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Escape Velocity

Identity Techno: Umfang Interviewed
Mollie Zhang , June 26th, 2017 10:00

Following the release of her debut album proper, Discwoman co-founder Umfang discusses her minimal approach to hardware, being a part of Discwoman and challenging one's own prejudices. Photo by Tyler Jones

Symbolic Use of Light marks a significant step forward for Discwoman co-founder Emma Olson - more commonly known as Umfang. But moving forward at such a rate is probably something she’s accustomed to by now.

In the three years since the New York-based Discwoman collective was formed, Umfang has released material across cult labels such as videogamemusic, 1080p, Phinery, Allergy Season and now, with her debut album proper, she arrives at Ninja Tune imprint Technicolour. This comes also as Discwoman continue to go from strength to strength, showcasing the collective's DJ talents around the world and pushing forward with a mix series that boasts contributions from Josey Rebelle, Julianna Huxtable and, most recently, Lakuti & Tama Sumo. Umfang herself has been booked across London’s Corsica Studios, New York’s Sustain Release festival, and Berlin’s Berghain - a goal once set for her forties, but achieved while still in her twenties - all while continuing to hold down her monthly Technofeminism residency at New York's Bossa Nova Civic Club.

To talk about “taking off” or “making waves” in electronic music can sometimes undoubtedly seem ripe for cliché, yet momentum repeatedly strikes me during our conversation as we connect over Skype, moving from topics such as Olson’s choice of hardware and how she has overcome her own prejudices, to the movement that Discwoman and similar collectives have catalysed.

Umfang’s trajectory is undoubtedly an exciting and encouraging sign - not just for Olson and her cohorts, but inevitably also for promoting inclusivity and equality within certain areas of dance music. It’s rewarding to hear her speak openly about things that feel familiar: her struggle with her own biases, and fear of not being taken seriously over the course of our conversation.

How was the process of putting together Symbolic Use of Light? What did you enjoy most about it?

Emma Olson: I didn’t go into it planning on making an album necessarily, I was just making a new batch of music, and then the ideas all kind of came together a little bit later. I feel like recording music is just something I always want to be doing, and this is simply a little time capsule of that time last winter.

How did you find using the hardware you chose, and not using so many samples?

EO: Yeah, there are no samples on this record. I mainly just used my one drum machine, the Boss DR-202, and tried to push it as far as I could. I wanted to see what sounds I could get out of one piece of equipment, or even just two pieces at a time. It’s exciting that I’ve found a machine that I like so much, and it’s exciting to explore all the different ways of using it - I discovered I could make melodies out of pitched-up basslines, and it was more like using a piano than a drum machine. I’m still excited by that machine. A friend of mine actually sold it on Facebook and it was pretty cheap - around $50. They lived near me so I just bought it without really knowing much about it and watched one YouTube tutorial on it. It ended up being just what I was looking for.

You did the album art as well for this release. Could you tell me a bit about that?

EO: It’s a photograph of a storefront in Brooklyn showing two glass windows with vines growing on the inside of the building. It has two pieces of paper stuck to the glass on the bottom part. I inverted the image, like a negative, and collage on an image of a skylight that I took - the four bars. There are a lot of ideas in there at once; the four bars are a reference to techno being 4x4 based, and that being similar to structures like temples as kind of a grounding force. There are a lot of ties that could be made, I suppose. But ultimately I just felt like it worked. I had tried to get someone else to do the art, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

Do you work with visual media often?

EO: I have a history of working with digital images in Preview, and using that program as much as possible instead of Photoshop. I’ve always made my own flyers and stuff; I went to design school. But now it’s kind of a joke, since I’m using really basic skills and a basic program. I suppose I make digital art but I don’t take it very seriously.

So how was making the transition to electronic music from design?

EO: It felt really personal and emotional. I’d wanted to do it but it seemed really hard. Visual art felt like it came more naturally to me, and figuring out the technological aspect of working with drum machines and synthesisers was really new to me and really intimidating, but I just really wanted to figure it out, and wanted to be able to express myself that way. I feel like there were a few years of tension and frustration, but now I feel like I’m able to express myself through them and that’s really important.

You’re vocal about your politics in electronic music, and so you always get asked about feminism, representation, and accessibility in interviews. How do you feel about always having to talk about these topics, as opposed to “just” talking about your music?

EO: I guess I just think that you can’t really ignore your place in the world. I’m not mad that I have to talk about that stuff all the time. I think it’s a privileged fantasy that you can just ignore your place in the world, your identity, and only present your music. I feel like it also helps people if you’re honest about your identity and what you’re doing. I think it’s exciting when I find a female artist making hard techno, who talks about how they feel and what their process is like.

It’s not even just about ‘being a woman in music’; I’m just interested to know what someone’s experience is, and what their thoughts are - and that’s often tied to their identity.

Definitely. I remember reading in one interview you did that you often try to be underdressed for gigs. That’s something I think about quite a bit - I have a similar sort of desire, but then I also wonder if I’m being guilty of ‘femmephobia’ or something like that. Is that a concern for you?

EO: I absolutely was in that position. I think I was just really concerned about being taken seriously, and I felt like the best way to do that was to not make myself any source of sexualised femininity. I was really set on just ‘blending in’. I’d wear big T-shirts and my hair was messy.

But I also had a friend who’s a DJ in Brooklyn, and she’s really femme. She’s really sexy and fetish-y in a really classic way, and I remember looking at her and thinking that it was crazy to me that she was just putting herself out there like that - that you could see her boobs, but she was also still a good DJ. And people really respected her. I think I was just really battling my own ideas of femininity and whether or not I could be taken seriously. I was just so afraid, and it just really amazed me that people would present themselves like that.

I feel like as time has passed, and as I’ve gotten more acceptance and recognition, I’ve also become more femme and kind of enjoy dressing up a little bit more for gigs. It’s almost like wearing a work uniform or something, it’s kind of nice just to be ‘on’, and to show that I do care. And when other people who go to parties enjoy dressing up and expressing themselves in that space, it’s cool if I’m able to do that too.

I do think that I had some really negative views about presenting as hyper-femme to people, like 'aren’t you afraid of someone sexualising your body, or touching you, or making comments about you?' But it’s just a process, I guess, to figure out what you feel comfortable with.

You’ve spoken about spending time with K-Hand and how she has been influential for you. Are there other artists that you consider similarly in terms of them being a ‘role-model’ of sorts for you?

EO: Before I moved to New York, I’d only been exposed to music on the Internet, from like, The New York Times and what not. I knew about Light Asylum, Shannon Funchess, Venus X and Lauren Flax. And then I ended up meeting all of those people soon after moving here, and it was cool to see all of these female DJ role models right when I landed. It made it feel really real, and they were all so nice. That was really cool.

As far as old-school idols go, I haven’t come into contact with many people at all. K-Hand is the only one that gave me a few days of her time, and she’s a big one! That was definitely a shift in my views - I had a K-Hand song on my computer for a few years, and always thought it was so good. And for about two years, my mental image of the artist was always a man. I’m not big into doing loads of internet research, so I didn’t actually look into the artist, but finding out who she was kind of blew my mind. It was one of those first examples for me of someone who made really awesome, weird techno and was a woman. And it’s also cool to see your own prejudice kind of break down. I think I just got really interested then in the story of Detroit techno, and how there are certain people who often get credited for it. K-Hand has always been so under the radar, even though she’s made and released so much. I was really fascinated about how hidden her story was, and that’s why we initially engaged with her. Though since then, things have changed for her, which is cool too.

I think just any time I meet artists, like Paula Temple, it’s just really exciting to meet such strong forces.

In the past few years, since launching Discwoman and the Technofeminism movement, do you feel you've seen a visibly significant difference on dancefloors?

EO: I think more outward, open conversations are being had. There’s a stronger sense of accountability. At least in the New York scene, Discwoman has somehow garnered a big enough presence and following that there’s more agency with what we do. If a party situation seems really unsafe or disrespectful, we kind of have a team that’s able to say, 'this person needs to be extracted from the situation'.

Sometimes Frankie [Decaiza Hutchinson, Discwoman co-founder] will get excited and send an email, like 'why have you never booked a woman? Just asking!' I don’t think any of us would have felt like we had the support to be that aggressive in the past.

What are the responses to those emails like?

EO: Often people are like 'we’ve definitely thought about this', 'I don’t really have a good answer,' or 'it’s something we’re working on'. We haven’t really encountered any overt sexism here, most of it is just fear-based, and it just ends up that people don’t try. And then if they’re called out, they’re just like, 'yeah but we don’t know what to do'.

Sometimes people will reach out to us and be like, 'hey, I’ve never booked a woman before. Who should I book?' or something. It’s kind of insane, but also kind of awesome. I think it’s important to remember when we’re in these political discussions that we can’t just shut people out for doing a bad job. We have to be there to help people if they want to learn or apologise. Even if something really bad happens, if someone really takes the time and makes an effort to apologise and change, we can’t be to mean to them, because that’s actually the whole point.

But I think we’ve seen change within our small scene and have a bit more control over what’s happening, but it’s really hard to tell if that’s trickling out, or if it’s happening on a bigger level. There are definitely more articles about feminism in electronic music now than there were a few years ago. And more collectives too, which is really exciting. It can be scary to wonder if that’s going to go away in a while - if the progress is just momentary. For now at least, in our own bubble, I think we’ve made something a bit nicer.

On that note of finding new stuff that’s exciting, are there any nights/promoters/artists you’re excited about at the moment?

EO: I think it’s really cool that globally, there are groups that have been inspired by Discwoman or even that predate Discwoman, like SIREN in London, and Apeiron Crew for example. I don’t usually feel like I have coworkers or anything, but in certain moments this network kind of feels like that. It’s been great to make contact with these groups around the world that have a similar mission - it feels like global support.

Symbolic Use of Light is out now on Technicolour. Umfang plays Dekmantel Festival alongside Volvox this August. For tickets and more information, click here