5 Mag’s Label Profile series is a new feature we’re starting up this month, with curiously in-depth overviews of some of our favorite House Music labels. Recognizing that most labels (especially these days) are a labor of love of just one or two founders, we’re not just looking at the slabs of wax that have found their way into your crate but talking to the people responsible for getting that music to you.
And we’re starting off with Luke McKeehan and the marvelous Vancouver-based label Nordic Trax (soundcloud, facebook, twitter, discogs). Nordic Trax has been around for 13 years now, born out of a single compilation on an acid jazz label called “Mo Funk”.
“In the mid-’90s, I was DJing around town in Vancouver and I used to promote acid jazz, funk, hip-hop and jazzy house parties with a partner, Seren Kahlon,” Luke says. “Those events were done under the name ‘Mo’ Funk’. There was so much demand for what we were doing that with the help of another partner (Ian Menzies), we started the label Mo’ Funk.
“We did that first compilation, which features probably most notably Thievery Corporation on the tracklist. After the first vinyl release, my partners saw the bills for vinyl manufacturing, and it was like… ‘Well if you want to do this, you’re on your own.’
And the rest is rock’n’roll history, as they say. I took Nordic Trax on my own and it has been a work in progress ever since.”
What happens with a lot of labels – especially when they get distribution deals – is they then become part of the “machine”. And at that point it’s all about generating “product”, which is a pretty cynical way to treat music if you ask me.
According to IMDB, a certain “Luke McKeehan” was on Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That On Television. Did you ever get “slimed”, and is there video evidence of this?
Ha! It’s funny media always want to talk about TV stuff from when I was a kid, even post-Google when it’s way easier to find out about all this. Yes I was on YCDTOTV, but I was never slimed. I think the worst thing I had to do was probably dress up as a nurse one time. I was a minor character for two seasons. And no, I never met Alanis Morisette, who was cast on the show after I’d already left Ottawa (where the show was filmed) and returned to Toronto. It’s crazy to me that there are fan sites out there with info about all this – I can barely remember, I think it was 1983.
Both my parents were in the arts, which was the lead-in for me, and I did some more acting when I was back in Toronto, but nothing after ’87. This indirectly lead me to becoming a DJ since I had disposable income to buy 12″ singles back at a time when most teenagers I knew were more interested in classic rock and learning guitar, not buying records from Chicago, Detroit and London. This was 1985-1988.
I remember that Toronto in the 1990s had an incredibly eclectic scene, from Drum N Bass to House, and of course that changed a lot based on the personalities living there. How did you get involved in throwing parties and what’s your best memory as a promoter there?
Well actually I was never a promoter there, per se. I left in ’88 for University and then ended up on the West Coast in the winter of ’93, which is where I’ve been ever since. I did so some parties in Toronto (which by my standards now would be considered amateur) but there was no huge business motive, and I was one of the DJs playing at the party too, so kind of doing everything. But I was always DJing, practicing in the bedroom, I would always have a mix tape on me – this was Toronto for me. I didn’t really start to make any (decent) money until I settled out West, first with the acid jazz shows I did independently and later as a partner in a couple of seminal clubs in Vancouver’s recent history: Chameleon Lounge & Sonar. And at those clubs we pretty much did every type of electronic act and relevant name you can think of from the period 1996-2003.
How important is it to you to nurture the local scene, particularly in the music and remixers you feature on Nordic Trax? Do you feel you’re claiming ground for Vancouver and Canada in general?
Well I’ve always been involved in producing my own events, since early on with DJing I had some bad experiences with promoters. I was like, “I’m smarter than this guy, why am I listening to him tell me what to play?” And most of the time I was right with the programming. So I guess in this sense I’ve had to nurture my local scene, to make it viable at a time when many people gave no credit to the electronic scene in Vancouver and would only book out-of-towners. But with regards to the Canadian scene and claiming ground, I’ll leave it to other people to determine that. There’s far too much music out there, I can barely keep up.
In the early days, you released a lot of music from Gavin Froome (like 5 of the first 13 that I was able to count). What role did he play in the early days?
Well Gavin was and is a very important part of Nordic Trax, its growth and our overall aesthetic. He’s also a good friend of mine. In the mid-’90s when we met, he had already been in a successful indie band which toured Western Canada. They were signed at a time when Canadian major labels were looking to sign the next Stone Roses, but I think his experience with the conventional music business and life on the road made him pretty cynical about a career in music. I guess at that point the freedom of the technology and DIY culture of electronic music was appealing to him, and the timing was right for Nordic Trax as I have always been a proponent of the local music scene, so we were able to do some great music together which still sounds solid today.
Unfortunately with the current state of the music business – i.e. no-one paying for music – and him being more of a Steely Dan kind-of-producer who’d rather stay at home (than make his money on the road), the opportunities to generate revenue declined for Gavin and he effortlessly glided into the world of advertising, where he now thrives.
What was the first Nordic Trax record that you felt really broke through and made a dent in the universe?
Almost right from the start. NT002 is Pilgrims of the Mind and myself and the b-side got a lot of early attention for the drum programming. It got plays and support from US House DJs and more tastemaker DJs like Kruder & Dorfmeister, so I felt confident at least that I’d made the right decision to focus on more underground productions.
One thing I respect about what you do is that as revenues plunged in the industry, you haven’t taken the easy way out and flooded the market with releases every month or even every week. This has ruined a good number of labels – labels that were once “must buy” and are now “maybe listen”.
Well, back in those acid jazz days I was lucky enough to be involved in bringing Guru’s Jazzmatazz tour to Vancouver a couple times. In the process I met and became friends with his guitar player Zachary Breaux, who in an indirect way mentored me with some great advice over a couple excellent meals. In fact when we opened our own club (The Chameleon) in 1996, we flew him out to open the club that first weekend.
In any event, outside of his specific genre he was relatively unknown, but he was making a steady and significant yearly income through all his projects. He showed me that you didn’t have to be the “star”, per se, or the centre of everything in a band, to have a successful career in the music game – and it is a game. In fact you’re probably more likely to succeed if you take care of your business, learn how to make money, and not just count on your talent or “the music” to take care of everything for you.
So to your point, I never started Nordic Trax to make money and I don’t look at the next release as a new revenue stream. I don’t want them to lose money, but for me the music is still first. In fact I still DJ, promote about 20-30 events locally per year, and do a lot of music consulting for brands (including Nike) so this allows me to do the A&R for the label with a clearer perspective.
What happens with a lot of labels – especially when they get distribution deals (of which we’ve had every sort) – is they then become part of the “machine”. And at that point it’s all about generating “product”, which is a pretty cynical way to treat music if you ask me. So that’s how you have a cool indie dance label go from a few releases here and there to two per month – which is 24 releases a year, which to me makes absolutely no sense. I understand why they do it, but it’s hypocritical to flood the market with releases and then complain about the lack of quality in the “scene”. But alas this is the world we live in.
How important is it now to have a “big name” attached to a project, as an artist or remixer? (I know this was supremely important when distributors would order more copies if they saw, say, Derrick Carter or DJ Sneak’s name on the label.)
Well that’s a tough one, since to be honest I’ve worked with a lot of artists earlier in their careers, so when I’m asking them to be involved in a project it’s more of out of mutual respect or a particular connection, not because we’re trying to be label-of-the-moment. I think if you look at it, over the long view, we’ve been involved w/ a lot of great artists early in their production careers: Morgan Page, Colette, JT Donaldson, Joshua Iz, The Revenge, Demarkus Lewis, Halo, Swayzak and Kirby are just a few that come to mind. I’m proud of this and I appreciate that the artists have had faith in the label.
The press has been filled with (largely anecdotal, but I feel pretty spot-on) stories about the resurgence in vinyl sales and vinyl records as a medium. I think you did a couple digital-only releases, but most are still vinyl-plus-digital. How important is it to keep pressing vinyl and what does a slab of wax mean to you over an MP3?
Actually we don’t press any more. It’s not for a lack of love for the format – my place is a library of 3500 records plus the NT catalogue and obviously if you got involved in DJing during the ’80s as I did, then you grew up playing vinyl. But I can remember even in the mid ’80s hearing commerical DJs like Chris Shephard in Toronto at RPM (now Guverment) playing on those massive Technics top-loading CD players which you could cue, repeat, loop on, etc. He did it with popular alternative radio songs of the day over more dancey kinda stuff – it was essential even then as a tool. And to me that has always been part of DJ culture: innovation, technology, bigger, louder, better, etc.
So I think it’s kind of funny, and disingenuous in a way, for these people to get all nostalgic and say “vinyl-only” or whatever. Okay fine, vinyl only so only you and a bunch of DJ snobs can hear it – great, way to go. You’re just leaving more room for crap like Deadmau5 and whatever else to reach consumers and not helping the scene, imho.
Specifically, though, why we stopped is because of the continued shadiness in the vinyl distribution game. I could only call up business contacts I’ve had for 10+ years for so long and beg them to pay us on $200 invoices that were 90 days past due. It was embarrassing. You’ve known these people for years, and they expect you to fall for the same old lines – literally, “the check is in the mail”.
Anyways if we do vinyl ever again, it will be direct to shops and mail order only.
What’s the first test when you’re looking through demos? Is it that you’ll play it, that you can imagine someone you respect playing it, or just an instinctual, gut reaction to the tune?
That’s a good question, but if I had to put it down to one thing it’s just an instinct I have towards the song. That it’s original I guess. It really bothers me that in this day and age with all the technology and ease of use we have to produce music, the best some producers can think of is to loop Soul II Soul or whatever with a crappy Reason beat under it and call that “House” and get it up on Beatport. I guess at least for Nordic Trax I don’t want us to be contributing to the ever expanding heap of generic dance music.
It’s been 13 years since you launched Nordic Trax. The age of 40 seems like the time when we start evaluating our lives – is this where you thought you’d be, and more importantly are you where you want to be?
Another good question. Well I certainly never though as a teenager that I would be working in the music industry – my focus was film, possibly directing, creative writing. But in the end the thing I’m most knowledgeable about AND enjoy doing is being around this music. It still fascinates me on many levels, the unpredictability of it all, the cycles in music and genres, I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of that.
On the other hand, are there aspects of electronic music and the club scene I’d rather not have to deal with? Absolutely. There are far too many shady people in the club scene, not enough creative types being attracted to it for a number of reasons, and this can get you down. But in the end you have to accept that all sorts of artists from the jazz guys on down have had to deal with these kind of (economic) pressures and you just deal and work harder.
Luke McKeehan on some selections from the Nordic Trax catalog:
Sonar Presents DJ Heather: Dancefloor Principles:
That was a great project. Heather’s been coming to Vancouver consistently for so long, it was cool to finally do a project together. I remember back in the day my old partner in Sonar, Tyler Stadius, gave me these tapes from this “DJ Heather” from Chicago, a hip-hop tape and a House tape. We were like, “Damn, this is really good.” So it was cool years later to do that project together. We’ve worked together a lot since, on her label Blackcherry, and shows in Vancouver, Chicago & Miami. And Heather is such a perfectionist – she killed it in the mix, and must have done 6 or 7 versions of that final tracklist in the end to get the one she liked.
Demarkus Lewis: Make it Mellow EP:
Well Demarkus is the man, and this EP pretty much sums up his positive & mellow BUT deep vibe. We’ve had some great times together and he’s one of a long line of Dallas producers who’ve had a huge impact on House music, but maybe don’t get all the headlines like cats from NY or London.
Jazzy Eyewear: Doin’ Wrong:
Fabian aka Jazzy Eyewear is one of the craziest/best people I’ve met in House Music. He puts his heart & soul into his music and you can really hear it in this release. I can hum “Doin Wrong” to you right now – that’s the sign of a great song.
Lazy Transmissions CD:
Well, it still sounds good to me so that’s a good sign. You don’t really sell compilations anymore will all the free mixes and podcasts out there in the world, but I think this tracklist stands up well as I look back on it: Home & Garden Ft Colette, Joshua, Gavin Froome, JT Donaldson & Chris Nazuka, Morgan Page and Jon Delerious, all great music you could play today.
Gavin Boyce: Rooftop Soul EP
I don’t know what it is with House Music and Ireland, but it’s like peanut butter and chocolate – they go well together! I’ve been to Waterford where Gav and his gang play together a few times, and for the size of the city – well, town – it’s amazing the support they have in the clubs. And of course you have Fish Go Deep in Cork and a long line of people in Dublin, so there is a genuine interest in the good stuff. You see people singing back Charles Webster tracks on the dancefloor, that is pretty inspiring. So it’s in that climate that Gavin has produced three awesome EPs for us, and I believe that in particular he’s knocked it out of the park with the title track on Rooftop Soul and we’ll be hearing this song for a long time to come.