Jeff Mills thinks electronic music can be too “pre-planned”: “We haven’t discovered a way to improvise with instruments”

“I realised by playing with Jean-Phi how free you can be when you play how you feel, and that’s what’s missing from electronic music because it’s too pre-planned,” said Mills.

Jeff Mills DJing

Image: Giorgio Perottino / Stringer / Getty Images

Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills shares his thoughts on how improvisation can open up more possibilities for electronic music and advises those who are making electronic music to “just just go into your studio, pick one machine and try to do something with it that you’ve not done before.”

In a new interview with MusicRadar, the DJ discusses his experience with improv while performing the album Counter Active with keyboardist Jean-Phi Dary at the recent Montreux Jazz Festival, explaining, “Working with Jean-Phi reinforced the view I have that electronic music stays pretty idle and doesn’t move forward in a certain direction because we haven’t discovered a way to improvise with instruments.”

“We typically program everything, press start, everything plays and then we choose what we want to hear before we mix it and there you have the composition. In electronic music, the solo doesn’t exist.”

He shares that playing with Dary made him realise “how free you can be when you play how you feel” and says that “that’s what’s missing from electronic music because it’s too pre-planned. Nothing happens in the moment other than muting or unmuting, but if we can find ways to improvise and solo we can have deeper conversations with other genres of music and speak to rock and jazz musicians.”

Mills admits that while improvisation can be intimidating, a good number of his musical discoveries have also come from there: “It’s frightening, yes, and that’s always the case. You also have this feeling of ‘I could have, I should have and I wish I did’. That’s something you have to live with and I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this, but when I’m playing the drum machine I’m always discovering new things but they go by so quickly that the audience never really detects it.”

“When I listen back [on the live recording], I realise that I tend to do certain things not because the machine is making me do them but because I do it naturally… Then I find myself trying to replicate that when I’m programming the machine because I did it live and want to recreate it.”

“I’d advise anyone who makes electronic music to just go into your studio, pick one machine and try to do something with it that you’ve not done before. Try to make it do something different. No one has to know what you did, but see where that leads,” he concludes.