In A Production Competition Who Would Win: UMEK or God?
Trick Question. UMEK Is God.
1605 Music Therapy Record Label owner, music producer, amazing eye for talent, world-renowned DJ, Behind The Iron Curtain podcast curator, purveyor of primal, ballsy techno and hard man to chase down for an interview UMEK gave up some of his time to chat with me so we could all get to know this production powerhouse a little bit better.
This interview took place at the beginning of his summer season in Ibiza with Carl Cox. This isn’t the first time these two godfathers of party music have joined forces–the annual Party For A Cause is the duo’s huge charity event held in UMEK’s hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia. A party tens of thousands of people attend to turn the entire city center into an enormous party conducted by two of the best party throwers the world has ever known.
UMEK has been a staple in the techno community for more years than I am old. It makes perfect sense that someone with his unbelievable list of accolades and repertoire has described what techno music is better than anyone:
“It’s primal. It has balls. It lets your mind wander on its own.
It doesn’t give you some specific perspective on the story, each listener dictates where the music will take them.
I provide the content, the dynamo, the engine of the whole experience
but it’s on each individual listener to respond to this by creating his or her own visualization, or story, and respond to it.”
A giant in the techno world with over 20 years experience destroying dance floors at all of the hottest nightclubs the world has to offer gave me a peak behind the iron curtain with UMEK as we discussed the parallels between Buddhism and techno, how songs go from an idea in his head to a beat made on the computer, the philosophy by which he lives and what artist he would love to make a song with. Those topics and more are covered as a techno legend unfolds his innermost feelings in a heartfelt interview that will leave every reader with a better sense of how Music is Therapy.
I’m sure you’re aware of the Buddhist practice of meditation where they focus on one word (“om”) and contemplate for long periods of time about one meaning. Western doctors of psychology also teach the practice of the same concept–taking your thoughts down to 1 single, repetitive thought–except they call it Mindfulness Techniques. Scientists have shown through the use of fMRI studies of the brain that there are significant positive changes in the way your brain can handle stress and induce it’s own relaxation if you’ve practiced meditation or mindfulness techniques. There is something so important to our daily happiness to intentionally take your thoughts down to one repeatable plane. I know you have spoke before about the “hypnotic” and “trance-like” state the repetitive properties of techno can bring to a listener… Do you think this could be the “music therapy” your label stands for?
I’m glad that you noticed this too and I couldn’t agree more with your thesis. The kind of music that I produce and mix is built on a repetitive pattern and this hypnotic sound does affect our brain and general feeling while listening to it in a certain way. I still remember experiencing this for the first time during the Jeff Mills set somewhere in Munich as a teenage raver on the dance floor. The hypnotic power of repetitive records he played (which were more techno tools that properly structured tracks) was amazing. At that point I realized the power of well-produced and played electronic music. Though my first association was not Buddhism, rather chanting and drumming of American native tribes that used these repetitive sounds to hypnotize people as part of their rituals. That’s just another representation of the same concept you are pointing out. So, yes, the repetitive elements in electronic music do affect human body and brain and that’s also important part of the 1605 Music Therapy.
One of the reasons I love your music and label so much is your excellent ability to introduce the next best artist or sound. I love deep, dark techno as much as I love happy, bouncy, sexy tech house. Who on 1605 should I check out now for sexy, summertime, south beach style tech house?
We’ve just signed a young artist Funk V from Mexico with his track Anna. When I got it I though one of my colleagues wants to pull an easy one on me. I’ve had a feeling this could be something from Heartik or Sebastien Leger and that one of them is testing me. When I sat down properly to listen to this track it was obvious that it wasn’t their production. But at first I’ve suspected one of them has sent me his track under the alias. I don’t release bad or mediocre music. I try to maintain very high level of quality on 1605, but even with such benchmark Anna really stands out. It’s a bit moody track, it could be produced as a result of breaking up with his girlfriend, but it has touched me immediately. We’re known for supporting fresh artists, as we do this all the time, and I’m extra happy I can give a little push to this talented guy even though he’s more or less unknown on the scene. Though that will change soon if he continues to produce such a good music.
What is one thing you’ve accomplished in your career you’re personally most proud of?
The greatest success for me is that I am where I am and that I can do what I really enjoy doing as my profession and life calling. It wasn’t easy to achieve this. I worked hard to be where I am and I’m still pushing myself every day, but I can’t really imagine doing anything else and I’m happy I can do it on the highest possible level. I’m a professional DJ and producer for more than two decades now and in all this time I didn’t experience some big jumps or falls of popularity and demand. My progress is steady and based on very solid foundations, the trend is positive, slightly upwards, as it was all this years. I’m fully booked all the time, I do around 100 gigs annually although it would be probably better for my health to work at least 20% less. But I still enjoy this as the first time I stepped behind the mixer and I still have so much to show as a producer.
Can you take me through the UMEK journey of creating a song… is there a “eureka!” moment where the perfect beat jumps into your head like magic and you grab your computer and start lying it out before the idea disappears? How do the ideas of the beats of your solo productions come to fruition? Can you share with me an interesting “eureka!” moment?
Every track I’m working on is a bit special to me and I’m pimping it so long that I’m totally satisfied with the results. And if I don’t think the result is special, I don’t release it. I have over hundred hours of more or less finished music in my archive as I only release 10 or 15 percent of music that I actually produce. Music is similar to children when it comes to picking up your favorites: it’s hard to do that as every kid or project is very special to you. Even though once in a while it does happen that I get some brilliant idea or building blocks just start falling together in a way that I feel I’m onto something really extraordinary. At that point I’m usually so into it I just get up from my chair and start working standing, dancing and jumping around the studio. That’s rare but sometimes I know when I’m on the path of producing the next big dance floor anthem.
Regarding the process: I used to start building the track by laying down some beats and bass, though for some time now I’m starting with a melody, continue with the bass line and after that I focus on rhythmic. For the last year or two I build rhythm mostly using samples. Before I start working on a new track, I usually gather some 20 to 30 loops and then I manipulate them in every possible way. I cut out the bass from one, I take snare from another, hi-hat from third one and so on until I create something new just to put the whole thing trough various filters and modulators. This way I can produce a signature Umek sound even I’m working with sounds and loops that are not originally mine.
Your track “I Need You” is one of my favorite songs ever, but also a track that if I play it for anyone they immediately love it too. I’ve made many people a UMEK fan because of that song. Where did the sample for that track come from? Is there an interesting story behind the creation of that track you could like to share?
I’ve built this track on a vocal sample from a sample pack I bought online. I’m regularly checking out what’s new in sample department and I’m buying heaps of samples every week. I love to work with samples, but the tricky way of doing so is that these samples are available to anyone and I have to move quickly if I want to produce and release something before anyone else does. One advantage I have is that I know how to incorporate samples and loops in my fingerprint sound through my own production process, so the result is always a bit special even if someone uses the same samples in his own production. The other is that I run a decent label and I am the boss of it, which means that if I want to jump a queue to get something out quickly I can do it. Maybe that’s not fair to other producers that are waiting for their tracks to be released for months, but I don’t use my label owner card to often.
I guess there’re no big stories in music that I produce and play. I just listen to new sounds, synths, loops, samples and other tools and I get ideas how to use them. The starting point of every track is very simple: does a particular sample move me or not? If it does, I may start working around it. If not, I move to the next one.
What is your favorite song of yours? Why?
I’m very future bound and don’t like to look back that much, but when I get this question, I usually pick up Ricochet Effect. That’s a track from Print This Story EP that was released some five, six years 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 my other music. I practically never listen to my music after I stop playing it. But producing Ricochet Effect I developed some intensive feelings and I can still always recall them by listening to it.
If you could make a song with any artist no longer living who would it be? Why?
Everybody from my generation would want to work with Michael Jackson I guess. He was the obvious choice when I started to listen to music a bit seriously as a kid, so I was aware of him and his work since a very early age. Modern Talking and Falco were also among my first tape cassettes, so it would be interesting to work with them, too. Well, the guys from Modern Talking are still alive and kicking, so anything can happen. Reworking Ramirez’s “Hablando” or Liquid’s “Sweet Harmony” were two special projects like that. As a kid I could never imagine I will be able to do rework music of my heroes. I couldn’t even imagine meeting them someday as we seemed to be worlds apart–I just started my DJ baby steps and those were artists from the top of the charts.
When you think back on your long musical journey… what kind of music and at what time did it resonate with you most?
I’m a man and an artist of here and now. I always live for now with one eye already looking into the future. In my dark techno period I couldn’t imagine to produce and mix anything else as I wasn’t even interested in what’s happening outside my genre. But music took me forward and at any point in my career I’m totally into the realm, which I’m exploring at that point. I always try to do the best in the current sound I’m working in. I can’t for example say I did the best music in 1997. From technical point of view that was definitely not my strongest period as a producer as I didn’t even have knowledge and tools to do it. But just because of that I’ve probably had the most original sound back then. I still have my own sound, but now I have tools and knowledge to do it and I don’t do all those mistakes that have contributed to my rough, unpolished sound in the 90s. If I wanted to do that again I’d have to forget everything I’ve learned about music production and get rid of big part of the tools I’m using today in the studio, which is obviously impossible.
Do you have a philosophy by which you live?
The only thing about music that I know is that I don’t really know where music will take me next.
What is the biggest misconception people have about you?
Huh, what to say … People still get surprised how tall I am when they meet me in person.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Hopefully people will remember me as a good DJ and music producer. If nothing else I will leave a vast music catalogue behind me and hopefully people will cherish the path I did through various electronic genres in this 21 years of career and counting. I’m not a music pioneer and I’m not doing any groundbreaking things but I do produce and mix quality music with a lot of love and respect to it and hopefully people will see that even after decades.
What is one thing in your career that if you could go back you would change?
Nothing major. For my career it would be probably better to start working with a management around me as an artist couple of years earlier that I actually did. I’m coming from techno where it was not acceptable to heavily promote yourself till recent years that this became necessity. Ten years ago it was considered inappropriate for a techno artist to be on a cover of a magazine or to be present on various social communities and radio stations. On the contrary, we paid special attention not to release more than a mix now or then and not to do too many interviews. I loved working as an underground artist but the times and scene changed dramatically and if back in the days audience was actively looking for the ways to get to their artists now we all have to work our paths to our audience and their computers and music just isn’t enough. If you want to be heard you have to have a management behind you that will develop your brand, you need label and radio show to promote yourself, you need to send exclusive mixes to media and do interviews … I don’t like that so much but as I depend on it as an artist, I’d start doing this couple of years earlier than I actually did so that I’d reach even more people with my music now.
I hear you’re a basketball fan and it’s probably what your career would be if you didn’t choose to make music. Do you follow the NBA? Have a favorite team? Do you think LeBron will return to Cleveland or stay with the Heat?
I’m sorry it took me a while to get back to you, so the question where LeBron will land is already solved – he’s back in Cleveland now. I was surprised a bit with this move as I expected him to stay in Miami. I followed the story but I though they are just strengthening their bargaining positions and that they’ll all stay in Miami and that Carmelo Anthony will join them for the next season. I’ve picked up San Antonio as a favorite for championship before the season and I spoke about that with my friends, but the final series was a joke. I didn’t expect San Antonio to beat Heat 4:1. I’m a fan of Miami, so I’d rather see them play a bit better as they did. LeBron was OK, but I expected more from Bosh and Wade. My favorite NBA team is Phoenix Suns with my countryman Goran Dragic. I support all players form Slovenia but he really had an amazing season and I’ve seen at least 60 of his games, some even live.
I’ve also seen your love for shoes. Pick up any kicks awesome lately? Have a favorite pair?
How to pick just one pair among so many good available? It’s Monday July 21st and it’s 9.36 am in Central Europe. I’m pointing this out as I’m chasing a special pair of sneakers today. Nike Air Max Lunar 90 SP “Moon Landing” will be released to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap and hopefully I’ll get my hands on a pair on the Footpatrol. I also have a backup plan–a colleague of mine will try to buy me a pair in London. 2014 is so full of exclusive sneakers releases I’m forced to pick up my favorite pair of the week not the whole season or a year. Well, now you at least know which pair is my favorite this week.