Talking Outer Space, the Industrial Revolution, and the Future of Music with Jeff Mills

The prolific Detroit musician explains why electronica is a “super-genre” and why timing is everything at the turn of the century.

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Joao Messias

Some of the biggest names in techno music (Juan Atkins, AUX 88 and Richie Hawtin) hail from Detroit, but within that circle, Jeff Mills is an outlier. He was a part of the scene from the early days in the mid-1980s, but over his career he has refused to be pigeon-holed by the genre’s mores, and over an impressive output of 33 studio albums and 75 EPs, he has continually redefined the breadth and scope of electronic music.

I caught up with Mills by phone — he was in Miami relaxing for a few days between international tour dates — and we discussed musical and cultural trends along with the inspiration fueling his creative output. He is soft-spoken and eloquent, a demeanor that complements, or perhaps balances out his relentless, stripped-down music.

When Mills performs, he is concentration distilled; there is no wasted motion or unnecessary showmanship. His efficiency of movement mirrors the precision of his tracks, nothing is out of place. He has best-in-class beat-matching skills, but he refuses to be defined as just a technical DJ. Mills has scored music for the 1920s silent films of Fritz Lang, he has re-scored Sergei Eisenstein‘s “October,” he has performed with orchestras and he has participated in a four-month residency at the Louvre in which he performed live techno music to silent experimental films. He speaks of a time in the future where electronic musicians will be regarded with the same reverence as classical composers, jazz legends or rock-and-roll heroes. That time may come sooner than he expects.

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Q A developmental arc in almost every genre of music — from renaissance and baroque to jazz and rock — is a move from dance music to art music. In the past 25 to 30 years, this has happened in electronic music too. How have you evolved musically as the genre has grown?

A I think what you’re talking about is something that’s kind of inevitable. Dancing and physically moving to the music, yes, I will admit, is something that younger people find to be easier to manage. But I think with all genres, not just electronic music, there comes a point where those young people then reach a certain age where it becomes less doable — life somehow just comes into the equation. You still love music and you still want to listen to it but you’re wishing to have different circumstances in which to enjoy it. There’s that, and then there’s also the presentation of the music — rock is probably a really good example — where it needs to become more interesting for the people that are experiencing it. And sometimes, like in rock and what’s happening in electronic music, it becomes more extreme, more outrageous, more fantastic, more of a spectacle, because you have artists who want to express themselves in the brightest way, or the loudest, or the most impressive way, and so dancing to it becomes less of a concern and more emphasis gets put on the impact of the presentation.

“It becomes more extreme, more outrageous, more fantastic, more of a spectacle, because you have artists who want to express themselves in the brightest way, or the loudest, or the most impressive way.”

In a way, it’s kind of comforting to know that electronic music has that ability to accommodate presentations where dancing isn’t the main function. It’s like any other genre, it has the ability to be able to do that, which is great. And so if you look at other older genres, we can pretty much imagine that electronic music, techno music, will go in that same direction: we’ll have museums, we’ll have electronic music hall of fames, we’ll honor people at a certain point for their contribution to the art form, we’ll probably go through all those things that other ones have. If we’re lucky we’ll be around as long as classical music and composers will be acknowledged for their skill at managing rhythm. So this is what I’m very conscious of and this is why, I think, other displays and presentations of the genre are necessary at this point, because of the time we fit in… I think that we’re really just getting started with this — we’re just at the beginning of this era.

Q The future influences your music and your work. 100 years ago in Italy, the Italian Futurists were making iconoclastic waves in the arts.

A Right, the “Futurist Manifesto”…

Q And Russolo, “The Art of Noises.” How does the idea of the future inspire your work?

A I think we live in a very interesting time because of what has happened — not just turn of the century, but the way of life has changed significantly since the latter part of last century. We depend so much on technology now: our lives are completely different now; our concerns are completely different and also, we have to imagine our objectives are a little different too. So, 100 years ago, it was practically the same — it wasn’t computers, it was the industrial age, which led up into the first World War in 1914. But if you want to research and look at what was happening prior to that time, so from 1905 all the way up until 1914 to 1915, the world was very much in a state of unrest.

In this chaotic time — and we can probably both agree that it’s quite chaotic right now — people are more willing, and are searching for new ideas and new ways to solve and approach problems and things that have been here, and want to participate in new ways of thinking about music and art and dance and film.

There was lots of anarchy and there was lots of chaos and there was lots of turbulence in societies, and people were uncomfortable because their way of life had been changed so drastically: from riding around on horses to the automobile and machines and people being put out of jobs, because machines were replacing people working in the fields. So, pretty much the same thing has happened and new ideas, because of the way life has changed, emerged. We have a window to put these new ideas in and these new ideas really lay the foundation of what probably will happen for the latter part of the century. So in this chaotic time — and we can probably both agree that it’s quite chaotic right now — people are more willing, and are searching for new ideas and new ways to solve and approach problems and things that have been here, and want to participate in new ways of thinking about music and art and dance and film. Based on my research of that, I feel that there’s very much the need to materialize things within a certain amount of years. I had to do research because I rescored a film called October by Sergei Eisenstein, and it was about the Russian Revolution of 1917. I had to research World War I and what was happening up until that point. So that led me to do research about how the world was spiraling towards the war and then what would happen in 1917 during the Russian Revolution.

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I noticed certain things that were happening: the suicide rate was increasing all the way up until 1915, attempts on assassinating public figures increased all the way until the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (and that ignited World War I). Musically, it was pretty much in a suspended state where nobody knew what was coming, which is very similar to now. There were a lot of things that were a result of people’s lives changing rapidly and what was being played out was a lot of confusion and a lot of lack of intuition — things had changed to the point where people did not know what was coming next.

It’s something about the turn of the century that makes us anxious to prepare for it. If you went back to the 1700s it was probably the same. People were informed that the century was about to change, so there’s this urgency to prepare themselves for what’s coming. And we have to imagine that if we go forward, it’s probably going to be the same. Maybe it’s something with humans that makes us jump when we know that something’s about to change and we don’t want to be left behind.

Q How do you approach a new work?

A When I’m making it, I guess I’m making it for myself, and imagining that someone like me is listening to everything that’s happening and counting the bars and listening to how each sound comes in and goes out, and the way it comes in and everything. That seems to be the way that I’m mostly conscious of when I’m actually making the final mix. So the subtleties of it — I’m more aware of that than of what I was in the ’90s. I’m more conscious of the single sound and how that sound can be used as a character in the story of a composition. I really recognize that — again, from working with orchestras and working with the conductor and working with the arrangers — that the single sound, the single note, if put in the right place, can be just as impactful as the whole arrangement. I tend to focus on that more now. I’ve become a bit more sensitive to handling the construction of compositions, and that comes from working with orchestras.

Q What excites you musically?

A Well, I mean, humanity is on the move. We are at the highest level, conscious of the idea that our future is not here on Earth, actually it’s in space. The most advanced technology of detecting all the things out there and the smartest, most clever astrophysicists: they are focused on what’s happening out in space and other planets, and it’s intensifying and increasing. Those subjects, are the things I am most excited about. And somehow, using this music, in order to bring more attention to the work and activities of that field, is how I think electronic music can have a place in the near-to-far future, that sound, and music of frequencies of things, might be able to be used in a way to communicate things that are difficult to say in words, or difficult to communicate in any other way. Through harmonics — when I say harmonics, I mean harmonics to the point that you interpret it as music and rhythm, but how it’s delivered is actually by harmonics — so I’m most excited about this process.

Looking at the way electronic music has evolved, people generally accept it — as long as it feels good, it’s fine.

Looking at the way electronic music has evolved, people generally accept it — as long as it feels good, it’s fine. It doesn’t have to say anything, it doesn’t matter who made it, it doesn’t matter the reason why they made it — as long as this music touches a certain mindset at the right time, to some people, it’s the best thing in the world. It doesn’t even have to be notes and chords, it can be anything. And so, that kind of let me know that this is going to be different from any other genre. Electronic music is not confined by a certain machine, a certain instrument, a certain sound, a certain tempo — none of that. It really is measured by its own current state and I’ve never known anyone in electronic music to come out against what it should and should not be. And that leaves it to be open to anything, and if it’s anything, as long as it feels good to people, then that means that just about anything and everything is possible to fall into the genre and be interpreted as electronic music. So a percussionist in the Amazon jungle that does it in a certain way — if a techno DJ plays that, I don’t think anyones going to come up and say, “No, that’s not a machine.”

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They’ll just accept it for what it is. And so that made me see that, this is something very special that we’re dealing with and that, the more ideas we inject into, the more we are likely to get out of it. The other genres are not quite like that, I think, and so it can have a future, a very far one, and it can be connected to just about anything we want it to be. So if we want it to be connected to film, from what I’ve seen so far, it’s accepted very well. It can replace classical music that we normally see in cinema very easily, and it can replace musicians — it can also be an orchestra, it can also be anything.

So, it’s almost like a super-genre. Because we were all very young when it started, and no one took the time to even try to even define what it was supposed to be — we were all too busy and too excited with just being in it. No one felt compelled to define it, and as a result, it just became everything. No one debates it, no one argues with that, no one has a convincing argument that it should not be everything, and so with that, it’s like a green light to just go.

Listen to Mills’ Music: Here

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