INTERVIEW Tom Trago

He’s been a mainstay of the electronic music scene for more than a decade, still or for this very reason his productions sound as fresh and innovative as they do in the present. He’s taken us on several voyages, drawing attention to befriended or undiscovered artists with his label Voyage Direct before coming up with a new and mainly (for now) self-focussing label Jong Nederland. He’s released on Rush Hour for as long as 15 years and had EPs on Dekmantel or Will Saul’s Aus Music. Tom Trago – without a doubt – is one of the Dutch electronich music scene’s figureheads when it comes to music and thankfully the artist keeps continuing writing his story of success inimitably. His latest piece of work as a producer is a remix for DGTL‘s V/A for which the Bergen-based artists took on remix duties for FM Live’s track Tal Como So. Shortly after the release Tom spoke to Torture the Artist about his passion for hats, his future plans for Jong Nederland, the influence of his move from Amsterdam to Bergen, the importance of local artists and much more and basically takes the reader on the same voyage through ‘organized chaos’ as his music has done for so long.

I decided to take a step back from the fast life.

Torture the Artist: Hello Tom, tell us something about your day.

Tom Trago: I’ve cleaned the studio today, that’s kind of a routine to get my head straight about upcoming projects. I mostly make to do lists when I’m cleaning. Afterwards I went jogging and took a cold dive in the sea. Returning to a clean studio is what makes the day extra productive.

Torture the Artist: You seem to have a preference for hats, what’s the latest head-gear you’ve bought?

Tom Trago: Haha, I’m done with the hats for now. I’ve bought a new super trimmer today, and will spend the rest of my life bold and proud. <laughs> No, my love for hats will remain. It is rooted in my early years playing baseball, and after that the skateboarding culture really got me into it. It’s a great extra item to match with other clothes and a great protection for my head when the sun shines. My newest add to the collection is a cap from my friend Parra.

Torture the Artist: As far as we are informed, you live in Bergen, which is a little bit north from Amsterdam and close to Alkmaar – geographically you are close to the scene but at the same time far away enough to kind of objectively look at it. How has living in Bergen filtered into your career (besides the album) and what why did you move from Amsterdam to it?

Tom Trago: It was a great move for me to move out of the city and live my life more on my own pace. Also Amsterdam is just 45 mins away, so that’s not really like its out of my sight. The main reason was the coming of my second daughter and I decided to take a step back from the fast life. My girls have a beautiful youth here, full of nature and peace.

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Torture the Artist: You launched your new label Jong Nederland last year and since then you have released two own EPs on the label. While you released a lot of music from other artists on Voyage Direct, are you planning to only put out own music on Jong Nederland or what’s your approach and philosophy with it?

Tom Trago: Jong Nederland is a label focused on straight to tape tracks that I don’t mix or edit too much. All made in Jong Nederland, the name of the building where I live. Firstly I will include my own material a lot. The JNL 003 release is on its way! After that slowly some friends and affliates like Cinnaman, Awanto 3 and Maxi Mill will step up the game. All the sleeve’s have hand stamped artwork by fellow Bergen resident and accomplished artist Pieter Bijwaard.

Torture the Artist: It seems the musical voyage on Voyage Direct is over and you took a break of around about three years until launching Jong Nederland. Why did you need some time off from running a label?

Tom Trago: I needed to find new energy and a new goal to set. I felt my mission with Voyage was done. It was a great voyage and a lot of artists from the label have stepped up their careers. The philosophy behind Voyage Direct was to set up as a launching platform for all the artist we hosted. It makes me happy to see that most of the artists we hosted are now successful and some of them have their own label. Running a label is a lot of work and I decided a while ago to focus a bit more on my own Voyage. I took the time to reflect and see what made me most happy. Sending emails and chasing deadlines was not one of them.

I asked myself what music I wanted to release. That’s when the idea for Jong Nederland came around. I wanted to bring the listener closer to the actual creative process, with music that is roughly sketched and not too polished.

It’s the very little sounds and textures that directly pop out.

Torture the Artist: Your remix for FM Live’s track Tal Como Soy was just released on DGTL Records. What made you decide to remix this particular track in the first place?

Tom Trago: For some reason it’s easy for me to pick songs for a remix. It’s the very little sounds and textures that directly pop out. Same goes for the FM Live track. I was very attracted to the bass sound. Also I really liked the concept of working with local artists.

Clubs and festivals (platforms) really can kickstart a whole new wave in music. For me they play a very important role in connecting (local) people and catalysing new energy.

Torture the Artist: Speaking of local artists, the Dutch scene has quite a reputation of supporting their local acts and make them internationally known. Now with the pandemic basically ruining a lot of clubs financially, would do you feel that in general more attention should be devoted to local artists and that it is not always necessary to book international DJs?

Tom Trago: Supporting local scenes is what the future needs, whether it comes to food, business or art. To help the scene but also to reduce useless travel. It’s true that the Dutch scene has been very self supportive and this led to a very strong local scene. It created local heroes. For me having residencies over the last few years at local clubs like Trouw, De School, Paradiso and festivals like Dekmantel and many others, made me independent at a very early stage in my career. Also it created a strong family of local producers, DJs, music lovers. Clubs and festivals (platforms) really can kickstart a whole new wave in music. For me they play a very important role in connecting (local) people and catalysing new energy.

Torture the Artist: It’s the first time you release something on DGTL, is the remix just a teaser for an upcoming EP on the label and how did working with DGTL come about since usually, besides your own labels, release mostly on Rush Hour or Dekmantel?

Tom Trago: We will see what the future holds. <laughs>

Torture the Artist: What was the most memorable feedback you’ve got for your music and by whom?

Tom Trago: It was by Phillipe Zdar, just after I did my first release. I remember he totally digged it and invited me to his house in Ibiza and offered me my first remix. And probably when my youngest daughter – she’s three years old) – likes my music but wants to add something important. <laughs>

Torture the Artist: Generally speaking, do you find it more difficult to come up with orginal tracks than remixing a track from another artist?

Tom Trago: It depends totally on the situation, although I find myself spending more time on remixes.

Torture the Artist: Throughout your career you’ve collaborated with quite some artists. However, what’s an artist you’d like to sit in the studio with, and why?

Tom Trago: I am a big fan of Madlib. I like his way of working. I think we both love using the SP1200!

I love the unpolished jazz vibes that some of Madlib productions have.

Torture the Artist: Madlib just released his album for which he worked together with Four Tet. What genres would you like to bring together on an artistic level or in other words, what kind of track would you want to produce that you have not?

Tom Trago: I love the unpolished jazz vibes that some of Madlib productions have. Also the raw SP1200 or lo-fi sound, and I like that he never sticks to one genre. It really reminds me of the black jazz recordings records or stata east label stuff that I really love. I guess having us in one room, will create something special.

I wanted to get back to how it started. Just experimenting with sound and machines.

Torture the Artist: The amount you release over the past few years has gone down, is there more to come in the future since you’ve not been able to play a lot of gigs over the past 1,5 years or did this period of time affect or support a lack of creativity when it comes to own productions?

Tom Trago: I’ve taken some time to settle myself in Bergen aan Zee and move my main studio. Then I really took the time to work on all the projects I had laying in my vault. It took a while to optimize with my creative flow. Also I was kind of done with looking at a computer screen to make music. I wanted to get back to how it started. Just experimenting with sound and machines. I worked on having a more natural way of producing and reconnecting everything. Now I feel more productive than ever. Home-based and in sync with my family.

One of the best things is using the beautiful mistakes or accidents that just happen when you are experimenting with an instrument.

Torture the Artist: How much chaos do you need or can you take in order to produce music or does everything needs to be in its place – also when it comes to your productions?

Tom Trago: One of the best things is using the beautiful mistakes or accidents that just happen when you are experimenting with an instrument. This happens when you rewire your studio or use different styles of production. Or work in somebody else’s studio. I woudn’t call it chaos, maybe organised confusion is a better term. The less control, the more fun! This goes for creating, Not for editing the day after! ha!

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Torture the Artist: Would you say the pandemic has changed or highlighted certain music preferences of yours, like do listen to different music now than before or maye even produce other styles/ tracks?

Tom Trago: I started listening to more and more classical music. It really inspired me to write my first piano album during the pandemic. It was quite a journey. It’s almost finished now.

Torture the Artist: What are your three favorite musical findings during the club-lockdown?

Tom Trago:

Torture the Artist: If we were taught one thing over the past months then it was that a lot of artists need to have another string to their bow, what’s yours?

Tom Trago: I try to focus mainly on music. In all its forms. But I think the music and music business is a very diverse world. With a lot of different professions. It’s important to play a role in multiple professions so you can stay fluid.

Torture the Artist: What’s that profession for you?

Tom Trago: Within music I work mostly as producer (first) and DJ (second), label owner and back in the days as promoter/designer of parties/good times. <laughs> I’ve also set up a talent agency. It’s called Voyage Select and it represents our favourite DJs/producers from Holland and beyond. I’m very proud to work with my partner Jorn, he is one of the best as a music strategy visionary and booker. I really respect his musical taste and his vision on the business. Also working with befriended brands like Patta or Brompton gives me different ways of output, which makes my projects diverse. I think there are a lot of ways to use your music respectfully on multiple platforms so go ahead and think of things!

What about the sounds electric cars will make in the future? Or how do you want a gentle ringtone to sound? Or can we advance in 3D / 4D/ 5D listening experience? Or what about smart sound absorbing interiors?

Next to my career in music, I would love to be a natural space / garden designer like Piet Oudolf. I love his work. I try my best in my own gardens! It really eases my mind and stimulates a different way of being creative. So anybody wants a Tom Trago designed garden? Hit me up! I’ve never worked outside the music business though. I remember I bought my first turntables with delivering pizza and picking fruits.

Torture the Artist: You’re gifted on decks and off, do you think your musical career consists of both aspects balancing each other or do you approach each role differently? How interconnected are DJ Tom Trago and Producer Tom Trago?

Tom Trago: It’s definitely one thing for me. It’s the inspiration that comes from listening, collecting, and curating music that drives me into the studio.

Torture the Artist: Speaking of collecting music, what’s the piece(s) of music in your collection that you are proud to own, and why?

Tom Trago: It must be some of the early HipHop vinyl that were very hard to find back in the day. I remember Amsterdam hero’s like DJ Edzon, Mr Wix and DJ Sp. They got their records in New York City or wherever and played it out in Amsterdam and the only way to hear those songs was to listen to them in the club and to their sets, here are a few examples. I realize this was before the rise of internet and mp3-downloading.

Also the records I found when shopping with Antal in Brazil. He is a king in that genre. And also the way we found them: In old stores, markets, or dodgy 45 records dealers… Arthur Verocai stuff and so on and so forth. Or some of the limited Theo Parrish and Moodymann records I’ve found in Detroit or at Rushhour, and quite a few ones in Belgium, weird new wave that’s pretty abstract, But my most beloved one is the record my father played over and over again:

James Brown – I’m Broken Hearted

I must agree I’m not the best in keeping everything in mint condition. I really use records. I don’t want to be an archive runner. I play them, use them, travel with them. I think the journey, mission and the way you look and find a record adds to how much I love the records/songs.

Torture the Artist: What job did your parents see you working in?

Tom Trago: They always supported me to follow my dreams, whatever that may be. <smiles>

Torture the Artist: We don’t want to go through how you got started with electronic music, because that can be read in other interviews. But what’s a track or maybe the track that reminds you of your early days in the electronic music scene and what do you associate or connect with it?

Tom Trago: Theo Parrish – Took Me All The Way Back

I remember Antal playing this one in my early years and totally loosing my mind.

Torture the Artist: What’s a characteristic or trait of yours that has helped you to have a career in the electronic music scene? And that you would recommend to aspiring artists?

Tom Trago: Make a lot of music & focus when you’re in the studio. Stay open and socially minded outside of the studio.

All the best most expensve gear in hi end studios do not generate the best music.

Torture the Artist: What would be a musical extravagance you would pay for, if you were very wealthy?

Tom Trago: Wealth and music do not really need each other I think. Remember, all the best most expensve gear in hi end studios do not generate the best music. But a custom designed sound system by the King Shiloh fam, would be on top of the list!

Torture the Artist: As you’ve played your part in the music business for quite a while, do you feel more like an actual player on some kind of court, like a spectator, or a constant referee?

Tom Trago: <laughs> I feel I’m the playing on my own court, with friends! Behind my house!

Torture the Artist: When was a moment in your life when you wanted to cheat, and why?

Tom Trago: Last time I was in a Casino. <winks>

Words by Holger Breuer

Pictures by Tim Hoeben (Apenkooi)