In The Studio: Jeff Mills
Underground Resistance founder and dance music icon, DJ/producer Jeff Mills is one of Detroit techno’s greatest exports. Danny Turner discusses his latest collaboration, the fourpiece ‘super group’ Spiral Deluxe
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Jeff Mills has become internationally recognised as a key figure in the techno movement. Initially a DJ, in the late ’80s Mills founded the culturally influential Underground Resistance with ‘Mad’ Mike Banks and Robert Hood. With UR, solo, and under the now retired moniker The Wizard, Mills forged a reputation for relentless, stripped-down techno and DJ sets that combine technically impressive mixing skills with live 909 jams.
Over the past three decades, Mills has applied his visionary aesthetic to film, documentaries and exhibitions. Continuing the collaborative theme, in 2017 he formed the jazz quartet, Spiral Deluxe. Armed with his trusty 909, Mills headed to Studio Ferber in Paris for a two-day recording session, resulting in the ambitious Voodoo Magic. It was here that FM caught up with Mills to talk techno, jazz and everything in between.
How did you get involved in the group project Spiral Deluxe and what excited you about it?
“It was an idea that I’d had for many years and was looking for opportunities to test it. The opportunity came about four years ago when we were offered a residency at The Louvre in Paris. Basically, I could do whatever I wanted, and forming a band was one of the ideas. From there, I began to find a combination of musicians that could bring in influences from many directions. Once we got together, we combined all our knowledge to create something we thought might be different or new.”
What were you trying to create that you thought might tread new ground?
“I don’t really know. Strategically, I picked musicians that had backgrounds in various directions because I knew them and thought that once we were able to throw ideas back and forth we might end up with a hybrid of this or that. We all like jazz, I particularly like jazz fusion, but I felt we were capable of exploring many different things, even coordinating our direction into rock. I had to come up with some type of tag to make it easier for people to understand, but the truth is, it’s too soon to tell what category we’re going to be in or how people will perceive us. My idea is that we’ll try to create new things every time we get together, and the VoodooMagic album was just an example of the different directions we could go.”
What can you tell us about Studio Ferber in Paris, the location of these recordings?
“I’d worked in the studio before on a few projects, including a radio show that I do on NTS Radio. It has a certain type of ambience – it’s one of the last old great studios here in Paris and has such a history. I thought it would be a great meeting place. When I was a hip-hop DJ living in Detroit, I used to work in a lot of studios throughout the ’80s producing artists; I even had an internship at a studio because I really wanted to learn how to use a mixing console and engineer a song. Since getting into electronic music, I never detached myself away from that, so being in this scenario brought me back to earlier in my career. The other musicians are all very experienced and skilful craftsmen, so they’re quite used to that environment too. I feel we can materialise and get a lot of things done quickly because of that.”
It’s a four-piece group, so what can you tell us about the other members?
“I know Gerald Mitchell because he’s from Detroit and worked with Mike Banks over at Underground Resistance. He’s known as an incredible keyboardist and was the first guy that I approached. I met Yumiko Ohno about 15 years ago in Tokyo. Bob Moog was in town and the director of a TV show came up with this crazy idea to ask if he would be the professor of a university class teaching Moog synthesisers to students. They wanted younger producers like Yumiko and I to be the students in this class and raise our hands and ask Bob questions like we were at school. For Kenji Hino, none of us knew him, but when I asked who the best bass player in Japan was, I was directed towards him, and he’s just incredible.”
Did you get into any discussions with the other band members before you started conceptualising the tracks?
“Actually, we had a gig booked in Paris and made arrangements to bring everyone here for that, but it was cancelled at the last minute, so we just decided to put together a recording session. The first day was about meeting each other again, refreshing ourselves and coming up with ideas; then we booked a recording session at Ferber to record those ideas. All the music on VoodooMagic was the result of that, although there are actually more tracks – we recorded a lot of music even though we only had one day.”
You primarily played a Roland TR-909 and some acoustic drums. Was it challenging to create these live patterns on-the-fly with the improvised acoustics?
“I used to play drums when I was younger, so I still had a sense of how to play them to get the right sound. I also did a whole track just using cymbals and knew what the feel was when playing other pieces of percussion as if sitting behind a drum kit. The combination of the two was interesting because the music had the precision of a drum machine – it having been played like a drummer – but I’d accent that with certain drum sounds to create this acoustic feel.”
Presumably, the TR-909 wasn’t designed for jamming. Was it one of those cases where even the manufacturers didn’t realise its potential?
“I doubt they were thinking that somebody would
“We tried to use mixer functions like an instrument, like you would play a guitar”
play the stop and start button in order to be able to create a rhythm, but that’s the way I’m using the machine in order to be able to improvise with other musicians. I’m also not sure if they thought a person would use the volume up and down to mix the sequence of the drum pattern to feel as though they were playing a drum kit. You’re supposed to program the machine, but I found a way to play it to make it sound like a drummer – it’s unique in that way.”
What techniques do you use to lock into the other musicians’ tempos?
“With electronic instruments, it’s sometimes difficult to improvise. You’re also locked into this sync, which kind of limits its spontaneity. But we did away with that, so we’re not using MIDI and we didn’t have a tempo. I either started the tempo myself or mixed into what I thought was the tempo the musicians were playing at. Once I’d locked into that they, in turn, locked into my tempo. I can play at a whim, so when we did the track E=MC² , for example, we really did not plan that.”
What is it about the 909 that keeps it relevant for you, particularly in terms of its sound?
“Its sounds are kind of party-ready and eventready. They’re so distinctive and have just the right amount of resonance and tuning that you don’t need to put effects on them to make them sound great. It’s also a really powerful machine that came along at a time when music needed to be powerful. This was during the rave era and electronic and techno music, where you often needed the drums to be very strong. The 909 was always ready to go, straight out of the box, which is different from the 808 where some sounds are a bit soft. On that machine, the tuning is interesting on the kick drum, but when you need to hammer the sound it doesn’t have that type of dynamic.”
Have you tried using the Boutique TR-09 sound module and made a comparison?
“Yes, I had one. It’s very nice and introductory, but I wish they’d created a new way to play the machine. You can put it in your pocket, travel with it, pull it out and plug it in, but I think it probably would have been a better idea to make it larger and more freestanding, something you could actually stand at and play.”
You must have ideas about how these instruments could be adapted. Have you ever been interested in the manufacturing side?
“If you look at what a lot of DJs have done with the DJ mixer in the ’80s and ’90s, especially DJs from Detroit, Chicago and New York, we tried to use mixer functions like an instrument, playing the knobs like you would play a guitar – something that you can strum or pick at. That’s been going on for decades. If you look at how we’re using analogue machines, we’re twisting and turning the knobs to try and play the unit. Programming the instrument is one thing, but one would think the manufacturers would realise that we want to play the instrument. If they could make something to play, I think that would lead the culture to be more involved in live performance and band settings and allow us to show how fast and precise we can be. I don’t have an ambition to create equipment or instruments, but if you look at what we’ve been trying to do all this time, you’d think they’d begin to make things that we could stand at, hold or strap around us.”
Particularly as you’re often kneeling down when playing these machines live – doesn’t seem very comfortable…
“And people can’t see the action because I can’t hold the machines or move around with them. It’s limiting, so if any of the people from these instrument companies read this article, they should know that some of us want to be more of a musician than a DJ or bedroom producer. They’re not catching up with that.”
What else were you using during the recording sessions for Spiral Deluxe?
“I think I was using an Acidlab Bassline for a little bit of acid and another drum machine, but I didn’t use very much of that. The 909 was the primary instrument along with congos and large cymbals, and I think I might have had a tambourine.”
You were also heavily involved in the recording and mixing of the project?
“It was also my job to produce it, so I did all the sessions, the mixdowns and the editing. Because we didn’t have much time, I wasn’t sure as to where we were going to do the mixes. After we’d laid down Tanya Michelle’s vocal on LetItGo, there was an option to take it to another studio, so we made it pretty flat and didn’t fly any effects in because I knew I had a lot of work to do on those tracks in post-production. What we did do was use the time wisely while the musicians were there to get some comments from them, put things where they were supposed to be, do some editing and tighten things up. A few weeks later, I went back myself to do the final mixes with the engineer and later to Detroit to record the background vocals to LetItGo. Layout and format preparation were done independently at my label, and the final mastering and plating was done in Germany.”
Was there a reference point for how you wanted the music to sound?
“Actually, before we recorded it I was listening to lots of other pieces of music, for example, a lot of Quincy Jones and jazz – The Crusaders, and different mix techniques. So when we began to mix down I knew I wanted to have a certain type of sound separation between instruments to build variety within the architecture of the compositions. On the track VoodooMagic, I wanted to have a revised version of a jazz fusion-type track while maintaining the sound quality. I was listening to a lot of Grace Jones, Sly and Robbie and Stevie Wonder, and wanted something similar to that combination of elements, but with the clarity of a modern record. For example, in Detroit I redid some of the drums from a drum kit but I wanted the sound to have the same precision that a drum machine would have, so we did some editing to nudge everything together and to make it sound more precise.”
For you, is the DAW little more than a tape recorder or are you excited by the world of soft synths and plugins?
“I know both worlds, but on my own recordings I don’t use computers or software. I run everything straight into a console and mix it within five minutes. I don’t multi-track either – I stopped doing that. The tracks are made on the fly because what I’m trying to do is capture the moment. Being at a studio like Ferber, I took advantage of the technology and used software, mainly to edit, but that’s about it. Even within the editing, I only like to go so far – it still has to have a human feel to it. I try to find that by working with really great musicians that know how to play precisely, rather than ones that are all over the place [ laughs].”
It stands to reason that the better the musicianship and recording chain, the less necessity for dissection in post-production?
“That’s right – it’s like that. And that applies to other things too. With photography, I don’t like to edit at all. I prefer things to be captured as they are, even if they contain mistakes. I do edit things for speed, like radio shows – otherwise it is what it is. I have to get better myself, so I don’t make mistakes.”
At this point in your career, what type of solo project is most appealing to you?
“Occasionally I work in film – in an area that I would normally have an interest in anyway, like science fiction, which is not too far from what I’m trying to do in the studio with techno music. I’m constantly working, so it’s easy to turn my attention to a soundtrack or something similar. At the moment, I’m working on a project about the moon landing for the next year’s 50th anniversary.”
How do you think techno has evolved over the past 30 years and where do you feel that it’s positioned today within the dance music realm?
“At a certain level it’s been quite consistent, because there have always been producers that study certain types of music that are at the foundation of techno. A lot of attention goes into the sequencing, sounds and drum patterns they use, and exploring new types of ways of doing it. That’s always been a consistent part of the genre and it still remains an independent and free format of music, not regulated by larger companies or big corporations restricting what we’re supposed or not supposed to do. People use that freedom to explore, which has always been at the core of the music. In addition to that, you have these other levels that are more commercialised and appeal to the larger public; these things are really important because, to me, it’s an introductory level into electronic music and techno. Genres like EDM, trance and big room sounds are really useful. I find the underground and more commercial sounds work together and serve a purpose, because they’re designed to make people physically move and dance.”
Technology is implicit in the name of course, but does techno, and the gear associated with it, break new ground like it used to?
“Electronic music has covered a lot of ground, but compared to jazz, rock and classical it’s still early. The creators are still alive and performing. We’ve yet to see The Beatles or the Jimi Hendrix of techno; we’re still pretty much dealing with the forefathers like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Kraftwerk. I feel we still have a long way to go, with ideas still being tossed back and forth.”
But instruments like the 909 actually created genres or sub-genres. Is that more difficult now that electronic music has already been created as a format?
“Yes, a lot of it has to do with the machines themselves, and if the machines started giving us new sounds that would be great [ laughs]. Of course, you can create your own modular-type of system, but it would help if the manufacturers that are making drum machines said, ‘We already have the 909 and the 808, so why don’t we start making new sounds for new types of drum machines?’ If Moog
“If you know you’re lucky to be in music, it’s clear what you’re supposed to work at”
would come up with a machine that had completely different types of sounds, or sequences that would allow us to think about the music in a different way, then that would have an impact. Making the analogue sequencer more regularly available and cheaper played a big role in shaping techno music – we started using these random sequences to create a certain type of sound. We’re influenced by what these machines can do, which comes down to what people design for us.”
In what direction would you like to see it heading instead?
“I never thought they looked closely enough into what DJs and musicians are really trying to do, or what producers are getting away with.
“A lot of producers use software to program their music, but we don’t know how it got there. If they look closely, they could fill in the gaps and make the producer more involved. So, thinking about something rather than playing it could be an application, like a device strapped to your head to measure what you’re thinking and turn it onto a waveform. It’s a crazy sci fi-type of idea, but maybe it’s time to think about the creator’s involvement. There’s a lot to be done if we don’t just assume everybody wants to program music rather than really evolve.”
Must we not lose sight of the fact that the music is more important than the producer or DJ? That’s where the experience lies, not with the creator...
“In spite of all the things that bombard people from the music industry – the whole carnival/circus that happens around it, or record sales – deep down the music is the most important thing. Without the music and a great composition that has something to say, everything else really falls apart. If you know you’re lucky to be in the music industry and never lose sight of that, it becomes clear what you’re supposed to pay attention to, perfect, master and work at. If you’re a musician, you’re supposed to make music. The more you make, the better you get at it. I’m not necessarily talking about making records, but just sitting down and creating something from nothing. The more you know yourself, the more you know your capacity… and the learning never really stops.”
You’re willing to cut the connection between audience and DJ, but that’s not the direction of travel for most DJs?
“That’s a topic that’s been quite elusive in electronic music because of the way the genre and the DJ has evolved. Now, you have DJs that are trying to become more colourful, be noticed and direct the people to a certain extent. That’s because people are now realising that we’re tied to what I call the ‘elephant’ – we have this table in front of us with all this equipment on it, but you can’t detach yourself away from it in that setting. That people are now dancing around it and on top of it is an indication that they want to program and play the music, but also break away from it. That also shows me why we’re still early in the genre, figuring out how to arrive at a certain stage.”
Finally, how do you see Spiral Deluxe evolving? Is it a long-term project?
“This is not another side-project; it’s something that I probably would’ve started years ago if I could. The band is here to stay and so is the concept. We all know there are a lot of things to explore and ideas to mix up. All of us are independent and busy in our own individual careers, but we recognise that when we get together it’s an opportunity to create something. I don’t see any restrictions on that, so we’re not rushing things.
“We’re planning to do another session in November in Tokyo and I’m studying ideas for that now. Ironically, it’s another two-day session – one day of rehearsal, a day of recording and then the performance. Hopefully, we should have something to present by this spring, with some previews during the winter.”