How Jeff Mills got in sync with Tony Allen to bring Afrobeat and techno together

On December 14, 2016, techno pioneer Jeff Mills and legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen performed together for the first time in Parisian jazz club New Morning. This spring, they’re taking the show to the Netherlands. FACT’s Chris Zaldua talks to Mills about the ambitious project and its implications.

Jeff Mills and Tony Allen is a collaboration that seems, at first glance, too good to be true: two innovators, two legends in their own right, working together. News of the collaboration first surfaced last November and video documentation of their first performance revealed the pair experimenting with form, playing off each other as they go. “Everything [Allen] does is part of a conversation,” says Mills. “Once I knew that, then I knew how I could meet him halfway.”

The pair will reprise their collaboration live on stage at this year’s Rewire Festival in The Hague. We caught up with The Wizard himself to speak about about the collaborative process, the futurist possibilities inherent in techno music, and on re-thinking our perspective on how drum machines can be used.

“It should be interesting for people who have been programming music for a long time to see how I’m using the drum machine alongside what Tony’s doing,” suggests Mills, and how “I’m able to do a drum-roll on a drum machine the same way [Tony is] doing a drum-roll on a drum kit. It’s a new way, and I hope people can get something from it.”

Rewire Festival takes place this year on March 31 – April 2. Tickets are available from the Rewire website.


“I used to be a percussionist for many many years, but I’ve never seen anyone treat the drum quite this way”

How did this project with Tony Allen come about?

It was moreso the initiation of our agents, I guess. Tony was working on an album project where he had rented out a studio in northern Paris. He was inviting people to come into the studio to work on his album, and that’s how we first made contact.

Did you work together on a record? I noticed that you performed in December.

Right, yes. It started off as a request for me to come in and play on an album, but once we got together, I showed him what I could do — then the idea of a show came up. That was the show at the New Morning in Paris.

How was it working in the studio with him?

Incredible. It’s really unusual how he manipulates rhythm. How he speaks, basically — everything that he does is part of a conversation. Once I understood that, then I knew an angle how I could meet him halfway with that. And it is percussion, but he has a very deep, very in-depth understanding of how it’s used in order to bring out a certain emotion.

You know, I used to be a percussionist for many many years, but I’ve never seen anyone treat the drum quite this way. Playing with him, and having conversations with him about how he invented Afrobeat, it was quite amazing.

That’s interesting to me because I would characterize your work as very percussive-heavy, very much about percussion. Was it challenging to work with someone who’s also a master of percussion in his own right?

At first it was, but then I began to ask questions. The first thing I noticed is that the way that he treated the snare was unusual. And I asked him, where did that come from? He said that at the time, drummers rarely ever hit certain drums, at the time that he was coming up. So, to be different, he decided to use the snare mostly on the two and the four, and kind of fill in the gap between the hi-hat and the kick with the snare. It’s quite interesting.

So he thinks about drums in a very different way than most people, it sounds like.

Yeah. When you listen to him play, it just keeps evolving. You’d think there’s only so much you can do between a kick, snare, and a hi-hat, but it just keeps evolving. So when we got together, and I was playing drum machine, in a — I guess, an unorthodox way — I was playing the drum machine as close as I could to a drummer, and I could have more freedom in order to be able to accent what he was doing. And at that point, we developed a special way of playing together.

Do you think of the drum machine as a percussion instrument?

Yeah, at times. I use the drum machine in many different ways, you know. Over the decades, I’ve used it, sometimes, as drums — where my intention is for you to hear individual sounds of the drum. Sometimes, as a pulse, something that is sunken into the composition or the track, where I only want you to feel the motion of the drums, but not necessarily the voice of the drums themselves. Sometimes, using certain drums as the lead, and principal voice in the composition, where a crash or a cymbal can have more of a life, not just something that’s playing along with the other drums.

Sometimes I use it only enough in order to make the other sounds present, but then I begin to strip away the drums almost to the point where I don’t use it at all. And then on the other side, I tend to program sounds the same way I program the drum machine. So it comes out very melodic at times, and can be — almost like a meteor field, you know?

Almost as if there were many different sounds and things happening all at once in the same kind of sound-field?

Exactly.

“Playing with an orchestra, I began to realize again the quality of just a single sound”

Is it interesting for you, working with electronic tools, to work alongside live drums?

For me, it’s more interesting when it is more possible to open up the envelopes and the oscillators and things manually. And by doing that, I can operate the synth like a voice, and kind of replace my voice, I suppose.

Let’s say for instance — a TB-303. The knobs are there for you to be able to adjust and modulate the sound. It’s the combination between that and percussion — really, for me, that’s all that I need. Because it’s so simple, I have to be more creative, and think about how I’m going to use that synth to replace my voice. And it’s a very responsive machine.

The way that I use it, I don’t program anything in it ahead of time that I’m going to play straight on. I program something in it that I’m going to use in order to be able to modify and adjust it. These types of sequences allow me to use that sequence in many different ways, so I can break it down to the low frequencies, or just use the highs, or use some other way of doing that, and mixing that with the tom-tom, or the kick. Just making it very simple, but having then to rely on creativity to speak.

It sounds like working with Tony has helped you to innovate in your own music as well. It’s challenging you to use your tools in different ways.

Yeah. One thing’s for sure, I don’t really need to use the snare anymore. [laughs] He’s definitely got that covered. But in our rehearsals, we kind of figured out which pockets we like to be in. So, you know, the kick drum on my machine, keeps moreso the pulse. So he’s able to use his kick drum more as an accent, to give it more expression. The hi-hat I can adjust the same way, or similarly to what he does, and so he can go even further with the sounds of his hi-hat. So we just kind of figured out where our places are.

When you performed live together, was that totally improvised, or was some of it rehearsed or planned?

It was about 96% improvised. We knew what the introduction was like — how we’d start the track — but after that it was pretty much whatever.

And I presume this forthcoming performance will be similar?

Yeah. Maybe even more so. We have rehearsals, but I think we both know what it’s supposed to be. So we just have to try to figure out how to get there in various ways, you know. I can throw him a tempo, and within a split second, he’s on it.

It’s not like something that we need to rehearse because … we are both very experienced in live performance, and playing in real time, so things like creating breaks and all those type of things, our intuition kicks in — we can kind of foresee where we’re headed, or how long a track really needs to go for, or should there be more.

Those type of things we just kind of sense, so it really can be anything: tempos can change, basslines can change, everything can evolve in one track, and that’s what we’re going to do.

You’ve been collaborating with many different kinds of musicians over the past decade or so. I know you’ve worked with symphonies.

Yes. And that’s the reason why I was here in Osaka last night, playing with Tokyo Philharmonic.

This must really open up new avenues in your own work for you, right?

It does. Going from being in the studio by myself to being in a body of eighty musicians, working with all different ranges, and soloists, and things like that, of course. It’s changing my mind and it’s changing how I approach electronic music.

How has that changed?

Well, say, back in the late ‘80s or ‘90s, I would produce music in a way that would not put an emphasis on individual sounds, I suppose. I was more interested in the cluster of things. But playing with an orchestra, I got back to, and began to realize again, the quality of just a single sound. And trying to use that sound in various ways. And having more attention, more concentration, more focus on the message of the music.

That’s how I’m able to collaborate with orchestras and with other people. First we find a common subject, a common link, a common thread, and that’s what we work towards. Sometimes that comes from classical, or from jazz, or whatever. So learning the language of addressing the subject is what I’ve learned the most.

“These machines were designed for you to play. Not just push along with a sequencer”

Okay. What kind of common language did you find with Tony? What are you working towards?

Well, we had quite a few conversations — about music, about what is “not so cool” [laughs]. You know, basically, the first thing we did was, we determined what was right.

What kind of thing are we talking about here?

Just in general. Towards music in general, you know. He was influenced a lot by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and I also listened to the Jazz Messengers, so I studied their music and the drum parts in there before I met him, so I could have some type of idea why he admired their work.

We talked about music, we talked about Fela Kuti and those days, we talked about how Afrobeat started and what it was like, and then we talked about new music, you know. I was asking him questions about what he likes and dislikes happening now with electronic music. He’s done a few other collaborations with people like Moritz von Oswald and similar people.

But what caught his attention about myself personally is the way I was playing the drum machine, and playing it without sync. We’re not tied together by MIDI or anything. So he realized that I was trying to play the machine — like he was playing the drums. And so when it’s like that, we can really connect. That was pretty much where we started.

So it sounds like there’s common ground in the way that you’re both thinking about percussion and using drums.

Yeah, and I think you really hear that in the way that we improvise. And so I can hear that he’s doing something, and then he can hear that I’m reacting to that, and then he reacts to what I just did, and it just kind of goes on like that. It’s not like I pre-program patterns — I’m playing the machine and using the sounds and using the sounds the same way a drummer would use both hands. With every rehearsal, it evolves more and more.

It sounds like even though you’re on the drum machine, keeping time electronically, you’re not necessarily taking the lead. It sounds like you’re both fluidly letting the lead develop naturally.

Yeah. The lead is the thing that keeps us together, how we’re clicked together. And the tempo — you don’t need to hear it, but between us, we know what the tempo is. Any drummer, in his mind, is keeping the tempo. So you can go wherever, and do whatever, and then come back to the tempo — that’s what drummers do.

Do you think there’s capacity to innovate what techno is capable of in terms of collaborations like this?

Yes. I think that people should see another perspective, another way, of how a drum machine can be used. And because of that, I know it’s a dangerous thing to say, almost forbidden in electronic music — to go sync-less. To go without time-code. That’s a very interesting way of getting back to playing electronic instruments the way it used to be, before MIDI became so widespread.

Actually playing the machine, playing the keyboard — I don’t know what that does for producers that only use computers, but these machines were designed for you to play. Not just program, sync, push along with a sequencer. There are knobs, switches, and things that are designed to be adjusted and played manually. I think that in the overall field [of electronic music, playing like this] makes electronic music warmer. Not so machine-like.

I would imagine that it should be interesting for some people who have been programming music for a long time to see how I’m using the drum machine alongside what Tony’s doing, and how I’m able to do a drum-roll on a drum machine the same way he’s doing a drum-roll on a drum kit. It’s a new way, and I hope people can get something from it.

That was my experience watching the video of your collaboration. I was very intrigued by it. It registered to my mind as “electronic music”, but it felt different, more like what I might expect to hear at a jazz concert. It made me think about the sounds I was hearing in a new way.

Right — and with every rehearsal, it evolves. We’re not fixed on any particular way, so it’s so great to work with him — he’s open to anything different and new. And that’s really the business that I’m in. So there’s plenty of territory to explore.

Read next: Jeff Mills explores his 10 landmark techno releases