Jeff Mills has been chasing the sound of the future for most of his life. From legendary DJ gigs and mix shows in his native Detroit when he was known as The Wizard to co-founding Underground Resistance along with “Mad” Mike Banks in the ’80s, Mills has painted techno’s canvas with the broadest of brush strokes.
Musically, his rock-solid, pioneering output is vast and there are too many landmark releases to mention — 1992’s Waveform Transmission Vol.1 and 1995’s The Purpose Maker is a good place to start for the uninitiated. Mills’s 1997 opus “The Bells,” a ferocious tribal track, is his most ubiquitous but nonetheless one of the genre’s finest moments.
Mills’s musical odyssey has taken to him to far-flung corners of the world. Since the ‘80s he’s juxtaposed gigs poised behind three decks and a Roland TR-909 drum machine at raves, clubs, festivals with a four-month residency at Paris’s globally acclaimed museum Le Louvre and recording Blue Potential with the 70-piece Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006. Then there’s the ongoing collaboration between techno pioneer Mills and Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen that dates back to 2016, when they played at a jazz club in Paris.
During his residency at Le Louvre Mills began flirting with the idea of performing with a band. A drummer from an early age, he saw the band format as an opportunity to reconnect with his musical past and explore other styles of music. The result of his vision is Spiral Deluxe, an improvisational quartet he helms with bandmates Yumiko Ohno on Moog synth, Kenji “Jino” Hino on bass and Gerald Mitchell on keyboards.
Fresh from releasing the band’s debut release, Voodoo Magic on his Axis label, Mills tells us that “after the first 30 minutes into our first rehearsal, I knew we had something special! It had felt like we had been playing together for years.”
Congratulations on Spiral Deluxe’s debut album. The group came together by way of a one-off gig. How did you assemble the group, and how did you know that an album could come of this creative union?
Jeff Mills: After testing the idea of playing with a band during my residency at Le Louvre, I thought of a player combination that might be able to explore various styles of music. I knew that the bass player would be important and all of us should be able to solo with ease. So, I began the search to try to find musicians that might be interested. I had invited Gerald Mitchell for that first performance and had already mentioned to him of what I was trying to do. He was fine with the idea.
I looked in Japan first because this was where I was going to be in the new few weeks after the residency ended. I was suggested Yumiko Ohno because she was well-known and had a reputation as a solid keyboardist, though her main instrument is bass guitar. She suggested only playing the mini-moog in contrast to what Gerald would bring. Finding a great bass player too a bit of time, but we were lucky to find Kenji “Jino” Hino. A highly acclaimed musician with lots of experience in liver performances. Japanese, but grew up in NYC, he has that New Yorker style and is always open to try new things.
After the first 30 minutes into our first rehearsal, I knew we had something special! It had felt like we had been playing together for years. Great ideas flew around too easily and before we realized it we had made about four or five tracks. I knew then that I had assembled the right equation.
You play drums in Spiral Deluxe, a return to the instrument that’s been a long time in coming. When did you start playing drums and what attracted you?
I started playing percussion in grade school. I think it was in the third or fourth grade and played all the way until I graduated high school. I was attracted because it was the coolest instrument to play! The drummer lays the foundation and make the backbone. Solid, consistent and focused. I had a little help along the way too. My older brother’s girlfriend’s brother was drummer and bought a new drum set and sold his old one to me.
“I’m knee-deep in techno and there is no turning away from it! It’s too engrained into my system, but it’s always refreshing to work and create in parallel. One feeds off the other.”
Why was it important for you to rekindle your relationship with the instrument at this point in your life?
Watching electronic music evolve I had noticed that there were too few bands connected to this genre — and that most bands or groups depended too much on computers and synchronizing themselves together to the point that they’re just pushing buttons. That a typical electronic music performance would be a set-up full of machines all connected together by one central sync pulse or MIDI sync. I missed seeing musicians play their instruments. Seeing and hearing a solo. A simple thing, but strangely doesn’t really exist in techno music.
So, I thought I should try to create something. An example that might reopen the pathway into another chapter of electronic and techno music.
The title of the group Spiral Deluxe refers to the fact that we’ve had these similar ideas before in the past and that the “Spiral” references a reoccurrence. “Deluxe” refers to a grand display or special treatment towards our objective.
There’s a nice improv vibe to the release. How did the group’s musical style come about?
It’s the result of natural responses. Not too thought out or planned. All the releases have been a capture of spontaneity.
Was it your goal to take a brief respite from techno?
Well, I’m knee-deep in techno and there is no turning away from it! It’s too engrained into my system, but it’s always refreshing to work and create in parallel. One feeds off the other.
I understand Voodoo Magic came together during a two-day session. Did the group write sketches of the track prior to meeting? Was this a self-imposed deadline?
Actually, the rehearsal before the recording was supposed to be for a performance in Paris, but that was cancelled. At the time, we were mainly thinking about making tracks to play. In the process, we were creating the foundation for the album Voodoo Magic.
Terrence Parker’s remix of “Let It Go” is outstanding. What led you to tap Terrence for the remix? Are there other remixes in the works?
I thought of Terrence from listening to his music. He’s just a master at what he does and I thought that he would bring a certain perspective to the track “Let It Go.” After hearing Tanya Michelle’s vocal, I was convinced that I wanted Terrence to have a mix on it.
Are there plans on any live dates to support the release?
We’re mainly focusing on studio recordings right now. We’re planning another recording session in Tokyo in November, so we hope there should be another album before summer 2019. We are super fantastic in the live respect. All the performances we’ve made we amazingly good. There all incredible musicians and dream to play with.
You’re always moving and evolving as an artist. What’s next for you and Axis Records?
Right now, we’re closing in on the last few episodes of The Outer Limits on NTS Radio (episodes five in October and the final six that airs on December 1, 2019). Also, we’re currently planning a self-imposed re-issue project for 2019. I’m jumping into our music archive and pulling out tracks to re-master for special vinyl releases throughout next year. More solo artist albums and releases. Film has caught our attention for the past year, so we’re hoping to be able to present something by the end of 2019/early 2020. I usually spend the winter months planning and researching for the following year, so that means more recording, too.