Hail Jeff Mills: techno’s greatest ambassador, techno’s greatest believer, and arguably techno’s greatest innovator.
As he prepares to play Turin’s Club To Club festival this weekend, we salute the work of the Detroit native who, as both DJ and composer, revolutionised electronic music over the course of the 1990s. To those of you familiar with Mills’ work, the next 10 pages will simply jog your memory, and prompt you to fish out those prized, well-worn Axis and Purpose Maker 12″s from the depths of your collection. To those of you who’ve yet to fully acquaint yourself with the master, this is your indispensable route in.
Better still, Mills himself is your guide through the highlights of his peerless catalogue, commenting on each landmark release that we’ve selected, and on rather weightier issues too.
“I believe that our future won’t be here on Earth, but out there, in Space,” he opines. “Our future will consist of struggling to understand the unbelievable. Technology will makes many things possible, but re-calibrating the human mind is something more complex and the education needs to start now.”
DEEP IN 2 THE CUT
(FULL EFFECT LP, 1989)
Incredible music produced by Mills and Anthony Srock in ’89, born out of their love for European industrial sounds. The collaboration didn’t last long, but long enough to yield Deep In 2 The Cut, a unique, criminally little-known LP of raw, seedy and house-inflected EBM.
Jeff Mills: “I’m not quite sure how I first met Tony Srock (it was too long ago), but we decided to put together a industrial/techno band. This was a time in Detroit when the lines between industrial dance and Techno were blurred. Many people were listening to things they weren’t supposed to. We got together and formed a band called Final Cut. We were inspired by bands like Consolidated, Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, Ministry, Greater Than One, etc. The Detroit Techno scene was rising and we wanted to create a unit that was the medium between the two styles. To create something new.
“Through this band, we were invited to Berlin in 1989 to be in a New Music Festival given by Interfisch Records (now known as Tresor Records). We met many people there that I quickly became good friends with. After this trip, I decided to leave the band because the satanic thrash rock direction Srock wanted to go in wasn’t something I care too much for. I wanted to stay focused on dance music.”
Having jumped the increasingly rockist Final Cut ship, Mills donned a ski-mask to co-found Underground Resistance. UR of course distilled disparate influences – Motown soul, acid, electro, industrial – into a heady cocktail of hi-tech funk, served up with plenty of oppositional rhetoric, and their towering contribution to music and culture warrants an Essential of its own (watch this space).
JM: “While in Final Cut, I met Mike Banks and his then band, Members Of The House, through a colleague at the radio station WJLB. She asked if I could go by a recording studio and meet them to listen to what they were working on at the time. While working on the music for Final Cut, I used to borrow Mike’s keyboards (he had many) and he would sometimes listen to what Tony and I were doing. When I left Final Cut, Mike and I stayed in contact. He told me that he had concept of band called Underground Resistance and asked if I would be interested in forming it with him.
“We didn’t exactly start from zero, Mike had been with his band for quite a while and had a long experience with live performance and working with many established artists and lots of keyboards. I had lots of experience with sound recording techniques, editing equipment and a basic knowledge about record manufacturing, distribution and licensing, etc. By that time, from the radio, I taught myself how to use music conceptually, so when we merged together we both had many ideas to discuss. So, almost from the beginning, it was a full blown studio and we could get to work right away.”
WAVEFORM TRANSMISSION VOL.1
(TRESOR 2×12″, 1992)
Probably the definitive Jeff Mills release, and the one that changed the face of dance music, this epic 2×12″ is for the most part brutally aerobic, pared-down techno – you can hear the influence of ‘DNA’ and ‘Phase 4’ on the UK’s Regis and Surgeon, to name but a few – but also takes in juddering industrial experimentation (‘The Hacker’), euphoric pianos (‘Changes of Life’, recently sampled by KiNK) and deep, Robert Hood-esque minimalism (‘Late Night’). A classic through and through.
JM: “The Waveform Transmission series was designed to emphasize a new form of communication. A non-verbal dialogue that relied on notes and harmonic frequencies. It was designed to hold conversations between producers on either side of the World. I’m not sure if this initiative was clearly recognized, as most DJs at that time of its first release (1992) were just looking for something to play, but the concept was always there. There was always a image and visual aspect of it too, but I never got far enough into the project to address this. Waveform Transmission turns 20 years in 2012. We are planning on re-mastering the volumes for this anniversary.”
THE SUBJECTS vs JEFF MILLS
(UNDERTOW 12″, 1993)
Simply primetime Mills, an insane amount of funk teased out of a pounding martial kickdrum and then liberally splashed with acid.
JM: “‘Dark Matter’ reflects a darker side of Techno Music. The track was made as a remix of another title. Out of courtesy, I submitted 2-3 tracks to the artist, so that he could choose one for the remix. Instead, the artist of that track decided to release them all and name this one as ‘Black Matter’. Worst yet, under my name as the artist. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did and I regret ever working on this project. It’s partially because of this experience that I do not make re-mixes anymore.”
‘STEP TO ENCHANTMENT (STRINGENT)’
(from MECCA EP 12″, AXIS, 1993)
Immaculately grooving hard techno that manages to sound at once dense and low-slung; an eternal dancefloor killer.
JM: “Did I imagine that these tracks would become so influential? No, not really. Back then there were so many fantastic tracks being released, I was happy simply to hear DJs playing mine. This period had a high output of solid releases by many artists, and I assumed it would actually increase over time. These tracks were released at a time when many of us weren’t really aware of how and what we should do, so we were just doing what felt good. Other than high sales, we didn’t know what the reward could be. A successful track wasn’t really directly connected to getting more DJs bookings or magazine interviews, etc. I guess the business of Techno Music had not fully set in yet.”
(from ‘GROWTH’ 12″, AXIS, 1994)
‘Humana’ is pure Millsian science fiction: a stripped-down, cold-as-space bleepscape of unbelievable hypnotic power. The more sinewy, cyclical A-side ‘Growth’ is closely aligned to the sound of Rob Hood’s Minimal Nation, also released in ’94. As a whole, this vital 12″ is indicative of the increasingly atmospheric, dare I say it cinematic direction that Mills would take his music over the course of the 1990s.
JM: “I, like so many others in this profession, was young and had not lived enough life to understand what it’s all about – what its all for. For instance, I know now that the term ‘Techno’ is irrelevant. It is what is being said with the sound of Techno that is most important. Vinyl vs. CD vs. digital vs. what else will surely come is a useless debate. These are only carriers of the Music, and have little bearing on the information it’s carrying. Its a mystery to me why collectors of Techno Music do not ask more of the artists. Or, when we all see a someone letting computer software mix their music while he or she pretends to – no one speaks out. Music magazines do not give it the ‘thumbs down’, but they discreetly overlook it, as if it’s not that important.
“Sadly, very few people in this profession talk about Music anymore. It’s mainly about who is the #1 DJ, which clubs were full or who’s got the hype this month! From the very beginning of my career in Electronic Music I never took my eye off of what was most important – even when it wasn’t the trend. As I’ve grown older, I’m more at peace with what I’m doing because I believe that the diaspora of creativity is what pushes this genre up and out. Not who was the #1 DJ was in 1998.”
WAVEFORM TRANSMISSION VOL.3
(TRESOR LP, 1994)
Another landmark full-length offering, Waveform Tranmission Vol.3 includes one of Mills’ most acclaimed and endlessly influential tracks, ‘Solid Sleep’ – the impact it had on the Berlin techno sound in particular can’t be overestimated, its spacious sound design and pinched chords reverberating through the contemporaneous work of Maurizio and that of latterday standard-bearers like Shed. ‘The Extremist’ lives up to its title, proving no one can do head-trampling, high-speed techno-funk quite like our man, while ‘Condor to Mallorca”s dubbed-out rave vamps make it one of the most celebratory jams in the Mills canon.
JM: “‘Solid Sleep’ was made and named because I, unfortunately, could not sleep very well because of all the traveling. Solid sleep was rare back then.”
THE PURPOSE MAKER
(AXIS 12″, 1995)
An EP of wall-to-wall bangers, created using little more tough 909 drums and sampled disco juice: the Latin-swung ‘Reverting’ rages elegantly short of tribal delirium, the electroid loops of ‘In The Bush’ and ‘Casa’ launched a million imitations from lesser producers, and the tunnelistic title track is a one-way ticket to the sweetest dancefloor oblivion. It’s no exaggeration to call The Purpose Maker, which gave its name one of the four or five greatest club techno 12″s of all time. It also gave rise to Mills’ label of the same name.
JM: “The initial Purpose Maker tracks were originally designed only for me to play. Around 1994, I had started making a collection of tracks that only I would have in my DJ sets. I needed to have reasonably simple tracks that would allow me to layer three or four of them at the same time to give the illusion that only one track is playing. Tracks that were easy to play and had various key frequencies so that I could reshape the impression with a EQ in real time.
“They were designed to be as DJ tools. Not conventional songs. After playing them out and realizing how effective they were, I changed my strategy and decided to release one 12″ vinyl EP to see how DJs used it. The first indication was…OK. Not great, but OK. This was at a time when strong tribal techno was the trend and DJs were looking for instant power, so these Purpose Maker tracks were kindly considered, but not at the thrust of that current trend. It wasn’t until really until the fifth or sixth release that people began to notice the sound and label.”
THE OTHER DAY EP
(AXIS 12″, 1996)
A move away from his more loop-oriented work, The Other Day EP finds Mills graduating from producer to composer, using eerie, minor-key synth patterns to fashion a new kind of techno psychodrama. ‘Nepta’ and ‘i9’ are the iconic tracks, but the beatless radiophonic noir of ‘Striping Effect’ and ‘Time Out of Mind’ is alone worth the price of admission.
JM: “Working with an orchestra [later in my career] was a interesting education. It’s not as free flowing as Dance Music. Classical musicians are trained to basically read and play what is in front of them, so the score and how it’s written is the key point. There are certain limitations in Classical Music that makes it very difficult to merge with. Whereas, many Techno tracks are in minimal form to condition the listener over a period of time. This is somewhat difficult to execute in Classical because musicians are not used to playing the same thing for long.
“Swung patterns or anything in the area of ‘funk’ is near impossible – I don’t think it exists in Classical Music. From working with orchestras, I now better understand how unique Electronic Music really is. At times, it can be as straight and mechanically precise as Classical and other times, as funky as James Brown’s JBs. All is possible in the genre.”
KAT MODA EP
(PURPOSE MAKER 12″, 1997)
For featuring ‘The Bells’, the most recognisable techno track ever made. ‘Alarms’ is a worthy companion on the flip.
JM: “What are my goals for the future? Expanding and progressing the genre of Techno Music by bringing it to as many people as possible. I know that to some people, this sounds like a waste of time. That the idea of Techno Music being nothing more than something to dance to on the weekends is its indefinite future, but I have a different view and forecast of it.
“I believe that as humanity moves out and forward, the mechanisms of this genre are best suited for where we’ll be going. Rock, Jazz, Blues, Classical, Country, Hip Hop/Rap, etc. are all forms that highlight aspects of human life, here on Earth. I believe that our future won’t be here on Earth, but out there, in Space. Our future will consist of struggling to understand the unbelievable. Technology will makes many things possible, but re-calibrating the human mind is something more complex and the education needs to start now.”