“People were always so scared of the idea of a concept,” sighs Jeff Mills. “In the 90s music journalists would be horrified if you said you were writing techno music about something.” For Mills, a DJ and producer whose life’s work has been dedicated to infusing electronic music with ideas, this has always seemed the strangest of hang ups. How - or why – would you write music and it not be about something?
Mills has spent the last 30 years packing his work with unapologetically cerebral concepts, themes and narratives, using the futurism of Detroit techno to interpret his endless fascination with the infinite mysteries of space. In the early days, as he now recalls, this caused nothing but bafflement. When Underground Resistance started releasing the X series 12”s in the early 90s, records overtly based around space science, they faced accusations of pretentiousness from a press that insisted techno should thump the body without engaging the mind. It didn’t matter that calling Mills pretentious seemed ludicrously at odds with his searing, technical skill as a DJ, or his effortless way at turning out a looping techno monster (The Bells has a strong claim to being the greatest hard techno tune ever written) – concept records, went the received wisdom, were for Prog Rock dinosaurs, not the outliers of the new techno frontier.
Mills thought different. Now, in his mid-50s, and still touring the globe, he’s as likely to play a set of bare bones 138bpm bangers as he is to compose a delicate suite of electronic/classical fusion based around the science of black holes- and the battle to have techno recognised as an artform as capable as commenting on existence as any watercolour in the Louvre has long since been won. It would seem Mills was right all along.
“Techno and electronic music are such amazing forms for conveying ideas! Especially ideas that are just slightly beyond the reach of our understanding…”
He’s enthusing over the phone from a hotel room in Lisbon, enjoying a few moments of calm before playing in Lux that evening.
“I've discovered many different ways and reasons a DJ can program music. Playing music for people to dance all night is one way, but then there are other more conceptual types of presentation that one can use. It’s important that you recognise certain types of music require a certain type of circumstances to work.”
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In Mills’ case, the more conceptual techniques have been seen in his recent forays into quite serious classical explorations. A few years ago he set himself a tall order – inspired by Gustav Holst’s iconic Planet Suite, he would compose a planet suite of his own, a musical rumination on the planets of our solar system created in collaboration with the classical arranger Sylvain Griotto and the 94 member strong Orquestra Sinfonica do Porto Casa da Musica. Finally released this year, Planets is as ambitious a work as techno will see. Working with a scientific rigour, Mills differed his work from Holst – who’s music was steeped in the mythology of the heavens- by basing it on hard solar science, drawing on measurements of planetary weight and density to influence his decisions in how to apply tempo and melody. Lest this should sound excessively dry, he’s adamant that this work was aimed quite specifically at his core audience.
“With Planets, I really wanted to speak to people from dance music more so than people from the classical world. I spoke to Sylvain, the arranger, about introducing elements from dance, even if the tracks weren't specifically to be danced to. There were certain features taken from dance music - such as a certain amount of repetition, or an attempt to create an amount of space, which isn't something you think about as much as a classical composer. It's really an attempt to create something between the two, but I felt like dance fans would be more appreciative of it. They’re more open to these ideas.”
After Planets won plaudits from the dance and electronic communities alike, Mills’ latest release is a continuation of this exploration in space – albeit this time using a slightly more fantastical approach. As he describes it, new EP Lost in Space “is more science fiction theatre. Planets was a lot more based on quite serious factual observations what we know, what we have observed- this is more about what's out there beyond that, it's more speculative. It's about finding a worm hole or seeing a super nova. It's meant to be frightening - from the start the tracks should frightening beautiful or frighteningly dark, just the idea that these phenomenon would be incredible to see.”
In practice this has led to five tracks of classic mysterious Mills-ian electronica – unfurling loops of burbling synthetic sound layered with echo and robotic glitch. Lost in Space feels like a stepping stone between dance floor techno and the orchestral aspirations of Planets, and is proof (if anywhere were needed) that Mills hasn’t turned his back on records running on kick drums just yet.
The sci-fi theme also links to another project the prolific artist is working on. He’s currently two thirds of the way through a three part series where he goes to record music in the studios of iconic artists. So far Mills has spent time recording in Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam and legendary manga artist Osama Tezuka’s Tokyo studio- next up he is set to record music in the home of the grandfather of science fiction, author Jules Verne, writer of works such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in 80 Days. He explains the plan.
“I’m going to take a small studio into Jules Verne’s studio and record in there, basing the piece on one of his stories. I'll read the story while I record and let it inspire the music.”
After the session in Verne’s studio he has further plans for more sessions - “I’m in talks to go into Arthur C Clarke’s studio in Sri Lanka - and [rogue scientist] Nikolai Tesla stayed in a hotel room that has been untouched since his death- I'd love to use both.”
As to whether he thinks he can successfully plug in to the creative power of the artists who’s spaces he is working in, Mills is fairly adamant that the atmosphere cannot but help to shape the sounds he will make, speaking about the studio space in reverential tones.
“Studios are almost sacred spaces, they’re so important. The placing of a desk, of a table, the reason a light was positioned where it was. They're places of creation…”
But with all of this concept rich work, it can become easy for a reader to forget the original reason Mills found fame – his exceptional skill as a DJ, and his ability to produce classic dance music. Do all of his current obsessions mean he’s turned his back on the Jeff Mills who produced the joyously futurist RnB of Pin Up Girls – Take Me Away? On hearing the name Pin Up Girls, he laughs, surprised:
“Actually I am going back to that sound right at the moment. I've been working on a live project with my band Spiral Deluxe - we've recorded in Paris and I'm going to take it back to Detroit for the mixdown. I guess I’m more of a jazz fan than I am of house these days, but I don't like music to be restrained by boundaries. I mean as an artist you can want to experiment and you can want to try different things, but sometimes you want something more straight ahead.”
So you heard it here first – Mills is in the process of recording house music again. We can’t conceal our excitement, and he chuckles again.
“Right now it is sounding good. When you hear it, I think you're going to like it...”
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