UMFANG had an incredible 2017. The New York-based techno artist released her major-label debut, Symbolic Use Of Light, via the Ninja Tune imprint Technicolour in June; she saw the profile of Discwoman, the female-identified focused electronic collective and booking agency she co-founded in 2014 with Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson and Christine McCharen-Tran, increase dramatically via coverage in the major media, sponsorships, and more booking opportunities. Additionally, she was one of the artists who gave their music to the Power Puerto Rico compilation in support of relief, recovery and rebuilding in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and she toured across the globe at festivals like Unsound and Dekmantel — all the while staying true to her regular Technofeminism party in New York.
But she’s more than just a list of accomplishments and accolades; her work stands for itself. Symbolic Use Of Light manages to playfully subvert expectation by refining techno to its bare, essential parts. UMFANG wrote the record primarily on her DR-202 drum machine, and makes clever use of the instrument to create dynamic compositions full of play and contrast.
I caught up with UMFANG via Skype while she was taking some much needed time off in Greece to recharge after the intense year she’s had to reflect on Symbolic Use Of Light, which topped our list of the Best Electronic and Experimental Records in 2017, and look ahead to what we can expect from the exciting artist in the year to come.
2017 seems to have been a pretty big year for you, as UMFANG and as a part of the Discwoman collective. What were some of your personal highlights?
This has been my first real year of constant touring, so I think it went from the beginning of the year and focusing on getting the album out, and then mixing that with a lot of touring, and with the summer playing festivals for the first time, so playing Dekmantel and Unsound was a highlight. That whole trajectory happened quickly and it was really exciting to see so much interest in my album. I had never worked with a major label before. So it’s just been quite the whirlwind, honestly. It all feels like a big stamp of approval coming from an underground scene.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Athens right now. I’m actually taking a break for the month. I rented an apartment with my partner and we’re just taking it easy for a few weeks until the new year.
Are you going to play a show there as well?
I haven’t performed in Athens. I had dates in the UK this weekend and the last weekend. So at least my trip was paid for by touring. And then I just rented my apartment out in New York so that I can be here. I mean obviously the economy is struggling in Greece, so I haven’t been booked here. I’ll be doing a small thing this weekend, but it’s nota big hub that’s bringing a lot of people right now. There is an interesting thing happening with young people, I just haven’t really tapped into it yet.
Is that something you keep your eye out for as you’re touring? Given your work with Discwoman, which helps to make electronic music more inclusive and diverse, do you pay attention to the politics of the places you’re traveling to?
Definitely. I was even thinking about this a lot this past weekend when I was in the UK. The scenes in the UK feel, especially in the smaller towns in England, particularly male-dominated. There’s this bro-culture in Ireland and in smaller parts of England. So I was definitely eager to see the groups of women doing things in those places. Because in New York City, where I live, I feel like we have the unfair advantage where there’s a strong queer culture and a strong counter-culture to what we think of as normal in America. So I think sometimes I can have a skewed perspective that things feel more progressive than they are in the rest of the world. And [as a scene] we actually can have a functioning economy outside of dealing with bro-y techno world. So I’m definitely interested when I’m in those places that feel more aggressively male, to find ‘ok who’s doing the party that feels a little more comfortable in countering that.’ It’s really cool to have something like the context of Discwoman because then I can tap into those even more underground scenes that are politically charged.
You were saying you want to avoid bro-y scenes, are you intentionally making music that you feel antagonizes what you think of as bro culture?
I guess I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it that way, but I am against this formulaic copy and paste way of making music, particularly techno and house. I think it’s important for people to remember that techno and house, when they were created, they were coming from a place of oppression and they were predominantly pioneered by queer people of color or a strong black community in Detroit, so I just think it’s important to remember that at that time it was something really emotional and thought-out and it had to do with afro-futurism and just thoughts of a better future. So if we’re still copying and pasting that formula in 2017/2018 I think it’s important to think about what that is about. Maybe the forward-thinking music now needs to be engaged with the politics now and needs to be engaging with technology now. When we use the word ‘techno’ even now, it means something different. I just want to encourage this idea of people being authentic to what’s inside of them and what they’re experiencing inside of their own world emotionally and politically and whatever. That, I think, is still radical. That’s really important to me.
Those themes and those moods of what was happening politically in the world in the fall were so heavy, especially in America, so that definitely went into my mindset making this album. I feel like the tracks I make are pretty based in self-expression and seeing whatever happens. The concept for me usually comes later. So I’m able to piece it together in a way that makes more sense. But usually, the actual act of making music is just about me having cathartic release relating to what’s coming in at that moment.