It's tough to pinpoint exactly when Perc Trax became vital. The label run by Ali Wells, AKA London-based techno producer Perc, has been releasing music since 2004, but—and it's kind of like Chris Liebing's CLR in this regard—it's only been in the last couple of years that Perc Trax really seems to have hit its stride. Like most precursors to change in music, this was borne out of a reaction to something; in this case Wells himself. "There was a track of mine called 'Trap Jaw' which was the last of those kind of big shuffle techno tracks I was making which I had success with around 2007/2008," he remembers. "For various reasons it was delayed and by the time it actually came out  it just didn't really feel true to me. I still wanted to put it out because it was getting a good response in the clubs, but it just didn't feel right, and at that point I made the decision to push further on with a more experimental and industrial edge."
[And] I am not going to make an
industrial-influenced techno track
if it sounds like shit."
These types of sounds have been a fascination of Wells' since the beginning. The interesting thing about Perc Trax's move towards this territory, however, is that it directly reflects his evolution as a producer. "The industrial thing that has come up recently is something I have always been listening to," he says. "But the reason it hadn't appeared on the label in the early days was because I didn't have the production skills or knowledge to make that stuff. I am not going to make an industrial-influenced techno track if it sounds like shit... I had to work to my strengths."
In the early days of his production career, Wells made club-ready techno with flourishes of latter-day progressive house. During the early '00s, he worked for UK distributor Prime, managing their in-house labels—Primate, Primeval, Premiere Sounds—with whom he released some of his earliest productions. Then Prime went bust. Wells was left without a steady outlet for his music. On the plus side, he'd received a reasonable redundancy pay-out. "Instead of wasting the money (like other chunks of money I had in the past) I decided to start a label. It wasn't even an idea of starting a label…it was just my idea to put out my own music.
"The first single ['Ice Cream for Kenton'] came out, and that did better than expected," he continues. "It got licensed to a Renaissance compilation, which at the time was kind of a lucrative thing. So that brought in a bit of money and the vinyl broke even so everything was good. Then I didn't know what to do next, because I was really thinking that the label would only do one release, lose a load of money, and I would stop and be left with five or six hundred records in my garage. So I didn't even think of a second release."
Having received a favourable reaction to this first single and with industry contacts from his distribution days already in place, fixing up the second release (and those subsequent) didn't pose any problems. Reneging on his initial idea to simply use Perc Trax as a showcase for his own material, Wells signed a flurry of stylistically diverse music from largely UK producers—Avus, Good Livin, Paul Lancaster. "I had this idea: since I like to consider myself as having a wide range of music, the label wouldn't have a set sound," says Wells. "The first release by me was techno and the second release was more epic and atmospheric, and the third release was bordering on…I don't want to say trance but this kind of melodic thing… I think [the diversity] was a slight hindrance at the start."
Despite protests from his distributor over this often extreme genre-hopping, Wells says that none of those early releases were commercial "flops." The next few years saw Perc Trax maintain a multifarious streak. And, as early adopters of digital sales, they offered a platform to a growing number of artists from across borders and scenes. "[Then] the whole idea of just music I liked from any particular genre kind of faded away and the sound solidified a bit," he reflects. "It still moved around genres but I was very careful."
In much the same way that we tend to pigeonhole labels, the same is true of producers. In 2007 Wells was signed for releases with European institutions Kompakt and Drumcode, essentially casting him in a fresh light on the wider techno scene. DJs such as Marcel Dettmann, Luke Slater and Chris Liebing gradually came on board as supporters. And as the decade wore-on, Wells found himself at a crossroads with Perc Trax: "I just wanted to get a core of artists," he recalls, "to be able to build up artists towards doing albums with a goal in mind and also to do label showcases, and have artists that are associated with the label."
"yeah, Perc Trax is gonna be biig in the near future!" said RA user christianludy in late 2009. He was commenting in response to a Perc Trax review—Peter Van Hoesen and Perc remixes of Ed Rush & Nico's 1997 drum & bass track "Defect"—and his timing was bang on the money. The release was among the first examples of Wells patently referencing his roots, while subsequent months would see the more permanent Perc Trax roster beginning to take shape.
Whether I am releasing house, techno or weird
drum & bass, the aesthetic is always there."
"Because he keeps such a low profile, people do ask me if I'm Sawf and if it's a pseudonym or side project, but it is definitely not," says Wells on the first of these new names. "He is a real human being from Athens." Sawf made the step up to vinyl after a number of successful digital releases (something Wells has tended to do with new artists), as his sparse and often electro-influenced sound was flourishing. The early part of 2010 also saw debut 12-inches from the other acts Wells now identifies as being integral to Perc Trax—US/UK duo Donor/Truss, and Patrick Walker and Smear, AKA Forward Strategy Group.
"They seem to have different influences," says Wells on UK pair Forward Strategy Group. "Patrick has a massive knowledge of techno whereas Al [Smear] is more on noise scenes and industrial stuff, but they are quite a unique combination…Donor / Truss are a duo working remotely because Greg [Donor] is in New York and Truss is in east London. They are doing dub techno. It has never been the purist, Basic Channel dub techno but I think if you listen to their forthcoming EP they are getting more into the percussive elements of their music and stripping away some of their atmospheric sounds."
Wells' assembly of these core artists has undoubtedly been a defining factor in the refinement and development of Perc Trax's sonic identity, although the standout moment in this process arrived in June of this year from Wells himself. Wicker & Steel, the debut Perc full-length, was a bloody-minded ode to his most deep-seated influences. "Perc's Wicker and Steel: a soundtrack for our times?" asked The Guardian's Tony Naylor (to the slight bemusement of Wells himself), while here at RA it was given the nod as recommended full-length.
For Wells one of the benchmarks for his and the imprint's successful 'second phase' came as he was deciding upon artists to remix the album's first single. "I sent 'My Head is Slowly Exploding' out for remixes. Chris Carter (from Chris & Cosey and Throbbing Gristle) said, 'I don't do a lot of remixes. I need to see. If I'm not feeling it I will have to say no, and I'm really busy at the moment.' Within half an hour he was back to me saying he would do it. And it's the same with Ancient Methods. I had talked to them a bit but they are quite picky with what they do. So it's looking for those kinds of endorsements." If an appearance on an imprint does indeed equate to advocacy, then Perc Trax can count some of contemporary techno's leading lights as fans: Lucy, Milton Bradley, Samuli Kemppi, Jonas Kopp, DVS1, Marcel Fengler and Dino Sabatini have all featured on the imprint in the past two years, each playing small but important roles in advancing Perc Trax in line with Wells' overarching artistic vision.
Wicker & Steel had followed on from Sawf's first full-length outing, Flaws, and in keeping with Wells' commitment to artist development, Forward Strategy Group will follow suit early next year. There'll also be a 12-inch from UK drum & bass/ambient producer ASC ("two broken beat tracks and one 4/4 track at 130 BPM"), while prolific Bristol-based experimentalist Echoplex will provide Perc Trax's 50th vinyl release, backed with a remix from Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk. "I think if you took him [Echoplex] and ASC as two sides of the coin that is a look at where the label is going," says Wells in summary, "a kind of mixture of dance floor and non-dance floor stuff. Different BPMs, different sounds but I think there is a Perc Trax aesthetic. Whether I am releasing house, techno or weird drum & bass, the aesthetic is always there."
Download: RA Label of the Month 1112 Mix: Perc Trax
(right click + save target as)
Filesize: 139.9 MB
Perc - Choice (Perc's Decision Is Final)
Donor/Truss - Endo 1
Derek Plaslaiko - Raw Jam
Forward Strategy Group - Labour Division 8
Perc - Snow Chain (Drone Tool)
Donor/Truss - Endo 3
Perc - Chromamoan
Sawf - Sfika
Hans Bouffmyrhe - Closed Circuit
ASC - Revelations
Justin Berkovi - Backshredding (Forward Strategy Group Remix)
Forward Strategy Group Remix - Tayo Olowu
Adam X & Perc - Untitled 2
Perc - My Head Is Slowly Exploding (Drum Tool)
Ben Gibson - Span
Mick Finesse - They Sex Machinas (Perc Remix)
Sawf - Zelo (Radial Remix)
Perc - Start Chopping (Tommy Four Seven Remix)
Perc - Pre-Steel (Tengui Remix)
Ekoplekz - Xylem Tears