Text: Milan van Ooijen
Featured Image: Timo Steenvoorden
2013 has been one hell of a year for us here at Deep House Amsterdam. We have had the pleasure of presenting you with a lot of diverse mixtapes by a variety of great artists, we went toe to toe with some of them in interviews – some serious, others a bit out of the ordinary – and we threw our fair share of parties, and we launched our new returning event SUBFIX. Now that 2014 is in sight, it’s time to look back on a great year for house music and quality electronic music in general. And who better to do this with, than with mr. Amsterdam himself: Tom Trago. I met Tom earlier this year and we had a chat about his roots, his take on producing and what kind of music he listened to while having sexy-time. Our second rendezvous would be at café Amsterdam, where we talked about his greatest moments in the past year, the changes he has witnessed in the scene and his inspirations. Also, at the bottom of this page, you can listen to his exclusive ‘Best of 2013 Mix’.
So how are you? Had a good weekend?
I’m good! It was a hectic but really fun weekend.
How was your gig at Valhalla Festival last Saturday?
Haha! Well I was flying back from the UK that afternoon, and my bag with all my live gear and equipment fell off the luggage-lorry on the runway and a bus ran over it. Twice…
Yeah! Most of my gear was ruined and I had to do a show that evening. I called around and thankfully some good friends and colleagues helped me out and let me use their stuff. So when the time came, I was good to go and everything worked out. It was a great night, the crowd enjoyed it and I had a lot of fun.
It’s been half a year since our first interview. What has happened since then? Take me through some of your highlights.
That would have to be my live tour. For the last three months I haven’t done any DJ sets and just played live. It was a really great experience to have done that. During the tour I’m proud to have played in the clubs that I love like Panoramabar, Club Bonsoir in Switzerland, Village Underground in London and of course Trouw. In every city that I visited for the tour I played the venues that I liked the most, so that was really cool. Other than the places I performed, the gigs themselves had a great impact on me. I felt much more like a true artist playing live. Of course you’re an artist when you’re behind the decks as well, but playing just your own music every night this way was something completely different for me and very rewarding.
How were the turnouts with you as a headliner outside of Holland?
They were pretty good; it definitely made me more confident of my status in other countries. During the tour I noticed that I had enough pulling power to fill clubs outside of Holland for the first time, even on the nights where I was solo on the line up. When you start out and maybe 5 people know you, hopefully next year that number has doubled haha. This process until where I am now took a really long time and a lot of effort. Just a couple of years ago I predominantly worked as a warm-up DJ, and now that I’ve made that switch it feels really good.
Next to playing just your own music, what are the key differences between playing live and doing a DJ set for you?
Well, a live set is always more compact than a DJ set. Where a live set is mostly one hour or one and a half, some DJ sets I’ve played have lasted seven hours. Also, Meeus van Dis, who designed the light production at Trouw, came with me on tour and he developed a device that shines this incredible bright light against my back when I’m playing, creating a halo around my silhouette, so I was much more the centre of attention than in a DJ set. When you do a set the music can be good and everything, but the DJ can disappear into the background, not necessarily being the fixed point for the crowd. In these live sets you were constantly at the centre of attention.
Is that always a good thing?
Sometimes not so much, especially when you’re working in front of a tough crowd that’s hard to satisfy. On the other hand when everything goes the way you want it to go and the crowd is digging it, than it’s great and it adds that extra dimension to the party, that x factor that can turn an okay night into a magical one.
Were there a lot of magical nights during the tour?
I had my fair share of tough crowds during live sets earlier in my career, when people just didn’t understand the music or the thing that I was going for. For this tour, however, I worked closely with James from Paramount agency and we put together the tour and the club choice really carefully and accurately. Like looking closely at which towns and clubs the people would be most interested to hear my music. That intense planning really paid out during the tour, because nearly every night had great atmosphere and energy.
Best gig during the tour?
That’s a difficult one because you experience every town, club or crowd differently, and everywhere you can feel a different charm to a gig. But if I had to name one, it would be Panoramabar. Especially because of the memories I have of that place. I have been coming there since I was about twenty-three years old, when I was only still a kid that had just started out listening to electronic music. And I remember my first time over there about seven years ago, standing in a corner, being blown away by Luke Slater who was just killing it. In this moment, while the sweat was dripping from the ceiling, everything became clear and I knew that I just had to be there someday in that booth at Panorama. I didn’t want to just experience the vibe there, I wanted to be the one who was creating it. I thought: “This is it. This is my goal.” And while I was playing there during the tour, I saw kids standing around just like me, in a corner, watching my every move, learning. The circle of life haha.
What labels have earned your respect this year?
First of all Clone in Rotterdam, they have been super steady in releasing rock-solid and pioneering electronic music. They have about four or five sub-labels, like Royal Oak, all of them doing a very good job in attracting some great new artists who are going to be pulling the scene forward in the future. Of course my Rush Hour family has had a really good year. Numbers, a label from the UK, has also impressed me a lot. They have been around for two years or something, but they still maintain a very high quality standard in everything they release. A lot of labels that are hip or cool usually have trouble in staying relevant to the industry. Numbers is an example of an imprint that’s just on top of its game and knows how to keep it that way. Proper’s Cult, San Proper’s label, is also one to keep an eye on. Last but not least: L.I.E.S. Records, the label of Ron Morelli, has made huge leaps forward and have a really distinct sound in their catalogue. We’re gonna hear a lot from them in 2014 as well I think.
What about your own label Voyage Direct?
We’ve really worked hard this year and in 2014 we want to start releasing new records steadily every month. We’ve got 12”es lined up by William (Kouam Djoko), Elias Mazian, Boris Werner, and some other EPs by a lot of new cats. So we hope to expand in the coming year and really start to work on cultivating our catalogue.
Speaking of Elias Mazian, the last time we spoke you were tipping me off that he was going to get big in the near future. And so he did, as he is now a respected and pretty well known name in the scene. Who do you expect to be kicking ass in 2014?
That will have to be the D.N.G. (de Nieuwe Garde). They have multiple members and one of the guys is Volkert Verdoorn, who is also a promoter at Club Pip, which in my opinion has become the best club in the Netherlands this year, next to Trouw. But D.N.G. really has the potential to make it next year. So go and check ‘em out!
Hmmm….. Maybe it will be me! Uuhmm, Levon Vincent I would say. Of course he’s been around for a long time. But he’s always been pretty underground, he almost has a cult status, and I’ve got the feeling that people are just starting to realise how great this guy’s music really is. I’ve been buying his records for five years now, but I’m hearing more people playing him since this year. I think it’s really starting to happen for him.
What are your thoughts on his three-month protégé plan?
Awesome! I totally support him in that. I immediately sent him a text when I got hold of the news. It read: “Never mind that protégé, I’ll come to Berlin and live with you!”
Haha. Bags already packed?
Yep, ready to go. No, but it’s a really good initiative, to have a master-student situation, where a DJ/producer takes a promising kid under his wings for a considerable amount of time. Teaching him the tricks of the trade on different levels. How cool is that?
Would you ever do the same thing?
Yeah I would love to, but it would be a bit strange since Levon and I have known each other for a long time, so it wouldn’t be fair.
I actually meant you taking a protégé under your wings.
Oh. Well I wouldn’t do an online request to attract aspiring artists. My way of doing it is meeting somebody naturally, and gradually start to see his or her potential. And you start to hang out together more and more, having deep conversations about music and that sort of thing. That’s my way of mentoring: by building a musical relationship organically.
Who was your last pupil?
Elias. But I actually learned as much from him as he did from me.
Allright. And on a different note, what kind of changes or developments in the house scene have you witnessed this year, musically speaking?
I have the feeling that the general sound is getting a lot warmer, in Techno as well by the way. I think it’s a natural development on the cold, bleak sound of electro that was popular five years ago. That warm/cold movement always fluctuates throughout the years. Five years ago I couldn’t have imagined that deep house was going to be as huge as it is now. Other than that, I generally feel that there is more quality music being released.
Can you explain that?
I think it’s because there are more DJs and producers now than ever. This, combined with the sharing capabilities of the Internet, has raised the quality-bar greatly. You need excellent skill and creativity to stand out these days. And when you do stand out, someone can pick up on it almost instantly through the web. Even if it’s a flooded market, that which sounds best, always rises to the top. Also, the idea of the computer as a holy grail for producing is losing support and the love for analog gear is coming back in a big way. More people are seeing the value of crafting their sounds with some good old hardware.
You already stood by the analog sound from the beginning, as you explained last time. Your track ‘the Elite’ from your latest album is another good example of that raw style, where you can’t say if it’s contemporary or if it’s a track from the eighties. In some ways it reminded me of Moodymann’s ‘the Dancer’, which also features those kinds of crazy, unexpected breaks. Where did the inspiration for this track come from?
It came from several things. First of all the track ‘Vertical Race’ by OL, which has a crazy jazz break and then kicks right back into the house beat, dominated by a stripped-down sample. Soundstream has a couple of tracks like that as well. And whenever I played those tunes, the breaks confused the crowd, because they had no idea what was happening, and then all of a sudden everything falls back in place and people went nuts. I really enjoyed that so I decided to do something similar myself. That’s how ‘the Elite’ came to life.
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This year you’ve been all over the globe for your tour. What kind of differences have you seen between the foreign crowds and the Dutch?
We have a different, more down-to-earth party mentality here. In Italy, for instance, people go to a club and they just lose theirselves. They party like it’s their last day here. You can’t compare it to the Dutch public, which is much more withholding and restrained. Maybe it’s because in a country like Italy, life is tougher for most people, so when you go out you almost need to lose yourself because it helps you cope. Something that could also play a role in our modest attitude is the Calvinism that still runs deep through our culture. Never stand out of the majority, that kind of thing. It’s too bad, because going out has to be a collective experience to which you have to surrender. And you can’t do that when you still have one foot in your regular life. Of course this doesn’t apply to everybody and there are enough exceptions.
What’s your take on the future of (modern) deep house, now that it has become so popular this year?
Tough question. The kind of deep house which is popular now – call it commercial or whatever – with the happy or sexy vocal thrown over a run-of-the-mill bass line, is just a hype in my view, and will pass over when the next best thing has arrived. Every genre that experiences such a quick rise in popularity is always bound to be taken over by something that sets itself apart from the status quo. When I grew up, minimal was the shit, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it, I wanted to play obscure music that people were surprised to hear. Other than that, I think deep house is such a broad term right now, that it kind of defeats the entire purpose of the sub genre. That endless narrowing of genres and styles isn’t helping the music. I would be happy if everything would be called dance music to indicate quality music.
I get what you mean, and a lot of artists will agree with you on that, but that categorisation is helping people bring order to their understanding and love of music, don’t you think?
True, there needs to be some kind of order, but it would be ideal if people would organise their understanding of music through artists, not genres. Speaking of which, I think that as a producer it should always be your aim to create music that has your own personal touch, and not make music that is made to fit into a certain style that is cool at the moment. I would love it if people who listen to my music can honestly say: “Hey, this is a typical Tom Trago track”. That’s when you’ve transcended a genre and have made yourself relevant in the industry.
How does a producer do this?
By creating music from the heart, from your gut, without any interference of what the mass public thinks is hip. Make everything your own, basically. This is easier said than done, but when you have finally created your very own path in the industry, the rewards are enormous. That’s what Theo Parrish, Moodymann, Levon Vincent and other idols of mine have in common: when they started out they sounded weird because they were doing something completely different compared to their contemporaries. But after they steadily continued to create this sound, after twenty releases, they were the rulers of their very own genre. This, to me, is a million times more interesting than scoring a quick hit and following a trend.
Good advice for any producer I think. Next up: Lowlands. In the previous interview you talked about how you would have liked to do a gig there this year, and that if it happened it would be your tenth Lowlands performance. You weren’t quite sure if it was going to happen back then though, but it did. How was it?
Absolutely amazing and crazy. You know that our chat about Lowlands in that interview, you actually got the ball rolling. Mojo concerts, the organizers of Lowlands, actually had no idea that I cherished the performances over there so much. So a friend of mine mailed the interview to one of the organizers, who contacted me afterwards to tell me that they would really like to see me again in August 2013, to close the entire festival at the 24-hour stage. And so they booked me for the tenth time. It was perfect because of the number, and that I got to close the festival that Sunday night. The Lowlands cycle was completed that night.
Nice! I’m glad to have helped. I was there, and Christ, what a party it was!
It was awesome! The energy level was just skyrocketing over there. There was this surging mass of people in front of me, I saw all kinds of plastic animals being thrown in the air, some people as well haha. And I played ‘House Train’ by Interstellar Funk, which was just released on my label Voyage Direct, and everybody went berserk. All things kind of came together that moment and the feeling I had was indescribable. Pure magic.
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Next to this interview, you have also made a ‘Best of 2013 Mix’ for us. Could you highlight some of the tracks in the mix and explain why they deserve to be in there?
Most of the tracks in ‘the best of 2013 mix’, are tracks by close friends and music partners. Most of them also living in Amsterdam. I wanted to showcase what the local talent of Amsterdam was about at the moment and show their highlights of this year. Like the first track is 500 years by Jam City. a very nice, new-style house track that inspired me a lot this year. It’s been released on Night Slugs, the label that is run by Bok Bok, with whom I do the project Night Voyage with. There are a lot off tracks by the new Dutch house movement, like Young Marco, Jordash, Overlast, Marco Spaventi, Melon, Awanto 3, Maxi Mill, Interstellar Funk and myself. I am very proud of what’s happening in Amsterdam at the moment, and I think this mix reflects that in a nice way.
We’re looking forward to it. Thanks for your time man, and have a great new years eve.