Although he was once simply another techno producer running his own label on the side, as time has passed and the musical climate has evolved, London’s Alistair Wells, better known as Perc, has risen to become one of the leaders of the contemporary wave of darkened, industrial sounds that are now colliding head-on with modern techno. While Wells may not be the only producer to make the journey of the times from progressive and minimal in the early 2000s through to the darker techno now leading the scene, he has distinguished himself by steadily refining his vision for his work rather than seeking easy successes. Early efforts from Perc on his own label and others were for the most part workmanlike tech-house and techno that stood out for their swung rhythms and pointed out the producer’s UK roots. Even then, though, Wells was working on increasing impact, and by 2008 he had drawn the attention of Kompakt, Drumcode, and the up-and-coming CLR and had in-demand DJs looking enthusiastically for his productions as they steadily became heavier.
Around 2009 though, he started feeling weary of this explicitly dancefloor-leaning direction and began to apply his and his label’s energies towards deepening his sound and bringing the industrial influences he had always been intrigued by fully to bear. As with any other seismic shift in outlook, work was required to pull this off, and Perc kept busy woodshedding the new approach as his released tracks took on gradually bleaker tones. His label was busy following a similar tact, and by 2011 it had managed to move from a run-of-the-mill techno label to a scene leader with releases from ASC, Forward Strategy Group, Ekoplekz, Sawf, and Samuli Kemppi that probed boundaries between rigid, pummeling Techno, proper Industrial beats, and open-ended experimentation. As debuted on his Wicker & Steel album, his production enthusiastically began looking down similar avenues, and especially the Perc material released by Lucy’s Stroboscopic Artefacts imprint since then has been his most probing and experimental to date as well as some of his finest. With both producer and label firmly grasping the contemporary techno zeitgeist and innovating at the forefront of the sound, Perc and Perc Trax have become increasingly crucial over the last year, and halcyon was pleased to match strides with the man of the moment before he touches down in New York this Saturday for Oktave…
h: Hello Perc. As always you’ve been keeping busy with new music, but what have you been up to most recently?
P: Travelling a lot , organising various Perc Trax showcases in London, Malta, Ukraine, Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere, getting everything ready for the release of the Forward Strategy group album, preparing for the Perc Trax US tour, new hardware in the studio, multiple collaborations. There is always so much going on and never a dull moment.
h: I was very interested to hear your recent productions for Stroboscopic Artifacts move totally out of techno towards ambient and industrial soundscapes and follow on the more esoteric tracks from your album. I think it’s some of the best I’ve heard from you to date actually. Could you explain the shift?
P: Sometimes it just takes a special project or label to encourage you to work outside of your comfort zone, once you do that and it is successful then the floodgates open. When I am writing music for a 12” release I always had the DJ and the dancefloor in the back of my mind because I used to think there had to be that appeal for a 12” to really sell and get support. Now after the success of my album and the encouragement of Stroboscopic Artifacts I have the confidence to push myself more and make the music that I always knew I had inside me, but which sometimes was pushed to one side. My next release is a 4-track 12” on Perc Trax at the end of June and there is really only one straight dancefloor track on there. I’ve come to realise that there are already too many people out there making tracky, Berghain style tool tracks and many of them do it a lot better than me, so I feel freer than ever before. I would never abandon dancefloor tracks completely but exploring different tempos and atmospheres is really appealing to me at the moment.
h: Your recent music and notably your album seem to be delving into some kind of conceptual art based around urban decay and elemental bleakness in a way that stands out even alongside much of the dark techno being released today. What’s the narrative that’s behind all of these grim, angry sounds?
P: I agree there is bleakness in some of my music and some of the Perc Trax releases but I try to infuse them with some positivity. Subtle pads and chords that appear at the end of a track to offer a glimmer of hope after 5 or 6 minutes of grinding darkness is something I like to play with. My music represents the feelings that many urban areas trigger in me, especially when experienced at night. Anyone that has met me will know I am not an angry person and I prefer to think of what people tag as angry as more to do with energy, passion and movement, pushing for something better rather than just rage and destruction with no actual purpose. Yes, there is darkness there but I am not interested in a futile arms race to make an ever-darkening dystopian soundtrack. It is the same path many types of music have gone down and is normally a male-driven, testosterone-fuelled drive for who can make the hardest, darkest, fastest, most bass-heavy music. For me there has to be light and shade and just a hint of beauty in there occasionally. Melody and emotion without slipping into clichéd chord sequences and melodic themes is something I am pushing for at the moment and compared with drums and percussion sounds, chords and melodies do not come easily to me, so it is a challenge, but one that I am enjoying.
h: You said recently that you initially stayed away from making industrial-sounding music because of production challenges, but to me industrial music seems very raw and visceral. What kind of technical challenges were you faced with taking your music in this direction?
P: I have always wanted to make music that sounded good in a club and on a good quality loud soundsystem so for a while I was torn. I could easily set up an analogue drum machine in the studio, run it through some guitar pedals and make something thrashy, that had that raw, visceral life-force that runs through industrial music, but in a club it would often sound messy. Or I could make cleaner sounding music inside my computer, which sounded tighter and clearer in the club but lacked that edge and possibly even the authenticity that the music I loved had. It is only in the last few years that my technical skills and confidence has reached a point where I can combine these two methods or even make music solely with a computer than works as both techno and industrial music, in the club and at home.
h: Your recent releases on Perc Trax have taken the label explicitly towards industrial and not simply industrial-inflected techno. The results are impressive so far… Do you see this as a growing area in modern music?
P: I think it is something that is growing right now and not just in techno but in a number of contemporary musical genres both electronic and band/instrument based and of course there is a negative side to this. Like any musical subgenre that starts to get more attention and hype two things happen, firstly there of course is the inevitable backlash and with this music it is people that have spent their whole lives locked away in their bedrooms immersing themselves in the grimier side of older industrial music. These people are angry that “their” industrial music is being bastardised and polluted by techno producers and are starting to pop up on forums moaning about this new wave of industrial music. Perc Trax has never aimed to release records that challenge or are even in the same sonic ballpark as early Throbbing Gristle (for example), the label aims to do something new which may occasionally reference these classic releases, so these people really need to lighten up and either enjoy this new take on the music they love or just ignore it. The second thing is producers that a few years ago were making over-shuffled, Minus style mnml are now thinking that with a bit too much reverb and a few distortion plugins they can get advance their careers via this music. Of course there are good new labels and producers appearing all the time and this music is not just the preserve of 30-40 year old producers who have a bit more knowledge of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK etc, but the bandwagon jumpers releases are contributing to the emergence of a standardized, sterile form of industrial club techno that bores me senseless and actually pushes me to innovate more with my own music and how Perc Trax operates.
h: After all this talk about modern industrial music, it seems logical to spend some time talking about the old stuff as well as it’s something I’ve always liked. How did you first get interested in this sound? Could you point out a few records that particularly inspire you from the movement?
P: The first ‘industrial’ record I bought was actually a cd of remixes of Cabaret Voltaire tracks; I bought it because it contained two remixes by Altern8, who were one of the first rave acts I liked. Yes, they were commercial, but acts like Altern8, Prodigy, Bizarre Inc etc. were many people’s gateway to electronic music. On listening to the CD the hooks and vocals of CV attracted me more than the Altern8 remixes and I sought more of their back catalogue. After that I just read and listened to as much of this music as I could, taking one artist at a time and buying their whole back catalogues, normally as second-hand CDs. In terms of the pivotal releases for me I would say Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘Voice of America’, Einstürzende Neubauten’s ‘Kollaps’, Nitzer Ebb ‘That Total Age’ and the first Suicide album. I guess people would argue Suicide are not strictly industrial but I hear that aesthetic when I listen to them. I like to think I know my stuff about this music, but people like Adam X or the Forward Strategy Group guys are much more knowledgeable about it than me.
h: Overall it seems to me that electronic music as a whole is losing its genre fixations and moving towards more open and experimental sounds. Besides the industrial tangent, what else is exciting to you in modern music?
P: I seem to encounter one track by an artist randomly and then I seek out more of their music rather than me falling on love with a particular scene. I suppose there are some connections between Hype Williams and Actress, both of whom I love. Zomby’s music is something I listen when I need a break from techno. I would really like to listen to more drum & bass but it is rare for me right now to find something new that appeals to me from that scene.
h: Like usual you’ve been releasing quite a bit recently, but what is next production-wise for your or any of your collaborative projects?
P: At the end of June is the 4-track EP on Perc Trax that I mentioned, it is called ‘A New Brutality’ and is my first full EP since Wicker & Steel was released last June. Apart from that collaborations and remixes have been dominating my studio time, there is an EP with Adam X which is almost finished, a new track with Passarella Death Squad, which like ‘Temperature’s Rising” is a full vocal track, plus there are two other collaborations that I can’t mention just yet, but are both with artists a long way outside of techno. Remix-wise I’ve remixed Walls for Kompakt, which is out now and Factory Floor for DFA which should be out in the next few months.
h: The label has also been quite productive of late with the Forward Strategy Group album, ASC’s EP as well as a couple of digital releases. Do you have more slated for summer or fall that you’d like to mention?
P: The next Perc Trax releases are two separate vinyl EP’s of tracks from the Forward Strategy Group album, my own new EP and a 12” from Truss featuring remixes from Skirt and myself. On the digital side there is a 2nd EP from Mick Finesse and Bas Mooy’s first EP for Perc Trax, both of which are ready to roll out. Later in the year a new artist will have a digital EP on Perc Trax. Brand new artists on the label are quite rare with only one or two appearing each year, so it is always exciting to launch a new name to the public and see what they make of him.
h: Thanks for your time and we look forward to seeing you in New York!
P: Thanks to you too, see you all on Saturday.
Perc will be playing Saturday, June 9th at the National Underground, alongside label mates Donor of Brooklyn and Jeff Derringer, the Oktave resident and New York émigré who’s lately been making deep inroads in Chicago.