Jeff Mills interview: ‘Techno feeds a basic human urge’:


The Halloween bank holiday in Dublin is always a big weekend for club gigs, but Jeff Mills is the only techno guy who’ll be turning up to his gig in a tuxedo with his 909 drum machine under his arm.

While Sven Vath, Marshall Jefferson, Kiasmos, DJ Yoda and dozens of others will be dotted around the city soundtracking the oncoming Monday rollover session, Mills will be recalibrating his back catalogue for more refined consumption in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, along with the RTE Concert Orchestra.

The orchestra has had some dance music crossover success over the last few months, with the 90s classical rave with DJ Jenny Greene at Electric Picnic and the upcoming Hacienda Classical in the 3Arena just before Christmas.
But while the above events use broad strokes for a populist nostalgia fest, Jeff Mills’ orchestral projects are always deeply conceptual pieces.

Last year he was artist in residence at The Louvre, and he’s just as likely to be working on an improvised ambient performance in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam, or a contemporary dance piece inspired by Egyptology, as banging out techno at 4am.
He’s in Dublin this weekend to perform Light From the Outside World, inspired by a snippet of dialogue from the sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage.

Speaking on a time out from touring, Mills says: “The project refers to an idea that I created about reality. What if all what we see around us is nothing more than a reflection of something happening somewhere else? Our destiny is predetermined and that what we choose to do, no matter how much we try to change the outcome, all is dictated. And so by accumulating feelings, the gathering of special moments might create something new of our own making.”

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Jeff Mills was never going to be just another techno DJ. Part of Detroit’s so-called ‘second wave’, following on from Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, Mills earned his stripes as ‘The Wizard’, frenetically mixing electro, disco, funk and proto-house on his radio shows and parties, before forming Underground Resistance in 1989 with ‘Mad’ Mike Banks, later joined by Robert Hood.

Among the militant imagery and industrial grit, UR dabbled in sci-fi themes, and Mills’ 1992 collaboration with Banks, Rings of Saturn as X-102 was the most explicit invocation of space science in his work to date.

Mills says a big “turning point” occurred in 2000 when he performed a rescored version of Fritz Lang’s iconic sci-fi movie Metropolis at Centre Pompidou in Paris, and science fiction and space science remains his biggest inspiration and influence — more so than electronic music innovators such as Kraftwerk.

After covering some of Mills’ other bases in an interview last year, this time we tried to cover his current orchestral projects and conceptual pieces, his residency a the Louvre in Paris, his unending enthusiasm for science fiction and space exploration, and a rare recollection of being a young kid in Detroit when the city was in lock-down during the 1967 riots.

It’s been over a decade since your first live orchestral project, with the Montpellier Philharmonic, and since then you’ve worked on many ‘classical’ projects. How has your approach changed over the last 10 years or so?
Since the first performance in 2005 the approach results in a more fluid fashion. I’ve reshaped my technical set-up based on how I could be a more instrumental component in the body of the orchestra, while being able to remain an outside fixture that can improvise on top of the orchestra arrangements. This was an important step because by configuring this aspect makes it possible that I can now work from many different positions, all in real time.

When you performed first with the Montpelier Philharmonic there was an opinion that electronic music was somehow validated in a classical concert setting. Do you think that opinion has changed much over the years? Maybe even electronic music helps classical orchestras stay relevant?
I think the connection of both helps each other understand why each are unique and special — by comparison and by mixing together. I believe some opinions have changed because people realise that nothing has been lost or compromised in the process. People in electronic music can be quite conservative and closed-minded too, but I strongly believe there is a lot to gain from these experiences. Music is better when there are ideas that spur new conceptions. With them, music would only die along with the people that try too hard to keep it the same.

Light From the Outside World is taken from Fantastic Voyage, but could also work as a retrospective of your career. What were the other inspirations behind this project?
To clarify, the term Light From the Outside World comes from a line spoken by one of the characters, Raquel Welch in the film Fantastic Voyage. And yes, I suppose it could be related to some of the ways that happened in my career. Looking back, I can think about a few instances, where I felt like an outside looking in or an insider looking out.

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Around the time of our interview last year you were starting your residency at The Louvre. Now that a year or so has passed, how do you look back on the experience?
It was a great experience. I learned a tremendous amount about the managing of production time with institutional resources. Everything worked as planned.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the residency was the filming of Life To Death And Back and work with the contemporary dancers in the Egyptian wing and exhibition of the museum.
My plan was to make a dance film about how Ancient Egyptians practiced their belief about life and the life after death. It was filmed as if the viewer walked along with the dancers throughout the exhibition. Months of rehearsals and over the course of only two days, we created a one-hour film that covered a large part of the exhibition space.

Most of the film was recorded in single takes because I only wanted to use natural sunlight, so timing and choreography executions were crucial. It wasn’t possible to edit various film parts together in post-production, because the Sun was always moving and creating shadows inside of the rooms that were impossible to control or delete.

Other the performances were When Time Splits with pianist Mikhail Rudy, The Last Storyteller with writer David Calvo and the debut of the Exhibitionist 2 project with musicians, bassist Angie Taylor and Keyboardist Gerald Mitchell — they all went very well too.

I was surprised when I heard you say you were more inspired by John Williams than, say, Kraftwerk, but it makes sense when you realise your age when Star Wars and Close Encounters were released. Did this influence occur to you in more recent years as you’ve embarked on more soundtracks and cine-mix projects?
Yes, exactly. When I began to really think about what influenced me the most, it was the many science fiction films, TV shows and commercials that John Williams and Barry Goldsmith composed throughout the 1960/70s and for over the decades.

In my late teen years I was just as much into Star Wars and Star Trek than I was into electronic dance music. Before ever hearing about Kraftwerk, I had already memorised every episode of Lost In Space or The Time Tunnel.
I would imagine that there might be these similarities with most Detroit techno artists and DJs because the resources for this type of programming were everywhere in Detroit in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Mixing electronic music with science fiction or with films is another way to use the music to help people escape of ‘get lost. I think what I do today really lends itself to what I was experiencing then.

Would Close Encounters be one of your personal sci-fi or John Williams favourites from your youth? You’ve touched on the themes many times and recently performed Close Encounters of the 4th Kind in Paris with Guillaume Marmin.
Yes, this was a very influential film. But I always felt the story ended just when it was starting to get really interesting, so I thought about creating an dance event based on what might have happened after the actor Richard Dreyfuss entered into the spaceship and was taken away with other human enlistments.

Recently, Guillaume and I created an event in Paris where the audience would be the abductees as soon as they entered the dance space and for five hours we presented five different possible ‘encounter’ scenarios.

You’ve said before you can produce up to 25 tracks a day in the studio, every day. At this level of intuition does it feel like it’s almost generative music, or does it feel like pure instinct? I’m reminded of the the Ralf Hutter quote, “We play the machines and sometimes the machines play us.”
Well, yes, I think that after so many years of working on and being with these machines, it becomes more an instinctive situation. The studio becomes a very elaborate writing tool in which I can tell stories in dimensional ways — almost to the point of existing another version of time. My mind can wander much wider and further in there.

You latest orchestral project The Planets is a distinct move from science fiction to actual space science, could you explain the inspiration behind the project?
It was inspired by Gustav Holst’s score The Planets, made in 1914 to 1916. I thought it would be interesting to create a modern version of it. Something that embodied classical and electronic music, but mixed to the point that it becomes difficult to determine which genre is which.

So I started working on the original sketches back in 2006 and had worked to design an album and performance project that has taken 10 years to complete. We debuted the performance last June and recorded it with the Porto Philharmonic orchestra shortly after. We recorded it in in surround 5.1 and mixed it at Abbey Road Studio. The blu-ray and stereo CD album comes out in March 2017. The whole project was completely financed and managed by Axis Records.

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You said before that even as early as Rings of Saturn, you were composing with the actual physical rings in mind and that had a bearing on how sparse or dense the production was. Did you approach The Planets with a similar mindset?
With Planets, I studied each planet even more so. I looked for what in the known physical make-up of each planet could be translated into the sound, texture, tempo, etc. Different from Holst, what I wanted to create was a tutorial journey to each of the nine planets based on science. The Rings Of Saturn project was something of a test for flight for Planets. Another thing about Planets is that the project is open-ended. Meaning that with each new discovery of the planets, the arranger Sylvain Griotto and I must re-visit and modified the classical score accordingly so, it’s a life long project.

In this project, is it possible to consider Earth with any degree of objectivity, as ‘just a planet’?
Well, all of the planets are different. Some are of rock, while others are of gas. We thought Earth was most unique because of being mostly water, but now we know that other planets like Mars and Pluto also have it. I believe Earth is not just another planet. Because of its richness of life and living organisms, I think it’s a planet in transition, where its eventual state will be more like Mars.

In comparison to other planets, I do not think that Earth is the most important planet in this system. That crucial one might be the super planet of Jupiter, which is mainly the centre point of our solar system. Earth is like a tiny moon in comparison.

You’ve said that the main aim of producing music is communication. Do you think it’s more inherently difficult to communicate in music without words?
No, I think it really depends on the expectation of what an answer or reply is. If music is designed to make someone feel or understand differently, then we have to think about all the ways that can happen.

Sometimes it’s not immediate, sometimes it is. At times, the message is understood not in what one hears, but rather in what the music did to a collective audience that creates a special atmosphere. The ‘message’ doesn’t always have to be a congruent one. Sometimes, when music is left open to speculation, it can have a better chance to reach more people because no one has the right or wrong answer.

You’ve said before that the 1967 Expo in Montreal had a profound effect on you from a futurism point of view. What about the Detroit riots around the same time, did that affect the protest iconography of Underground Resistance?
I was young, but I would imagine so. It was the summertime, so we weren’t in school but on summer holiday break, so that trip to Montreal was planned many months ahead by my parents and other relatives.

Days before our departure, our neighborhood was on lock-down and martial law was declared. We couldn’t go out of the house and all the window shades were pulled down because there were snipers firing at the US army that was roaming through the streets.
To be a young kid and experience that had to be quite impactful.

The 1967 riot was more than just a military response to a public disturbance. More deeply, it was about the vast, legalised and institutional oppression of a part of American society and these people were fed up with it.

Would you see parallels between your science fiction and space concepts and the Afrofuturism and escapism of George Clinton or Sun Ra, or even the underwater mythology of Drexciya?
I’m not sure. I’m only Afro-American by circumstances, not by design so I’m not consciously aware of how much of my interest in science fiction can be attributed to my ethnicity as the objective of science fiction is more about achievement and enlightenment through adverse situations than anything else.

I have nothing or no one that I’d like to escape from and I’m not convinced that either of the artists you mention would adopt that distinction as well, but I believe that the possible connection between us all might be through the means in which we travel — through musical notes, chords and harmonies.

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You were awarded the Spirit of Detroit Award this year, and Mayor Mike Duggan declared May 23-30 Detroit Techno Week. Is it surreal to see techno being honoured in this way, considering its initial anti-establishment stance? Or does it somehow feel like a victory in a way?
I’m very happy to see that the City of Detroit recognises all the hard work and accomplishments of all the people that extended the sound of the city to other parts of the world. But at the same time, it still remains a mystery to me why the city doesn’t connect more with its homegrown talent to grow more of an industry that has already been initially created.

No, I don’t think of it as a victory, a victory means that we won something, but rather, an acknowledgement that we all even exist (as opposed to the time when we did not exist). I’m glad to see the honour, as there isn’t one other city in the world that can compare to the rich music history of Detroit, but it appears that the city still doesn’t know or want to really use it.

For years electronic music was chiefly dictated by dance culture but now it’s soundtracking films, being performed in ‘classical’ concert halls, museums, galleries etc. Do you think this is because the artists have become more cerebral or conceptual, or is it simply a case of the mainstream catching up, or original fans getting older and moving into ‘establishment’ fields in the arts?
It could be because a little of both aspects. I realise that once I began to explain my ideas about projects and concepts to other people outside the electronic music industry was when a barrage of interest came wanting to know more.

I realised there were always people in other creative fields or in other lines of business that always wanted to connect with electronic music, but had never had the right opportunity to have these meetings or conversations to find the common links to work together.

You often say that techno is still in its infancy, but can you imagine an end game?
No, I can’t because it techno music feeds a basic human mental urge to expand the mind to limitless possibilities. The idea of ‘going somewhere’ from listening will also be relevant as long as humans are able to communicate through sensorial means.