Shock Doctrine: An Interview With Perc

With his second album The Power & The Glory released this week, Rory Gibb meets up with London-based techno producer Ali Wells to talk dancefloor mayhem, rotting sound and political frustration

The Power & The Glory, the second full-length album from London’s Perc, opens with a resounding howl into the void. Tape-decayed dialogue gives way to a series of wrenching sabre slashes of distortion, engine grind, tearing sheet metal and Dethscalator’s Dan Chandler bellowing bloody murder. It’s a suitably imposing opener for an record that casts the Perc aesthetic – a searing take on techno and sound system electronics – in sharper relief than ever before: club tracks that feel like early Jeff Mills smacking you in the face with a girder (‘Dumpster’, ‘Take Your Body Off’), pirouetting, syncopated house (‘Galloper’), a seething collaborative track with Factory Floor’s Nik Void (‘Speek’) and periods of surprisingly reflective melancholy amid the mania. At its mid-point lies a four-minute long suite of gutter noise and maniacal gremlin cackling, pointedly titled ‘David & George’, conjuring images of the gruesome Bullingdon twosome gleefully ripping apart sections of British society like a pair of spam-faced giant babies.

Over breakfast in a Finsbury Park cafe, Ali Wells chuckles. "Yeah, it is a kind of musical personification of taking down the welfare state, or whatever." However, he admits, "as happens a lot with electronic music, the title is kind of retrofitted afterwards. It wasn’t an attempt to write something like that. It’s more that afterwards, it fits with some feelings I’ve got at the moment. I don’t try and do it too often, because just making an instrumental track and then adding on some lofty concept or philosophy… I saw something recently where someone said they were inspired by Samuel Beckett or something," he sighs. "It’s like ‘Really? For a techno track? How does that work?’ They don’t go any deeper into the explanation – it’s just put in the press release, then never mentioned again."

The Power & The Glory, in contrast, does offer plenty of thematic material to chew on while you’re having your ears scoured. Aside from the religious connotations of the title, there’s a clear – albeit still relatively subtle – seam of political frustration running throughout, a further development of the similar thematic pull of his 2011 debut album Wicker & Steel. "On the album, if I’m trying to portray some of the frustration with the political system in the UK at the moment, [it’s] just that kind of guttural, primal scream kind of thing," he says of drafting in Chandler to lend his vocals to a couple of The Power & The Glory‘s tracks. "Which I tried to do myself – but it sounds a million times better with him doing it; that’s perfect as a release of frustration and tension."

It’s clearly entirely too simplistic to directly link the recent vogue for all sounds grubby and grim to the oppressive current state of political and economic affairs, but Wells has touched on that subject matter more than most – albeit via an approach laced with a healthy dollop of gallows humour and rave-inspired irreverence. Indeed, it’s those qualities that make Wells, and the output of the artists that release music through his Perc Trax label, stand out; they’ve also seen Wells’ own music recently achieve a popularity far beyond what you’d expect given its uncompromising nature. At the core of the Perc aesthetic is a distinct pop sensibility and a taste for iconic imagery inherited from the early industrial, EBM and post-punk groups that Wells cites as inspirations, as well his British techno forebears and the cheekily subversive streak that’s run through rave culture in the UK since the get-go. It’s present in his visual imagery, album and track titles; in the gleeful relentlessness of his hardest club tunes; and perhaps most obviously in his DJ sets, where he’s a calm onstage presence amid a storm of bludgeoning beats, chanted vocals and abrupt, tectonic shifts in energy.

That character is also evident in conversation with Wells; he’s polite and thoughtful but quietly opinionated when we meet up to discuss how things have evolved in the time since Wicker & Steel. In that time Perc Trax has continued to spread its wings, he last year launched a sub-label Submit to release his reworkings of early Einstürzende Neubauten material and later the Feral Grind compilation of underground US techno/noise, and The Power & The Glory has taken shape from an initial (now discarded) concept into an open-minded powerhouse of a techno album.

‘Take Your Body Off’

On the new album you start off with this monologue, in a similar way to Wicker & Steel with Louise Wener. Here it talks about leaving this rotten sound in, and this implication that the best music emerges by accident. To what extent did you want to use that to set the tone for the record?

AW: I’ve always loved records with spoken word intros. A lot of old rave tracks and drum & bass tracks had that, even something like ‘Loaded’ by Primal Scream – you have that vocal thing at the start, and it does really set the tone. It’s something that came onto the album quite late. It’s an interview with Mike Patton, for the documentary around I think Angel Dust, and it just fitted exactly what I wanted for the album. I think they say "rotten sound", like the track’s already rotten, whereas I say ‘Rotting Sound’. I like the idea of almost recording the actual process of things degrading – so it’s not just already wrecked, it’s showing how it’s degrading over time.

A lot of this album sounds like it’s pulling itself apart; to what extent did you start with initial ideas, then end up with new things emerging along the way unexpectedly?

AW: As you’re ripping [sounds] apart, different things appear, different tones, different rhythms. Then if you like that, if it’s superior to what you had before, then you go down that alley. It’s similar to DJing; a certain track connects with a crowd, and off you go down that road. For this album, some of the tracks were purposely written quickly – things like ‘Lurch’ and ‘David & George’ were started quite late at night, capturing an idea, and especially the edits on the rhythm patterns and things were done quite quickly. Because I knew those tracks weren’t going to be fully intended for club play and DJs, if there were rhythmic errors and things went off kilter a bit, that’s good, that’s interesting. In a way it’s slightly closed minded, but compared to Wicker & Steel I wanted a few direct club tracks. Wicker & Steel didn’t have that one track where you wake up on a Saturday morning and your phone’s full of text messages saying ‘so and so played it at Berghain, so and so played it here’. It’s nice to have that.

When did you decide you were working on a second album?

AW: I wanted to do an album and I wanted to get it out either end of last year or start of this year. I had all these different projects; the Neubauten thing took longer than expected, and finally I got to the point of actually saying, no more remixes, no more collaborations, and I put some time towards it. The album came together fairly quickly – I don’t want to say painlessly, because everyone wants to hear about the struggling artists sweating blood for their creation – but yeah, it wasn’t a particularly hard process. I think that’s because, out of everything I do, whether I’m recording for another label or making a club 12", you’re kind of working towards a goal that you have to hit within certain parameters. And with an artist album by me on Perc Trax there’s nothing like that, it’s just whatever I’m happy with, there might be no club tracks or loads of club tracks; and if I made ten ambient tracks then maybe that’s the way the album would be.

I found myself thinking about this listening to ‘Horse Gum’, the ambient track in the middle, might you end up making a wholly ambient record.

AW: That’s the track I was most wary of putting on the album, because there’s so much droney techno kicking about right now, and a lot of it I really hate. I wanted something that was a pause for breath and a palate cleanser before the slightly more intense, percussive stuff at the end of the album. That’s sort of the purpose it serves. I do love the track, but there were three or four tracks of that ilk written around the same time, and I didn’t want to make a deep, dubby, drone techno album.

You also probably want to sidestep that techno album stereotype of a bunch of club tracks and a couple of throwaway ambient interludes.

AW: Yeah. I was thinking about this whole droney techno thing – and I don’t want to call it Berlin techno, but a lot of it is centred around labels coming out of Berlin – to me it’s a bit like being stoned. Smoking weed everyday, there’s like this fog around your head. Droney techno sounds a bit like that. Then if you suddenly stop smoking, after a few days it clears, and you want to actually experience life, and you want things to be vibrant and punchy. The kind of techno I like at the moment is where all that overly atmospheric fog and fluff is stripped away, and things are much more visceral, much more clear. That’s what I’m into. Otherwise it’s just a sea of almost nothingness. And, you know, that’s good, that’s very atmospheric at the right time, but especially if you’re playing your average two hour set in London you want to get to the point quickly, so things want to be punchy and sharp. You haven’t got eight hours to set up a two hour droney introduction. So it’s different kinds of tracks for a different kind of set, really. That’s why you see what producers like Truss and AnD are doing in the UK – it’s mainly for the kind of sets they’re playing.

‘My Head Is Slowly Exploding’

There certainly is an absence, within most of your music, of the billowy, boomy ambience that’s common to a lot of contemporary techno.

AW: It’s a sound for me that’s been around for god knows how long, but there’s just so much of it at the moment. It’s quite easy to make uninspired versions of it – just a kick drum, maybe a hi-hat, and some huge atmospheric sounds. There’s sample CDs full of this stuff, there’s plugins where you just hold down one chord and it’ll evolve over ten minutes – or probably evolve forever, because of the different things in the software slowly changing parts of the sound, it’d probably just randomise itself to eternity if you held down the chord. These atmospheric pad sounds are so multilayered that every layer is being slightly tweaked by the computer; in a way they never repeat themselves, but in the same way, they never get to the point.

There’s great pleasure on a dancefloor to experiencing music that does something unexpected. It doesn’t have to be major; even a hi-hat coming in at a different moment.

AW: The really great DJ will time that perfectly, so the slightest rhythmic or timbral change feels like some great moment. I know there’s something to be said for DJs that can play a three or four hour set and it almost feels like one track, because they’re so smooth mixing and the track order is so perfectly judged. But for me, no, I’d rather have some 90 degree turns and a few shocks in there. And if you do attempt it and it doesn’t always pay off or go perfectly, then that’s the human element, and that’s the difference between a human and a pre generated playlist.

The Power & The Glory is quite a loaded title, with its obvious religious connection. Did you envisage a theme for the album?

AW: It’s much harder to describe than Wicker & Steel. The first concept for the album, which I did go quite a long way down the road with, was something revolving around the idea of organised religion; obviously criticism of it is not exactly my bag. There were field recordings made in churches, and I was trying to source more choral kind of sounds, and the kind of reverbs from churches – the almost silence you get in places of worship, which isn’t pure silence, a certain ambience. I was kind of working along these lines, and it just wasn’t really working. Maybe I had a kind of Emptyset concept in my mind about architecture and places of worship and feelings from buildings, and for some reason I just couldn’t pull it together. The Power & The Glory was the title for that, with the religious connection there. I loved the title and it stayed on, so now the album’s developed to what it is, and the title’s remained. I still like it. I didn’t want this album to be this hiding-under-the-duvet, atmospheric techno kind of thing, I wanted it to be bold and make a statement, and have moments that are kind of shocking. So The Power & The Glory fits in with that.

One of the biggest inspirations for the album, even though I’ve seen it many times before in the past, was Carrie, the original film version of the Stephen King book, and the power she has in her – this quiet, downtrodden, bullied member of the school community, and then just out of nowhere this insane power comes. That final scene that’s in the ballroom or whatever, and the high school prom is burning, and she’s just got this calm look on her face. It’s obviously not the same, but with DJing, to provide a performance that’s very powerful and may be completely at odds with the person that you are outside your performance. Not being egotistical and doing the Jesus Christ pose and doing heart signs, but just doing your job very calmly, keeping your head down. The way someone like Surgeon does it – where all around is carnage and you’re level headed, you’re not going crazy, you’re not losing control, it’s just methodical. It’s hard to describe the title without sounding too much like a kind of Oprah Winfrey self-help manual, but ‘the power within’ – or maybe not the power, but just the potential people have.

As soon as you mentioned that Carrie scene the first thing that sprung to mind was watching Surgeon DJ.

AW: "Surgeon – techno’s Carrie." [laughs]

This calm, yogic focus while complete mayhem erupts around him. It’s the same with a lot of people that make quite extreme music – they’re often surprisingly calm and focused as individuals.

AW: Yeah, and making extreme music electronically with a laptop. You’re not like a rock band, rocking out, where the energy and the way you hit your instruments will influence the recording and your final product. It’s not like that. You can make the most intense, crazy track, and it’s actually much more focused, there’s nothing rock & roll about moving the mouse around, but that’s the way you do it. I don’t really rock out in the studio, though I know some people do; even if the track is going off in all different directions and it’s full of energy, it’s a very calm process. I always want to be in control of what I’m doing. Maybe that’s being British and a bit stiff and stuff like that, but even if the place is going crazy when I’m DJing, I’m still level headed and centred and thinking five or ten minutes ahead.

‘A New Brutality’

Recently there’s been a fair few people making club music that hasn’t felt particularly concerned with DJ functionality, in part because technology and current booking trends enable them to play their own music live in a club setting without having to tailor it for other people to play. You mentioned wanting to make straight club tunes; to what extent do you feel under pressure to make tunes that can be DJ’d by other people, versus being happy going off on massive tangents with music you’d only play yourself?

AW: It’s interesting, it’s a balance, but I always want things people can play out and get excited about. Primarily, whatever I do, I’m still a techno artist and DJ, and the primary forum for that music is still the club, the DJ, beat mixing, this sort of thing. If I haven’t had – I don’t want to say a hit or a success, but if I haven’t had something that a few DJs are playing for a while, I do miss it. I don’t want to just be a club producer, that’d bore me to death, but it’s a case of mixing it up.

I don’t do it very often, but doing the fully ambient sets – well, ambient but still with some kind of rhythmic element – like the one I did in St. John’s in Hackney a while back, they’re completely different because they’re billed as such, people know what they’re getting. I wouldn’t want to do that week in, week out, [but] it’s really good, it’s a refreshing thing to do. Obviously it takes a bit of preparation, but the show at St. John’s some of those tracks I’d never played out on a big system because they’re not perfectly suited to club environments. You learn a lot about your music by presenting it in a very different way.

If you look at the label PAN and the showcases they’re doing in different environments – to be an artist involved in that, and not play in clubs week in, week out, and to be put in different environments with different crowds, sometimes people know your music, sometimes people don’t have a clue who you are. It’s like a different challenge every week, it must be really interesting. As long as you’re an open minded artist – the fact that someone might lean over the stage or the decks when you’re playing and actually say ‘What on earth is this, I’m hating it’. I don’t go out of my way to annoy people – I read the Russell Haswell [Invisible Jukebox feature] in The Wire recently, where you get the feeling that’s half of his thing – but to get that kind of reaction, especially if they say that at the start of the set but by the end of it they’re much more involved, then of course that’s a result. I remember a while ago I was playing in Ireland and someone leant over at the end of my set and said ‘Ali, I love what you’re doing, I love all the weird shit, but go back to making bangers’. [laughs]

You launched Submit last year, with the Neubauten remixes and the Feral Grind compilation. How did the idea for the label come about; did you feel it was something you couldn’t cover elsewhere?

AW: One of the main driving forces was the Neubauten release: where would I put that out, how would I do it? I wasn’t 100% sure it’d work on Perc Trax. Your average Perc Trax supporter is fairly open minded, I’d like to think, but they still want some kind of dancefloor appeal in what they’re hearing and what they’re buying. The idea of a spinoff label with no borders was always in the back of my mind, so the Neubauten thing was a perfect release, it was high profile enough to launch a label. I don’t know when the next release on Submit will come out, and I don’t know what it will be, but even in Feral Grind there’s a connection with Perc Trax; it’s still analogue based, noisy, distorted. It’s not like I started off a label doing really clean, pristine pop music or anything like that.

But I do think the next release on Submit will be a step further from both the first two releases on Submit and what Perc Trax is doing. Not pop, but I do think something with much more a vocal element, verse chorus structures, is very interesting. That or working with some sort of MC. My favourite thing outside of techno now is probably Death Grips. So it’s how to work with an MC and not be a bad, slightly more techno version of Death Grips. I’d happily make Death Grips ripoffs all day if that’d pay the bills. [laughs] That rapid-fire, sample collage thing, it’s interesting, especially as a lot of techno is so structured and takes time to develop. To do something that’s… a track can be only two minutes long, and there’s so many ideas, and rawness, that visceral, slightly irritating, in-your-face quality – it’s appealing.

The album, despite using vocals in a non-song context, hints towards that ‘song’ kind of idea, in quite a subtle way.

AW: I knew the vocal contributions on the album would be more textural than lyrical. It’s what I wanted. I’m speaking to some vocalists now. But of all the different things I do, vocal tracks have the worst hit rate of being shelved and not seeing the light of day. It’s very rare for them to come out.

You’ve been making music for over a decade now; and obviously your music’s evolved a great deal in that time. How do you think your attitude or approach has shifted in that time, do you feel it’s been quite a dramatic arc?

AW: I think it’s been – almost in the same way I work at home – a kind of slow grind. I always see it as different stages for producers. The first is that you want to make a track that will technically sound good in a club; then after that there’s this point where you want to fit into a scene, you want to be part of techno, you want techno producers you admire and respect to acknowledge you and be asking you for tracks, you want to fit in. And then, after a bit – maybe ’cause I’m just an awkward bastard or something – you don’t want to fit in. You still want your stuff to be played by these guys, you want them to like it, but you don’t want to be part of the furniture. You want to be something separate.

I think that’s the point I’m at at the moment, and hopefully the way the stuff I release on Perc Trax and the key Perc Trax artists are progressing as well; they don’t want to just irritate people and be strange for the sake of it, they want to be part of the techno scene, but they want to be different, and want to stand out. That’s a key thing. I don’t just want to be accepted and be just another guy on the circuit. Differentiating yourself from other producers, even in the same scene, and continuing to develop, is the way to sustain both your own interest and the interests of people that like your music, and also a career. You’re not going to be, oh, that’s the guy that made the sound of 2007 and he stuck there – what happened to him? You keep changing.

That’s the thing with Perc Trax, it’s hopefully always developing and changing. It’s not 180 degree turns,’cause I think that would alienate some people, but I think there’s a development happening. The idea of being a label where, on the write up, [it says] ‘your current go-to label for dependable club tools’ or something, that’s of no interest at all. I don’t want every record to be a solid club hit, it’s boring. As I said before, the nightclub is still the primary place for this music, and it has to appeal there, but… it has to be a bit jarring, and I might be in my late 30s now, but I still want some of it to annoy my parents, that kind of thing. [laughs]

My parents don’t listen to my 12"s, but they do want to hear the new album. I think my very first record, it was cut at 45 and my dad was playing it at 33, and he was like "ah, it’s got a nice slow groove to it", and then I put it up to 45 and it was just this ripping techno thing. [laughs]

Perc’s The Power & The Glory is out now on Perc Trax

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today