Nordic Trax label head Luke McKeehan is still a DJ above all
Modesty gets you nowhere in the music business. That’s especially true for record-label operators, folks whose survival depends on their ability to sell not just music, but a whole lifestyle. Think of Richard Branson (Virgin), Tony Wilson (Factory), or Rick Rubin (Def Jam)—each a mercurial celebrity in his own right, each a man whose label seemed like an extension of his larger-than-life personality.
Like those iconic companies, Vancouver’s longest-running dance-music label is a reflection of its founder. But Nordic Trax, has inherited an approach rarely associated with success in the industry—a low-key perseverance that speaks to the personal style of its owner, Luke McKeehan.
Born and raised in southern Ontario, McKeehan moved to Vancouver in the early 1990s and soon established himself as one of the premier DJs and promoters in the city’s burgeoning rave scene. In 1996, he and partners Seren Kahlon and Ian Menzies founded Mo’ Funk Records, putting out compilations of acid-jazz tunes licensed from other labels.
After Mo’ Funk dissolved, McKeehan set out on his own, releasing The Nordic Trax EP, a compilation of original material by four producers (including McKeehan’s High Fidelity alias), followed by a single from Stéphane Novak’s Pilgrims of the Mind project. At the time he was founding Nordic Trax, McKeehan was also running two of the city’s best nightclubs, the Chameleon Lounge (located in the basement of the old Hotel Georgia) and Water Street’s famed Sonar. In those heady days, and the 15 years that have followed, no one played a more central role in shaping B.C.’s dance-music community. True to modest form, McKeehan bats that suggestion away.
“It’d be nice to think that I could wield that much power, but it’s always just been a matter of gauging what kind of things people were into,” says the DJ, reached at the Nordic Trax office in Gastown. “Especially nowadays, the role of deejaying or running a label or producing shows has more value than ever because people are so overwhelmed by the amount of stuff out there. It’s nice to be able to guide people toward things you know they will like.”
The Chameleon and Sonar are long gone, but McKeehan continues to leave his mark on the Vancouver scene, both with Nordic Trax—which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year—and as a show promoter throwing parties in underground venues (like Open Studios) and glitzy big rooms like the Commodore. First and foremost, though, he remains a DJ.
“I come at everything I do in the music business from a DJ’s approach; that was my entry into it,” he explains. “Nordic Trax especially has always been a DJ–based enterprise. I never thought I would get rich off putting out house music. In the promotion scene, it can be restrictive in terms of how creative you can be and still survive and make money, whereas with the label, making money from it was never really a consideration; it’s always been an outlet for me to take risks.”
It’s hard to think of many more risky business ventures than running a specialist label, especially one devoted to a classicist form like deep house, a connoisseur’s genre that resists the grand gestures of big-room dance music for something headier and lower down to the ground. For out-of-town DJs like Mark Farina, Nordic Trax has come to define the sound of our city.
“There are certain cities that have labels that represent them, and Nordic Trax certainly is that for Vancouver,” says the veteran San Francisco selector, reached on tour in London, England. “It definitely has something in common with the sounds in Chicago and the Bay Area, but with a more conscious vibe, and some more techno elements that really reflect the Vancouver landscape for me.”
These days, of course, deep house ranks well behind dubstep in the local consciousness, but McKeehan persists in his niche, having scaled the label down from its 2002–04 peak, when it manufactured 16 singles, two full-length albums, and four mixed-CD compilations. Since 2009, all the company’s releases have been digital-only, a decision McKeehan looks back on with little regret.
“From a nostalgic perspective, it would be nice to still be putting out vinyl,” says the DJ, who plans to release a 15th-anniversary label compilation later this year. “But there were so many inefficiencies in that process that make it incredibly frustrating from our standpoint. UPS made more money than anyone, because the product was being shipped three times just to get it to retail. With digital, we can have a more direct connection with the market.”
In recent years, NT has benefited from the mainstream’s renewed fascination with dance music, seeing some spillover from the kids who might have got hooked by Skrillex but who want to explore the form’s roots more deeply. Boom, bust, and boom again—as McKeehan says, “I’ve seen it all.”
“Sometimes the party has 200 people; the next year, it’s 2,000,” he explains. “It’s like an accordion expanding and contracting. Within the overall landscape, we’ve become a boutique label, so we’re kind of insulated. We have these little pockets of support all over the world, but we’re never blaring over the radio. It’s been a good place to be.”
Luke McKeehan plays the Nordic Trax 15th Anniversary Show, with Mark Farina, DJ Sneak, and Jay Tripwire, at the Commodore Ballroom on Sunday (May 20).