The Vancouver label and promoter will celebrate its 15th anniversary in May.
The Vancouver label was founded in '97 by the city's Luke McKeehan and friends, and has since seen 70 releases by producers like Morgan Page and Jay Tripwire. The brand has extended itself to regular parties in the city, focusing both on local acts and international headliners. The 15th anniversary party will take place at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom, a large venue more often associated with live concerts than dance music events, and will also feature Tripwire, Calgary's Jon Delerious and McKeehan himself.
RA spoke with Luke McKeehan to discuss the label's history and development over the past 15 years.
When you started Nordic Trax, what exactly did you see it as?
Well, at the time, it was a bit more of an answer because we already had a label, a compilation based label called Mo Funk, we licensed labels from others. We ourselves were promoters, so that was one of my first experiences in the "real" music business, doing licensing, figuring out how the record business worked... We put out one single, as a brand kind of within the label. I was the working DJ of the three of us, playing at club nights, so I didn’t really want to be part of the label unless it was related to the music I was playing. I thought, well, I’m gonna develop some artists and support some guys, and as a DJ bring in some other people from abroad. We never thought we’d be doing 15 years or even five years, but I think after about three years I was kind of burnt out on the club scene... at that time I thought I was doing well enough with the label and DJing, I can step back from the club. It was taking that last step of having faith in your own ideas.
Do you see Nordic Trax as a Vancouver-centric brand, and how has it changed over the last 15 years?
It operates in two ways—one, we do shows, which funds part of our operation, and with the label side of what I do, about half of it is artists abroad and half is Canada-based artists. Dance music has always been borderless, even Chicago DJs always had to play eleswhere. For us to exist underground in the 90s we always had to play other places than just Vancouver. I definitely couldn’t have done this if I didn’t relocate here from Toronto—there’s something about the vibe and the way people were, it seemed more open-minded. If I was in Toronto I’d just be like ‘someone’s already doing that, eh, why bother.’ But growing up in Toronto also exposed me to some stuff I would have missed otherwise.
As someone who puts on parties in Vancouver, how has the house scene here changed in the past few years?
We’re a bit more active, again, in the past few years. Part of that is the dynamics of the music industry—it’s no big secret that music sales collapsed, distributors went under. Luckily we always had this one foot in doing shows. The scene now is healthy in a lot of ways—people in every city complain about their scene. Why would anyone in Vancouver be different? You just need to take a break from it and realize that you can have a good time at pretty much anything here. There’s something for everyone every weekend and right now people can do what they want without having to water down their sets or go through the back door. There’s always going to be that cycle of people coming in and out, things becoming too commercial or being too underground, but for me it’s encouraging.
Is Vancouver hospitable to the kind of stuff you’re doing now?
It goes in waves. Venues open, close, there can be power shifts...it’s a cycle, I’ve seen it over and over again. It’s not just dominated by the Granville Street clubs anymore, there are clubs elsewhere open to booking this kind of music on the weekends. I try to push local DJs—because I am one—and I’d like to see people get just as excited for local DJs as this guy who’s coming in from Europe, but it’s like that everywhere. Someone’s always from somewhere else. Our anniversary show, we’ve sold several hundred tickets and we’ve had no print ads yet.
Can you talk a little bit about your anniversary show? Why The Commodore Ballroom, not typically a dance music venue?
We’ve been doing shows at the Commodore since the late 90s—probably less now, twice a year, we had Kaskade and a few other events. Mark Farina is someone I’ve been working on since I would pay him $500 and he would sleep on my couch. We’re still going, he’s still going, we bring him to Vancouver twice a year. DJ Sneak, he ruffles some feathers but he’s one person always talking about it—does it stand for something? Can you be commercially successful and keep it edgy—I think he embodies that. He lives in Canada now, and has for over a decade, and I don’t think a lot of people know that. Trying to support the home team too, John Delerious from Canada, and then Tripwire, a Vancouver guy, a legend, jedi of house music, wild man. I think that’s the approach; but for something like The Commodore, trying to do something different that we couldn’t do just any old weekend, not just one guy and opener. Ben from Open Studios is going to do a bunch of custom visuals, stuff that’s never been done at The Commodore. We’re just gonna do some cool shit.