Jeff Mills Interview

[...] All men are dancers and their tread
Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.
—W.B. YEATS

Writing about an artist like Jeff Mills allows us to set aside certain concessions. We could cling to the historical context, that is, to connect him to the era of which he belongs and to the conditions in which he emerged as an artist. However, and as mentioned before, we can omit for a moment those circumstances. Our privilege, fortunately, is that it is already possible to place him as one of the most significant contributors to that mighty river that is the history of music. We are, somehow, lucky to be able to bear the weight of his figure with these words, which join the thousands that have already been written about him.

Jeff Mills’ oeuvre will be heard above its historical circumstances. The future will approach his work as we approach Franz Kafka’s or Virginia Woolf’s literature, and that is: to be before an artist who, beyond the influence that his epoch generates in his work, manages to transcend time and space. It is not that these artists are impervious to the circumstances of their time, no. What they achieve is to transmute their historical context, and that is where the timeless greatness of their pieces lies. Jeff Mills’ work was and continues to be a unique renovation of electronic music in general and electronic dance music in particular. It is not about creating something new, no, because that would be to deny history and tradition. It is about renewing the artistic language: the uniqueness and strength of these artists lie in their ability to create metaphors, fictions, and universes.

In Jeff Mills’ productions, the vanity and uproar of our tormented time are not noticeable. His work, like every avant-garde work, comes to reverse the conventional notion of the flow of time. He brought us the future; he anticipated time. Likewise, his fictions have transported us in space: now we can hear the universe, he made it tangible for all of us. He is already a classical artist, as are other contemporary artists from other disciplines such as Matthew Barney and Cindy Sherman. When his work sounds in different times and spaces, the circumstantial details of his life and era will not matter. All these casualties can be forgotten.

Jeff Mills’ work is destined to be anonymous, and this is the maximum to which an artist can aspire, something that only a few, due to the greatness of their aesthetics, can achieve. His music will become just as One Thousand and One Nights: one accepts those fables made up by generations as if they were of a single author, or rather, as if they had no author. They have it, and they don’t have it, all at the same time; since something so worked, so filed by many generations no longer corresponds to any individual. Now, in the case of Jeff Mills, we already know that his work will be part of the universal memory. The same thing could happen to him as to Don Quijote: if we imagine that all existing copies of Don Quijote could be lost, in all languages, in all editions, the figure of Don Quijote would not disappear, because it is already part of the memory of humanity. In the case of Jeff Mills, his sound will accompany us for generations, even without knowing that it is his. Jeff Mills, like very few artists, is more important than his time; there lies his timeless and universal condition.

DEAR MR. MILLS, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR ACCEPTING THE INVITATION TO PUBLISH AN INTERVIEW IN OUR YEARBOOK. IT IS A GREAT HONOR!

WHAT DOES FICTION MEAN TO JEFF MILLS?

Fiction means a license to dream and create; a platform to cross the lines in reality so that people can imagine the unimaginable.

AFTER MORE THAN 40 YEARS OF ARTISTIC CAREER, YOUR MUSIC BECAME A GENRE IN ITSELF, LIKE H. G. WELLS’ AND JULES VERNE’S FICTIONAL NOVELS. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT?

Well, like many other artists and musicians, I understand and realize that a close and constant relationship with creativity is one that is never complete to the point of resolve. The learning process never ends. One can give up or lose interest, but the terrain is forever expanding and accumulating. So, I don’t really have the liberty to think about something like that. I realize that the music I make will change and evolve as I do, so looking back to what I’ve done is satisfying, but I’d rather forward. It’s much more exciting.

YOUR MUSIC FOSTERED NOT ONLY THE EMANCIPATION OF THE BODY ON THE DANCE FLOOR BUT IT ALSO CREATED POSSIBLE AND IMAGINARY WORLDS OUTSIDE OF IT. WHEN A PERSON THINKS ABOUT OUTER SPACE, THEY WILL HAVE AS A MENTAL SOUND-IMAGE THE MUSIC YOU COMPOSE. ARE YOU AWARE OF THE LEGACY OF YOUR MUSIC, GIVEN THE FACT THAT IT REACHED OTHER ARTISTIC WORLDS BEYOND THE ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC SCENE?

This would be wonderful if it were proven as a fact, but I think in the short time Electronic Music has been around, just 40 years or so, it’s far too soon to assume such a notion. Imagining Electronic Music having a long and full life, like other genres of music such as Jazz/Blues, Rock, Classical, etc. I can think that there will be plenty of forthcoming artists that might eclipse anything I’ve done or created in the future.

If people consume this music the way I see they do, then the probability of a Quincy Jones or Miles Davis of Techno is quite high.

YOUR MUSIC IS COMPOSED OF LOOPS, REPETITIVE BEATS, AND SONIC AND MINIMAL SOUNDS. NOWADAYS, ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC TENDS TO FOLLOW A POP MUSIC STRUCTURE IN ITS COMPOSITION; MEANING THAT IT SEEKS TO CREATE A PREDICTABLE PASSAGE EASY TO BE CONSUMED, REMEMBERED, AND PRAISED. EVEN PEOPLE THAT LISTEN TO MUSIC COMPOSED OF REPETITIVE BEATS FIND MINIMAL MUSIC AND LONG LOOPS WITH AN ACCENTUATED GROOVE “TOO REPETITIVE” OR BORING BECAUSE “NOTHING HAPPENS”.

ARE WE THEN EXPERIENCING A REGRESSION IN THE LISTENING AND UNDERSTANDING OF MUSIC?

Maybe. Or it could be attributed to the idea that making Electronic Music is easy to do. Also, listening to something “half-baked” or to something without relevance is always considered an example of forward-thinking. When artists are highlighted by doing these things, it affects people’s impression on what is possible (or not possible). I think that in Electronic Music, we tend to grade ourselves by the least capabilities, not the maximum. So, unlike Jazz and Classical and Rock, where mastering instruments is the backbone of these genres, Electronic Music seems to escape this aspect. But in time, this could prove to be the vital factor that might allow this genre to exceed much further than any other.

FOLLOWING THIS ARGUMENT, IS TECHNO MUSIC LOSING ITS JAZZ AND AVANT-GARDE MUSIC INFLUENCES AND ITS FUTURISTIC IMPULSE/AESTHETICS?

In general, thinking and working with the subject of the future is not easy. So, I wouldn’t blame people for avoiding this subject, but at the same time I do believe that if one claims to be a musician, that at some stage of their career, they have an obligation to create as much as they can. To explore as far as they can reach. To create unconditionally. This doesn’t mean that these creations need to be heard by the public, but exhausting these imposes are important—whether the musician knows it or not. A mature listener’s ear can detect.

WALTER PATER, BENEDETTO CROCE AND JORGE LUIS BORGES SUGGEST- ED THAT “ALL THE ARTS IN COMMON ASPIRE TOWARDS THE CONDITION OF MUSIC, WHICH IS NOTHING BUT FORM”. MUSIC, THEREFORE, BECOMES THE MEASURE OF ALL ART, BECAUSE BY HAVING ITS OWN LANGUAGE IT FUSES FORM AND CONTENT BETTER THAN ANY OTHER ART FORM. IN THIS SENSE: WHAT DOES ELECTRONIC MUSIC IN GENERAL, AND TECHNO IN PARTICULAR, ASPIRE TO IN FORMAL TERMS? AND AS A MASS PHENOMENON THAT HAS TRANSCENDED DANCE FLOORS IN CLUBS AND RAVES?

I think in the larger more absolute sense, it is too soon to tell. Today, it is a form of hedonistic escapism—a platform for people to lose themselves, even in the mist of others. It provides chances to feel freer. Tomorrow, it could be enjoyed for completely different reasons. Many decades ago, I’m sure many young people would have never imagined that Rock and Roll, Jazz—even classical—would practically be a non-danceable form of music. In the back of mind, I can recognize Electronic Music, especially Techno being shaped by something we haven’t realized or discovered yet. At times, the music sounds more like transmission pulses than music arrangements. This is for a reason, but I don’t know why.

THE HISTORY OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC, AND ESPECIALLY OF DANCE MUSIC, IS VERY SHORT. THE TWENTIETH AND TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY HAS SPECIALIZED IN ACCELERATING PROCESSES AND LEAPFROGGING STAGES QUICKLY. WHAT, THEN, WOULD BE THE LEGACY OF DANCE MUSIC FOR UNIVERSAL HISTORY?

If Electronic Music died tomorrow, I’d have to say that the genre opened up many new possibilities for people to enter into the artform of creating music. However, the evolution of artists and DJs becoming more noticeable and highlighted also brought the type of technology most commonly used to the forefronts of discussion. Personally, I wish it could have been about artistic skill, theory, and mastery of the art, but as you stated—it’s been a very short life... but a bright one.

THERE IS A BEAUTIFUL ANECDOTE OF PAUL CÉZANNE REGARDING THE EXPANSION OF PICTORIAL LIMITS: HE WANTED TO “ASTONISH PARIS WITH AN APPLE”, BUT BEFORE THAT, APPLES COULD ROT BEFORE HE MANAGED TO PAINT THEM. THE STORY SUGGESTS A SEARCH TO OVERCOME HIS SKILLS AS A PAINTER TO PRESENT A PICTORIAL APPLE AND NOT TO REPRESENT A MERE APPLE.

HOW WAS JEFF MILLS’ QUEST TO EXPAND THE LIMITS OF ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC? TO MAKE OUT OF TECHNO NOT ONLY DANCEABLE BUT ALSO A LISTENING EXPERIENCE?

Early on in my career, I found elements in the genre that were unusual in comparison to other genres. One being that the aspect of listening to understand the music is more suggestive. Another one would be that there isn’t any rule for how it should be made. These two points convinced me that just about anything is possible. Over time, the words anything, any way or any reason became the narratives for a lot of my actions. Like Cézanne’s Apple, I began to see Electronic Music differently when I realized all the possibilities that were in my reach. This transition started when I began to slightly turn away from the dancefloor and more at the music artform itself. It is like people’s general impression and view about outer space is that its dark and empty, but the fact is that space is very much the opposite. It is full of color and shapes, but we’ll only see this if we find the ways to travel.

WHAT DOES JEFF MILLS’ MUSIC ASPIRE TO?

I suppose most of my efforts point to recognizing something about us that we haven’t noticed before, but it’s hard to assume this as I can never really know how the music I make is collectively perceived. When creating and djing music I can only think about people, not for them.

WHAT IS LEFT TO ACHIEVE AS AN ARTIST? WHICH OTHER ARTISTIC FORMS WOULD YOU LIKE TO EXPLORE WITH YOUR MUSIC?

Film and moving images.

POPULAR MUSIC EMERGED IN THE US DUE TO THE SIGNIFICANT INFLUENCE OF THE AFRO-AMERICAN CULTURE. THE PROCESSES OF SECULARIZATION, LIBERATION AND EMANCIPATION OF THESE COMMUNITIES GENERATED MUSIC GENRES BASED ON THE IDEA OF FREEDOM, DANCE AND GROOVE, I.E. REPETITION, SUCH AS BLUES, JAZZ, AND DANCE MUSIC. AFTERWARDS, DANCING TO REPETITIVE BEATS, AS SHAMANIC AND TRIBAL RITUAL, LEAD TO THE EMANCIPATION OF THE BODY—ANY HUMAN BODY—PLACING IT AS THE RECIPIENT AND COGNITIVE ENTITY OF WHAT ROLAND BARTHES CALLED JOIUSSANCE, THAT IS, RUPTURE, BLISS, OR TRANSCENDENCE.

WHAT DO YOU THINK INFLUENCES AND MOTIVATES THE PRODUCTION AND RECEPTION OF DANCE MUSIC TODAY? WHAT IS IT BEHIND THE ACTUAL POPULARITY OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC?

Today, I would have to say what motivates the most is an expectation of eventual fame and notoriety. A certain level of respect and honor. I believe that this isn’t anything wrong, in fact, it has helped bring Electronic Music to unseen heights, but at the same time, it provokes questions about some people’s actions. There is an old saying that says “fake it until you make it”.

DETROIT TECHNO WAS ABOUT FUTURISM; JEFF MILLS WAS MOTIVATED BY SCIENCE FICTION AND WENT TO CONQUER OUTER SPACE, REVEALING A STILL UNKNOWN UNIVERSE; DREXCIYA CREATED AN UNDERWATER WORLD WITH HUMANS THAT COULD SURVIVE THOSE CONDITIONS; UNDERGROUND RESISTANCE STAYED ON EARTH, AS HUMANS, FIGHTING FOR POLITICAL AND SOCIO-CULTURAL CHANGE, VINDICATING THE ROLE AND CULTURE OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN HISTORY.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE ACTUAL STATE OF ART AND CULTURE PRODUCTION? WHICH OTHER WORLDS CAN BE CONQUERED THROUGH MUSIC?

I believe that each one of these perspectives are processional in their forms, each lead to an idea of understanding and recognizing something more. More to purpose of life and existence. More to what and how we see the world around us and more to our natural capacities. Put simply, we’ve been lied to. Humanity isn’t aimlessly moving forward – there is design. There is a plan to all this. A human-made one and a natural one.

WHAT DOES THEN UTOPIA MEAN TO YOU?

Tangibly, it doesn’t exist. The illusion of utopia is as close as we can get.

THERE IS A THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVE OF ART THAT PROMULGATES THAT ART MUST BE COMPLICATED AND DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND IN ORDER TO SAFEGUARD ITS AUTONOMY, TO PROTECT IT AGAINST COMMERCIAL AND POLITICAL USE. IN POPULAR MUSIC, JAZZ ACQUIRED A STATUS OF INTEL- LECTUALISM AND ELITISM BECAUSE IT BECAME A MUCH MORE COMPLEX GENRE IN ITS COMPOSITION AND PERFORMANCE, AND THEREFORE, IN ITS UNDERSTANDING. AS A CONSEQUENCE, JAZZ DISTANCED ITSELF FROM OTHER GENRES OF POPULAR MUSIC BASED ON REPETITION THAT WENT TO BECOME MORE POPULAR AND EASIER TO CONSUME.

GIVEN THE CURRENT STATE OF DANCE MUSIC IN GENERAL AND TECHNO IN PARTICULAR, IT SEEMS THAT THIS SCENARIO IS BEING REPEATED. TO SAFEGUARD TECHNO AS A GENRE OF AVANT-GARDE ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC, AND THUS, TO KEEP ITS CREATIVE AND AUTONOMOUS SPIRIT ALIVE, THIS ONE MUST OPT FOR COMPLEXITY AND CONSTANT EXPLORATION AND EXCHANGE WITH OTHER FORMS OF ARTISTIC PRODUCTION. THEREFORE, IT BECOMES MORE ABSTRACT AND INTELLECTUAL.

HOW DO YOU ENVISION THE FUTURE OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC, SOUND ART, AND TECHNO? IS IT BECOMING A QUESTION OF US AND THEM, I.E. EXPERIMENTAL ELECTRONIC MUSIC AND TECHNO AS HIGH ART AND POPULAR AND COMMERCIAL DANCE MUSIC AS LOW ART OR POP?

I believe Jazz became more complex because Jazz artists wanted to distance themselves from those who were trying to copy and dilute the genre. Bebop was created as a defense. I would have configured that Free Jazz is even an extension of that. For Electronic Music and like any popular genre of music, there will be those who find more satisfaction, and even more success in exploring and experimenting. It’s often with these types of artists where new ideas are projected more frequently, but recognition is scarce. The lack of observation can often be defined as “on purpose”. Or, remaining “underground” is an overall objective, but who in their right mind doesn’t want to be recognized, live comfortably and earn a lot of money for doing something they love to do? I haven’t met anyone in this industry like that yet.

IS TECHNO NECESSARILY INTELLECTUAL? DOES TECHNO NEED TO BE INTELLECTUAL? OR IS ITS SIMPLICITY WHAT MAKES IT INTELLECTUAL, AS A META-CRITIC?

No. Overall, I would say it is not intellectual. It is more about instinct and perception than anything else. I believe we would be seeing more efforts towards conceptualism and philosophy if most artists felt more compelled to reach deeper to translate ideas through music. Most Electronic and Techno Music is created to make a person physically react in a special moment, in a special place, but the overall reason people spend time dancing escapes deeper observation and discussion. Whenever I read an article about the positive mental and physical effects of dancing and listening to music, it’s rarely in Dance Music magazines, but commonly found in science and health medias.

THIS PUBLICATION IS CALLED ENTKUNSTUNG (IN ENGLISH DEARTIFICATION), AND IT MEANS THE PROCESS BY WHICH ART LOSES ITS TRADITIONAL QUALITIES AND CHARACTERISTICS TO BECOME SOMETHING DIFFERENT. IS TECHNO MUSIC EXPERIENCING A PROCESS OF DEARTIFICATION? HOW DO YOU SEE THE ACTUAL STATE OF THE GENRE?

Overall, I would have to say no. To me, this time doesn’t feel as if old ideas are being shaved off; it is exposing new models and ways of thinking about Techno Music. 40 years into the genre, I would have hoped to see more DJs/producers become artists—in the real sense. Not just composing dance music to DJ, but exploring all sorts of artistic techniques to help build a genre that people can really follow and connect with outside the party hours.

From my calculation and by now, we should be witnessing a constant barrage of albums and releases due to the case that so many people regularly invest and buy musical equipment and gear. For instance, since the emergence of smaller, more affordable modular synths, with a distinctive sound or rhythm, has also emerged what we can call attributes to those machines and producers. There have been no significant leaps in the quality of sound and sound technology. Thinking about the party and dance events, it’s been the same procedure and format for 30+ years. By this time, Dance Music promoters of various levels should have brought on artistic directors by now to advance the atmosphere settings. My goal in pointing out these things isn’t just to bitch and complain but rather to show that there are many things to do in this genre. In my opinion, we try but not hard enough.

WHAT KEEPS YOU MOTIVATED TO PLAY TECHNO?

I love the genre. I think my fondness for it grows as I get older because I realize more and more that it’s an amazing creative platform to use to translate feelings and visions. I’m not sure about Electronic Music. But Techno needs to exist forever.

HOW DOES A TRANSATLANTIC WAY OF LIFE INFLUENCE YOUR SOUND?

I’ve learned to deal with the time differences, the advance preparation of international travel. Conditioning myself to forget has become a necessary and unique skill! I generally look forward to where I’m going, not where I departed from. This habit affects the way I create music. In the studio, I’m mostly interested in what I’m going to make next.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE ACTUAL STATE OF ARTISTIC PRODUCTION IN GENERAL AND ELECTRONIC MUSIC IN PARTICULAR IN EUROPE AND THE US?

Consistent. Safe. Reasonably effective, but most productions are a bit too easy to forget.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE MEAN FOR JEFF MILLS TODAY? ARE YOU STILL LIVING THE SAME IDEA OF FUTURE AS IT WAS FOR YOU IN THE LATE 1980S?

It’s advanced since the 1980s and I think it is related to the activities of Science and Space science—the countdown to a time when humans will occupy another celestial body other than Earth.

DOES JEFF MILLS WANT TO GO TO OUTER SPACE?

Only if it’s a comfortable journey and I can return back to Earth.

WHAT DOES SILENCE MEAN TO YOU?

True silence doesn’t exist.

MUSIC HAS THE PRIVILEGE OF HAVING ITS OWN LANGUAGE, WHILE PHILOSOPHY AND—ABOVE ALL—ART, DEPENDS ON NATURAL LANGUAGE, AND THEREFORE, ON CONCEPTS, FOR ITS UNDERSTANDING. TODAY THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION IS NOT “WHAT IS ART?,” RATHER, WHEN DOES ART HAPPENS? WHEN DOES TECHNO MUSIC HAPPEN FOR JEFF MILLS? WHAT IS TECHNO? WHEN DOES IT OCCUR?

I believe these answers are in the making and are not yet defined. Maybe it’s too soon. From what I can see, Techno isn’t like Art. Art addresses subject matters that relate to time, places, people and things. Techno, (at this time) is mainly predicated on making the listener feel a particular way. This is quite interesting because it seems to be more of a way of speaking or saying something. When I hear a typical Techno track these days, it sounds more like Morse code and beep transmissions than a music composition. It’s interesting that we’ve ventured off in this direction.

TALKING TO MY MOM, I TOLD HER ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF INTERVIEWING JEFF MILLS. SHE ASKED ME “WHO IS JEFF MILLS?” SO I ANSWERED: “JEFF MILLS WOULD BE THE EQUIVALENT OF SAMUEL BECKETT OR BERTOLT BRE- CHT; IN JAZZ, HE WOULD BE MILES DAVIS OR JOHN COLTRANE, IN POETRY HE WOULD BE T.S. ELIOT OR JORGE LUIS BORGES”.

ARE YOU AWARE OF THE POWER OF YOUR WORK, OF YOU AS AN ARTIST THAT HAS CREATED PARALLEL UNIVERSES WITH YOUR SOUND AND THAT IS BY NOW A PARADIGM NOT ONLY IN THE ELECTRONIC MUSIC SCENE? HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT?

Thanks for such kind words, but Samuel Beckett, Miles Davis and John Coltrane were practically creating new genres in their processes. I don’t see myself in that capacity, but I would imagine that any musician could visualize their work and creation becoming more than what it was designed for. How I’m perceived is not something I think about because I’m constantly getting those signals and warning signs that indicate listeners agreeing or not with what they’re hearing.

HAVE YOU EVER DREAMED A TRACK OR A SCORE?

Yes, the first one would be X-102 The Rings Of Saturn back in 1991; while sleeping on a flight to Rome for a New Years Eve event.

20 YEARS AGO YOU RELEASED THE DRUMMER, WHICH INCLUDED A TRACK CALLED ALLEN. NOW YOU’VE RELEASED A RECORD TOGETHER WITH HIM, WITH TONY ALLEN. DID YOU DREAM IT AT SOME POINT, TO PLAY WITH HIM, TO BE A DRUMMER NEXT TO HIM?

No, I never thought I would ever have the chance to meet him. When the opportunity arose, I didn’t hesitate. Playing with him has probably been one of the most important lessons since I was taught to DJ back in the early 1980s by older Detroit DJs like Dale Willis and Felton Howard. I’ve learned a lot.

THANK YOU SO MUCH, MR. MILLS!