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Detroit Techno Pioneer Jeff Mills Is Bringing The Harvest To Golden Plains XVI

photography THOMAS ECKE
05 March 2024

Jeff Mills is no stranger to beautiful locations. This weekend, the Detroit techno visionary will bring his project, Tomorrow Comes The Harvest, to Golden Plains XVI. On the couch-adorned hillside of the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre, Mills will showcase a performance that the group has, in some ways, been preparing for since their inception.

The current iteration of Tomorrow Comes The Harvest—made up of Jeff Mills, Jean-Phi Dary and Prabhu Edouard—began in the Cyclades Archipelago on the mythic island of Delos. There, bannisters of precisely lain pebbles demarcate a platform of rock and dirt from the surrounding wilderness, creating a natural amphitheatre. In January 2022, Mills, Dary and Edouard made the most of Delos’s acoustic offerings with an hour-long performance that marked the revival of the group.

It was the first time the project had performed since the death of founding member and afro-beat pioneer Tony Allen. Allen and Mills formed Tomorrow Comes The Harvest in 2018 with the mission to transcend the musical genres from which they had emerged. They brought this mission to life with their eponymous first album, which delicately balanced the man-made noise of Allen’s drumming with the robotic rhythms of Mills’ drum machines and synthesisers. Were it not for the clarity of Tomorrow Comes The Harvest’s mission, the project might have dissolved upon Allen's death. Not only was he integral to the group, but also to the broader music community. His passing catalysed a wave of tribute concerts, albums and statements as musicians around the world expressed their grief. His boots would not be easily filled.

But Tomorrow Comes The Harvest's pursuit of improvisation has always encouraged different collaborations. Jean-Phi Dary had been there to complement the band's propulsive percussion and machines with his dynamic keyboards for several years before his promotion to become a core member of the project. Prabhu Edouard’s subsequent addition would allow Tomorrow Comes The Harvest to continue to address the man-machine dichotomy. This new band was cemented in 2023 with the release of their second album, Evolution. Since then, the trio has embarked on an international tour that will bring them to Australia in March 2024.

Attendees of Golden Plains XVI will be lucky to witness Tomorrow Comes The Harvest play at the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre over Labour Day weekend. The festival might seem like a far cry from the recital centres and mythic islands where the group has become accustomed to performing, but its importance to the Australian music scene is clear to all who have visited.

Before Tomorrow Comes The Harvest ventures into this hallowed terrain, Anna Stewart speaks with Jeff Mills about the new era of the group, his status as a musical and technological visionary, and the role location plays in improvisational performance.

Anna Stewart Jeff, you’re currently on the Tomorrow Comes The Harvest world tour. How’s it going?

Jeff Mills Yeah, it's going great. We are in the latter part of the tour. We started early last summer and toured mainly around Europe. We made our way to the holiday season, then we took a break and then came again with a few days here in Europe and now we’re getting ready to come down to Australia and New Zealand.

AS And how are people responding to the tour?

JM Yeah, I mean for the first tour of this mixture of musicians, it's really successful. The audiences are really into what we’re presenting—this whole idea of improvising and creating a very special atmosphere right before them. There seems to be momentum with each show that we do.

AS We’re speaking today in relation to your upcoming performance at the Golden Plains festival. Have you done any other festivals on the tour?

JM Yeah, I would say about a third of the dates have been festivals.

AS Do you approach them differently in terms of the atmosphere that you want to create?

JM It’s a bit more complex because you’re sharing the stage with other musicians and other bands, so you generally have less time to set up and get everything plugged in and things like that. But the atmosphere can be quite special because people are really there for the music. And they’re there for the eclectic lineup and the atmosphere is a bit more loose than in an institution or orchestra hall. Some of the most enthusiastic responses to  the tour  have come from performing at festivals.

AS This is a really unique festival that takes place at the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre. It is, ostensibly, a hill, but one that means a lot to a lot of people. I wondered if it meant much to you?Particularly because Tony Allen played there  over ten years ago. Did that factor into your decision to play?

JM Yeah, locations are a factor, especially for something like this where we are trying to translate what we feel in that moment. Everything around us can have a role in how we feel. If the location is very special, we will naturally be more sensitive to that and know that people are knowledgeable of this fact. So yeah, it should have an effect on how we play.

I did not know that Tony had played this festival But I mean, he’s been with us this whole tour. And we refer to him a lot. His presence was such an influence on all of us. The sense that he’s with us is definitely here, that’s for sure.

AS And what was the collaborative process like for the album? This was the first time I recorded with Prabhu Edouard and Jean-Phi Dary. How did the three of you bounce off each other?

JM This was the second performance with that mixture of musicians. The first was a special performance that took place in Greece.

AS  Was that the performance in 2022 on the island of Delos?

JM Yeah, that was really the first time that we had met. And we made that film. So this album was the second time that we had met, and that was only a few months later in Brussels. At that time, we were still quite unfamiliar with whether this was gonna work. But we decided to try to record it, and we did, and it was very special. So we were all in agreement  that maybe this is the recording that should be released, and the one that really represents this version of Tomorrow Comes The Harvest.

AS And I expect the name of the album Evolution is supposed to reflect that change. Did you discuss that?

JM Yeah, I mean, I’m the record label person of the trio [laughs]. So it was really narrowed down to what we were trying to achieve, and we were trying to evolve, agreeing to join together, be on the stage, tour, and do all these things. We thought that that title was really the most representative of what we’re trying to do.

AS You’re often asked for your personal opinions—your predictions, even—about the future of music and technological innovation. It seems to be something that you’re really comfortable talking about, but it’s not something that every musician gets asked about. How do you feel about being the person that people look to for a vision of the future? Does that come naturally to you?

JM I just have this idea, this vision, about electronic music and about what it can give us if we treat it with a certain amount of attention and respect.

I suppose, if Tomorrow Comes The Harvest is a mix of three musicians, then the choice of asking the tabla player was intentional because of the types of sounds that the instrument can create. So a musician that’s striking something with their hands is different than a drum machine that’s playing the same notes or the same rhythm. So, the combination of that, mixed with synthesisers, the machines, the things that I’m operating, and Jean-Phi’s acoustic piano, creates a very interesting combination. That’s the same if you had a trio of jazz of a similar mixture, or a trio of rock of a similar mixture. We find ourselves a little bit closer to this very universal understanding of what sound can do for us.

In respect to the idea of finding more within music, to be quite honest, you don't really have to do too much digging. You don’t really have to spend much time because it’s always been there. We have decided that we want music to stay here with us, that we enjoy it, and that we are searching to always find something new through it. And so, for people like myself, a DJ or an artist, my job is not that difficult. I just have to spend time trying to find ways to make people feel more of themselves through what they’re listening to. So I just need to find out what my limitations are, where my boundaries are, and work within that to create music and present it in a way that people can get what they come for, what they pay for, and what they are allowing so much time for someone to give them.

So I never thought it was a very tough question or tough task to work with music, and I've never had any difficulties trying to describe anything or trying to translate anything in that respect. I think the, first thing is that you just have to be honest with yourself, then turn to music and do the best that you can. And finish it and move on to the next thing. So it’s actually quite simple.

AS I’ve heard you say that the home library you have in Miami is where you would go to find inspiration for new music. Was that part of your process in the creation of Evolution?

JM Right, right. Well, that habit kind of started quite early. In grade school, they would take us from the school down to the main library in Detroit—this huge Art Deco building. And basically, they just let us wander through the building. So this idea of going into this building and searching for things, trying to find interesting books and discovering something, has always been there.

Throughout my career and the places that I’ve lived, that’s always something that I’ve been in touch with. When I lived in Chicago, I would always be in bookstores of architecture, art and things like that. New York, the same.

AS And how does what you research manifest itself in your work? I’m curious about how that translation process occurs—from reading something or looking at something to the music that we end up hearing. It’s fascinating to me.

JM You just browse through the aisles. If I don't have anything in particular, I just pull one off, thumb through it, put it back and as you’re doing that, you’re thinking about that subject and how you can elaborate on it. So you might go search out another book related to that. So you just go on and on and on.

But in my studio in Miami, there are a lot of things to read. In addition to the keyboards and equipment stuff, there are a lot of things to thumb through and take a look at. Sometimes the book is right there on top of the keyboard.

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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