Exhumed and Absorbed: Jeff Mills
Met Jonny for lunch near my work place, ended up going for a coffee near Hampstead Heath. Discussed Detroit techno amongst other things. One thing led to another and he suddenly remembered an interview that he'd never read. An interview I'd done with my friend Anil a long time ago. An interview with Jeff Mills….
'Techno' is a dated term. To me it means thirty-five year old men with a shady past, using phrases like 'Larging it' well into their adult life. It means the rave generation (not mine) and squat parties where the word 'acid' is sprayed around like much needed deodorant. It means most things I despise about clubland, a Fabric headliner or two and warehouses, retro-futurist imagery and much drugs.
It means decadent electronic music - pre-laptop portability, pre-plug-ins and net based user-group discussions; pre technical immersification. It means music wrestled from the studio and championed primarily by the mediator-as-disc-jockey, secondarily by the record buying public. It means clubspace, always; detroit, mainly; boredom, often; dancing, primarily; art, secondarily.
The trinity of Jeff Mills, Carl Craig and Richie Hawtin dispelled that myth for me. The former two by their use of techno as protest, the latter by his conceptual rigour and formal beauty; all three by their affirmation of techno as a malleable medium.
Some weeks are all numb mornings, puffy eyes and ominous deadlines. others you're like "uh, what?" and you find yourself taking teas and caramels at the Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge like it was the done thing, hanging around for the blessed godfather of Detroit Techno to show up for a mouthful of press and a handful of praise. Needless to say it was one of those weeks. Interviews are easy, you ask obvious things and hope it prods the artist into profound territory and then you just sit back and inhale the maelstrom. Like all pompous artists have a switch you flick that sends them off on the sublime or the mystical or the just plain boring facets of their ego.
Conversations are somewhat tougher. Conversing with a legend is a notch below a dialogue with god on the difficulty stakes. They have their own rules, drafted out by private lawyers, and you've got to fight against both your inherent need to worship someone more badass than you and the aura. That's right, these people have rainbow auras that cause motorway tailbacks and the concierge to run around the foyer like chickens, headless.
The man sits alone in an elegant polo neck, kind of shrivelled with a wrinkle for every techno critter he's inspired into the creation of dance music, be it derivative or otherwise. There's two things linking me with this man, primarily the history of resistance in music and, secondarily, that mythical brick known as the roland something-something 303. First things first.
Detroit and Sheffield are post-industrial dives i'd give my third eye to live in.
It's no coincidence they cover pretty much the whole of techno history between them. Mills was born and bred in the former, and started making techno music in the early eighties, i.e. He's seen the electro / dance scene splinter off in all directions but stuck to his conceptual techno all the while. It's fair to say his stuff sounds dated,
"....its actually not got much to do with time or trend….I was thinking about music before techno....and, what we were trying to do back then was reimagine music",
He offers. what he means by 'we' I assume is Underground Resistance, he and Mad Mike's seminal project / label. during the span of his twenty year career, however, his 'rebellion' has been of a much more private nature,
"The clubspace....the dancefloor, it's like a, a.... ball and chain....people have to accept electronic music that tries to communicate outside of that context...."
Sure, but Jeff, you've been on the clubbing circuit continuously for decades,
"....but your generation came to electro via the dancefloor....when i was growing up people like Moog and Oppenheim were making these machines that replaced instruments and....electronic music was our new rock....there wasn't even a dance music section in the shops....so from my perspective dance music has become a crutch, in the same way techno had a crutch in the form of the TB-303 in the nineties...."
This is what i wanted to hear, some burn-all-your-idols speak.
"Lots of ideas were lost with the coming of the rave generation....the world of dance music has become too....too predictable....the term itself limits you from experimenting."
Which is where we come to resistance, "....you need to gradually ease listeners into a position where they can respond to conceptual music....it takes time and....well listeners don't have a voice....they take the stuff home and you never hear from them again....the only way you can gauge the importance of your work is by looking at how your fellow producers respond...."
The politics of the live performance are also important here - how to push the boundaries of music spaces,
"I'd love to do more filmwork (it should be noted that Mills has re-scored Lang's cinematic epic, 'Metropolis'). ....and less parties....you walk into a club and it's always the same....always....i used to dream of the day i'd be in complete control of the visuals, the sound, the space." at this point he takes on a glazed look, contemplating the idea of artistic liberty in dance music. i press him ever so slightly,
"But we've had to fight for so long....we haven't been in a position to indulge....you say about playing in gallery spaces etc but....i mean in the nineties we were too busy running from the police to do our own thing...."
At this point his tone becomes all affected and he's like appealing to me.
"For people like you....for your younger generation....and i want you to write this in your magazine....i'd like you to know that the majority of the industry presents a reality that's totally....well you know how media works....totally constructed....so many things are produced and made....but nothing seems to come to the surface....there is no critical or creative consensus....i'm not really in a position where i can just do a show or a party that's entirely my idea....or different....the politics of the industry doesn't allow for that."
Everyone's a DJ, a player a producer or a journo, yet there is no collectivity. That's the electro scene and its democratic utopia / stifling insularity. That's still, at almost forty years of age, Mills' frustration.
Mills' DJ style is well known for its hyperactivity, often clocking over a record a minute, and it makes for a hypnotising performance, tunes aside. Jeff explains,
"Most tunes aren't worth listening to beyond like half a minute....i just pick out the best parts and relate them to the next tune....you know, programming is a hard skill to master....there's almost a psychology to it....pre-turntable era you had to segment your mind....think about a sequence rather than a mix....this is what i was taught....younger DJ's don't know how to do that."
Mills is also quick to provide a concept for latest release 'Medium', whose title appears to allude to….
"The space between points....something that will be difficult for the listener to define....in any concrete manner."
But don't let this kind of wilful ineffability, less Beckettian complexity than intellectual posturing, put you off. It's just another solid record using the staple mills sound-palette of sweeping cinematic synths and stable 4/4 machinations.
I can hear people my age saying 'techno' is so thatcherite era and why should I care in a post-warp world where everyone has a nice haircut, Carharrt jeans and shrines to Apple Macintosh elaborately staged under their staircases, but if you'd paid close attention to those Werther Original ads you'll know by now older people give you free shit, and today Jeff gave me so much surplus wisdom to suck on that I had to leave some behind at the bar of the Berkeley hotel and yet more imprisoned on an old and battered dictaphone. As for the 303 - it's every beat and digi handclap on an electroclash record, it's a Le Tigre / Chicks On Speed rhythm, and if you go so far as to turn the knobs, it appears to be acid techno.
Jeff Mills' new record, 'Medium', is out soon, but if I were you i'd pick up his Tokyo mix from '96 'cos it's da hype.
Original interview by Anil Bawa-Cavia. Photo by Me.