Our stimulating conversation with Jeff Mills in 2018 started as an attempt to understand his obsession with space and the future. The lifelong sci-fi devotee, Jeff has been injecting the theme of space exploration and intergalactic travels into his multiple productions and collaborative work. Emerging Crystal Universe (2014), Free Fall Galaxy (2016), and A Trip To The Moon (2017) are among the latest examples of this passion. In his tireless collaborations with cinema, experimental theater, classical orchestra, radio and even NASA, the techno music pioneer and one of the world’s most well-known DJs has proven that electronic music can enter various art fields if musicians dare to explore more possibilities.
This dialogue grew into a rather heated discussion about the current state of electronic music and its potential to become a super genre. As Mills himself admits, his music might make more sense to young people and those who haven’t even been born yet than to his own generation. And yet he doesn’t seem to be very hopeful about the future of techno. On the contrary, our editor-in-chief, Mariana Berezovska, advocates the new generation of electronic musicians. In her positive view, young producers are pushing the boundaries of the rave and club culture into all contemporary art forms, while cinema and theatre, performance and installation art, and even fashion world are becoming saturated with electronic sound. Is it just a Berlin perspective, or are we really taking quantum leaps towards a bright future of electronic music?
Mariana Berezovska: The idea of what the future holds have always played a leading role in your work. You are also often called ‘a futurist’ by the music press. Do you see yourself as a futurist and what does it mean for you ‘to be a futurist’?
Jeff Mills: Visions for the future lie in the nature of my work.The subject of tomorrow and the future, rather than the past is a personal interest that I have. I just happen to think that those are more interesting because they can be more optimistic and more promising. It’s more worthwhile to speak about what could be rather than what used to be. So I would push against the idea that I am a futurist. I’m just interested in it as any normal person would be if their craft and career were based on giving people new information. The reason why people read science fiction books or watch sci-fi movies is because they’d like to have some kind of a view, a snapshot, or a scenario of what could happen in the future. This is why I like science fiction because it gives me a ‘what-if’ kind of scenario and prepares me for possible situations.
MB: Why do you think we are more drawn to a dark and dystopian vision for the future, and can we somehow help ourselves imagine a better one?
JM: It’s really the fear of the unknown. The humanity has evolved being able to calculate, perceive, and plan things. Not being able to calculate and to measure puts fear in people because we are just not sure of the circumstances. Trying to describe what things could be in the future is very elusive, and this scares a lot of people. This fear is derived from the very dark feeling that tomorrow is not going to be better than today or yesterday, and that it is only going to get worse. This is really an element of human nature. People tend to think more negatively about their place in the future. It’s a type of safeguard so they are not disappointed.
From a psychological standpoint there’s a very deep reaction towards how people see themselves in the future. If you have this view that the future probably is going to get worse and it’s probably going to be negative it really shapes the way you’re going to live your life and how you look at people. In America, some people believe that if our country becomes more integrated, things will be more negative rather than positive. This shapes governmental and public policy, the education system, and all kinds of things in indirect and direct ways. I personally believe that our future is much brighter than we can possibly imagine. The next one or two hundred years will open new doors and will be transitional in terms of how we think of ourselves and what we’re supposed to do.
MB: You previously mentioned that as a DJ and producer one should help people see something better. What do you mean by ‘something better’?
JM: I think that those few hours given to a DJ, an entertainer, or a promoter should be thought through a bit more. Especially from DJs and musicians who have been in the scene for a while, have mastered the craft to a certain point, and are actually technically and mentally able to go beyond that. I think we don’t use the occasion of DJing like creating a party and a social atmosphere to make the genre of techno more valuable to an average person. We confine it to certain boundaries and keep it safe and protected, pure and underground. But the reality is that we need more people to come into the genre and the industry to be able to carry on.
There is this idea that music should be just for a lucky selection of people who can come out in the middle of the night and party. That it’s only for younger people and audiences over a certain age aren’t the more desirable ones. But the truth is that as you get older, especially if working in a creative field, you accumulate more knowledge. This carries into your art form and it makes you more progressive. Young producers need to realize that at some point you should really do what you want to do and not necessarily what you’re supposed to do.
MB: To be very honest I wouldn’t completely agree with the statement that techno and electronica are only limited to the dance floor. Maybe this is my Berlin perspective but today there’s so many producers involved with performing arts, modern theater, and installation art. It’s also true that very few producers who want to explore these directions are privileged with financial support. But I am sure that there are many ideas, and electronic musicians out there who are willing to work in cross-disciplinary dimensions.
Also in the origin of electronic music, one can see that it didn’t start on the dance floor. Take the visionaries of the genre like Edgar Varese, Leon Theremin, Stockhausen, John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer, Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. Then there are composers like Vangelis, who composed the soundtrack for Blade Runner, or Eduard Artemyev, who wrote the film scores of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker. These people shaped our perception of what outer space might sound like, and brought electronic music to vast audiences. And they did so in movies studios. They worked closely with visual and music artists who attempted to imagine how the future would sound.
JM: I can see this because I know music from many very different perspectives other than the dance floor. I have been exposed to music from every possible position, from a composer to a programmer. I have worked with film, dance, and art. If all the people who started at the same time as I did in Detroit or Berlin would have done the same amount of work as me, this industry could be so much different. It is true that electronic music evolved as a more experimental non-danceable music, in the early 30s it was very political. Also earlier musicians were academically trained. But then the dance floor culture came in and pushed electronic music more in this direction. Your perspective today is based on living mainly in Berlin, this is where you work and where you spend most of your time. I spend my time mostly at airports, going from city-to-city, constantly listening to music and watching other DJs, listening to promos at my studio, and collaborating with classical and jazz musicians. So my perspective is probably one of the widest you’ll ever get speaking to a musician and my comment comes from thirty years of travelling around the world and fifteen years before that. We’re in the year 2018, and for producers in their early twenties, who are looking for inspiration and an indication from older producers, there’s not much to refer to because my generation hasn’t explored as much as we should have.
MB: I still believe that there is this new generation of electronic producers who have been doing things differently and exploring more. Communities like PAN, Hyperdub, Dark Entries, Posh Isolation, Mannequin Records, Cómeme, Arma17, and many other young creatives who are trying hard to find channels for their ideas. The problem is that clubs, as a most common playground for electronic music, are rarely willing to hear something different from techno bangers or happy house tracks. They don’t want to lose people and money, and accordingly don’t want to experiment and invite new artists. Extremely informative and diverse shows are daily broadcast on radio channels like NTS, BCR, Cashmere, Quantica. Festivals like MUTEK, STRP, Unsound, CTM & Transmediale, or MIRA are making a difference, but they can’t invite every applicant to present their craft. To me all of this is an evidence of how passionate many people are about developing electronic music. And I think that what is seriously lacking is not the enthusiasm from electronic musicians but rather the unwillingness of the money-making industry to bring in diversity into the club settings and support new projects with the money made every weekend at packed festivals and venues.
JM: It’s never been more true, I agree. For as long as I can remember, there have always been artists that look beyond the norm or what was expected from them, but these are always in the minority. They’re the ones that get little media review or acknowledgement. The ones that actually break ground in terms of innovation and make pathways possible for others. It’s always been like this and I assume for the following reasons: the journalists aren’t able to thoroughly break down and describe their construction of music in theoretical and analytical terms because they are not musicians themselves. They don’t know or take enough time to learn the artist’s background in order to make a logical assumption of the purpose of the music or they simply don’t understand it, therefore they don’t like it. An artist’s career is music more than just names, dates and places but just knowing these things doesn’t necessarily make a person a music expert. Music is about feelings being translated, so in order to make sense of it and to explain it, we have to understand the mind of the person first. There is a lack of communication about electronic music from the artistic standpoint.
MB: What in your opinion are the genres that have developed to their fullest potential and that electronic music could learn from? Classical music or rock, for example?
JM: I think jazz might be a good example. When free jazz happened all boundaries were just gone. Jazz artists in the 50s and 60s could explore to the ends of their imagination. Musicians like San Ra and John Coltrane were pushing their art as far as psychologically possible — they were rewriting the arithmetics and the language of their genre. What were those artists drinking that we’re not drinking? What did they do to be able to get to that point? Are we too comfortable in just pushing buttons and using a computer that we don’t find more organic methods to produce music, even if it means that mistakes will slip into our DJ sets and productions and we will discover things by accident? Is it so fixed that you know what you are going to play even before you even get to the venue? In my mind, bombs should be dropping all the time, and new ideas should be thrown around. Producers have all the freedom and time to make music, and incredible equipment in their studios. But when you listen to the music and it’s exactly what you expect, there’s something wrong with that.
MB: I think this situation is changing slowly. I have to repeat myself and point out again that electronic music, whether these are dance or experimental acts, has reached the point where it really depends on the amount of tickets that clubs and festivals want to sell and the number of likes artists have on their Facebook and Instagram. I think in reality many producers are more creative than we know, and could push the boundaries of their creativity if there weren’t so much pressure from promoters and the industry.
JM: But have you ever thought that maybe they’re not creative? That maybe this genre suffers from a lack of deep thinkers? Maybe it developed too quickly and came in a way that didn’t force people to think deeply and to learn something. In jazz, in order to be Miles Davis you had to not only learn your instrument, you had to understand it so well and so deeply that you could start to modify rhythm and change the perception of it. In electronic music we don’t have that so much. We have guys who can put two records together in the way that you lose yourself, and you lose time. But we should be doing much more than that. The genre of techno and electronic music will not last. I am almost positive there will be something else that will replace it. I hope it’ll be replaced by a group of people who work with this new genre unconditionally.
I’m approaching fifty-five years old, I came from the first generation of DJs who moved around the world frequently. Before that there were DJs like Frankie Knuckles and David Morales who traveled, but not the way we do. It’s inevitable that we’re going to slow down and produce less music. The chances for us to show examples of the accumulation of our knowledge will decrease. There’s a certain window of time and opportunity to create things. It’s not just open and free for artists to come back. In some years there will be a point when a crowd of twenty-one year old will find it a bit uncomfortable and awkward to be in the audience of a DJ who’s seventy-five. Some people of my generation are planning on DJing until they’re seventy-five, but I’m sure there will be a time when it just won’t be possible. And there is an urgency to what I’m saying. I wouldn’t say there’s desperation, but I do think that if you’re going to write a book about your career — write it now. Or make a documentary about what you have done because now is probably the best time to do it.
MB: So this is why you are now working with radio, collaborating with NASA, and engaging with jazz and orchestra?
JM: I am trying to contribute information that falls within electronic music so that people have something to refer to. Some things are more obvious like Lost In Space [premiered in Toulouse, France, with Orchestre du Capitole conducted by Christophe Mangou] and working with classical musicians. Some things are very small. Just being consistent despite the industry or the lack of records sales is important. Putting out an album at any cost just to show that you have the ability to do it is a very powerful message to someone who wants to produce music for their career and for their life. Or doing the opposite of what the industry expects from you, and not just doing it once, but doing it twice. Then do it over ten or twenty times just to let people know that you don’t have to conform to what they want. The customer isn’t always right and what journalists say is not always a fact and a law. They don’t write the rules of what a producer is supposed to do with their life and their career. Not making music for money, but as a message is possible. I’m doing these things to know that in the end no one is going to tell me what I am supposed to do. There are consequences, and if I am willing to accept them so be it.
When I am producing music, I’m not making it for just this weekend, I am making it for generations to come. For instance, I came up with an idea of Lost In Space because I know for a fact that the more humans go out to space, the more chance there will be that we will become lost in the atmosphere. It’ll be sad and unfortunate, but this is inevitable. My music works like science fiction: you’re putting this crazy story out there but you’re also are making people think about it and search for solutions.
MB: Can you give an example of putting out a release that you didn’t end up releasing? I don’t quite understand how that works.
JM: For example, in the 90s I released a record called Cycle 30 . It was a concept that every thirty years pop culture repeats itself. People go back and bring something from the past to the present and interpret it in a new way. I did some research and calculations about the most influential people in society like Einstein and Salvador Dali, and people that played great roles in pop culture like Andy Warhol. One thing that stuck out was that their mothers had them later in life, roughly around their thirties. Then I began to realize that maybe it was because a mother had lived a certain amount of life and was able to teach her young child more things because they had more experiences themselves. Albert Einstein probably began to learn things from a seasoned adult. This played a role in how they were able to perceive and see things in their work and their career. So I called this release Cycle 30. On one side of the album there were just eight or nine loops. I was in Berlin in Hard Wax when the shipment came into the store because I wanted to be there and see how people were going to react to this record with loops on it, because they never heard this before. So I stood in the shop for about three hours watching DJs from a distance and looking at what their reaction was. Most of the DJs put a needle on it and figured out that the sound did not change. They thought the record was broken and they didn’t know what to do with it. It was a strange record, because I made the loops so that I can play one loop on one turntable, another loop on another turntable, and one more loop on the third turntable. So DJs could mix these loops together and create a composition themselves. After that I thought the message was clear and I didn’t have to press any more records. I made my point that of all other records you are going to get in Hard Wax none are going to be like that. I began to look at the records as if they were books in a library. This record would always be there to remind people that techno music is not just a track that spirals from the beginning to the end until it’s over. You can have a record that lasts probably longer than your life. It may make people think differently, which would achieve my objective.
MB: Throughout the years of your career you have been connecting scientific subjects and electronic music, drawing parallels between the two. Some of the scientists we approached to speak about the relation between scientific exploration and music production refused to talk to us. Do you think this is because they don’t take electronic music seriously, or they don’t see a connection between their study subjects and things that electronic musicians communicate through their work?
JM: I think people in the science field believe that even we don’t take our music seriously. When I lived in Berlin for ten years [1993-2003] I always wondered why the major press in a city where electronic music is so ingrained in the culture of young Germans was not speaking of the genre in a political way. When the Wall was coming down, electronic music played a role in bringing east and west together. I was there at the time asking myself how it was possible that this music wasn’t being taken seriously when there was a growing community of producers and Berlin was becoming a techno city. The big newspapers didn’t really take it seriously. One and a half million people marching down the street at the Love Parade — why were they not taken seriously? Eventually I realized the organizers of the Love Parade who took one and a half million people down the street didn’t really have a message to humanity, other than love and peace. It was just about coming to Berlin where you can take your clothes off and dance down the street. But there was nothing in particular the parade was saying; no aspects of humanity that were connected to these events, so people were just dancing for hours and hours for nothing.
This was one of the reasons I left Berlin and moved to Paris: I started to realize at a certain level Berliners didn’t take music seriously. They didn’t look at it as an art form, for them it was only music for dancing, music that happens for seventy-two hours straight on the weekend and that’s about it, that’s all it’s good for. It wasn’t supposed to move into art or cinema, or mix with contemporary dance. Even when it did it wouldn’t be taken seriously. I left Berlin because there weren’t enough opportunities to explore. In Paris, even before I got settled, I was already being approached by institutions and other artists who had a notion that electronic music could be more than just for dancing. This is why I’ve been able to do so much, because I decided to leave. If I had stayed in Berlin I wouldn’t’ve gotten that far. I think one of the reasons is that Germany wasn’t a racially mixed country. Any new idea coming from someone who wasn’t a white German was something that people were going to be really reluctant to pay attention to. I spent some years in Ufo club and Tresor, but in some other city like Hamburg they would not be interested to listening to an album about the rings of Saturn produced by someone coming from Detroit. Another example is when I scored a German science-fiction film Metropolis in 2000. I was living in Berlin at the time, and the feeling I got was that I was not supposed to do that.
MB: Why do you think you felt this way?
JM: Because I’m not German; I’m a black American, and I really had no business working on that film. The response to the soundtrack was really mute, no one said anything about it. There were very few people who thought it was worthwhile, and they connected me to the film company in order to get limited rights. But other artists in Berlin said nothing. Music media said nothing. There was a similar situation when I went to Paris and I did Blue Potential , which was the first classical performance mixed with electronic music and no music press was interested in talking about it, everybody was quiet. In the US, a magazine that did a big article with me refused to put me on the cover. When I came to the States afterwards and wanted to do a promotion for this project [Blue Potential], URB magazine was talking about writing an article and putting me on the cover, but in the end they decided it wasn’t the right thing to do because I didn’t look right. I looked too normal and I didn’t have braids or gold in my mouth. I didn’t look like a typical black person they wanted to see on their magazine. So although I speak of things that other producers should be doing, there is a whole bunch of reasons why things don’t happen and why the genre stays the way it does. You have people doing a lot of dark political things to keep it this way. These are the things we never talk about. At the same time the ability and freedom to do things is what I hope young people will take away from this, and they will push the subjects in a profound way, that’s how things progress and get better.
MB: Many people who have been following your work are wondering why you never play club gigs in Berlin anymore. Is it also because you think techno is not taken seriously here and is just used for entertainment? And if yes, isn’t it also often the case in the Netherlands, France, or the UK?
JM: I haven’t played a DJ set in Berlin recently because I see little need for it. Berlin is overflowing with DJs and parties, so I think having one more is probably the last thing Berliners need. From what I’ve seen and as much as dance music contributed to the economy of the city and country, I never really understood why the Germans did not allow the art form to flourish. What I saw was that depending on who and what you are determines your value and importance, and I did not ‘fit’ into any of that. In Berlin, I was considered as ‘one of those black guys from Detroit’. In France and others parts of the world, I’m recognized as ‘Jeff Mills’. That’s the difference. In addition, some of my worst racist experiences outside the US happened while being there in Berlin. Worst of all, most happened within the techno and dance music community. My ‘early days of techno’ in Germany weren’t without racial problems. I’ve been called ‘nigger’, told to leave a record store because my presence disturbed the white customers, denied entrance into clubs, was verbally abused just walking down the street and many other sad occurrences. Also, I think a lot of Afro-American guys just didn’t publicly mention these experiences. Still to this day, Germany takes first prize for this! So instead of just coming to party, I prefer to try and bring something different, new and hopefully something meaningful. Musical, but to reach outside and away from the dance scene.