Interview conducted by our favourite four-to-the-floor expert, The Insider.

Tom Trago returns to Amsterdam’s Rush Hour family, with a new album, Deco. Here he talks to me about his hip hop roots and recent move out of the city, to the countryside. We touch on his amazing DJ career, his own labels, Voyage Direct and Jong Nederland, a few of his landmark productions, such as the classic Compass Joint, and, of course, that new record. 

It’s great to talk to you Tom. How are you spending your day?

Hi! I’ve just arrived at my new studio SR-3 in Alkmaar. Still buzzing from last night! I played the first DECO live show, in the Rush Hour store basement. It was such a VIBE. In the good company of really nice friends, music lovers and peers I performed five tracks from the album with a bunch of synths and effects. A real atmospherical and magic experience.

Over the years your productions have touched on many genres, from soul to hip hop, from broken to house and techno.  When you first started playing as an eager teen in the cafes and bars of Amsterdam, were you also playing a mix of styles back then?

Yes, I’ve always tried to approach music with an open mind – not really caring about genres. There are gems in almost every genre. There is too much good music out there to stick to just one genre. Inspiration comes in many ways.

I don’t think one can put Tom Trago in a box and say, “Tom makes music like this.” Is it a conscious decision to evade categories?

I grew up with DJs playing very eclectic sets – in the Amsterdam underground scene of the 1990s and 2000s – so I got my inspiration from a real city mix of genes like hip hop, house, jazz, and techno. That kinda formed my DNA, and when I started producing, I guess that eclectic vibe is in there. I don’t really think about genres. Its hot or its not! Haha.

You’ve been a big hip hop head in your time, who are your hip hop idols? How do you feel about Dilla?

Yes. Man, I really grew up on hip hop and skateboard culture. That’s what got me into DJing. I have so many hip hop idols! Haha. To name a few: Madlib, Diamond D, Pusha T, DJ Premier, Pharrell, Kid Sublime, SA-RA, Slum Village, ATCQ… and, of course, DILLA! Such an inspiration! His music really made me approach production and sampling in very a different way. 

I know you’ve left the bustling city for pastures new. Where are you based these days, paint us a picture of the terrain?

Well, I now live in a small coastal village called Bergen aan Zee, just 40 minutes outside of Amsterdam. It’s one of the few places in Holland where the forest actually reaches all the way to the sea. Exactly on the border of the forest and the dunes is where I live, in Jong Nederland. A community with 10 other families. There’s a very creative mix of cool people here.

What is it you love most about where you are?

To see my two daughters grow up amongst the presence of so much beautiful nature and peace. Also the dips in the ice cold sea!

What led you to leave the city?

Well the city gives but also takes a lot of energy. Nature just recharges. I guess I was really into getting recharged after 15 years of travelling intensely.  Also, the first time I drove into Bergen aan Zee I was sold. It has a certain magic.

How has being a father changed the way you view the world?

It really showed me so much. To share, care and see each other growing inside a family is a beautiful thing. Living the family life really makes me appreciate the simple things in life much more. But also it`s a great mirror to look at yourself and improve as a person where possible. Time efficiency also really becomes a thing, haha. Wow, to get the same stuff done in less time is really a challenge.

Was Live With The BBQ on Rush Hour your first release?

Well actually before Live With The BBQ there where two beats that made it onto the Rockwell compilation that was curated by Parra. But besides those, Live With The BBQ was my first solo release. I was making mostly instrumental hiphop back then, like on the Nod Navigators’ Fluor Green E.P., and I was working with the SP1200 for the first time. I remember I wanted to get the sample at hip hop tempo. That didn’t work out so it became more of a house tune. I was so happy that when Christiaan from Rush Hour records heard it and said – “Why don’t we release this? It’s great.” It was the first time I shared my music with someone, and it really gave me faith, hope, and a direction at that time.

The years that followed saw you deliver four albums: Voyage Direct in 2009, Iris in 2011, The Light Fantastic, Bergen in 2018. In your opinion, what do you see as your most notable album – which one made the biggest bang? 

Yes, back then I was like almost everyday in the studio, especially the nights. To me, in retrospect, the making of The Light Fantastic was the most fun, because I did it in 3 weeks in a secluded forest house. Which was great fun and really productive. I think the first album made the biggest bang as it put me on the map and also opened the doors to the international DJ game.

10 years or so ago in Red Light Records, I asked for a pile to listen to and in that pile was the Compass Joint – a long time before I knew it was you and Charles Levine, as there were no names on the record. How did you get to be friends with Charles and how did that record come about?

We became friends through both being residents at Club Trouw in Amsterdam. After that many years of playing together and hanging in the studio followed, and at some point we both got really into the Compass Point sound – from Chris Blackwell’s famous studio in the Bahamas. So, we decided to dedicate a project to it. 

It`s such an unbelievably cool track. Such a groove! Quite important in the collector scene. I saw it for a very high price one time on Discogs. But it got a repress right?  

Yes, it really became a collectors item! Until we repressed it! Haha

Are there anymore collaborations on the horizon for you and Charlie?

Yes, we just dropped the Compass Jawn E.P. and we’ve been in the studio cooking up a new 4 track E.P. Be on the lookout!

Your label Voyage Direct has been a champion of homegrown Dutch talent. Has it been a conscious mission for you to feed and grow your local scene? 

Yes. I was surrounded by so much talent back then, I really felt the need to set up a label to showcase that. Most of the artists were then releasing their first record, but now have great careers in music, so I guess it was a great stepping stone back then. We just decided to continue the Voyage Direct mission and will be putting out some new releases again!

So, the label hasn’t come to the end of its journey then?

We just freezed it for a bit but there`s a fresh new team ready now to keep channeling great new music, and label parties.

Jong Nederland – what`s its mission and how does the direction differ from Voyage Direct?

Jong Nederland is the name of the house where I live, and the music on the Jong Nederland label comes straight from my home studio. It will only channel that music, unedited, unmixed just straight to tape jams. I wanted to create a very raw form of output that brings the listener very close to being in the studio with me.

Your relationship with Rush Hour goes back a long way. What is it that draws you to the label, and why do you feel they have become such a respected institution over the years?

It`s a real family, and a great hub for great music in Amsterdam. They’ve always supported me and my music, and also introduced me to so much inspiring music. They have a very open take on music, and the diversity of the label is really inspiring to me. They really built their scene from the ground up, and they are here to stay!

Rush Hour Logo

Knowing how your life has changed, the vibe on Deco is not a surprise. You`ve talked of making electronic lullabies for your daughter. Does the album have her seal of approval?

Yes. I wanted to create a dreamier, softer, electronic experience – something which doesn’t necessarily takes all your attention as a listener, but just sets an atmosphere. She was just dancing to it, so I guess its approved! Haha 

Are the any other musicians involved, or is it all you?

I’ve worked with my good friend and great producer, Maxi Mill on two songs – Central Park and Never Peace A Puzzle. Tracy – Tom Ruijg – who also mixed the album, worked with me on Dark Oak.

I just looked up Sauna Deco on Herengracht. The album cover really does represent that Parisian Art Deco feel!  How important to you is the artwork / aesthetic side of things?

Very important, that’s why I always work with people that I respect and know on the covers of my albums. This one was done by Bram Spaan and Pauline Le Pape and directed by Malvin Wix. A real good collaboration of cool people. Also Sauna Deco is a place that I really love to go to and unwind and get inspired.

Sauna DEco

Sauna Deco. 

When I listen to the album, I just wanna sit back and look up at some trippy visuals. Is that something that you have done or plan to do with Deco, to take it live?

Absolutely, I’d love to collaborate with other artists from different disciplines, and already have a really nice live show decor done by Sasha Zwiers, so come down and trip with me!

It’s really giving me Gigi Masin vibes. Are you into him?

Yes, he`s such a legend. I’m a big fan!

Even though you’ve been in this deep and beautiful chilled zone on Deco, you are still gigging all around the globe. Do you enjoy gigs in the same way, or do you approach these events differently now?

I still love travelling a lot, dipping in on different cultures, and connecting to different people is my main thing. I did make my travels more sustainable, so I try to stay a bit longer, or combine it with harvesting loose leaf tea and visit tea plantations… and museums off course. 

Musically – do you feel your DJ set has evolved over the last few years? 

I definitely think I became more diverse, and more electronic, over the last couple of years.

You recently played with Tama Sumo and Lakuti. When I first saw Tama play she blew my mind. What was it like playing after her? 

Amazing. We’ve played together a lot over the last 10 years. I’m a real fan of her style and also Lakuti off course.

Who do you think is making good music right now?

I’m really into the new Satoshi – Ambivalent Selected Works. And was just listening to some stuff on ekster recordings. The Exo compilation. Cool stuff!

(Interesting sleeve notes on that Exo comp – Rob : )

What`s the setup for the live performance of Deco? 

It`s really nice that for Deco I can take more time experimenting and setting the atmosphere for a moment of introspection, to take the listeners on more of a journey, as its almost beat-less. I bring my Polysix, my Nordlead, some other synths, and off course a few effects!

Have you ever played Movement? Would you like to play a live set there?

Absolutely! I`ve played a few times in Detroit, and been to the festival many times, but never played there. I would love to! 

You don’t strike me as someone who`s in this game for glory. Hats maybe but not glory… and you`ve remarked that making music every day is essential to your being. Is this still the case?

Yes, I get a bit restless if I don’t make music on a daily / weekly basis. 

What`s more important art or money?

Art always comes first. 

Big room, intimate space, or festival in a field?

I enjoy them all in different ways. 

How big is your hat collection?

Never big enough for a  bald man!

Are there any ambitions in the music / art world that you have yet to fulfil?

I would love to work on a movie idea I have. Also I`m about to finish my photo book with 20 years of Yaschica T5 street photos from all over the place. Also, setting up my new studio is quite an ambitious project already! Haha 

You have pretty much spent your entire adult life working in music, from the cafes of Amsterdam to mega clubs the world over, but if you didn’t follow this path, what else do you think you might have ended up doing?

Maybe something with plants & garden architecture, like my hero Piet Oudolf.

Tom Trago`s Deco will be released by Rush Hour on April 14th. 

Tom Trago Deco

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