Cover Story: The Evolution of Palms Trax
Cover Story: The Evolution of Palms TraxJune 21, 2021
“I do have bed linen now — but not a 909,” Palms Trax deadpans. If today he’s known as a low-key, uncontroversial house and disco DJ/producer with close ties to Dekmantel, the earliest Palms Trax interviews kicked up something of a storm. And all because he admitted he couldn’t afford bed linen, let alone expensive production hardware, before suggesting that most producers don’t actually need analogue gear to make great music. Instead, they should stay focused on what sounds good to them, even if they’re only using laptops.
To modern eyes, this type of “controversy” seems quaint, almost unbelievably so. But when the analogue vs. digital debate was at its peak, the breakout star behind 2013’s Equation EP staked out unlikely ground, even defending sample packs. Since then, propelled in equal parts by his knack for thrilling DJ sets and musically rich productions, Palms Trax (born Jay Donaldson) has risen to the heights of underground acclaim, even if he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
Donaldson is naturally modest, almost to a fault. And in early interviews, he took pains to stress his belief in his own unimportance, telling journalists that he shouldn’t be taken seriously, and that he can’t believe anyone would care what he has to say. As we speak over Zoom one sunny afternoon in Berlin — he’s in his studio surrounded by gear — Donaldson answers my questions carefully and with much consideration, pausing to search for just the right words before slowly constructing his answers. But he usually leads with a joke, which are dry as a bone, very funny and often made at his own expense. And while this type of self-deprecation might serve as a protective barrier between his inner psyche and the pitfalls of public notoriety, it also hints at why Palms Trax is known as one of the best DJs working today.
Growing up in Saltford, a village outside of Bristol, U.K., Donaldson is the son of potters, “creative people” who he says encouraged his curiosity and independence. “My dad taught me how to play guitar, and they were encouraging when I was sat at school on my own making beats in Logic during my lunch breaks and stuff. Like, ‘don’t worry, that you seem to not want to spend any time with any other kids at school. You’ll be okay.’”
Donaldson has been a musician since his earliest years. He began playing piano with a focus on jazz at age four, and proclaimed he wanted to be famed American jazz pianist Thelonious Monk when he grew up. And while both parents encouraged him, it was Donaldson’s father, an expert guitar player, who taught Donaldson how to play guitar and took him to see live shows of all stripes — from U2 concerts to Ethiopian bands — as a teen. “I didn’t feel too much pressure to become a lawyer or something,” Donaldson says.
Donaldson was soon playing guitar in a rock band of his own, before transitioning to making hip hop and IDM under the moniker Drop/Dead. After finishing high school, he enrolled in a sound engineering course at university with the aim of working with bands, and his trajectory seemed quite certain — until suddenly it wasn’t.
“By the time that I got there, I’d ended up discovering Flying Lotus and Aphex Twin and all these people, and was making beats in my bedroom. And I’d sort of lost all interest in [working with bands].”
Because of Donaldson’s growing interest in electronic music, his coursework began feeling esoteric and irrelevant. “I just wanted to make a dubstep wobble base, and they were trying to show me how I would mic up a drum kit for Nickelback,” he says.
Eagle-eyed readers will recognize this anecdote. Donaldson has told it before. But today this story is quickly followed by a caveat — he now realizes he was simply too young to appreciate what was in front of him.
“I wasn’t ready for that course when I did it. Now I think I would really enjoy it. But at the time I just couldn’t see the big picture,” he says. Donaldson recalls one assignment, which asked him to make a track with an EMS Synthi AKS, a phenomenally expensive vintage synth originally built in 1971, which has been used by musicians and bands like Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd on The Dark Side of the Moon, Soulwax, Floating Points, and James Murphy.
“It’s got an incredible filter, the things you can do with it are amazing. I couldn’t get a single sound out of it, and I just thought, this is just an absolute piece of junk. But now I’d kill to have that kind of access to one. So yeah, I guess that’s just being young.”
It’s the kind of hindsight that comes not just with age, but experience. Donaldson not only has his very own bed linen these days, but a studio setup full of big, expensive-looking analogue gear. But he’s adamant that he still believes what he said back in 2014 about not needing all that equipment.
“I just have a horrible addiction to buying things,” he admits. “But at the same time, I think if I sold everything tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss it.” Though he later clarifies his thoughts over email, saying, “It’s one of those things where you think, ‘If only I had this [piece of equipment],’ but then you realise it’s not the lack of gear that’s the problem, it’s the lack of dedication and musical talent.”
However, with Donaldson’s production track record, which prioritizes quality over quantity, and includes the aforementioned Equation EP, along with Forever, In Gold and the Italo-tinged To Paradise, any lingering anxiety over how much gear he’s amassed since his days as a broke Berlin transplant feels futile.
Even before Equation, which put both Donaldson and Lobster Theremin on the map, he and Theremin founder Jimmy Asquith were close friends, and Donaldson considers Asquith a mentor. Among other things, the two bonded over classic house, which Donaldson had only recently discovered during his internship at famed London vinyl shop, Phonica.
Before the internship, Donaldson’s musical loyalties were planted firmly in garage, dubstep and hip hop. “To be honest, at that point, I didn’t really like house music,” Donaldson says. He found the repetitive four-four drum beat of house and techno “quite claustrophobic,” and recoiled when he heard dubstep or garage DJs veer towards these sounds on a night out, which was happening more and more often around the early 2010s. But one compilation changed everything for him.
“I was working at Phonica, and The Burrell Brothers compilation came out on Rush Hour. I heard that in the shop and just fell absolutely head over heels in love with it.”
Working mostly between 1988 and 1993, Rheji and Rhano Burrell are responsible for a vast trove of musically rich deep house that, in the words of journalist Matt Anniss, “drew just as much inspiration from New Jersey garage, soul and jazz-funk as it did from the work of Larry Heard and his Chicago contemporaries.” Indeed, you can hear clear echoes of the chord structure from 1990’s “Brownstone Express” by Metro (an alias of Rheji Burrell) on Donaldson’s “Equation,” and Rhano Burrell even made a 1989 track under the alias Equation called “The Answer,” which is a funkier take on deep house that wouldn’t feel out of place in an early Palms Trax set.
Donaldson had found what he was looking for. It was four-four dance music, but the arrangements and melodies of artists like The Burrell Brothers or Omar-S deeply resonated with him, likely speaking to the musical upbringing of his childhood. And when compared to artists like Autechre or Aphex Twin, it sounded much less intimidating to try to emulate.
“It had this punk quality to it,” Donaldson says. “Like, you hear a lot of people say they heard the Sex Pistols for the first time and they played three chords and they’re like, well I can do that. And listening to the Burrell Brothers, I was like, oh, you know you can actually communicate a powerful message with just a few simple ingredients.”
Palms Trax was born. However at this point in his career, Donaldson’s DJ experience was still limited. He’d landed his first gig just a few years earlier, after Asquith heard some of Donaldson’s early hip hop/garage inspired beats on Myspace and invited him to play a party he was throwing at The Old Blue Last in Shoreditch. Just before his debut show, Donaldson headed to a house party.
“I was quite off my face, and I ran into Jamie XX. I think I was bugging him a little bit, I was trying to get him to share some production secrets with me. And a couple days later, I ended up getting this email saying, ‘Hey, this is the guy from Boiler Room [from] the party, here’s my unreleased album demos.’ And it was the [album] demos he made remixing [American jazz musician] Gil Scott-Heron. I was like, ‘Oh, this is great. I can just play these at the party and no one will know it’s not me.’ And then I got to the Old Blue Last, and sat at the bar was Jamie XX having a drink.”
His plans were ruined. “I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’ I didn’t know how to DJ. I didn’t even have the concepts of, you know, just throw a tune on and go from there.” So he reversed the order, starting with his own tracks first. “Fortunately it must have proved so unlistenable that everyone left, and then I just dropped his stuff at the end.”
For “whatever reason,” Donaldson says, Asquith invited him back. Asquith also began booking more house acts, like Fred P and ItaloJohnson, who Donaldson warmed up for before soaking up all the lessons they had to offer, like how to approach a longer set and how to build and maintain a musical flow. “And that’s how I fell in love with DJing,” he says.
Soon after, he arrived in Berlin. He hardly knew a soul in the city, so the day he landed, he headed to an outdoor Berlin Community Radio (BCR) fundraiser party in the hopes of meeting people and making connections. “I turned up and left about three times because it was pouring with rain,” he says. “I was wearing my sister’s windbreaker, and there were only about eight people there. I was just feeling so uncomfortable.” But he struck up a conversation with BCR founders Sarah Miles and Anastasia Filipovna.
Miles and Filipovna saw something in Donaldson, and offered to show him around the city. They also offered him a DJ slot at the tiny and now-closed club Farbfernseher, which led to the Cooking With Palms Trax radio show, which continues today on NTS. “It was probably one of the luckier moments in my life,” Donaldson says about the initial encounter. The show, which began in 2014, gave Donaldson space to explore a wide variety of sounds, from the dub and reggae of Jamaica’s Augustus Pablo, to the West African funk of Mali’s Super Djata Band, to house and techno from Gunnar Hasslam and Tin Man. It also gave Donaldson, who was still extremely insecure about his skills behind the decks, a much needed boost in confidence by allowing him to play music to people without people actually being present.
“So it felt more relaxing, and encouraged me to try things out that I maybe wouldn’t have been comfortable doing in front of an audience. Seeing people respond to it in positive ways was encouraging. I needed that a little bit.” The show also earned him a few vitally important fans.
Dekmantel festival and label founders Thomas Martojo and Casper Tielrooij almost didn’t sign Donaldson to their imprint. “Casper wrote to me on Facebook and was like, ‘Oh, I really like your first record. Do you want to do some stuff for the label?’ And I subsequently found out that Thomas was telling him ‘Oh, no, he’s got a label, don’t bother.’ So I owe everything I have now to Casper ignoring his advice and still reaching out to me.”
They were mentors, he says, who took the younger and far less experienced artist under their wing. They introduced him to new music, and encouraged him despite his occasional failures behind the decks. “Thomas and Casper are like older brothers to me,” he says. They even gave Donaldson his first-ever festival gig. Which just so happened to be at Dekmantel.
“That was the first dance music festival I’d ever been to,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know how to use rekordbox. And I remember, I got to the Greenhouse, and Anthony Napels was wearing the same t-shirt as me. I was like, ‘I can’t go on wearing the same t-shirt as him,’ so I got one of the guys to find me a Dekmantel shirt, I put that on, went up to play, plugged in my USB stick and it said ‘media file collapsed’ for like every single tune. And so I basically had to like panic-drag 80 tunes into a USB folder, and they all showed up with — they were WAVs — so they all showed up with no artist name or anything, and just had to sort of construct the set around that. And for some reason, it went extraordinarily well. I’ve tried that approach subsequently, and it’s been an utter disaster. So I’m quite grateful for that one, because I don’t know if I’d be in this position if it wasn’t for that,” Donaldson laughs.
Donaldson still carries an air of disbelief in his fortune with Dekmantel. Despite the luck of that first near-disaster performance, future gigs for Martojo and Tielrooij didn’t go nearly as well. “I was talking to Thomas recently, and he was like, ‘It’s amazing to see you now. We have recordings of you from our earlier parties, and they’re so bad. Like, I don’t know why we even gave you a second chance.’”
When I ask him why he thinks Martojo and Tielrooij gave him that second chance, he pauses for a full five seconds, looking around the room and thinking hard before self-deprecatingly joking that they “booked too many parties” before trailing off, unsure of his answer. “I don’t know, to be quite honest,” he eventually concludes.
A few days later, he writes me to clarify his thoughts on this point. “I believe it’s called failing upwards! You can’t underestimate how much a strong personality will do for you in this world, and people who’ve benefited from it early on are usually too insecure to acknowledge it because it might undermine a skill set they’ve gone on to acquire. It’s especially prevalent now because most people seem to build a following away from the dancefloor, but bold song selection, quick mixing and being friendly and polite to promoters used to get you a long way.”
By “away from the dance floor,” Donaldson is partially alluding to the rise of social media, which he seems endlessly thankful for not having to contend with during his initial rise through the DJ ranks. He talks about being “allowed” to make mistakes as a younger DJ more than once during our conversation; to experiment and change his musical style away from the everpresent scrutiny that social media brings.
For a time, Donaldson felt boxed in by expectations, like he needed to “bang out” a house set every gig, no matter what. And along with plenty of practice and hours spent digging for, listening to and learning about new music, he watched DJs of all stripes, finding particular inspiration from Rush Hour boss Antal, Rush Hour affiliate Hunee, and Theo Parrish. They showed him how to connect the dots between various genres in a way that not only made sense from a technical standpoint, but bowled over a crowd. But above all else, Donaldson says it was watching veteran Chicago disco selector Sadar Bahar at Panorama Bar that completely changed how he understood the craft.
“The energy that he brought to the floor, I’ve never seen it like that ever before,” Donaldson says. He felt like he was hit by a lightning bolt, realizing what he was missing. Bring enough energy to the decks, and you can play anything. “Literally anything,” he says. “But it took me a long time to feel confident enough to run with that.”
That doesn’t mean he sees himself as some kind of “eclectic maverick,” ready to clear the floor just to assert his musical identity, though he does respect artists who “stick to their guns” no matter what. Instead, it’s about striking a balance. Push too hard, and you find yourself playing certain songs only for the technical challenge they present, forgetting the audience entirely. “But that’s just a selfish way of looking at it. You have to be selfless to be a DJ, or I think so.”
By the time he made his debut headline performance on the main stage in 2019 at Dekmantel — a festival he’s played every year for the last five — Donaldson had long since been the confident DJ his fans know and love. He’d recorded an outstanding Essential Mix in 2018, and the year before that, he notched the number 18 spot on Crack’s The 50 Most Exciting DJs Right Now list. Even so, he was still “really nervous” for the show. “I’d woken up and thought about it every single day for a year,” he says.
Despite his close association with events like Dekmantel or Croatia’s Love International, Donaldson doesn’t necessarily consider himself a festival DJ. He’s previously held club residencies in Boston and Glasgow, and his cancelled 2020 residency at London’s XOYO is hopefully returning later this year. “I love the idea of doing a residency,” he enthuses. “If I could only do a residency every week, I’d just love that.”
It’s probably unrealistic to assume any modern DJ could hold only a weekly club residency (outside of Ibiza or Las Vegas) and remain successful these days. But Donaldson is eager to somehow take DJing back to where it was long before they were placed centre stage and turned into celebrities. He’s on stage because he desperately wants to share music with anyone who’ll listen, and he’ll do his best to send punters away smiling in the process. But being looked at on stage makes him uncomfortable, and he doesn’t want to be adored, or even considered more important than any other staff working the party. Like the bartender, he’s supplying the audio libations to keep you smiling till the lights come on as seamlessly as he possibly can.
“I have this old fashioned approach to DJing. I think it’s a function. Like, I’m there on the same level as the people who are doing the lights, the security and staff, trying to make the party good.”
It may not come as a surprise that Donaldson spent his time in lockdown rethinking the types of gigs he’d like to play once touring resumes. Before the break, he felt like he was being “swept away by the momentum of everything” in his career, and didn’t feel “particularly in control of what was happening.”
“Once you hit a certain level, you start playing incredibly impersonal venues more often,” he says. “I think doing too many of those was probably starting to eat away at my soul a little bit.”
There’s a fear amongst most DJs, Donaldson says, that without touring consistently, they’ll end up being forgotten about. “And once that happens, it’s very hard to come back. It’s this rotating carousel of fresh new faces. One minute, you’re like the hot new thing, and the next minute, you’re a dinosaur, and it happens very quickly. Being surrounded by people who have that mindset, it’s very easy to end up thinking, well, that’s the only way to do it.”
He won’t be forgoing festivals entirely of course. He’s utterly addicted to them; to “that moment about 20 minutes in when you can feel the whole thing lift off,” he says. But he needs to feel a connection to not only the audience, but the people working there, like he does with Dekmantel, Gala, or Love International — events whose crews he says are like family — “because you feel part of a whole, rather than a day-tripper.”
As the 127th largest carbon emitter out of the 1000 DJs listed on Clean Scene’s environmental report, Donaldson is also cognizant of the environmental impact of his touring, and says his booking agency, Octopus, has implemented a green rider program, and will be approaching touring differently, with a limit on the amount of flights he can take, more train connections, and an emphasis on organizing gigs with geographic efficiency in mind, “instead of having that ‘monkeys throwing a dart at a map of the world’ approach to touring,” he says.
Donaldson’s quest to “reclaim some sort of direction” from the music industry is also behind his decision to launch a record label and blog. With the blog, Donaldson will post music, stories, and occasional interviews, and hopes to bring back the community spirit and personal connection that has been lost on social media, where “everything’s just this big sales pitch,” he says.
“I think it’s more important to me to have, like, 500 people actively engaging with what I’m doing rather than 60,000 people following me, but they just want to see me post pictures of my face,” Donaldson says.
Called CWPT (or Cooking With Palms Trax), Donaldson’s label launched this month with the Petu EP, a three-tracker built around lead single “Petu” featuring South African vocalist Nonku Phiri. “Me and Nonku have quite a nice relationship, and what we’d talked about with the song and the energy that we wanted to convey was quite personal. So I just felt like it was something that I wanted to release on my own.”
He also hopes the label will put pressure on him to release music with more spontaneity, instead of letting his penchant for perfectionism get in his way. “This is an untested theory,” he adds as a caveat. By pushing music from younger artists, CWPT will give Donaldson the chance to pay forward some of the exceptional opportunities and mentorship he was given in his younger days. “In the same way that Thomas, Casper, and Jimmy looked out for me, and were supportive and protective, I would like to do that for other people,” he says.
As clubs reopen and the scene slowly comes back to life, many artists and promoters are ready to pick up right where they left off. But Jay Donaldson is intent on doubling down on his ideals, pulling himself further away from the spotlight through his record label, while building a community atmosphere through his blog and the types of gigs he chooses to play. Ironically, he also seems more confident than ever — ready to teach new generation of talent the lessons he’s learned, eager to keep making new and challenging music, and excited to hit decks with full force once again. If the first act of Palms Trax was anything to go by, the second act just might be even better. Cooking with Palms Trax has never smelled so good.