There are certain artists out there that when you get the chance to talk to them, you can tell that they a). know more than you, and b). have spent more time thinking about things than you have.
British techno artist Perc definitely fits this description, and really should be given the title of techno philosopher.
Talking to him has to be similar to what talking to Morpheus from The Matrix must be like. All you need to do is sit back and pay attention, and you're bound to hear some serious knowledge.
With his label Perc Trax about to ramp back up for a busy 2018, I caught up with the daring producer, who had a lot to say on interpretation, the divide between producing and DJing, the rise of festivals, how music is changing, and much more.
You've said in the past you like to leave your music a bit ambiguous, I was wondering why that is?
It's techno, electronic music, you know. It's not something you have to spell out for people. It generally doesn't have lyrics and things like that, so it's more open to interpretation, I guess. It's not something you just lay out for people and tell a story with words, it's a little more abstract, which I think is a good thing.
Yeah, I was going to ask if you consider your music abstract?
Some of the sort of club, techno stuff is much more focussed and serves the function of keeping bodies moving in a club. But yeah, some of the more experimental things, the tracks on my albums as opposed to my 12-inch EPs, go into more abstract territory.
In the past you've been at odds with some overly political interpretations of your music. To what extent do you think the listener gets free reign to interpret music?
If the particular listener is open minded and wants to put a little thought into what they're listening to and how they interpret it, then I think that's great. You should never believe everything you read online, or take a profile of, say, my album as gospel. It's up to everyone to interpret it how they want. But yeah, of course, reviews, news pieces, features on me, even comments on YouTube or Facebook, they can influence someone's interpretation of my music. So I hope people are open minded enough to go with what they feel.
After your first album, Wicker & Steel, was labelled political by the Guardian, then on your second album, The Power & Glory, you had a song called David & George, and then on Bitter Music you have a song called Unelected. Is this a case of peoples' interpretation influencing your music, or perhaps a reference to the label you were given or just a coincidence?
Not so much interpretations influencing me, I'm a bit of a political person. I'm not really politically active too much with party politics, but I'm definitely politically aware and try to bring this into my music. It's a fine line with techno, or any electronic music really, not being too preachy. I'm not someone like Billy Bragg who's devoted their career to pushing forward their political and social beliefs. But I like to reflect something of it through the artwork or through the song titles.
Again, like I said in the first question, with techno being generally instrumental music, it's harder to get a direct message across. But even in a title or artwork, if you can maybe encourage someone to look a little further into politics, whether on a global or local level, I think that's a good thing.
When you're approaching a song in the studio, do you have a particular meaning in mind? How much are you trying to create a refined message or something along those lines?
I generally don't go into the studio trying to make a particular type of track. I can go in with a certain idea or feeling of what I want to make, but it generally doesn't come out that way. I'm not someone who writes tracks in their head and then goes into the studio and translates it into an actual piece of music they can play or sell. So of course things that I've experienced or taken in affect what I'm doing at a particular time, but I don't have an idea of exactly what I'm trying to convey before I get into the studio.
Like you were saying, electronic music is generally instrumental. What do you think music without vocals can convey?
It can convey a lot of emotions, which are, of course, up for interpretation. But I think it can hint at or even quite blatantly try to express a certain emotion. In terms of, like, left or right wing politics, if it's instrumental music the title is the key to the track, but you can talk about a mood.
If someone knows the artist's beliefs, maybe coming through interviews the artist has done, even if it's an instrumental track, maybe they can connect what the artist has been saying in interviews with the feeling of the track and see if that shows some sort of anger or dissatisfaction with the current political situation.
Conversely, you do use words, lyrics and voices sometimes. What's the process for this? Do you have a beat and then think words would go well over the top, or is your goal to make something with vocals? How does that come about?
There are two ways I use vocals. One is using found speech samples. Tracks like Choice and Exit, those kind of samples are often something I've had for a while. I'll have made the track and look for something that'll fit that I've grabbed in the past. As I'm working on the track I think 'this could do with some speech.'
I do like speech at the start of albums to open them up, I think it sets the mood. And even if that was the only vocal or lyrical content on the whole album it definitely sets the mood as the opening track. For someone who's been in the scene as long as I have, Orbital's Snivilisation and albums like this that open with speech really set the tone.
The other way I work, like on Bitter Music's Look What Your Love Has Done To Me, which is much more – not really songwriting in terms of verse, chorus pop songwriting – but it's definitely a case of the words or lyrics and the music coming together at the same time, the two are written together to interconnect, rather than overlaying a vocal sample over a written track. That's the newer way I work, something I haven't done so much, but is definitely something I'd like to do more of in the future.
Your music has a lot of dark sounds, and techno in general has a lot of darkness to it. These things often get interpreted as anger or adversarial emotions, do you think that's fair?
Techno, in a way, brings it upon itself. There are a lot of guys (and it's mainly men) who are pushing the kind of dark agenda, from artwork with things taken from the nastier side of horror films, blood and gore and things like that. And even the outfits, there are a few artists at the moment doing the whole dressing up on stage, more costume type thing. And I think for the casual observer this presents an aggressive, macho, or even misogynistic kind of view of techno, which is not something I particularly like to portray.
I've had artists who make great music and they've requested a certain type of artwork, and generally I let artists have free reign with their artwork, but if it's something I find a bit nasty or offensive to any of my beliefs then I won't have it on the label. I don't want techno to be seen as angry, dark, male music. I think it can express a whole wide range of emotions and by reinforcing this image, a lot of artists aren't doing the genre any favours.
Techno producers: don't forget to replace the token ambient track on your EPs with a token electro track, despite you having no interest in the genre until a month ago.— Perc (@perctrax) January 3, 2018
The way people are getting music is obviously changing, with streaming and sites like Mixcloud, and access to music has never been easier. Have you seen a shift in how people react to music because of this?
Yeah, it's much harder to have a hit as such. Of course anyone can blame that on the music they release or not, but there are really only a few big techno tracks that make it through. Things like the Blawan track Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage? Things like that, they come along a lot less frequently these days. Tracks can build up before being released and you think they're going to be huge, and then when they come out they blow over in a couple of weekends of DJ plays.
People are kind of spoiled with the access to music, but in a way it's a good thing. Why should you only be able to listen to music you can afford? Then it's very reliant on the amount of disposable income you have. But yeah, if people have access to everything then of course they're going to consume a lot more music.
With the internet and the reduction of attention spans, if someone doesn't like something after 10-15 seconds, then they'll skip on to something else. But at least that's a very democratic way of listening to music and doesn't mean you have to be able to buy a huge vinyl collection that costs you a fortune to put together.
So it kind of levels the playing field. All consumers and maybe all artists. So I guess that means you have to try harder to get people's attention and make something that's quality.
Yeah, I was going to ask, from an artist's perspective, do you think this is also changing the way people are making music?
I don't think so much in techno. Techno's not the type of music that you get to the beef or main part of the track in 10 seconds. Even if you go back to The Beatles. Back then in the era of 60s rock and roll, they'd be hitting the chorus of their track in 20-30 seconds, which is just a reaction to trying to get something on the radio and wanting to hit the chorus as soon as possible. I think techno has a bit more patience than house music and things like that.
Though I've actually started to be sent a full mix and a radio mix for some underground artists, I think some people are pushing for radio play to get their point over quicker because maybe they are worried about the reduction in attention spans due to online life. But for someone like me, I'd rather present the music exactly how I want to present it, and if people think my music is worth investing time in and giving up a bit of time to actually listen to, I'd rather do that than try to do something that really hits you in the face immediately. I'd rather just take my time and make the music that works for me.
In electronic music there's a huge divide between the music an artist produces versus what they play in a DJ set. Do you think that divide is necessary?
Yeah, that's a very good point. It's something I've noticed for a while. There's a lot of people that play quite hard music in club sets and then when they release something, it's a lot deeper or more intended for home listening. There's quite a differentiation between, as you say, what they play in a club and what they produce and release themselves.
This also extends to podcasts. If you hear a recorded club set from someone it can be quite tough and energetic, and then they do a podcast for a website or something, they go a bit deeper. I guess they're intending it to be something people listen to whilst relaxing at home or even working on emails. They're aiming for a different mood or time of day.
For me, it's a bit different. I've always tried to represent what I do in a club with the music I make myself. One of my favourite things, without being egotistical and I think it'd be the same for any producer, is to make a track at home and then play it in a club and see the reaction. So yes, I try to make music that reflects my sets. Though I do play some other producers in my sets, it's kind of like a feedback loop and comes back to influence what I make myself.
And that's one of the main aims of Perc Trax. To give under-appreciated artists and tracks a platform to hopefully reach a wider audience. And also the tracks that I love and that I put in my DJ sets, I get them released and exposure. Everything I do is focussed on how I play out rather than having to differentiate what I release and what I play.
The utilitarian aspect of a DJ set, you know you're trying to get people to dance. Does the crowd's reaction influence you or do you have your own vibe that you're trying to present and they can take it or leave it?
For me it's a balance. I definitely know what I want to play and how I want to represent myself. If a DJ before me is playing tech-house and people are going crazy to it, I'm not going to rapidly somehow tailor my set to something like that, something a bit lighter. I play what I want, but I have different strands to the tracks that I have ready for DJ sets. From the harder, more distorted things to the slightly deeper, more Berlin techno type things, quite a bit of acid house. So if I start off and I play a bit deeper and it doesn't go down so well but then the first acid track I play, it really brings a lot of energy in the reaction, of course you go down that road a little more. It's human nature.
There are people who know exactly what they want to play before the gig and the reaction doesn't bother or influence them. For me, it's a feedback thing. For two hours or so there's a kind of relationship between me and the crowd. What I do influences them and in the same way, how they react influences what I play.
You're playing Unpolished festival in March. Does your approach to a festival set differ from a club set?
Yeah, in a way. How I play is often a mixture of the venue, the territory where the gig is, and the size of the venue. Unpolished is a very strong lineup, it's a kind of who's who of the scene I've been placed within. It's not a case of trying to outdo people, but you want to represent yourself well. I always push to try to get a few tracks that no one else will have, which are generally new or unreleased tracks from producers on my label. So I always look to have a few tricks up my sleeve.
And you know with bigger events there's always going to be, whether you agree with it or not, a lot of camera phone filming and clips going up online. That also affects how you're going to play because if you've got something that's really up front, it might not be coming out for six to nine months. You might actually shy away from playing it because you don't want videos of the track going up online too early.
If a video becomes popular, then people can become bored of the track before it comes out. Or if it's something you got going out in a few weeks time, then this is the perfect time to showcase it, hope that people do film it and spread the videos around and it becomes a useful promotional tool for a forthcoming release.
What do you think of the rise of music festivals in general?
As long as they're, I hate the word curated, but as long as they're put together and the lineup's selected with a bit of free thinking and intelligence, then great. If it's the same generic festival lineup, which I think affects the house scene a bit more than techno, then it becomes a bit stagnant. If it's the same names... if you've got ten big house DJs and five of them are headlining every festival, then it starts to get a bit tiresome.
Unpolished is a great example. They've obviously put a lot of thought into the lineup. There's artists on there that make complete sense for the event, but when you read the lineup for the first time it was definitely a surprise to see them on there. Things like that are really important. But yeah, there is a rise of generic house festivals, which is not particularly a good thing.
Also the rise of music festivals has, I think, impacted the club scene in certain countries. Especially over the summer, the nightclub scene is dying off a bit because people want to go to a festival and they want a huge lineup, they want to Instagram it and say 'look I'm here,' thinking it's going to look good on social media, which is a very different thing from going to a dark club where it's pretty hard to take photos or film, and there's only one or two DJs playing. It's not a sort of sexy thing to stick on Instagram. So I think people are wanting the experience of a festival and that's affecting clubs as well.
Another thing that seems to be more popular now is back-to-back sets. What do you think of those?
Yeah, I think in very competitive territory where there's a lot of events happening, the Netherlands is a good example of that, promoters are always looking for something unique, so the first time ever these two artists have played back-to-back, everyone wants the exclusive or the first performance of a new project. They can work well, but just because someone is your best friend or on your label doesn't mean a back-to-back set is going to work well.
I'm quite picky, I get quite a few offers of people trying to book me with someone else. Sometimes on paper it makes sense musically, but I don't know the person that well, or even the type of music they play, the way they DJ, their style of mixing, I'm not sure how it'd work as a back-to-back for me.
I like them and I find them interesting to watch, especially for the first few times to see how it's going to work out. For myself I'm very picky. I love playing with Truss, that works really well. I do a few other back-to-backs as well, like with Adam X, Randomer and Ansome. But these are close friends of mine and also people that we've thought it over with. I don't really practice back-to-back sets, but there is discussion before the set of how it's going to happen.
Years ago I did a four or five hour back-to-back set at Berghain with someone (which I took because I wanted the chance to play Berghain), but it felt like a very long set. It was quite drawn out and in the end it wasn't the best representation of either of us.
You're known as a person who really understands music history. How important is it for an artist to know what came before them?
I don't think it's essential. I think some of the best music I know, like Ansome, his knowledge is getting good now, but when he first started making techno, the thing that attracted him to it was the technical side of it. The equipment, making loud, noisy music, and I think then the artist is approaching the genre without the knowledge of the entire Basic Channel back catalogue and I think that's often when people bring something really fresh to the genre.
Some of the most interesting techno at the moment is being made by people coming from the hardcore scene. They have a knowledge of techno, they know the big producers, but they might not have the real trainspotter knowledge that builds up after being immersed in a particular genre for 10 or 15 years.
For me, I have this knowledge of the history of techno, and once you have it you can't really get rid of it, but I don't think it's essential to have the history of a genre built up in your head to make good music.
I was going to ask, I feel like harder styles are becoming more prevalent. Is that something you're seeing?
Yeah, I'm seeing it and I've sort of toughened up the way I've been playing over the last four or five years. It wouldn't be a conscious decision, but I think playing with Truss has definitely influenced the way I play a little bit. Hard music has always been around, but I think it's more popular now, especially in techno where it's been for a while.
I think the rise of tempo and BPM, I don't want it to become a sort of arms race. These things have affected techno before. In about 2000-2002, things were getting harder and faster and it kind of killed off a lot of interest in the genre. And the same thing happened to drum and bass a while ago.
I like the fact that people aren't afraid to play harder and play something that might turn a few people off, but at the same time grab the ear of other people. I think it's a good thing, but I don't want it to get to where you have an event like Unpolished and each artist is trying to outdo the one before, and it just gets a bit stupid. I think raw power and banging music becomes tiresome quickly. I think there needs to be some kind of nuance and intelligence behind it.
You run your label, Perc Trax. Do you have any upcoming releases you want to let us in on?
Well, the remixes for my album came out last year, three EPs of remixes of tracks from Bitter Music. I think the first release of this year will be in March, that hasn't been announced yet. But once that kicks in in March, it's going to be a bit of a rapid fire set of releases, maybe four or five releases over six months. I'm looking forward to the label getting back up to speed.
As usual it's a mixture of some of the old artists that've been on the label a few times coming back. And there's some new guys on the label, which is always good because it brings in new artists who can play showcases, and it just keeps the label fresh. Especially when it's younger producers where this is their first ever release or maybe second or third, it's nice to have new blood on the label, especially on a label that's been going on as long as Perc Trax.
You're playing at the Village Underground with Ansome, Matrixxman, and Tapefeed on 16 February. What can we expect from that?
Perc Trax generally does one main London showcase every year. I do some other London gigs, I played Fabric last year as well. But there's normally one Perc Trax showcase in London every year, which I like to do. It's my home city, the label's home city and it's nice to say thanks to everyone who supports the label.
This year it's at Village Underground for the first time because instead of using a venue with two rooms I wanted a venue with one larger room to keep the attention and shared experience focussed on one room as opposed to bouncing between two rooms all night.
It's the first time Perc Trax has done anything at Village Underground and it's actually the first time I've played there as well, so it's a new experience for me. I really like the venue, I've been there quite a lot. I saw Avalon Emerson and Lucy there a while ago and was really impressed with the way the event ran. I'm looking forward to it. It's not too far from where I live and Ansome lived in London for quite a while, so it's a homecoming event for the label, but you also see people from France, Spain and Italy coming to London just for the event. It makes you realise the reach the label has.
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