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Interview: Tom Trago

Those of us who expected Tom Trago’s second album to follow the same trajectory as his first opus, 2009’s Voyage Direct, were sorely mistaken. The sample based Detroit-meets-disco vibe is largely non-existent on Iris, replaced by a diverse stew of styles that range from vocal hip-house workouts to ambient interludes, via a spot of garage and late night electro-funk. The end result shows a producer clearly comfortable in his own skin, prepared to experiment and challenge himself musically. While Voyage Direct had no original vocal contributions, Iris has six – including Chicago house legend Tyree Cooper, Romanthony (the man behind the vocals on Daft Punk’s “One More Time”), and emerging star Olivier Daysoul. There’s even room for an unexpected vocal debut from well loved Amsterdam producer San Proper.

Perhaps the biggest legacy from Voyage Direct exists not in sound but name; the Rush Hour-backed Voyage Direct series has seen Trago turn his hand to the world of A&R, curating releases from the incredibly deep pool of Amsterdam based talent. Trago’s close working relationship with the Rush Hour empire is obvious – all of his original 12″s and albums thus far have been released on the Amsterdam based imprint or labels directly affiliated with it. Indeed he is arguably now just as entrenched in the city’s music scene as the label itself, acting as a linchpin for the city’s network of emerging producers and DJs. Juno Plus called on Trago to dissect the making of Iris, and discuss the Amsterdam electronic music community and what the future holds as DJ, producer and label chief.

Iris touches on loads of different styles, and there’s only a couple of tracks that seem like a natural progression from Voyage Direct. How did it all come together?

Well, I wanted to set myself new goals and try new things. I had already done the Voyage Direct album, and the idea of making another album like that, only a bit better, didn’t appeal to me. I really wanted to work with vocalists – that’s one thing I didn’t do on Voyage. The thing is, I’ve listened to so much different music since I was young, so I tried to look at my broad scope of influences and make my own output a bit broader. I also wanted to make tracks that had a certain hybrid feel to them, crossing two or more genres, and thus not easy to define or pigeon hole. Just good music.

The production throughout the album is spot on – did you learn a lot from the process of making Voyage Direct?

Yeah definitely, and producing Iris taught me a lot too. I grew in the production process, especially when it came to mixing, because I did it all myself. It was a tough process, but I mean that’s what you make albums for, right? The last album was quite sample based, and on this album I tried to use my synths and drum machines a bit more. The last one was heavy on the MPC and Logic, but that wasn’t the case on Iris.

You say there wasn’t much of a sampling element – did you play the instruments yourself or get people into the studio to help?

I played them mostly myself. I get a lot of feedback from close crew, friends who come to my studio. I’ll play them the tracks and they’ll help me on simple things like getting the bass right or whatever.

I like how the piano lines on “Lost In The Streets Of NYC” from Voyage Direct were composed using the piano your mum gave to you when you turned 18. Is it still in your studio and did you use it on many tracks in Iris?

The piano was used to compose tracks on Iris, but not record them. It’s here in the corner and it’s always helping me on simple melody stuff, so in that respect it’s still a big part of my production process. It helps me when I work on the MPC and it’s still here for me.

As you mentioned there is a very strong vocal element to Iris. There are a couple of big names and a couple of surprises; firstly I’d like to ask you about Tyree Cooper. How did that hook-up come about?

Actually I met him a few times in Berlin, he lives there now. I was always a fan of his older work, and I mean the whole hip-house thing was funny to me in a way.

Where you a hip-house fan? Every couple of years it seems to threaten to have a revival…

I was too young, but I remember it was my first kind of endeavour with house, because I was about 7 or 8 when he was dropping his hits. I just remember having this happy feeling listening to that kind of music. (On Iris) I tried to approach that style from my own perspective. I thought it would be cool to see how my music and Tyree’s vocals would work together.

You also have Romanthony on there – was that an intentional move to give the album a more radio friendly feel?

Actually he was working with Christiaan from Rush Hour on a Best Of Romanthony compilation, so they were already in contact. He got some of my music and I think he asked Christiaan about me, and we were put in touch. From there we agreed to do a song together, so I sent him a few tracks and he picked one and did his thing with it. It’s a summery anthem – to be honest I didn’t know where we were going with it, what you hear on “Steppin’ Out” was just the natural outcome of the process. I learned a lot from doing things that way. It’s funny because it’s been picked up by Dutch radio stations, but other people really dislike it. It’s a track you either love or hate, I guess.

I guess when you have an ostensibly underground album dabbling in pop-friendly moments it’s always going to divide opinion.

Yeah, and that’s one of the things I wanted to convey; that I really enjoy cheesy pop. Well, not even cheesy, just good pop music and R&B. I’m not a guy who’s only listening to Theo and Moodymann all the time. It was definitely a choice, to show people that it doesn’t have to be one of the other; you can like both. If it’s good music that’s all the matters.

It was also nice to see Olivier Daysoul make an appearance. When did you first hear him? His vocal on the Hudson Mohawke album from a couple of years back was great.

Yeah I got into him around that period, and I heard some earlier stuff too. My man Jules (Inkswel) from Australia put us in touch – he knew I digged Olivier Daysoul.

There’s a pretty heavy electro-funk tip on that particular track. Did you think, ‘OK I’m working with Oliver Daysoul on this so I’m gonna take it down that route’? Or did you already have that instrumental track ready to go?

Actually the track was way different before, and I completely reworked it the week before the album was due. I had this deadline looming, and I put the track together in one night and that’s how it came out. I had previously taken a whole different approach to it – the beat was totally different. It was not made with any pre-conceived ideas  – initially it had more of a Kraftwerk vibe to it.

As much as I like the vocal contributions from the people we’ve already discussed, I have to admit my favourite one is “Corrupt” featuring San Proper. It totally comes out of nowhere. He sees to be a fixture on the Amsterdam scene – are you good mates with him?

This is completely true, he’s a really good friend of mine. He hangs out in the studio quite often, and we also play in a band together, a new wave, disco, post-punk band called Dirt Machine. I made that beat and he stole it from my computer, did the lyrics and gave it back to me with a full vocal. I was like “This is not you! Damn, you can sing?” (laughs)

“I really enjoy good pop music and R&B. I’m not a guy who’s only listening to Theo and Moodymann all the time. It was definitely a choice, to show people that it doesn’t have to be one of the other; you can like both.”

So it was totally unplanned?

He completely surprised me with it. We did some post-production on it and it came out really well. He blew me away with that one. We just had the album launch party here in Amsterdam which was great fun, but the biggest surprise was most people where like, “what the fuck, is San Proper singing?” because he’s a bit of a local hero. It was nice to have him on board.

The record is out on Rush Hour, with whom you seem to have built a strong working relationship. How did you first meet the Rush Hour guys and how has your relationship grown?

I was close friends with the guys from Rednose Distrikt, they are a crew from Amsterdam and I got to know them about 10 years ago when I first started going out in Amsterdam and DJing. They were releasing on Rush Hour and influencing me a lot with how they used the MPC. They got me into making music, so when I did my first track, I left a CD at the Rush Hour office. They contacted me and said they were gonna release it, and it was a bit like, ‘wow, it’s really going to happen’. That was “Live At The BBQ”, in 2006 I think it was. From there I started DJing a bit with the owners Antal and Christiaan. They are really honest; they can tell me if they feel something or not, and we had a real exchange of ideas on Iris. Christiaan has really been great with A&R for me. I’m so happy to be among other great artists on Rush Hour.

Were they surprised at the direction you chose to take the album? What kind of feedback did they offer?

They were really up for it, and I think they understood that I’ve always wanted to work along the line between a record potentially reaching a bigger audience but remaining true and proper. I showed Rush Hour my sketches and ideas and they were totally up for it. It’s a side of the label that hasn’t been developed. They were really happy with how it turned out and so was I.

Rush Hour have shown faith in your taste by handing you the reigns to the Voyage Direct series- do you have complete control over the A&R?

Yeah I do. All of the artists on the label are close friends of mine, and they are all based in Holland. There are just so many dope producers in Holland and I know most of them because of the nightlife, and I’ve always been into these guys. So (Voyage Direct) is a place to show what Holland has to offer on a dance level, and I guess I was in the right place at the right time to take it on. I had all these tracks on my computer from all these guys so I started the label … we’ve got 10 releases coming up with some crazy shit that I hope people will love.

What have you learned from the A&R side of things? It’s a completely different beast to just producing music.

A&Ring is quite a weird thing because in one way you have to push the label in a certain direction, but you’ve got to allow the artist to come up with their own stuff and progress their own sound. Sometimes I find it quite hard to combine those two goals, but we always get there.

“In the end it’s just about you developing yourself and not keeping up with the pressure of maintaining some kind of sound. If it’s honest music, your signature will always be there”

What have you got coming up on Voyage Direct?

Real soon we’re going to drop the first record from Maximillion, he’s been my co-producer on a lot of stuff, tracks like “On The Side”, and the track with Romanthony from Iris. Then we’ve got a new Awanto 3 release, he’s a guy who’s already done stuff on the label. We’ve got another Legowelt 12″ coming up, we’ve got Kid Sublime doing house stuff again, and Bakey USTL is living in Amsterdam now and he’s doing stuff with us. Me and Bakey also did some tracks together in the studio.

Will the Bakey USTL release be a solo or collaboration?

We made two tracks which are quite banging so we’ll release that as a separate 12”, but we’ll also release one with just Bakey’s tracks, as a solo EP.

We’ve touched on it already, but I wanted to ask you about the role of Amsterdam in your musical style. Whereabouts is your studio?

My studio is on the east side of Amsterdam, right across from Trouw actually. I’m looking at Trouw now.

Is it hard to keep your head down and work with one of the best clubs in Amsterdam across the road?

Well actually it inspires me a lot. Sometimes I just go there to listen, or maybe to party and get so hyped up by the tracks I hear that I think ‘fuck it, I want to go back to the studio now and make some tracks’. Also because I’m so involved with the city’s nightlife I’m not so much of a dancer now; I just listen and go back to the lab. It has to be real good party for me to dance! (laughs)

Amsterdam seems to have a great musical culture – there seems to be a genuine community.

That’s definitely true. Because it’s quite small you meet people quickly. That’s what happened with me and Bakey, and Rednose, we just got to know each other. For me, I have my studio here and it’s easy for guys to walk in and get some feedback on their music. I also did this platform night, it’s called 8 Bar, which started in 2007. It was just a night out, a bit like CDR in London, where all the producers would come down and play their stuff. Things like that make people feel more connected – I definitely think the guys here believe they are part of a greater thing…I don’t know if I want to use the word movement!

You had a release called “Dekmantel Anthem” which I thought was nice – I assume that was a homage to the Dekmantel label? How did you meet those guys?

Yeah they actually came from Den Haag, but they live in Amsterdam now. It’s interesting because the Rush Hour energy was quite heavy about eight years ago, they were doing a lot of parties and the whole Moodymann sound was pretty big, but after a while it kind of dropped off a bit. Then these young kids from Den Haag called Dekmantel started doing Detroit parties again, and it got a lot of new people into that sound. And for that reason I wanted to make an anthem for them.

You’ve also got a release coming up with Young Marco and Awanto 3 on Studio Soulrock? I heard you guys got together in the studio and made the track in one night – is that true?

Thats’ right! Actually the first title was “Beer, Wine and Percussion”, but we renamed it in the end. It was a real one night jam – if you are in the studio with three people it works faster, you can mix, create and arrange the track in one night. The track has an energy to it and you can feel that, you can feel how it was in the studio. I like both styles of production – be it working with vocalists and capturing live energy, or working long hours in the studio fine tuning everything.

It’s two very different approaches but they can both yield amazing results…

Yeah and for me it’s important to work on both.

A lot of people are one or the other. Either they have the old school ‘live and one take’ approach or spend three weeks honing one kick drum.

If you are always refreshing your approach, you’ll come back to your old ways of working and improve them. You learn a lot from refining your production process, even if you risk losing your signature sound or whatever. In the end it’s just about you developing yourself and not keeping up with the pressure of maintaining some kind of sound. If it’s honest music, your signature will always be there.

Nicely put. I also wanted to ask about your experience of London. You had an Iris launch party recently at the Dalston Superstore. I know for example Bok Bok from Night Slugs is a big fan of your album.

Yeah he came down to the release party – we’d been in touch earlier when he played in Amsterdam. He’s a funny guy and was into my music, and I was into his music, so the connection is obvious. Now we’re talking about doing a remix, but we’re not sure yet because he’s working on his album. But it’s definitely a great connection – I was so honoured for him to be at my release party. But also producers like Braiden, Girl Unit and Joy Orbison, the whole British scene really interests me. I think there’s a good musical connection at this moment between London and Amsterdam, the new generation. Everybody knows each other.

Hopefully that’ll lead to more crossover in terms of production. It would be cool to see the worlds of Rush Hour and Night Slugs meeting.

Yeah I think so too. I noticed the guys from Night Slugs and Numbers have been really feeling the Rush Hour stuff. I’m sure some things will come out of it, maybe even just some studio jams.

And one last question – will there be any follow ups to Iris in terms of remix packages?

There is a real cool remix package coming up. Virgo is doing a remix of Tyree Cooper track from Iris which I really love. I’m also going to do a few dubs of album tracks and will hopefully drop a few new singles later in the summer. And I’ve got the Alphabet project with Awanto 3; “C&D” just came back from pressing so that’ll be out in time for summer. And there are some projects I work on under aliases but I want to keep them secret!

Interview Aaron Coultate
Pictures: Gioia de Bruijn