Tom Trago has long been one of the leading lights of the Dutch electronic music underground; a globe trotting DJ, producer, live performer and label owner who enjoys nothing more than championing both overlooked gems and fresh sounds from his own country. He once claimed that he felt a physical need to make music every day, and it’s hard to think of anyone whose immersion in music is quite as complete. For Trago, there is no “typical day”, but an average one would include a combination of studio sessions – either solo, or with friends and like-minded musicians from the Netherlands or beyond – DJ gigs and live shows. Although now widely considered to be among the top tier of European DJs, capable of working big rooms, intimate spaces and wild festival crowds, Trago’s rise was built on years honing his craft.
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.
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 are your favourite records at the moment from your recent digging?
I was listening to DVS1‘s label Mistress Recordings and a guy called Lando‘s new record; I actually know him from back in the beat days making electronic hip-hop. It’s in between house and techno, quite sexy, dark and warm. I’m pretty inspired by old Dutch tunes, there’s some cool guys around me that are dropping bangers like Parrish Smith. I don’t even have enough time to listen to everything, it’s just banger after banger after banger!
Almost getting overwhelmed with the amount of bangers?
Yeah! Haha the thing you have to be careful of is that you start to compare stuff. I try to just put my iPhone full of tunes and then try to listen to as many records as I can. I try them in different places I guess, try them out on the dancefloor, make mistakes with them, learn where they should fit and then when you play them and they fit perfectly, you finally feel like there’s a piece of a puzzle landing. It’s kind of like a word added to your vocabulary.
Moving onto the actual production of your records, your music can be so many different things. Where do you feel you flex your musical muscles the most?
The most important thing is musical freedom. If I make three techno tracks, I want to make an R&B track next. If I want to release an ambient track now, I’ll release an ambient track. I know though, if you want success, it really works if you do a string of the same type of releases. At some point though, I didn’t want to be recognised or accomplished in that one thing. My aim is to have a certain sound that is genre-less – genre’s are old school man!
Is that why you like to collaborate with other artists so much? Because you don’t like to pigeonhole yourself?
Different people show you different styles and I always learn from doing something different. Most of the collaborations came really naturally because we were friends first and then music came second. Seth Troxler, Steffi, etc, all of these people they have a different approach and I learn from it, I think it’s amazing.
Do you feel like a different musician when you’re collaborating?
It’s always the same me. I never think about personas – I try to leave everything about myself behind except for my character when I step into the studio. I don’t wanna think about what a record does for my career or whatever, I’m just me. A lot of the time, I’ll play something and people will direct me but I always talk to people before we enter the studio and talk about where we want to go with this record.