It’s a warm Wednesday evening, approximately 8 pm. The phone rings twice, and as I do my best to gather myself and stack my interview questions accordingly, I am greeted with a warm “Hello! Can you hear me? How are you?“. I’m speaking with Tom Trago, the Dutch DJ and producer who I’ve caught in the middle of enjoying some breakfast with his family. “I’m just at our family house in Bergen, so I am here with my two daughters and my wife”. Family man by day, internationally renowned musician of the house and techno persuasion by night (also by day I guess, it just sounds much cooler as a double life situation.)
Trago, whose work you may recognise hearing in any delicious foot stomping, hand clapping house mix/Boiler Room set, is the product of the music he grew up on. Hailing from Amsterdam, Trago began his career DJing in coffee shops, earning just enough money to feed his appetite for records. Delving deep into the worlds of jazz, hip-hop, and soul, his love affair with music was catapulted to new heights when he immersed himself in the Amsterdam rave scene in the 90s. Blending the genres he had grown up on with the new and evolving sound of 90s dance music within Europe, Tom Trago has positioned himself comfortably at the top of the pedestal of artists within the world of house/techno. As one of the few veteran artists under Rush Hour records, he has headlined on almost every stage around the world more than once, and frequently rubs shoulders with the artists he draws inspiration from such as Carl Craig, Steffi, and San Proper. His only vice? Gardening – he considers himself quite the botanist.
Before heading to Australia to tour his upcoming album, Bergen, Tom had time to chat with me about all things growing up in Amsterdam, his production style, and what the future has in store.
Where are you at the moment?
I’m at my house in Bergen. It’s near the beach and in the forest, so I am here with my family. The sun is shining and it’s snowing at the same time funnily enough.
Sun and snow, what a great combo.
It’s really not believe it enough.
You grew up in the rave scene in Amsterdam in the 90s, which was kind of crucial to house and techno music, what was it like growing up there?
I was growing up and starting to go out more and I was hearing all this strange new music which intrigued me a lot. You’d go to these raves and hear completely non-commercial music that you wouldn’t find on tv or radio at the time. Pre-internet phase, if you heard a great song you couldn’t just look him up, you either had to know somebody who knew somebody or you had to go to the record store and sort of sing the song to the guy in the store. It made music hard to find. And I think with most things in life if things are hard to find or hard to get, then you put more effort in. Then when you finally succeed, the reward is much bigger. That went for all the underground techno and house music I heard. It really taught me a lot about how to find new music and introduced me to a lot of genres.
You’ve grown up on a lot of jazz, hip-hop, soul records, later blending these genres with that house and techno sound we hear from you now, did you get a lot of inspiration from artists that mentored you, or did you develop your own style later in your career through residencies and what not?
My first inspiration came from the guys from Rush Hour because they were the only record store back then that was selling US import techno and house, and I became friends with them. I was already making hip-hop beats at the time, but I started mixing house in with that. My first ever house record was released by Rush Hour, Live At The BBQ, and they kept on feeding me a lot with music that was kind of similar to the stuff I was making. From there on I started building in my own world of music, using that sample attitude from hip-hop, with tempos of techno and house. I sort of blended that on my own back then, but still had a lot of inspiration from Rush Hour.
So you kind of developed naturally on your own,
I guess, but also, KC and the Funkaholics was a very important music figure, he used to organize these Tuesday night dinners (he was a very good cook) where he would invite all DJs, it was kind of a rumour in the city of Amsterdam, like “oh yeah apparently there’s this Tuesday night dinner where he cooks” and only really special artists got invited, super exclusive, and then one time I got invited. I went and we would just sit around the table with like 8 or 10 DJs and record collectors or even just music lovers and would just eat and drink a lot and talk music for hours. From those dinners, my knowledge of music expanded so much, especially of Brazilian and world music, and I then took that inspiration back to the studio as well.
You’re well known for isolating yourself when you’re writing new material, like spending a month in a cabin by the sea writing ‘The Light Fantastic’ album and just recently writing your latest LP from the quiet seaside town of Bergen. How do you find inspiration in such isolated areas?
Yes, for me at least, I don’t think that it’s the same for everybody. I find that making music is 30% being creative, and 70% just working, finishing stuff, mixing. A lot of the process is focus and decision making, so isolation is very important. In the city, there is a lot of stuff happening all the time. Also my studio in Amsterdam, like 10 of my friends have studios there, so I would work there and it was great because people would walk in and out and give feedback and comments, but if you’re in that creative phase it’s kind of a bit harder this way, sometimes its good to rely on your own. I also do a lot of hiking or running and then I’ll just play this new music that I make through my headphones. So I listen back to all my tracks while I am in nature and if it makes sense then, while I am in nature and outside of a club context, then it feels right for me. These are the two extents of my music, being valid in the club and also being valid in nature in it’s purest form.
Which comes first in your production process, a sample/melody, or the percussion as a foundation?
As I come from hip-hop I grew up on digging through records and hearing great samples and then building a song around that. The more I started making music, I started erasing the sample. That involved constructing a rhythm and bass around a sample, and then i’d delete the sample and see what I have left, just leaving a bare structure of the song. Now more and more, having studied at jazz school for 3 years playing the piano, I kind of lost the sample thing the last few year and started writing purely on piano. But it really depends on the track, it’s different every time.
What’s the most cherished piece of gear you have in your analogue music collection?
Oooh, good question. Probably my piano which is a W Hoffmann piano, I play a lot on that. Although it’s not really gear, or a nerdy tech thing, it’s just a really beautiful piano. One of the things I use a lot in the studio is the DRAWMER and it’s like a warm compressor that you put on things, like a loop for example. As soon as I put it on a sound, it gives me the energy to work with it, it warms things up and ties things together, it’s like a special magic sauce.
Sounds delicious. Your label Voyage Direct began in 2010, was that a challenge curating that project, or did you get a lot of guidance having been a veteran under Rush Hour Records?
It kind of started because of the DJing in Amsterdam, I was given so many demos by producers, and I noticed there were quite a lot of guys who were doing the same thing without knowing each other. I saw a sound growing without these guys even knowing. So I started pushing demos to Rush Hour, but because those guys are quite internationally focused, the stuff that I was showing them was forgotten or whatever. One time at a club I was playing a track by Dexter and I thought ‘I can’t believe it’s over a year and a half and im the only one in the world that has this song, this is ridiculous’. So I decided I’d start a label and only release Dutch electronic music. 10 years from now I want to see a reflection of what happened in those 10 years only in Holland, it’s a great summary I think.
It sounds like a lot of meeting young new artists face to face, or do you also spend a bit more time stalking the internet for up and coming producers?
No, I am the worst with stalking the internet, it all happens through personal contact. Most of the time it’s like a friend of a friend who gets introduced, and then maybe at an after-party somebody plays me their music or somebody tips me, there’s this artist you need to check out.
You’ve said you’d love to get involved with movie scoring, what one movie do you wish you were able to write the score for?
Probably The Revenant by Alejandro González Iñárritu, with Leonardo Dicaprio. That would be an interesting movie to score because there’s a lot of drama in it but also a lot of emptiness, I think minimal soundtracks can be way more interesting than a bombastic fully orchestrated 24 piece string ensemble. One of my heroes who just died Jóhan Jóhannsson, he did the film score for The Arrival and won an Oscar for that, he is the kind of guy that approaches it from a method that I would also use in film scoring. His work is incredible.
So your LP Bergen is about to be released under Dekmantel, what’s the plan after that? What does the rest of the year look like?
I kind of have some stuff lined up, I am thinking of a 12-inch series. The full album thing is great but I think it’ll be nice to drop a single, or two tracks, double-sided, some old school bangers you know. But honestly, I am really enjoying the fact that there are no deadlines at the moment, I worked really hard last year to get everything together, so family time is definitely at the top of the list.
You can catch Tom Trago playing at Pitch Music & Arts Festival next week, the 9th to the 12th of March, grab tickets here.