Jeff Mills interview: One Man Spaceship
Author: Andrez Bergen
Friday, 13 October 2006
Thus espouses Jeff Mills, in the midst of waxing lyrical about his new album 'One Man Spaceship', released this month. The album sounds like Blade Runner shaken and stirred with David Bowie and Brian Eno's dark instrumental workouts 'Sense Of Doubt' and 'Neukoln' from 'Heroes' (1977) - with techno lobbed into the mix for good measure.
Mills' passion is for the underside of music.
He's a perennial favorite at clubs and festivals across the globe, and he's cited as a huge influence by most fellow deejays, including Japan's own Fumiya Tanaka and Ken Ishii - both of whom Mills says he respects in return.
For him, the emphasis is on experimentation and challenge, so some of his efforts have been deemed aloof, while still others are judged cold, metallic, and distant.
Yet a larger number of people adore Mills' music.
"Because I don't use any vocals, I have to rely upon reaction," Mills told me in a memorable moment 10 years ago, over the phone from Chicago. He continued: "There are ways of making an impression and creating ideas by using texture; if I touch you in a certain way - actually physically touch you - then that's quite similar to the way my music is created."
That kind of comment could render you a shade uncomfortable, especially when a decade later, at club Womb in Tokyo - where Mills has a residency this month - we're sitting together, and he could reach out to touch me easily if he wanted to.
As it turns out, he's much too wrapped up in the discussion of music - in this case that moment in the burned-out city of Detroit in 1990, when Mills, in collaboration with "Mad" Mike Banks and Robert Hood - embarked on the creation of merciless ghetto-funk techno, under the Underground Resistance moniker.
"We made music about who we were and where we were from. Of course there were going to be links [with the city's decrepit state] - that's why we had songs with titles like 'Riot.' Because that was indicative of the era we were born in, and the things we remembered."
Scintillating techno records from UR, like X-102's 'The Rings Of Saturn', are still played at more open-minded and up-for-it clubs years later.
Yet in spite of his respected experimental tag since then, Mills has no qualms about admitting that he once worked the commercial side of music.
"In the '80s, yeah," he says. "I think the most popular song was called 'Take Me Away.' It was re-released last year and became a hit again."
"Before Underground Resistance, I worked with singers, big studios, and more structured songs. But at some point I just felt there was a need to venture off and explore more uncovered territory; to experiment more. And then, once I got the smell of that - well, I became even more curious."
Mills departed UR in 1992 to pursue a solo career, and just over a decade ago Sony unleashed a classic recording of one of his now-notorious deejay sets at the Liquid Room's former Kabuki-cho residence in Tokyo.
Titled 'Mix-Up Vol. 2', it was relentless motor city techno, with even the mixing errors left in for posterity, and it combined two diverse channels: one, the actual music being played; the other, a recording of the audience's response.
That audience response - in common with reactions the world over to Mills' sets in the years since - was wild. This was dance music for the 21st century, well before the century had even had a chance to kick into gear.
"I think - at the time of that release - more people had begun to know who I was," Mills muses.
"It was really a very high point in terms of having a connection with the audience. With my own productions I was hitting a plateau in terms of style... Purpose Maker [his new label] was kicking off, and I was developing 'The Bel Tags