As one of the pioneers of the electronic music scene in Slovenia, where he was DJing and throwing raves in the early 90’s, Umek’s unending passion for the music has left a lasting impact on the industry around the world. It’s not only his decades of global gigs, which see him traveling around 100 times per year to destinations that range from the dark underground clubs of Berlin to the festival main stage in Las Vegas, that has brought him such widespread acclaim, but his work in the studio and behind the scenes have kept his music in the ears and minds of a global audience. His stream of top quality productions has resulted in multiple Beatport #1 hits and anthems, with his current sound topping 2019’s Techno charts and leading him to have his best year as a producer yet. And with the power of his own music pushing his label 1605, the influential imprint has been reviving its reputation as a destination for breakthrough and exceptional Techno artists.
Having felt that his new sound has now caught up with his audience, Umek credits the massive amounts of time, effort, and creative energy that he has put into his career for where he is today. Starring in the premiere episode of ICONYC TV, Umek’s DJ set in an abandoned warehouse in Croatia captures the essence of his dedication through his driving tracks and deep words. Now the set that he played for the show, full of many of his own productions, will be available to listen to exclusively on FRISKY. Tune in live at 2 PM EST [convert timezone] or get FRISKY Premium to listen anytime on-demand in hi-res. [Download the FRISKY App to sign up for a 30-day free trial and be ready to listen to all of the complete DJ sets from ICONYC TV.]
Before diving into the mix we go behind the scenes with Umek to get insight into his current sound, find out his thoughts on Techno trends, and see what it takes to stand out in the electronic music industry today.
Hi Umek – Thank you for your time, it’s a pleasure to connect with you. I’d love to start by hearing about some of your highlights from last year – what were some of your favorite moments from 2019?
From whichever perspective you look at it, it was a year to remember. Definitely one of my best so far. I’ve got married to a wonderful woman, I’ve started taking one weekend per month off (which turned out to be a great decision), ravers and industry really took notice of my new sound, we’ve reactivated my label 1605, first with my own releases and now we’ve also started introducing guest artists again, I’ve scored four or five #1s, Vibrancy was the best-selling techno track of 2019 with Brethren following close at #3… As a producer I’ve had the best year in my over a quarter of a century long career, so I really can’t complain.
It is clear that you have really put in a lot of work to get where you are today – what were the driving factors that kept you pushing towards a life of DJing and making electronic music? Was there ever a point when you questioned continuing with it?
I’m really glad my new sound caught up with the audience as I’ve invested a lot of time, effort and creative energy into it in the last couple of years. Never in my career have I thought about quitting, as I really like doing this ever since I got into this game. Traveling got worse this year as our national air carrier folded at the end of the summer and now it takes me even longer to get to gigs and back, but I still enjoy playing and producing music as much as that teenager in the 90s who quit school and a promising basketball career and decided to become a DJ. Business-wise my life would definitely be easier if I wasn’t changing my style so much as it takes me lots of time and effort to get back on top every time I do that, so I’d probably advise my younger self not to do that as often as I did. It’s hard to get back into techno once you’ve publicly tried other genres, but I’m an artist and I follow my heart and passion when it comes to music. With experience I have now, I’d probably do non-techno stuff under aliases, like I did with my electro production, which was released under the Zeta Reticula moniker.
I’m a sucker for old-school underground stories – can you share one of the craziest moments or one of your favorite memories (could be the same ;)) from the early days in Slovenia?
Oh, I’ve got stories for you. 🙂 Probably you’ve already heard about the time we threw one of the first raves in Slovenian countryside and the day after one of the daily newspapers ran a story that cows have stopped giving milk due to stress-induced by our noise. There’s also one you probably didn’t hear yet – in the early days of raving in Slovenia, I was booked to play in a small student club, a party for some 150 people. As they didn’t have a fog machine, somebody came up with an idea to burn old celluloid film stocks. Of course that was a terrible idea, but it shows how we had to improvise quite a lot back in the days.
On your ICONYC TV interview, you mention that you think some people have a natural talent for finding their own sound and creating a hit record in the studio, while you feel that you had to “learn the hard way” – what advice would you give to producers who feel the same way as you did?
I still believe hard work and dedication pays off in the long run. Of course you have to have at least some talent or ability to produce something special and outstanding to get noticed, but hard work and dedication are a must. When I started, I didn’t have access to equipment, information, and tutorials for music production, so I improvised and experimented a lot. The result of that was music full of mistakes. From today’s point of view and industry standards, that would never pass as decent production, but because of all those mistakes my music sounded interesting to A&Rs of some very influential techno labels. They started releasing my records because they found my sound rough, edgy, and primal. The moral of this story is: even when you do something wrong and against the rules, that might be just the right thing to do if people notice it and find it interesting. I try to develop something interesting whenever I take a new direction with my sound, but it’s not as easy as it might seem. There are years of hard work behind my sound, and, excuse my French, I really break my balls in the studio to get what I want. It takes all my stubbornness, dedication and focus to get from 99% to that perfect sound I’m looking for.
With the top #1 and #3 Techno tracks on Beatport in 2019, it’s obvious you’ve got a handle on what listeners are looking for – What do you think are key factors which make for a Techno track that stands out among the rest?
It’s true, results in 2019 were amazing, but that was just the culmination of years-long process behind my current sound. In December 2016 I’ve released a single titled ‘Revisit the Preposterous’. If you asked me then (or now), that’s a really good techno track and probably it would be a hit if it came out last year. At that time, it completely fell through, as it was released before its time. I needed three years to get people hooked on my sound. By the way, I’ve offered couple of tracks that hit techno #1 last year to some established labels, but they decided to pass, so I had to release them on 1605. Unsurprisingly, when they became hits, they started calling me straight away. So much about trend-setters …
Is there a trend you hear from Techno producers or DJs lately that you think is overrated and/or overdone?
Acid. If you want to get your track signed to 1605 it better not be acid. This sound was so overdone in the last couple of years that it’s really hard to produce something that would move me and the masses. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but the scene moved forward. Now we hit an era of melodic techno and as everybody is doing it now, at some point the market will get saturated again, and people will move to something fresher. If you’re an artist, you have to ask yourself repeatedly: are you a trend-setter or a trend-follower. Sometimes it’s much easier and lucrative to be a follower and cash in. When Behringer TD 3 and Roland TB 303 became easily accessible, everybody started using them. The same will happen with the Rave Generator plug-in. Good producers have taken that old school sounds to other dimensions. I like it when somebody takes a piece of music that I think can’t be used in a way that could sound fresh, and someone does just that. I really appreciate that.
What is something that a track needs to have to make into your “record box”? What are some of your current go-to tracks that you have been playing out?
Right now, I really like Teenage Mutants’ ‘Return’. If I look back to what appealed to me through my entire career, I’d say I’m a sucker for reef. It can be melody, some repetitive rhythmic sequence … In any case I like well-produced tracks – some might even call them overproduced, but I like to hear that the producer put some effort in building the track, that it has an intro, a build-up, a break, mix time, some effects… not only a bunch of loops welded together in a couple of hours. In 2020, music should sound professionally produced.
What about tracks that you sign onto 1605? Has your approach to release selection remained the same over the label’s lifetime?
Time changes, music changes, industry changes… so it can’t be any different with running a label. A lot of colleagues have encouraged me to revive 1605 when they’ve noticed my sound got strong again and I’ve got on top spots of key charts, but I believed I had to strengthen it with my own releases first. In 2020, we’ll finally start putting out other artists again. Nowadays, it’s much harder to take a label on a certain level and to keep that position. You have to invest much more time, energy and money into artists you want to work with if you want to see results. However, some things haven’t changed – I still have to REALLY like the music I’m putting on my label.
Who are some talented up & coming artists on 1605 that you think we should know about?
Just a couple of days ago we released Teenage Mutants’ ‘Return EP’ with two tracks and an additional remix of the title track by Heerhorst. I’m in talks with Cosmic Boys for one of the next releases and can already announce a late February/early March EP where I collaborated with Teenage Mutants and Cosmic Boys. I’m a fan of both duos and I’m glad we found time to produce something together. They are breaking through fast, so, if you haven’t done so yet, do check what they’re doing.
Do you have any favorite finds – artists who you’ve released on the label who are now making waves in the industry?
It’s funny looking back on the names we’ve released in the past… We’ve released music of Sam Paganini and Matador when they started, and look how big they’ve grown. Also Spektre, and Pleasurekraft definitely come to mind. It’s always a nice feeling when you see artists that we’ve helped push on the scene, growing into such strong names.
Can you share with us a little insight into your ICONYC TV set? Any tracks we should keep an ear out for or anything listeners should know about the mix?
Regarding content, it’s packed with lots of my own production. I’ve mixed it on the Denon setup, which I don’t normally use at my gigs, but I must say it’s been a pleasurable experience. I’m not used to this setup, which means I was a bit out of my comfort zone. I was thinking a lot about which buttons to push and how to use it – there was no usual automatism. Artist wise that’s not necessarily bad as it’s really good to try new things from time to time. I actually find lots of inspiration fiddling with new gadgets. Although doing something different doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but this mix hopefully is. 🙂
What is coming up in 2020 that you are really looking forward to?
To be honest, I don’t want to think about this too much right now as you’ve caught me vacationing in the middle of Asia. At the moment, I just want to rest and spend some time with the wifey. I’ve mentioned some plans for 1605, I have a bunch of new music in the pipeline, and lots of interesting stuff is happening with my project Viberate, which is slowly but surely changing the music industry. Oh, and I’m really looking forward to do an Australian tour again this March.