DJ EXPO 2014: Having already been DJing and releasing music under various guises since the early 2000s, Ali Wells, aka Perc, made a major impression on the British musical landscape back in 2011 with the release of his debut album Wicker & Steel.
That album saw Wells looked beyond the dancefloor to create a sound that combined the rough edge power of techno with a passionate and very human undertone; helping him connect with listeners beyond the usual techno circles.
In February, Wells returned with a follow-up LP called The Power And The Glory; an album that once again saw him experimenting with the boundaries of what techno is capable of. On top of that, plus a hectic schedule of live and DJ bookings, he continues to run a pair of acclaimed labels: Perc Trax, and its younger, more experimental sibling Submit, which Wells launched last year.
As he embarks on a worldwide live tour, we took the opportunity to catch up with Wells and discuss his formative influences, his DJ career to date, and his approach to production and performance.
What producers and DJs first inspired you to start making techno?
"Early on Carl Cox, Jeff Mills and Joey Beltram were huge influences on me as both producers and DJs. I was brought up fairly isolated deep in the countryside of Hertfordshire where I first start started listening to dance acts like Underworld, Prodigy and Orbital.
"It was only when I went to university in Newcastle that I discovered the more vinyl based underground side of techno. The first real club I went to was the Hacienda when visiting my brother who was at university in Manchester - I was in the sixth form. After that, the techno nights at the Riverside in Newcastle played a big part in shaping my love of the rougher end of dance music."
What are the main differences between your live sets and your DJ sets in terms of the gear used and the music itself?
"The sets are quite different, both in terms of what I play and how I perform. My DJ setup is laptop, Ableton live and Allen & Heath K2 midi controller with four channels running into an Allen & Heath Xone 92 mixer. My live set is all of that plus an additional K2 controller, some outboard effects, a Korg Monotron delay and often a drum machine (Korg Volca Beats or MFB-522).
"DJing, I play a lot of upfront tracks from myself, Perc Trax, and my close friends, but also anything I can lay my hands on - brand new promos and older, forgotten tracks. For a live set I only play my own tracks and remixes and I'm much more likely to play new ideas and unfinished tracks then than in a DJ set.
"The tracks people know of mine are always messed about with and the more live sets I play the more I am moving away from playing established tracks and experimenting more with combinations of new loops and sounds to make something unique to that performance."
How has technology changed the DJ landscape over the course of your career? Do you think this makes it more challenging for DJs to stand out, or does it open up more opportunities?
"I started on CDJs then moved to vinyl. Currently I play from a laptop. Changes in technology have changed DJing immensely but still the basic ideas of choosing the right tracks, playing them in the right order and moving between them at the right time remains a constant.
"Laptop DJing offers amazing creative opportunities but, as always, some DJs will be lazy. Just blending between two Traktor decks with a standard 16 or 8-bar 'cut the bass' mix is not helping anyone. If you look at someone like Surgeon, though, who plays with Ableton Live, he really pushes the software forward and does things you could not do with any combination of vinyl and CD decks.
"It is always a challenge to stand out but with a lot of practice and regular gigging you find your own style and tricks - well, I think I have anyway. I try not to emulate other DJs that I respect and I try to be influenced by their open-mindedness and attitude rather than the actual tracks they play."
On the same note, have advances in technology influenced the way you have personally approached DJing and performing over the years?
"Not really. I still take as much music as I can, in whichever format I'm playing from. Every track I have with me I love, so whatever direction the night takes me in I will be happy musically. Obviously with the laptop I play a lot more percussion loops and effects over the main tracks, which enhances how I play, but of course I miss playing vinyl sometimes."
Both The Power And The Glory and Wicker & Steel come across as very carefully structured albums. How much does your experience as a DJ influence the way you structure your long-form releases?
"I'm not sure if my DJing experience has shaped my albums as they are not completely dancefloor focused, but before I was doing this full time I worked at various large UK house and techno labels. It was often down to me to suggest or completely decide on the track order for an artist album or compilation.
"I don't write my album tracks with an idea of where they will appear in the track listing, but choosing the final track order is something I spend a long time considering and it can take weeks of making playlists and tweaking the order after each listen."
Take Your Body Off is featured on Perc's The Power And The Glory
How much does your experience as a DJ play into the way you work as a label boss? Do you tend to road test tracks you sign to Perc Trax?
"I road test my own tracks and remixes a lot, but only when they are about 75 per cent finished and I am at the point of finalising the arrangement and the balance of the sounds.
"I don't really road test demos before I sign them. I like to think I have a good idea of what will work in my sets and that is the main deciding factor for something being signed to Perc Trax. I like to hear that other DJs are playing Perc Trax releases and especially my own tracks, but it's not a big thing for me. Some of my favourite Perc Trax releases were some of the least well supported, but that does not make me love them any less."
What was the idea behind launching the Submit label? Going on the tracks on the Feral Grind comp, the label seems to less club focused than Perc Trax. What was the inspiration behind it?
"You're right, Submit is less club focused than Perc Trax. Compared with many other techno labels, Perc Trax has quite an open remit but still the releases on the label have to have some sort of DJ and dancefloor appeal. With Submit, I can release what I want when I want.
"The label does not aim for a set number of releases per year or aim to appeal to a certain group of music fans. The first two releases have some aesthetic ties to Perc Trax in terms of their rough sound, but this could all change with the next releases.
"The thinking behind setting up Submit was to just have a label that could do exactly what I want it to. I love what Perc Trax has become and what people enjoy about it, but starting something completely new from scratch with no expectations is also very exciting for me."
What sort of gear did you use to produce The Power? Did you use much hardware on this album and, if so, were there any particular instruments the inspired the sound of the record?
"A lot of hardware was used on the new album but mainly cheaper things - small drum machines, effects pedals, simple signal generators. I prefer small devices that do one thing well and that are easy to get my head around, rather than £2,000 keyboards with a million functions or huge ram-devouring VST's that claim to do it all.
"Everything was recorded into my computer and edited and manipulated further in Ableton Live. The key hardware tools were my Jomox Mbase 11 and M.Brane 11 percussion synths, a cheap Chinese test oscillator, an MFB 522 drum machine and my Vermona Retroverb Lancet spring reverb/filter.
"The Pro-Co Deucetone Rat was also used extensively to process sounds going into the computer. In terms of plug-ins, distortions by D16, FXpansion, Native Instruments and FabFilter are all over the album and G-Force's M-Tron Pro is used a lot for pads and some rhythms.
"Tracks like Dumpster and Take Your Body Off were done almost completely 'in the box' whilst Speek was fully analogue with only a bit of dynamics work done inside the computer."
Both of your albums feel human and personal against the backdrop of a genre that's often thought of as being quite brutal and alienating. Is it a challenge to inject personality into an inherently machine driven genre like techno?
"I don't find it a challenge or even consciously try to add a human and personal edge. This is my own music and for my albums it pours out of me much more easily than when I'm creating a dancefloor 12-inch for a particular label.
"For something like classic acid house, I want it to sound machine-like and cold but for my own music there has to be a mixture of man and machine. I don't like techno to be too relentless and monotone, so there are always fills and switches in the arrangement.
"On a technical level, I have got quite deeply into humanisation and randomisation ideas. Random waveform LFO's assigned to dozens of parameters so that every hit, beat and chord is different in terms of volume, tone and duration and I'll record multiple lanes of subtle slowly shifting automation for every sound on a track like 'Lurch'. These changes are very subtle but can bring the most rigid of loops to life."
There's a number of subtle political references littered throughout your more recent work. Do you think that electronic music and club culture is a viable platform for political expression in the way it was (at least, purported to be) in the late 80s and early 90s?
"Yes, I think it can be. I think people should try to express their own views more through their music, even if the music they make is instrumental electronic music.
"Artwork, track titles and run-out grooves can all be used in this way. I really don't believe that music should be escapist. It should confront reality head on and try to make a positive change or at least highlight what the artist believes is right or wrong at present.
"Artists now are less inclined to make social and political comments than in previous decades, and I don't want people's politics getting in the way of their music, but if some kind of balance can be achieved and their opinions can be expressed alongside their music then that raises the artist up in my eyes."
Words: Simon Truss