U-TRAX are a Utrecht-based record label, founded in 1993 by DJ Richard van der Giessen. After taking a prolonged break from the music industry, Richard restarted the label in 2018 with a stronger focus on LPs but still releasing the deep music the label is known for. We chatted with him about the founding of U-TRAX, their Chicago influences and future plans.
The name ‘U-TRAX’ came about as a combination of a tribute to the Chicago based label ‘Trax’ and ‘U’ to represent the talent from Utrecht where you’re based. Can you tell us more about how the Chicago House scene influenced the label?
Well, that’s not exactly how the name was put together. In the 70s, Utrecht had a lively punk scene and a double album was released with local punk music, titled “U-Tracks”. I guess already back then, the punks figured out the English pronunciation of our city sounds a lot like u-track.
In 1992, then famous Dutch house band Quazar released their EP ‘Last Train To Paradise’, which had an A-Trax and U-Trax side (reflecting the fact that one band member lived in Amsterdam, the other in Utrecht). When I decided to start the label in 1993, it felt like the only possible name would be U-TRAX, since the idea was to release tracks from producers from the Utrecht area.
Having said that, I always felt that the fact that the name looked a lot like Chicago’s Trax Records was a lovely ‘side-effect’. After all, Trax Records for me stands at the very basis of house music, so naming my label U-TRAX was also an expression of us feeling indebted to Trax Records. ‘Acid Trax’ by Phuture to me is one of the most important records ever made, it really unleashed electronic dance music in my mind. When Trax launched their sublabel Saber Records, they once again pushed the boundaries of dance music and I will always be grateful to them for opening my mind.
Most DJs around that time were ‘Detroit addicts’, I was always known as being more of a ‘Chicago guy’. I have never been there, but feel deeply connected to the city (plus, as a basketball fan, Michael Jordan attributed somewhat to that also in the 90s).
What perhaps is interesting to note, is that I more or less incorporated the punk attitude of the late 70s and Trax Records’ low-fi approach to music mastering and vinyl pressing. Mostly because we had no idea what we were doing, our early releases not always sounded too brilliant. Some artists had nothing else to record their tracks on than a simple cassette deck, so that is what we simply sent to the cutter or pressing plant. We were totally oblivious to the fact that mixing and mastering were crafts that only well-trained people understood. We just released our cassettes on vinyl. I suppose it’s a bit of a miracle that these releases didn’t sound entirely crap.
U-TRAX had a revamp in 2018, how did this come about and what’s changed about the label since its inception in 1993.
A couple of things made me reboot the label. In 2017, the Culture Clash album was released, that had been recorded 25 years earlier by me, Arno Peeters and Sander Friedeman (who together started Random XS). I had been out of the music business for 21 years and due to the belated Culture Clash release, I found out U-TRAX had not entirely been forgotten. I also noticed that the younger generation was much more open to what I call ‘difficult music’, than back in the 90s. As a DJ, I always fell in love with weird and impossible tracks, usually clearing the floor in less than three tracks. But fast forward to 2018 and people’s minds seemed much more open to electronic music that wasn’t necessarily designed to dance to. And that was exactly the music that I always had released on U-TRAX. Even though I always found our music very danceable, not everyone agreed back then (I guess that made me either a brilliant dancer, or a terrible DJ).
Also, in 2017, some young DJs from Utrecht had just re-discovered the label, that was put on pause before they were even born, and their enthusiasm really inspired me. It so happened that around that time, my other business was doing pretty well and I had some more time on my hands. So I figured: “why not pick up my old hobby (or love, rather) and try to re-boot the label?”.
Back in the 90s, I was totally focused on 12”s, both as a DJ and as a label owner. Now, 25 years later, I’d much rather listen to albums. I really love listening to these one-hour-ish journeys through the creative minds of the artists. So that is what I want to focus on with ‘the new U-TRAX’: albums, rather than 12″s. As long as whatever I release is a whole product. If someone sends me an EP worth of tracks that is a great and complete body of work, I will release that too. But I still prefer albums. Also, my musical taste has developed in all directions, and the electronic music that I put out can be from any genre, be it techno, acid, electro, ambient, dubstep, hip hop, lounge/downtempo, IDM or whatever.
What didn’t change, is my belief that if people buy our music, they should be able to hold it in their hands. I appreciate streaming platforms and download shops, but when I hear something I like, I want to buy the CD, record or cassette. A digital-only release to me feels like no release.
So with U-TRAX, I will always try to release full-length double vinyl albums, with proper artwork and packaging, and add some extra tracks to the CD version and add even more music to the cassette version. I guess that is my way to show appreciation to the people who take the trouble to actually buy our music on a physical medium.
It is wonderful to more or less have gone full circle, now we have joined Kudos and Ben is our label manager. As co-owner of Lost Futures, he released our Culture Clash album four years ago and that set all this in motion!
What do you look for when signing an artist and where do you go from there?
I am unsure if we will ever be signing artists, right now I rather sign albums. The only question I ask myself is: “Is this deep?”. If the answer is “yes”, then I will release it.
The logical next question then is: “what do you regard as deep?’’. Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question. I guess it has something to do with strong rhythms, dark atmospheres, melancholic melodies and non-standard song structures. It’s funny, but I hear people around me often say “Ah, that’s a typical Richard song” when I play them something I really like, so I guess they know my taste better than I do. On the other hand, I do not want to pretend that everything we release is totally deep, whatever that may be. But we strive for it, hence the label’s full name is U-TRAX Quite Deep Music. I’ll leave it to others to judge the music we release to be really deep or not.
Your forthcoming release with Thavius Beck is coming out this October. Do you have anything else in the works for 2021/22?
Oh my god, yes. The vinyl industry has been a disaster ever since the pandemic hit the world. The production for Thavius Beck’s double album was started in March… This did make us change our approach recently. Before, we worked on one album and once that was in production, we started on the next. Now, we work on all albums that we have signed simultaneously and whatever is finished first, goes into production.
We’re currently working on three albums, that will all have a supporting EP and one standalone EP. Up next is a fantastic old-school electro EP and full-length album by LA producer Nuklear Prophet and an IDM/braindance EP from a couple of really talented Italian guys. Next year we have EPs and albums planned by Sp@sms and w1b0 and we are working on deals for a couple of more albums and EPs.
I expect that with every new release, we will pleasantly surprise people, and disappoint others. And thankfully we have the luxury of not having to release music that is hip or trending, allowing us to carefully build a catalogue that is “never the obvious”.
U-TRAX’s next release ‘Cosmic Noise’ by Thavius Beck is out October 22nd, check it out here.