The Detroit techno music stalwart talks to us about how technology and film inspire his career
Dubai gig a learning experience for Jeff Mills
For years the UAE has been praised by dance music DJs and event organisers for its thriving EDM scene. However, while the country hosts the biggest names in the business, that claim can only have resonance if it also plays homage to some of the scene’s originators. A positive step in that direction is the arrival in Dubai of techno music pioneer Jeff Mills.
The American DJ, producer and film composer will headline Mutek, a Canadianelectronic music festival arrives to the UAE for the first time over the weekend with a slew of DJ performances, music workshops and industry panels.
Acts performing include UAEelectro-funk group Abri and the Dreamfleet and DJs Dasha Rush from Russia and Canada’s Hugues Clement.
While content to work under the dance music label, 54-year-old DJ Mills says he subscribes to its original inclusive ideal; something he says has eroded due to the dance music now calcifying into a network of subgenres.
“We came from a time when there was no one behind us to refer too. So a lot of the time we are just writing the rule book as we go,” he says.“Electronic music, from the beginning, was for everyone, and it is not a private club.It wasn’t about doing it a certain way to appeal to a certain crowd. It was about taking an intelligent piece of music, equipment, and giving it to people to see what is being created.”
Mills’s career is inextricably linked to the Roland TR-909. A vintage electronic drum machine produced from 1983 to 1985, the instrument was considered groundbreaking on its release, with its mix of analogue and digital samples and its ability to manipulate the sounds produced.
Mills’s prowess on the machine allowed him to coax a range of sounds both futuristic yet natural that went on to influence a generation of dance and hip-hop producers.
Indeed, superstar rapper and fellow Detroit native Eminem labelled one of Mills’s solo side projects, The Wizard, as a key influence in his growth as an artist.
“My approach comes in that I came from a hip-hop background where I was not just spinning records but also playing the turntables. I wanted to try to play the machine like it was a real drum set and that guided my movement, to make it sound like real drums,” he says. “Once I got into it that’s when I really began to master it.”
After building his career as a DJ in Detroit's notoriously competitive scene in the mid-eighties, Mills helped to found the influential techno music collective Underground Resistance. Who, as well as their abrasive sounds, boasted a revolutionary aesthetic, with band members dressed in black combat suits and ski masks.
That visual flare is also found sonically in Mills's work with film-inspired projects, such as the spooky techno score for Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis.
Perhaps one of his more interesting ventures was his directorial and composing efforts for the experimental 2015 film Life to Death and Back, which was shot in the Egyptian wing of the Louvre in Paris during a four-month residency.
The intensive yet satisfying experience gained from the initiative has Mills looking forward to visiting the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi.
“The last time I was in the UAE they were just beginning to build it,” he says. “So the fact that it is now done is a really big deal and a lot of people are talking about it and it would be something that I would love to visit if the opportunity arises.”
Regarding his upcoming Mutek Festival appearance, Mills says the crowd will dictate the type of set he performs. “It’s been a while since I've been there [Dubai] and the shows I played were in clubs and they were kind of isolated. I don’t like bringing new ideas to a place where I really haven’t been to. So I tend to reserve some things for places I have never [been to] and this is in order that I can learn and gauge the temperature of the audience.
“So I am going to play to see what it’s like, and if I am lucky, I can then return with a concept that could perhaps resonate more."
Jeff Mills performs at Mutek on Friday. The Micro Mutek Arab Emirates 2017 festival runs from Thursday to Saturday, 8pm to 3am, at the W Dubai hotel, Al Habtoor City, Dubai. Tickets from Dh100, from dubai.platinumlist.net