Interview with Carl Cox & Umek

We've seen a lot of Cox-Umek combo activities last year: they performed together at the Ultra Music Festival, the Global Gathering, the Dance Valley and they rocked Ibiza together four times during Cox's Revolution Continues summer residency at Space.

Interview with Carl Cox & Umek Photo by Gregor Zalokar

Let’s start with the most obvious question: how and when did you meet for the first time?
Cox: I was hoping you’d answer this one. (laughs).
Umek: I was just saying to Carl that we probably met for the first time in Germany some 15 years ago. I managed to get to the backstage somehow. That’s how we met for the first time. I was huge fan back then, always was. In those days we would drive hundreds of kilometers to see you. I’m sure it was a Tribal Gathering or …
Cox: … the Rave City in Munich.
Umek: Yeah, that’s it. I somehow got to the backstage. I didn’t have many records at the time but I knew you and that was the first time we met.

You just finished performing at the “Party for a Cause” in Ljubljana’s central park and even though it’s Umek’s home turf, he warmed up for you again. How was it?
Cox: The thing is that we know each other for our music anyway, so it’s like we complement both sides, and that benefits everyone in the end. That’s what this is all about. It’s about what the people get. I’ve been a fan of Umek for many years: of his music, of his style and of his attitude towards playing. There aren’t many deejays that have his power or his energy in their sound. He doesn’t stop: from the first record to when he finishes, the energy is still there. I understand it, I like it, and the people love it, too. Today, people got full power from the beginning, right when he started, then full power from me in between, and then full power again from him when he finished. It was a perfect scenario today to have just two deejays playing for most of the night.

This summer you’ve played four times at the Space, Ibiza. Did this change your view of Ibiza in any way? You are one of those rare deejays, who hasn’t gotten a big revelation from going to Ibiza - yet.
Umek: Last year I was in Ibiza for two months and somehow I just didn’t like the vibe. I really enjoyed the nights Carl had. I was there every Wednesday – it was amazing. This year I went to Ibiza four times, doing warm ups for Carl, and it’s an amazing club, and an amazing crowd. It’s an honor for me to play these kinds of gigs and I eventually changed my mind about the island as well. Now I can’t wait to go there again!

Carl, on the other hand, has a long-term relationship with Ibiza. In all this time, did you ever feel oversaturated by the white isle?
Cox: No, no. Not if you do everything in moderation. I mean I’m in one club for 12 weeks of the year. Saturation would be if I stayed there for the whole season. It’s very difficult to do a whole season and to keep every party at 100 percent. When you start to do a club at the beginning of the season, it’s very quiet for the first four weeks and then again at the end of the season. But in the middle we got everything. So, I decided to do just the middle and to basically put 110 percent into each gig. That way we compressed the whole season into just 12 parties. And then I walk away. So, for me, there’s no saturation. I’ve been there now for nine years – nine years! – that’s a long time to be doing any residency anywhere. It was a completely different game when we began. Space used to be an “after” I played on Sunday, until we created this whole new ethos of nightclubbing. And I’ve been a resident there the whole way through, until we decided this year to bring in more resident deejays and to build their careers on that. When Umek first played for us last year, it was just fantastic to see him hold the main room like I hold the main room. So, the audience isn’t just there for me, but also for other deejays that play in a way that I feel is the right way forward. It’s just nice to be able to get to this point. Next year we’ll probably be there for the 10-year anniversary and we’ll be pushing the residency even more. So the whole thing about Space is that it’s not just me anymore, it’s about sharing what I’ve created and basically providing a platform for people like Umek to perform on, so that he’s able to build his name on the island like I have for many years.

Umek, on the other hand, hosted his own summer residency at the Byblos, Porec, for the first time. What kind of experience was that?
Umek: It was a bit mixed because Croatia is obviously a different country than Spain. It’s much harder. But we did our best. We brought in four international guests and a bunch of local talent and had fun but, again, Croatia is not Ibiza and it takes time to build up a night. It will probably take two or three seasons to build it up properly, so let’s see what happens in the next year or two.

Carl was one of your heroes when you started. You drove to his gigs in Germany to see him play and mix vinyl on three decks, so I imagine it must be special for you to be able to work as his "side-kick" of sorts? 
Umek: Of course it’s a big honor to play alongside Carl, to play all these amazing gigs. And he probably doesn’t even know that I once drove with my friends to Mayday in Dortmund. We drove 12 hours to see you play there. Really. It was ‘95 or ‘96, around the time when hardcore from Holland was quite popular. And, even before then, I was listening to your interviews on some mix-tapes that you did for a Green Apple, the Dance Nation. Do you remember that?
Cox: Oh my god!

Umek: In Slovenia at that time there was no electronic scene at all. You couldn’t buy any records because we were … I think it was ‘92 or ‘93, something like that. And Slovenia had just gained independence. There were no records, no CDs, you couldn’t buy anything. Luckily, I had a friend who had a satellite dish. He was a bit of a technical freak and somehow he tuned into a Green Apple and the Dance Nation and we would sit there for the whole weekend, because you would broadcast from Friday at noon until Saturday at midnight. And we were there, listening and recording all these tapes. At the time we didn’t even know what the tracks were. We were searching for some of those tunes for ages and that’s where I first heard you. I heard the mix and later on even bought a vinyl of DJ Phantasy with your remix on it. It was an amazing track.

Cox: Jephron. This is the first time that I’m hearing this. When we were broadcasting on a Green Apple we didn’t think anyone was listening. (laughs)
Umek: I was listening!

Cox: It’s a shock to hear that we actually reached people who were interested in this kind of music. Back then, the concept of broadcasting on satellite was way beyond everyone’s comprehension. You’d have to tune into the satellite to receive the signal. And then people also needed to know what was happening. With the media today it’s so much easier to do this than back then. In ’92, there were no channels to that could reach people here in Slovenia from where we were broadcasting, which was Eeling in London. Even in Britain no one knows where that is. And that’s where we were broadcasting from, from a friend of our’s house. As for the tapes: we used to make mixtapes and hand them out to the audience. A lot of the music on the radio was just white promos. So, yeah, we were seriously futuristic at the time, based on what we were creating. And it was just great then to reach out to you. And you being inspired by us - that’s a shock!

Umek: Can you imagine? It was unbelievable, really. I remember tuning into the radio and at the time we didn’t know what hardcore was, what Detroit was, or what hardcore-breakbeat and stuff like that was. And I went crazy. I bought all this vinyl later on, when I discovered this music again online. My English at the time was so bad that when I heard the titles I was like: “Wait, what?!” It had a huge impact. I still have a collection of more than 100 tapes from the Dance Nation radio shows.

Cox: You’re kidding! Don’t put them up on e-Bay. Keep them!
Umek: No, I won’t. It’s part of my collection.

Well, now we’ve established how Umek took notice of you. But do you remember when you first heard about him? Was it a production or a gig?
Cox: His production, to be honest. And his name – Umek. Those four letters. What is an Umek? (laughs) It was very funny to hear his name. Apart from the name, every Umek production was fantastic. I could see that he was influenced by a lot of early soul, soul music, funky music, and basically put new school beats inside that kind of sound. And it was also soulful. I could feel it, based on what he was creating. Yeah, his production got my attention first.

In contrast to house and trance, which have generally gone mainstream to the point of nearly being pop genres, techno is still the “underground bastard of electronic dance music.” Why? What’s so special about techno that you can sell mobile phones and detergents with trance and house, but not with techno?
Cox: What is techno? Nobody knows what techno really is. We could define it, but what is it? I mean, it could be techno-funk, techno-soul, techno-trance, techno-jazz … techno-anything. And there are a lot of rock, pop, hip hop and r&b artists that are influenced by techno. Today, techno is in everything, but we come from the roots -- where classic techno was created by machines we all have and love, like the Roland 303, 909 … We were able to utilize those machines to make the sounds we liked. We defined the original sound of techno music, which a lot of people hated. So we were basically going against the grain of what people wanted commercially. But techno was never commercial. For me, it was always something that I was destined to hold onto for myself as a sound that I really enjoyed. I may have become popular as a deejay, but techno hasn’t become popular as a music form. All I did was play music to the masses, and I still do that. Based on my performances, I create my music. And when Umek makes his stamp on techno music, or his sound of techno or tech-house, I love that. So, for me, the more music he makes, the better it is for me to go out and play music for the masses, based on what I enjoy from an underground and independent point of view.

So it’s because of the lack of mass appeal?
Cox: You don’t really hear a lot of techno music on MTV. You don’t hear a lot of techno music on the radio. Not really. Most techno – you have to go out and find it. And that’s what I love about the sound we’ve evolved. It never really sold out in any shape or form. It really scares people - “Oh, they play techno music? That’s too hard! Let’s find something else …” - And that’s OK. Really. Because there are still a lot of people who are genuinely into this sound and enjoy it. I mean, our sets today were built on techno music and the crowd loved it. But trance isn’t techno and progressive isn’t techno, house isn’t techno. So, when you take all those elements away, what we play is basically the rawest form of what techno music really is.

And it’s not just myself, or Sven Vaeth, who play techno music. Richie Hawtin also plays techno. Laurent Garnier, at least to a point, is also a techno artist. And the list goes on. Danny Tenaglia is seen as a house deejay but he also plays techno music. I love the fact that nobody can really define what techno really is. It’s just a form that exists that I base most of the music I play on. It pushes things forward. It’s a cutting edge type of sound, which keeps evolving all the time. We can never grab the whole of the sound and say “This is techno, we’re gonna commercialize it and then we’re gonna move on!” It’s never gotten to that point. … But a lot of the music that I enjoy and play, and I’m sure that Umek does too, is tech-house. I kind of define it by saying: techno is for the boys and house is for the girls, so if we can get the boys and the girls together, fine. If we just play straight techno for the boys, then we’ll have a room full of guys. And that’s not really a good look for me. So for me, if I can strike a good balance between the two sounds, I feel like that’s good techno or tech-house music that we’re evolving right now for the future.

Intec was a genre-defining label before ceasing its operations and then successfully rebooting. Is the creative philosophy behind the label still the same or has it changed in some way?
Cox: What do you think? I mean I’m a label boss (laughs)
Umek: The records from Intec back in the day were of unbelievable quality. I really liked them because it wasn’t a purist techno label. At the time there were too many of those labels. I liked it. I remember Sunshine, Pont the Bay, Bayers, Detron, everything. Valentino was making some crazy stuff. And at the time, I saw it as a funky techno label. That’s what we called it, that funky techno sound, and it was just an amazing label. I was actually really dissapointed when you shut it down for a while, but now it’s back.

Cox: The idea for the label came from my own experience of being an artist for a major label. The label really wanted me to be commercially sellable as an artist, which would mean getting out of techno and into pop music. And I really couldn’t live with that. So I decided to leave that and set up an independent label. The original name “International Techno Music” was pretty long, so I decided to shorten it to Intec. And it worked. For me, I think it had to do with treating artists the way I wanted to be treated. So, at a time when you could make money with a record label, we did deals with certain artists, signing them for a fee, and splitting things on a 50:50 basis if we did really, really well. And for a lot of releases, we did. But of course, as time went by, digital downloads got more and more popular and unfortunately distribution companies got squeezed by this as well. After one of the major companies behind my label, the Prime distribution company, went bust we had to find other avenues to distribute our music. Unfortunately, there was no one else as good as Prime, so it was really hard to make music and sell it and also keep deals the way we wanted and the way they used to be. And that became a situation, financially also for me, because every time I signed with a record label it cost like five or six thousand pounds to put out each record. And with the record sales we had, we were maybe getting back two or three thousand punds for each release. So I was losing four or five thousand pounds on each release. And after ten releases, I’m losing fifty thousand pounds (laughs) …You do the maths. So I had to break up with the label, which was unfortunate. But, in the meantime, I kind of took a backseat with the label and was able to pick up the pieces of what was left after the break-up.

Three years later they started up again as a digital format label. For me, the idea was to still keep the ethics of the label, where I could sign an artist, and nurture them, and put them where I thought they should be. There are so many producers out there that don’t get the opportunity to get heard based on what they’ve created. And even for me, with Umek, he still produces so much great music, and eventually we’re looking at having a good future as well. But right now, we’re just finding our feet in this new digital format and at the moment we’re working steadily but surely based on what I like to put out as good music. And right now, we’re not really making a lot of music from digital formats at all, but the idea of it is that the releases still come out and the artists still get noticed. For me, that’s a great day. As long as the overheads are at a minimum, we can carry on releasing music.

1605, on the other hand, is a young label but one that stands for what vanguard techno is right here and now. What’s your approach to running a label?
Umek: The main aim of the label and its wider creative platform is to promote fresh artists, sounds and ideas. My approach is to sign as many unknown artists as possible, of course with good music. So I spend a lot of hours searching on Soundcloud and downloading demos. And for me the most important thing is content, not the artist’s name. I don’t mind if the track is from a totally unknown artist, the only measure is the quality of the track. If it’s good, then I will play it and release it and try to promote it as much as possible. And as I used to live in ex-Yugoslavia, I love to push guys from this area, because it’s really difficult for them to get noticed by some big deejays and labels. So my mission is to promote unknown artists from our area; plus, of course, releasing some cool stuff from established artists.
Cox: It has a consistency, and I can see Umek is supporting the next generation of artists and finding them. Doesn’t matter if it’s an unknown artist, it’s really important that what he’s looking for is music that he can support. And the only way to really support it is if you play it. It’s the same with me. I can’t sign someone that I can’t play. And that’s great, but there aren’t many people like Umek who see it that way. You can build up an army of label stars, artists that you appreciate and enjoy and who will be the next generation to sit in the chairs that we sit in today. There’s not many people that think like that, so he’s definitely on to a winner. Intec has been running for the last nine or ten years, and I’ve been through the ups and downs. I’m very happy to be in a position where I’m able to find an unknown artist and get them on Intec records and push them forward into the spotlight. And basically Umek’s record label is doing exactly the same thing, for the right reasons.

What production first pops into your mind when you hear Carl’s name? 
Umek: I Want You Forever, of course. It was a huge tune in ’91 and I still remember the video playing on MTV. Again, at the time we didn’t have much access to electronic stuff, but this was played a lot on The Party Zone on MTV.
Cox: Yeah. It was a surprise for me too. I was signed to Paul Oakenfold’s Perfecto, and it was the second signed release for his new record label at the time. I had had the concept of this track in my head for a couple of years. So I went into the studio, and it took me two days to record the track and he put it out right away and it hit all the European charts at no. 1. We had a really cheap video, and I performed on the Top of the Pops as well. Oh my god! It went from this conceptual idea to stardom. It was unbelievable to be in that position. … At the time I was basically seen as a rave deejay, not really a techno deejay, since rave music was very popular at the time. So that basically put me on to the platform of being a producer as well as a deejay and being a remixer as well. I like to do remixes but I also like to actually create music from the album point of view. So, I’m kind of working on my fourth album right now. But without I Want You Forever maybe I wouldn’t have felt it was necessary to make music because I was mostly seen as a deejay. It was an amazing journey to take, considering how it all started.

Is it safe to say that you most like Gatex from Umek’s vault? You've been hammering a new version quite passionately for the whole summer, like at the Nature One festival. Is it THE track from Umek’s vault?
Cox: It has to be. It’s definitely his defining moment. When the original version came out – it was amazing. And it still is amazing today. And it should never be remixed. And you remixed it. And the remix is obviously fantastic. So when I heard it again, I just loved it. I kind of missed it when it went away and now he’s brought it back into the 21st century. And when I played it at Nature One, there were so many people with their phones out, and they’re all plugged into YouTube, Facebook, Twitter … and the next day we instantly had thousands and thousands of hits on YouTube, of the moment I played your record. At that moment I wished it was my record! (laughs) But it was a defining moment and I felt proud. It was a great record to begin with. It is a classic and Umek remixed it. Gatex is just unbelievable. It’s techno personified for sure.

Umek: Gatex is definitely my best-seller but in the old days my studio was quite bad. I was making this tune that actually had beats inside of it. But because the bass was so fat and everything so tense I couldn’t mix the bass drum inside or hi-hats or anything. And I was standing there thinking: “What should I do? I’ll just leave it without beats!” And suddenly everyone was playing the record and I thought: “Wow!" It was funny. No beats, no nothing, but wherever I went I heard it five times a night. Something was happening. And then the remixes came. I did an earlier remix but didn’t like it that much. So, in 2010, I was really happy to have better equipment and the chance to mix it properly with a proper bass drum, a bass line, and everything. And now it’s playable as a drum track all around the world.

Gatex was also one of the defining records of the famous Slovenian techno sound and now I have a feeling that you and especially Tomy DeClerque, another Slovenian artist, are redefining this sound. 
Umek: It was somewhere around ‘97/’98 when I felt for the first time that we have a kind of Slovenian sound. With Random Logic, we were actually buying the same machines. We all had the Yamaha stuff, FM synths and we were using the same equipment, so the sound was similar. At that point I thought we had a Slovenian sound. Later on, me, Valentino and Marko Nastic defined the sound of this region. Lately I’ve had this feeling that we lost the sound for two or three years, but now it’s coming back, renovated. There’s me, there’s Tomy, and a few other producers from the coast, sounding similar. This is important, to have a sound that is typical for the region.

Speaking of Tomy, you’ve released his Simple as an EP.
Cox: With the rebirth of Intec we’ve decided to release 10 to 12 projects a year, and it’s actually really hard to do that. But to promote a record, it takes between four and six weeks of lead-up time before the record actually comes out. I like to think that each record that we put out is a potential classic and I want people to play that record, rather than wait for the next one to come out in two weeks. Music is moving way too fast. For me anyway. I like to think that in the end, each record will become a future classic that you can play in the next year or the year after that and it will still sound great. Simple As That is a fantastic record, there’s nothing else that sounds like it and that’s the reason why I signed it. It’s just pumping. For me, when a record knocks me off my chair – that the reason I sign it. And that one still knocks me off my chair. So for me, signing somebody like that was just unbelievable. I don’t know where he got the sound from, or the idea of where it comes from, but for sure there’s something going on in the region… must be something in the water (laughs).

Tomy told me he was really surprised that you were playing some of his tracks, because he didn’t feel like it was your stuff.
Cox: There are so many artists who basically say: “I’ve made a record for Intec.” It’s the worst line you can give me. Don’t make a record for Intec, make a record that you’ve made and then I’ll see if it’s right for Intec. Because if you make a record for Intec, you’re not thinking with your heart, you’re thinking with your head. They think that the record is fantastic and they get their hopes up, and then I have to say that it’s not right for my label and that I think it would be better somewhere else. And that startles everybody. So I don’t want to raise any expectations. So if Tomy comes to me and says “I’ve made a record and I hope you like it” then that’s great, because if I do like it, there’s no pressure on him, he’s made something that he created and believed in.

You seem to be getting a bit nostalgic: you are Chasing The Moroder, taking us back to the 90’s with a Consumer Recreation sound on OMGWTF … Are you getting old?
Umek: Oh, those are just records I really love. And I do love to sample. Actually, when I’m making music, there are different periods. Sometimes I don’t sample at all for years and then at times I’m only sampling. We’ve had the Valentino Recycled Loops label, which was just for sampling and nothing else… But basically, those are records that I really love and they’ve got riffs inside of them that are just begging to be sampled. And a good riff is a good riff, it doesn’t matter whether it’s old or new, you know? I just love them. And I love bringing them to life again.

Umek, you are one of the most downloaded artists on Beatport. You’ve also received the award for being the best techno artist on Beatport. Carl, on the other hand, is the top DJ on DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs list. These titles, what do they mean to you? 
Cox: It’s nice to be recognized for what you’ve done. I mean, I’ve been doing this style of music for over 22 years. So, if you don’t get recognized by now then - what!? (laughs) It’s just nice to be recognized. It doesn’t truly mean anything, because we work the next week and the week after that, and the week after that, and we do what we love. … It doesn’t matter if you’re no. 1, no. 10 or no. 50, as long as people enjoy what you’re doing. That’s what’s important in the end. Like I said: it’s nice to be recognized but it’s not truly important.

Umek: The same goes for me. Of course it’s nice to see that you’re number one on Beatport – that means that I’m making good music. For me, the most important thing is to go into the studio and just have fun. I still have fun making tracks during long flights, because I can’t sleep on the plane. I make tracks in the car, I make tracks in the studio, and at home. I’m making tracks all the time. That makes me happy and I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m happy doing it.

Umek is a big role model in Slovenia, so it’s quite natural for him to get involved in charity projects. I believe you're also involved in similar projects. Why is it so important to send a message? After all, clubland is all about getting away from your problems. But then you tell people: there are problems - deal with them. 
Cox: We do reach out to people around the world through media, music, and live shows. Our names are out there all the time and young people basically look to us for inspiration. They want to work in a way that they’ll be successful like we’ve been. And maybe they have a little problem, maybe they’re stuck, and they just can’t go any further.

Nine out of ten campaigns I get involved with deal with cancer. One company called the Every Man Campaign for testicular cancer helps raise awareness, since few deejays we know have had it. And we can do a little something to raise awareness and help others get through these times based on our being able to deejay and play to many people. And if there’s something we can do, then we’ll do what we can to help. Why not? I mean, it would be a shame if we, who are able to reach so many people, would say no. For us, we say yes because we think it’s important. I think it’s important and obviously Umek also thinks it’s important as well. And it works. You know, you put your heads together, and people can see that the movement is a positive movement. It helps other people get through hard times based on charity and getting involved. It’s important to say “yes” if you can help others. Why not?

It’s been an amazing year, and you’ve done a lot of things together as well as on your own. What are you up to next?
Umek: As always I have a few tracks coming out. Hopefully my first release on Intec (Fire Fight / Ljubljana) is going to do well. It’s a kind of disco-techno I don’t know …
Cox: Anarchy!
Umek: Yeah, it’s absolutely amazing. I play Fire Fight all the time. It’s one of the best tunes I’ve done in ages. It finally found its way into Carl’s hands. It was bouncing around here and there until it finally found a proper home at Intec Records. And after all these years, I’m going to have a really cool release – on his label. (laughs)
Cox: I have to finish making my new album. It’s going to be my fourth long player. It’s going to be titled All Roads Lead To The Dance Floor and I’ve been basically working on it for the last year and a half and road testing a lot of the music. It sits really well inside what’s going on in today’s music. I’m quite happy with the way the album is sounding. I’m also looking forward to a live elements show with the album, which will be next year. So, it’s going to be quite a big release. It’s going to come out on Intec Digital. It will be the first time that I’ve actually gotten behind my own music, and released my own record on my own label, rather than selling it to some major company. Next year it’s going to be interesting to see how this music, my style of music, gets accepted. Because I also did the drum & bass on the album. I also did some dubstep, latin house, techno, all sorts of wonderful things. I’ve done it, I’ve made it, I’m playing it and I’m looking forward to releasing it and hopefully people will enjoy it.

And I believe you will still keep performing together as let’s say, “the Keepers of the techno legacy?”
Cox: Basically, if anyone is going to keep techno safe, it’s going to be me and Umek! For sure. ‘Cause we believe in it and we’ve always believed in it. That’s what got us where we are today and without it, we’d both probably be working in McDonald’s or something like that. (both laugh)

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