Ali Wells (aka Perc) is one of the leading artists working in the techno sub-genre of electronic music. An international touring DJ and live performer, Perc and his personal imprint make him one of the UK’s most respected electronic music producers.
Wells mixes current sounds with his extensive knowledge of electronic music’s past to create something new & unique to each of his performances. A regular artist on such internationally respected labels as CLR (Germany), Kompakt (Germany), Drumcode (Sweden), Stroboscopic Artefacts (Italy) and Electric Deluxe (Netherlands) as well as his own world-renown Perc Trax imprint, which has distributed its music globally from its London base since 2004.
Ahead of his Australian tour, we caught up with Perc to discuss his past experiences of Australia, his unique performance setup and what’s to come from his Perc Trax imprint.
Firstly, you headlined a show for us a couple of weeks before Christmas in 2017, then two years later you were performing on the RA stage at Pitch Music & Arts festival in 2019. The latter set in particular is one that still crosses my mind from time-to-time, particularly when Scalameriya’s ‘Crucible’ (a track released on your Perc Trax label) was blaring through the speakers!
What has your experience playing in and visiting Australia been like thus far? How do you compare the club/festival scene in comparison to that of the UK and Europe in general?
Hi, thanks again for inviting me back to Australia! 2019 seems like a lifetime ago with everything that has happened in the last few years. I always have great memories of Australia. The travel can be brutal, both getting to Australia and sometimes within the country to get to events, but it’s always worth it. For someone brought up in the UK Australia always feels like a weird kind of home away from home, in some ways it’s very similar to the UK, such as the language and to a certain extent the people and culture, but in other ways it’s totally different. That, plus the jetlag make it a quite a disorientating but exciting experience.
The dance music scene in Australia reminds me of Europe quite a lot, especially compared with somewhere like Asia or South America. The vibe and energy in the clubs and the way people react to music feels quite familiar to me and I’ve always had a great response whether I’m playing at a festival or a dark basement club there.
I gather that you entered the music scene in your introductory teenage years, being part of a band before venturing into your own productions of electronic music aged 16 – with an early love for hip-hop and heavy metal.
Having now built your name (and that of your ‘Perc Trax’ label) in this scene, does a part of you ever want to go back to this non-electronic realm? Or is channelling these past experiences/interests through your electronic productions enough?
To be honest no. I’ve experimented a little bit with acoustic instruments on some of my older industrial and noise based tracks and I love bringing in real world sound sources to my music, but I would not go back to playing in a band. I like to be in control of what I’m doing and where I’m going with my music and I find collaborations with one person stressful enough. The thought of going back to being in a band with three or four other people would be too much for me right now. A still enjoy playing B2B DJ sets with the right person, but anything more involved with that would be too much for me.
Something that immediately stands out to people when they first see you perform is that you don’t have the standard mixer + CDJ combination that is so often seen. Your laptop, a Xone K2 midi controller and a Xone 92 seem to provide you with everything you need for a DJ performance (if I’m observing correctly) – and these have been special each and every time I’ve seen you play.
Can you tell us a little bit about the reasoning behind using this setup when performing in comparison to CDJs? Aside from when performing live, do you ever use a different setup when performing?
Well, my preferred mixer now is an Allen & Heath Xone 96 as it has the direct USB connection to it. I’ve never really played on CDJs. I went directly from feeling a bit constrained playing on two vinyl decks to experimenting with DJ-ing with Ableton and I’ve never looked back. I have about 1200 tracks laid out as clips in the session view across four channels. These four channels are routed to the four main channels on the mixer via USB. In addition to this I have two effects channels with are routed to the two auxiliary channels on the left side of the 96 mixer, also via USB. Playing like this gives me a real sense of freedom and the space to experiment and jam with myself. Within a few minutes of starting I have 4 tracks playing, which is usually 2 or 3 full tracks with the remaining channels being used for percussion loops or chord / drone sounds.
This way of playing means I can react instantly if a track doesn’t hit the way I expected it to, so it means I can keep the energy level increasing and the opportunities for layering sounds together, especially in combination with the four channel EQ on the mixer makes it a lot of fun for me. I always think that if I’m not interested or engaged in what I’m doing then how can I expect to the crowd to me. I don’t think I could ever switch to just 2 or 3 CDJs, it would limit me too much. I think it would have to be 3 CDJs plus some kind of sampler and I don’t really have the time or inclination to learn a new set-up like that right now.
You’d be well and truly in the midst of your European summer tour, having recently delivered a powerful closing set at the gigantic spectacle that is Awakenings festival. Having marked that set as a highlight already, have there been any other major highlights thus far on the tour? And are there any shows/nations you are particularly excited for?
I don’t really consider playing around Europe as a tour, because generally I go home at the end of every weekend! When I’ve been away for a few weeks in South America, the USA or Asia that feels like a tour, but I get what you mean. This summer has been great for me. It’s the first real summer of festivals and large scale events since the pandemic so I was slightly cautious about how it would be, but generally everything has been really great, from the organisation of the events to the reactions I’ve received from the crowds I’ve played for. Some highlights so far this summer have been both my sets at Awakenings and my first trip to Asia since the pandemic which included a return to Faust in Seoul and my very first time playing in Mongolia!
Along with these the Perc Trax Possession event in Paris in June was really special as Possession have supported me since their very first events but this was only the second time Perc Trax had done a label showcase with them. Since the pandemic Spain and South America have been going really well for me, which is really great to see. My recent gigs in Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay have all been good. Seeing counties like Paraguay and Mongolia for the first time really make me appreciate what I do. I’ve been gigging regularly for some time now so going to a country that is new to me is always a thrill.
Your label, ‘Perc Trax’, has become a peak destination for gritty, industrial techno, also providing a noticeably authentic level of experimentation in its releases – with artists such as Scalameriya, Manni Dee and Ansome contributing to the label’s discography.
Given the label started in 2004, could you please give us some insight into the formation of the label and some key moments since its inception that resulted in taking Perc Trax to where it is today? Where do you see the label going in the next 5 years?
The idea for the label came to me in 2003, I was tired of not being in control of my music, both in terms of what I was releasing, as I was always at the mercy of the A&R person from a label and also how it was released (artwork, mastering etc) and when it was released. Back then I was at the start of my career and I could feel a definite progression and development with each track and EP I made, so I really wanted them to be released in the order that I made them. Instead of this one EP would come out in about three months after I finished it and another would take up to eighteen months to be released.
As the name implies Perc Trax was originally just meant to be a way of releasing my own tracks, but of course as soon as I started releasing my own music I began receiving demos that were too good for me to ignore and the label transformed into a ‘proper’ label not just a vanity project for me.
Key moments for me include the first release that sold nothing initially and was looking like bankrupting me until James Zabiela licensed it for a Renaissance DJ mix and then the vinyl started to sell very quickly. The Go Hiyama release ‘Mathematical Accuracy’ in 2008 with its remix by Norman Nodge was the first time the really serious techno ‘heads’ got into Perc Trax. Before that it was just seen as a label just releasing more frivolous club / party music, so that really meant a lot to me.
My own ‘My Head Is Slowly Exploding’ and the ‘Wicker & Steel’ album (2011) it came from was a huge breakthrough for me and marked the point where Perc Trax could be successful with album releases as well as EP releases. The ‘Ten Years Of Perc Trax’ release in 2014 looked forward rather than back which was very important for me. We live in a time where we are drowning in poorly curated VA releases, so I’m proud of how this compilation of 100% new tracks turned out and how it has stood the test of time, especially tracks like Truss’ ‘Brockweir’ and my track ‘Hyperlink’.
Since then the label has just grown and grown with further albums from Ansome, myself, Manni Dee, Ghost In The Machine and Scalameriya, plus the freakish success of ‘Look What Your Love Had Done To Me’ in 2017. Now moving through 2022 and into 2023 there is a big run of EPs planned with new artists coming to the label all the time plus favourites such as Ghost In The Machines continuing their relationship with Perc Trax. It’s an exciting time.
Finally, you are heading back to Australia for the first time in over three years, with international travel back to ‘normal’ and tours up-and-running.
Whare your feelings ahead of this tour compared to the last time you were here in 2019? Is there anything you’d like to share with the attendees ahead of the show?
I think I’m going into the trip not really knowing what to expect. From my experiences playing around Europe this year some cities and scenes seem no different to how they were before the pandemic whereas others have changed completely. I’m always thankful for what I do and always do my best in whatever situation I find myself in so I’m very excited.
Australia has always been good to me and it is one of the last countries that I’ve not returned to since events restarted so I’m hyped. As I said earlier there is a lot in the pipeline for Perc Trax right now, so I have the music from the next 6 or 7 releases to choose from, so expect a lot of upfront music from me and the label. See you all soon!
Interview by Jeremy McCarthy