Interview: Umfang

Born in New York City, raised in the Mid West, and now a staple of Brooklyn’s underground electronic scene, Umfang’s amorphous polyrhythmic Techno productions have been felt everywhere from Ninja Tune to Dekmantel.

The co founder of the Discowman collective, and monthly resident of Brooklyn’s Technofeminism concept since 2012, consistently enjoys playing with people’s expectations of how a Techno set can be defined. With a political edge rooted in 21st Century ideals that push history, diversity, and accessibility throughout a still male-dominated industry, Umfang’s willingness to break the template has set her, and the multitude of emerging talents she has aided over the years, apart from the crowd.

With prominent appearances at De School, Berghain, Corsica Studios, Kaiku (Helsinki), Brutaz (Warsaw), Video Club (Bogotá), and a Boiler Room streamed b2b with Volvox at the aforementioned Dekmantel Festival (2017), Umfang will bring her affinity for vinyl to North Carolina’s Moogfest on Saturday, 19 May. Ahead of the event, I spoke with Umfang on her introduction and relationship with Moog, the differences in NYC and Mid West scenes, and just a hint of scene politics…

“There is so much push for a more political understanding of electronic music”

How do you see the creative environment in New York city these days? You’ve been there for nearly a decade. In that time, how have things evolved for you within the scene?
When I first moved here it was a stale time in electronic music. It was hard to find many underground parties. There were more rock shows or expensive Techno parties that didn’t have a vibe I understood. I feel like the underground scene became rich around 2012. That’s when I started at Bossa Nova Civic Club and Body Actualized Center, where I met a lot of people interested in synthesis while making music. This was also around the time L.I.E.S was becoming (globally) popular. This all felt exciting when it was happening but even that got oversaturated and now we’re moving away from that wave. Now, I am seeing this cool thing happening where club music, the vogue/ballroom music scene, and the Techno scene are starting to merge. Younger kids and the Queer scene are more into the history of Techno now. I’m excited about the queer scene taking back techno.

What about from a diversity perspective? Do you find that within your network there is an increased interest and willingness to understand the diverse roots of electronic music. I ask because many still do view it as very much a European thing, but tend to overlook its roots, for example, within the African American community?
A few years ago it was more ignored. Now there is no chance in avoiding it. There is so much push for a more political understanding of electronic music than in 2014 or so.

How satisfied are you with the current dialogue within the wider electronic music scene? Not just in New York, but around the world and even within the scene’s media. Do you see it going in the right direction?
One thing I’m afraid of is thhe oversaturation of yelling on social media that sometimes people get overwhelmed and disengaged. This is scary. I do think there is a lot of work to be done, particularly for European men holding on to antiquated ideas. There will be a comment sections on articles that feature so many ignorant and hateful opinions, which are often directed at women and, especially, women of color. When these conversations start, it is disheartening knowing that this hateful, discrediting voice remains so dominant.

In America, people have been so confronted by the horrors of racism that we know how to talk about it in a way, where in Europe there is more downplay of such topics. It’s always just “about the music” there. It’s hard to get through this ideology. I wish European men would understand this more and join in the battle.

I find that in big markets over here, there is a template driven “ecosystem” where any straying of opinion, one side or another, is met with extreme hostility. Everyone wants to keep the status quo, which, in my opinion, is entirely driven by profit. I can talk about a variety of instances where I have been confronted adversely for simply presented the facts in my work…a lot of the time I don’t even know what we’re arguing about as it all seems like such common sense to me…certain people literally try and fight mathematics and hard data.
Right. It comes down to people feeling challenged and wanting to uphold their power.

On a lighter note, I did want to get an impression on your time in the Mid West. How did that area and time spent shape your approach to music?
It’s a quiet place so I was a pretty introverted kid. I would work on craft projects, but I didn’t really relate that it could be music. I played Cello at the time but the creative outlook through electronic music didn’t come until I was in college. I didn’t really know much about Techno until then. Once I did, I felt an immediate connection with it and was super excited about it. I hated so much music and hadn’t connected with so much of what was popular. Techno was a window into a world that I just loved. I got really excited about digging into its history and finding out what was going on with it. I had a group of friends into DJing, and some throwing warehouse parties in Kansas City, and that was my first exposure to raves.

I’m guessing those were some proper underground events…?
Ya, we got shut down almost every time! Kansas City was the biggest garment manufacturer in the US at one time, particularly with hat making factories, so there were all these huge buildings close to the railroad tracks. There were some people living in these places but they were mostly a dead zone. It has since changed a lot and this really is not possible anymore but, for that time, it was a pure industrial warehouse zone.

Speaking here on your upcoming appearance at North Carolina’s Moogfest, I’m wondering what your introduction was to Bob Moog and his products?
My first exposure to Moog was through an interview he did in a documentary about psychedelic mushrooms. My aim when I started working with synths was to try and work with cheap, used products. I have this obsession with accesibility as a key aspect of my work. The items I’d collect were not Moog. I have this strange dislike for the most famous Moog sounds…the squelchy bassline sounds, which (I feel) the synths are most known for creating. I was never really into basslines though. I was more into percussion. Until Moog decided to sponsor Discwoman, I didn’t have any exposure to touching Moog stuff. It’s expensive and I felt like I didn’t know how it would fit into what I do. The cool thing is, the first things they sent us – Mother 32 – were very interesting. We got pedals as well, which I had never used before, so it was a new world for me. What really blew my mind was when they introduced the DFam. I loved it! It was perfect! That shifted everything. It’s cool I didn’t understand how to utilize their products until they came out with this new thing that is exactly what I want to be playing with.

I watch a lot of documentaries too and I do remember this talk on psychedelics, but I also find it interesting how deep into philosophy and Techno Futurism he and his contemporaries were…
I do think that, as a young person, this looks a bit stuffy and inaccessible. Now that I understand it better, I can get it a bit more, but the crowd that latched onto that kind of stuff earlier are now 50 year old white men. It didn’t feel like something I wanted to engage with, especially when I was in my early 20s learning about synths.

How will you approach your set at Moogfest? Will you approach it any differently given the setting or will it be business as usual?
The music I DJ is always super different from the music I Produce. Since I’m DJing, I would feel more welcome to indulge in analogue. Maybe I’ll bring a lot of old records instead of my USBs. It may be appreciated more in that space, but that’s about as far as I’d go in that way. The crowd may appreciate hearing old synthesizers and history a bit more than at a rave.

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17 – 20 July | Moogfest 2018 | Tickets | Raleigh, North Carolina