Umfang, aka Emma Olson, has two modes: full alien and full savage. The techno-obsessed Discwoman co-founder confirmed this on Twitter shortly after she spoke to me over the phone from Los Angeles, where she had just gone full savage on a warehouse party. Emma's spaced-out, schizophrenic sets have had crowds raving 'til brunch hour in warehouses from Pittsburgh to Berlin, and while she's justifiably proud to be infiltrating the techno boys' club, the Brooklyn-via-Kansas-via-Bronx vinyl junkie also loves to spin for friends and family. One of Emma's favorite spots is Bushwick's own Bossa Nova Civic Club, where she holds a monthly residency as part of Discwoman's Technofeminism club night. She also leads DJ workshops for the next generation of female-identifying deck talent.
Umfang's new album Symbolic Use of Light is Emma in alien mode. It's just as unexpected as her live sets, but in a subdued, melodic manner that's entirely free of samples — and entirely recorded live. If your entire life was scored by Umfang, this album would soundtrack the reflective moments: early-morning runs, late-night listening sessions, post-club comedowns. "I was also processing the political situation that has been going on since last fall, so I feel like there's a melancholy tone to a lot of the album because it's like a time capsule of how I was feeling at a certain time," she says. "It's a little more introspective." As Symbolic Use of Light drops today, we talk to Emma about spinning for MySpace teens in Kansas City and why New York is the place to play crazy.
You grew up in Kansas. What was the techno scene like out there?
I was living in a college town, so there were bar parties and house parties. In Kansas City, which is about a 45-minute drive away, there were warehouse parties. There was a big techno industry in Kansas City at one point, so there's a whole shipping area with giant warehouses that people would throw parties in. We were using MySpace to promote, so there were tons of raver teenagers there. It was kind of cool and freaky. There wasn't much to do in Kansas City, so people would go to that.
When you are doing live sets, where do you most like to find tracks?
My sets involve a lot of new stuff from people who I know. I'm also really obsessed with 90s techno so I dig a lot for records, and I've been buying a lot of compilation CDs from the 90s just to get new stuff. I don't want to be stuck in the past, but I connect with the stuff coming from the 90s way more than what's happening now. I definitely try to round it out with stuff that's happening now.
I was listening to a mix where you had these 90s foghorns. Why are you so drawn to weird and unconventional sounds?
I talk about this with my friends — I try to channel the whole alien mode. I like tracks that have really unexpected sounds in them, or sounds that you can't really figure out where they came from. It's not really a traditional drum machine sound, it's something really strange and unexpected. Maybe it only happens one time in the track or the track goes backwards for a second. I was talking to my friend about when you're dancing and a track does something really unexpected, and you have to stop for a second to figure out where the groove is again. I like those playful moments. That's another reason I like 90s techno so much, is that there are a lot of silly sounds and unexpected moments. Sometimes it's kind of cheesy, like filtering out and then dropping the beat again, but it's also just fun. I like that playfulness that sort of went away in the early 2000s.
That makes a lot of sense. I was going to ask to about seriousness vs playful techno but was thinking more of club vibes than weird sonics.
Yeah, totally. It's sort of silly — I think that techno is really life-changing and really significant, but also it has a playfulness in it and a sense of humor. It ruins the fun if you're not playful.
I saw that you were doing an LGBTQ youth workshop this pride month. How important is it to you, and to the Discwoman collective, to nurture the next generation of female-identifying DJs?
I think we all have a really strong priority for education, especially for young people. So many of our culturally entrained limitations happen when we're really young — ideas about what we can and can't do. A lot of people we work with are like, "Wow, if I had this when I was a kid, my whole life would be different. If I had a drum machine, if I knew I was allowed to be a DJ, my whole life would have been different." We just try to expose people to the idea that they can do it, and that they should be brave enough to explore. We only have a certain bandwidth, and we're all really busy and I'm traveling constantly, but we try to expand as much as we can.
Techno is so equipment-based. How do you overcome that obstacle when teaching to people who might not have access to money and resources?
Even though I became a vinyl DJ later, I started DJing on Virtual DJ, which is free. At workshops we'll do a lot of CDJ lessons, and at the end of workshops, I always remind people that they can try Virtual DJ for free. It's basically the same concepts. I'm showing them on that program where everything is on the mixer, or pointing out that you can buy controllers for cheaper — like $100 used or something. You can make mixes on Virtual DJ, and start putting them on Soundcloud, which is also free. Audacity is another free audio-recording program that's open-source and has been on the internet forever. Little things like that I'll try to point out at the end of a workshop, just so people feel like they could go home and do something.
You're touring in Europe later things month, and have played in Berlin for a couple of years. What's that like compared to playing at home?
It's actually pretty new. My first tour in Europe was last year, in August. I had played in Europe before, but it was always just small bar shows — nothing big. I've been criticized in Europe, I don't try to pay attention but some of my friends will tell me that they heard comments like, "She can't really mix," or, "She's totally inconsistent in the cueing." Europeans might criticize me for not keeping a completely consistent vibe the whole time, whereas if you see a hip-hop DJ in New York City or something, there's all this switching around and playfulness. I like that, and I try to do that in my sets. New Yorkers also have a short attention span, and they need to be stimulated. That kind of craziness is really welcome in our scene.
How much do you think this is connected to the history of techno and its migration, later, to Europe?
I think there's a disconnect because people don't recognize the history. I've been thinking a lot about, say, when you grow up in the Midwest, without a lot of money, going to raves can be a really significant escape. But if your quality of life is already kind of comfortable, like in a lot of European countries, you might not have the same relationship to raving than you would if you grew up really comfortable. In L.A., I feel like people can relate to the intensity of cathartic release if that's something that you are really looking for in your life. There's a different relationship to raving in Europe, just because they have a higher quality of life. I think that also changes what you want out of an experience on the weekends.
Do you approach playing bigger festivals any differently than you do local parties?
I am booked to do what I do. I honestly think I would be more likely to change my set for a smaller place. Like when I play in Detroit, I might think about what it's like for me to play songs from Detroit there. Or when I play in Kansas City, I can expose people to something they might not have experienced otherwise. I'll think about that. But playing a big thing, I'm just going to do what I do best and make it so that people can dance to it and not get too experimental. I'm hoping that people book me for who I am and that I can just be authentic to that.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Tyler Jones