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

Future Music - - CONTENTS - The Spi­ral Deluxe al­bum, Voodoo Magic, is avail­able now. Check out face­ Spi­ralDeluxe for more info

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.”

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