Donaldson might be lacking in confidence, but his music is making an impact. His first Palms Trax release, 2013's Equation EP, launched the Lobster Theremin imprint, its playful, melody-infused take on house cribbing equally from vintage Chicago house and late '80s Nu Groove. The record's success was key to putting Lobster Theremin on the map, and the label subsequently kicked off its white-label series with Donaldson's tracky 2014 effort Forever. In the wake of those records, the remix offers started pouring in, leading to reworks for an impressive assortment of labels, which included Hivern Discs, Let's Play House, Unknown To The Unknown's Hot Haus offshoot and Sean Dixon's Final Chapter. Earlier this year, Donaldson joined the artist stable at Dekmantel, the Amsterdam label that's also home to Juju & Jordash, Vakula, Joey Anderson and Matrixxman.
His first outing for Dekmantel, the In Gold EP, found Donaldson in top form, his swirling synth lines and bouncy rhythms sounding sharper and more crystalized than ever before. The record has been met with plenty of acclaim, yet Donaldson remains reluctant to put himself on the same level as his labelmates. "There are so many other people who I think are doing amazing things," says Donaldson. "When I see a news piece about me, I always look at it and think, 'No one really cares.'"
But the bookings keep coming. An increasingly busy DJ calendar has Donaldson regularly hopping around Europe, while an invite to last year's Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo took him even further afield. Donaldson applied thinking that he would "never get in," and describes some of his answers on the notoriously laborious application as "absolutely ridiculous." "I think I put in one of my top five life experiences as 'Chopping a wart off my knee with a pair of scissors,' when other people were putting 'Going to see Theo Parrish,' or something," he says. "I really didn't think anything of it and completely forgot that I had applied, so then when they said I got in… It was still definitely one of the best things that's ever happened to me. I'll never forget that feeling of getting in, it was incredible."
As a child in Saltford, the village outside of Bristol where he grew up, Donaldson wasn't envisioning trips to Tokyo. Given its size, there weren't many like-minded kids with whom he could get excited about music, which meant that much of his early musical education came from his parents. At home, his mother had a fondness for everything from Joni Mitchell to Talking Heads to The Rolling Stones, while Donaldson's father took him to gigs. "As you get older, you start to have no friends," says Donaldson. "[My father] basically got to the point where he had no friends, so I was just coming along with him to live shows, which was quite nice." Donaldson's father, a skilled guitarist, had an open-minded outlook and emphasized the idea of discovery. "We would go and see anything. It wouldn't really matter if it was like U2 or some Ethiopian band that was playing in a small jazz club… It wasn't really so much about knowing who was playing. You would just go and find out, and if it wasn't for you, you would leave."
Donaldson's 61-year-old father continues to play an active role in his son's musical life. "I don't know what other people's relationships are like with their parents," he says, "but he seems quite clued up on what I'm doing." Apparently, the senior Donaldson is an active RA commenter and SoundCloud user, and also something of a L.I.E.S. fanatic. "I'm not sure if he's a fan of my music," says Donaldson. "He's a fan of people making music around me, people whose music I'm enjoying. He's probably more into their music than mine."
As a teenager, Donaldson played in a band. He now looks back on it with mild embarrassment, but the experience inspired him to purchase Logic and begin experimenting with MIDI. "When I was recording my band playing Metallica, I would then go home and try and make hip-hop on my laptop late at night or try and make weird IDM-style stuff," he explains. Many of those productions would eventually fall under the name Drop/Dead, an alias that began when Donaldson was about 16 and continued until after he had moved to London for university. Drop/Dead did briefly receive some online attention in 2011 and 2012, but in Donaldson's mind the project was never particularly serious. "It was just tunes I was making as a kid and needed to fill in the artist name on iTunes," he says.
As his interest in Drop/Dead began to fizzle, Donaldson's university coursework was also leaving him uninspired. Though he had gone to London to learn audio production, he quickly realized that "I didn't want to work as an engineer. I didn't want to be setting up microphones for egotistical songwriters." So he spent much of his time holed up in his room, making music for up to 15 hours a day. At night, he began to immerse himself in the city's club scene, and his musical education got a major boost when he secured an internship at Phonica Records. It was there that Donaldson first "got a sense of the scale of the music I was listening to," and the stream of recommendations from his co-workers was transformative.
Around this time, he had also begun to DJ, and eventually became a regular at Streets Of Beige, a night run by Jimmy Asquith, who would later start the Lobster Theremin label. Over time, both the party and Donaldson began gravitating toward vintage house sounds, which prompted the creation of a new alias, Palms Trax.
In early 2012, Donaldson also decided to start promoting his own nights, a short-lived enterprise that ended fairly disastrously. Calling the party Etiquette, Donaldson says that he "basically funded the whole thing with my student loan," and although his first party went OK, the second one ran into some stiff competition. "Across the road was Oneman, Jackmaster and Ben UFO playing back-to-back for the first time ever in London," he says. "And across the road from that was the first Workshop night in London with Move D, Kassem Mosse, Lowtec and Even Tuell, and also the Theo Parrish residency at Plastic People."
Discouraged and broke, Donaldson headed back home to Saltford. "I worked to pay off the debt I'd accumulated from the night," he says. "I worked at this French chain restaurant and I would just work double shifts on my own behind the bar. I did that for a summer. That was quite grim, and then I was like, 'Maybe I don't want to be here anymore,' so I decided to go to Berlin."
In truth, his move to the German capital wasn't quite so whimsical. He'd secured a six-month internship at a Berlin-based music PR company, and the chance to try out a new city sounded appealing. "I didn't really plan on staying in Berlin," he says. "I'd never been there… I'd watched the RA Real Scenes video and it seemed alright. There was a lot of grass and people just seemed to be lying on the grass in the sun. I was like, 'This seems alright.' I thought I'd just give it a go."
Aside from the PR gig, Donaldson also picked up work with a booking agency and later began doing some freelance writing. This helped to stabilize his finances, but he found that immersing himself in the industry—and constantly being inundated with music that he wasn't passionate about—was stifling his creative impulses. "I wasn't listening to as much music in my spare time or making as much music," says Donaldson.
Nevertheless, things began to fall into place for him. The Equation EP came out a couple of months after his arrival in Berlin, and he also connected with the Berlin Community Radio crew, whom he'd met by chance at a fundraiser party at Prince Charles on his first day in the city. Station founders Sarah Miles and Anastasia Filipovna invited him to play their night at Farbfernseher, and later gave Donaldson his own monthly show, Cooking With Palms Trax, that continues to this day. Over time, the success of his music enabled him to drop most of the PR and writing work, and settle into what he describes as "a nice home life that I wouldn't be able to have if I was living in a more expensive city."
Perhaps the biggest benefit of this has been the opportunity to think about his music and exactly what sort of artist he wants to be. Although the current musical climate often pressures young producers to churn out club-ready tracks as quickly as possible, Donaldson is moving in the opposite direction. Programming his radio show has strengthened his interest in music that isn't designed for the dance floor, and on an emotional level, he says, "I want to make stuff that's personal to me… I'm surrounded by people who have been making music for long enough to have strong opinions on things, where I'm still questioning everything I'm doing. So I've just been listening to these people and trying to soak in as much as possible before deciding what it is that I like and things that I want to do."
Donaldson has subsequently decided that he'll be cutting way back on remixes. Although he's previously seen them as "an excuse for me to try different things out that I've wanted to try"—his breaks-driven, '90s-leaning remix for Photonz being a notable example—he now prefers to focus on original music. "As fun as doing them was, there's this interview where Levon Vincent talks about how remixing is like a compromise between the original artist and you, and I did feel like it was a little bit of a compromise. Like, my name is on it, but it doesn't feel like it's necessarily within the reputation of what I do, and it doesn't feel so honest."
Honesty has never been much of a problem for Donaldson. In a widely circulated 2014 interview with Electronic Beats, he said, "I can't even afford bed linen, let alone a 909." He admits that the interview came out a bit "preachy" and portrayed him as some kind of anti-hardware zealot, but he doesn't mind saying that he still produces music with Logic on his laptop. (He'd also like to clarify that he has since purchased proper bedding.)
"People are very loud about making stuff on hardware at one end of the spectrum," he says, "and on the other end, people making stuff on a laptop are very quiet, like they'll lose some credibility if they tell people… I don't mind saying that I make everything on a laptop.
"I've played around on gear before," he adds. "I get some nice ideas, but I'm quite a perfectionist in terms of chopping all the MIDI notes and entering velocities and doing all of those sorts of things, and I don't really feel like I would get that much done if I was working with audio."
Getting things done will be important in the months ahead. Donaldson has been signed for two more EPs on Dekmantel, along with an album, which should surface next year. However, even with these releases on the horizon, Donaldson isn't quite ready to classify himself as a "real" artist. "I always think of real producers as people who know what they want or have their sound or basically would consider themselves career musicians," he says. "I most definitely don't at the moment." Donaldson unequivocally loves the music he's making, but he's also smart enough to recognize that he's far from the finished product. "I'm just conscious of the fact that I'm still learning a lot," he says. "It would be ridiculous to not expect what I'm doing to grow and change in some way."
Palms Trax plays live at Found Festival, which takes place at Brockwell Park in London on Saturday, June 13th.