Perc, aka Ali Wells, could be the most level-headed DJ/producer/label owner that I’ve had the chance to speak to. He is a man of no compromise when it comes to his music, but his opinions are clear, concise and wise. It’s no small wonder that Perc is one of the most respected names in techno.
He’s stuck true to himself and forged his own path through the global techno landscape to emerge as a true tastemaker, talented producer and DJ, as well as a successful label owner.
Ahead of his trip to the land Down Under for Pitch Music & Arts Festival, Fergus Sweetland jumped on the phone to speak with Perc.
You’ve seen the scene itself grow from its infancy and go through its stages and cycles. You’ve said before that at one stage the BPM’s in techno go so high that it makes it hard for the scene to progress at that stage and kills off a bit of interest.
In your opinion, where do you think techno music sits today. Do you feel like we’re going through a cycle that the scene may have been through before or are you seeing something new happening that personally excites you?
Yeah I think its always cyclical. At the moment, techno is hitting that high in terms of the popularity of the music.
At the moment, the music is a little bit harder, faster and raveyer. There are quite a lot of people that are looking backwards in terms of the sounds they’re using in productions. There are a lot of hardcore elements, which have been used on tracks in the ’90s, those kinds of sounds. There is a lot of acids, a lot of melodies, trance and breakbeat elements creeping back in. These sounds can be done well and not so well.
It’s kind of the way it’s going. I’m not the kind of guy that says you can and can’t use these elements. If you’re going out raving and you’re 19 or 20, you haven’t had 20 years of experience listening to the music so that’s all good.
You mentioned the ravey and breakbeat elements are making their way back, which I agree with. Do you think it’s important to play on those trends or does that corrupt being creative in the sense of being a producer or DJ? Do you think it’s better to listen to your intuition with what to create?
Yeah, I can only speak for myself but I can only go along with my intuition really. With the music that I get sent and that I buy every week, I’m looking for things that’ll work in my set. I know the sort of crowds that I’m playing to, so I’ll happily play tracks that feature those elements, so long as they’re doing something fresh that feature those elements.
They’re things that I’ll sprinkle across the set rather than having constant high pitched vocals and pianos and all that stuff. It gets a bit too sickly sweet and saturated. There are sounds that I would play as a DJ that I wouldn’t reach for as a producer. I don’t do a lot of stuff with those kinds of rave sounds. I’m not thinking what can I sample from back in the day to help me out.
Perc Trax has been around for quite some time. You’ve got this other perspective on the industry from being a label owner. I think a lot of producers go through that stage where they might want to start a label. But obviously, the techno landscape is very competitive. Anyone could make a label overnight if they really wanted to.
What do you think is important to keep in mind if someone was thinking of starting their label? Naturally, I think its something producers want to do and you can’t stop them from doing that. But you would want it to be different. Is there anything to keep in mind in regards to this?
In a perfect world, every label would have its own sonic and visual identity to stand out. Some labels do that within one or two releases. They just set out their sounds and you can recognize something by them fairly quickly. If it’s an artist that been released on 5 or 10 labels already, and then they start their own, not that there is any reason that they can’t but it turns into another outlet to release the same music that you’ve heard before.
With Perc Trax, it’s nice to have control over what I release. One of the main reasons I started a label back in the day was to have control over release schedules. I used to have other releases on labels that would either come out anywhere between three months to two years. Anyone who follows you and your music, they lose that sense of progression with what you’re doing because some of the stuff they buy, you’ve finished recently and some stuff they buy is years old.
With your own label, you can set up the narrative of how the music is presented and how it develops over time.
Was having control over the release schedule the only reason that you started your own label or did you have a different creative spin that you wanted to put on Perc Trax?
Yeah it was done with the having control over the release schedule, control over the visuals and the artwork. With any producer and their ego, they might produce a track and be happy with it and send it out to labels. They’ll send it out to new label or labels that you’ve been working with for a while, they might not particularly like it and don’t want to release it. It’s nice to have your own outlet to get around that issue.
Any success or failure that you have with your own label, then it’s your own failure or success. You took a chance on a release, even if you love it but maybe it didn’t pay off in terms of what others thought of it or the sales; at least you tried. That’s what I like about it.
I’ve had situations in the past where I have signed a track that I’m really proud of to a label. For some reason, the release doesn’t work out exactly how you expected it to. Whether or not it’s in terms of promotion or what sort of audience that the label reaches, you feel like its a lost opportunity. If I put something on Perc Trax and do the best I can with it if doesn’t do as well as I’d expect it to then I’ve only got myself to blame.
What was it that you were doing in terms of work when you started the label and how long ago was it that you became a full-time producer and touring DJ?
Ahh, it was quite a while ago. I had a remix that came out in 2001, my first EP in 2002, Perc Trax started in 2004 and then it was about 2007 when I quit my job to be a full-time DJ/producer/label owner; whatever you want to call it.
It wasn’t really Perc Trax that triggered that and got me to the situation where I could quit my job. It was other labels outside of Perc Trax, like Kompact and CLR that helped a lot. Before that, I was working for record labels and distribution companies.
My final job was for a record label and music publishing company that had a catalogue of music that they had signed which they were trying to get it into TV programs, film, computer games. More of the publishing side of the things. I didn’t particularly enjoy it but it was a job that kept me in London and closes to my friends, so I can’t complain. I did that last job for two years before I quit near the end of 2007. That was the last time that I had a real job.
How did you manage your time? I know it’s hard to come by time for music when you’re working full-time. Was it difficult or did you set up a good habit for being in the studio?
Yeah you just had to work really hard. By the time I got home from work and had something to eat, it would be about 8 or 9 pm at night. The difference then was whether I wanted to or not get into the studio. I’ve never hated being in the studio but there would be days that I just had to take a night off and do something else.
The studio was at home so it was easy to get in there, but I would go to sleep, wake up for work. The cycle would repeat and I would get as much done as possible. I would try to get as much done on weekends.
The only reason I had the confidence to quit the job was that I was playing more and more gigs. Playing international gigs when you’ve got a full-time Monday-to-Friday job is a totally different thing. That caused a little bit of friction at work. You’d either be late in on a Monday or be tired and your performance is off for the first few days of the week. The boss would sort of say if I wanted to go part-time on the job or if I wanted to cut down on the gigs.
Your last Album, Bitter Music, came out in 2017. You went to Eve Studios and used all of this sound equipment that was used by the BBC from decades ago. How was the studio experience for you?
I had heard about Eve from a few people. Factory Floor had done some stuff there, they were more recording drums there as they have studios for more “regular” types of recordings.
I just wanted to do a different kind of pallet of sounds of the album. Apart from a few collaborations with Truss, I hadn’t worked with anyone or any different studio for many years. So they have this whole range of gear that which is listed from the website. You state in advance what you want to use so when you rock up, its all there and working.
What were you using?
It was a mixture. I used all these old BBC things. Anything from outboard compressors and limiters to signal generators, phasers and flangers.
A lot of it was built by a lot of BBC engineers from back in the day. A lot of it was ex-TV equipment or stuff from telephone exchanges that have been repurposed. As well as that, the studio has a lot of older, more well-known analog synths. It has a lot of quite niche outboard effects like old frequency shifters.
They have the usual equipment for bands, like old guitar amps and so on but I didn’t use that equipment because it was a bit to niche for the amount it money it costs for the amount of use it gets. But having Marshall amps in the room next door and running a synth through it is quite fun.
I think there is an interesting connection between the people who are into, say heavy metal. I was into it back in the day. A couple of my friends are still into it and they’re really quite humble, lovely people in their general nature. Do you think its quite cathartic making this style of music for this album?
Of course. It’s a form of expression and a way of getting things out. You can’t judge people by the genre of music that they make.
There are people that make a sort of pop-friendly, two-step garage, big vocal records for the pop charts in the UK and they’re still some of the nicest people that you’ll ever meet. Some people who have general production skills but are looking to make a quick buck; they’ll move into whatever genre of music and they’ll do well. But you can’t judge people like that.
I don’t meet too many people from the metal scene, but from techno, there are a lot of people who make quite rough and dark and, I hate this term, but ‘dystopian’ type of music. You meet them and they’re regular, friendly guys who you can laugh and joke with.
Have you felt that people have thought that about you; that just because you make aggressive music that you’re an aggressive person?
Yeah I’ve had that. People have thought that I’m grumpy or angry whilst I’m DJing. It’s just that I’m focused on what I’m doing. I’m not the hands-in-the-air type of DJ. When I play, there’s always a lot happening so I’m focused on it.
When something gets a good reaction or do something I’m happy with, of course, I’ll smile but I’m not pulling out my phone and taking a film of the crowd and telling them to put their hands in the air. That’s just not me, it doesn’t mean I’m pissed off to be there or anything.
It has been brought up in a lot of different interviews, but you use politics too – I wouldn’t say inspire but rather influence…
Ummm, I think influence. Definitely. The political side of things is important in music. It kind of comes through more on my albums rather than on my singles and EPs. With the album format, there is a wider landscape to work across. You have an hour of music over 10 or 12 tracks so you have more time to play with ideas.
How do you feel about what’s going on in England right now?
I’ve never experienced a situation in the UK like the one that we have at the moment. Right now, it might just be me or other people, but there is a general backlash against politics at the moment. I’m not working on an album at the moment but if I did one right now I’d either wholeheartedly go in with a political thing or just step away from it completely.
The whole Brexit thing has just dominated, not just political media, but the entire British media for years now. People are just sick of it and no one knows whats happeneing. Various deadlines and votes come and go, like voting on the plans for the post-Brexit UK. No one knows whats happened. The British citezens that are here and in other countries don’t have a clue what’s happening.
Infomation that’s being given out by the government is very ambiguous and limited and always subject to change so you can’t rely on anything. I don’t want to hide under a rock and say I’m sick of politics.
You’ve been to Australia before, are you spending extra time when you travel down for Pitch?
No, last time I was down in Australia I had five or six days in the middle of two weekends of playing shows.
Last time I was based in Melbourne so I spent the weekdays there which was quite enjoyable. But this time is just playing gigs, in-and-out.
Some people at festivals aren’t there for the festival but Pitch does attract a good crowd of people who are there for the music and a good techno crowd. I’m interested to see the crowds reaction when you play.
I am looking forward to it! That’s the thing with festival crowds, you’re going to get the people who are there for your genre and for you personally. But you’ll also get some people who are wandering around just having a drink or whatever and that’s fine. Maybe they’ll discover some music that they haven’t heard before. Everyone welcome.
Perc will perform at Pitch Music & Arts Festival in March. Get your tickets here.