Jeff Mills: Maestro on the Decks

Jeff-Mills

After decades of pioneering work at the forefront of electronic music, the legendary Jeff Mills comes to Tokyo to perform alongside a symphonic orchestra.

The conductor’s baton bobs back and forth, while the cellists draw their bows across their strings, playing in perfect rhythm with the underlying … techno beat?

That’s right: pioneering DJ Jeff Mills has masterfully teamed the seemingly disparate worlds of electronic and classical music, performing his 2013 album “Where Light Ends” with various orchestras around the world, the next being Tokyo’s Philharmonic. It’s the latest feat in an already storied career. Techno fans consider him a grandfather of the genre, thanks to his cofounding of the steadfastly antiestablishment Underground Resistance DJ tribe in the late 80s, the unvarnished industrial-esque sound that he and his peers perfected, scoring and starring in French filmmaker Jacqueline Caux’s experimental film “Man From Tomorrow,” and more. And while some might assume that his ongoing orchestral project might be his greatest challenge yet, the Detroit turntable virtuoso insists that it’s actually quite easy to perform.

“You literally have a stage full of masterful musicians, along with you and a conductor and an arranger. So making it work structurally isn’t a problem,” Mills tells Weekender ahead of his March 21 performance with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra at Bunkamura Orchard Hall, which marks his debut orchestral collaboration in Japan. Mills says his true struggle during these performances is “the acoustics between electronic music, which fully fills the stereo field from left to right, and an orchestra of 80 musicians that are using that air to create sound. We are very careful to not have the electronic music drown out the orchestra, but finding that balance is quite difficult.”

Below, Mills tells us about the potential solution to that issue, the common misconceptions about his early DJing days in Detroit, and how even dance floor masters like himself have a deep respect for their Japanese audiences.

Jeff-Mills-Orchestra
© João Messias

So how do you fix these acoustic issues?

We’re very careful to work on the acoustics of the venue, and we have found quite a bit of success with keeping the balance. But it’s still difficult. I’m working on other solutions. One might be to not mic the orchestra, and make my setup self-contained. That means the sound from my machines would come from speakers that are near me, but not near the harp or the piano or things like that. We still have some work to do to make this process easier.

Is that the biggest adjustment to make?

Well, another things stems from the fact that I wrote the music. So when you hear the cello play a line, it’s what I wrote. And that’s so different from playing as a DJ for an audience. When I’m up there with the orchestra, I’m really inside the music, surrounded by musicians, and I can hear the double bass play his part right next to me; the cello too.

And being up on the stage is very different from being in the audience. The audience hears the orchestra as a whole. But I can’t hear the violins on the other side as well as you can. There are other instruments that I don’t hear at all, and every orchestral player is in the same situation. We’re really like a machine working together, so that the audience gets what it should.

Still, it wouldn’t occur to most artists to mix classical and techno. What gave you the idea?

It was an idea a lot of us had, that went back to the mid-80s. I remember talking with lots of other DJs about how some electronic compositions would be perfect for an orchestra. And I remember [Derrick May’s] “Strings of Life” was always one that people would refer to as an obvious good fit. I didn’t see any real possibility to do it until much later.

In my circle, we were always on the lookout for signs of where this genre could be going. In the earlier days of techno and rave, the late 80s to mid 90s, anything beyond large gatherings and music was rarely discussed. But I know Mike Banks [a fellow techno producer with whom Mills founded the Underground Resistance music label] and we always discussed new sounds and new directions. We’d always experiment.

One of your most interesting experiments occurred during your famous residency at the Necto, when you performed in the crowd instead of up on a stage.

That’s a bit of a misconception. It was actually more for practical reasons. The venue felt like it was three stories high, and they had put the DJ booth almost two stories above the audience. So I suggested that we try to make something to help me be downstairs, with the people. After that I could reinforce the music, depending on what I wore or what setup I had.

It was a quite an interesting time. I was very young, and I played 3-4 days a week, and had to think of new things to do all the time. The labels didn’t have a sense of what DJs would need, because they were still making music for radio, so it was really rare to find extended mixes, and even rarer to find straight beats and percussion. You had to make it up yourself, and that made each DJ very different from one another.

Are you nostalgic for those days?

No, but I can sense there are a lot of similarities between now and then. Like then, there is a certain amount of the public that is quite willing to accept new things. I and many other DJs can feel that too. It could be that after so many years of hearing so much music, people are giving up on this idea that music should be a particular way, and they have patience to hear something new.

Jeff-Mills-Roland
© João Messias

Are there other advantages to this era? Have equipment and gear evolved enough to make it easier for you to experiment?

Not really. I use two Roland TR-909s during these orchestral performances, and that’s basically it. One is for playing manually, and the other has patterns that need to be tied to the tempo and the BPM. So I have two separate ways to play two different sounds from the same machines. That lets me give the impression that the drum pattern fractured and came apart, then I can play it manually and have it come back together again. You can’t program that on a single machine.

But I have yet to find a machine that would allow me to play, other than a 909. So about two years ago, I decided to make a machine especially to play and not program, not with buttons and knobs but something that I could hit or play. I worked with an industrialist named Yuri Suzuki. He’s a very well known Japanese instrument maker who lives in London. He and I have only tested the machine once, but we’re hoping to use it for some projects this year.

Aside from Suzuki, who do you admire in Japan’s music community? Do you have any favorite Tokyo DJs?

I won’t name any names. But the Japanese scene, in general, is actually one that many Western DJs have always watched. It was always one that we understood as being uncompromising, and closer to the truth than anywhere else. If a Japanese audience asked you to come, it’s probably because they have studied and listened closely to what you do, and they think you can do something special. A lot of us still see that as a very special measurement.


Jeff Mills X Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing at Bunkamura Orchard Hall on Monday, March 21, at 4:30 pm.

Main image: © Jacob Khrist

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