Jeff Mills is known to dance music aficionados for his work in the Detroit techno group Underground Resistance and solo releases like 1996’s Live at the Liquid Room, Tokyo. But on his new project Tomorrow Comes the Harvest, he finds common cause with Tony Allen, the legendary drummer whose playing defined the records of Fela Kuti and the sound of Afrobeat. The album, which was mostly worked out live in the studio, is a slippery combination of old-school percussion and chattering electronics, full of long vamps, sudden turns and Allen’s inimitable propulsion.
Mills spoke with Rolling Stone about the origin of his new partnership, Allen’s rhythmic tutorials and why the music industry is more free than it used to be.
When did you first hear Tony’s playing?
I think I really became more sensitive to his music probably around the early Nineties when I left New York and moved to Chicago. I used to go to a record shop that had a special section for that type of music, Afrobeat and Afro-Cuban type of music and stuff like that. I remember buying some of his albums during that era.
How did you guys first connect?
Well, about three years ago. He lives in Paris, and my manager told me that he had booked out a small studio in the city and was inviting musicians to come in to play with, just to engage to see what might come about. So, I agreed to go and to meet him, and there’s where the relationship started.
Was Tony a fan of Underground Resistance?
No, I don’t think so. I’m sure that he had not ever heard of me or my work or anything like that. But I think that his manager might have shown him maybe a small recording or a film or something of me on a drum machine, and I think that’s where he thought it was interesting and would be interested to have me come in to meet him.
What was that first meeting like?
Quite interesting. I’m a workaholic, so I’m used to getting right to it, hooking it up and just playing for hours and hours and hours. It was not the opposite, but something in another direction. We’d set the equipment up, and then we’d eat lunch. Then we would talk for about 20 minutes, and then we’d somehow file into the studio, and then we would play together. Then we’d get a groove, work on the groove until we worked it to a certain point, and then we would just stop. Tony would smoke a cigarette or something, and then we’d talk for a little bit more, and then we’d go back in there again, and then come up with something. We’d jam for another 30 minutes, and then stop, and then go back. That’s the way that these rehearsals worked. It’s very laid-back.
What did you guys talk about?
Politics and many different subjects. I understood later that these conversations are very much related to what we’re going to do once we get together. It’s like the conversation kind of continues when we got behind our instruments. I think that they are important, because we get to know each other and we know how we are on certain points and certain perspectives. I think it was through these conversations you accelerate the relationship, I suppose. In hindsight, I understand what it was all about.
So, in those initial sessions, he had his standard drum setup, and what were you playing?
He had a special snare and special drumsticks. I had brought just a Roland TR-909 and a small bass-line synthesizer, and that was it. It was just my intention to show him what I could do.
How much experience do you have playing in similar scenarios?
I’ve done many collaborations — with pianists and cellists and violinists and video artists. I know that you have to find some common language, some common strand, find something that you both see from a certain perspective. That’s quite important, and the sooner that you can find that, the quicker that you can then move on to other things.
I remember after the first time that he played, I had to ask him some questions because it was so interesting what he was doing. I kept noticing what he was doing with the snare. Literally almost every five or six seconds he would play something completely different on the snare, so after we stopped the first time I asked him, where was his technique from? He explained to me that in Lagos, in Nigeria, when he was young and growing up, they speak so many languages because there’s such a melting pot of people from everywhere, that the average person speaks six or seven languages, and that somehow with the snare, he’s in a way relating to the social aspect and the social pattern of the city in Lagos.
That made me understand the way that he played and how he treats each drum to kind of symbolize certain things. Then once he understood that I was curious about the way that he was playing, he began to explain more, like the relationship between the hi-hat, the kick drum and the snare, and gave me a small demonstration and showed me. Then I thought about that and then came up with something slightly different on the drum machine.
Could you say a little bit more about what he explained about the relationship between the kick, hi-hat and snare?
One thing that he mentioned was — well, in electronic music we use a lot of 4/4 patterns. That’s because people have to dance. So, the 4/4 pattern, that’s a very universal thing since the disco days. But we got into a conversation about using different scales and different patterns. Then we got on the subject of the one. The one doesn’t necessarily have to be the first thing that you hear. The one can literally be anywhere. So, the one can be in between three and four. Basically he was teaching me about rhythm, something that I had not had many conversations about. As long as I’ve been a musician, I’ve never had such an in-depth conversation about it. It was great to actually be there and to actually see it in action.
I think as a musician, it’s interesting to speak to other musicians that do different things to better understand how they translate or relate how they feel into their instrument. That really helps greatly when I’m composing music and trying to find other ways to be able to say things. I can use these techniques and borrow things from the way other people play.
Tony also did an album with the German electronic music Moritz Von Oswald — did he see this project as somewhat related to that?
We talked about that. He was explaining his experiences working with electronic musicians and producers, and was explaining the difference between them. In my case, we don’t use MIDI and we don’t use a computer. The way that I’m using the drum machine is more free, similar to the way that he’s playing. So, we’re not tied together by any universal sync; tempos can change and patterns can change on the whim. I’m playing the machine based on how I’m thinking and in real time, and I think he had never played with anyone like this before. I think he really liked the freedom of being able to play unconditionally.
So was that first studio session the start of a longer relationship, or did you guys just record this project right then?
It has been three years, and we’ve done quite a few performances. We just did a performance in Berlin the other night, which was really, really good. It’s more interesting now because we have recorded music, so we have more of a reason to be there. It doesn’t seem to be that this project will stop anytime soon. I think it’s gonna continue for a little bit longer.
When you guys perform live, are you playing what’s on the album, or is it more of an improvisatory thing?
A combination of both. Like, the other night we’d start off with the melodies of those tracks, but then at a certain point we would just improvise and create something completely new. That’s what we think is more interesting than trying to reproduce what’s pressed on the vinyl and stuff. So, it’s really these are improvisational type of versions of those tracks.
What you ended up recording was live too, right? There wasn’t a lot of post-production work.
They were mostly done in one take. In my case there was more percussion, rim shots and stuff like that, so those had to be done in different takes. But Tony, he would basically get it in one take, and the drum patterns and things were just done in one take, the keyboards were done in one or two takes. So, it wasn’t a whole lot of recording. It didn’t take that much time to lay it all down.
Do you see a kinship between techno and Afrobeat?
That’s an interesting question. I think that maybe in music and the time, this era, I think that what Tony and I are doing is very representative as to what’s happening or what’s gonna happen more and more, the mixing of different genres, the mixing of different musicians. Tony also does a lot of collaboration. He’s working with Amp Fiddler, he’s working with the group the Gorillaz, he’s done many things. Then in my case, I’m also doing lots of collaborations too. I think it’s the weather. I think it’s time. It’s the time when genres begin to kind of reach out to one another and being to work, reminiscent of maybe the early Eighties when hip-hop was reaching into punk and punk was reaching into all type of mixtures.
I think that it’s still quite confusing in the music industry. You have so much freedom, and so many people are doing so many things it’s hard to keep track. I think that as a result, you kind of feel no one’s watching you, so you end up doing things that you just want to do. You feel more free, because there isn’t this one channel that if you make this song and you sign to this label it’s sure to be a hit or something, or sell a million copies or something like that. So, in a way it feels more free now because of the confusion or because of the mystery. I think that’s bringing some very interesting results.