Considering only about 92 people live there, the Netherlands has got an impressive track record with electronic music. Ok, so you should forget the gabber. You should probably forget the trance acolytes pumping to Tiësto, clad all in white and looking like People’s Temple cultists if their Kool-Aid were laced with MDMA rather than cyanide. You should definitely forget the fact that Afrojack earns more in 20 minutes than you do in a year, playing records that sound like cats either fighting or having very angry sex.
Because the Netherlands is also the home of I-F, godfather of Hague electro. The home of multi-pseudonymed synthfreak Legowelt, who is the only man to write a techno concept album about deposed Panamaniac dictator Manuel Noriega. And it’s home to record stores and labels like Clone, Delsin, M>O>S>, and the ascendant Rush Hour, where a familial group of producers have been forging an unmistakably Dutch take on house music for the past decade and change. At the head of a pack that includes the likes of Dexter, San Proper, Aardvarck and Awanto3 is Tom Trago, a hip-hop DJ turned blissful house maven whose brace of albums to date have explored four-four’s most soulful side.
This month he releases his third album, The Light Fantastic, an LP awash in jacking rhythms and machine grit that Trago sketched out during a month spent secluded in a woodland cabin, with his machines and a big bag of weed. Ahead of its launch, we caught up with him on the phone to talk about the Dutch scene, label loyalty, and why everything’s always about having fun.
Afternoon Tom. Whereabouts are you speaking to us from?
In my new studio. Across the road from Trouw, there’s this building, an old newpsaper building and they’ve renovated it, and they gave me a room. A real nice place downstairs.
Is that where you recorded the album?
Actually, the last three records. From Voyage Direct on. The first album I did, I recorded it all in this building, on the fifth floor. But now I’ve moved to the basement. I finished my last album on the fifth floor and when I finished it, I moved down. So it’s like a new era [laughs].
You’ve talked about retreating to a house in the forest to write the album?
That’s where originally the first sketches were made for this album.
What was behind that decision?
Because I’m in my studio every day, I knew that for this album I had to retreat a little bit. Because you hang with the same people, you go to the same places, you shit on the same toilet. I needed to surprise myself with my surroundings, so I could come closer to what I really like, you know? Friends offered me this space – it’s an artist-in-residence, tourist house. A lot of writers use it. I talked to the guy who owns it and he said: “Yeah, it’s sad, no musicians have ever taken this house, only boring writers.” So I said: “OK, I’ll make a change”. A lot of friends came by, real musician friends, cooks. Whatever. We had a lot of fun. One of the best months of my life. It was only about music, I didn’t have to think about anything else. I told my manager I’m not answering the phone, emails. After two weeks I was so away from the real world.
Were you gigging at all, or locked away for a month?
I cancelled some gigs. I played one gig, after three weeks. I just took the car to the airport. But that was really the thing, just not being in the city with techno music, house music. All that urbanistic music. Getting away from those busy worlds.
What do you think the effect’s been? How do you see the album differing from the previous ones?
It’s definitely different. It’s hard for me to tell myself. But I used less vocals, and the people I worked with were closer than the last album. Last time I worked with Romanthony and Tyree Cooper – really big names – but this time I wanted to show what’s going on around me. I took my first album as an inspiration. I wanted to create that – not naïvety, but when you do a first album, you just do something. You don’t really know what you’re doing, so it just comes to you. With the second album, things were a bit more conscious, a step-by-step production process. Which was very helpful, I learned a lot, but I wanted to create jams again. Just let the MPC roll and smoke a joint, see what happens [laughs].
It seems from the outside that Holland’s always had quite a close-knit, supportive, almost familial scene. How fair an assessment is that?
In Amsterdam – I don’t know how it is in other cities – but if you go into the music scene as a young kid, at a certain point you get a sort of tutor. A mentor. All the DJs who’ve been in the game 15 years, they’ll take a young kid under their wing and let them play their warm-ups, put them on spots, and try to break open the scene for them. So actually, DJ Chaos – he’s an old Dutch drum and bass DJ who started playing everything – he got me into club gigs. And then it was Mr Wix, and KC the Funkaholic, and the guys from Rush Hour. And in Amsterdam, it’s such a small city that you probably know most of the people into the same stuff as you because you meet at all the same concerts. That’s what I love about Amsterdam.
How did you hook up with Rush Hour guys? Were you submitting stuff to them?
We were friends from just hanging out, but I remember the first real contact. I was making hip hop beats since I was 19, when I bought an MPC. And slowly I started moving into some other genres. I did this [E-mu] SP-1200 thing, a beat, and I put it on tape. And just thought: “Fuck it”. I had a big mouth, and probably at a night, to one of the guys, I went: “Yeah, mate, I’m making this track.” Blah blah blah [laughs]. So then the next day I show up with this tape at the office, and I actually gave it to them, played it to them. And they didn’t say anything. I was like, shit. This is not going to work. Maybe making music’s not for me. Then two days later Christiaan sent me a text that just said: “I listened to your song and I’d love to release it.” That was “Live at the BBQ”, in 2006. The first record that came out. The first record I ever submitted, and the only label I’ve worked with so far.
What’s it like working within a stable like that? do you think it’s been valuable to your development as an artist to have that stability?
Definitely. They’re a big part of me. The guys always influence me with records. If I make a tune, they’ll say: “Sick arrangement. Maybe check out this old Jeff Mills thing.” Or I’ll play them may track, and they’ll say: “Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s missing some tension.” They’ll guide me a little bit. And never change a winning team, right? It’s also that they’re around the corner from me, I can go have dinner with them, talk about any problems. If I work with labels across the ocean, it’s not the same feeling. I just like it. It’s loyalty to each other. In good times and bad times, and I think that’s cool.
So is that how you hooked up with people like Awonto3 for the Alfabet project?
Actually, Awonto3, he stays in the basement [of Trago’s studio building]. For the last 10 years we’ve been really close. Alfabet started way after I knew him, and we were both making music. So we did the same thing as the forest house; took all our gear from the studio, put it in a car and went to the seaside, to a small village. We just got into a squalid hotel, set up the stuff and stayed awake for a week [laughs].
You do a lot of working with your close friends, the likes of San Proper, Cinnaman. How does that differ for you from working alone?
Well, feedback is important. If you know you can trust the feedback, and you like their opinion, it’s good. If you’re producing, you’re making so many decisions. Every fucking 10 seconds you’re making a decision about a reverb, or about a kick. You’re constantly killing your darlings, in a way. So if you’re friends around it’s good, because if you’ve heard a track so many goddamn times that you can’t really hear what’s going on, and a friend walks in and helps you on a mixdown, or some chords, or some basslines, it can be really fruitful to learn from each other. And it’s way more fun. Alone is so alone. I think every producer knows this. If you’re producer you’re already alone a lot. It’s a lonely thing, producing. So I really recommend everyone works with friends as much as possible. Producing should be fun, not work.
That seems to flow through everything you do, really. I saw you play at Dekmantel a couple of weekends ago, and it was good to see someone having so much fun, even playing at 12pm to a pretty empty stage.
What can you do? I try to make it fun for myself too, even if I’m playing a breakfast set.
I want to talk a little about the label, Voyage Direct. What inspired you to set that up?
It was never my intention to start a label. If you’d asked me five years ago I’d have said: “No, it’s not for me”. Especially with Rush Hour, and a lot of other good labels around me, I never intended to start this. But actually, there was this track by Dexter [Not the Only One EP] and I loved it. And I asked when it was coming out because I wanted to play it, so he sent me a copy. Then I got a track by Legowelt, and I was playing that out a lot. And both tracks didn’t get released. I realised a lot of my friends were making dope music, that they were all from my scene, and I was like: “Shit, I have this folder on my computer. It’s almost motherfucking 20 songs. Just bangers, you know? Real bangers. And they all come from the same crew, but no one’s going to put them out. So wait a minute. I stepped up to Rush Hour, said I really wanted to show the world what’s happening in Amsterdam. I didn’t choose it, but in some way I’m sort of at the epicentre of where all these tracks come together because I know a lot of producers in the city through DJing. But also, I organised these nights, back in the day, called 8 Bar, where producers could get their shit played through a big soundsystem. Like CDR, in London. From there I knew a lot of people making dope music, so I was like: “Can I start a Dutch [label]? To show this history to the world, that’s being made in Holland at the moment.”
There’s always been a strong dance music culture in Holland, but it seems that at the moment the Dutch scene is at one of the most exciting points it’s ever been.
Yeah, I experience it myself too. It’s nice because most of our studios are all together, people like Juju & Jordash are right next to my studio. A lot of cats have their studios together now. It’s really inspiring, if you’re flying to LA to play and all of a sudden you’re in San Francisco and San Proper’s also playing. Or you get back and he’s just got back from Russia. There’s really this feeling that something’s kicking on.
Special thanks to Russell and the Oscillate Wildly crew