically poorly produced, but just because of that they’ve sounded fresh, rough and unique and that got me deals with many top labels years before I broke through on the international scene as a DJ.

3. What initially inspired you to start your own label?

We’ve started our vinyl labels Absence, Consumer Recreation and later Recycled Loops mostly because we produced music nobody wanted to release and we needed platforms to spread our sound. Another reason for starting them, which was present from the beginning, was the determination to break trough with our own blend of techno and that’s how we defined the legendary Slovenian techno sound of the 90s. Absence released almost exclusively Slovenian artists. One exception to this rule was Brother’s Yard, a pioneering project of Croatian Petar Dundov, who is still very good and successful producer.

We’ve started our latest label 1605 – Sixteenofive in a totally different environment, when sales of vinyl have crushed and Internet took over the global communications and distribution of digital music. But again we started it to have our own platform for experimenting and sharing our vision of electronic music that we really like. We still focus on regional talents and good producers from the east, but electronic music has become a global phenomenon and so we release good music from artist from all over the world now, trying to push something that is a fingerprint 1605 sound.

4. What advice would you offer emerging talent looking to get ahead?

It’s hard to express all the wisdom you’ve gathered in 30 years of work in just a couple of sentences, but I’d say dedication, persistence, determination or endurance is one thing that brings result on the long term. Especially if you work hard, your focused on your goals and you’re willing to learn to get better. You can’t do it without any talent at all, but if you have at least some, you can substitute the deficit by working really hard, being stubborn and patient.

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5. What are some of the proudest moments of your career thus far?

It felt really nice when I’ve heard Jeff Mills, one of the first pioneers of techno, playing my music or when Dave Clarke started canning "Lanicor." I try to remember different moments of that kind for various interviews, as there were many in all this years. These two were the first one I thought of today.

6. What was the dance scene like in Slovenia when you first began your career?

You might have read about this already somewhere but let’s recap this once again. It all started in the early 90s. Try to imagine how would it be living in the environment without normal event managements, modern radios and other mass media building and supporting the concert and party scene, not even a single decent record shop and no magazines covering latest trends in pop culture. And all this happened at the time, when there was no Internet yet, satellite TV and radio was a rare emerging novelty and we just abandoned the system in which the state controlled everything.

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. In the early 90s I discovered Cool Nights show hosted by Aldo Ivancic, MC Brane and Primoz Pecovnik on the students union operated Radio Student. They played all kind of electronic music, from trance, rave, techno, EBM, some really dark stuff … and soon after that they started their nights in the students union club K4. I became regular and after a while I got introduced to artists such as Jure Havlicek (Anna Lies, Moob, Sare Muratore, now successfully working in the indie-disco scene under a moniker Sare Havlicek) who invited me into his studio and show me how this music is done.

In that time, I was doing my first steps as a producer with two of my colleagues, using 8-bit Screen Tracker with 4 mono channels and we sampled our sound from the tracks recorded from the radio on the tape cassettes. It was far from being professional but we’ve spent all the time doing music. And when Jure showed me his Rolands 808 and 909 and all other legendary machines I knew that s exactly what I want to do in my life. As there was no copyright legislature in Slovenia at that time, I started selling pirate cassettes for a local pirate recording label with my friends and soon gathered enough money to buy first proper sampler from the guys behind the Random Logic project, and Gregor Zemljic, half of this group and now internationally acclaimed guru of studio production, taught me a lot about the music and production later in my career.

7. What are your thoughts on America and the rapidly changing electronic music?

In general, I’d say European crowds are still looking for more diverse and underground sound than the ones in the States. We have big commercial festivals in Europe as well, but there’re still a lot of things the USA promoters and crowds didn’t really picked up yet. I don’t doubt this will happen in the years to come as the first wave of this music is passing now and people have already started focusing on some new stuff. American DJs are trying to figure it out where to take the scene next and you can already feel a change in their sound. The first generation that grew up with cheesy EDM has matured and they are looking for a bit more ‘serious’ sound. And that’s the point where they have to start educating their crowd and offer them music that is not only mainstream radio and MTV oriented.

8. What about Europe? Has America's embracement of electronic music helped or hindered the industry overseas?

To be honest, I don’t really see (America) to have really influenced Europe that much in the sense of content and culture. Most of the people involved in this scene see the USA the similar way that you watch your protégée growing up and evolving. It’s like Europe is a father and the USA a son that is growing up fast and it’s really developing his potentials. The term EDM was always dismissive in Europe and this won’t change – so that’s probably why everybody involved is trying really hard to rebrand it as electro, progressive or future house. But America did affect the business part, at least to some point, with major festivals, such as Ultra or EDC spreading through Europe and the rest of the world. But European electronic culture is still much more underground oriented. There are whole countries where EDM is less popular than some more alternative genres and it’s easier to put together a decent techno festival than selling out a decent club with EDM artist. In the USA on the other hand everybody is talking only about EDM.

9. You've worked with Waka Flocka Flame, won countless awards from Beatport, IDMA's + more and nurtured the expansion of your own accomplished labels. Where do you hope to go from here?

I don’t really know. I have a feeling I’ll now slowly move from these crossover tracks, like the one with Flocka and the latest with Jamisha Trice ("Live that Life"), to producing less vocal based music. Not that I didn’t do that in the last couple of years but most of the media focus was on the productions with guest vocalists although that was only some 20 percent of music I’ve released in this period. Now I’ll focus on the tech-house part a bit more. I always wanted to produce a decent hip-house track as I grew up with that kind of music and I’ve done that with Waka Flocka. I also enjoy doing tracks like the one with Jamisha, but still – these are the excursions from the main course I’m treading as a DJ and producer for the last over 20 years. This is not my style. These are digressions from it that I like to do from time to time. Not to confuse you too much: listen to the tracks I’ll be releasing in the next six months and you’ll see what I’m trying to say here.

10. We're looking forward to seeing you at Electric Daisy Carnival in New York City, where techno is taking over. With Brooklyn boasting some of the most famous clubs in the world, would you say the region has an influence on what artists are producing today?

I don’t know enough about the trends in New York scene to discuss them. Especially the underground part as I’m probably part of what is considered a commercial scene there. I perform at clubs such as Pacha and Marquee and I’ve had a blast at Webster’s Hall. I don’t know if, how and where to the scene is evolving, but I’ve had are really good time playing parties in New York last couple of years. The energy on the dance floor was really good wherever I performed there and I’m always really looking forward to come back.

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