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17.04.2018 | Words by: Mathis Neuhaus
Photo by: Anne-Claire de Breij

Tom Trago is living the good life. Taking a step back from the hustle and bustle in Amsterdam, he moved to Bergen aan Zee some time ago and produced a new album detached from the distractions of the city. The fittingly titled 'Bergen' came out through Dekmantel recently and provides a musical inside into his daily life: taking walks through the forest, being close to people dear to his heart and enjoying the simple things of life. Before we connect through Skype for our conversation, he has to get a photoshoot done and remove the simmering pasta sauce from the stove. What follows from there is a conversation about Bergen, the place and the album, his inspirations during the production process and his new live show. Tom will perform this new show at Het Muzieklokaal in De School, on the evening of April 19

Q: Hey Tom, how did that photoshoot go?

A: Perfect. I just climbed a tree and it was done in five minutes. There is a lot of great scenery here, in Bergen aan Zee. 

Q: Can you tell a little bit about Bergen, the place?

A: I live in Bergen aan Zee, which is the coastal part of Bergen. It is separated from the village by one road that is called Zeeweg and one of the very few places in Holland where the forest meets the sea. So, it is all green until it hits the dunes and changes into blue. It provides the rare opportunity of having a forest and a beach at the same time, which gives a real and wonderful contrast. 

Q: How did you end up there?

A: The place I am living in has quite a rich history in the arts. Artists have been living here for a very long time, from painters to musicians to poets, and now we ended up here. My good friend Steven de Peven, better known as Awanto 3, also lives here, for example. There are eleven living units and it is kind of like a commune, in a good sense of the word as in: it is a living community. We all have our own houses, but we really live together. Our house is part of three houses that were designed and built for children from the city who were in dark places and needed a sort of hideaway. They were brought here to get their lives fixed up. I guess you could argue that the houses still have that function, but now it is for adults like me or my friends. 

Q: Bergen is also the place where you produced your new album. What is the appeal of producing music somewhere remote? 

A: For me it is really important that my music makes sense outside of the city. Outside of the fastness and weird reality of a place where many people are packed together. I enjoy doing long walks in the forest with the music I made in my ears. Many ideas come to me in these situations. Of course, there is also less distraction here. If I would be in Amsterdam and cycle home from my studio, my mind would constantly be triggered by other things. Which can be nice, too, but that is not what I am looking for when producing music. I am looking for a peaceful setup and situation. It brings focus to exclude yourself for a while. 

Q: Do you find yourself listening to other music more or less during the production process of an album? 

A: Because of my job as a DJ it is of course not possible to not listen to other music. But I do change my listening habits a bit by making folders in which I point out the direction of where I want to go with an album. So, when I find songs that inspire me in any way, be it rhythm or harmonies or atmospheres, I put them in a folder and use it as a playlist. I listen to them while cooking, for example, and start to get in a certain mind state that guides me into my own production process.

Q: Could you give some examples for Bergen? 

A: This time around, there were many things. I also moved my records to Bergen and I noticed that a lot of the stuff I bought over the years, I never really listened to. Mulatu Astatke was someone very important. He is a Jazz musician from Ethiopia and I love the rhythm sections in his music. Wally Badarou, of Compass Point Studios fame, also played a big role for me. He was a keyboard player that started making his own songs. The studios in the Bahamas itself were sound-wise also something I looked at. They were founded by Chris Blackwell and a lot of hit albums by very important artists where produced there: Grace Jones, Spandau Ballet, David Bowie. I tried to get a hold of the way they mixed their records and started to collect more of them, too.

Q: Can you put the finger on the moment where you knew that you wanted to produce another album? 

A: There is always a next album, of course. But after an album you are also done with an album for a while. It is quite the process and that is why the last five years I did not feel like producing a new one. It is a lot of work. Creating takes maybe twenty percent of my time, but then finishing them takes eighty. Especially because I do the mix downs myself, which provides the danger of getting lost in zillion different versions. Every night, I notice something new or then my girlfriend says something about it or my little daughter notices something about it. It is a complicated process to find peace with a certain version. 

Q: What would the ideal listening situation for Bergen look like?

A: Obviously in Bergen, walking through the forest. There are certain walks that I take regularly and also took a lot while working on the album. The track order on the album fits that journey from the forest to the sea. There is one track that is called “Underwater Wings”, which is towards the end of the album and the last track “Working Machines” brings it back to our home. That would be the ideal situation for people to listen to it, or at least for me. I think in general the situation should be a route from somewhere to somewhere – no matter where exactly. 

Q: You are pretty known as a DJ and over the years played uncountable times. Now, with the new album out, you are also going to play live shows. What can we expect from this? 

A: In my old live show, two other artists where involved, so it was more like band that relied way too much on analogue gear. In general, I tend to enjoy live shows by other people that have some fuck-ups in it. I am not afraid of playing a wrong note or leaving drums out at the wrong moment. I like to improvise and created the new live show in a way that I remain flexible and can take it in certain different directions, if I want to: stay longer at a certain point, go deeper or harder.

Q: That is an interesting point you mention, because one of the major things about being a DJ is to be and remain spontaneous, because you can take any music you want and put it together in any way you want. With a live set, I think that is way harder to achieve? 

A: That is exactly right. It took quite a while to put together the new live show, because I wanted to have this flexibility that I know from playing records. The mothership of my new setup is the MPC2000, which has loops of all the tracks and I can flip through them freely. Another very important part is the Nord Lead 2, a keyboard that I have been using for more than fifteen years, and surprisingly never broke down on me. I know very well what is happening with it and it is dear to my heart, so I am going to play that a lot, too.  

Q: Where you ever involved in bands? 

A: I started producing music first and then got into playing bands later on. In school, I was in a few jazz bands. Later, I started a band with San Proper which is called Dirt Machine. We toured Holland a bit with music that is Punk and New Wave-influenced. Playing in bands also took away a lot of the nerve-wracking that came with playing live in the beginning. Being on stage in different formations inevitably leads to so many things going wrong that you learn to cope with these situations. Things do not always work out the way you planned them. That is live – with a f, but also with a v.

Doors for the concert 'Tom Trago presents Bergen – live' on April 19th will open at 20.30. Tickets and more info can be found right here.

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