Tom Trago | DJ
Foto: David Meulenbeld

‘I used to be in permanent overdrive’

Tom Trago | DJ

Marjolein de Jong17 May 2021

Tom Trago (38) can rightly be considered one of the masters of Dutch electronic music. In honour of the summer party to be held as part of the Kuyper Anniversary Year celebrations, he created a track inspired by religious music.

You’ve not had a single performance or played at a single festival or party since the start of the pandemic – your life must have been upended overnight. What has that been like for you?

„It’s been bizarre, and I’ve had to do a complete 180. But I also see the Covid lockdowns as an opportunity to re-prioritise my life and start spending more time doing the things I love. I was spending too much time performing for too long, and that ended up dominating my career and taking up a lot of my energy. I also barely got to see my two daughters because of the non-stop touring. Jetting around the world, from Paris to Japan to New York, might seem pretty glamorous, but the reality is that you spend most of your time at airports and in hotels."

„My work is basically a childhood dream that came true, and I worked incredibly hard for many years to make it happen. So when you start becoming successful and getting gigs, it’s like an acknowledgement of all that hard work. The only thing is that it eats into my studio time so I have less time to create new music, but I was finally able to find that time this past year."

Could you explain your music to people who are unfamiliar with it?

„What makes my style unique is that I mix so many different musical genres together; I don’t like boxes or being limited to just one style. When I was growing up, we didn’t have hip-hop nights or jazz nights at clubs or anything, and the major DJs did not exclusively play house or techno. I think that freewheeling spirit is reflected in my music. To establish yourself as a performer, you don’t need to stick to just one genre. I also work with a lot of other artists. Friendship and making music tend to overlap in my life."

When mixing the two, how do you keep the focus on business when needed?

„I’m very outspoken about what I want, and I’ve been told by people that I’m only open to things I like and won’t really compromise musically. When I was younger, I’d clash with my collaborators right in the studio, but now I’m more likely to sleep on it and then give it another listen the following day. I’ve found that I’ve become more mellow with age. I used to be in permanent overdrive: always in fifth gear when it came to protecting my personal sound. Now that I’m more experienced, I’ve found that it’s easier to set parameters for other performers in which they have some latitude."

When do you realise you’ve got the best job in the world?

„The moment when things click into place in the studio. When I play a few chords and it’s in sync with the bassline, I can feel the euphoria rushing through my body. Just how great is it that my work is to create things that make me happy? On nights when I’m playing at a club or event, I work really hard and am so focused that I can’t really let go and enjoy myself."

„My father died when I was 15, and painting thermos flasks is my way of honouring his memory."

„You see, when you turn your hobby into your work, you could be busy pretty much every minute of the day. I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about the 16-hour workweek, or working only three days a week. Sounds like heaven to me! Having been in this game for 15 years, I’ve discovered that there are many other things to enjoy in life, such as gardening and cooking, but music remains my greatest passion."

In another interview, you revealed that you like to paint thermos flasks. How many new ones have you painted in recent months?

(Laughs) „Quite a few. I’ve also tried painting other objects, but have had no luck so far. I find painting relaxing; it’s completely different from making music, and when I’m painting I can listen to music without getting all analytical about it. Otherwise, I can only focus on how hard the drummer is hitting, how they’re using the bass, and so on. Music kind of loses its magic that way."

So what’s the story behind those thermos flasks?

„I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time; I just started painting them one day. I only recently came to realise that it’s related to my father. He and I would often get up at the same time in the morning, and he’d fill a large thermos flask with coffee and then put it in front of me on the kitchen table. The cap would be slightly open and make this sort of hissing sound, almost as if it were talking to me. It’s a fond memory for me. My father died when I was 15, and painting thermos flasks is my way of honouring his memory."

Tom Trago

Did your parents support you in pursuing a musical career?

„Yes, very much so. I’m from a musical and creative family, and when I was young I’d listen to my parents’ albums and produce my own radio shows. My mother gave me a piano for my eighteenth birthday, which was a big influence on my style. After my father’s death, I decided to devote my life to music."

„Doing things the conventional way is not conducive to creativity."

„Back then, they didn’t have all those college-level music courses that they do now, so I had to play around with computer software to get the hang of everything. Whenever I was in a studio, people would react with surprise when they heard my stuff and tell me everything I was doing wrong. But having no clue what I was doing and not following the straight and narrow ended up being an asset. People who’ve had a formal musical education tend to be less likely to get experimental. I may have done some naive, stupid things back then, but they did help to shape my sound. I think that when it comes to creating something unique, being self-taught is the best education. Doing things the conventional way is not conducive to creativity."

Before we wrap up, could you tell us a little about the track you made for VU?

„VU asked me to create a track incorporating the call to prayer in different cultures. I’d never taken a conceptual approach to music before; that is, creating music based on anything other than 'this sounds good' or 'this feels good.' I made a selection and then cut a track. Some of the tracks are more similar to songs of prayer, and others deal with religion or the love of religion."

„The experience of being immersed in this genre of music was also quite special to me. I had a very liberal education. My parents leaned towards atheism, and every Monday night they’d listen to a radio programme called De Wandelende Tak. That show played mostly world music, a fair amount of which was religious. So in that sense, this project was a journey into the past for me, making it perfect for these reflective times during Covid-19."