Brooklyn-based Emma Burgess-Olson aka Umfang is undoubtedly a strong and forward-thinking force in the current techno scene.
Umfang is co-founder of Discwoman, DJ, promoter of the Technofeminism event series and has released her productions on labels such as 1080p, Allergy Season, Technicolour and videogamemusic. In conversation with Hannah Christ, Umfang elaborates on her production and digging process, inspiring environments and what music she would choose to be played at her funeral.
Looking back: What was your relationship with music in your teenage years? When did you first began to gravitate towards electronic music?
I had broad spanning taste in a way but things definitely changed when I discovered that a person can listen to techno all the time. There was a lot of great radio In Kansas. In the midwest you spend a lot of time in cars. In high school I liked Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Destroyer, Neko Case, Rufus Wainwright, and a bunch of punk and metal cds. When I was about 10 I was in to Janet Jackson, Madonna Ray of Light which is brilliant electronic music but I thought it was cheesy at the time. College is where I started really understanding the depths of electronic music history.
In a previous interview you mentioned your hometown of Kansas City was “not stimulating”. Why did you feel that way and what makes an environment stimulating or inspiring to you?
I lived in a smaller place in Kansas near Kansas City. There are a few blocks of “downtown” area, you run in to the same people all the time etc. People don’t have very expansive outlooks often times. I am really in love with New York City, it feels supportive to me and I love how much people work and encourage each other to work.
As a German I need to ask you: How did you come up with your alias Umfang and what does it mean to you – this rather strange sounding German word for circumference?
I thought of the word and googled it, the imagery affiliated with that word is so techno, expansive and great. I’ve always loved lo-fi net imagery and I felt it was perfect for me.
When did you start to produce and what was the learning process like? Would you consider yourself as a mainly self-taught artist? What advice would you give to a beginner?
2012. I had a few helpful people show me synths they had and how to use them as well as pointing out that there isn’t any correct way to produce, just to be open to trying shit. I’d call myself mostly self taught. I spent a lot of time by myself fiddling around. There is so much discouraging banter around music production, so many obstacles surrounding equipment etc. I’d say any way you can make anything is great. Make stuff on an iPad, your phone, an old drum machine, anything that makes sound and is fun to you is music.
When you produce - do you have a clear idea of a track in mind beforehand or rather, does it evolve in the process of making?
It totally evolves as it happens. I might have a feeling or an inspiration but I really just experiment and record what ends up working.
What was the first piece of music equipment that you bought and do you still use it today?
I bought a Kaossilator Pro. I haven’t used it in a while but it’s a great starting tool because you can make a whole song with it using samples it comes with or your own samples from records.
Digging for music: what is your process of finding new music like? What draws your attention to a certain track or record?
I prefer to dig for records over anything else. I’m struggling to find a good method for getting tracks online. It seems I’ll find a system for a while and then a site will close or I’ll buy all the 90s techno I can find in one source and then have to keep looking elsewhere. I tend to play a lot of old music from the time techno was really starting off which is limiting in a way but it’s what I like. I’m lucky to live in NYC and know a lot of producers that send me their stuff. With records there were such strong graphic design trends I pull stuff by the labels and then look at the credits. It works most of the time.
How do you maintain your excitement with electronic music? What keeps you dedicated and not tired out despite your tight DJ schedule?
I can’t really tire of techno, it’s the only thing that really affects me consistently. It’s a physical engagement for me. I get really tired of people. I’m really introverted and I have a hard time maintaining energy while touring. Sometimes I feel like I have to really close myself off to get the work done and channel something good. Young people and new takes on music do inspire me, and mainstream rap production is insanely inspiring right now.
How would you describe a “typical” Umfang DJ set? What balance do you find between preparing your sets beforehand and being reactive to the moment?
I plan ahead a lot. I think a lot about the timing as if I’m writing an orchestral piece. My sets are definitely flexible depending on what’s happening but I like to plan out the flow. I play a lot of percussion, not a lot of baselines, a lot of pauses and awkward breaks to change phases, bpms etc. I like to play fast.
To Fact Magazine you commented that Techno is taken “too seriously” – can you elaborate on that?
There is a culture of rules surrounding techno. It’s all funny to me because the people that started this aren’t the ones making the rules or enforcing them. What we call techno is pretty far from what it was in the 90s. It actually was all new and fresh at that time and there was a political futurist angle to the music philosophy. My comment is a reaction to how the music has been appropriated and pointing out to people that they don’t own it, and can’t make rules about it. It’s significant to connect to music and other people but it’s silly to be so rigid about something you don’t own. I’m not excluded from the takeover, I just want to point it out.
Let’s talk about Discwoman, currently one of the most powerful initiatives in terms of gender politics in electronic music. How did you meet co-founders Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson and Christine McCharen-Tran and start your idea of a collaboration towards Discwoman?
We met through Bossa Nova Civic Club. It came out of a fun place, wanting to showcase women in the local scene. We received great feedback, it felt really special at the time to acknowledge women in the community. We’ve all learned a lot and internalized more of the political issues that we may have overlooked before. We get more and more political as we learn more.
Serious blunt curiosity: Which track would you choose to be played at your funeral? Which track would you have wanted to be played at your birth?
Some Phillip Glass at my funeral for sure, it’s very emotional music. Everyone could cry to it. I don’t like the idea of music playing at my birth.
Looking ahead: What’s up next for you as Umfang as well as for Discwoman?
I’m getting a studio, so exited about that. Discwoman is expanding and we’re starting to introduce more interns and agents. We are growing into a proper agency.