Dance music legend Jeff Mills on playing live techno with an orchestra ahead of his first ever show with the Hallé

The Axis Records don is in town with a full orchestra next month

By Ben Arnold | 20 November 2023

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(Credit: João Messias)

Few in the world of electronic music are as pivotal as Jeff Mills. The man behind Axis Records, and iconic tracks like The Bells and Sonic Destroyer, he’s spent over 30 years at the very top of his game, travelling the globe as the preeminent authority on all things techno. He is one of the true originators.

With ‘Mad’ Mike Banks, he founded Underground Resistance, not merely a record label and DJ collective, but the political wing of the techno movement, concerned equally about producing deep, jazz-infused electronic funk as it was about speaking out for racial and societal equality, not merely in its hometown of Detroit but around the world.

While the trend for blending dance music with orchestral arrangements has taken off in recent years, with everyone from Pete Tong to the touring Hacienda Classical putting the strings back into Strings of Life (for better or worse) Mills has been doing this a while. He was perhaps the first, in fact.

He first blended the two disparate styles of music nearly 20 years ago, with his album Blue Potential, recorded with the Montpellier Symphony Orchestra. Next month, he’ll be arriving at the Bridgewater Hall to bring his show Light From The Outside World to life with Manchester’s own Hallé.

On the phone from Paris, his second home, he told Finest how it all came together…

Jeff Mills
(Credit: Jacob Khrist)

Manchester’s Finest: Hey Jeff! Where did the germ of the idea to combine classical and electronic music come from?

Jeff Mills: It started, gosh, maybe 20 years ago. When I performed with the Montpellier orchestra here in France, at the [UNESCO site] Pont Du Gard. Luckily, it was filmed, so we got to release it on DVD. And as a result of that, and people watching it, Light From The Outside World was created. Light From The Outside World is more aligned to techno, and hearing those recognisable techno tracks and scoring them for an orchestra.

But to translate electronic music, specifically Detroit techno, was always a discussion in Detroit, even back to the mid-80s. We would listen to Strings of Life, by Rhythim Is Rhythim, and talk about how great it could be for an orchestra to play it. And a lot of the things we’d do with Underground Resistance, we’d talk about how they could be used in films, or as soundtracks. We talked about that sort of thing all the time, people like Derrick May and Richie [Hawtin]. It was just a matter of time before someone was going to do it.

Finest: The show at the Pont Du Gard must have been amazing…

Mills: It was the first time that an orchestra was translating electronic music. It was completely new. A lot of people thought that wasn’t possible, or that it wouldn’t be convincing enough. When we performed, it was during a holiday in France, and it was free, so around 10,000 people turned up! It was a shock for the orchestra, they’d never played to an audience that large. It was a shock for everyone really. After that, there was no turning back. We’d entered into a new era.

Finest: What was the general reaction to the show?

Mills: I got a lot of criticism. Even though electronic music was really popular, you had a lot of people that really didn’t know much else. They looked at everything in black and white. It was about being a techno purist, so anything that sounded different to four-on-the-floor, bang your brains out wasn’t exactly the best form of techno [for some]. And for classical people, it wasn’t classical enough. So there was some backlash from both sides. 

And then everything fell quiet. No one really talked about that performance, for about two years. But someone uploaded the DVD to YouTube and people started watching it like crazy. It got a million views in no time, and grew and grew, and as they watched it, they began to understand that it was something that needed to be done. 

It was a healthy thing to do – it didn’t take away from either genre, it made something new. The truth is classical music was, at first, dance music. The same for rock, same for jazz. All these genres started off as dance music. Perhaps techno music and dance music, in decades to come, will evolve. We’ll just sit and listen to it, and we won’t dance to it anymore. Young people will dance to something else. That just seems to be the way things are. Music changes because people change.

Jeff Mills
(Credit: João Messias)

Finest: Did you have to change too, when you started this project?

Mills: At that time, [techno] was so intense and so chaotic, you couldn’t even hear the music. It was becoming something else. I had to get myself together. I had to learn how to listen to music again. I went out and bought a hi-fi system, a very expensive amplifier, incredible speakers, to tune my ears to what good sound was. 

I started listening to more jazz, to classical arrangers, Bela Bartok and [György] Lygeti, all types of stuff. Teaching myself how to listen to music to find out what was right and what was wrong before I sat down with an arranger, or sitting next to the brass or reed sections. I did that, and it helped greatly to re-educate yourself.

Finest: So were you the first to mix dance music and orchestral music?

Mills: No one had scored techno compositions before, for sure. I remember having a conversation with Jean-Michel Jarre, and he was telling me about his experiences working with orchestras. He wasn’t that interested in doing it again! 

And I was telling him about what I was about to do as well. So we talked a bit. I have to admit, playing with orchestra musicians can vary. When you’re playing with a musician who’s only played classical since the age of three, and you’re asking them to play Sonic Destroyer, it’s something new for them. And new is not always good!

Jeff Mills
(Credit: João Messias)

Finest: You’ve worked with the conductor Christoph Mangou on this project for some time, how do you two work together?

Mills: We hit it off on the first performance and have been playing together ever since. He’d not worked with an electronic musician before, but he was so open, it really didn’t matter. We made it work. We’ve worked together so much that we communicate in a special way. We both know what needs to be done to get an orchestra ready. I trust him a lot. 

This will be the first time with the Hallé. Orchestras in the UK are always really good, always very open, very precise, and always a lot of fun, so I look forward to playing with them.

Finest: There has been a lot of reimagining of dance music tracks with orchestras in recent years. What’s your take on that kind of thing?

Mills: It’s very convincing, and people love it to death. And it’s something that will motivate and inspire other people to do the same. I can imagine young artists coming into the industry and only wanting to do that. So I think it’s a great thing, and great to have as many different variables as possible. The more we see, the better it is.

Finest: What should people expect, who perhaps know your music but have never seen it performed like this before?

Mills: The structure of the performance is really designed to touch the people who know these original compositions, and have partied to these things for decades. So the order of the tracks works its way up to the robust, faster tracks, like Amazon, X101, The Bells. But my favourite might be Utopia.

The Hallé Presents: Jeff Mills performing Light From The Outside World on 7 December at the Bridgewater Hall. You can get tickets here…