With a career spanning two decades leading Slovenian Dj, producer & 1605 boss Umek has been at the forefront of quality electronic beats, conquering the entire world with his engaging sets, playing at massive festivals such as Ultra, Electric Daisy Carnival, Tomorrowland, etc. and also at infamous venues such as Amnesia (Ibiza), Space (Ibiza), Ministry Of Sound (London), Trade (Miami), Melkweg (Amsterdam), Womb (Tokyo) to name a few. Most of his music has been released on label like Toolroom, CRL, Spinnin' Records, Audiomatique Recordings, Great Stuff, Intec, Tronic, Terminal M and many more as well as his own 1605 Music Therapy.
It's not in my nature to look back too much, I'm already looking forward to 2017, which I expect to make at least my top 10 years!We had a chance to talk to the artist about how got involved in electronic music, Slovenia scene, his imprint, Behind the Iron Curtain radio show and his new venture Viberate a new analytic app…
Hello Umek, thanks for joining us today! What have you been up to recently and how’s your year been so far?
I have mixed feelings about this year. It was a weird one, full of surprises, good and bad ones, so I don't perceive it as one of the best years in my life. Nothing special happened: it's just the feeling I have about 2016. And as it's not in my nature to look back too much, I'm already looking forward to 2017, which I expect to make at least my top 10 years!
One of the things I could point out regarding 2016 is that I focused on my label 1605 again – after some major releases on other labels in recent years I've really dedicated myself to my own imprint and released my music almost exclusively on 1605 this year. Oh and I've got some good feedback to Zeta Reticula, my electro side-project which is something I do more or less for my soul.
In the beginning it was really hard for me to be in touch with electronic music as the scene in Slovenia literally didn’t exist until the beginning of 90s...For those who do not know, where you are from and how you first got involved in electronic music - what was your first experience?
I grew up in the 80s and I remember listening to the then popular bands such as Falco, Human League, Modern Talking and some local acts such as Denis & Denis and Videosex, who were using a lot of electronic elements in their mainstream electro-pop productions.
But then, in the early 90s, the iron curtain fell down, borders open and the whole generation suddenly became exposed to so many new sounds and blossoming pop culture. It was just the right time for me to get hooked on this new electronic music coming mostly from the Germany. I was a rebelling teenager and I found my calling in rave culture. First as a kid going to raves in Munich but I decided quite soon to get involved as a DJ. I quit school, my basketball training and focused on my only goal - to become this big international DJ figure.
At the time I was taking my first steps as a producer, using 8-bit Screen Tracker with 4 mono channels & we sampled our sound from the tape cassettes...In the beginning it was really hard for me to be in touch with electronic music as the scene in Slovenia literally didn’t exist until the beginning of 90s when I discovered Cool Night show hosted by Aldo Ivancic, MC Brane and Primoz Pecovnik on Student Radio. They played all kind of electronic music, from trance, rave, techno, EBM, some really dark stuff. Soon after they started their nights in the student union’s club K4. I became a regular and after I was introduced to artists such as Jure Havlicek (Anna Lies, Moob, now working in the neo-disco scene under a moniker Sare Havlicek) who invited me into his studio and shown me how this music is done.
At the time I was taking my first steps as a producer, using 8-bit Screen Tracker with 4 mono channels and we sampled our sound from the tape cassettes. It was far from being professional but we spent all our time making music. And when Jure showed me his Roland 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 pirate recording label) with my friends and soon gathered enough money to buy first proper sampler. We’ve bought it from Random Logic and one half of that pioneering techno project, Gregor Zemljic, later did a lot of mastering of my music. I learned a lot from him, as he’s a world-class studio guru.
How much does Slovenia play a part in your sound and vision, as you pretty kickstarted the electronic music scene there? What’s the scene like at the moment, are there good parties going on?
The scene is not that good right now. The global recession hit us quite hard, couple of clubs closed in the last years, most of the remaining ones struggle and the quantity and size of the events dropped. We have a couple of big ones that still do well and it seems that the scene has already hit the bottom, bounced back and it's now slowly growing again.
I don’t perform that much in Slovenia, but when I do, I usually do it in sold out places regardless of size, while my colleagues do struggle...The most important thing is that people started to party again. You can fell optimism growing back in our society, which is the most important for entertainment industry, and actually most of other things in life.
We used to have a distinctive Slovenian techno sound in the 90s, but that was lost as electronic music scene become global and in the era of the internet territory does not define artists anymore as much as it has in the past, if at all. I don’t perform that much in Slovenia, but when I do, I usually do it in sold out places regardless of size, while my colleagues do struggle.
There are not that many places where they could perform in Slovenia, so most of them are seeking international opportunities, though you can imagine how hard it is to break through from such a small country on so saturated international market. Nowadays it’s hard to survive being just a DJ in Slovenia – you have to do other stuff or seek gigs outside Slovenia to earn money. This is something that doesn’t give me that much optimism for further development of our scene.
I still enjoy doing this with the same excitement...What's been the proudest moment in your career so far then?
I can’t reduce my whole career to one single moment. There were many, but the most important thing is that after a quarter of century I still enjoy doing this with the same excitement as that enthusiastic teenager who first got onto stage to mix records for people on the dancefloor. And not just that: I’m still progressing, I feel very creative and I still want to do and show so much in this art that I really enjoy doing.
How long you have been running 1605 record label? Did you ever think it would become as successful as it is? Why do you think it's become so popular?
We’ve started 1605 Music Therapy in 2008. If you’d asked me at the beginning, when we released majority of our best sellers, I would not be able to predict where we were going to be in eight years. I’ve had a certain vision for this label but the reality took us on a totally unexpected joyride. Though our success is not a coincidence.
I’ve had a certain vision for this label but the reality took us on a totally unexpected joyride. Though our success is not a coincidence... We’ve put a lot of energy, time, creativity and artistic input into this project, so that had to bring good results. I’m glad that we are where we are especially as we release a lot of music from totally unknown artists – we are a gateway label that introduces lots of artists from the periphery of global music industry and gives them a serious chance to draw attention to themselves to get further support of the scene.
And what’s most important in this story: we don’t just release music from fresh artists, we give them full support in the Behind the Iron Curtain radio show, my playlists and promotion channels and as our releases are regularly in top positions on Beatport, people do check who that new guy on our label is.
Do you feel that running a label has helped you with your own music and in a way shaped the sound that we hear today?
Sure. Running a label does influence my work. As I have to check a lot of demos, that has to affect my thinking and feelings in the studio and when I’m mixing music at the party.
I’ve always seen 1605 as an extension of what I do as a DJ & producer...I’ve always seen 1605 as an extension of what I do as a DJ and producer, after all I named it with the date of my birth, and especially now that I’m releasing most of my music on 1605 it does bear my strong artistic stamp.
Running my own label is a very special thing. I would not go as far to say that ‘it’s my child but it is a special project that I really care about and want to have exclusive influence in running, as it’s a representation of what I do and stand for as an artist. I take this label very personally and invest a lot of energy in it.
Let’s talk about Behind the Iron Curtain show, how long it has been running and where is it broadcasted?
It’s been already five years since we did the first Behind the Iron Curtain show, which is now broadcasted on over 130 web, satellite and FM radios all over the world. Radio show is my homework. This is one of rare things in my life that I need to do. I love to perform, produce music and run my 1605 label. I can’t say that’s a proper job as I genuinely enjoy that – while radio show gives me some sense that I have a job to do.
Radio show gives me discipline, as I have to do it even when I don’t really want to since we have to follow strict deadlines...Radio show gives me discipline; as I have to do it even when I don’t really want to since we have to follow strict deadlines. It’s not that I don’t like to do this but sometimes it’s a real struggle, as I don’t have a crowd in front of me boosting me with their energy. On those rare occasions when I don’t feel like playing music that changes the minute I step in a DJ booth in front of my fans, while doing a radio show is quite boring and solitary work and it’s a struggle if I’m not in the mood to do it.
I have to spend hours selecting and organising music that I’d like to resent in my show. Then I have to mix it and record my vocal parts. Yes I’m aware that I’m a pampered ass nagging about stuff like that, but I’m being honest, that’s how it is!
Tell us a bit about your collaboration with Mr. C, how did that one come to pass?
It was quite simple: I did a track with a sample of his vocal and I’ve asked him if I may use it and officially release ‘The Drum’ on which he agreed. I’m really glad he did and that he likes the track. I was a huge fan of The Shamen as a teenager in the 90s, when they smashed charts and dancefloors and this vocal quote from one of their tracks was stuck in my head for the last 20 years!
But when it comes to music I’m still romantic guy & I believe that quality, persistence & hard work do pay off...Are there any others artists that you are working with that you are really excited to have on board?
No, not really. Currently I prefer to work alone, so I'm rejecting all the offers for various collaborations I'm getting daily. I guess I'm just in that phase right now that I really enjoy being on my own in the studio where I'm experimenting on couple of things and developing some fresh ideas. This doesn't mean I won't be doing collaborations again in the future, but right now I'm perfectly happy to be a lone wolf.
Have you any advice on how to get noticed for the aspiring producers out there?
Well, that’s a tough one. It’s really hard to stand out in this saturated scene, but when it comes to music I’m still romantic guy and I believe that quality, persistence and hard work do pay off. So, produce good music, try to develop your own sound or at least music identity and when you get frustrated because it takes much longer than you expected – keep on pushing it even harder.
Let‘s talk about you recent venture Viberate, who’s behind it and why you felt the need to create a DJ analytics service?
Viberate is a new analytic app that will come handy to everybody in music industry – it was developed as a direct answer to market looking for good analytic tools for quality decision making when running artist careers, clubs, festivals, labels and other projects. We’ve presented and officially released it couple of weeks ago at this year’s Amsterdam Dance Event.
Viberate is much bigger project & I’m glad my team is behind this great tool...The base for this venture is our Topdeejays database, which grew into one of the most useful analytic tools in electronic music business and opened many doors for further development of initial idea.
Viberate is much bigger project and I’m glad my team is behind this great tool. These guys are all big statistic junkies, they’ve developed a good initial idea, got some seeding capital and it seems this is going to be another successful story developed by our team.
How Viberate works and who will benefit from it?
Viberate analyzes big data from social media, streaming sites, music stores and gig calendars and transforms it into easy-to-understand information. This is the official explanation. But if I were in a bar, explaining this to my buddy, I'd simply say that we analyze the web to tell you who's hot and who's not in music. And since we measure popularity for musicians, venues and labels, every music professional and semi-professional can benefit from it. In a way we are introducing a solid standard for popularity in music.
Finally, what does Umek have coming up for us? Any more releases, events or projects you’d like to share with our readers?
We have a techno-electro banger 'Mechanical Blade' which came out 28 November, followed by 'Different Routes Can Be Equally Successful' in mid-December. And to go out with a proper bang, there's still a little something we've stuck in the pipeline for the last days of 2016 - so watch out!