Jeff Mills on Tomorrow Comes the Harvest
As Detroit techno wizard Jeff Mills returns to Edinburgh with his latest innovation in sound, we speak to him about the show and pushing the boundaries of live electronic music
It’s fair to say that Jeff Mills is a pioneer. From his fledgling radio show as The Wizard in the 80s to helping form Underground Resistance, then breaking off to live in New York and Berlin before settling in Chicago and setting up Axis Records, his legendary status is more than justified.
Rather than settling into the well-worn groove of touring techno jocks and lazing label bosses, though, Mills kept on innovating; turning DJing into an artform and manipulating a drum machine to achieve funk beyond its intended function.
Branching out from the club, he collaborated with the Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005 – a set which became the Blue Potential album – then continued his French love affair with Critical Arrangements, a multi-media installation which exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in 2008.
A love of space became reflected in works like 2013’s Where Light Ends – an album inspired by the Japanese astronaut Dr. Mamoru Mohri’s first trip to space – and a four-turntable soundtracking of Fritz Lang’s 1929 silent film Woman in the Moon. In 2016 Mills began collaborating with acclaimed afro-jazz drummer Tony Allen – who sadly died in 2020 – with the performance captured for a live EP, Tomorrow Comes the Harvest.
Mills was so inspired by the shows that he invited Tabla drum virtuoso Prabhu Edouard to join him and keyboardist Jean-Philippe Dary on stage, and the trio are now bringing the current iteration of Tomorrow Comes the Harvest to Leith Theatre this month for the Edinburgh International Festival.
“It’s not new, but it’s very unique; the concept is that musicians show up and play together – no rehearsal, just a very spontaneous performance,” Mills explains, describing it as a conversation in music. “Bands usually practise and know which direction they’re going in, but this is just a jam session – it’s really flexible.”
As anyone who’s seen him at work in front of multiple turntables and a mixer, or just in a white room armed only with a Roland 909, it’s fair to say the audience gets a shift. But Mills says that it wasn’t until he started working with Allen that he was inspired to push further into live shows, breaking free from the booth and out from behind the decks.
“Watching how he was able to manipulate the drums, some of the rhythms were so complex,” he says. “That really gave me pause and made me think about how much in electronic music we’re lacking in terms of the musician’s expression.”
While the show’s stage setup is quite basic, Mills says the layout is designed so the trio can keep eye contact and create a connection. “In this way, the audience gets to know the musician better; there isn’t software or hardware getting in the way,” he says.
“DJs let us know that they want to be the soloist – they want the attention – but we don’t have the tools to make that happen. The equipment is still designed to be sat on a table top,” he continues. “It’s a shame there are very few things that enable movement around the stage. It’s still a production mindset that hasn’t convincingly moved into more of a live type of presentation.”
Tracing his insistence on innovation back to its roots, Mills says it really started when, fresh out of high school, he was given a slot on Detroit radio station WDRQ. “There was very little instruction, so I made up this character, The Wizard, and in a way that’s how I learned to be in the music industry,” he says.
“Growing up in Detroit and being around Motown, Berry Gordy took things seriously and his artists really respected the craft. It was all about making very complex compositions sound simple,” he continues. “It’s not something you learn overnight by buying software; anyone can put together tracks, but knowing how to strip it down is really an artform.”
The other big theme running through his career is looking to the future and up to the stars. Born in 1963, he grew up in the Apollo years, where even for a black kid in Motor City, being an astronaut seemed like an option. “Kraftwerk and Juan Atkins can be thanked for pushing forward this kind of concept music, instilling a certain type of mindset, creating such detailed compositions of the future,” he says.
In terms of his own future, he’s got no plans to retire any time soon. “This is the one that will last until the end,” he says of Tomorrow Comes the Harvest. “When you see 85 year-old Jeff Mills, I’ll be on stage with this project for sure.”