Name: Uroš Umek
Occupation: DJ, Producer
Current Release: Pursuer on Tronic Records
Recommendations: Rubber Johnny by Chris Cunningham & Aphex Twin is one crazy piece of art which I really like and recommend.
Website: If you enjoyed this interview with Umek, visit his Facebook profile or intriguingly different homepage for more information and current tour dates.
When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started as a teenager, in my high school years, some 25 years ago. I always had an ear for electronic sounds, already as a kid, and there were some artists who influenced me in the early years of my career, each in their own way. Todd-Terry-produced Royal House’s "Can You Party" was the record that got me into house and electronic dance music. Westbam was the leader of German techno movement in the early 90’s and I decided to focus only on techno because of Surgeon and the rest of Birmingham crew. As a DJ I found a lot of inspiration watching Jeff Mills doing his mixing, Carl Cox was the #1 master of building energy on the dance floor. It was really amazing watching these guys mixing records on three decks at the same time. Claude Young was also an inspiration. Music was the main thing, but I adored deejays that were not afraid fiddling with knobs and switches. I’ve learned then that every piece of equipment you are using is there to be exploited to the limits.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Not so rarely people tell me that my music used to be more original in my early years as it is now. It might be, nevertheless that was 25 years ago, when techno was still quite a fresh thing and there were still some uncharted territories of this sound. But the funniest thing is, that I sounded fresh, original and different because I did every mistake you can imagine in my productions. I was a self-taught producer, without any classical music training or background, and sometimes that was painfully obvious.
Since then I learned a lot about production and after the global expansion of the electronic music scene in the last quarter of a century there isn't a lot that hasn't been done before any more, so differences between fingerprint sounds of particular artists are not that big as they used to be back when I started. Though don’t mistake inexperience for originality. But yes, at that time I tried to learn by copying stuff that I liked, while doing so with very limited knowledge, access to information and tools, nothing really sounded as I planed and most of all nothing like stuff I was trying to copy. Now that I could do that easily, that’s not a challenge for me anymore – I rather try to think how could I take something that I’ve heard in totally opposite direction.
What were some of the main challenges and goals when starting out as a DJ and how have they changed over time?
The major challenge in the early days was to gain some international bookings. I already had more than a dozen releases on really good techno labels but I was still playing only in ex-Yugoslavia territories. Nowadays the challenge is a bit different: there’s so much music out there, that you need a really good promotion to get it trough. That’s the worst: to have really good music but no ability to present it. This is one of the reasons I started my label 1605 as I have the power to show the world a good record or an artist if I spot them.
What is it about DJing, compared to, say, producing your own music that makes it interesting for you?
I couldn’t do one without the other. That doesn’t apply to all artists - some are better producers, some enjoy deejaying without spending time in the studio, but I like both: the lone days in my ‘research and development’ department in the basement of my home as well as the interaction with the crowd when I am serving them the cookies I’ve baked over the week and observing their reactions. The only thing I envy about deejays who have big studio teams behind them is that they have much more free time than I do. Travelling from one gig to another over the weekend is not that exhausting when you can chill over the week compared to my rhythm when I constantly shift between touring and working in the studio. Though as I’ve said I could not outsource the studio part of my career to anyone else as I need to do both and on top of that I also need to run the 1605 label and do the weekly "Behind the Iron Curtain" radio show where I can showcase fresh music and artists that I’ve discovered. I like doing music just as I like playing it and showing it to the world. I’m a workaholic but it’s not that hard when you do something that you really enjoy doing.
How would you define the job and describe the influence of the DJ? How are the experience and the music transformed through your work?
I’m not even that sure whether I’m expressing myself through music. Maybe I do that on a totally unconscious level. But the same way I also express myself by eating and breathing. I don’t think about that. It’s not that I need to express my desires, needs and frustrations through music. I just sit down in the studio and produce music and I mix it for people to dance to it when I’m in the DJ booth. I like doing that but I don’t know how much of that is an expression of myself, and whether I’ve influenced anyone beyond the dancefloor at all. What I am thinking about is if my music would work in a club and how can I get the most energy out of the sound I’ve produced or I’m playing.
What was your first set-up as DJ like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I started on classic two decks and a mixer, and later I performed regularly on three or even four decks. Then I abandoned analogue equipment and went fully digital in the studio because as an artist I felt I would not be able to evolve on that platform anymore. We’re way beyond the point of music accessibility for some time as you can bring terabytes of music to every gig without a problem, so it’s definitely all about what these tools can add to my performance and to the experience of the audience on the dancefloor. Skipping parts of the track, looping sequences, playing just a layer of a track … those are things you can’t do with vinyl. I’ve gone fully digital in the DJ booth as well as in the studio a decade ago. Though lately I’ve started fiddling with some analogue stuff again, which you can hear especially in my Zeta Reticula productions, but my DJ set-up remains fully digital.
I base it on two laptops and a mixer synced wirelessly, so everything is perfectly stable and I can focus on tricks. The latest addition to my setup is Maschine Jam, which I got as a present from Native Instruments, and it allows me to live program the riffs, melodies and other elements in my sets. Before that I’ve used Maschine, which is also a great tool, especially for manipulation of rhythms, but the user experience and work flow with this new toy are even better. It added at least an additional 25-30% more possibilities to my setup, so you can imagine I’m really playful on my shows these days. :-)
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
New software and hardware tools can be the source of excitement and inspiration to DJs and producers. We always like exploring, manipulating, using and abusing these toys and when something really groundbreaking comes out it can spin off into a whole new genre or at least a subgenre. But I still think technology is way more limited than the human mind where only the sky is the limit. You can’t do much with all the machines without a human interacting with them. It depends on the creativity of a particular human though – you can give the same piece of technology to thousands of people but only some of them will explore its full potential and do something amazing with it.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do life and creativity feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
That’s probably much more boring than people expect. I spend most of the days at home. I wake up, eat breakfast and go to the studio in the basement for ca ouple of hours. In between I do some sports, a short afternoon nap and in the evening, I watch movies or spend quality time with my girlfriend. I’ve built my lifestyle more or less around the music and career but luckily my girlfriend has started to teach me how to explore and enjoy life outside the studio and DJ console a bit more, so now I’m trying to separate both worlds a bit and this is working just fine for me.
Let's say you have a gig coming up tonight. What does your approach look like – from selecting the material and preparing for, opening and then building a set?
First, I have to check where I’m playing, if that’s a festival, a major or a small club, if I’m headlining the show or warming up for somebody else, who is playing before and after me … If the artist after me is playing softer I have to decide if I’ll show some mercy and play the last 15 minutes of my set to the point he can just follow it with his own story. If some dick of a DJ is playing after me, I don’t do that but in general I’m a good guy. :-) I’m changing this approach all the time. I used to start my gigs with my biggest tune, but already for some time I don’t do that anymore. I am buying music all the time, so on the way to the gig I put tracks that go well together in separate folders and I decide what to play during my set. When I’m booked for a shorter set I'll play tracks which occur in my sets more often, but if I have more time I try to build the set steadily and I play some fresher tracks in it. But all these are just various shades of the same approach.