Vanguard: Jeff Mills

The techno master talks 'Exhibitionist 2,' the meaningfulness of music, and prepping the younger generation for the dawn of a new era.
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“That was weird,” I mutter aloud midway through my phone call with techno mastermind Jeff Mills. We’ve just been disconnected. At least that’s what transpired on the Detroit-born techno pioneer's end; on mine, something much stranger has taken place. A bizarre and unprecedented technological glitch, the last word he had spoken inexplicably began looping, repeating robotically like a broken record—or a drum machine—for nearly ten seconds, until I finally hit the red button to end the call. Later in the conversation I inquire whether the sci-fi concepts so intrinsic to his work stem from personal encounters with the paranormal. “No, no, no. Just a fan,” insists the longtime head of the Axis label, who has just released the Exhibitionist 2 DVD and CD, the long-awaited follow-up to 2004's Exhibitionist. Admittedly a bit disappointed, I inform my friend. “Jeff Mills is the paranormal,” she succinctly replies. I can’t help thinking she might be right.

Photo: Jacob Khrist

Photo: Jacob Khrist

I’m catching you in Chicago, where Axis HQ has been since the early '90s. What made you choose Chicago as your home base?
I had spent some time in New York [but] I had some family in Chicago. I thought before I got so entrenched in New York it might be better to experience another city. So I moved to Chicago and I found it really comfortable to work. So I eventually moved into opening an office here, and I’ve been here ever since.

Is there anything you miss about Detroit that you don’t get to experience anywhere else?
You can have a certain kind of conversation with people because of the way the city is designed. When I was young, each part of the city had…well, first of all, there were lots of children everywhere. Each area basically had the same structure, so you had the certain type of shops, you had the school, swimming pool, you had certain things. So whether you lived on the east side or the west side, as you grew up, you can speak about things to people from other parts of the city and you can kind of feel that connection. So if I were to meet someone my age from Detroit, we would probably have a lot of similarity, even though we didn’t live next to each other. We could talk about the same TV shows, many different things. It’s interesting to have that connection.

On the topic of Detroit, did you hear that United Sound was recently designated a historic structure by the Detroit Historic Commission?
Yeah, I think that’s well deserved. Detroit was always very full with recording studios, but that one was always one of the top because of its history. George Clinton used to record there, Aretha Franklin…it was used for a lot of recordings during the Motown era. It’s really a landmark, you know? I totally agree that it should be protected.

United Sound Systems

Absolutely. Weren’t you helping around the facility in exchange for studio time when you were first producing?
I have had many different experiences. I was a musician before I became a DJ. At one point—I think this was maybe during the time I was on the radio—I wanted to understand studio recording more. I knew a lot of the engineers that worked in the studios and I eventually asked one studio if I could just intern. So I was an intern for free, just to learn how to work a big console and learn more about outboard and how to do the microphones. I think Mike [Banks] and I did something at a studio to offset the cost for recording. It was basically like that. You were very eager to learn it.

"I feel that actually it’s one of the things that we really fought for in electronic music, this freedom to express our idea and not be restricted or be prevented [by] obstacles to do it."

It seems like a lot of your work intends to debunk misconceptions about techno—that it all sounds the same, that it has to be for the dancefloor, and so on—and strives to showcase the true art form and aims of the genre. Was there a certain point where you felt a responsibility to put that sort of work out there?
I’ve always felt that if I have an idea, there might be people interested in hearing it or seeing it. I feel that actually it’s one of the things that we really fought for in electronic music, this freedom to express our idea and not be restricted or be prevented [by] obstacles to do it. I always feel that I have that option, no matter how crazy the idea is, how strange it is.

I think that we tend to think that maybe there aren’t that many good ideas left in electronic music, that everything has been done and we have exhausted all of the possibilities of electronic music. I do think that most of the music does sound the same, and I think it’s because of the technology and the way that it’s been used. Not what the technology is, but basically how it’s being used. It could be that producers feel that they need to make something similar because in the end they are rewarded for that. They’re not rewarded for making something completely exotic and something completely experimental and anything different.

Do you think that’s a problem in electronic music in general, or do you think it’s exacerbated and especially bad in the States?
There’s really not that much of a difference between producers from the U.S. and Europe. Where we find a difference is how they’re being treated in terms of press and the media. I think that, in terms of the U.S., my feeling is that it seems like the people here—and especially the media and the press—were never convinced that American producers had significant things to say to the music industry as a whole, [and that] is the biggest problem.

The music industry tolerated dance music. They tolerated house music. I never thought they really liked it. When techno music evolved from Chicago…everything fell silent. There was no attention, no mention of what was happening in Detroit. I know this firsthand, because I was trying to communicate on many different levels with many different magazines in the early '90s, and [except] for a few outlets, [they] were not interested in what was happening in Detroit with any of us. Not Juan, not Derrick, not Kevin, not Carl. They were only interested in speaking about electronic-music artists that had more mass appeal in America. It went that way.

We realized that there was no one to speak to here, so we started speaking to people in Europe. Those people began to invite us over to Europe; they began to buy our music and relationships [developed]. In a short way, that’s basically what happened with Detroit and it’s relationship to America and dance music, and for the most part it still pretty much remains to be the case. It’s sad, because the American public was never really given the chance, from what I can see, to really know what Detroit and Detroit techno was really about.

I think, in the end, American people really [aren ’t] interested, because they haven’t been shown that there’s anything interesting about it. This industry, it’s all about subjections. I think people are free to choose whatever, but the consequences are as they are, and from what I can see, Detroit techno belongs more to Europe than it does actually [to] the U.S., as a result. Because they have invested more into the industry and the art form of it than Americans have.

After Movement 2012, you retired the Wizard indefinitely. With electronic music gaining so much popularity in the US, there’s this new audience for it, but by and large they don’t have any understanding of its roots. If anything, it seems like a time when we need names like the Wizard teaching this younger generation where it came from. Since you did retire the Wizard, though—what about bringing something like Time Tunnel to the U.S. as a project that provides historical context in an engaging, digestible party atmosphere?
I’ve never been asked to bring Time Tunnel to the US.

I’m asking!
I tested the idea in New York, actually. Trying to understand what the audience reaction would be in that type of setup. I actually started it there. But then when I formatted the bigger production setup for it, the interest was actually in Europe, in Paris. Only recently have I been asked, and I think that’s because of what’s been going on in Europe. They ask for, in most cases, just to come over and DJ for two hours. I think the biggest problem is that there has been no real exposure about what people are doing. Let me give an example. When I got the residency at the Louvre I thought, okay, one of the nights is going to be about Egypt and the cycle of life. I had this press agent contact all of the Afro-American magazines, because I thought that it might be interesting how we’re piecing this thing together. It could be the interest of the Afro-American community here in this country. Nothing. Not even a response. That’s not the first time that I’ve tried to let people know what I’m doing, that there might be a chance that I could come here to do it.

It’s not just a racial thing. Maybe if I had gold teeth and I looked like a hip-hop artist, maybe I might have a better chance. I don’t know. I don’t know what it would take, but obviously the things that I have been doing, there is very little interest in that. I don’t really know why, I just have to equate it to the fact that the American public, black or white or whoever, hasn’t been informed that there’s more to it than just throwing pies at your audience. That the music can be about things, not just about creating a certain type of atmosphere. I think that’s one of the big problems. And I don’t mean to throw all the blame on the press. The people have a responsibility, too.

"Music isn’t a very disposable thing. Some music is really meaningful. You kind of want to hold onto that."

Music isn’t a very disposable thing. Some music is really meaningful. You kind of want to hold onto that. I think that we just haven’t seen that many examples of…there really hasn’t been anything since hip-hop, as far as dance music, that the American public has really clung onto. And they worked really hard in hip-hop to make these things happen.

You’ve got your hands in quite a few different projects these days, a dozen or more at any given time. Does each project serve its own singular purpose to you, or do you see them as different components of the same story your greater body of work aims to tell?
I really like science fiction and storytelling, so any chance to be able to do that with electronic music is what I really love. It’s mostly the case where I’m given an opportunity to do something and then I bring my interest into that, Basically, the best I can put it is, I’m given opportunities, but then I…it’s easier for me to work if they are somewhat connected to my natural interests and things that I’m already studying and researching. For instance, right now I’m studying Jupiter’s moon Europa, black holes, and the three different types of galaxies. One may go for a classical piece, another one may go for an album, and another one may go more for a sound-installation type thing.

Are there any formats out there that you have yet to pursue that you aspire to add to your repertoire?
Yes, but it’s difficult because the technology is changing things so quickly. My interest is in doing something that would make people feel a certain way. And whatever it takes to do that, whether it’s something that falls within the line of a communicative type of discipline like film, or literature or whatever, yes. But I also consider all of the other things too, like virtual reality and sensory types of things.

"Creating a space that consists of just a few things to make you feel a certain way is completely logical to me."

Creating a space that consists of just a few things to make you feel a certain way is completely logical to me. If I can make an album where there’s barely [anything] there but it makes you feel a certain way, I think I’m progressing. It’s not always the "normal" disciplines of art. I think sometimes very simple things are good enough. If I can find a way to relay

what I’m trying to show to people by doing very simple things, just one image or something like that, it’s really acceptable as far as I’m concerned. I’m very much in the business of communicating.

Speaking of communicating, you have the Exhibitionist 2 album and DVD just out. At one point during the film, a message comes onscreen that I really liked. It says, “DJs are unique creatures. Generally good at communicating, they have the responsibility of connecting people together in ways that most people are not aware of.” Can you expand on what that is referring to?
As a DJ, I have been trained to look at people for certain things. And it’s those certain things that give me indications that I need to play certain music for them in order to make the party happen or make them enjoy themselves. What happens over time is a DJ develops a certain type of toolbox of things that he uses to be able to read and to be able to communicate with people. And that also carries over into other parts of your life. Their timing is generally very, very good. They’re generally, from what I find, more caring for people in most cases. Not all, [but] they generally develop a way of putting other people first before themselves. I guess that’s just the nature that you work in, and after a while it becomes hard to distinguish between your work and your real life.

There are many things that are developed in the process of just playing music. I think a lot of people maybe don’t realize that, because they’re not able to really understand the psychological thing that happens if a DJ plays thousands and thousands of parties for people that they’ll never ever meet. And so DJs, I think, are very interesting. They have a very interesting mindset and psychological structure.

If the overall purpose of the Exhibitionist 2 DVD is to demonstrate “how a DJ translates what’s in their mind to a listener using machines,” how does the album tie in and further that mission?
The album consists of all the music that was made for the DVD. For months I made music that I knew that I would need in order to make the film. The album is really like a toolbox, basically. There’s certain tracks that were made knowing I would eventually be playing a drum machine on top of. There were certain sequences I knew that I would layer three of them together, and things like that.

Photo: Roberto Ty

Photo: Roberto Ty

One of the first things you say in the DVD is, essentially, that you’re exemplifying improvisation and spontaneity in DJing. Do you feel that those elements are being forgotten these days?
I think that, for electronic music early on, they were never really considered, because of the way the machines were designed. These were electronic-music computers, or computing type of machines, that of course you could have tried to use it like an acoustic instrument—but the easiest way to use these machines was that you were to program. It would give you a palette which you would insert notes in, and then you would press start, and then it would play that sequence back, and then it would loop it, and then you could tie other machines to it, and there you could make a composition of these tracks to make a full composition. It’s been that way since the '70s.

What I was trying to show in the [first] Exhibitionist is that there is a part of our history where we were using the machines in a much more organic way. Where we weren’t always tying the machines together via MIDI or CV Trigger or syncing mechanisms. Where we were actually focusing on the machines the same way a musician would focus on his instrument. The machine would be used without planning anything, without programming anything. It would be used to be able to improvise and to express what one is feeling in the moment.

Right now we have these great, incredible pieces of equipment. I mean modular synth systems and all these things. And you have plug-ins and we can rig things to make machines do incredible things that you could never do with your hands, but I think it’s also good to remember that the person [who] is the programmer has certain skills and aspects that can be inputted into the composition that would probably speak even more to a person if we can find the right way to do it. So what I was trying to display with the TR-909 was basically that. We know the machine can be synced to other things, we know that it’s been used in a million techno records over the years. But I’m gonna try to use it in this different way that might show someone that it can be used differently. And if that can be used differently, then all the other synths can be used differently. And if that happens then we kind of, not really recreate the genre, but we then can work in it from many different perspectives, with many different results, so the music doesn’t always sound the same. That might open up other possibilities for different types of musicians to be able to kick into the industry, to do things that we never even thought of. That’s the purpose of Exhibitionist 2.

You were the subject of the film Man from Tomorrow, which seems really appropriately named. Did you ever feel like you were born in the wrong era?
No. Actually, I feel really lucky I was born in the early '60s and young enough not to have to go to war, and then old enough not to have to go to another war. I could practice the art form of music. I could focus. I’m really lucky. The only other eras that I really like some parts of it was the 1930s and the 1940s. But as a black person, I would have caught hell back then. [One] of the best parts of the era that I was born is that I could experience the turn of the century.

"We are really at the end of an era, and at some point in this century we will make that drastic change—so a lot of music that I’m making is somewhat preparing young people."

I read that when you were growing up you and your friends would discuss how old you would be when it hit the year 2000 and imagine what the world would be like then.
For most of our lives we’d been getting ready and getting prepared for the turn of the century. From the time we were about ten, [there was] this whole idea that we’re approaching the turn of the century and, after that, we don’t know. Our world could change drastically. Nobody really knew what was coming. Literally all of my life, since I was about ten years old, had been preparing for the turn of the century. And then when it happened, there was a certain feeling of relief: We made it. I’m still alive. I wasn’t cut down in the streets.

I can reflect on this feeling through music, which I have. Certain albums like From the 21st and Rings of Saturn, and thinking differently in regard to the changing of time. I very much feel that I am in the year 2015—and we are approaching the year 2065, the end of the Age of Aquarius, which is a turning point in terms of a spiritual thing, in terms of humanity. We are really at the end of an era, and at some point in this century we will make that drastic change—so a lot of music that I’m making is somewhat preparing young people. They’re going to be able to live, if they live a healthy life, to the end of the century. So they will definitely experience all types of drastic change. So creating music that [may] in some kind of small way, help [them] to try to understand that it’s better to be open to new ideas than to be fixed and confined to things that make you feel comfortable and predictable. Being confronted with something that you don’t understand, and taking the time and the patience to wait for something that you can recognize, is going to be an important factor. I treat music that way. I predate it. I predate certain ideas, certain things, for people that I know may need it more in the future. I do believe that I fit very well in this time. Perhaps I spend more time thinking about when I’m not here as opposed to when I’m here; [the] far future.