“You know what? I don't want people to think I take myself too seriously”, Jay Donaldson says with a disarming smile, whilst walking in the first frail sunrays of the year. We're heading in the direction of his favourite recordstore after doing the interview. Donaldson, known as DJ and producer Palms Trax, is succeeding fast in becoming the nicest artist I've ever interviewed.
Donaldson's early career is the stuff of dreams. British producer releases first EP on new label, moves to Berlin and scores a massive hit. The debut gets him recognition from every self-respecting house lover, he then makes a second EP for the popular Lobster Theremin label and is welcomed to the Dekmantel family. Palms Trax will play a live-set at the DJBroadcast stage at Lente Kabinet (May 30th), a show that not only he, but especially his father, is looking forward to. But more about this later.
In a small cafe in Neukölln we joke about the young producer moving to Berlin cliché. But Donaldson did not only find musical success in the city. He now shares his house with his new American girlfriend and travels often from the German capital to the rest of Europe for shows. “Berlin is easy going.” Donaldson's favourite recordstore, Bass Cadet, is located just around the corner from his house. “I use every opportunity to plug them. When I just moved here they were the first locals I got to know. Apart from the fact that they're super nice, they have an impeccable taste in music. They come from Paris, but they could've just as easily come from Detroit.”
In the video you made with Boiler Room, you said that your mom sent you to Berlin.
[Laughs] Sometimes I forget that there are people out there that actually listen to what I say.
Where in England did you grow up?
In Saltford, close to Bristol.
Bristol is known for its music scene, were you part of it?
No, my parents are the reason I started making music. My father is a blues fanatic, I used to play the piano, focusing on jazz. If people asked who or what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say Thelonious Monk. Obviously I didn't stand a chance.
Are you a classical trained pianist?
Yes, I took classes for a long time. I started out when I was four but it took ages to get passed grade one. During the school year I took classes, but when the summer holidays started I immediately stopped practicing. When I got back to school I had forgotten everything. I can still remember that they asked me to play the C-major scale, the easiest scale on the planet. This is like asking someone to just hit all the white keys they can see, but still I couldn't manage it. Later my mom sent me to musical nights where bands performed and where they asked the crowd to join them. I loved that, because it asked a lot of your creativity. That is where I learnt to really appreciate the art of improvisation and to love jazz and blues. I continued to attend those nights for years.
It seems like your mother has good taste, if it wasn't for her you wouldn't be a fan of Talking Heads?
When I was a kid I didn’t realise that what my parents were doing was quite cool. I thought: 'If they make me listen to this music it can't be anything other than lame.' So I started to rebel. When I became older and moved to London and got some more sense, I started to realise how good Talking Heads actually were. Remain in Light for me is still one of the best albums ever made.
"...If I wanted to, I could make
Nickelback's drumkit sound good for a recording..."
Are your parents musicians?
My father plays the guitar. When he was studying at the University of Leeds he had a space for practicing below Gang of Four. That’s kind of cool. My mom is one of a few people in the world that choose to play the recorder, which sounds pretty dull but she was actually quite good at it.
What do they think of your music?
My father thinks it's amazing. Five years ago he was struggling with his health, which resulted in him being at home a lot. Soundcloud was his way to kill time, he turned that platform inside out and developed an obsession for L.I.E.S. Now he bombards ME with emails: 'Did you listen to that track, you have to check this, that etc'. He is obsessed with dance music. He has the complete discography of L.I.E.S. at home.
Haha no way.
No, I swear, he bought L.I.E.S. 001 to 050.
So your father dreams of a son that releases his music on L.I.E.S.?
He begged me to put some of those thundering kickdrums in my productions, but I refused to do it. I guess he accepted it.
Now he wants to complete his Dekmantel collection. [Laughs]
From Saltford you went to London, where you started to study musical technology.
If I wanted to, I could make Nickelback's drumkit sound good for a recording. That's what I learnt there. I wasted three years of my life. The only class that actually taught me anything was two-month class about synthesizers. The rest of the time I probably sat at home on Dubstepforum.
"...I owe so much to Phonica, and
as such have to mention them in every interview I give..."
I kind of liked this quote from another interview, where you said that you learned the exact opposite of what they tried to teach you: how not to do it.
Yes, but really. When I started working at Phonica I started to learn more and more about house and techno. At that time there were a lot of useful forums for starting producers, which don't seem to exist that much anymore. I made music on my laptop but I didn't manage to truly create the sounds that I was hearing in my head. I told myself that this was because I didn't use any hardware. 'If I could only buy a Roland Space Echo, everything will be fine.' That’s rubbish of course. If you don't have a Space Echo, you are forced to find a different solution. I was preaching a little bit in that interview, but I think that it's important to say that there is not just one way of doing it. It might take some time, but you can make a hi-hat sound just as good with software as with hardware.
Phonica is an institute. Why did they hire you, with your limited knowledge of electronica music at the time?
[Laughs] Probably because I told them that they didn't have to pay me. I was kind of naive back then. House and techno had up until then not played a single role in my life. I was just able to recall who Joy Orbison was, never been to a club and I tell you what, I didn't even know proper clubs existed! Really, I was doing different things, but at the same time I was very eager to learn. One way or another I got myself in. They must have thought: 'He speaks English, isn't completely idiotic, let's hire him.'
I learned so much. I heard Derrick May, Juan Atkins and the Burrell Brothers for the first time. I think a good recordstore offers the possibility to see the connection between all the different musical genres.
[Laughs] I owe so much to Phonica, and as such have to mention them in every interview I give.
In 2013 Donaldson inaugurated the London Lobster Theremin with his Equation EP. The label achieved cult status with the timeless, but original, lo-fi house of relatively unknown producers such as Route 8, Snow Bone and Rawaat. His second EP for Lobster Theremin (Forever, 2014) was also a great success and today he can cross off all the big European clubs on his bucket list.
[Laughs] 'To be honest, don't ask me how I did this. I have absolutely no idea. Sometimes I seriously get the feeling I am in a coma, about to wake up in the hospital. I didn't realise that people were listening to my music. When Equation came out I had just moved to Berlin. I was trying to make ends meet, was moving constantly, subletting obscure places from shady landlords. I mean, it wasn't like I could suddenly live in a palace or something. Before I signed to Lobster Theremin I sent that EP to several labels. No one was interested. Or they were interested, but only if I was willing to make some changes.
Which labels asked you to make changes?
Mr. Saturday Night asked me for another kickdrum. 100% Silk told me it was "kind of okay", but didn't get back in touch after that. In hindsight I'm happy that I didn't release on an established label, because then it would have been the umpteenth release on 'that successful label'. Now I got the opportunity to open a label and people are usually ready to give new labels some kind of chance. But apart from that, I don’t know. The EP has only been reviewed once and it wasn't even very positive.
The video might have helped .
Yes, for sure! That video, I am so lucky he made that for me. Because I knew that he (Youtube user 'hurfyd made a hobby out of making the most amazing videos for music by Pagan Sector, J. Tijn and Daze check ,ed.) made these kinds of videos. I sent my music to him and suddenly out of nowhere I received an email: 'I was bored eating a wagon wheel last night so I made you this. I hope you like it.' The reactions were amazing. People sent me emails to tell me how much they liked the video. 'It reminds me of my youth, my upbringing. It reminds me of a time that made me the person I am today.' I have actually never been a skater, so I didn’t realise how cool the video was in that sense, although visually I still loved it. [Laughs]
It seems like Dekmantel will be your new musical family with an EP and shows at Lentekabinet and Dekmantel Festival.
Can I be really cliché and say that it kind of feels like a dream come true?
Your dad must be proud.
[Laughs] Absolutely, he's over the moon and probably even happier than I am. You know what's the difference between us? I worry about things, he just enjoys them.
What are you worrying about?
[Laughs] That one day they will find out that I'm actually an imposter. I mean, I'm now signed to the same label as Juju & Jordash! They have been so important to me as a producer. I blindly buy everything they release. They showed that you can easily and naturally blend jazz and electronic music.
How did you come to Dekmantel?
Casper Tielrooij sent me a message on Facebook. He told me that they really liked the Equation EP and if I ever felt the need to send them music for the label, I was very welcome to do that. That happened in January of last year but I still had to find my way in Berlin back then. Towards the end of the summer I finished some tracks and sent them to Dekmantel. And, so cool, they immediately said yes.
Do you like that more than when they say: change this or that?
No, not per se. I don't think that a discussion is a bad thing by definition. Actually, I believe there are too many labels that release music without being critical towards their own artists. A label owner should, in my opinion, be more of a mentor for his artists. Artists should talk about their music, focus on details and don't just accept everything from each other. Successful labels have critical people heading them. That is a sign.
But you're talking from a rather unique position. Or would you advise any starting producer: don't send demos to anyone and just wait until labels like Dekmantel come to you?
[Laughs] OK, good point, but I mean that it's very important to get honest and real feedback from people who get what's important.
Towards the end of ‘Acid Sumo Crew’ we can hear a dialogue, what is that?
Ah, you mean the vocals? That's me… I wrote that tune in my hotel room in Tokyo. Last year was a hectic year for me. Never say 'yes' to more than one remix at a time. When I went to Tokyo for two weeks for the Red Bull Music Academy I finally found some time to finish tracks. I originally wrote to Galcher Lustwerk and asked him to do the vocals because he does it like no other can.' [Laugh] 'No,' was his answer. Apparently he only does vocals on his own productions, and I understand that, but it was a problem because I thought that track needed them so I decided to do it myself.
I actually meant that weird film sample right at the end of the track
Oh that! Do you know the track ‘Sarah’ by Omar S? That one also has a film sample, which I think is really cool. [Laughs] putting a totally random sample from a film in a track, that's something I always wanted to do.
Haha, so that track is an Omar S rip off?
All my tracks are Omar S rip offs! Also of Legowelt, but Legowelt is technically a much better producer, to a point that it's almost frustrating. The DIY ethic that Omar S has made me believe that I was able to release my own track. Kassem Mosse said the same thing once. The lesson to take home is that music doesn't need to be very polished.
At Lente Kabinet you will play live on the DJBroadcast stage, something you don't do very often.
That's right. I really, really like DJing. At Dekmantel Festival I will do a DJ-set. The more I DJ, the more records I buy, the more I'm enjoying it. That's the way I want to present myself as an artist. [Donaldson finishes his sentence, makes a disgusted face and looks at me] 'Jesus, that sounds terrible.'
When I go out I also like seeing a DJ play, and at special occasions I will do a live-set. Up until now I did five of those, the last one was at Panorama Bar. It should not become a routine, I don't want to do the same sequence every week and it is very difficult to constantly choose and find new angles in your own productions. But apart from that, I love doing it. I have three live-sets lined up this year: one at Lente Kabinet, one at Sonar and one at a festival in Belgium. I want them all to be very different. Live-sets for me are usually sort of a weaker version of a producer's music because, you're very limited in what you can do. I want to try and avoid that. I don't know how I will do that yet, but I will try. I don't want the audience to listen to an even worse version of my record for an hour.
I heard that during your set in Panorama Bar you couldn't find the courage to look into the audience.
Not once, or well, once actually. And right at that moment my girlfriend almost fainted, or that's what it looked like anyway. But really, playing at Panorama Bar is only scary right up until the moment you start. The staff are super friendly, you get a very good soundcheck before your set and they try to do everything to make you feel comfortable. After I played my live-set there, I realised for the first time: 'Hey, this can actually be kind of a pleasant experience as well.'
It is mandatory to smile on the DJBroadcast stage.
Don't worry. I will wear my flamboyant floral overall and be ready for it.