Detroit-meets-disco vibe. Vocal hip-house workouts. Garage and late night electro-funk. Sleazy analogue synth wave. Upfront deep house. These are just a few examples used trying to describe DJ and producer Tom Trago's ever growing catalogue.
One of the leaders of the underground House music scene in Amsterdam through his own music and releasing tracks by artists from the city through his label Voyage Direct, we chat to Tom about production styles, musical evolution, life choices and even his favourite coffee shop.
Just before I clicked the record button, Tom was telling me about the Roland-TR 808 he just bought off his friend and how he couldn't wait to use it...
Youve just bought an 808 off of Linkwood is that something you would recommend for a new producer? Would you say they should just get Ableton and tinker about or whether they should just dive head first getting a synth and an MPC like youve just got or is that something they should mature to?
I think whenever possible when a person has that inspiration to make music, you just need to follow that. Some young kid can make on a laptop a dope beat that somebody else on a very expensive moog can make. I think its way more fun to work with analogue equipment and Im really interested in all the little errors that machines make, the things that happen by accident. Its just a fact way more things happen by accident or by sort of feeling with analogue machines and turning the knobs. Its way more easy to put feeling into certain things, and way more interesting to work outside the box I think. Im not judging anybody for working which way. Different strokes for different folks!
Youre quite a prolific collaborator, youve worked with Steffi and Breach on your album sampler, Subb-an and William Kouam Djoko in the past (not to mention many others). What would be your dream fantasy collaboration with any artist, alive or dead?
I guess Id like to work with Prince. Hes one of my all time heroes, especially the style of his beats and productions. I thought he was always very into the production of things, rather than just singing. He was always like add more reverb, with a very precise idea with how the sound should come out. I find that very interesting. Of course, I could name millions, theres so many good musicians out there. And even with non-musicians you can make great music, its an endless list!
You seem quite popular; it seems a lot of people like working with you.
I think with most people I work with, it starts most of the time as a friendship, or a relation in clubs if you DJ a lot, you meet a lot of people. Then, you got to get into a vibe, and if youre feeling each other, this friendship can follow with a studio session. If I couldnt hang with one of the people, I could never make music with them. Theyre all friends.
How do you adapt when working with different people with different production habits? For example, how did working with Steffi differ from working with Subb-an or Bok Bok?
Everybody has his own workflow. Im a big fan of the MPC 2000s. In all those collaborations, like the one with Steffi, Subb-an, and the ones with Bok Bok, my MPCs were a centre-point from where we could make drum machines and synths we could run computers next to it. All the tracks most of the time were started out on an MPC and we would build it through and record it into the computer. The session with Steffi was more analogue based and the session for Subb-an was more based on Ableton, and with Bok Bok Id work different again. I always like using different set-ups to learn from other people and grow skills in the studio. To see how Bok Bok uses certain machines... Id take it with me and use it in my productions if I like it. Its the same with everybody I work with. With a lot of things, its hard to discover everything by yourself.
(Watching him smoke a joint through Skype)
Whats your favourite coffee shop?
Good question! Theres a Moroccan shop next to the studio that has really good hashes. Theres one next to my house that I think is the best, its called Catweazle. Theres so many good shops, its just depends which part of town Im in.
What are currently smoking?
This stuff is called Topweazle.
Does it help your production process, in terms of getting into the zone, or is it just a life-style habit?
It definitely helps in the studio. I am a big weed smoker, Im not a big drinker. I get into the zone, I love it, haha.
Has producers youve worked with ever tried to persuade you to live in Berlin or London? Would you live in another city like Berlin or London or is Amsterdam too deeply entrenched in you?
No no, every weekend wherever I play I seem to fall in love with it. Like last weekend I was playing in Oslo, Norway. I love that city so much I was like Fuck! I want to stay here! And then the next weekend Im in Berlin, and again Im like Fuck! Im gonna live here, this is way cheaper for more space! Then again, after all those journeys, when the plane hits the ground in Amsterdam, I kind of feel relieved again and really in tune with this city. Ive been living here for a long time. Theres sweet pearls in this city, where to get good food etc. I like discovering in different cities of course, but Im really happy with this city, and at the moment theres a really good scene around me. On my label, Voyage Direct, I only release music from Dutch artists and most of them are from Amsterdam too. We have a big crew and we all see each other and hang out in the studio and influence each others music. I couldnt do this from another spot. Im proud all the people here doing this at the moment. With the Trouw club across the road, its becoming a real tight big crew. And I love that. Its pretty beautiful here in Amsterdam, I like it.
How would you describe the 'Amsterdam signature', especially in regards to the music that you and your circle play and produces?
Thats hard, because then I have to put words to music, and thats what journalists are good at - Im not. I think if you want to discover this yourself its best for you to listen to all the records released on my label and on Rush Hour. Rush Hour was definitely a sound that has a big influence on all of the producers at the moment, in one way or another. Some people more into Techno stuff, other people into Afro-beat, everybody has a sort of tie to Rush Hour and to the guys behind it I couldnt really give a description as I think it wouldnt give it justice. Its definitely a sound that has its roots in Detroit and Chicago in a way. Its also now influenced by Berlin, Paris and London. Theres definitely a certain sound rising around me thats maybe not so obvious to the outer world. I listen to all the productions by Overlast and William [Djoko], Dexter, Awanto 3, Maxi Mill, Kid Sublime, San Proper - I have quite a good view of whats coming. Theres definitely a core sound.
In some sort of way, you can say the B-boy influence on House in Amsterdam is quite big, so I suppose a sort of B-boy attitude to the stuff that Im involved with at least. Sort of Detroit B-boy House. I dont know, its hard for me to put terms on it.
What was the music of your teenage rebellion?
I think it was Punk. I was listening to bands like Millencolin, because of skateboard videos. I was 10, 11, 12 then the skateboard videos I was checking started playing more Wu Tang, hip hop stuff. When I discovered that I was hooked on it. I always wanted to be a DJ anyway, it was sort of magic to me. I was just into underground hip hop, most of it from the East coast. Then I started buying a lot of records, then a lot of samples, then I discovered Disco and Soul, then this DJing thing took off, but I was a Hip Hop DJ for a long time. I naturally evolved to Disco and then to this sound now. Rush Hour and Clone from Rotterdam was a big influence for everybody.
House music has exploded in popularity in underground music in the UK. A lot of people who were listening to UK Bass music (that your friend of Bok Bok is/was a patron of) now listen to House. I read somewhere that you were interested in the UK bass scene, and now it seems most people listen to House music now with the 4x4 kick drum is this just a continuation of the cycle, will we see more threads, are you happy with this development? I know you dont live in the UK, but I wondered if you had any reflections on this?
Before I got into House I was listening to a lot of Broken beat, like Seiji, Bugz in the Attic, Agent K, Afronaught lots of British stuff, but lots of broken beat, and then it evolved again. I like it that the British scene really pushes the envelope. Every time they try to invent something new, and then everybody starts making it, and then they get tired of it and then they move on thats the way to evolve fast! People who make good shit definitely stand out. Beautiful things can happen by crossing genres. I really like that. I always try to make a lot of genres and push myself into different genres push BPMs down and up. I really like that people move on, and Im not afraid to stick to my sound forever and do this, but then again I like it when somebody has a signature style, its really important to not lose that. To not lose their sound when switching genres is one of the most difficult things as a producer.
What was the first record you bought, and the last?
The first vinyl, it was Ol Dirty Bastard - Brooklyn Zoo. The last was the Carl Craig remix of Henrik Schwarz Take words in return.
Whats your favourite place on Earth?
Wow, thats a hard question! Of course, my studio is number one! Thats where the magic happens, its my living room, my house. I sleep in my own house, but the rest of the time Im making music with people in the studio, its my favourite place. I was in India a few months ago, in Kerala, Varkala I was in Blooming Bay, that was definitely the most inspiring and beautiful place Ive been in a long time.
A lot of artists draw on events and struggles from their personal life for inspiration, and then channel that through their music. They write a song about a girl, or some situation thats happened in there life.
Is that something that you do? If not, is it more organic process where youre bumping out a beat and things happen, or do you have an idea for a track that you sketch out in your head before working on it?
A lot of time, it starts with a beat, or a basic bass line or something. It then evolves and you start thinking about melodies and harmonies, and thats definitely a writing process. You definitely put your emotion into writing a harmony. If you break up with your girl and you make a certain track Most of the time me and my friends we also sing on the tracks but that never comes out because I guess were too shy! Its more of a fun thing, but we definitely write lyrics on a lot of stuff. Lyrics is where you can obviously put emotion into it. I really like instrumental music because for a listener it doesnt necessarily have to be the emotion I intended the track to be, and that makes the emotion to a instrumental track more easy to reach. If Im going to sing yeah I lost my girl lalalala my imagination cant think about whats in the listeners head! Thats why I like instrumental music.
How would you describe your sound?
"Take the haze train, look outside the window and imagine a pleasant landscape of robots living in harmony with humans and aliens in fully colored 2040 outfits."
That sense of humour is a break from a lot of DJs who take themselves very seriously. When somebody sees one of your gigs or the promotional material that comes with being a DJ, would you say that we see the 'real' Tom Trago rather than a constructed DJ persona?
Im just natural, I am who I am. Im not going to invent some superhero around me. I like this humanness around it. I can inspire new people to show Im not a superstar. Im just somebody whos dedicated to making beautiful music. Its the same as doing this interview, youre just talking to me, Im not making up answers. When it comes to me, when you take yourself !TOO! seriously thats the death of creativity and fun, because you then put limitations and you want to reach certain goals, it takes a lot away from your natural flow. By taking things too seriously, the fun and spontaneous things that happen in life are left out I always think you should crack jokes. In 10 years you will laugh about anything!
What advice would you give to a young producer who may look up to you as inspiration?
Well the first thing Ive always said is dont be too serious and just have fun In the studio. Thats my second point. Fun in the studio I know it. Ive been in the studio for 10 years now, its just more fun with [analogue] machines. Ive been in studios with only Ableton or Logic, and thats cool too! I can make a dope beat using that, but youre looking at a screen all the time it just takes away a lot of the spontaneous interaction between you and a real machine thats been developed to just make music on, not something thats for internet and whatever too. Just dedicated hardware, thats craftsmanship. To know how to use the machine, its a sort of relationship. At a certain point, you know the machine well and you know how to use it, and you get all this love back and you make beautiful shit with it. Thats an important thing to know.
Its important to use different sources of sound, that really makes the mix more pleasant and interesting to listen to. If you only use one source, like your computer or only your MPC, it gets flat. The sound is much richer if you use different sounds.
If you weren't a music producer and DJ in life, what would you be doing?
Ive been thinking about this, you never know what life brings you. One of the things Ive always been inspired by things that live longer than humans do. Thats what interested me about music too. After the creator is dead it can still inspire and instil an energy into the world. People can make new music based on old music it lives on. The energy is not lost and that always inspired me. I was thinking about, you know these big copper statues; they can stand the test of time so good, like art pieces. Copper or steel, Id like to craft these later on in life maybe, or if I wasnt a producer and had time and big garden! That would be nice.
For somebody stuck in an office, reading this interview is it too late to be a producer for them? Do you need to start early?
Never! Its never too late. There is a certain thing, its the 10,000 hour rule. It goes for everybody. Its never too late, there are so many stories of beautiful musicians who started producing club music when they were 50 or whatever. Some people who do electronic or the experimental side, they started reaching dope stuff when theyre 60, its never too late. You have to be strong, you cant expect that you can do something in two years, it takes focus. The Beatles spent 10 years playing in underground bars. This 10,000 hour rule is actually like real life. I think if Im 35 and I suddenly want to be a Doctor doing heart operations, if I focus for 10 years on this stuff I think everybody can reach it. You have to be persistent and really want it, for the right reasons.
A lot of people are DJs now, and this isnt a criticism of software but were seeing people getting huge seemingly overnight, from younger and younger ages, and people being attracted to producing music for the wrong reasons, producing so that they can be famous or cool. It sounds like when you produce music, it is for the goal of making beautiful music. It seems for a lot of people thats secondary to what their primary goals are.
I think so too, but its not a bad starting point! If you want to be famous I can understand that, because everybody wants their piece of recognition in the world, and if youre young you want everything, you want the whole world. When you get a bit older, you realise youre maybe not that big star, but youre just a star. Then later you realise Im just a human being like everybody else is, like the baker and the butcher. If you want to be big, thats a good starting point, but you really have to love music. Thats the nice thing about it, if you dont love music you wont be in the game for longer than 5 years or 10, because you will get distracted and get focussed on some other thing that will make you bigger! And then youll be chasing something you might never reach, but if youre dedicated to music and you love music then that doesnt matter. If you want to be big, thats all good man! Put all your energy into your music and go for it! Theres a certain drive to maintain, but if its natural then its ok.
Are you a kick drum, a hi-hat, or a snare? And why?
I will be a hi-hat, because they control the funk. They give the swing to everything.
What are you obsessed with at the moment?
Good question. Im not really an obsessive guy. To keep it on a music level, Im obsessed by a lot of things on different levels, on a music level Ive just got into a new studio, its really nice, its being developed with walls thatll have a good sound. Itll be my first professional studio, before it was just in a room. Ive been really thinking about how to run all my machines in a nice proper order. I used to work really chaotically with machines here and there, cables all over the place. And now I kind of feel Im going to build one big machine and make 5 beats a day with it. If its running and you know what youre doing, then you can be so efficient. I really want to go into this efficient mode! More efficiency in the studio! Linking it up right, the right compressor, the right drum computer - thats also the tip for new producers, thats the way to build your sound, youre like the architect of how you want your productions to sound in a way. I think now after all the stuff that Ive done, I can finally build my first big machine, my transformer, my Optimus Prime! I want to buld Optimus Prime with all my machines, haha!
The studio, your house and Trauw, the club youre a resident at, are all quite close to each other. Being a resident at Trauw must be such a great outlet for the creative process.
Definitely, by visiting often, the studio is across the road, literally 30 seconds from the club. Being there often, and also playing often, and checking friends or different DJs, you really develop your ear. The Trouws music programme is really tight, the programming last year was really tight, and every night there is at least one DJ I really want to listen to. And by listening to it in the club you really develop your taste and develop your sound aesthetics. For instance, some tracks by Carl Craig, you play them on a proper sound system, youre like what the fuck! Some alien EQing! It sounds so bright and beautiful. Then you hear a Dance Mania track and you get inspired by the low and the kick, and its the same thing. These little ideas stick somewhere in your head, and next time youre in the studio, and you hear this track in the club, and I want to EQ it like this, or some certain sound aesthetic. When the club closes you can just walk in to the studio, and your friends are there and you can develop your taste a lot. We always test tracks, like my album before it went to mastering. We do listening sessions in the day time, some friends come over and they set up the sound system and I listen to tracks and remix it again in the studio, so its definitely an influence.
Youve pushed your album back to October, before it was going to come out in the Summer. Is that because you want to add more finishing touches?
I already finished it a while ago, but when I came back from India we decided to release it after Summer as its better timing when it comes to tours and that stuff, ADE in October. This time I really love it as Im not in a hurry. I can live now, and know my album is going to drop later. By the time the album drops Ill be working on my next one. I like this way of working, youre less affected by it. When it comes out if people like it or dont like it, for me Im already almost over it. I love the album, and Im just now getting used it.
Whats your answer to everything?
Complete this sentence, Im proper techno because
Because Im not proper techno!
Tom Trago will be performing in London this weekend at nofitstate. Tickets can be found here.