Perc Trax: 2 Decades of Techno Innovation – An Exclusive Interview with PercSeptember 15, 2023
Interview Mike Moggi Mannix
Arranged Mat Mondo
Transcription Raphaela Pauwels
In this exclusive interview, we sit down with the influential techno artist Perc, whose career spans over two decades and has left an indelible mark on the electronic music scene.
Meeting in Dublin after a long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we discuss his journey from a small village in Cambridgeshire to becoming a pivotal figure in the world of electronic music. From his early days experimenting with hardware synths and drum machines to the founding of his record label, Perc Trax, and his evolution into the forefront of industrial techno, this interview offers a deep dive into the life and career of a dedicated and innovative artist. Perc shares insights into his creative process, the challenges he’s faced, and the changing landscape of the music industry, providing valuable advice to up-and-coming artists while reflecting on the past and the future of his own musical endeavours.
MM: Good to meet you, glad to finally get you in Dublin!
P: Yes, it’s been a while since I was able to come here. I came here in 2019 and was scheduled for 2020 but covid hit and this is the first time we were able to get a date sorted.
MM: And you were able to keep your job?
P: Yeah, through covid a lot of people had to take part-time jobs, amazon, uber driver, food delivery and so on and I managed to avoid that. I did way more remixes and production work, sort of paid jobs rather than stuff on my label and thankfully during covid vinyl sales and stuff picked up. They were the highest in the past 10 years, I guess people had the same amount of money but less to spend it on so yeah. They have now gone down to pre-covid levels.
MM: Did you find that because it was kind of a false situation? You got used to the idea that creativity came out more because you had free time?
P: Yeah, you never knew for how long it was going on for but after the first 8 weeks, you realized that it wasn’t going to be like everything would go back to normal straight away and you would get some kind of warning first. So yeah, it was kind of a weird nocturnal thing where I was asleep for most of the day, working through the night every night.
I don’t know why that happened and I was doing all I had to do. I wish I had stopped everything and just started an album. I think an album during lockdown would have been a good thing to do because I had all the time to focus on it. But I never knew how long it was gonna go for, so yeah.
“I wish I had stopped everything and just started an album. I think an album during lockdown would have been a good thing to do because I had all the time to focus on it.”
MM: Maybe it wasn’t the right time if your guts not telling you either.
P: Yeah, maybe it wasn’t, and you know even if I had done it I wouldn’t want to just master it and release it. I would have had to wait until the clubs opened again, then you’d have to do the vinyl, which these days 8 or 9 months, so it would have been a long process. But yeah, it’s a weird time, I had someone a few days ago saying “I’d love to go back to lockdown back to producing” and I was like yeah you had a lot of time in the studio but there was uncertainty if clubs would ever reopen, or in what capacity, what would change.
At one point people thought that you’d have to wear masks and do tests forever just to go clubbing. So that’s not good, but yeah people forget. They put on glasses and think lockdown sitting around, drinking beers, making music, which is kind of what we all did but you forget the financial pressure that people had.
MM: And the hostility of the government towards certain segments of the industry basically saying to fuck off and get another job.
P: Yeah, it was a strange time, and I think for me another 3 to 6 months I would have been very tough.
MM: So because of your success that you’ve built since 2004 with Perc Trax, you’ve been able to sustain yourself. You are someone that started and didn’t only rely on mixes but had an industry behind.
P: Yeah, because I know people that have been gigging solely for about 6 months when they hear they went yeah that has to be done you know, I had my lil chance and was lucky enough to bounce back but yeah, it’s different for everyone. Some people will come back stronger, some will still be gigging but getting half of what they used to before, it’s not about how you run your social media that would save your career during lockdown.
It’s the same for some countries, some countries I used to play a lot before covid that have kind of dried up for me. So yeah its things like that that could have been changing, the scene has changed, kind of got decimated and the clubs got shut and stuff so yeah.
“It’s the same for some countries, some countries I used to play a lot before covid that have kind of dried up for me. So yeah its things like that that could have been changing, the scene has changed, kind of got decimated and the clubs got shut and stuff so yeah.”
MM: When you were a kid, what was the pivotal moment where you knew you wanted to go down that path?
P: So I was born in Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, moved out of there when I was about 4 to a tiny village called Westmill with approximately 100 to 150 people, one shop, one pub, and one tiny primary school. I was the last year to finish the school before they closed it down. So I was there with my younger brother and I used to listen to pop music then hip hop in the early 90’s.
After that I listened to metal like Guns & Roses, Metallica, that sort of stuff quite mainstream, and then my brother that was older than me was kind of starting to buy vinyl and CDs of Acid House, early British Hardcore, rave and stuff like that. I didn’t really get any of that and then the first track that sort of click for me was Activ-8 by Altern 8 because we had like a youth center where you could go at break time and buy sweets and stuff like that. I was around 16 and they had this jukebox and it was on free play so you would always here like Altern-8 and the Prodigy and stuff like that.
So I got the Altern-8 album that got out quite soon and then it just kind of went on from there and a year later I went to university in Newcastle. So I went from this tiny village to this pretty big city. Totally different mind, culture, accent and I realized that there was more to dance music than just the kind of stuff that was on CD. Before that I only knew the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Orbital, Underworld, Leftfield and then I realized there was a whole vinyl culture with small labels.
My brother would go to London or Cambridge where he would find a few random things but he would try to buy stuff on CD because that was his preferred format and if he couldn’t get it on CD he would buy a vinyl so he had maybe 5O of records, not a lot and loads of CDs. So yeah when I realized there was this underground culture, at home, at parties meeting people that were sort of like-minded people, some of them were much more advanced in what they were listening to and they knew all this like obscure German and Dutch labels.
So in the ground floor of our block of flats we had two prepaid phones, you’d queue and sit on the floor and I just saw one guy with a [9.20-9.23] and then we just kind of bonded and this is the time where all music was made with hardware so I had a computer with a spinning out midi? [9.30] but all the sounds and everything was coming from hardware synths, drum machines being mixed down on a decks, I started recording on cassettes and then CD.
“So when I realized there was this underground culture, at home, at parties meeting people that were sort of like-minded people, some of them were much more advanced in what they were listening to and they knew all this like obscure German and Dutch labels.”
MM: So how did you get from the kid that just moved down to Newcastle, obviously you probably only got the clothes on your fucking back and you get settled into the community there, was it DJing or production?
P: It was always production, when I was 14 I was in a band and we didn’t have a drummer, well in the end we had one so we had like a drum machine, a guitar, so I had a few bits of gear and when the band split up a few years before I go to uni, some of that equipment I kept so I was messing about with a drum machine and some effects.
It was really basic, I didn’t have any formal sampling and I would come up with an audio. So yeah when I moved there and met this kid, we put all our equipment together, we would have like a one bedroom apartment each so all the stuff went into my lounge so we’d go to his place to watch tv I didn’t have one, and go back to mine to make music. I was around 18 at that time.
So he had a sampler so we started making music, we started gigging around in Newcastle, doing a co live sort of acid techno but a bit faster and harder, and we were called Hardware, crappy name and then we were called Drive Space which is not a great name either.
We had some gigs at the student union and then we made a cassette and send it to a local listings mag, a bit like a Newcastle equivalent of Time Out, and they had a demo page and they reviewed it and it was a moderate review. So that was as far as we got and then when I finished university, he wanted to stay in Newcastle and I wanted to go back South thinking about London so that was the end of it.
I always wanted to have my own label that was always my dream, rather than being a producer or dj or any kind of performer. I always thought it was nice to have a label, find new music. So when I got down to London I started working at Prime, which is a vinyl distribution company. They were doing a lot of techno, Adam Beyer and Drumcode, Ben Sims, Chris Liebing.
“Yeah, once I got down to London I was DJing at house parties just playing vinyl. Because once I started working at the vinyl distribution company I had pretty much free supplies of records.”
So I met these guys early on which became fortuitous later on in my career. So I knew all those guys, I was packing records orders. The first week there was a drumcode release, it was like 20 000 records, amazing sales. You couldn’t dream of it now. And after a bit I left the warehouse side of it and went to work in the management office helping to run labels. So by that time I have met all those people and because I was so busy with work and the social life that came with it which is based around clubs I actually stopped producing.
I kind of gave up on that and then my cousin who I was sending cassettes to, he was also a producer, he was friend with James Holden, so James had my cassette and he just signed a deal with a label and part of this deal was that they gave him like a sub label so that’s when I first started releasing really, on James’ label. He had Border Community which is a big label you might know, that came a bit later and before that he had a label called Easy Access, that was in 2001.
So his label got maybe about 8 or 10 releases before he fell out with the parent label, so yeah I was on that and a few other UK labels. Generally I was signing into progressive house labels and I’d be the person doing the slightly tougher sort of stuff, not the big epic atmospheric stuff. So I was kind of sucked into progressive house and people like John Digweed and now these people are playing my stuff which is strange.
And then I kind of fell out of love with that scene and started making harder stuff and I went to work for another label which was a totally different kind of dance music like trance. I was working there but it wasn’t really my thing, by that time I’ve had 3 or 4 singles out so it was enough to go to a distributor and asked if they would do the production and distribution deal, so when you get that you don’t have to pay anything, you give the production company your music and the artwork, they press the records up they sell until it’s enough to make a profit and then they split up the profits with you.
“I’ve saved enough money for 2 or 3 months of survival and then it kind of went alright. Then in 2007, I decided to do my debut album on Perc Trax and I spent so long making the album that I didn’t release anything for a year so gigs kind of dried up.”
So yeah the first Perc Trax record was by me and then remixed by me under a different name because I couldn’t afford it and that did really badly. And then of all people James Zabiela, licensed the remix for a Renaissance compilation and when that came out sales, like it didn’t blow up but there were like 500 copies sitting around unsold and they went straight away.
Because I was working for a distribution company when it went bust I nicked their list of DJs addresses because at the time it was all about mailing labels and send out your cds. I wasn’t sending out vinyl because it was too expensive to mail out and lose those copies so I send out maybe 50 copies that cost 10/20 quid.
MM: Where was the seed at the start then, like the harder stuff?
P: When I first got to Newcastle it was more like Orbital playing but after 2 or 3 years there it was more like Dave Clark, so it kind of flipped. In Newcastle you had independent shops and we also had a big virgin records and they would carry things like Tresor CDs and different German labels so yeah I remember buying the 3rd or 4th Tresor compilation which is Jeff Mills and basic channels.
You’d get opened up to all these names, especially if you weren’t a vinyl buyer these compilations would be really good. So yeah my style got a bit harder, tougher. To be honest my early stuff was quite rough around the edges because it was the equipment I had, it wasn’t a choice just what I had. So yeah it was very kind of percussive and stuff. And as the label went on, the stuff that did better was the harder one and it was what I was playing and when I was recording for progressive house labels, they weren’t really sending any gigs my way I wasn’t playing for them at all.
MM: So is that where the name comes from?
P: Perc is from my university project from when I was in Newcastle, but yeah, perc/percussion, it kind of worked and still works now so yeah. And the label project launched in 2004 and then it was doing ok, not making much money but it wasn’t going bankrupt. And I realized, even back then, that there was much more money in DJing.
MM: Were you DJing at that point?
P: Yeah, once I got down to London I was DJing at house parties just playing vinyl. Because once I started working at the vinyl distribution company I had pretty much free supplies of records. My brother had cd decks and then I moved in with some lads and one of them had a set of decks. So we’d have two guys on the PlayStation playing FIFA and the third would be DJing.
Also, the girl I was seeing at the time sort of convinced me to send a bunch of demos at the end of 2006 and I got nothing back. And then I send out a second wave of demos in the spring of 2007 to like Drumcode, Kompakt and I didn’t have enough tracks in that demo so the tracks went to Kompakt because the others told me they liked the tracks but wanted 2 or 3 like this so there was still doubt in my mind as to whether I could do it and if I send something not as good they would lose interest and so on.
“If I find something I really like I’m going to try to help out, I’m going to help the person out and they can keep the music for their label, I will give it out to my friends. There’s always a good community of djs and producers I talk to, like a good network. So yeah that’s what I tend to do, not just put them on the label.”
So Kompakt was ready to put it on vinyl in the same week so I said fuck yeah. So the Kompakt record came out in the summer of 2007 and that did really well. And my releases just lined up with CLR, Drumcode, Kompakt, all within 4 months and that was enough. Gigs came in and my boss, I was working for a publishing company in West London, they had a catalog of music they own the rights to and they were trying to get it into computer games, films, tv shows and so on. I was basically a salesman, I was contacting companies to see if they were looking for any music.
So it was commission based, very small wage and that wasn’t working for me at all so my boss said either you cut down on your gigs or quit so I quit. Unfortunately he passed away a year later and the company folded. He gave his company to his daughters and they said they were going to let the company run but that they didn’t really understand any of it so as long as it made a profit it was fine but when he did pass away pretty much immediately they shut it down. And since then it kind of went on and on and on haha.
MM: Have you set your mind for it at the time, like this is my career?
P: Yeah, I knew at that point that it is what I wanted to do. I had worked for 3 or 4 companies, always independent music companies and none of them I really achieved much or was just happy about it. They would promise that you would get something more if a record did well because wages were really low and when it came to it, it didn’t happen. Very demotivating.
So in the first year it was a bit touch and go with money, I’ve saved enough money for 2 or 3 months of survival and then it kind of went alright. Then in 2007, I decided to do my debut album on Perc Trax and I spent so long making the album that I didn’t release anything for a year so gigs kind of dried up and that was before social media so the only way to get your name out was to release music. So yeah it dried up and my agent called me asking me what was happening and yeah at the end I had to sell all my studio gear to manufacture the vinyls for the album.
I kept the laptop but all the rest got sold. But yeah after that sales went fine, got gigs again and we built the studio again and it was fine. That was kind of the last crisis and that was 10 years ago so it’s fine, well before covid I guess. So yeah things went on, the label developed, things got harder and I got caught up in this kind of new wave of industrial techno along with Ancient Methods, Blawan etc. There’s no artist on the label that is here from the beginning, people kind of move on, they want their own label which I understand so yeah.
MM: And is this Perc going forward? Are you more about the label now?
P: I’m proud of what Perc Trax has achieved, especially that it is all me. I have occasionally paid for PR or design and that kind of thing but yeah. People ask me who does this or that and I’m like me. There’s a lot of stuff planned and I think there will be a bit more for me in the future and a bit less for other people production wise. I’m going to do less for other labels.
“Music is a mixture of creativity and the techno-cool engineering side of it is quite important.”
Basically during covid I decided to work with a lot more labels because I had more time to produce and for various reasons not many of them was a great experience. They are friendly and lovely but when it came to releasing the records they did nothing in terms of promotion, so I got to that point where I’m old enough to do my thing.
MM: What would you say to the up and coming? What do you look for in a track? Do you sport sample packs miles away?
P: Well yeah, no one knows every sample pack in the world but it sounds very cut and paste, like putting a lego together. It’s a mixture of creativity and techno cool engineering side of it is quite important.
MM: What’s important to you for sounds? Because we’ve got all the things with social media, followers and so on. Do you pay attention to that or not at all?
P: If I find something I really like I’m going to try to help out, I’m going to help the person out and they can keep the music for their label, I will give it out to my friends. There’s always a good community of djs and producers I talk to, like a good network. So yeah that’s what I tend to do, not just put them on the label. I’d rather pass them on to other people who have a bigger label than I do and get something going for them.
MM: Is that how you look at it?
P: Yeah, if they’ve got something really special and you can see it, you can imagine like a 4 hours set.
MM: What are you working on right now?
P: I’ve got some re-releases coming out and I’m also going to get some of my own unreleased stuff out. I’m also doing a few remixes, I’m trying to do at least one remix a month.
The problem is that I start the remix and I would like to get it over with but because of my schedule I have to go to gigs. So yeah it gets left and then another gig happens and I get stuck in this cycle. It took me 4 years to get a completed album and it should never take 4 years to do an album but yeah there you go. When I’m doing my own music it’s all of my time and focus.
If you do a remix and that the 2 days that you have you’re making something that doesn’t sound good. You might have a 2 day remix, just about fit it and then you get 2 days in the middle to carry on. And then you’re playing the weekend and by then you’re playing a different set so it’s always like to start again. So yeah, it’s hard.
MM: Do you do a lot of field recordings or not at all?
P: I always had this small recorder and then my girlfriend bought me this binaural ones, so I have some sounds I’ve done with that. So yeah if you’re in a new city and you’ve got an hour or two, might as well go out and record the sounds.
MM: Thank you so much!
P: Thanks for having me, good to see you!