One of Kunming's worst kept secrets is the hidden alternative community of Spirit Tribe, in the Western Hills just outside Kunming. Spirit Tribe is now dormant, due to the Covid-19 situation. We talked to Peter Donaldson, also known under the various DJ monikers of Atoned Splendor, Mr Snookems & His Slynxs, The Sneaky Tweaker and Tiger9stein, or just Pete for short. Pete is far from sleepy – we meet up with him just before his newest album release.
A lifetime of learning in music
Long before the Londoner Pete arrived on China's shores, he began a lifetime pursuit of music. Hailing from a musical family, he took up playing the cello at age three and the piano at age six. Apart from musical talents he describes himself as a born entrepreneur – he says that already as a teenager "he could sell snow to an eskimo". His defining interest in electronic dance music also developed in his teens, which inspired him to study Music Technology in Manchester.
He tells us an anecdote about his first break in the music industry:
At the time I was partying a lot and had not organized anything by way of an internship. The school said unless I arranged something quickly I would have to work in the school. So, I sent Flying Rhino — my favorite label at the time — a message explaining the situation, and that I make "a wicked up of tea". They responded, and I did two weeks of work experience there. I was expecting gold and platinum discs everywhere on the walls of the office the first day I went, the reality was very, very different.
More motivated than ever after his brief stint as an intern, after graduation he started working in the music industry in earnest. First for Flying Rhino records in London, where he cut his psytrance teeth working alongside James Monro, George Barker and Dominic Lamb and later Fire Recordings and TipRecords.
When we ask him about his early influences he says
Taking up music at an early age was under the direction of my mum. I really liked Beethoven and Dvorak when I was a kid — I still do — then moved to rock 'n roll. Chuck Berry was a firm favorite for a long time! My brother gave me the Hot Rocks, The Best of the Stones album one birthday, which I listened to on repeat for ages. Then when I was a bit older and started to discover things myself, Emergency On Planet Earth was a very influential album, that really kicked off my interest in the funkier side of things. Jazz funk, funk, disco etcera. Whats is this, how can I get more, what else is there — been down the disco funk rabbit hole ever since. Steely Dan had a huge impact in my later teens. Then there are the usual suspects like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd etcetera. I could go on forever. My brother was a massive influence musically, he was a DJ when I was at high school.
In 2009 he decamped to Beijing. Here, Pete started GoaProductions, his own psytrance record label and events company – kicking off a continuous series of events all over China as well as music releases from both international and China-based producers. Peters GoaProductions releases regularly hit the top 10 of Beatport's psytrance charts — achieving a number 1 hit in June 2020. Alongside running his own production house, he was head of electronic music at China's largest independent festival company ModernSky Entertainment, from 2011 until 2013. You would think that would be enough hard work, but no. From 2011 until 2015, along with cohorts Max Bureau and Jeff Hinson of Bite-Size Buddha, Pete ran a successful Beijing Nu Disco club night called Neon. Here he was DJing under his Tiger9stein alter ego. He has performed not only in China, but all over the globe.
Pete continues to develop his professional music production skills — In 2012 he studied with the highly talented producer Phil Bodger, who has, amongst others, worked with Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Trevor Horn, Tina Turner, John Cale, Imogen Heap, Dave Stewart and Stevie Wonder, to name but a few. The same year saw the launch of his own psytrance project Atoned Splendor. Under this creative alias he has released his own music on labels such as Dacru, Aphid Records, YSE, Maharetta and BMSS.
Starting a Kunming tribe
We asked him why he came to China, since everything seemed to be going so well in his musical career in his home country. Pete explains that to address some health issues he started practising the ancient Chinese martial art of taiji in the UK, and this is first and foremost the reason he came to China. He then decided to pursue a Ba in Chinese language at SOAS in London. After graduation he was faced with the choice of either staying in London and lose what language skills he had acquired in four years of study, or come out to China and make a go of things here.
After his years in Beijing, he came to Yunnan in 2015. Pete says:
I decided to move because I felt Yunnan was more musically diverse and culturally richer than other places in China I had been. I felt that wider styles of music were more easily adopted here. More natural, whereas in Beijing I felt it was more to do with perception of "cool" rather than whether or not the music was any good.
2016 saw the start of the Spirit Tribe project in Yunnan, of which Pete is a founding member. Spirit Tribe is home to an innovative, forward-thinking and diverse psytrance festival and a creative arts center, based upon the lifestyle and culture surrounding psytrance.
When we ask him about the personal motivations behind his endeavours with Spirit Tribe and his music he answers:
The accepted way society works and what people are willing to sacrifice in order to conform makes no sense to me. We are essentially living in one huge ponzi scheme that we were signed up to at birth, which 90% of people seem to be completely unaware of. I became aware of that at a very early age so I guess have always been looking for alternatives.
At this moment, activities at Spirit Tribe are on hold because of the Covid-19 situation.
Shaping the future of music
In 2019 Pete became a partner and CMO of SoundArio (proxy needed), a revolutionary new music streaming platform based on blockchain technology.
Right now, he is also a consultant lecturer of music production, mixing, and synthesis at Fever, a state of the art British and Chinese joint venture school established in Hangzhou by Point Blank and Netease. In this capacity he can pass on his knowledge and experience to a new generation of music producers and creators. Fever has an official WeChat account — search for WeChat ID feveredm.
Tomorrow Pete will play live at Turtle Club, for the launch of his newest Mr Snookems and His Slynxs album.
We ask him about his plans for the slightly more distant future, which is a difficult question in these uncertain times.
Not sure really... Everything is up in the air because of corona, it's hard to say. Considering lots of things. I do plan to branch out into producing more styles of music, start playing the piano again, possibly more instruments. Everything else will have to wait and see. One thing is for sure — there will always be a soundtrack!