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Producer, label owner, radio host, conceptual artist, conductor and DJ Jeff Mills has moved in all of these spheres and more while remaining the biggest name in techno for nearly three decades.

What links his work across multiple media is an unwavering belief in the future and the potential of the human race to better itself. After starting out mixing hip hop on Detroit station WDRQ, Mills met Mike Banks and Robert Hood in the late 80s and formed techno collective Underground Resistance, who used the imagery of revolutionary struggle to contextualise their harsh and uncompromising techno.

Since leaving the group, Mills has continued to explore the boundaries of dance music, enlisting the Montpelier Philharmonic to re-imagine his work for a symphony orchestra in 2005. His latest project, Lost In Space, sees him return to the concert hall, collaborating with the National Orchestra of Toulouse on a project conceived “with the future of mankind’s advances in space travel and colonising other planets in mind”.

This December, Mills returns to Manchester to headline the Warehouse Project alongside Nina Kraviz and Clark. His DJ sets are akin to a pyrotechnics display, with Mills often using three turntables at once as part of his virtuosic mixing style. I caught up with him from Miami to find out what the future will sound like.

Lost In Space premieres next year in Toulouse. What’s the idea behind it?

Lost In Space is about exploring mysterious phenomena that happen in outer space through classical and electronic music.

Since 2005 a lot of your projects have involved collaborations with classical musicians. What’s the connection between classical music and minimal electronics?

Both require a certain amount of dedication and devotion, where theory is just as important as the technical aspects. Like some other music genres, these two are unique in tasks where we’re describing something bigger than life, subjects that go beyond our sense of reality and logic.

‘Planets’ takes inspiration from the suite of the same name by Gustav Holst. Where do you begin when approaching a piece of music that is already so well known?

I started by re-imagining the method of how I can describe them. Holst’s ‘The Planets’ was an inspiration, but the project I designed was more based on the facts we know of each planet and the soundtrack is actually a musical tour or excursion. So the way we humans would travel from planet to planet, the planet’s size, rotation and physical makeup were all factored into the scheme.

In addition, this project is designed to be open-ended, meaning that with each significant discovery we learn about each of the planets, the arranger and I must go back into the classical score to update the composition.

What role does music have to play in man’s future exploration of space?

I’m not sure, but music may be used to re-ignite memory, giving the listener some sense of connection to another world beyond the new one they’re exploring. It’s hard to say.

A lot of your work is imbued with a sense of optimism about a future that now feels more precarious than ever. Is it still important to imagine the future?

Yes, of course, and it’s not something that would be considered unusual. In music, I think it’s more strange, and even questionable, to hear something that doesn’t really have anything to say, that doesn’t address subjects that others can relate to. As music is a form of communication, I think it’s important to try and maintain this relationship with listeners and dancers.

In a 2009 interview with The Wire, you predicted that “the art form of DJing will run its course”. Does the resurgence of vinyl show that the DJ is still relevant?

Well, if we take a closer look into the resurgence, we might find that the increase of vinyl production is due to major labels re-pressing older classic rock and jazz albums. I’m not sure if it’s really enhancing the independent dance music industry. Since 2009, and still now, I see the art form in danger of fading away, mostly due to the lack of innovation, the lack of attention to a DJ’s technical skill, and most importantly how the music is presented and played. [This] leads me to believe that our industry is only sustained by the fact there really isn’t anything else in comparison, but this may not last forever. I predict something new will emerge.

You’re headlining Warehouse Project in December. What have you got planned for your set?

I’m constantly testing new material, so by the time of the festival I may have many tracks that could be for a radio show that I’m producing for NTS called The Outer Limits, or music from the two most recent cinemixes, Fritz Langs’ Metropolis (1927) or The Crazy Ray (1924) by Rene Clair. Or even tracks from the next Sleeper Wakes album called The Supernatural. It’s hard to tell, but let’s see.

How do you think technological change will affect how we listen to music in the future?

I think we’ll have the opportunity to experience in its creation. From a listener’s or creator’s point of view, I think technology will make many things possible in how we experience creative works.

What compromises do you have to make working with an orchestra?

None. In fact, it’s the opposite. I’m able to think outside of my capacity and far exceed what I could do myself. For me, they are advantages, not compromises.

Next article in issue 47


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