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Palms Trax's joyful spontaneity is keeping house music fresh

The engaging, amazing Palms Trax is one of the most exciting young DJs around

  • Words: Marc Rowlands | Photography: Hector Urzáiz Calpe & Daryl Hall
  • 11 December 2017

The wind batters the festival site with near unbelievable force. Random pieces of plastic and fencing whiz by, flagpoles break and lighting rigs are hastily removed from the main stage. They remain redundant for the rest of the duration. For hours the rain falls sideways, relentlessly lashing every surface and sodden crew member of 2017’s Glitch Festival. And then, within moments, the storm disperses. The temperature returns to a T-shirt and shorts warmth typical for September’s second weekend on Malta, although the humidity that accompanied last night’s sets by Recondite, Blawan, DJ Stingray, Jon Hopkins and Maceo Plex has gone.

After an hour only a few puddles remain. Arriving on site later than scheduled but still earlier than most attendees, Palms Trax is one of the few to muddy his trainers. By the time he starts his set with 80s French pop disco B-side ‘La Nuit’ by Diva, the ground is dry enough to withstand the pounding feet his set encourages. Billed to open the main arena of this largely techno-based event, the storm forces his reallocation to a stand alone session on a smaller stage, but it suits him perfectly.

As rain drips from the leaves of the surrounding palm trees, dropping gently on those below, he moves through African grooves, two Knuckles/Morales moments in ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ and the dub of Will Downing’s ‘A Love Supreme’, older New York moments like Musto & Bones’ ‘House Music All Night Long’, mid-90s Cajual release ‘Taurus’ by Johnny Fiasco and its peer ‘Echo Chamber’ by Joshua plus just as many newer releases like Souldynamic’s ‘EQTRL’ and Simian Mobile Disco’s ‘Far Away From A Distance’.

There’s a boldness of melody and a unabashed joyfulness in the way he confidently weaves between genres, from city to city, continent to continent, era to era. There’s also a total absence of snobbery. Maybe it’s his his background (he’s been a musician for a lot longer than he’s been either a producer or DJ). Could the holistic view he takes of his selections come from the freshness of his ears? The younger members of the audience are the most vocal, at times pogoing and cheering in response as tracks are brought in. And at only 26 years of age Palms Trax is not much older than those pressing against the barrier immediately before him.

“For a while I was quite insecure,” admits Jay Donaldson, aka Palms Trax, his often self-deprecating chat as refreshing as his selections. “Being a producer who happened to do one record and then being booked a ton off the back of it was really exciting. But I’d never had that bar residency, that week-in, week-out gig where I’d learn how to DJ. I was just thrust into these high pressure situations, I had no idea how to handle them.” Having just completed his busiest summer as a DJ, one which saw him headline at De School and Love International Festival, tour the US, play at Panorama Bar and b2b with Jeremy Underground at Razzmatazz, among many other dates, Donaldson seems to have made a success of learning on the job.

Coming only four years after the record he mentions, the ‘Equation EP’ becoming a much-lauded hit, Palms Trax’s accelerated rise, a cause for optimism to anyone hoping to break into the seemingly overpopulated and impenetrable world of dance music, is even more surprising when you learn that he’s just as recent a convert to house music itself. “When I was younger I definitely felt shut off from everything,” he says of his years growing up in Saltford, a village between Bath and Bristol which he describes as “the kind of place where everyone owns a spare pair of wellies and there are more Jack Russells than people”.

“I didn’t have the internet until I was 16. I had no idea that Bristol was this hub for music. People say, ‘Oh, you lived close to Bristol, that must have been great!’ The only experience I had of Bristol was going to see a Led Zeppelin tribute band. The drummer of The Who’s Who threw his drumstick at me, it smacked me right on the nose and then I got headbutted, so I went home covered in blood with a broken nose. I missed all of the cool things.”

Around six feet tall, thin but with wide, slightly sloping shoulders, Donaldson more often than not sports a cheeky grin, and jokes endlessly. He also has a propensity to exaggerate. His youth wasn’t quite as sheltered as making one trip to Bristol. He went to see many bands with his father, a music enthusiast, and was encouraged to learn piano, drifting from his classical training into an interest for jazz developed in his mid teens.

“I’d always played in bands growing up,” he says, when asked about the up-front melodies that mark his productions as well as his DJ sets. “I could never understand dance music, it never did anything for me. I think that changed when I heard Burrell Brothers and Omar S. I felt like I could relate to it more – it had song structures, choruses and verses. I think every time I’ve sat down to compose music I’ve approached it in the way a band might sit down to write music: drums, bassline, chords, lead-lines. I always put in [cymbal] crashes, which I think is another hangover from that. It’s a very ‘dad’ move!”

“I find that DJing actually feels more ‘live’ than playing live. That’s more exciting to me.”

Donaldson encountered Nu Groove’s Burrell brothers and the kind of house music he now loves after blagging an internship at London’s Phonica record store, a distraction from the sound engineering course he’d originally moved to London to pursue aged 18. “Very quickly I worked out that I didn’t want to be that person on the other side of the glass,” he says of the course. “It was very frustrating, and also my memory is like a sieve so, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what any of the buttons on the mixing desk did.” Aborting his official studies enabled him to concentrate on his own music and research the newly found sounds with which he soon started to DJ.

After failing to make an immediate splash on the DJ scene he briefly bolted back to Saltford before deciding on a whim that he’d move to Berlin. By the time he got there, four of Donaldson’s recordings were due to be the first release on Lobster Theremin, a label founded by London clubbing peer Jimmy Asquith. It was a widely respected debut for both parties with an equally well received follow up from Palms Trax emerging within six months. DJ and remix requests soon followed, as did an invitation from Dekmantel to submit music.

Donaldson has so far released two EPs on the label plus this year’s ‘Honey Lemongina’ from their 10th anniversary EPs. “When I moved to Berlin I went through a bit of a techno phase,” he says, in a roundabout way, when asked what he thinks his strengths are as a producer. “Ha, I went to Berghain once and wanted to end up the fourth member of Sandwell District! I was the ultimate cliché. But if I do have some good tunes, or good ones coming out, I think they’re the ones that are about atmosphere, a feeling.”

Certainly, even in the short time between his early success, and now you can hear a maturation in Donaldson’s music. ‘Honey Lemongina’ still has that ever-present debt to Nu Groove in the drums and atmospheric synths, but now there are more layers and an added trippiness which can also be heard in his 2017 remixes for Butch & C.Vogt’s ‘The Infamous’, and Mount Kimbie. The former is a acidic deep house track featuring his best percussion to date, the latter he describes as his ‘sunset remix’. “I’ll never do another remix ever again!” he jokes, exaggerating again – though he does admit struggling to juggle the demands of DJing and remix requests (he’s taken January and February off to finish overdue work for Dekmantel). Similarly, he professes that he will never again perform as a live artist. “I find that DJing actually feels more ‘live’ than playing live. That’s more exciting to me.”

Having caught his headline set at Love International Festival this summer, Mixmag can attest to his spur of the moment structuring. Using a similarly wide palette as that heard at Glitch, he traversed old-skool Chicago house, classic Philly soul, Afro and Italo-disco, Depeche Mode and Don Ray’s ‘Standing In The Rain’. Unafraid to play extended electric guitar solos or jazz, he seemed to use tracks which skirted the edges of techno as punctuation between explosions of song. At times mixing peak track, at others transitioning quickly, he displayed a spontaneity which, while it occasionally faltered, lent an exciting unpredictability to proceedings and which culminated in the genius dropping of Arthur Russell’s ‘Wild Combination’ as a finale. The crowd, some of the youngest at the festival, erupted.

This flight between genres, and the risk-taking, is something Donaldson attributes to listening to DJs Hunee and Antal, both of whom appear as guests at the residency he has finally attained, at La Cheetah in Glasgow. “I’d never really heard anyone stitch together so many different forms of music in a way that made so much sense,” he says of hearing the pair for the first time, just two years ago at Magnetic Fields festival in India. “Their idea of pacing and flow is just like that of the best techno DJs. After seeing that I started to feel much more free in what I was playing.” Palms Trax now gallops through sets, dropping gleeful zouk, Kwaito and Ghanaian music that he acknowledges is as much a crib off his girlfriend (a former resident of Ghana and student of Gnawa music) as it is inspired by Hunee and Antal.

At the end of his Glitch show, which he extends by 25 minutes, stopping only because he’s desperate for the loo, he is surrounded by young fans with whom he’s happy to take pictures. “It’s great,” he says sincerely afterwards. “I was always that person! But I would come out with the most cringeworthy comments to DJs. All the time. I really like the idea that when you’re at a party everyone’s on the same level. That’s one of the things I can’t really stand about the DJ-as-celebrity culture: VIP rooms, backstage areas, those big divides.” It’s an old-school approach for a new-school entrant, one that endears him to audiences as much as his music. As he bounds off to prepare for the next gig, he turns and half-jokingly says to us, “Make me sound like the people’s champion!” But Palms Trax doesn’t really require any assistance. The sun is out and he’s doing just fine.

Glitch Festival returns to Malta in 2018

This feature is taken from the December issue of Mixmag

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