“It kind of died away, but earlier in the 80s a lot of techno was about futurism.”
One of the most formidable producers and faces of electronic music is speaking down the phone to me early on a Sunday morning, our meeting having faced all kinds of complications following schedule changes and failed Skype calls. They might call him The Wizard, but he still gets laptop trouble.
This is Jeff Mills of course, the trailblazing, future-conscious, science-fiction obsessed Detroit techno pioneer, the man whose work, as part of Underground Resistance, with his label Axis and in more than 30 years of DJing, has fostered much of what we hold dear about the techno scene today. Exchanging a few pleasantries (last night’s gig was fine, thanks for asking) and with time already lost to the volatility of technology, we get straight to it.
Only in the two months prior to our conversation, I had witnessed Mills perform in two different settings: watched on by throngs of mad-for-it, entranced clubbers in the mercifully dark warehouse sweatbox of London’s The Hydra and before that, in front of thousands gathered in Amsterdam for the annual Dekmantel Festival, where he was headlining for the second consecutive year.
Locked into the ruthless thump of his Dekmantel set, a wall of red lights formed a distinctive contrast to the austere sounds emanating from the raised booth from which Mills worked away. Both aformentioned sets would see him dressed all in black, hunched over the assortment of equipment laid out before him, head down, a steely determination in his face, hands busy throughout as he flits between seamless transitions and additional flourishes of live instrumentation, blurring the lines between the two distinctions that we have rather conservatively come to know as the DJ and live set.
“There should be a desire for more rather than less,” Mills says as we get onto discussing the ongoing debate between analogue and digital that befalls electronic music, and particularly techno. Throughout our chat, his tone remains assertive, yet notably warm. “To just choose one is fine of course, but DJs should try to use all of the technology available, because that is more interesting.”
The belief that DJs should be doing more is one of the primary driving points behind Mills’s latest project Exhibitionist 2, for which he assembles a selection of new and unreleased productions alongside reinterpretations of anthems such as The Bells. 2004 saw the release of its predecessor, a DVD and CD concept that aimed to capture and explain the processes of the DJ in the form of a 45-minute mix caught on camera, during which Mills juggled with three turntables and a CDJ throughout. After one watch of Exhibitionist, you’re left in awe of his ability.
So where does Exhibitionist 2 differ from that first volume then? Predominantly, this latest volume goes some way to capturing Mills’s ongoing embrace of live instrumentation into his shows, mainly via the hallowed piece of technology that we have come to know as the 909, a piece of kit that allows Mills to truly seize what it means to improvise and work on-the-fly. “The latest edition focuses more on improvisation,” he says, “trying not to have anything planned or pre-programmed and just pressing record on the camera, doing whatever and letting the camera capture it.
‘If you want something that’s very genuine,” Mills argues, “the best way to do it is to simply make and play music and not have any idea of what you are shooting for.” Referring to the concept of pre-planned sets as “quite frightening”, Mills sees the element of impulse as key to fostering a narrative between the performer and their audience. “I want to encourage thinking for the moment and if we begin to think more like that as DJs and producers, then we’ll capture more of the character of the person that is behind it.”
"I'm trying to create as much as I possibly can with the short time that we all have. There is no chance of slowing me down"
What about dance music in 2015 then? Some days before our conversation, New York DJ and producer Levon Vincent had sparked widespread debate having taken to his Facebook page to rail against the current techno climate. “Techno has never reminded me so much of heavy metal as today’s era,” he said, posing the question: “Why has the scene shut down all the cultural collage, the melting pot, in favour of just angst/angry music?”
Putting Vincent’s statement to Mills, he’s far more diplomatic in his response, seemingly wary of painting with too broad strokes. “The genre of music itself,” he says, “is so suggestive that it’s hard to get a consensus on what is actually happening and it doesn’t make much sense to try to figure that out.” But one of the common lines that can be traced through Mills’s career is his interest in futurism and how that relates to techno. “Any successful genre of music has to move forward and part of that process isn’t always the best,” he argues. To Mills, it seems advancement is the aim and stagnation the enemy.
Where so many elder statesmen can often be found bemoaning the commercial bastardisation of their craft, Mills approaches it all from a more rounded perspective, grounded in realism. “Something has to be said for the fact that in the year 2015 this is the most successful genre, and DJs are working almost at full tilt at various festivals and parties,” he says. “For the most successful DJs it’s great, because we still have the bedroom producers that are continuing to experiment while at the same time you have the superstars who are making a million dollars per DJ set…. That what these guys are doing is possible, people like David Guetta and Steve Aoki, has to be inspiring for young people.”
Jeff Mills’s history is well-known, tracing back to the emergence of Detroit techno in the 1980s, his Underground Resistance days through to the founding of his very own Axis Records label in 1992 and later onto film work, including last year’s Man From Tomorrow documentary, and myriad different projects and creative disciplines. Now in his 50s, Mills is working and creating more than ever. This month he will spend a day working in the confines of The Rembrandt House Museum, composing three new tracks that have been inspired by the Dutch artist’s early painting Philosopher in Meditation, an event that will form the centrepiece of this year’s Amsterdam Dance Event programme.
A week later, he will return to the UK for Light From The Outside World at London’s Barbican Centre. This show will mark the latest in Mills’s ongoing fascination with classical music by teaming up with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. So why is he so keen to combine techno and classical music? “It’s a chance to try to create different pathways and different options for how people can enjoy the music other than just dancing in a club,” he says. “If you’re not lucky enough to be able to be out until six in the morning and your life just isn’t structured that way, then there should be other possibilities to be able to hear this music. We have conformed to a certain way in this industry that makes it all very passive, putting the emphasis on having a good time at the end of the night and not looking at the artistry of what DJs can do.”
Projects such as Exhibitionist 2 and his upcoming Barbican performance are Mills’s personal means of striving to subvert and question expectations and norms within this music – actively aiming to open it up to the unreached masses and flying in the face of those who are unable, or often unwilling, to think more deeply about techno; to examine its place in today’s political and social climate, its grounding in futurism and its meditative, hypnotic qualities. “We really fall short of what the night could be if there was more thought behind it,” he says, “so it’s dance music and people are dancing, but what are the other things that can be done? We don’t ask that question enough.”
Considering the intensity that – even with a degree abstinence – comes with being a hugely in-demand artist in the dance music economy, you wonder whether Mills ever considers taking a break from it all. “No,” promptly comes the answer. “I’m always trying to increase my work rate more than anything by working with more people to produce more. We only have so many years to be active before many things can happen. Health can happen, family can happen and the world can change drastically. I’m trying to create as much as I possibly can with the short time that we all have. There is no chance of me slowing down if I can help it.”
Soon, Mills will return to his studio to start work on a new project making use of The Visitor, a ‘UFO drum machine’ co-created by Jeff and Japanese designer Yuri Suzuki. The machine is inspired by the tale of ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’, an exchange of fire by the US navy in 1942 fearing attack from Japan upon seeing a strange object in the sky which many now believe to have been a UFO. Designed to resemble that unidentified object’s apparent three-legged structure, it took six years to assemble and was built from one of Mills’s oldest 909s, dating back to his Underground Resistance days, which he gave up especially for the project. “There will be a very conceptual science fiction performance with aspects of live and DJ sets,” he says. “What I want to try to do is bring a science fiction story to life with the machine as the focus. I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time. This machine will allow me to really be able to do that.”
“I am trying to do so many different things to let people know that you don’t just have to settle for being a DJ if you have different ideas,” he says. “You should be able to explore them without criticism. If people want to dance, let them dance. But, if people want to listen, there should be support for that.” It’s an idea that reoccurs during our conversation. Jeff Mills is inspired by the transcendental potential of techno music, and the roots of his passion are entirely divorced from conventional ideas about hedonism or club culture.
“When I was young, I would look very intensely to try to find things that would help me understand what I could possibly do and where I could fit in,” he remembers at one point, before resuming his focus towards the future. “The majority of what I’m doing now is for other people to look at, experience and hopefully expand upon. To take it even further, so that the cycle of inspiration can continue.”
Jeff Mills appears at The Barbican, London, 24 October and Club To Club, Turin, Italy 4-8 November