In Depth
Tom Trago Discusses Friendship and Working With San Proper

Tom Trago and San Proper are about to return to Room Two this Saturday (24th October) bringing along with them their signature lively disco and sample driven house music, so, we arranged to sit down with Trago to delve into a discussion about his and San’s inextricably intertwined creative processes. This meeting of two very different musical minds has proved itself exceptionally fruitful, not just for the duo, but for their Amsterdam community as a whole, as Trago reveals news of quite a special upcoming residency, a live band in the pipeline and why his old MPC sampler is still at the centre of all of his productions.

Ahead of you playing with San in Room Two, I just wanted to talk a little bit about you and San’s relationship and how you came together in the first place. Do you remember when you guys first met?

Tom Trago: Well, what I remember, and this is like ten years back or more - I was playing at this party and all of a sudden this Tasmanian devil comes over to the booth and with one eye closed and he says “Yo! My Girlfriend says that you play better records than I do, and I’m not digging that.” And I was like wow this guy is pretty intense but afterwards we got talking. Then two weeks later he showed up at my doorstep and was just like “Yo! I was in the neighbourhood so I thought I’d drop by”.

How did he get your address?

Yeah I have no clue how he’d worked that one out. I guess I must have mentioned it after the show or something. Anyway he asked me to play him some of my tracks and I played him pretty much all of my music and he was really good at giving me useful feedback. He was really egoless listening to the music, telling me what he did and didn’t like and that really helped me progress the tracks. Later that night we decided to watch a movie and I put the movie on and within in a couple of minutes San had passed out in my bed. I slept on the couch that night and after that San was just around all the time and we became really good friends.

So how did it go from San hanging out at your house to the two of you doing nights and making music together?

Shortly after I started booking him to play at some of my parties and then he started this night called Le Pop on the seventh floor of what is now the Volks Hotel. Then we organized Italo Elite; a night to promote Italo Disco but also more importantly to bring together the gay and the hetero scenes. So we teamed up with some other DJs and started this Italo crew and we had a lot of success. We did it for three years and we even won a prize for the best gay night in town. After that our international careers both really took off and now every once in a while someone will ask if we want to do a set together and if we’re both available then of course we’re always happy to do that.

"San Proper is like a stage animal, he can rip up any stage and he loves to perform."

So you’ve just come off the back of a full on schedule of DJ sets and talks for Amsterdam Dance Event. Now you’re straight off to the UK to do a miux for Radio 1's DJ residency series. What kind of records have you been playing at ADE and what will the vibe be like for your Essential Mix?

Well it’s actually going to be me and Seth [Troxler] together so we’re just going to do it live and see what comes out when we get there. We played together back to back in a very small venue on Wednesday at ADE and we’ve known each other for a long while, so it should just flow.

It seems collaboration comes very naturally to you. You and San Proper have studios next door to each other. You both seem to be very productive, particularly in the last couple of years. Is there a lot of competition between the two of you when you’re both in the studio?

There’s no competition because I’m just way better… No, we’ve never really worked on a competitive basis, we mostly work together. When we work on solo production, San helps me a lot with arranging, he’s really good at seeing the track as a whole and I’m a bit more focused on thinking, I really want the hi-hat to be exactly like this at this point. I think it’s really a great combination of views on music. His background comes more from playing in bands and my background is more in production so that’s two angles that really help each other.

That’s a great combination. If you have both of those aspects to your music covered then I think the sky is the limit.

It’s all very natural. I could be working on a solo track and he walks in and says “oh maybe change this” and then walks out and has a whisky at the bar and comes back and says what he thinks. Or I go into his studio to return a cable and I’m like “Fuck man, I don’t like that kick drum” and I help him find a new kick.

San Proper DJing at fabric in 2014 by Nick Ensing

There are a couple of records where you’re both credited on the track but would you say then that a lot more Tom Trago tracks than we don’t realize have a touch of San Proper in them and vice versa?

I think most of the tracks we’ve worked on together eventually get released as solo tracks. There are a few “collaborative tracks” where we’re both credited and there’s also a new ep of both of us due in December or January. We also have a band together that’s called The Dirt Machine that’s a sort of new wave, post-punk, ESG type of band; I play the keys and San does bass and guitar. We’ve produced a whole album; it’s twenty tracks long and almost finished. I’m pretty stoked to release that; we’re going to perform it with a full live band. It’s very energetic. San Proper is like a stage animal, he can rip up any stage and he loves to perform. For me that’s great because I can be more in the back and focus on the music and know there’s enough stage presence.

So with you being studio neighbours and close friends, is there a lot of sharing in terms of musical equipment or are you careful to keep your individual kit for yourself to help define your sound?

No we all share stuff. Our studios are also next to Boris Werner, Juju and Jordash, Homework, Detroit Swindle and Kid Sublime and all these people share equipment. Its like “man I need a 909 on this track” and they just walk into someone else’s studio and grab it, sometimes they don’t even ask! Then you come in your studio and half the shit is gone.

Sounds like an extremely useful resource to have all that different equipment available. It’s kind of like a hardware library.

Yeah super useful. The expertise as well, someone like Juju and Jordash, they’re the super nerds, they know so much about all the equipment and all the shortcuts of how to trigger different machines, I learnt loads from those guys.

"With the MPC it has a bit of a hard time syncing all these machines in the same groove and if you record it you can see the tempo actually fluctuates. It's almost like it’s dancing."

I guess that’s kind of quite representative of Amsterdam’s scene, being very willing to share expertise and equipment because at the end of the day it helps everybody if you’re all making the best stuff you can make.

I think that’s true of Amsterdam across all the scenes. For instance, Juju and Jordash and me we’re in very different worlds musically, it’s still house music but it’s quite different. Everyone knows what the other person is doing and is supportive. Even the hip-hop DJs in Amsterdam and the house DJs are all interconnected. They came to Trouw too and we come to their hip-hop parties, Amsterdam’s not that big so people mingle more.

So tell us about your studio set up. I understand you still like to work from quite a hip-hop standpoint even though the music you’re making has become much more club orientated?

My whole studio set up is still based around an MPC2000 and that’s really a hip-hop machine. Of course when you grow you have an 808 and 909 and it’s very easy to work without the MPC but for me I can handle it really fast and I think it’s really nice to run all the machines through it. If I press play on the MPC then the whole studio starts working. I can also do it through my computer but I don’t really like that because I notice that the pulse of the computer is so straight. With the MPC it has a bit of a hard time syncing all these machines in the same groove and if you record it you can see the tempo actually fluctuates. Its almost like it’s dancing. A real drummer can’t drum at the same bpm for six minutes either so its nice for the hi hats to be shifting a little bit and the snare slightly earlier than the last one.

The closing of Trouw last year must have bee a considerable loss for Amsterdam’s DJ community. Do you think those boots will ever really be filled?

Well I wouldn’t say it was a loss because for us it was already known that it would close. Before Club Trouw the same crew did Club Eleven and the same crew will open up a new club in the new year that’s called The School so we’re just going to go on in a different location. Its nice to do things that have a clear start point and an end point because you can really work your way into something but you know you won’t be there for the rest of your life. I also think that it really added value to the club because, especially during the last year, everybody knew “Wow, we’ve only got one year left you know, we’ve got to go there and make the most of it”.

So are you planning to kick off with a residency at The School like you and San did at Trouw?

Yep. I already talked to the guys and it’s booked in.

So on Saturday you and San will be DJing here at fabric. What are you going to be playing?

I’ll play quite a lot of my own stuff I think. I used to be a bit afraid of playing my own stuff. It’s definitely easier to play someone else’s record and be enthusiastic about the thing. I think we’ll bring a lot of Voyage Direct shit though. I enjoy playing stuff made by people I know, so there’ll be some exclusives.

How do you find playing in London compared to Holland or the rest of mainland Europe?

Well they love to rave in the UK. If they go at it, then they really go at it so it can be pretty rowdy and that’s what I like. Of course fabric has awesome sound also, it’s one of the best clubs to play as a DJ right now because the booth is really comfortable and the sound engineers are really on it. London is very diverse too, there’s so many people there it’s like half the population of Holland in that one city so that means there’s a lot of different people to inspire but also different fans to gain. I always enjoy going there and I also love coming home.

Photo Credit: Nick Ensing

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