From the furthest edge of the scene and the North American landmass, Nordic Trax has established itself as an indispensable voice in the house music scene. More than that: in twenty years of making, distributing and promoting dance music, Nordic Trax’s Luke McKeehan has seen and taken part in just about every turbulent shift in the scene and the industry itself, from a time of wax and paper flyers to wavs and pixel shifts.
Luke is releasing a new compilation looking back over Nordic Trax’s first twenty years. Featuring tracks & remixes from Mark Farina & Homero Espinosa, Cristoph, Halo Varga, Brett Johnson, Jay Tripwire and more, 20 Years of Nordic Trax is out now.
Photos: Nordic Trax’s 20th anniversary at Imperial Vancouver by Max Park & Sean Dimitrie
What models did you have in mind when you started the label?
I would be lying to say I had any firm plan at the start, other than to simply stay in business. I was going on instinct. One factor certainly was the acid jazz label Mo’ Funk Records, which I was a partner in and focused mostly compilations of existing material. A great learning experience, but I knew with Nordic Trax I wanted it to be all original material, much harder but ultimately more rewarding. So we started with our scene in Vancouver and eventually got the attention of Europe and the US. And since about our eighth release the label roster has been a mixture of West Coast house from local and international producers. They both inform each other.
Were you alone? What was the scene in Vancouver like when you started and did you have a kind of “community” support? A roommate?
From the second release onwards the label has been operated by myself with the help of a great cast of friends, staff & supporters. Vancouver in the mid-’90s was a great time in the underground. The parties & club nights we attended and threw ourselves were a big part of the motivation to invest the time & money in a label. The support was always there and the early releases reflect that, almost entirely from local artists: Pilgrims of The Mind, Gavin Froome, Tyler Stadius, DJ Ali & Vernell Delong (Sea To Sky), Sean Dimitrie, and yours truly (as High Fidelity).
Those live events have always been a big part of what you do, right? Has the importance of those grown as the recording industry changed?
From 1995 until 2004 I was heavily involved in producing parties/events/concerts in Vancouver. As a partner in two venues (The Chameleon & Sonar) it was a crazy busy time and among others things helped pay the odd manufacturing bill at the label. But by the end of it I was pretty burnt out and just wanted to focus on the label. So since then I’ve just been running the label and continuing to DJ. We still promote some events in Vancouver with a handful of artists, many of whom we’ve been working with for a couple of decades like Mark Farina & DJ Heather.
As to your question about the industry, if you want to look at as simple business decision I went the exact opposite direction of the trends: live music revenues have grown exponentially since then and recorded music has been in steady decline since 2008. But for me it was important to focus on something I really cared about as I never intended to be someone operating a venue for their life. Music is my first love, not a simply a line item on a spreadsheet.
Who do you think grew into their own, artistically, from the time you signed them to the present?
There are too many to name but Gavin Froome, Gavin Boyce, Jon Delerious, Jay Tripwire, Finest Wear and Matt Caine have all done some of their best work on NT and continue to make great music. As well artists like The Revenge, JT Donaldson, Joshua Iz, Tim Shumaker, Morgan Page and Colette all released with us early in their careers and have gone on to the bright lights. There’s even a hidden Kaskade remix in the catalogue, you just have to dig to find it….
What do you think the role of A&R, from the label’s perspective, is these days?
To sift through all the mediocre music out there and hopefully put out a few good records in the process. Of course the barrier of entry has been lowered in terms of all the ways to self-publish your own music in 2017. But in a way this made the job of good A&R even more important.
It’s like panning for gold: I want to put out timeless music, but you have to sift through a lot to find the odd treasure. I’m enjoying seeing DJs like Dixon, Art Department & Kenny Dope rediscovering tracks from our back catalog. A lot of the time when we put something out it may not doing anything on the charts at initial release but over time it gets discovered – just like “Haboo” by Gavin Boyce did earlier this year when Dixon played it at Ministry of Sound, opening up a whole new world of fans for that song and Gavin’s work.
Does DJ feedback matter today compared to back in the day?
I think it does. In some cases if the artist is not very well known having the support/seal of approval of a better known artist can help to make the connection for music fans. It also helps give the artist support for their ideas – which especially early on, can be critical in terms of building confidence around original productions.
Look back on 20 years ago. Music was consumed in a totally different way and most people even paid someone, at some point in the supply chain, for it. How did we get here? And is this a good place to be?
Yeah it’s pretty crazy when you think about how much change we’ve seen in this business. Even in the last 10 years of the smartphone generation, the pace of change has been pretty wild.
That being said, the music is still here, people still want to get together and share music and ideas in safe spaces – whether online or in real life, the community is thriving. I think we’re at a good time, I don’t miss having to shake down distributors for $100 invoices you knew they were never going to pay. And with the digitization of music the reach you can have now as in independent label or producer is far greater than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
You have 20 tracks on the compilation; maybe tell me the story behind one of them? A story of one of them that strikes you as remarkably good or remarkably bad?
This is like having to pick a favorite child. But in terms of stories, “Sunsets” by Gavin Froome has a good one. It was quite forward-sounding in 2003 and still sounds totally fresh today. It didn’t do particularly well when released as a single but Harvey started playing it and eventually included it in one of his Sarcastic Disco bootleg CDs. Off the back of that we did a repress for Japan and the track has had somewhat of a cult status ever since. Recently Shaun Reeves (Visionquest) and Art Department have been playing and charting it. Hard to believe that track is 14 years old.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
To take the time to enjoy the ride. The first 10 or 15 years of my life in this business flew by. I’m only now learning how to take time for myself.