Underground Resistance founder, Axis records owner and one of the most important members of the early Detroit vanguard, Jeff Mills has maintained his position at the bleeding edge of dance music for 25 years. He has spent the past few years broadening his already stellar CV, producing the films Man from Tomorrow and Life to Death and Back, while producing original scores for classic science fiction films Woman In the Moon and Metropolis. Alongside all of this, Mills continues to tour around the world as a singularly impressive and intuitive DJ. He is a man of thought and ideas – “I’ve always considered music as a tool” – and so it’s a great pleasure to be able to explore a range of topics including his methods as a storyteller, the technologies he uses, and the current state of dance music.
You have talked at great length about the narrative you try to create in the sets you build, often stating that with most audiences, you don’t have to “start at zero”; they have already come to you, willing to experience the narrative. Over the years, has the narrative in your head changed much? Is it a narrative that changes every night, or are you constantly trying to play with the same ideas? Has the willingness of audiences changed much since you started DJing?
I assume that the audiences have advanced and progressed even further. That, not only can I start a few notches ahead, but that I can expect a certain level of understanding as it could relate to subjects outside the dance floor and area. Depending on what’s happening in the world, a certain reaction should be felt by all those who are in tune with our current events. Audiences have changed. Not drastically, but in particular ways due to the context in which we live. One difference is that the average person consumes much more information on a daily basis than 15 years ago. This change has allowed the music to be on both extremes of the spectrum: either very simple or very complex. I’ve seen that the economy (sometimes) plays a role in the attitudes of the audiences as well.
When you bring the music to its apex, one presumes that – along with time constraints – you have come to a conclusion in your musical discussion/story telling. Have you had times where, although you had resolved the set musically, you felt that it hadn’t quite constructed/resolved in the manner you initially intended? Or is it a given that with a complete set comes with the narrative arriving at its intended conclusion?
Yes, there have been many occasions where the stars just don’t line up. DJing and programming music is not an exact science. It’s really about a DJ’s intuition and the audience’s anticipation and perception. Because each are not tied together more than a loose timeframe or DJ set, instinct is used to make sense of what has happen or happening. The more I DJd, the better I got at telling stories with music. The more situations I found myself in, the more chances I had to figure out the best ways to translate music.
Seeing you at Dekmantel 2014 was one of the greatest musical experience I have ever encountered. Are there any particular sets that stand out for you over the years?
My career spans back about 35 years, so there could be a few more. It’s really hard to distinguish. I always try to do my best to make these sets memorable because I know that sometimes it can only take a moment to change someone’s mind about music.
It’s been eleven years since the first Exhibitionist. With the second, you say you’ve gone deeper in terms of how the DJ can exploit the machines to their fullest extent. Even with the technology available today, do you still ever feel limitations? Have you thought of concepts that would be incredibly hard to realize, given the current technology available?
We will have taken a giant step forward when the DJ not only mixes and programs, but really realizes that they can take apart the original tracks to re-build it in real-time for the audiencs. It is possible to have this happen right now, but I think DJs just aren’t convinced that something more special can come from it. It’s known as a live act/set, but I can see that we’ve only skimmed the top of what is possible. Yes, I still feel that there are some limitations, like only stereo left/right. Though we sense things simultaneously like smell, touch, sight, sound, music only addressing sound, what other things that could be done to further explain what the music is trying to say. Things like this nature.
Would you say that, at first, techno acted as a catalyst for your own spiritual exploration or is it simply the tool with which you are able to explore it most effectively?
I’ve always considered music as a tool, nothing more. It’s a device used that affects the body and mind so that the person experiences another conscious state. Music is not the objective. The state in which it brings the listener to is. What I’m trying to do is make music in a way that would allow the listener to travel quicker and more freely. I’m not as nostalgic for music as I am for a certain feeling from listening to music. This is what I’m striving for.
We’re living in a time where dance music is heavily commodified, where the socioeconomics of its origins are becoming forgotten and where audiences are largely white, young and middle class. Do you feel that soon any politicised or meaningful intentions behind dance music – that isn’t about love, nationhood or simply having a good time – will be harder to relay to such an audience?
Yes, there is always that possibility that only subjects that apply to a particular type of person would mainly be accepted. We can’t decide who listens to what or who’s attractive to certain traits more than others. When I was young, I listened to Kiss, Rush, Steely Dan and Parliament Funkadelic…..and Michael Franks, all at the same time! How can any one psychologically explain this? I think we do little justice to the art form of music when try give the notion that certain styles should be applied to certain people, mindsets or lifestyles. Too much deciphering diverts the attention away from more important topics, like why this music is made in the first place and what does it mean?
Over the years, the ‘Detroit’ sound has certainly become fetishized, even names alluding to the Detroit area have been used by DJs who have never been there. How do you feel about the commercialisation of a place with such harsh economics that rarely sees any of the capital made out of its musical inceptions?
Yes, Detroit has really become something of a status symbol. Simply to say the word “Detroit” might give someone the impression of being a hard nose or have underground credit. Being born there, I can attest to the fact that the city breeds a certain mentality that isn’t often found in many places, but this is not what I detect in the newfound language and gestures of people that have discovered the city and its history. Because Detroit borders Canada (separated by a river), Detroiter’s have always had a sense of an exotic expanse – the feeling of being on the edge of something. I believe this played in role on how the city developed musically. We could always go across the river to see ourselves from another perspective. I think this sense develops over a long period of time. It’s not something one can feel on a weekend, or in a month or year.
You say Exhibitionist II is about exploring the art of the DJ, yet you have a rather idiosyncratic style, emphasising narrative over dancefloor satisfaction. Will Exhibitionist II be about showing how you are personally able to create an impact through DJing, or a more general point that can apply to all DJs?
I’ve taken a blanket approach to the objective of this DVD and edition. What I wish to see is others expand upon what they see me doing. Especially with the drum machine and creating rhythm and sequences on the fly. Using the equipment differently. There are no dancefloor segments on this DVD, only observational films, shot in multiple angles so that the viewer can have more ways to see. I’m convinced that by putting this collection of films in the hands of someone more talented, more skillfully inclined will produce positive results.
Considering the futurism of techno, do you find it surprising that many of its fans still fetishise vinyl, and are openly hostile to new formats (such as the reaction to the new Stems format from Native Instruments)?
Yes, I think its a bit strange considering that electronic music is full of producers and DJs that are in touch with all the latest technology, but then still idolize an analogue format that can’t even support the defined sounds and frequencies that they’re making on their hi tech equipment/gear. If being an audiophile and cherishing hi quality playback players were common in electronic music, then I would understand. But most people are listening to music on their computers and mobile phones, using tiny earplugs. New formats go hand-in-hand with new technology. Over the past two years, I’ve returned back to collecting vinyl, mostly jazz and rock. Listening to these albums on vinyl is the best way to experience them because these were made with the idea that a turntable would be used for playback. In music today, I don’t think vinyl is the main objective because of all the limitations they have.
You talk of using music to convey concepts, ideas about the direction the world is going. Techno, by its very form, seems to imply a future dominated and shaped by ever increasing levels of technology. Do you ever feel constrained by this?
No, not yet. There always seems to be a topic that I think needs to be brought to the attention of others. The technology we have today and what it allows us to do is really like a gift. It’s something that many people have dreamt of for a very long time, but I’m sure that no one really knew/or knows the effect it will have on societies and the average person. I’m fine, I can keep up (reasonably well, considering), but let’s imagine someone that can’t; that their everyday life addresses far more urgent matters than email and Instagram. At the rate and speed of change, how much information would there be between someone that’s technology informed and someone that’s not? These cases will shape our future.
Following from that, science fiction is often heavily critical as to the future impact of technology on humanity and the human condition. Are you personally optimistic or pessimistic here?
I’m a pessimistic optimist. Meaning, I realize that humans are and will be capable of more enormous harm to the planet and to each other. We’ve seen it many times in the past and I know we are destined for more man-made and natural chaos. At the same time, I know that humans (sometimes) learn from their mistakes and it’s with this, I am optimistic. Though the steps of progress may seem small, they’re steps nevertheless.