Drum’s Not Dead: Ali ‘Perc’ Wells Interviewed

Perc's Wicker & Steel is a Quietus LP of 2011. Luke Turner talks to Ali Wells about the album, the rise of his Perc Trax label, the Home Counties and an antidote to wishy washy electronica

The first time I encountered the music of Ali Wells, aka Haringey-based electronic artist, DJ and label boss Perc, was at a Demdike Stare gig, where new Quietus staffer Rory Gibb was DJing. The sound floating out of the PA was instantly recognisable as the deep, luxuriant bass tones of Chris Carter… but what was the violent percussion contained within? It transpired that it was Carter’s remix of ‘My Head Is Slowly Exploding’, a track from Perc’s debut album Wicker & Steel.

Wicker & Steel is a commanding, potent listen. As the title suggests, it has the feel of a dialogue between the urban and pastoral, the hard edges of technology and the insecure moments at the back of our minds, triggered by the dark, the rural, superstition, that still sit dormant from an older, slower time. Beginning – bizarrely enough – with a sample of Sleeper’s Louise Wener discussing suburban life and feminism, it continues as a brilliantly coherent album of percussive (hence the name) techno.

Yet Wicker & Steel is a record that has at its heart a great optimism. This is not a record of industrial techno that feels bleak, like spending a Threads nuclear winter sat on shattered steel beams. Tracks like ‘Pre Steel’, for instance, suggest a train ride into the city, celebrating the anonymity and decadence which attracts so many. Final track ‘Jmurph’ is all joyous, digital steel drums, while ‘London, We Have You Surrounded’ suggests, as Wells will go on to explain, the oft-ignored presence of the Home Counties bordering the capital.

2011 has been the first year that Perc has achieved wider recognition outside the techno world. Wicker & Steel was the Trojan horse that subsequently led many, including myself, to his brilliant Perc Trax label, home to the mutant industrial of Dead Sound & Videohead, the gritty mechanical electronica of Ekoplekz (whose Westerleigh Works EP was Perc Trax’ fiftieth and most brutal release) and soon a new album by techno masters Forward Strategy Group. Characterised by heavy drums and menacing production, both Perc and his stable of artists have been part of 2011’s resurgence of dark, heavy electronic music that includes fellow travellers Factory Floor, Sandwell District, Cloaks, Byetone, Raime, Prurient, Cut Hands, The Haxan Cloak, Shackleton, The Black Dog’s excellent Liber series and the return of Carter Tutti.

So, Mr Perc, how did you get into producing?

Ali Wells: I was always an indie kid until I was about 16, into the whole Stourbridge, Neds Atomic Dustbin, Wonderstuff, the onset of grunge, baggy bits and bobs. My brother was old enough to get into M25 raves and we lived in the Home Counties. He’d go into London and chase these raves, and brought the music and the mixtapes. I was really resistant to it at first, but then got stuck in and loved it.

That’s the way it was in the 90s, wasn’t it? You weren’t allowed to like indie and dance music.

AW: I wouldn’t tell my friends what I was listening to. It was like a secret thing. It was seen as music for morons, not legitimate music because it was made in a completely different manner. Unfortunately I was just too young to go to the raves. The first real club I went to I borrowed a friend’s NUS card because I was just too young and went to the Hacienda. It was quite a shock, when you’ve grown up in Hertfordshire. It was all people with eyes bulging, giving each other back massages, wearing roadworkers jackets. It was an XL showcase, the Prodigy and all that, very different from and XL showcase these days. My brother started DJing so I picked up that from him, and when he finished university he dropped out of it, but I kept going.

Ekoplekz – Westerleigh Works EP (Perc Trax) by Perc

Were you making music back then?

AW: I’d been in bands since I was 12, 13, doing covers and thrasy bits and bobs, but I quit my band due to musical differences: I wanted to go more towards New Order, and they wanted to go full on to the Mudhoney, Nirvana sort of thing. We covered ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and I remember comparing the drums on our crappy little drum machine with the original, it was a joke and we got laughed at. I vowed never to have weak drums again. Now, when I’m talking to someone and they say ‘Ali, love the track but that snare’s too loud’ – they’re wrong. The snare drums in my stuff are pretty in-your-face. It was very satisfying hearing that banging out in Berghain.

How did the Perc entity and sound evolve?

AW: I left that band and took the drum machine and some of the equipment we had, so that was the start of my basic studio. Then I studied studio engineering at Newcastle College. Obviously now everyone with a laptop has access to studio level stuff, but then you’d have £500 of stuff in your bedroom, go to university and then you’d be playing with £10 grand-worth. Being in a bigger city opened me up to a lot more techno, and at the time Carl Cox had F.A.C.T., which is a double mix CD, the first really big DJ mix, and that opened my eyes. I pooled my gear with another guy at university and started a duo, that was called Drivespace, a terrible name, very 90s. I then came to London, and since then it’s been Perc.

What shaped the early writing for Wicker & Steel?

AW: The title actually came before anything was written. It just jumped into my head one day, I thought the ‘Wicker & Steel’ idea would mean that when I was writing tracks they could be more ‘wicker’ or more ‘steel’, and give me a target for what I was doing. Musically, probably the early Cabaret Voltaire stuff. I wanted equal parts modern techno, early experimental industrial stuff, then a little bit, without going too far into this whole occult, pagany thing that’s floating around at the moment, but I still think is quite fresh – nobody has dived into the scene and used it over-crassly, it’s still a feeling and a vibe in the music rather than samples of witches cackling.

Perc – Wicker & Steel – full album stream by Perc

That’s why we wanted you playing with Haxan Cloak, it’s a similar vibe.

AW: Yeah that record is amazing.

It will happen though won’t it, someone will come along with some dodgy coven sounds

AW: I was sent a promo the other week of a very modern-sounding Detroit record, and the press release said it was ‘an occult take on Detroit techno’. Because I saw that I listened more carefully and couldn’t hear anything – it was obviously just a buzz word they’d slipped into the press release. I don’t think they had the Detroit Witch Trials.

Where did that interest in that idea of the English pagan and occult stem from?

AW: if you look at Demdike Stare they have a real knowledge of the history, but for me it’s more camp horror films. I’m a huge Hammer fan, and films like the Witchfinder General. There’s a lot of galloping around the countryside, buxom wenches, the whole thing is quite fun. I’m not a fan of really serious psychological horror, and especially not the modern American stuff. Being a musician, if you can call me that, the soundtrack side is interesting, and that mellotron sound, that almost links into progressive rock, and I was listening to Jethro Tull, the flutes and things like that. It’s a British circle of occult influences.

You do get a real sense of place from it, which is something you perhaps don’t get from techno if you’re approaching tracks individually in a club context.

AW: I didn’t set out to make an ode to London or anything, but obviously you’re influenced by the city you’re in. I didn’t want to make a Berlin techno record, there has to be a sense of place.

I noticed on the Resident Advisor mix you start with the old Thames Television sound ident.

AW: You’re the first person who’s picked up on that. I was watching something on YouTube and that had come on before it, the four or five seconds of ident. I thought ‘I’ll have that and keep it for something’.

It really worked, it locked me into a certain mindset.

AW: I wanted a London signifier at the start. It’s also London, but a certain, long-gone era.

With the Louise Wener spoken word at the start of the record, what was that about? it took me a while to ‘get’ that.

AW: I did want a vocal of some sort at the start, maybe a spoken word, but there are so many cliches in that – a political speech, or something out of a film. That’s from a VHS tape of interviews with Britpop bands, they talk a bit and do some live tracks, which has been kicking around. It just fitted, and the voice was lowered down a little bit just to give it a bit more atmosphere. I found what she was saying interesting. At the last minute it was pretty banging techno, but then I decided the drums weren’t working so I took them out.

Does it give that sense of place, as in the Home Counties? Does ‘London, We Have You Surrounded’ refer to that?

AW: I think if you look up the phrase Home Counties you can find explanations of it, and there’s a diagram where London is white and around it are all the counties in colour. It does look like a military map, and they’re coming in to get London. Though in reality London doesn’t have much to fear from the Home Counties. They’re mild mannered people. It still takes a while for trends to reach the Home Counties. You’d think in the age of the internet it’d take a week, but they still take years. In Hitchin there’s quite a big UK garage scene that has never gone away, and Cambridge has this acidy, free party trance scene.

How did you get Chris Carter to do the remix of ‘My Head Is Slowly Exploding’?

Perc – My Head Is Slowly Exploding by Perc

AW: I really wanted Ancient Methods to do a remix, but I knew they weren’t doing many remixes and they’re quite picky. I thought it’d be great to have someone from that first wave of industrial artists, and if I could get one of those onboard obviously it would impress Ancient Methods and they’d want to get involved in a record if Chris Carter was too. I managed to track him down via his blog and sent him the track. Straight away he replied and said I don’t do many remixes and I’m pretty busy, but then within half an hour, 40 minutes he was on board, and then I went straight to Ancient Methods and said ‘yes’. Richard H Kirk I got to via The Black Dog. I don’t know if there will be any of those sort of people appearing again because I don’t like to repeat the same trick, but if something appropriate comes up then maybe.

What do you think to the current darkening of the musical landscape, when none of you know each other? It’s tempting to make a connection…

AW: I think it’s a lot of coincidental factors. I don’t think any of what of us is doing is tied in with politics and the financial situation, but then it does ring true in these times.

Dead Sound & Videohead – The Chosen (Perc Trax) by Perc

And at the same time, the electronic music that tends to get written about on sites like Pitchfork, or for want of a better word is hipster, chillwave sort of stuff, is very wishy washy and non-committal, the antithesis of Perc and your pals.

AW: The bedroom electronica seems to be an emo thing almost, not as in emo kids, but it’s very floaty music made by lonely guys who sit in their bedrooms, make stuff and stick it on a blog and hope someone picks up on it. Thankfully there are people who are making something a bit punchier.

Perc plays with The Haxan Cloak at the Quietus’ curated upstairs at the Garage for Fred Perry Subsonic live tomorrow, December 16th.

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