One of the few producers around who can claim to be putting a fresh stamp on the techno genre is London producer and label owner Ali Wells aka Perc. A gradual shift into the depths of underground techno has led to his position as one of the very best in the game; a producer with a relentless work rate and mammoth discography to match. Ahead of his live appearance in Dublin this Friday, Ali took a few moments away from putting the final touches to his debut album to kindly answer some questions we put his way…
How long have you been producing, and what inspired you to start originally?
I started at the age of 16 and I bought my first drum machine (Roland TR626) the day I got my GSCE results, so it's been a while. At that age I had been in bands for a few years but was starting to realise that a group dynamic was not really for me. Electronic music was creeping into my life and the more I read about the DIY/home studio methods of producers the more I wanted to get involved.
You have released music on such a large amount of labels. With a lot of commitments to releases/remixes etc. do you have to limit the time you spend on each track?
No, by putting in long hours I can work on something until I am happy with it. When I rush, due to a deadline from myself or a label, then I am rarely happy with the results. I spend a lot of time in the studio, maybe 40-50 hours in an average week, some tracks and remixes come together in a few hours, whilst others have been tweaked on and off for up to a year. Every track is different but I know when one is ready to face the outside world.
You've taken an interesting route over the last number of years to where you are now. In a way you've done things in the opposite manner of many other producers, in that as you became more well-known and successful, your sound appeared to become (for want of a better phrase) more purist. Is this how you would describe your path?
Hmmm, I don't see myself as a purist. I have a knowledge of house, techno, rave, drum & bass etc going back a long way but I like to think I combine my influences rather than adhering to any of the existing templates of how techno should sound. There are people out there still serving up purist Millsian loops and Basic Channel dub-techno clones. It would bore me senseless to stick to one of these well worn formulas. A good example is my track 'Stoq' on Stroboscopic Artefacts; it pulls on dubstep, industrial and techno and (hopefully) creates something new. Maybe my sound has become more compatible with the established techno sounds of Berlin or Birmingham etc but I like to think I mix in enough unrelated elements to not be filed amongst the hardcore purists.
By shifting your sound, you may have risked alienating part of your existing fan base. Was that a concern to you at any stage?
I make music for myself first, if I am not feeling a track even if I think it has dance floor or sales potential then it will be scrapped. If I looked at my more successful tracks and churned out copies of those then I would be dead in the water in a matter of weeks. I have to be excited with what I make and I like to think people can hear that in my tracks. Whilst my sound and style does develop and shift there is still a clear Perc sound/aesthetic that has been about since day one. The spitting snares, the big kicks, the broken beat stuff, and the kinds of distortion I use. Some things are constant whatever I am making.
You have continued to release vinyl on Perc Trax, when a lot of people and labels around you moved primarily to digital. Can you give a background into how you first started collecting vinyl?
Strangely enough my first decks were cd decks; this was a long time ago when playing from cd was commonly seen as fake or cheating. Then when I got my first paid gig I rushed out and bought a pair of 1210's, giving me a month to learn how to play vinyl. My first purchases were looped up tribal and acid techno, which I found quite easy to mix and my collection has grown since then. Perc Trax carries on to do vinyl for a number of reasons, but if the day came when releasing vinyl was losing serious money then I'd have no problem stopping the 12's rather than risk the label as a whole. I love vinyl but I can see a vinyl-less future for techno at some point.
Can vinyl survive? Will younger djs somehow embrace it or are we looking at a future dj culture that will bear no resemblance to the original model?
It will survive for a number of years but I don't think it will be around forever. Younger djs are embracing it but I am not sure they are enough in number to replace people dropping out of the vinyl market. I laugh when I see a facebook post about a release that is coming out on vinyl and digitally, almost every comment is 'vinyl for me!' when most people posting will grab the release free from a blog and not even pay for the download. A lot of the 'vinyl forever' stuff is purely show, people trying to look like the real deal when they get most of their music for free from unauthorised sources.
Much of your recent material is industrial influenced. Is this the last area left in techno to truly experiment?
I think there has been an industrial element in techno since the very beginning. Even the old '88 acid tracks created with a drum machine and 303 shared an atonality that a lot of industrial music thrives on. I think it is an interesting area that still has space for innovation and exploration, certainly within the grey area where techno, industrial, drone and noise music meet. I think for the more forward thinking producers techno is just a vehicle to carry their experimental sounds to a wider audience via the established system of djs and dancefloors. Of course Techno has other areas to move into apart from the industrial thing, some of which will be blind alleys whilst others will open up whole new worlds of possibilities. Going back to what I said earlier about the established templates that a lot of techno follows, it would be a shame if what was once seen as future music becomes too focussed on replicating past glories.
Industrial is also a style of music that could claim to have been a type of active techno before 'techno' the term was first coined in Detroit. Would you agree?
Yes, it was/is machine music, focussed on texture and rhythm over melody and lyrical content. Whilst industrial music has always featured vocals, they are often treated as another instrument, equal to machine generated sounds and that is the same with all but the most commercially driven techno. Without studying old Mills/Wizard playlists I am sure industrial music was as much an influence on the early Detroit producers as Kraftwerk. Not just through the choices of sound used but also due to a shared approach to music-making and the (mis-)use of discarded machinery.
Is techno as an experimental art form, sometimes weighed down by the now defined sounds of influential cities like Berlin and Detroit, or is it important that techno has reference points like this?
The reference points are important, to use a cliché, it is just as important to know where you are from as where you are going, but people get too bogged down in these cities and their history. Techno has often been at is most innovative away from these major hubs. Perc Trax's Sawf is based in Athens, which has a tiny techno scene and his range of influences are truly his own, not those dictated by a select group of hyped clubs and record shops. People should remember that moving to one of these cities does not instantly make you a better DJ or producer. Often with the amount of competing creative types in the city such as Berlin your chances of making a name for yourself are reduced.
It's argued that the innovators of today are not the producers but the people developing forward thinking software and equipment for producers. What do you think about that, and how has technology helped you over the last five years for instance?
The software developers and hardware companies have a part to play but talented people will always find ways to adapt and use a piece of gear beyond what the designs intended. It is easier than ever to make functional dance music that will 'work' on most dancefloors. This does not mean you should be making it or that it has any lasting value. Using preset sounds and samples is an easy way to get a few digital releases but without some innovation and thought you will not go much further than that. Technology has helped me a lot, the switch from a fully hardware based studio to Ableton interfacing with a few choice pieces of kit gives me a flexibility that I could not have imagined before. For remixing the ability to creatively and accurately edit audio visually has been a massive change for me, so much better than staring at the screens of samplers and grooveboxes.
Your debut album is about to be released. For someone with your prolific output, it seems like an album could have come a long time ago. Presumably you were holding out to do something a bit more conceptual then, that is not just a collection of 12" club tracks?
I think the change in my sound has meant that an album is more viable for me than it was 3 or 4 years ago and now my drone/ambient tracks are getting good responses when before they were often overlooked in favour of my club tracks. One thing that really bugs me is when a producer waters down their sound to make an album more suitable for home listening. If people want an album to soundtrack their dinner parties then they will go for one from a producer with pedigree in that field, not a techno producer suddenly softening their sound. For me the classic techno albums are exactly that. Planetary Assault Systems on Peacefrog, the classic Joey Beltram albums on Tresor and Novamute, Vaporspace's debut on Plus8 etc. Yes, there are some drone/experimental tracks on my album but they are far from easy listening. If anything they present more of a challenge to the listener than the dancefloor tracks as the sounds don't have the tried and tested framework of a club track to cling on to.
What else can you tell us about the album?
Not a great deal right now. Roughly 10 tracks, more broken beat than 4/4. It is not a concept album but the title (to be revealed soon) focussed on two elements which run through all of the tracks. There will be one 12” released before the album and one after. The remixes for the first single are done and I'm blown away by who has remixed my tracks and what they have done with them. I know it is all very secretive at the moment but I don't want to say too much until the album is finished.
How important was it for you to release it on your own label? Did it bring an extra creative freedom that you might not have been afforded elsewhere?
For an EP I am happy to send 3 or 4 tracks to a label and if they only want two of them then that is fine, but for an album I need 100% control. To submit an album to a label which they then start picking apart would kill my passion for the album dead.
Finally, what's on the horizon for the rest of 2011?
The first half of 2011 is focussed on finishing and promoting the album. Aside from that a new collaboration between myself and an Italian producer is about to surface. The first fruits of that new project will be out at the end of March. Details of that will be made public very soon. Perc Trax has a full release schedule with albums from myself and Sawf plus EPs from Forward Strategy Group, Donor/Truss, Dead Sound & Videohead and Samuli Kemppi. From June or July onwards I have no real idea, a few festival appearances are confirmed and I guess I'll start recording tracks for some other labels once the album is in the can. I don't really know and that is what makes it exciting for me.
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