An interview with Tom Trago

As far as globally recognised DJs go, Tom Trago is pretty up there. His association with his hometown of Amsterdam has heavily involved him in a number of key brands and institutions including Rush Hour, Dekmantel and De School throughout his rise to prominence. For the last 10 years, Trago’s been developing a unique sound that draws on influences from all expanses of his eclectic record collection; dancefloor ready anthems blend with warm grooves and ambient soundscapes to create what has been both distinctive and ever-evolving throughout his career.

Ahead of his headlining Halloween show at Beaver Works alongside Steffi, we managed to catch up with Tom just before a recent show of his at Fabric

Thanks for sitting down with me this evening!

Thank you for coming down!

So you’re here tonight ahead of playing Fabric, obviously that’s been quite a staple in your career, is it something you still look forward to now?

Yeah yeah, definitely. They were the first people to invite me after I did the first album (Voyage Direct). Fabric all of a sudden booked me while I was a little peanut! Judy from Fabric listened to the album and loved it. It was like ten years ago and I was nervous as fuck! It was also one of my first live shows, with synths and drum machines. The crew were so nice to me and since then it’s been a pretty great relationship – it feels like family. It’s also great to play smaller places like Mick’s Garage but then once in a while Fabric feels like playing with the big boys!

The likes of Fabric for sure feels like you’re part of a following but it does seem like quite a far cry from humble DJ origins playing out in smaller venues. Do you still hold onto these origins in Amsterdam at the more intimate parties?

Absolutely, I try to stay with the promoters from back in the day. The first time I went to Leeds, the first time I went to Glasgow, I’m still running with Flux and Sub Club, respectively. Wherever I go, it’s all still the same guys and we’ve grown together. The promoters are growing and I’m also growing as an artist and producer.

It feels like you’re holding onto relatives and family in the dance music community I suppose?

Yeah, with the OG’s! Or the young G’s! I mean, I’m not really the type of guy that gets a better offer and goes for that and doesn’t understand that the whole thing is really building crowds with a certain type of promoter involved that really cares about the scene. They build you, they make you big, but I’m really against jumping out when you are big. I understand this because I’ve been a promoter as well. The first time these promoters booked me I was sleeping on one of their couches – it runs family deep! And sometimes these couches still feel better than 5 star hotels!

You’ve come a long way since sleeping on sofas now but now as an established artist, you’re quite renowned as being a record digger. For many, digging is considered an art – do you have any particular methods for approaching it in a record shop?

For me it’s a natural habitat. It’s always been a once a week necessity. Even when I’m travelling I still put aside one day a week to spend time in a record store. If you don’t fill your soul with new music you really feel it start to dry out, sometimes it’s a record store sometimes it’s a friend. Wherever I go, Glasgow and see Optimo for example, all over of the world you have contacts which can give you inspiration. After so many thousand dance records, it still gets me enthusiastic. You need guidance though, and record stores are great for this. If I have two or three hours in London, I love to go to Phonica – this goes for every city. I was just in India, and they didn’t really have stores but we just brought the dealers over the apartment and set up a store there! The day always feel pretty perfect and complete when you find something new. 

If you go out to buy maybe 10 records, do you spread the different genres that you might buy?

It really depends about the nightlife I’ve experienced during the week. I’m not for instance, a mega techno fan but then I go to a party and hear someone like Ben Klock play a sick techno set, then the next day I need techno. This goes also when I hear someone like Sadar Bahar play disco and the next day I wake and think, I need to sharpen up my disco collection! In that way, going out and really being on the dancefloor leaves me with a feeling that there’s still a world out there. It frustrates me when I’m on the dancefloor and don’t understand the genre. It was the same when I was getting into music, I didn’t understand jazz, for me it took like 3 years going into school to understand it but I just had to understand that genre. In every genre there’s good stuff to find, you’ve just got to dig for it. I might say that country isn’t my thing, then someone puts on a JJ Cale album and then the next day I would think, I need country music. 

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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. 

In that sense, you say your taste with discovering music ties into your sets and performances, they themselves vary a fair amount. I saw both your sets at Dekmantel this year, the vibe varied a lot. What sort of considerations do you take into before you approach your sets?

I think it was in the States, some guy told me, ‘a really good DJ plays different for the size of the room and can feel whatever the room needs’. I really appreciate when people can adjust their sounds to a certain moment and a certain room – it also keeps DJs interesting to me. I love to hear a techno DJ play a festival set and really rinse it out, but if I hear him play in a 300 capacity club and I still hear rinsing techno I’d be like nah. What I hope is that you can hear the same energy in slow disco that I play as well as in the techno I play, in my mind they all connect. 

Obviously your Boiler Room at Dekmantel was broadcast as a live set – it was flawless!

I was pretty nervous actually! I prepared it well because I’m experienced with shows not going that fluent. I’ve played the new album quite a lot now and have stopped for a while as taking all the gear on the road is quite a lot. I love DJing cause you can really adjust, but when you are playing live you are really trying to perform your music as best as possible. It’s so different.

This show for the new album, Bergen, is that one of the most complex albums you’ve done?

I chose this one to be simpler – the show I did for ‘Iris’, was one the most complex live shows I’ve ever done. I think we had at least 200 cables to connect with 50 machines, and always one would fuck up in someway and cause crazy amounts of stress! After that show I just thought, wow this is so tiring. For ‘Bergen’, I wanted to have it simpler so I could have a few moments in the hour where I could play some keys like a musician instead of being an operator!

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. 

Amongst your collaborative work, Steffi is one that stands out for a lot of people and obviously both of you are going to be headlining at Flux’s Halloween party.

Steffi is great. The first time I played in Panorama Bar around 10 years ago, we stayed at her house, she really prepped me for the gig and ever since she’s been really supportive. She’s helped me mentally as well, just talking about life – it doesn’t necessarily have to be about dance music. Steffi’s made me a wiser person I guess. 

Do you think there’s potential for the two of you to collaborate on some more tunes at some stage?

Yeah definitely. I love her last album and I love her attitude. She’s really bossy! The first step in collaborating comes from hanging out, and then the second thing is music to express that friendship. 

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. 

Gonna go a little bit more tongue in cheek now but what’s your opinion on curve balls in DJ sets?

Good question, a curve ball can be very hard to hit. You can really be the man dropping a nice curve ball but you can also be a loser if you hit the player out. I have been on dancefloors and seen curve balls go dramatically wrong, I think after playing for more than 10 years you’re more careful with it. You have to really think about the vibe on the floor and you can really destroy floors with curve balls.

In a good way or a bad way?

Both! Haha. The more I play, the less I’m impressed by heavy transitions – I love smooth transitions more. It’s always great to have surprises but too many curve balls get me out of my dancing zone. It’s great if you hit it, but to get out of that curve ball that you just dropped and getting back into the groove you were working on for a long time is actually sometimes more work. You might play a disco track after a techno track and it explodes, but then you’re in a disco world, and then what? It then might take half an hour to get back to where you were. I did used to play across the board way more back in the day, I find the more I DJ, the more I try to get into a specific groove to get the specific point across. 

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Have you ever played a curve ball that hasn’t gone well?

I did make some mistakes transitioning wrong back to disco and sometimes it just ends up too happy. Back in the days I would drop a disco record, now I would just find a record that for me is a Trago record that has disco influences instead of really changing the genre. It does really depend though. In a small room you can really feel the effect those curve balls have but in a big room, I think it’s more important that you give across a certain pulse. It’s about reading crowds in a way.

There’s one question that I’d like to finish up with; there’s a video of you where you go record digging in a record store in Tel Aviv and when you introduce it you mention that you brought with you a bottle of wine and a beetroot salad. I love that you tie other parts of your life in with your music, do you have any other interests/passions that you involve with your music?

In terms of other interests: I’ve moved out of Amsterdam, I live with my family, I have two daughters, I live in a forest and what I love doing now is just putting myself into nature, listening to my music and taking photos a lot. I tie my music in with moments that I capture in nature. I love movies a lot and cinematography, sometimes I like putting a movie on and turning the sound off and then I’ll go and put on a soundtrack that’s weirder than the original! I suppose all interests come back to your music in a way. We have a monthly get together with a lot of producer friends and my wife cooks for everybody, and then all of a sudden you want to play J Dilla ‘Donuts’! Every situation asks for a different music, the more different situations I put myself into, the more my brain gets challenged to find a perfect soundtrack for it. 

Fantastic, I think that’s everything – thank you, Tom!