With a career going back to the early ’80s, Detroit native Jeff Mills is a celebrated techno pioneer. Both for his own productions and his hand in founding iconic record label Underground Resistance, Mills’s music is known for its stripped-back, hard and relentless style. And, more recently, he’s been recognised for his considered, conceptual approach to music production – and for the orchestral scores he has written and performed.
Broadsheet: Can you tell us about the orchestra show you’re bringing to Melbourne?
Jeff Mills: [It’s] the very first one, called Light From the Outside World. It will be a score of various things I’ve composed in the past. So, The Bells and Gamma Player and things like that.
It’s based off a short story I wrote that contains the idea that the reality we know is nothing more than mere shadows of another time and space. That actually all the things we know are just fragments of something else.
BS: Are such deep concepts often lost in contemporary techno music?
JM: No, I think what’s closer to the truth is that the human being is a very deep concept. Some of us have more of an interest in translating that than others, but I see it all as being relevant in trying to have some input into this story that we’re all having … [in] wrestling with this reality that we’re in.
I don’t think what I’m doing is so very different, I just think it’s more focused on the way things are. Considering dancing is only a response to how you feel, I choose to concentrate more on how people feel rather than dancing.
BS: How has your music changed since its early days?
JM: A lot. I come from a generation that is somewhat the fallout of Studio 54 and Paradise Garage. Those DJs at those clubs were super influential for people of my generation, and that was primarily what I and many other DJs, even today, would reach for.
My objective is to make this music until the end of my life. So, I started focusing on subjects that I was very much interested in – space, space science, science fiction, futurism and those types of subjects – and started to bring those into the music-making process.
It wouldn’t necessarily have to be that I cut off dance music, but I thought there would be a need for me to expand for me to stay involved with music as I grew older.
BS: Do you see yourself as being out on a limb doing this?
JM: Around 2003–2004, when I began to make and play this stuff, a lot of people thought I was doing it to become the hype. But actually it wasn’t.
Now a lot of techno music has this feeling of space and space travel and a lot of it is really in the right direction, where it really focuses on the future. And I think that’s just a much better way to serve electronic music than always focusing on dancing, on CD versus vinyl; those very shallow kind of subjects. To use it to say more impactful things.
BS: What’s your opinion on EDM?
JM: It’s the same as what we’re doing. Really, you’re programming music. Your intention is to make people dance. There are different ways to do it, Theo Parrish is different to Calvin Harris, but in the end the objective is the same. You want to enlighten people by playing music.
Like any art form, you’re going to have people being attached to different styles because that’s representative of who they are. [But] what Theo does is no more or less relevant …. it’s all the same. There is no right or wrong way to deal with music.
I know some people will disagree with me but if you’re a real music lover, then you really have to be open to any and everything because one would understand that something good can come from any and everywhere.
BS: How is it working with an orchestra?
Working with orchestras is like being inside a machine. There’s a certain protocol and there’s a method in which they work. It’s not like a bunch of musicians hanging around for a jam session. There are correct and incorrect ways to channel information so that an orchestra understands it … Once they understand it, it’s perfect … but finding the right language can sometimes be difficult.
In the end, the result’s worth it. People who are normally into electronic music come and see this collaboration. I think it affirms that this music really has the potential to reach more people. Not just people in the club. It really has the components to say very deep and emotional things, but we’ve had very little chance to explain that.
[These collaborations, make it] apparent that especially techno music has a certain unique way of expressing things that’s very much consistent with classical music. And when you put the two together, it becomes obvious that there had always been much more to the genre than just dancing to it.
Jeff Mills is performing Light from the Outside World with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of Melbourne Festival on October 10 from 8pm. The performance will be followed by a Jeff Mills DJ set at the Royal Melbourne Hotel later that evening. For tickets to either show, head to funf.com.au/Jeff-Mills.