The techno icon’s desire to challenge the status quo remains his strongest motivation. Attack editor Greg Scarth finds out why he’s still so passionate about exploring new ideas.
“It’s easier to just accept the norm – to just go with the flow and not have to re-think or question.”
Jeff Mills has always been willing to question the norm. As a founding member of Underground Resistance alongside ‘Mad’ Mike Banks, Mills spearheaded the second wave of Detroit techno back in the late 80s, but his musical output quickly expanded and his own artistic identity became more complex. Alongside his continually inventive releases, his hip-hop-influenced DJing style and his live 909 drum machine workouts became legendary; his 1995 Live At The Liquid Room mix CD was a genre-defining milestone for techno, relentlessly raw and creative. More recently, Mills has focused his work on higher concepts, frequently collaborating with classical musicians and exploring concepts of space exploration and extra-terrestrial life.
Popular culture has been hijacked, mostly by people with non-cultural motives.
I’ve asked Mills why he thinks so many people in electronic music are cynical about these kinds of high-minded concepts, or the very idea of techno having more meaning than just making people dance. “In more popular or commercial forms of art and culture, it’s somewhat understandable,” he continues. “People are constantly being fed what’s new. People tend not to want to be left behind, so they accept the information ‘as is’. Everyone is supposed to be happy and content, but the truth is that popular culture has been hijacked, mostly by people with non-cultural motives. So people are cynical – and with good reason – but this system doesn’t always apply to everyone, for everything, all the time. In my case, I take pleasure in questioning what we know as facts. I very much like to re-examine, to look at things in different perspectives. Not for the sake of conflict, but more out of pure curiosity.”
This year’s Planets suite, performed alongside the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto, is the next step in Mills’s efforts to create ‘electronic classical’ music, blending the two styles. Holst considered himself a socialist and valued the political act of making music for the masses. I ask Mills if he considers his own Planets to be a political work. “No I don’t,” he replies. “I’m not a socialist, but I consider the subject of Planets as being universal – it applies to everyone. I consider it a bit beyond politics or religion: simply, one can’t take sides on the existence of other worlds, no matter how self-indulgent we’re taught to be. Does the fact that I – an Afro-American man of non-classical music roots – imagined and composed this project [make it political]? Maybe. But if one really thinks about it, maybe it speaks to my ancient ancestral thread and how I’ve evolved through, under and around all the circumstances of my life. Maybe Planets is what happens when one has always questioned the world we’re spinning on and looks beyond Earth’s inner atmosphere for answers. The answers I’ve been taught are too often tainted.”
Maybe Planets is what happens when one has always questioned the world we're spinning on and looks beyond Earth's inner atmosphere for answers.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons with the fact that Holst’s Planets was written during the First World War, an era of huge global turmoil. I ask how Mills’s take on Planets engages with society in 2017. Are there parallels with the state of the world a century ago? “I do think there are similarities in the sentiment and mentality of people [today], which are the result of the advancements and human displacement in industry and economics. I think the idea of mixing genres speaks volumes to where people and societies are headed. And I think it makes perfectly good sense as the idea of addressing the planets is not just only examined, studied and addressed by particular cultures. The subject of ‘other worlds’ runs through humanity, so combining minds and efforts to address such an enormous subject is a step in another direction.”
I ask whether there’s a single unifying thread which Mills think ties together his creative output, from Underground Resistance to his Liquid Room mix, key releases such as ‘The Bells’ and through to the present day. “For the most part,” he explains, “I’m trying to connect and widen the boundaries of electronic music to as many other things as possible. By even attempting to do so, I’ve opened up new paths to connect to other artists and people I would not have had if I just remained a techno producer and DJ.”
This desire to push techno forward has been consistent in Mills’s output since the 1980s, both musically and in terms of the concepts and ideas that should represent something more than just mindless dancefloor escapism. In another interview a few years ago, Attack‘s Kristan Caryl asked Mills whether techno was too serious. “No,” came the definitive reply, “it’s not serious enough.” I ask whether Mills still agrees with that point of view and his response shows he’s not wavered at all in his belief. “[I hold that view] even more so now,” he explains. “I’m still not convinced that we – all the artists, producers and DJs in techno music – do all that we can to make techno more interesting, more innovative and alluring. With the genre and all the creative freedom it allows, I think too many of us choose not to use it. Many prefer the practical way, by literally making music specifically to dance to and not making enough efforts to make music about something more important that one could also dance to. There is a difference.”
If the effect of manipulating people's senses is so profound that reality seems to have changed, that would be something I could really use…
With that in mind, I wonder where Mills has left to go with techno. At the age of 54, his passion for innovation continues to shine through, so what ambitions does he have left within music? What would he most like to achieve as his career continues to evolve? “I think one significant turning point could be that I could figure out a way to make people truly believe that they are no longer where they were,” he suggests. Altering people’s perception of reality on a neurological level might seem a tall order, but the way Mills talks about it you believe he might really be capable of achieving it. “[If] the effect of manipulating people’s senses is so profound that reality seems to have changed, that would be something I could really use…”