Jeff Mills on Expanding the Possibilities of Classical Music and DJing

The innovative electronic artist looks back at his first experiences making music, the importance of research to his work and the specifics of his orchestral collaborations

When recounting the history of Detroit techno, the figure of Jeff Mills looms large – for good reason – but his reach extends well beyond the Motor City. After getting his start on the radio as The Wizard on famed local station WJLB, Mills teamed up with Tony Sprock in the industrial-leaning Final Cut project, and then co-founded Underground Resistance alongside former Parliament bassist “Mad” Mike Banks. That legendary and fiercely independent outfit – which shunned interviews, performed in ski masks and black combat suits and also included a young Robert Hood – became an international sensation, but Mills was far from done. Striking out on his own, he formed the Axis label and began working as a solo artist, crafting a uniquely alien brand of sci-fi-inspired techno in the process. He also left Detroit, spending time in New York and Berlin before ultimately settling in Chicago.

Throughout it all, Mills has always continued pushing techno forward, taking the music well beyond its usual club and festival settings by collaborating with symphony orchestras, scoring films and even holding down a residency at the Louvre museum. Now, more than three decades into his career, Mills stands as one of techno’s most respected figures, with listeners still marveling at his prolific nature, not to mention his fleet fingers and their utter mastery of the Roland TR-909 drum machine. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Aaron Gonsher on Red Bull Radio, Mills looked away from techno to discuss his early experiences making music for the radio, the sci-fi origins of his interest in classical music, the background of his latest album Planets (inspired by Gustav Holst’s 1916 score) and expanding the possibilities of DJing.

Jacob Khrist

Can you remember the first piece of orchestral or classical music that really moved you emotionally?

The first real piece of music, full orchestrations, that I bought was probably Star Wars by John Williams, back in the late ’70s. That was the first classical album that I purchased and listened to over and over again, memorized the parts and memorized the themes, went back to the theater to see the film numerous times. That was the first real encounter.

But you had seen the film before buying the soundtrack.

Once. After seeing the film we all ran out and bought the album and memorized it. This was a time when if you went to science fiction films, everybody in the audience was just as fanatical as the next guy. Sometimes there was audience participation in singing the theme of the song, and that was the case with Star Wars in the very first one, like a Rocky Horror Picture Show type of thing. We were really into the film, so we learned who John Williams was and went back to find some of his older works, and then realized that he was the one that made the soundtracks for [certain] TV shows and commercials, and so the link became stronger. From that point, I was attracted to classical music from a science fiction standpoint.

Star Wars - Main Theme

Was there a point at which it transitioned from having that filter of science fiction to diving into more Romantic composers, or Baroque, creating this taste in classical outside of the context of film and television?

My interest in science fiction had been very intense since my youth all the way until now. What I mean by “intense,” I mean every comic convention, every sci-fi program on TV, every film, everything from lunch pails to posters... I had figured that that was really the sound – classical music – that I was listening to, [that] was representative of science fiction. And then from there, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, which was not science fiction but kind of science, space science; those type of classical pieces were more attractive as I got older. Through my early teen years I was playing instruments, so I was getting more interested in jazz around 13, 14, 15. I’m hanging around friends that have the same interests, so weekly trips to the record store, comic book store, theater – it was all swirling together. It was from Gustav Holst that I began to discover things like Béla Bartók and Ligeti, for instance, making a link to 2001.

György Ligeti - Atmosphéres

Did you have some sort of musical mentor that was guiding you towards things like Holst or Bartók, or were you discovering these on your own?

This is Detroit, so everybody around is interested in music by default. I come from a big family, four sisters and a brother that’s ten years older than me, so he was doing the things that I would do ten years later... I followed him for the earlier part of my life, so if he was into electronics, I eventually became into electronics; if he was into this, I would eventually find my way into that. There was always music, not just in my house, but the neighbor’s house, and then the kids around the block had brothers and sisters, so it was always a lot of swapping of music. All my friends, we all did the same thing. All my schoolmates, we all did the same thing. You didn’t really search out so much, because you were so much in it.

And it was the norm to be into so many different types of music, as opposed to the sort of stratification many people do today with themselves.

It was very normal to not be into one thing, and that was partially because of radio. Radio was very eclectic back then, because Detroit was and still pretty much is a test ground for a lot of new music. Not just soul and R&B, but actually rock would be tested in Detroit first, and if it reached a certain level, it would then move on to the other sister stations around the country. We would always hear a lot of rock, industrial dance, new wave, soul music of course, Afro-Cuban – everything. It was quite common that the average person would know a lot about music, so the audiences are very hard to please, and people’s knowledge of music goes really deep there. We kind of always took it for granted, because if you never traveled outside the city you would assume that everybody had this knowledge of music.

Nothing really turned us off, which could explain how unlikely pieces of music could become really popular within, say, the black community. B-52s, for instance, you would never think there would be a connection, but actually it was very strong. Or Devo, Hall & Oates or Steely Dan... A lot of different things.

When you first started making music, do you feel like you wanted to distill the sum of all of those influences, or drill down on something very specific and go forward with that?

I started making music a little bit differently than most people, because I really had a purpose. I was on the radio at the time, and I really needed to have music that no one else had, so I decided to try to make it. I had been a musician through all my youth, but I never really tried to make a composition, but that happened really, really quickly. It wasn’t something like I was pulling my gospel roots or pulling my industrial dance roots. There was a purpose, and I really needed to have a certain type of music to make people think as if these tracks were released by major labels and things. I worked really hard to try to perfect it really quickly and to make it seemingly so, and that’s how I really learned how to produce.

Do you remember a song that you would have been making, separate from this question of influences, where the final result sounded exactly like what you had envisioned in your head initially, and that experience of recognizing this creation as something that was completely true to what you had envisioned?

I was a hip-hop DJ, so it was... Whodini was one of the ones that I remember. What I was really doing was remixing the tracks, at a time when the word “remix” didn’t really exist. Some early hip-hop was probably the first thing. My show was quite mixed and quite eclectic, so I was trying a lot of different things. I think Klein & M.B.O. was one – I got my hands on the 808 and was trying to imitate the drum patterns to make an extended mix. Then the radio station understood what I was doing and asked me if I could do that all the time. They would have something from the major label that they promised the major label they would make a new mix of, and give this to me and I would work on it. If they liked it, they would program it in normal programming.

Whodini - Freaks Come Out At Night

How many of those remixes do you think survive to this day that would be recognizable as your own?

I don’t know, hard to say. I worked for two stations when I was on the air, the first station for about two years and then the other station for almost eight. I used to do at least three [remixes] a week for about two years, so I don’t know. Quite a few, to the point that I had begun to make the tracks myself. It was really progressing and advancing, and after a while I’d just, “Forget the record, I’ll just try to make something on my own that nobody has.”

What do you think the first thing you made was that nobody else had, that was completely fresh?

It actually started before I got on the radio. I was fooling around with machines before I got the radio job. I had a little drum machine, which was about so big [traces a box with hands] and I had someone do a modification to switch the sounds, so I had double the amount of sounds. I was already using this drum machine in clubs back in 1980 and was mixing it in as best as I could. I had made a few drum patterns and was fooling around with it already. These machines did not have MIDI, so I couldn’t sync it up to any other machine. It was just a standalone machine. The earlier tracks were probably more percussion with a little bit of bassline.

Was that concurrent with you still being a drummer? Or was a split between those periods?

I stopped playing drums when I realized that I wasn’t going to get a scholarship to college through playing percussion. I played all throughout high school and heard through the grapevine that I was going to get a scholarship, because I was the first drummer in all the bands – concerts, stage, marching band. Then I found out that the scholarship went to the third drummer and so I said, “OK, skip this, I quit. I’m going to stop for a while.” Then I began to DJ more.

The third drummer got it above you?

Yeah, they gave the scholarship to... I forgot his name, but he eventually went on to become, really, a famous jazz drummer, and he still travels around.

I think you did OK.

Well, yeah. I was quite advanced for a high school student. I was in a lot of bands and things. That wasn’t the real reason. It was disappointing because I was thinking, “OK, I want to go to this school and I’m going to play percussion.” If that had happened I probably would be a jazz drummer.

Quite a different path.

Yeah, if I went to college I’m sure I would have been in many other bands, and then formed bands and got into recording music.

Understanding how to use the drums – not just bang on the drum, but to use it to really say something – I had learned very early.

How did you approach your idea of rhythm differently as a drummer behind a drum kit versus what you could accomplish on an 808 or 909? Did the shift from being a human drummer to working with a machine impact your conception of how rhythm could move people, or the complexities of it as a source of musical creativity?

It helped to be very quick, because then I could do very complex rudiments and things. I had very good stick control, so I could switch and those things. Understanding how to use the drums – not just bang on the drum, but to use it to really say something – I had learned very early. So when it came to programming music I had a larger toolset of understanding how to use percussion, what it’s really used best for: sometimes creating the foundation and creating the layers, sometimes standing up and becoming a more prominent part of the track. Using it for tempo, using it for inflection, for texture. That carried into composing music.

To give an example, I wasn’t thinking “the drum kit.” It was, “What am I going to do with the toms that would be different from the snare? And what would I do with the rides that would be different from the hi-hat? How much of a variation can I give these things?” To the point that I really don’t even need so much music, because the drums are doing so much.

That’s basically what I entered into in the early ’80s in the whole DJing aspect. When I would hear music, listen to other people’s music, I could very easily understand how it was made. That gave me a great advantage. I could understand it really quickly and then manipulate it, so as a DJ I could conform to it really quickly.

How does this understanding of the complexities of rhythm translate into your performances with orchestras, and symphonic elements that aren’t necessarily known for utilizing that sort of percussive structure in their works?

I think that when dealing with an orchestra, there are some things that I am borrowing from my career as DJ, some things I’m borrowing from playing drums. Then, I could read sheet music. I totally forgot it now, but I could, so there’s that. I understand that to generate sound, sometimes it’s not always pushing a button, but you have to make a motion to strike the drum and you have to pull back. Or, to blow through an instrument you have to inhale, exhale. It’s not as precise or as quick as pushing a knob or starting a digital file and it starts immediately.

Understanding what musicians do and their limits, and the capacity of each part of the orchestra, help me in writing pieces. If, for instance, the bassline is too melodic, I know that I need to recommend to the arranger to put the bassline in different parts. The double bass – all the players don’t play the same thing, but there is an alternation between then. Same thing with the strings, the violins – they’re often broken up into different parts to play very complex pieces.

Probably more important is listening to the orchestra. Because I’m a DJ, I have a habit of listening to the composite sound of music. Meaning that if I were first violinist and I’m closest to the edge of the stage, there’s strings behind me and mostly on the side, then there’s some across from the maestro. You’re not hearing all the music as a composite: You’re hearing what’s closest to you, you’re hearing what you’re doing. I think classical musicians aren’t used to hearing the whole thing. In my case, as a DJ I’m dealing with finished stereo signals all the time. My ears are split between being in the orchestra body and being in the place of the audience. That also helps, because I can go in the audience, and as a DJ I can hear the balance between it. I can work and discuss with the sound engineer what needs to be done. All these things I pull in from other things in order to be able to work with orchestras.

What sort of collaborative techniques will you use to help them understand the work that you do or have done in your career? If you’re going into these situations in which perhaps this first violinist isn’t familiar with your body of work.

Small things help when trying to translate what I do. The first thing that we always do is address the orchestra during the earlier rehearsals. I speak to them and I explain to them what it is I’m doing there and why I’m doing it. I explain to them something like, “I compose the original tracks, and a lot of these tracks come from dance music, where there is a very solid, very repetitive foundation, and the orchestration is then put on top of that. Laying this foundation, using this particular sound, is what I’m doing from my set-up and you, the body of the orchestra, are laying the orchestrations on top. Together that’s how we get closer to the original composition.” I explain that during every rehearsal to them, so they understand what my role is. I’m soloist, but I’m also part of the body of the orchestra.

Then I explain to them what the concept of the performance is about. If it’s Planets, I’ll tell them something like, “It is a tutorial journey from the sun all the way to Pluto. There is the planets, but then there’s also the space in between. We’re giving the full tour of the solar system to the audience,” so that they understand that what they play has enormous significance to something that most people probably will never see. The way that they play it, the way that they express it, is really important. It’s like watching a film of the solar system for the very first time, or listening to a score of the solar system for the very first time. Every note, everything is important.

I think that it would be a mistake to think that we have done everything that we could do in the art form of DJing.

Can you give me a concrete example of how you tried to translate your understanding of these individual planets into distinct musical characteristics? Based on color, complexity, atmospherics...

I know the most about Saturn because of another project [X-102]. I had been studying Saturn since 1992. Part of that project is to renew the information of Saturn, so I know the most about that planet. Second largest planet in the solar system. The rings are 144,000 miles in diameter. The proportion is to basically a sheet of paper, 8 1/2 by 11. If you put the planet in the center of the paper, that’s how thin the rings are in comparison to the diameter of the rings, so it’s a very widespread, enormous ground that the planet covers. The surface of the planet – just until recently we did not know it was covered in gas and all types of things – but they just recently discovered what the surface looks like through x-ray. It is also the fastest planet in the solar system in terms of its rotation. As a result, it has the highest winds.

There are rings that do strange things. There are rings that are really beautiful. Some are very violent. It’s a whole variety of the makeup of the rings. The space in between the rings – [it’s a] different makeup of what’s in between them. There’s a few rings that disappear. How that is, I don’t know. There’s a moon that rotates in the opposite direction. That was factored into the composition as well. Titan is the moon that NASA watches the most, because it has an atmosphere that’s closest to Earth, so it’s a very important moon of the planet.

When making the plan for Saturn, its rotation dictated the BPM. As the diameter of the planet, of the rings, is so large, most of the composition has to be traveling from the edge of the first ring into the planet, which takes up most of the composition. The earlier part, or the majority of the composition, is a very melodic, almost [chchchchchchck] way of sequencing the music, because I’m imagining as you’re traveling over the rings, you’re traveling over these lines.

Like a tripwire.

Exactly, if you’re going over. It has that feel to it. In the performance and also in the album, that’s the only composition that will be in 5.1. For the performance, we put the musicians in each corner of the theater, and then had them play in sequence around the audience, and faster and faster and faster, to put the audience in place of... There are rings around them, was the idea. Then there is a part in the composition where it goes off and concentrates on the moon of Titan, and then comes back to the planet itself and finishes off the composition. That’s how we handled Saturn.

Earth for instance, which is the, let’s say, newest planet, is composed in a very simple way, almost a child-like type of rhythm. Not very drawn-out, complex compositions, but very simple, very playful, because the planet is still very plentiful in resources that we can recognize. Mars – very mysterious, taking the some route as Holst, “planet of war,” so it’s a very strange atmosphere. The composition is very experimental at the very beginning, and then moves into something really strange.

One track could be played for hours at a time. For the duration of the party, one track plays. It doesn’t conform to you, you conform to it.

Based on that answer, there’s obviously an enormous amount of research and effort that goes into something like Planets. What sort of creative urge does that satisfy that DJing doesn’t anymore, or is it completely different worlds, and you have different things that you’re trying to accomplish in each?

I think that it would be a mistake to think that we have done everything that we could do in the art form of DJing. That would be a mistake. I think that a lot of the things that I have done and discovered and researched can very easily be carried over into a DJ set. It just depends on finding the way to do it, but for sure, it can be carried over. I think that, again, it would be a mistake to think that we have done everything that we could do in terms of programming music for people, and the setting that we always find ourselves in is really the most that we can do. That would be a mistake. For sure that’s not the case. It’s just a matter of whether people become so complacent to think that my job is only to play music for them, to not bring them anything else.

That’s basically what gives the idea that DJing would be a limited way of programming. I understand very clearly the opposite, that I can play out Planets in a DJ set really easily. It can be promoted and people would understand it: I can break the night into nine parts and make the transitions to the point that they would feel the same as what I’ve done with Planets. There’s a lot that could be done with programming music, and actually more, because people come into these circumstances more willing to give themselves to whatever the DJ is going to do.

As opposed to in an orchestral context?

Right. The amount of allowance that people have is extraordinarily high when people come into clubs. With that you can present just about anything if you can find a way to materialize it and do it in a very interesting way. I’m not saying other DJs are lazy and have a lack of interest, but I’m just saying that it is possible. Technology, and the way the venues are set up, and the promoters willing to help and people interested in having something new... We should actually be seeing more, different types of ways of playing music for people. But I’ve seen that we often take the easiest thing to do, so I play my music, smoke a cigarette, have a drink, wave goodbye and I’m out the door. It’s pretty much like that, which is sad.

What do you think are some of those possibilities that haven’t yet been explored in DJing?

For instance, how to program music differently. One track could be played for hours at a time. For the duration of the party, one track plays. It doesn’t conform to you, you conform to it. You dance as long as you want. You leave. You come back again. It’s still this same pulse over and over and over again. That’s possible. I’ve never seen anyone with enough guts to try it, but it’s possible. It could have a certain type of modification that goes deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, for hours at a time. That’s one easy way. Another idea, we never use the space over the audience.

In what sense?

In a venue sense, in an actual space. The audience could be seeing things over them – we don’t think to use that space. It’s always the speakers, maybe we put lights there, but more could be done with the space and soundsystem around the people. We don’t think about that so much. I can go on and on and on, a list of things of how the atmosphere could change that would also make the people think about music and think about the club experience differently. For the most part, it’s still uncharted territory. I think we’re still doing the same thing that we did back in the ’70s and the ’80s. The DJ is over there, the soundsystem is over there, I’m supposed to stand here and we do this for hours at a time. It’s pretty much that.

The project is 80% research, 20% music and interpretation of the concept. It doesn’t take me very long to make the music in most cases, because after the research I know exactly what I need to do.

Do you encounter a version of that complacency in the orchestral world, though? Because the reputation the classical world has is also being very set in its ways.

Very, very set. Of course I encounter that, and you have people that have studied their instruments since the age of two and three – someone coming in to do something differently sometimes isn’t met in a very understanding way. But they are professional musicians, we are all professional musicians, so it helps when I explain what it is that we’re attempting to do. But I think music in general, it’s easy to rest at a certain point, especially when you understand what really works and how the audience responds to it.

It’s very easy to think that you should not change it because it works, and to go against the grain has consequences that probably a lot of people aren’t really willing to deal with. In trying to bring a new idea to an orchestra, the orchestras are vetted by people on my end, and also the booking agent looks to see which orchestra has a history of doing very unique projects: film soundtracks, pop music type of orchestra pieces. These are mostly the ones that I’m working with, but it’s changing. I’m playing more and more with more orchestras that just do Bach, that just do Stravinsky and things like that.

How did your interest in silent film come about? Was part of it this idea that it’s a blank canvas for you to project your creativity on?

Yeah. I realized that it would be easier to take the existing music away from silent film because there’s no dialogue, so it’s just music, it’s just orchestration. I could very easily take that away and then apply my music to it. I did that with Metropolis back in 2000. I’ve done it quite a few times. From that project I was asked if I could work on various projects through the Cinémathéque Française in Paris. They had listened to that and wondered if I could re-score some films during cycles that they were doing with film directors. They asked me to do one for Cecil B. DeMille, a film called The Cheat; Woman In the Moon, also by Fritz Lang; a few others.

Jeff Mills - Chaos And Fanatics

With regards to those silent films and the music that you’re making for them, is it all about creating an atmosphere that is still relevant towards what’s on the screen, or are you trying to create something that can expand the universe of what someone like Fritz Lang did in a completely new musical context?

It depends on the story, it depends on the individual scenes, it depends on the characters. For every film I research not just the film, but I also research the director or the writer to look at the context in which he wrote the story. What was happening in the world at the time? I’m also looking at world events. I research all those things to try to find an equation of how this film could exist. In researching those things, I could have a sense as to which part of the film might be most important, that would’ve been important if the film was made in 1929, and what was happening in the world. Fascism was coming, and the world was just recovering from World War I.

It was also the flapper age, where music was, women were, people were, really wild. The Surrealist movement was big, and art and Picasso and all these things artists were communicating with, all these things play a role in how this film could be played out, how the cinematography could be. From all that, I then sit down and try to compose music that would address each part of the film. If I need to compose the music as if I need more distance from what’s happening there – to be something like a fly on the wall or an extra character in the scene that doesn’t agree or sympathize with any of these characters– then I know what chord structure I need to play, or something like that. It helps to do as much research, not just on the film but what’s around the film as well.

While I’m DJing I’m thinking to myself, “What could I do to make this track more interesting?”

And is it easier in general for you to always have that umbrella of a research effort associated with your music or creative projects?

For every album I’ve ever released, research – or, if not research, being influenced by something that I read – is actually 70% of the process, maybe 80% of the process. The project is 80% research, 20% music and interpretation of the concept. That’s what I’m doing most of the time. It doesn’t take me very long to make the music in most cases, because after the research I know exactly what I need to do. I go in the studio, it takes me just a few days in total to make the album. I’m researching all the time.

Does that attentiveness and level of research extend to your work DJing, in terms of a knowledge of contemporary techno, up-and-coming producers, things like that? Or is it separate from it?

It carries over, because I’m constantly looking or on the lookout in DJing for what could make the situation more interesting. While I’m DJing I’m thinking to myself, “What could I do to make this track more interesting?” So there comes this: “What if I add in a drum machine and then break away from the music, and just forget the music altogether and begin to create the music myself in real time?” And then, blur the lines between this machine and this machine to the point that the people don’t know which is which. What will that allow me to be able to do with another piece of equipment that I can bring in? So yeah, it carries over. It’s connected.

2016 was the 25th anniversary of Axis, and I was curious how you were looking back at your career. When you first started making music, when you were first on the radio, did you ever envision that you would have gotten the opportunity to do all the things that you have done over the last 25 years? What haven’t you accomplished that you think, “I still need to do this, I still want to do this”?

I have to say I don’t linger on the past so much. Definitely I don’t try to measure what I’m doing now as opposed to then. That would be a big mistake. Context was completely different, it was a completely different time. People were different, circumstances were all different.

I’ve always had the mentality that if I can break the skin, I’m in. Meaning that, if I can pierce the surface of something, and if I feel that the indication of it is OK, I’m in the system. Meaning that, I’m going to not just pierce the skin or pierce the layer and go somewhere else, I’m in it and will infiltrate and try to do as much damage as I can before I move on to the next thing. That’s always really been the case.

As electronic music evolves into something else, and classical music begins to become more open, a new genre will come.

Let me give you an example. When I got a job at a radio station, I could’ve just mixed the music and went home. But it wasn’t like that at all. I convinced the station to buy certain pieces of equipment, to give me access to their sound effects library, give me the key to the library. They had a huge collection of music that dated back 30 years that they would just keep. Not only that, but I made them give me the authority to contact major labels on their behalf to get music first. I was 20 years old, 21 years old, but I told them, “If you want to win as a station, if you want me to beat the competition, these are things that I need to have.”

They were quite reluctant at first, but eventually they decided that, “OK, what he’s going to do with these things is going to be a good thing,” so they gave me access to everything. Then I told them, “I need more money to go buy music.” They increased the amount of that. It was a budget of $350 a week or something, just to buy new music. Eventually, it worked. I ended up beating the competition, the ratings got higher and as a result, I learned a lot. I learned how to edit tape, which I used eventually in making music. I had learned a lot about radio and programming and also the business aspect of radio, because I was there all the time and was learning the industry. What it took to make a hit record, I knew all that by 22 years old – how to communicate with the public and all that.

The things that I’m doing now are the accumulation of all these things that I learned when I was young and throughout the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. Composing a classical soundtrack, an electronic soundtrack, Planets, I know will probably give me the opportunity to do something larger than that. As electronic music evolves into something else at some point, and classical music begins to become more open, a new genre will come. I’m almost sure of that. Someone will tag it as something and by that time, I will have understood it to the point that I can manipulate into something else and be right on the curve when it happens. And probably begin to look at something else by the time most people probably understand it.

This is what I do most of the time. This is what I’m doing when I’m sitting in my office: I’m thinking of how I can take what we have and manipulate it to the point that something new comes from it.

By Aaron Gonsher on March 14, 2017

On a different note