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Interview: Jeff Mills

It’s easy to go over old ground when interviewing legends. Discussing past glories, what it used to be like, you know, back in the day, is a trap fallen into by journalists and artists alike. With Jeff Mills, this is simply not a concern, so relentlessly driven is he by a desire to push boundaries, to create, to never stand still. Now 47, Mills has seen and done more than most, from his early days growing up in Detroit and his influential role in the nascent Berlin scene that still resonates today, to a life travelling the world to preach his vision of techno as true art. Aaron Coultate spoke to Mills to discuss his new film score, his ambitious projects for 2011 and taking Axis digital.

Firstly I’d like to talk to you about the recent Something In The Sky series – what was the idea or concept behind it?

The concept refers back to a time when DJs would search out music that they could reconstruct and modify themselves, for the purposes of a set. DJs would extract certain parts of songs and expand upon it and create loops or sounds that would become seeds in the DJ set, to make it more personal. After looking and searching around at record shops, I realised that we have moved away from that, or maybe moved beyond that, and I thought it would be quite refreshing to release beats and drum patterns in a way that a  DJ could very easily modify them no matter where their skill is. So it’s mainly for practical reasons.

So the releases are a way of encouraging newer DJs to learn the manual skills of their craft?

Well, humans have accomplished a lot with computers and computer software, and as such the idea of using your hands to achieve something physically has been pushed away. But in the art of DJing I think there’s enough room for computer DJs as well as people who mix with records or CDs in their hands. I also think we would understand more about how to use computers if we first understand where the limitations are when using our hands. In my generation we learned differently from the way most DJs are learning now. Most of us came into DJing from being musicians, so when we thought about tracks to play, we were thinking about song structure – we had musical structure to refer to. I’m just trying to create a much more balanced view of what DJing is all about.

You’ve also recently completed the Drummer series. It’s both an interesting concept and contrast – naming tracks after jazz and rock drummers and then making tracks that were totally stripped down to an 808…

I used to be a drummer myself before I became a DJ and I was very passionate about fusion jazz, and fusion rock, guys like Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham. I just thought as musicians, these guys were the absolute top of human capacity, you know, they had mastered their instruments. I think that’s something that should never die away. Those people should be remembered. Drums have always been part of the culture and evolution of humans, and these guys were maybe the most advanced in terms of human ability so I thought referencing these tracks to great drummers would bring some attention to their skill, their legacy and what they’ve done with percussion.

You referred to pushing things to the extent of human capacity – that seems to be an ideal you try to adhere to in your own work, right?

I think it has a lot to do with how I got into music in the first place, and the timing of it. Growing up in Detroit it was very competitive, so every little neighbourhood was very much trying to be the best in what they did. If you played drums you had to learn to rudiments and learn the more complicated side of hand control, or if you skateboarded you had to know the tricks, and so I was always striving to enhance my ability as much as I possibly could. I think it’s a natural instinct after coming from those circumstances, and I can still see even today amongst the guys from Detroit that when we meet each other, when we play at the same gigs, that competitive edge is still pretty much there (laughs). There’s competition to go beyond, to modify your sets to a point to where they become something else. It’s also about the idea of not looking for outside sources for power and control but looking inwards, towards yourself, and learning the things that make you become better, as opposed to using better software, better computers and better sequencers. Perhaps the most powerful piece of equipment I have isn’t something that can be plugged in, but a collection of books, or collection of movies or something that will give me the inspiration to create.

“You’re not going to feel 25 all the time, and that has affected the way that I DJ. I try to conserve my energy more, and put more care into the structure of the music so that it is more hypnotic or more psychedelic and takes the listener on a journey or a trip”

Your soundtrack of the classic film Cyborg 2087 is not far away according to your MySpace page. Can you tell us a bit about that?

A few years ago, as a matter of interest, I pinpointed a year in the future, and it was 2087. I began to write down all the things that I thought would be the circumstances of that year based on economics, weather, humans and society. I began to write a soundtrack to that scenario, and it wasn’t until later that I found out there was a move called Cyborg 2087, which was slightly different but it pointed in the same direction as what I was doing. So I thought I would soundtrack that instead – it’s in production now, but I’ve gone back and changed it twice already so it’s delayed a little bit, but it will eventually come out this year.

Your score of Metropolis is regarded as a seminal work – do you have a process you follow for scoring a film? How does it differ from your other production work?

Well there’s a template that’s given, because you have a movie, and you have an original soundtrack. And there’s not just the plot, but the circumstances surrounding the movie to consider. I generally read about the director and writer of the story, to at least find out a little bit about who they were and their circumstances when they wrote the story, to find out what was happening in the world. I mean a lot of things that were written in the 60s were somehow related to what was going on in the world at that time, there was lots of unrest. And once I have looked at the biographical information, I look into what was most unique about the story – what was most controversial, what the pre screening responses were and what the reviews were. Then I get into the movie itself; I watch it numerous times, break it down into different sections and make sound sketches for each section, choose the one that is most appropriate and add it to the movie or perform it live. Most of it is actually research. The more research I do, the more I understand how to make the soundtrack, which is what I did for Metropolis and it really gave me a great template to work from.

Do you plan to perform the score to Cyborg 2087 live?

I could…I haven’t planned anything just yet. At first I was just going to make a 12” release, but after watching the movie a couple of times I decided to make a soundtrack for the entire movie, so it could be performed if the opportunity arises.

I’d like to ask you about the Axis catalogue going digital. How important do you think it is to make this transition, and what do you think the future holds for vinyl?

Well actually I didn’t like it at the beginning (laughs). It took me a while to even move to CDs, I was using vinyl for quite some time after CDs arrived, because I didn’t like the feel of the machine. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t see the label design spinning, and you couldn’t see the grooves in the record. But then I began to work with CDs and learned ways to modify the tracks and do things that I couldn’t do with vinyl. So I’ve gone as far as CDs – I haven’t gone to computer software, and I probably won’t. I’m not against it, but for myself I have to be able to play a physical role in the programming of the music. But I have seen and heard some incredible things (from digital DJs) and with the new technology. It’s going to take us into a completely different realm if we can make it more open so regular people understand how this technology really works. There seems to be a great divide between the DJs that use this technology and the audience, because I don’t think the general audience knows how digital DJing works. I think most people in the audience assume that the DJ is still mixing, even though they are using computers. Once they understand what is happening, it will probably take a turn…these next couple of years will be very interesting to see how that develops.

Your old Tresor releases, such as the Extremist and the Waveform Transmissions, have come out digitally for the first time in 2010. What are your thoughts on this – are you glad they will be available to a new generation in a new format?

When we first released it back in the mid 90s, we thought, ‘yeah this is underground music’. I was always telling Tresor it was best played on vinyl because the limitations of vinyl were actually factored into the sound of the music; at some point I wanted the vinyl to distort from playing it so much. I thought that was more complementary to the sound, but after a while I realised that most of the DJs these days don’t use vinyl, so in order to be able to keep these releases available we had to move with the format. Those releases, Waveform Transmission 1, 2 and 3, had been available for so many years on vinyl already. It was time to expand upon it.

You also recently released The Occurrence on Third Ear Japan, which has a CD on one side and vinyl on the other. It’s definitely one of the more intriguing releases I’ve seen.

I had thought about it for quite a few years and the idea kept coming and going, and I had seen a few other labels release formats like that. I thought the timing was right, as there seems to be a divide between the people who really want to keep vinyl and people that want to move on to other formats, and I thought this gesture would show you don’t have to choose between one and the other. You can have both. Clubs and venues don’t have to take out the turntables, they can leave integrated with all the other plugins and CD players. It’s actually better to give DJs more options rather than to limit them. I hope people got the message – it doesn’t have to be a black and white debate.

I saw you recently gave out a free mix to a website, which is a rarity for you. How important is it for producers of your generation to keep up with these practices in an age of free podcasts and mixes?

I have always been against giving music away for free. I’m totally for the idea of giving everything but free music (laughs), but at the moment I’m dealing with a different sound of music, and I though maybe the best way to try to inform the people about what this sounds like is to put it all together in a mix. You can mix music conceptually, if it’s selected and chosen in a certain way, so I thought it would be the best way to showcase it – to put it out for free, for a limited time, not indefinitely. Normally I wouldn’t do it, because people try to sell the same music they give away for free, and I am against that. As for new DJs, I kind of go back on forth on that too, it can be OK. It’s alright in terms of demos, but nothing is better than physically showing someone your skill. When I used to try to be a DJ and audition for clubs in Detroit, they would prefer to have you there DJing in front of them, as opposed to just giving them a tape. And that made a big difference – it showed that you had control over the equipment, that you had control over the crowd, that you had good eye contact, that your timing was based on what you see…all those things. And I think that if I was a club owner and I was hiring a DJ, a tape or a CD would not be enough.

In terms of DJ gigs, you’ve got a relentlessly busy touring schedule this year. How does DJing now compare to your early days?

It’s different now, after all I am 47 (laughs). There was one generation before mine which was the Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries, David Morales era, but it was our generation that really started travelling extensively, travelling hard, like going to Japan for one day to play and then flying back. I’m beginning to see that it’s starting to affect the body; my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, my hearing is not as good. The body will naturally slow down if you’re moving too fast, so there is a point where it is going to change. You’re not going to feel 25 all the time, and that has affected the way that I DJ. I try to conserve my energy more, and put more care into the structure of the music so that it is more hypnotic or more psychedelic and takes the listener on a journey or a trip…so I’m conforming to the limitations that are put on me physically.

“You just know it can happen anywhere at any time, and there aren’t any places that can continuously have a great scene all the time. There are fluctuations, like a wave that goes across the globe from city to city”

How have the places you enjoy playing changed over the years?

It changes. You know, sometimes Rome is hot, and sometimes Rome is not. It changes depending on the enthusiasm of a collection of people that are within a particular city or scene. I’ve seen this pop up in Berlin, then it’s Madrid, then Tokyo and you just know it can happen anywhere at any time – there aren’t any places that can continuously have a great scene all the time. There are fluctuations, like a wave that goes across the globe from city to city. You try to keep up with what’s happening, who’s doing what, who’s going against the grain.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment that you’d like to share with us?

Yeah there are a couple of things. There’s a project that I’m working on at the moment called Tomorrow Plus X, which will happen in 2011. It’s about positive and negative forces, in a musical sense. It will be a DJ performance in which I only use vinyls of a particular colour. There will be a series of 30 vinyls, with roughly four tracks on each 12”, which will only be used for this performance. We’re in the process of creating the staging and display. The tracks will be made specifically to create a certain type of performance.

It sounds like there will be a significant visual element?

Yes – each record represents a particular phase of night. My idea is to fuse art and DJing, mix the two together, so we are looking at vinyl in a way that they are art, but usable art. When you put the record back into the case it becomes art, when you take it out and put it back on the turntable it becomes DJ art form. I’m also doing another movie soundtrack for the Fantastic Voyage from 1966, and that will be performed in Paris at the Cinémathèque in May 2011. And I’m almost done with the The Power, which is the next Sleeper Wakes album. That should be out in January 2011.

Interview: Aaron Coultate