Jeff Mills Delves Deep Into Space, Time, and the Future of Techno
"We can do more with this music than just dance to it."
Image by Nestor Leivas.
Jeff Mills needs precious little introduction. One of the true pioneers of techno music, his lengthy career spans music, film, and the myriad intricacies that the mediums thrust upon the viewer, which includes questions of being as much as questions of music and how we relate to it. In this in-depth interview, Jeff Mills discusses his latest film project with experimental French director Jacqueline Caux, Man From Tomorrow, the current state of electronic music culture, science fiction as a very modern theology, the role of technology and the various anxieties that arise from it, and what will happen to techno when we all stop dancing.
THUMP: I saw your live performance for Fritz Lang's The Woman In The Moon at Sonic Cineplex in Glasgow last year, which was very absorbing. You've done soundtracks to (mostly science fiction) films before and since then, but Man From Tomorrow is a fresh concern; an original soundtrack to an original film, with yourself as the main subject. How do those two processes compare?
Jeff Mills: There were two different kinds of scenarios. Lang had laid out the plot and the scheme of it all, and my position was to prescribe music for what was already there. There were humorous parts, so I tried my best to work in parallel with that, but with Man From Tomorrow, it was very self-observational. After having many conversations with Jacqueline, we decided that the soundtrack needed to be a characterisation of myself as subject. Importantly, it wasn't the objective to show a well-rounded, entertaining portrait of the artist. It was to try to show the psychological aspects of what a person like myself goes through in having to create for people. The distance and the attraction that you have with your audience.
And what did you most want to translate with The Man From Tomorrow; visually, musically, conceptually?
Well, I have to describe what my life is about. What I see in front of me, as I see it. When I'm at parties, travelling, what type of interactions (or non-interactions) am I having with people. I only speak English, so I have even less of a chance to communicate when I'm travelling.
I have to watch a lot, focus on mannerisms from a distance - it's practically the same as when I'm DJing. I can't go into the audience and speak to people, so I have to watch them. Over the years, I feel I've become very good at knowing when people want things, or determining when things should change – gestures, eyes, body movements, acutely developed over time. This is what Jacqueline and I discussed mostly, and sensitively so.
How do you feel this was executed in a practical sense, through the movement of the story?
We both realised that most of the parts of the film (where I'm in it) should reflect this idea of always being at distance, even from the viewer. I should hardly be in a scene with anyone else, because that's the nature of my life as a DJ. I'm not the same person I was when I left Detroit, that's for sure.
Well, once you travel a lot, swing so wide and go so deep, you don't have the same character. Back then —around 1992—I held onto things. I had favourites, more friends, more conversations about common interests—what people take for granted. The more you stay away you lose these things, gain more knowledge—but also, it gets to a point when you can't really talk about it so much.
Is that the main thrust of the film then, to articulate these anxieties?
Maybe, but I think it helps the music itself too, actually. Not being able to go to a baseball game or watch a TV show regularly really helps the processes of making music, so it's not difficult for me to think about space, travelling.... being put in unusual situations and describing them. The music changed because of the life I was living.
In turn, I think the general understanding of what techno is has changed. Techno music is gradually becoming more synonymous with or as "dance music"; music for the club first and foremost. What do you think about this? Do you think the conceptual roots of techno are being forgotten?
Theres a few parts to this. I think there's a great support in this industry for those who want to believe that techno is dance music, because the majority of the people in it now are not musicians. They came into this world wanting to be a DJ, and don't know anything other than that.
Most techno DJs from my generation (myself included) were musicians first, and so retained a lot of that creative mentality in their DJing. Some of us understood DJing as a need to translate feeling as much as entertain a crowd. If you can dance to it, that's great, that's a bonus, but music should say something. It should be made in a manner with seriousness, and that would enlighten someone simply by listening to it. I still believe that mostly actually, but the majority is not with this.
What do you think this majority feel about dance music as a culture - or career, even?
My job is to be a DJ and make people dance so if people dance, I've done my job." I think it's hard for many to imagine another way of being within techno, because there's too few demonstrations of it outside of the dance floor. And then, the examples we do have are not attributed much value because those artists aren't on the cover of magazines: highly regarded and highly paid. It's unfortunate. Techno music has so much to offer, but if the people don't take it seriously and aren't interested in learning more, then it will stay as it is and eventually - die away, as we stop dancing.
"As we stop dancing".... I'm not sure if that's too extreme? You're right, techno has so much more to offer than a "night out", but surely dancing will always stay? Regardless of genre, taste, and so on?
I've been DJing for 30-something years now, and I can see that people are dancing much, much less than they used to. And what I mean by dancing is when someone can truly connect with what is being played, to the point that they can begin to manipulate their body movement. I've seen it gradually decline to the point where people just stand there and move their arms, like in hip hop. Eventually, I have to assume that techno will just be listened to. A slight move, if that.
Would that not just be a concern of the DJ, not necessarily of the producers who fuel the output of the genre?
Well, music producers have a way of watching the audience and taking indications. If the audience isn't moving very much, there isn't much use in trying to make music to make them move. That's why I say that.
What could change this? What could halt or shift this decline?
There may still be a need for the person in front of the audience, to enlighten, but the definition of techno (if we're lucky) will roll into something else. Something maybe more vivid and convincing. The recreation of an experience that you would like to have. Music is just a device to help you do that.
I'm imagining that technology will make it more possible, too; listening to techno making you feel like you're in India, in the year 1645. Technology will advance in tandem with what we'll come to want, and the situations we'll want to be in, but that will only happen if we're all conscious and sensitive to how things are changing, and move along with it.
To be frank, I think we don't dance as much because we don't actually like it. We like being in locations where there's a certain type or number of people, with a certain type of atmosphere, where people are (in a sense) going for it, and the DJ is playing in a certain way and theres a certain aura to it all – that seems to be more attractive than actually dancing to music.
Hearing the sound system pumping, hearing a really good song – we're more into that than looking at others physically move, and becoming so connected that we begin to forget where we are. I think it'll become the case that we'll be able to put on something, take something, and "be there." If it's that convincing, I think people would prefer to do that than actually be around one another.
That sounds so bleak.
No no, it's not bleak. If you think about it, the isolation that technology brings would enable us to experience more things, more often, at a greater distance - thus giving us more knowledge of how our world is, and how people are. I can't get on a plane to Brazil right now, but if I put on a headset, or take a pill, or inject something, that would convince my mind that I'm actually there? Then what I'm experiencing will be close to walking down a pathway in Copacabana. Feeling the sunlight on my back. Listening to the people on the beach. People would become so attached to this kind of experience.
So if dancing (and the social aspect of clubbing, more widely) is no longer an inherent feature of electronic music as an experience, techno is no longer the "dance music" we largely regard it as now, and we become more isolated through technology, what do you feel the conceptual, social, even sonic role of techno music will come to be? Where will its worth lie?
Maybe the definition of "music" will change altogether. It may not only be notes and chords played from an instrument. It may become much more than that. It may be having a conversation on the street with someone that doesn't even exist yet. Music exists to put your mind in an enlightened place, and there's many ways to do that.
In time, the average human may require much more of that as technology advances. We're showing signs that we don't like the life we are living, and would prefer to be someone else. It's like when you see a very rich person, who has more money than they could ever spend: the first thing they do is isolate themselves. They move away to islands, into and onto themselves.
This person is imagining what a rich, privileged, fully autonomous human should be; using your resources to move away from the rest of the population. If we're given something in technology, we're using it more and more to do just that.
If anxiety and isolation are symptoms of our vastly expanding techno-culture, and ties our insignificance and finitude into the scale and speed of technology, I think the romanticism of the unknown is being squashed by practical realities of man's ability to utilise this technology. Take, obviously, space travel. It's expensive, politicised, dangerous. How can we, with all this technology, and the insecurity it brings for us, still able to dream of the unknown - particularly, the unknown as techno has imagined it?
It's a desire of humans to always reach for stars. It's been like that since the beginning. Reaching for and being with the stars is to aim for something less finite, more god-like, more privileged. Why do we think we call Hollywood actors "movie stars"? We will do whatever it takes in order to reach There.
Right now it's bureaucracy and politics getting in the way, but it's like the rich man living on the island – eventually, the island wont be enough. That man will try to find something more. We'll be out there, in force, and I don't mean just scientists and astronauts. The common man will be. It may take great efforts to reach other planets. Some will die. Some will have to die. But, we have to learn to think collectively.
The world we're racing towards now is that of the individual, and that could be because we need to go through this phase in order to reach a more relevant, substantial one. Maybe, where we're so individual that we connect as one mind in order to accomplish truly great things. Maybe that's what actually unfolding. We're in a transition.
This ties in nicely with what I think the major appeal of science fiction is for most, particularly in cinema. Science fiction cinema operates on a system of realism/idealism not as mutually exclusive, but this fantastic reaching. Looking into the future, to space, to the unknown - it's not voyeurism, it's exhibitionism. It's all meant to be seen. Needs to be seen. The common person needs this narrative in order to dream, right?
Science fiction films are mainly made by the common person, not by scientists and astronauts. In science fiction stories and pulp fiction, comics too, are made by common people imagining a common person in unusual situations. It's much easier for me to relate to that, too.
And within the cinematic element too, science fiction narratives are narratives about the movies themselves - how we believe in these effects and other worlds not totally out of the suspension of disbelief, but because of the romanticism inherent in knowing these things could be possible. It gives us hope.
Yes. What it is is a very futuristic way of thinking about our world now. Science fiction films are like sermons. You walk away thinking that you learn something about humans that you didn't quite realise before; of people, and how we relate in certain situations.
Do you think that technology now is at such an advance that the fictional element is becoming less prevalent, and it's starting to fold into the now?
Well, science fiction just becomes science at a point. Predictions become so vivid that we want them to become a reality. When you look at the science fiction of the 20s - 40s, and you turn around and look at NASA, and how they operate, it's remarkable. Lang's Woman In The Moon? You saw the space craft, and how they moved it onto the launch pad? That was before anyone had actually done it.
That film was the first time the average person had the chance to see what a space craft looked like. The first example of a countdown to launch. Lang created that. Now you see this at NASA, in how they roll the shuttles out, countdown to launch: all that came from fiction. Fiction always predates reality in this respect. If we didn't have World War 2, and the world had been at relative peace, we would have been in space a lot sooner than the 60s.
Do you still think there's an inherent conceptual relationship between techno music and the unknown of space?
Change is not going to happen through a few people. It'll take a blanket realization that we can do more with this music than just dance to it, and people have to be convinced of that. Be active, display what they mean, get better and better. If not that, if it doesn't happen like that, then I think it's just a new conversation. If we remain convinced that we just want to dance? If this is what we want, keeping it marginalised, in a situation when we only hear it in the middle of the night, grow out of it, move into our lives more - if we want that, it'll die.
How do you think techno music and "dance music" culture has come to be this way?
We made did a lot of mistakes in the early years. The industry made the biggest mistake in only focusing on one direction, and that was to party to the point where you can't party any more, and then interest dies.
Rave culture followed this pattern perfectly. We did it to death, to the point where we can't discuss it fully anymore. I remember there being very little patience to hear anything of a conversation other than how great the party was. Then, how great the DJ was. Then, how great the technology is - no matter what, gradually less and less about what music really means.
Dance music media thinks that's a boring subject. They'd rather talk about hot parties in Ibiza than what a record was trying to say. What would make people think of their lives outside of that party. It's become an elitist frame. We don't want it for all. We don't want it speak to all. We want it to speak to those who can enjoy it. It's a poor mans monarchy. This is what we've made electronic music into: keep it away from subjects that would pertain to people on a wider scale. Space, time, being? We only want to talk about what tee-shirt a DJ wears, or the brand of headphones he uses.
Do you think the concepts and ideals you've invested in throughout your career have fallen out of fashion?
They haven't fallen out of fashion. They were never part of it, at all. This was what I knew would be the case. When I was starting out, trying to make music that meant something, so many people had written it off and paid no attention to it. There should always be a few of us who constantly concentrate on this, to let people know that there's more to techno than dancing to it.
I don't think I'm in competition with other producers and DJs, though. What I want to do is to reach as many people as possible, with subjects that relate to them, and use electronic music to do it. This is what we should have been doing more of years ago while we were raving for 72 hours straight; to create a balance, to give more purpose to techno music, to make it more meaningful, all in the hope of bringing people to a greater, collective attention.
Techno is political. It has to be. in certain ways, my work has always been an extension of Underground Resistance (albeit in a very far reaching view). Current dance culture has no interest in doing anything other than what's been done for the past 20 years. They know that it works and if they know that it works, they're happy. If they're happy, then they continue to work. If they continue to work, then they are successful. That sums up the majority of this industry.
You find very few willing to make people confused, to tolerate criticism, to complain, who continue on despite it all, because we've fallen into this popular category.
Is that a criticism of the artist within the scene, or the media machinations of the scene?
DJs want to please. Our original mentality (genre dependant) wasn't to pander to the people and give them what they want. It was about extracting how you feel, and using your device(s) to translate that. We don't know much more other than that now either because of what we got into this to do (make money, become famous), or because we doubt that our feelings are now even worth translating. Instead, we focus on trying to please because with these ambitions, we need to be their hero. If were lucky enough to do that, and make people happy, we might be able to make a career out of it. We'll be famous. A master. It's just elitism.
Is that how you saw the original Underground Resistance mentality; extracting feeling, and touching on subjects beyond the music itself?
Our scheme was to present science and space. It wasn't so much about the music. The music we made in the early 90s was based on what we were reading. If there's anything to be noted from those days, maybe the genre becomes more interesting when it doesn't focus on itself. I wish I had a bullhorn to speak to the world all at once.
So, tying this all together, you're still championing this mind set in your work overall. Now that the film has been premiered, what else is planned for it? And what else are you working on?
Now that the London premiere has screened, we're taking it to Tokyo for a few showings and then to festivals. In September, it'll be released on DVD with a booklet, showing the full creative process. Jacqueline and I are already formatting a new filmcalled Oneness; about singularity, and how man and machine become one. We'll start filming that early next year, I think. I also have a few orchestral performances planned, amd a sort-of film adaptation of a story I wrote inspired by Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. That'll debut in the spring of next year in Paris, with contemporary dance. I also have a 3 month residency at La Lourve in Paris, which will combine dance, film and live performance.
Are you still making music too?
Oh yes, I'm still making albums. The next will be called 'The Emerging Crystal Universe', which will be ready for September, and then I'm releasing the OST for Lang's The Woman In The Moon; a 3 CD release with about 35 tracks. I'm still reading about space too, always. Especially the subject of star people, and discoveries of Saturn. Perhaps for a third review of Rings of Saturn. I'm always watching everything.
All images taken from Man From Tomorrow. Future screenings are planned for Amsterdam and Milan, and in Tokyo on May 4th.
You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums