Jeff Mills is the Man From Tomorrow — techno’s leading futurist innovator and a prophetic voice in the advancement of electronic music. From the analogue rewiring of the underground counterculture in the 80s in Detroit clubs, to high-concept presentations in art galleries and avant-garde cinema, Mills has been a visionary figure, ignoring the lines between art movements.
Some 30-odd years after creating his virtuoso DJ alter-ego The Wizard and forming the militant techno collective Underground Resistance with ‘Mad’ Mike Banks and Robert Hood, Mills is just as likely these days to be reworking his canon with a symphony orchestra, re-scoring 1920s German Expressionist films or exploring space science, Egyptology or sci-fi through avant-garde electronics and modern dance.
Earlier this year he performed a live show at the Smithsonian in Washington DC to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, and in a seismic shift in dance music culture, he was Artist In Residence at the Louvre in 2015.
But sometimes even an avowed futurist has to look back. In 2019 Mills embarked on several comprehensive retrospective projects to encapsulate his music and concepts on Axis — the label he set up in 1992 and a de facto chronicle of his life’s work through 100+ releases and counting.
Sight, Sound and Space is a three-disc collection of his work in film, club culture and interstellar exploration, while The Director’s Cut is a six-part series of 12-inch re-releases of some of his landmark works. The sixth and final chapter was another spin of ‘The Bells’ — one of the all-time techno hall of fame records that he still plays in every DJ set, 23 years after its appearance on the Kat Moda EP. It’s a record he modestly tells me was composed as “a switch… a practical DJ tool that’s above all else, effective… something that works instantly”.
I’m having a rare lunchtime chat with Mills in his Dublin hotel, a few hours after he hitJam Park in Swords with a shapeshifting set of chopped-up techno, sci-fi abstractions and a visceral hands-on masterclass on two 909 drum machines. Over the course of an hour he touches on evolving DJ culture and jazz techniques, human-machine blurred lines, Moon landing conspiracies, reincarnation theories and the toxicity of modern American politics and racism.
Crucially, he maintains that this retrospective period isn’t any kind of wind-down for Axis, but more a clearing mechanism for a 2020 vision and beyond…
Watching you last night, it hit me how how much your physical and visual performance has changed since the 90s. It seems a lot more composed now but you’re probably doing more, with the two drum machines. How has your real-time mindset changed at gigs these days?
Well, circumstances have changed. It’s not me applying the music in the same way… handling records, trying to turn around, selecting or looking for one vinyl, taking it out of its package, physically taking it to the turntable, putting it on, putting the needle down, the process is a lot different.
Many, many movements have been erased or removed from the process of programming music in a live setting. So time is used a bit differently. And for me, I have more time to think and more time to size up what’s going to be played next. I can think more about the overall scope of the set more, rather than just focusing on the movements of taking one thing and putting it on, step by step by step. So I can think about the composite frame of the whole party. It will probably change again with technology in a few years.
At the same time, there’s lot more excitement any time you solo on the 909, people seem to get a release out of the pure physicality of you improvising. Especially the extended section at the end last night, it felt like an encore.
I’ve been playing drum machines since the early to mid-80s, but it’s only a few years ago that I began to look at the machine to play it really like a percussion instrument, not just programme it. And I’m still learning. Like, right now I’m using two machines and two different ways of playing each one. You might have seen me for years playing this machine, but I’m still learning how to manipulate this thing, I’m still just getting into this idea. Like, last night, I was doing things that I had learned last weekend. So as I’m learning I’m up to the point that I don’t need to look at the machine anymore, and that wasn’t the case a year ago. I can think more quickly.
So it’s almost like you’re taking away the technique and you’re just following a conceptual idea, an intuition?
I mean, when you learn how to use the machine you can modify your thinking about it. It’s like when you play a guitar, you don’t need to look at your fingers to play the strings. After a while you can just play because you… you just know. You can really begin to think about where you wanna go with this instrument. And that’s just beginning to happen now. I’m learning how to really control. At first I pretty much mastered the machine, now I’m learning how to use the machine to master the atmosphere. So it gets really interesting. It’s not DJing, it’s more like a solo musician soloing.
How do you balance that idea of interaction, or the direction of the crowd and your own headspace?
Do you mean that I’m anticipating or guessing that the audience might like this or like that? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes things don’t work, sometimes the timing’s not right. Or it wasn’t the time for that. And maybe I’ll try it again later. You know, the whole DJ set is really knocking on a door.
Knocking on a door in anticipation? Do you think DJing is the most empathetic art form? You’re reacting constantly.
Your brain needs to be wired a certain way to do it. The way that I learned how to DJ, I mean, you have to think in a very fast way, like with the drum machine, you have to think about what you’re going to do next in split seconds. I don’t even think it’s about confidence, you just have to have no fear in what you’re about to try next. And if it doesn’t work, you have to have some way to be able to get out of that, to make the people forget you made a mistake. And you have to be kind of fearless in this type of atmosphere.
You know, I’m not afraid to make mistakes. I’m not a machine, I’m a human playing for other humans. So I have a little bit of an advantage, you know. If I was a machine trying to sound more human-like, that would be different. So yeah, I expect a certain amount of leverage and understanding from the audience. You know, ‘Oh, he made a mistake, but he’s going to recover and when he does, it’ll maybe make us forget that he just screwed up’.
You speak a lot about ‘elevating’ electronic music, and future technologies. You’ve also seemed interested in virtual reality performances in the future. Do you think a lot of the communal aspect would be lost here?
The possibility’s there, of course. I think what makes that idea hotter is when we realise we no longer have these people with us. They’ve maybe died but yet you still want to experience Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur, you still want that artist in front of you. There have been many attempts to create this type of simulation, but I think in time the technology, VR and other types of ways of programming may become so sophisticated, that it may just be like this.
So I think people overall want to have that type of experience and possibly education. So, you know, you may not physically have to go to to Machu Picchu, but if your brain is convinced that you were actually there, then yeah, maybe. And I think entertainment is one prime target. I think we might be able to experience what it was like to sit in front of Miles Davis, or hear John Coltrane.
So you’re not necessarily against the idea of these hologram tours, almost like the resurrection of dead artists?
No, no, no, not at all. In fact, I wish it would come in my lifetime so perhaps I could create something that would help me. Yeah, of course. I can continue to make music and compose music after after my death? That would be great.
So you’re advocating for a Jeff Mills hologram after you die?
Yeah, it would be ideal!
It’s interesting that you’ve come straight out and said it, a lot of people wouldn’t admit it.
You know, why not?
It’s a more interesting way of having eternal life than the dream of an actual physical eternal life, is that what you’re saying?
Well, I think if you’re speaking to artists who have spent most of their adult life creating music and programming music for people… if there’s a way to continue it on, I think their answer probably might be yes too.
You’ve explored Ancient Egyptians’ spiritual beliefs in one of your pieces at the Louvre. Do you have any belief in life after death?
Well, I want to stay alive as long as I can. But I think death is a transition. What I believe, and I expect, kind of like the Egyptians, is that I will hopefully be conscious of something after death, and I would like to be conscious and explore and experience something else.
I’m not a religious person, I don’t go to church. I read some of the Bible but I couldn’t read all of it, or the Quran. But I think there’s something within every one of us that kind of tells us what is right and what’s wrong.
The Ancient Egyptians lived their lives to die and be reborn again. And you know, every 12 hours with the rise and the setting of the sun, it’s almost a life in itself. And what you do in those 12 hours determines whether you are reborn or not. And so each day has a ‘god’ and a ‘god’ guides you through those 12 hours. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea, to be honest.
It reminds me of a line from the film, The Man From Tomorrow, “Everything is created with the notion that there will be a next”, so you keep carrying on…
Right. Looking ahead, thinking ahead. We developed this way of assuming there’ll be a tomorrow, and to prepare for a tomorrow. But we were not always like that, we were just pillaging, looking for food because we were hungry.
Eventually we began to prepare. So we took enough so that we didn’t need to go out every day, enough to survive for two days in a cave. And so this idea of preparing, it was a development. And I think that we live this in many different degrees — having children, educating them, putting them through college and pushing them off into life, it’s all part of this preparation for tomorrow.
Even if you look at America and the divisions between how the future should move forward — there’s a whole idea that the world must move in one way, like it can’t move in two ways. If you ask me, it just it doesn’t work like that, we’re just not that type of species.
It’s a subject that explains a lot of the craziness in the world. Sometimes, there’s so many layers that you get confused and you don’t know what the truth is. But I think everyone should have their own opinion of what tomorrow should be.
It’s been a time for retrospection for Axis, with the Director’s Cut series and Sight, Sound and Space. Is there any reason why you’ve chosen this time to look back?
Well, it’s mainly because we’re about to expand into releasing a different type of music. The past few years I’ve been kind of flirting — actually, more than flirting — with more eclectic music, working with classical musicians and special types of recordings. And I think we have enough to really move at a higher gear in that direction, as well as techno, as well as conceptual science fiction and electronic music with themes of space science.
Overall, it fills in the gaps in music that people just don’t get enough of, like a certain type of techno music that can be danceable but you can also listen to it as well. That’s more composition-based but not cheesy or commercial. Or you know, know, techno music that’s not always pounding, very dark driving type of music, but more music you consume with your mind.
So we plan to release more of that type of electronic music, as well as the mixing of different genres, I think we don’t hear enough hybrids, you know, soul or punk mixed with gospel, new wave mixed with this and that. We live in a time where we should be able to speak to any other musician and find common ground. And so we are doing a lot of that now. Working with Tony Allen and other musicians kind of opened up that ideal.
With Spiral Deluxe and On the Run with Tony Allen, and even with collaborations in the Outer Limits, you’ve been moving a lot into jazz in the last few years. But in a way do you think that tendency was always there? There’s always been an improvised feel to your DJ sets.
Yeah, I mean, it made me think about playing my instruments more. And by doing that, I actually have become more of an artist because I kind of chisel out what I would do as an artist. It happens when you’re programming machines and you make a mix in a certain way — but when you begin to play the instruments by hand, you’re playing with your own natural rhythm.
And that translates much faster and much quicker, and I think much more profoundly. By playing the congas, playing drums, playing ‘something’, I think in electronic music we have kind of overlooked that a bit too much. And I’m learning that there’s common ground between programming the machine and playing the machine or striking something by hand.
The ‘Sight’ aspect of the compilation refers to your film soundtrack work, but Axis has always had a really strong visual identity. Is there any specific relevance to the logo, the four triangles?
I could just explain it really briefly, but every few years I recognise something more in it. It started started off as a four-point design, with the bottom triangle referencing the Pyramid of Giza and the three that are left, right and at the top of it are all ‘emitting’ symbols. So the whole idea of creating something or referencing something that emits information in a one-way direction was always there from the very beginning.
So it was it was always my idea to produce something, release it, emit it, then turn to something else, and continue to do that. I’ve never really been that interested in feedback or knowing the temperature of the listeners or, at times, not even really even caring about what they say.
My job is to create something and to emit it, so that’s where the logo actually comes from. And the title ‘Axis’ beneath the surface, below ground level, that’s the foundation. The real foundation is the purpose of the pyramid itself. Then looking at the logo, you have four points that are all even from each side and you create this imaginary circle in the centre.
I had this idea of the way the label would work — I would release things, not with the idea that they’re for that time, but I’d release them like a spiral. When I release something, I’m just throwing it into the spiral. So a ‘new’ release doesn’t really matter. It never really matters for me. My idea is to release as much as I can and throw it into the spiral. And it’s really up to you, the listener, when you get into the spiral what you would like to have.
At times it may look like I’m releasing too much material. That’s because I’m not thinking about a new release or the next thing… I’m releasing to throw another idea into this pool of music. I just throw it in, then turn to something else.
For me as an artist, I think it’s just a better way to create. You know, someone may like something on Thursday but not so much on Friday. Then two years later they like it again. It takes away the idea that I might do something wrong, or something that’s not fitting for the time. Just to think about it in a circular way, it comes from the centre of those four points.
I take it that spiral idea applies to DJing as well? Intuitively selecting music and throwing it into the spiral?
I assume everyone in the audience is not the same. I wish I could, but I could never be confident that everyone’s moving and thinking in the same way. So the DJ set is more like an algorithm, it’s just highs and lows and you have to kind of latch on to what you want. So I’m giving you a lot of different things in a short period of time, but in a strange way I’m trying to make everything kind of sound the same, like a wave or waveform.
Your Purpose Maker 12-inches had really evocative imagery as well, with the images of hands and traditional dancers, say tango dancers or dancers from Java. Was that almost a way of bridging the gap between techno and other dance forms?
Exactly, typically on the B-side of the label on the vinyl. I had the idea of music that meets with this esoteric way of thinking, and it was it was through the hands — the dancer uses the hands to communicate to tell a story. And as a DJ, handling this music, you’re using hands as well. And so it was about just making a connection.
That idea of bridging the gap between different cultures and music has been there from the start, even from your earlier DJ sets as the Wizard, playing all types of music…
Yeah, I think it’s why I always looked at electronic music bit differently. I was a hip-hop DJ many, many years ago, and a house music DJ.
But techno music is a bit different because there are many more possibilities… I think the average person that listens to electronic music or to techno — especially to techno — is a very open-minded person. And I’ve always found that they’re more willing to listen to something different. I think some DJs make the mistake in thinking that it has to be a certain way. But I see it a bit differently, I think you can be more free. I think you’re really able to explore. And if you don’t, I think it’s kind of a wasted opportunity.
You seem to be really conscious of the timeline of electronic music, trying to contextualise techno in history. Even with the mini website launched alongside the compilation, placing techno in certain periods of time, certain historical landmarks…
Yeah, we were looking at the project in terms of context. Say if someone was only born in 1995 and was only four or five years old by the year 2000, they may or may not be able to connect to certain things because they were so young. So we thought that maybe it might be helpful to look at the certain albums and look at what was happening in the world at that time, so they could understand a little bit better.
Say when this album was released, these things were happening in the world, and you might remember these things because these were world-changing events. So we thought it shouldn’t be just ‘I’ looking back into the archive in a certain way, but the listener can as well, and this chronological chart might might help you to do that.
So, you know, President so-and-so did this at this time… Clinton was impeached, Madonna did this… you kind of understand it a little bit in ways of why certain things were released at certain times, as a response to what was happening. You might remember where you were, or we might be feeling the effects of it still, years later…
That idea of feeling effects years later, it reminds me of an interview you did with Afropunk. You seem to be in despair about the US at the minute. The term you used was ‘shell-shocked’.
If you if you take a few steps back… in my case, I look at the US from Europe, being over here a lot and looking at my country. You know, you recognise all these crazy insane things that happen, that have always happened.
It has an effect mentally on people, and even if you’re lucky enough that things don’t happen to you, it’s just on the news every day. You turn on the news, 60 shootings overnight, 30 killings here.
After a while it has an effect, and even now you still can see the effects of slavery, you can still see it in the Civil Rights movement, you can still see things that stem from the women’s rights movement in the 1920s, that big movement. You can still feel things that are reminiscent of the Depression in the 1930s. You can feel the effects of men walking on the Moon, you can see it in many different things.
And so I said shell-shocked because it’s not just in war — but shell-shocked in terms of how the past is carried on from generation to generation. It’s a very complicated, very complex society. It’s not just always black and white, there’s a lot of grey and different shades and different dimensions of how people are affected by what goes on in a country. Quietly, but deep inside, you’re struggling to try to understand certain things.
I mean, when I first came to Europe, I assumed that the majority, if not all, the white people were going to look at me the same way as many white Americans do — they hate my presence, they hate the fact that they’re even next to me, or hate the fact that they even see a black person. This is what it feels like to be in America at times — the idea that ‘I’m in the same room, the same four walls as a black person, makes me physically sick’. You have white people that actually act that way.
So you might grow up thinking that there’s something wrong with you, even though your life is no different from theirs… but it’s just the way some people act, how they want to make you feel. They maybe don’t necessarily even feel that way or believe it, but they just want to make you feel it. Or maybe they were raised to think black people are basically trained dogs and pets that we have just integrated into our society — this insane way of thinking.
You know, people say racism and prejudice is a mental illness. But I think it’s actually beyond that. This idea that you believe in yourself and your presence so much, that nothing can compare? That is an extreme psychological type of problem. So what do you do? You elect a president that’s just as crazy as you, who shares your same crazy beliefs and then you end up with a country that’s so divided.
You said before that you worry that people can’t be helped by culture and music, do you still think that?
Yes and no. I don’t know. I think we’re more dishonest about ourselves than we are honest. That’s the simplest way that I can put it. We do a lot of crazy things because we are trying to reinforce this idea that we’re better than we actually are. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of disagreement with that, because that’s just not the way people were taught and how they were raised. Put simply, you’re born, you live, you die.
So let’s do some good while we’re here?
That’s it, and you’ve only got so much time to do it.
I’m imagining the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, had a profound effect on you? How did you approach the live show at the Smithsonian in Washington DC?
It’s funny, one thing I found out during the 50th anniversary. I didn’t actually believe how many people really don’t believe it. I mean, if you go to Cape Canaveral, if you go to the Kennedy Space Center, they explain to you how they did it. You can clearly see that it was complex, it was very difficult, but they explain how it was how it was done, and when you see that you think, OK, it’s feasible how they did it.
Because of this anniversary, I realised how many people just wanted to believe it was made up… the whole idea of it is interesting in itself, that thousands of people could be in on this… tens of thousands of people in on it. This big scheme to make people believe humans were on the moon is an incredible story in itself. Why would tens of thousands of people do that? Maybe some people may not believe that physical man landed on the moon, but his mind was there, and his spirit was there. And if you can dream it, and you can think it, then you’re only just a few steps away from actually doing it.
And so, I think putting the spirit and the idea in your mind is the most difficult part. So making the album [Moon — The Area of Influence] with this perspective, I thought well, I should be careful because there are people who don’t believe, so I’m going to focus on just the Moon itself and not the Moon landing. This aspect is also interesting — what it means to us as a human animal and how it affects the Earth and how we are affected by the moon, physically, culturally, mythically. So I was happy, I learned a lot from it. I won’t live to see the 100-year anniversary. If I’m lucky, maybe 75.
I liked the fact that you added a sci-fi dimension to the performance at the Smithsonian, playing the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters.
I thought that was a great idea of Kubrick’s, to think of space as a beautiful dream. Because the reality is, it’s a dark nightmare. Space wants to kill you. So this whole idea of dreaming about it in this very wondrous type of way, maybe people will think space exploration is more justified, in the years and decades and centuries to come. If you think of space as a positive thing, it makes the process we’re going to be involved in a lot more pleasant.
We’re ending on a positive note, hope for the future…
Yeah, let’s call it positive. The truth is, we live in the time that is the most prosperous for humanity, ever. There has never been any time better than now, even with all this craziness, death and starvation. Strangely, this is still the best time ever to live in the existence of humans.
I think we eventually will come out a much stronger animal, in the way that our brains are designed to deal with even bigger problems facing us in centuries to come. Maybe this is a test for society, maybe it’s a big test for humanity.
Do you think it’ll take more global catastrophes for people to realise this?
One or two, or three catastrophes? Maybe. I think the problem is we have a lot to learn about ourselves. We will eventually need to learn what we’re connected to, in ways we can understand. I can sit here and say, ‘Oh, we’re all connected to all stars and planets, celestial bodies and the cosmos’. No one will deny that.
You’ll sit here and shake your head and go, ‘Wow I’m connected to Mars and Jupiter’, but in which way? If you show someone, if you lay it out that your body is 99% water and your skin is only keeping these things intact, that the colour of your skin is only due to these factors.
If you lay these things out and explain to people, if that becomes part of a young kid’s education as they grow up, they understand the distance is not very far — we’re practically the same thing. So you could create a different type of person, a different type of human, but we don’t do that. We start off separating, even before a child is even born, right? You know, you are this and you are that, you are over there and we’re over here. That has to stop and that has to be changed, so we know what to do when catastrophe or real crisis comes.
And when I say real crisis, I mean, when something happens where nothing… no technology… no nothing, no reasoning can explain what’s going on and we don’t have a solution. We know this planet has had those before in the past, and chances are great that viruses and plagues will happen again.
If you put people in this situation who are born into a way of thinking that we are different, you won’t be able to solve these big problems. So thinking about that just shows you just how young we are, how green and how immature humanity really is.
But we’ve made it this far, we have found a way to avoid accidents and death. We can cure disease and prevent starvation if we want to… no one needs to starve on this planet. Anyone who’s starving has to know there’s somebody who wants them to starve, someone literally doesn’t want them to have food. I mean, the planet is only from here to there, right? I mean if we can get to the Moon we can get food to anyone.
You have to remember that we are the most advanced we have ever been. Overall, we are the most advanced form of human that has ever existed.
You know, we should act like it sometimes, right?