For a man who’s been DJing for 30 years, it’s a testament to his staying power, vision and hunger to take risks that Jeff Mills still remains at the very highest echelon of dance music. Having witnessed one of his sets recently at London’s Fabric and listening to a recent recording of a live session on Japanese radio, it’s very clear that he has decided upon a new path - one that sets him apart from his contemporaries once again.
Having been brought up on a staple diet of Jeff Mills at Steve Bicknell’s legendary Lost nights during the 1990’s, it’s pleasing to see when someone you admire from your youth continues to break down barriers yet sticks to particular principles with his aesthetic. The recent reissue of his Waveform Transmissions albums on Tresor from his time in New York and Berlin only serve to highlight that his unique, incendiary and industrial take on techno from that period is the very bedrock on which the genre is made nowadays. These records, although lauded heavily, still carry the power to overwhelm you. Whilst his Detroit contemporaries have all made their own stellar imprint at various times, none have exuded quite the same influence as him. Juan Atkins may have invented the genre, but his shadow is much smaller nowadays.
Many have argued that his impact actually set back techno somewhat. The emergence of DJs from across Europe seeking to emulate him reduced the genre to a woeful, spasming recurrence of tribal, looped techno that has lasted far too long for its own good and only a notable handful have managed to carve out their own path. But, like all great artists, it is inevitable that far inferior copyists trail in their wake.
Although it is perhaps disingenuous to compare him to other techno DJs, in terms of their approach to identity and marketing, him and Richie Hawtin are very similar. However, he is not a slave to the relentless march of technology like the latter and has cleverly resisted association with other, lesser artists. Hawtin’s alliance with digital technology seems Faustian and in an age of a bewildering amount of software, midi interfaces, laptops and sleek lines, Mills’ refusal to use digital technology in the recording process gives the impression that he is happy with the tools he has. I’ve often thought about the similarity between a blues guitarist and those early minimal pioneers from Detroit - they were happy with the hardware they had; with Robert Hood and Mills there’s been no need to expand their studio - content to emerge with these abstract voyages into minimal techno.
From his attempt to soundtrack Buster Keaton movies to other, more abstract projects, it is also clear that he has always attempted to bring a sophisticated, intellectual aspect to proceedings. In the world of techno, which has from time to time attracted neanderthal attitudes to this sort of thing, this is refreshing. It is without doubt that at times his pseudery has left him looking a bit foolish - some of the liner notes for releases are unreadable - yet ultimately he should be applauded for taking a risk. The simple fact is that Jeff Mills’ back catalogue for at least a decade more than makes up for any misguided sortie up an intellectual blind alley from time to time. For all the failed attempts in this area (the Montpelier Orchestra recording is like a techno Pink Floyd) there are some stunning examples of brilliance. The Metropolis soundtrack is a minor masterpiece of techno and shows what can be done when it’s executed properly, whilst the Every Dog Has Its Day series of albums highlighted a melodic mastery that is the equal of Larry Heard. If he had attempted some of these projects in a live arena more recently, when the idea of a techno artist playing concert auditoriums instead of a club has become an acceptable idea, then they may had greater impact than on often confused punters.
For a DJ who rarely makes any sort of noticeable expression or gesture, Jeff Mills remains a remarkably charismatic performer. His ability to command a 10,000 capacity arena at Sonar remains undoubted, but it is all the more curious that the stage for his “Sleeper Wakes” project, with the DVD players on the floor, look like he’s DJing in a poorly furnished Ikea showroom and about to endure horrendous back ache.
It’s challenging and peculiar - not phrases you would imagine come to mind when you see a DJ. However, for all this unrestrained praise, it is worth noting that his sound hasn’t moved on a great deal in 20 years. During the middle part of the last decade he seemed caught up in the mess of what was techno at the time and as a result his approach and sets suffered. The idea of him once playing Samuel L Sessions records still makes me feel a bit ill. The Exhibitionist DVD and mix is a good example of this and seems woeful when compared to the legendary recording at the Liquid Rooms (still the only mix CD worth buying because it’s live). There is much criticism of his DJing style, which to be fair, isn’t always tight and often seems lacking in a certain direction. However making sure records are in time isn’t the only skill available to a DJ - charisma, energy and individuality are greater and not so easy to come by.
Mills’ obsession with science fiction and astronomy has kept a vital and core part of Detroit techno alive. It’s easy to forget that it was forged in the fires of escapism and apart from the heavily abstracted ideas of Gerald Donald, there is little of this idea left in the genre. More importantly, this new direction in his DJ sets connects the concept with the music quite superbly. Murky drones wash over a scratchy hi-hat, propelled along by an insistent beat, or from time to time something comes in just out of time, merging slowly, with you almost willing it to come together. For listeners who require their music to be marshalled like a rigid application of Ableton, Mills is not for you - he is at his best when records drift in and out and all sorts of unusual electronic whirrings descend on you like a cloud of drunken bees, all the while retaining a tension that makes you think he’s about to break loose at any moment. The odd Sakho or Sleeparchive track keeps the feeling glacial and sparse.
This musical direction is helped no doubt by his decision to use CDJs, which has enabled him to keep the track selection almost to his own compositions at times and seems like his only concession to digitalism. Unlike the aforementioned Hawtin who seems almost a living, breathing conduit for Poker Flat-esque misery, listening to a recent Jeff Mills set is like going back to being a wide-eyed newcomer to the genre and a trip into the unknown. It is very gratifying to hear music that I might not hear again.
In an age where discogs, mixes and downloadable sets have begun to drastically corrode the serendipity of a night in a club, his decision to keep this experience to one that you might not repeat is one to be applauded. In the long run too, it marks out his sets as something away from the norm - a DJ is primarily an entertainer, but he’s a performer in the true sense.
Curiously enough, I have always felt that the maligned Richie Hawtin and (not-so maligned) Ricardo Villalobos have done a great deal to restore techno’s validity as a genre, no doubt helped by the twin colossi that are Berghain and Berlin as fashionable spots for a new generation to visit and experience. It is rewarding then to see someone like Jeff Mills retain his ability to carve out a singular niche for himself and to divert some of the genre’s current energy away from mindless hedonism. Furthermore, his Detroit roots maintain that all-important lineage that is perhaps lost on this new generation. Like the Lang movie he soundtracked, Mills has one foot in the past and the other still in the future.
I’ll end with a close friend’s observation of him - “If you see a DJ perform a backspin whilst wearing chinos you’re in for a good night”.