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The Techno Pioneer Jeff Mills Blazes a Trail to Space, and Beyond

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During a recent performance by Tomorrow Comes the Harvest that had some attendees dancing in the aisles at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, a thrilling rhythmic conversation began between the percussionist Sundiata O.M., who was playing African talking drums, and the Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills, who tapped out beats on a Roland TR-909 drum machine. Over a 90-minute set, the musicians boldly blended techno, jazz and modern classical, embodying the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s famous credo “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.”

Tomorrow Comes the Harvest began in 2018 as a collaboration between Mills and the Afrobeat originator Tony Allen, Fela’s longtime drummer. Despite their stylistic differences, they created a sonic language — based around total improvisation, not typically a techno hallmark — that Mills found so fruitful, he wanted to continue it even after Allen’s 2020 death. “My hope,” Mills said, during an interview backstage, “is that Tomorrow Comes the Harvest becomes an approach to play music — not always the same sound, but the idea of figuring it out while playing.”

Mills has blazed a singular trail over the past four decades: from his 1980s roots as the Detroit nightclub and FM radio D.J. the Wizard to his early 1990s period with the politically conscious Motor City techno collective Underground Resistance to his solo work helping define the sleek, stripped-down minimal techno genre. While always known as a dazzling D.J., Mills has continually expanded his horizons beyond the booth, including on high-concept album projects that began with “Discovers the Rings of Saturn” from the group X-102 in 1992, up through his new LP, “The Trip — Enter the Black Hole,” released last week on vinyl via his own Axis label.

Mills lifted Tomorrow Comes the Harvest’s name from a phrase coined by the science fiction author Octavia Butler, who was describing the potential power of seeds, properly sown, to influence the future. The metaphor seems apt for Mills’s entire career, which has inspired generations of electronic musicians, like Mali Mase, a 25-year-old D.J. and producer who releases music as Sweater on Polo.

“To me, Jeff Mills is someone who exhibits mastery, not only in techno, but all forms of expressions he explores,” said Mase, who spun a set dedicated to Mills during the 2023 edition of Dweller, a Black-centered annual techno festival in New York. “It would be so simple for him to sit back and bask in the spectacle of his own greatness. Instead, he challenges the forms established, reinvents, and still beats it sicker than anyone on a drum machine.”

At 60, Mills carries himself with a low-key cool befitting his role as one of techno’s elder statesmen. In conversation he’s thoughtful but soft-spoken, gently proposing visionary ideas between sips of tea. His stylish outfit — an olive velvet Jil Sander turtleneck with wide-legged pants by the design house Pet-tree-kor, accented by his recently dyed blond hair — seemed appropriate attire for the “Man From Tomorrow,” the title of a 2014 French documentary about him. In a text message, the veteran Detroit house music producer and D.J. Theo Parrish called Mills “the example of how to carry yourself out of nightlife and into proper artistry.”

“The Trip” is the soundtrack to a live multimedia production billed as “the world’s first cosmic opera,” which Mills and the avant-garde vocalist Jun Togawa presented last month in Tokyo. The project — Mills’s attempt to grapple with what might happen to humans journeying via spacecraft toward and through a black hole — expresses the potential distortions of time and reality through glistening ambience, propulsive percussion, swirling synth storms and interstellar sound effects.

Space travel is a running theme in Mills’s work, a fascination that dates back to his childhood watching syndicated reruns of the 1960s TV show “Lost in Space.” The Tokyo live presentation required nearly a year in preproduction, Mills said, employing dancers, choreographers and costume designers. He even went to Las Vegas to study casino floor shows, he said, so that he could better reimagine electronic music and how the audience might engage with it.

“I was always into the more innovative part of music, the conceptual, because that’s closer to comics,” Mills said. “I always had this idea that music should be like that: You should walk away with something after you hear it.”

On the opening night of Dweller last year, Mills premiered the newest version of his soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent sci-fi classic “Metropolis” (he’d composed an earlier iteration in 2000), and found a receptive audience among the festival’s young attendees. “He’s a teacher, and I appreciate that his music provides space for thought, as well as providing a blueprint of how to inscribe music with liberatory potential,” said Ryan C. Clarke, the festival’s director of educational programming. “When he was doing his mixing thing as the Wizard on WJLB, he might as well have been Charlie Parker at Minton’s Playhouse. We’re still coming to grips with the amount of complexity that he brought to the music.”

Indeed, Mills is techno’s Renaissance man. Besides “Metropolis,” he has created soundtracks and “cinemixes” for a number of silent films. He’s recorded classical versions of his techno tracks with France’s Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra, electronic jazz as the Paradox, and Latin jazz as the Zanza 22. Where Mills once hid his identity behind a balaclava back in his Underground Resistance days, last year he became the face of the German fashion brand Jil Sander’s ad campaign, and provided the soundtrack for the unveiling of the Dior Men’s fall collection in front of the Pyramids of Giza.

“It’s not fashion that I’m interested in,” Mills said. “It’s people and how we’re evolving. What we wear is an extension of who we are and who we’d like to be. Clothing or a second skin shows our ambitions. It shows where we want to go.”

Mills began D.J.ing in high school, fooling around with his older brother’s disco records, and by his late teens his skills were already worthy of his chosen nickname the Wizard. By the time he was 20, he’d made a reputation for himself spinning at Detroit clubs like Cheeks, and soon joined the Detroit radio station WDRQ. While there (and later at WJLB), he became a sensation for his dizzying, high-velocity mixes blending hip-hop, electro and industrial music on three turntables; Mills explained that WDRQ execs were so terrified that his pyrotechnic scratching would break a needle live on air, they put an emergency third turntable nearby, and he eventually just began to use all three.

In 1989 he joined up with the former Parliament-Funkadelic session musician Mike Banks and the rapper and producer Robert Hood in Underground Resistance, techno’s answer to Public Enemy, which espoused a philosophy of defiant D.I.Y. self-reliance. With the motto “Hard Music From a Hard City,” the trio brought a new aggression to Detroit techno that proved a massive influence on the evolution of the German techno scene. In a text message, Banks described their global role as “sound ambassadors.”

Mills left Detroit for New York to become resident D.J. at the Limelight, and then spent the next 30 years bouncing between Chicago and Berlin. A few years ago he moved his studio to Miami, though he spends most of his time in Paris. Recently, however, he and his wife also acquired an apartment in downtown Detroit, and he says he has a long list of projects he plans to initiate there. “It should be a city that spurs and develops ideas and creates them from the ground up,” he said.

Tomorrow Comes the Harvest was presented at BAM as part of the Long Play festival, curated by the experimental music organization Bang on a Can. David Lang, one of the group’s founders, said there was a connection between Mills’s ensemble and the lush pulsing of works like Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” “Jeff Mills has always noted his commitment to minimalism,” Lang said, “to reducing musical ornament, to his concentration on structure, and you hear all that here, loud and clear.”

The group’s BAM performance was Mills’s largest non-D.J. booking in the United States, but he’s hopeful there are even larger spectaculars on his horizon. “We can really work to create more of an experience, rather than just the performance of music,” he said. “We can really create magic. We need to make the audience disappear and reappear somewhere else. That’s what we should be working on.”

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