“Most of the things that I make are not designed for you to fully understand …” Jeff Mills, 2008
When the definitive histories of techno start to be written, there’s one man guaranteed to recur as a central figure in all of them: Jeff Mills.
The Detroit-born DJ, producer, label owner and cosmos-obsessed-conceptualist was there when – and this is admittedly a reductive, pared down account of events – the sounds emanating from Chicago in the mid 80s collided with funk, jazz, and the European electronics of Moroder and Kraftwerk, and techno was, loosely, born. Along with the now infamous-to-the-point-of-mythological Belleville Three, Mills was a pivotal early exponent of the sound on his WJLB radio show, where he was known as The Wizard. These transmissions allowed Mills to hone his craft and become one of the most absurdly dexterous, nimble, technically-talented DJs on the planet, a man able to do things with pulse and rhythm you didn’t think were possible.
As an artist and as a person, Mills strikes you as someone who, whilst happy to discuss the foundations of the genre and think about its history, continually looks forward, seeks out new avenues of expression, of collaboration, ways of re-shaping the thing he helped to define. The continual process of change and modulation has led to him produce material as diverse as the uncompromising techno that resulted from his Underground Resistance partnership with Mike Banks and Robert Hood, the literal and metaphorical explorations of deep space that root more experimental records like Rediscovers the Rings of Saturn or One Man Spaceship, and the kind of brutally effective dancefloor slaying material heard on tracks such as The Bells. It’s this breadth of material, this ability to switch from playing club sets armed with three decks, CDJs and drum-machines to producing suites with the Île-de-France National Orchestra, this importance that he seems to place in the notion of the future that means Jeff Mills hasn’t become a nostalgia act and that he remains a vitally interesting presence in the world of techno and beyond.
2012 has been a year of celebration for Mills, with his Axis label turning 20 – a fact commemorated with the release of Sequence, a limited edition book and USB card, a package showcasing both the label’s music and its art, photo, and design vision – so it seems natural for him to cap it off by venturing once again into regions unknown. This time he’s hooked up with the Italian artist Claudio Sinatti on Event Horizon, a new A/V piece for Turin’s Club to Club festival described as ‘a digital open-plot film performed with analogic instruments’ – this isn’t Mills’ first foray into the world of film-scoring, having previously soundtracked the likes of The Fantastic Voyage and Cyborg: 2087. Mills and Sinatti have been granted the use of Turin’s fantastically grand Teatro Carignano to beam their sci-fi vision into the audience.
On the cusp of this premiere performance, Crack got the chance to explore a little bit of the mind of one of contemporary music’s most intriguing thinkers.
Let’s start at the beginning: is it possible to overstate the importance that Detroit’s socio-geographical/socio-political/socio-cultural background had on the music that came to be known as Techno? And is it possible to posit one of those factors as being more important than the others?
Yes, it is possible to overstate it. Though the structure we’re using today stems from Detroit, there are other places in the World that are directly responsible for other vital aspects. For instance, it would have been impossible for Detroit Techno to exist if it weren’t for the distributors in the UK and the Netherlands in the mid-1980s. Or, the genre would have probably died away if it weren’t for Germany taking the reins of it. Japan also played an important role because at times when the style of Detroit Techno was supposed to be over and passé in Europe and the US, Japan embraced Detroit even more, constantly hiring and booking DJs when it wasn’t so possible to play in Europe because Minimal House was the divisive trend. Another thing to know is that if it weren’t for what was happening in Chicago in the 1980s, (with Chicago House Music), we Detroit DJs probably wouldn’t have had too many reasons to get involved.
A while back we read an interview where you wondered as to why journalists rarely probe musicians about sound, favouring broader questions. As such, we’re intrigued about the sounds that draw you in as both producer and consumer of music – what sounds do you gravitate towards and why?
Sounds that emit more emotion. Ones that I can detect the personality of the person(s) that’s sending them. They do not have to be perfect sounds or even clear. As a listener, I’m searching and trying find reason to justify my attention.
Having seen your recent set at Cable, we were constantly impressed by the combination of the physicality of the material you were playing and the finesse and dexterity with which you played it. Does playing records, finding new ways to wave sounds together, still thrill you the way it must have done back in the Wizard days?
Above everything, I still love play music for people. It’s what I’ve done for all of my adult life. 30+ years. I still believe that what the people are subject to when hearing Music is still the most important aspect of the genre. Everything is the consequences of this experience.
Does science-fiction continue to be an inspiration to you? And, if you don’t mind us asking you to attempt to speak for a nation, why did sci-fi capture the American imagination to such a degree?
Yes, Science Fiction and Science is a large influence. I think it affects many in the US because of the activity of the many past generations of science fiction writers, cinema/film industry, past TV shows, NASA and the cross marketing of it all to the average citizen. NASA had to sell the idea of going to Moon to the discerning American Public. It was expensive and the US taxpayers had to pay for it. The main reason was that our country was in a technological race against the Russians, so there was a national pride tied to the subject. Space travel is one of the most ‘American’ things I can think of. It’s really embedded in the American psyche and DNA.
If we can begin to conceive of a techno canon, as it’s beginning to be possible to do so, would you want to be considered as a canonical artist?
Well, my intention is to make people think about the Future. There are various ways to conduct this task. A focused, one-way transmission seems to be most effective when the importance of a listener response is reduced. I’m not familiar with term “canonical”. Seems a bit combative, which is certainly not the case of my actions. I’m more concerned about simply giving people the option to recognise my music.
Related to that previous question, Axis celebrates its twentieth birthday this year: do you see the label as your legacy?
No, I do not. I still have a lot of life to live and many more paths to follow. There is a good chance that in many decades from now, Axis could be barely remembered. This is not a subject I spend too much time thinking about. I’d rather cover as much creative ground as possible.
Can you describe the day-to-day operations behind running a label like Axis?
No, its hard to do that. Each day is different because we’re always feverishly reaching out to try new things, meet new people, materialise new ideas. It’s not like a salaried job or retail business. Basically, every waking hour can be consumed by the label’s activities. We work all the time and have conditioned ourselves to think, plan and materialise ‘in motion’.
Do you have a vision for where techno goes next?
No, I really have no idea. I think it really depends on what will happen in the World. What will people need to have from Music.
You’re opening Club to Club Festival in Turin collaborating with multi media artist Claudio Sinatti. Could you tell us what we can expect from this world premiere of your new A/V show?
The concept is about The Event Horizon. The area of space and time that is constantly being pulled into a Black Hole in Space. The idea of this collaboration with Claudio is really based on minimalism. Not reducing, but in the opposite direction. Constantly adding and multiplying.
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Jeff Mills and Claudio Sinatti premier Event Horizon at Club to Club Festival in Torino on November 8th. Sequence: A Retrospective of Axis Records is scheduled for release soon.
Words: Josh Baines