HOM: Tom Trago about his music, Rush Hour and the Amsterdam music scene

After the first edition of the RH House Of Music magazine, we really liked the idea of doing a magazine, and that has lead to the second edition in the making!  The upcoming HOM features stories on Invisible City Editions, Awanto 3, Sahel Sounds’ Mamman Sani and more… To warm up for it, we decided to put Tom Trago’s feature online that we published in the first edition. 

We interviewed him when he was about to release his 3rd album called The Light Fantastic. Tom is doing really well, here you find photos of his The Light Fantastic North America Tour. That is just great. Enjoy the read!

///

Tom Trago wasn’t going to stick around in Amsterdam. On the contrary. He chose to escape his daily emails, phonecalls and whatever could distract him from his plan to create his third album ‘The Light Fantastic’. He had a set plan to make a concept album, and nothing should change that. So he activated his auto email reply, rented a van, stuffed it with equipment and drove off to the forest for a month. Trago came back only a few months ago, but to him it feels like it has been ages already. 

I went looking for Trago at his studio in Amsterdam and we spoke about his album and about how much the Dutch capital means to him.

“So this is the place where I have done most of my music”, the producer says when he shows the floor where his studio is at. “I recorded my first two albums here, ‘Voyage Direct’ and ‘Iris’.” He plumps down on a red couch in the hallway, just outside of the studio that he shares with Maxi Mill who is recording stuff as we speak. Since Trago returned from his forest adventure, it has been business as usual. He restarted his international gigs and continued his life in Amsterdam. One remarkable thing is that his friend San Proper got himself a studio just down the hall. After a long studio session and just before this interview, Trago finds Proper asleep, lying on his couch next to his guitars.

“When I came back I finished the album tracks here. Although they were completed, I thought I could change quite some a bit of the tracks again.” Trago continues: “That actually happens a lot. Sometimes it takes more than 10 phases before a track is completed. Most of the time I record something, people listen to it and have tips or whatever. I play with the feedback and change the track.  For example, ‘True Friends’ went through 16 phases. I talked with Maxim [Maxi Mill] about it, with my manager Christiaan Macdonald and Rush Hour’s Antal Heitlager inspired me as well.”

Musical journey
During the process of his second album ‘Iris’, really anything took him on a musical journey, Trago says. “A lot of people say the tracks sound very widely influenced. They are right. In general I dig into a lot of different kinds of music, like hip-hop, disco, house, folk, jazz, funk and so on. That is just the way I grew into music.” But for his third album Trago had a very strong vision of the road he wanted to take. “For ‘The Light Fantastic’ I wanted to use less samples and more synths. And it had to be for the dancefloor. I didn’t want to make songs, so I didn’t want to be influenced by jazz and folk. Of course, every now and then I had to get my head off topic and I created a hip-hop beat. That’s just the way I work. I do all kinds of things. But in the end I was very selective about the tracks that I found suitable for the album. In the forest I had a good distance to overview what I wanted.”

And after tweaking his third album, the title ‘The Light Fantastic’ suddenly arrived on top of his work. “It is based on a poem ‘Tripping the light fantastic’. It means something like imaginagy or fantastic dancing. It really points out what happens when we create music with the joy of dancing in our minds.” Trago takes a moment to overview his work. “I think that my three albums are very different, but on all you can definitely hear my sound”, Trago says. How did that happen? Trago doesn’t have to think twice. “Amsterdam has always played a huge role in my music. People like Antal, Cris Backer and KC the Funkaholic and a few other DJs here like Cinnaman and Mr Wix have been a big influence. Thanks to the Rush Hour store and because I knew these people, I have created my sound.”

Influences
Trago’s musical journey kind of started by a Kid named Sublime. Talking about the versatility of the Amsterdam scene; Tom Trago got in touch with Rush Hour, because hip-hop head Kid Sublime released a house track that was sold at the store. “I used to go to hip-hop record store Fat Beats a lot, where Kid Sublime worked. I would always buy double as much when he was working, because he knew exactly which records to pitch. One day I heard he had his first record out, and I had to search for Rush Hour to buy it. Back then I only bought hip-hop and jazz, but I did buy it! My first house record. And I really liked it, because I felt where the music was coming from. At Rush Hour I started digging for disco, house and I got in touch with the Rush Hour crew and Rednose Distrikt. Not long after I met them I decided to quit school. Really, Rednose and all these guys gave me the feeling that you can do whatever you want, however you want it. As long as you truly believe in it. That you can shape your fantasy in real life.”

And around that time, Trago met Cinnaman. “Yuri [Cinnaman] was working at Rush Hour back then, and he was doing the Beat Dimensions project. I saw him being way ahead of time, dropping unreleased stuff on Myspace for example. I was collecting jazz and hip-hop while he was doing that future stuff, creating beats without sample loops.” Trago borrowed some synthesizers that he started using next to his Akai MPC and his beats started to sound more electronical. But one important thing was missing for the beat-creator. “In the club I couldn’t do jack shit with those slow, deep and heavy beats.” Trago started playing more and more housy DJ sets, at pop temple Paradiso for example. And one day it was really time for something else. “I hooked up with Yuri, he said: ‘let’s put the drum machine on 120 BPM, grab some Chicago synths and see what happens’.” And something did happen, it meant the release of the Yuro Trago record, and Trago’s next step in his music. Not very long after that, he dropped his first album, a collection of his first house productions.

Trago grabs the flabbergasting sleeve for ‘The Light Fantastic’. It looks really futuristic. “This is done by Machine. They do a lot of artwork for KC’s label Kindred Spirits as well. We talked about the idea and vibe, what I wanted for this album. This artwork and also that of ‘Voyage Direct’ and ‘Iris’ looks very digital, futuristic in a way. But if you look closer, you can see it still looks analog and organic. Like my music, it is a bit futuristic, but it hasn’t forgotten its heritage.”

Friends
Back to the forest, because that’s the place where most of ‘The Light Fantastic’ found life. Despite the fact Trago escaped his home town, he never intended to escape his friends. “I was staying in some hut in the middle of the woods and lots of people dropped by.” What was that like? “Well, Hollywood visited me for example and she wanted me to do a Chicago house track for her. She asked me what to sing on it, and I told her to just express her love for house music. So she popped a pill, and we recorded her vocals in one take. That became ‘Jack me’.” Trago shows lots of pictures of his friends playing instruments, chilling out in the hut or running around in the forest at night. “On my second album I chose to work with well known artists like Tyree Cooper and Romanthony, but now I want to show that the local people here are as great as those super stars, great enough to do a complete album with.”

And that is exactly what he wants to show with his label Voyage Direct as well, on which he only releases artists from the Netherlands, like Awanto 3, Maxi Mill, Dexter, Interstellar Funk and William Kouam Djoko. “There are so many talented producers around here, and that is much more important to me than the big names from abroad. The releases on Voyage Direct get great reviews at international music platforms. But how many people know that all these artists are friends that hang around with each other? I really recognize a typical sound from Amsterdam and I hope that in a few years people will hear our sound next to the typical Detroit and Chicago sound. At least, with Voyage Direct I’ll try my best to make that happen.”

Text: Mijke Hurkx
Translation and editing: Max Cole