What Lies Beyond Tomorrow: In Conversation with Jeff Mills

THUMP gets deep with one of dance music's true visionaries

Feb 17 2015, 4:40pm

Techno, as we know it, as anyone knows it, would not exist without Jeff Mills. He is elemental, eternal. Arguably one of the 20th century and beyond's most important cultural figures, the Detroit native is a true visionary of electronic music.

Mills is an examinor and interrogator of both the milieu in which he works and the world around it. He isn't content with understanding electronic music as a purely functional medium, or at least not as a medium whose performative function is limited to any one thing. Techno isn't just a means of making dance happen. He is acutely aware of the relationship between the body and the mind and how this impacts directly on dancefloors and headspaces. Mills has always looked beyond the physical, seemingly always concerning himself with the nature of process and interpretation. 

That sense of going beyond, going further, deeper, that feeling of attempting to control communication is a fundamental part of all of Mills' output. Listen to a record like "The Extremist" or watch The Exhibitionist performance. What you're witnessing, what you're hearing, what you're immersed in, is a master at work, a man inherently capable of taking music to its limits. This is information exchange of the highest quality. 

Not content with just melting minds in clubs with his inhumanly virtuosic three-decked displays or releasing the kind of pummeling techno that is at once utterly alien and completely human, Mills has branched out in recent years to exploring the relationship between electronic music and moving image. THUMP called him, ostensibly to discuss his recently released soundtrack to Fritz Lang's pioneering silent sci-fi classic Woman in the Moon. Mills took us further than we had anticipated.

Released on his own Axis imprint, the soundtrack is a three disc odyssey into the outer reaches of ambience and techno that builds upon the 'cine-mix' work Mills has been performing in conjunction with screenings of the film. 

As he's already re-scored Lang's seminal Metropolis it made sense to canvas the producer's thoughts on the German expressionist's directorial output. "He was just a master of cinema, of cinematography and storytelling, so I just find it very comfortable to sit back and look at what he's done and score music to it. Theres a lot of compatibility between his films and techno music." Silent cinema and techno, he reasoned, made perfect bedfellows. "There was no dialogue to work around, so they were, I suppose, an easy target, something accessible for someone like myself to rescore. It primarily started off for practical and technical reasons."

Silent cinema leads us to thinking about the perceptual shift in cultural consciousness that is both unavoidable and worthy of deeper consideration. That form, now a relic of a unknowable past, was the norm. Now being 'into' silent film can be read as an affectation, a willfully obscure stance held as a form of interpersonal-differentiation. It has slid from the mainstream into the recesses of the avant-garde. Is, we wondered, the very term 'avant garde' something that immediately limits discourse? 

"Exposing someone to something that shakes loose their reasoning, that questions what they had always thought to be true or logical, is still very much needed. I think that being able to step back to rethink, to reassess the situation is how we, in the end, become smarter, wiser, more knowledgable. The avant garde works as a tool, a utility, that really helps us with the process of rethinking of what we had always thought to be true. The more a person comes up against something that questions logic, the more beneficial it is. You don't always assume things are the way they're 'supposed' to be. The way of nature, I suppose, has a sense of things changing over time. You don't expect the same thing over time. So the avant-garde can make us better." 

The avant is knowingly difficult, at odds with the ease most of us seek from our being in the world. "I think its a frightening, scary, threatening thing because its provocative, brash way of questioning one's reality. And I think that's kind of understandable," he says. "If you live your life trying to achieve a certain amount of stability and purpose and self-belief and you're then confronted by something that wants to destroy that or question that you feel threatened - and I don't think thats an easy or comfortable situation to be in. Thats not for everyone. It doesn't need to be for everyone but thats the reason why: it's imposing the idea, just through interaction, that things that one held as truths aren't necessarily true. Thats the purpose of it."

And, surely, we reasoned, one can live a life without recourse to the experimental. "I think that the future of humanity might take us to a place where we have no choice but to think in those terms," he begins, as things take a turn for the cosmic. "I think that our species has evolved to a point where the majority of us understand the way things work: whether it is nature or science or economics or health. The average person thinks that there's very little that humans don't know. But in time I think there may be situations where we find ourselves dealing with things that we know very little of. Things where our science, our math, all the things we've developed over time, don't quite cut it." 

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Mills is convinced that something will occur which forces humanity to reimagine something beyond current comprehension or imagination. The average person, he says, understands the world we live in. But thats not how nature works. At some point the fact of what we are, where we are, what we're doing and the way nature outside of this planet works, means that it is inevitable that we will reach somewhere or something that makes us reassess everything."

This process of humanist reassessment brings us to another topic that Mills is passionate about: escapism. Escapism is inextricably linked with dance music. We enter clubs to experience a world outside of the one in which we're forced the reside. Bills don't exist in the club. Overdrafts don't exist in the club. Washing up doesn't exist in the club. 

In order to accept the idea that we posit to Mills that escapism is an inherent and fundamentally unignorable element of the human psyche, he argues that to accept that idea, one has to also accept the idea that there is something beyond what we're able to experience, something Other. "We generally think we will be in a better place if we can let the mind free and make it open enough that we will transcend to a point of ecstasy, I suppose, or some higher sense of consciousness. I think its always been there, since the beginning of our evolution." Ever since we first saw the unfathomable eternity of the sea, we've known there's more to life than where we stand, where we live, what we can see. That other place, he goes on to tell us, is often internally evoked in times of need. "We look to it through music, art, cinema, literature, many ways. The other place is embedded in each of us. To address that you really have to know a little about the psychology of people and what it takes to capture the attention of others, to be able to drag them towards that other place. Thats part of the psychosis of being a DJ or a producer or an artist or anyone who creates something."

Ah, yes, of course: Jeff Mills is a DJ. A DJ is a creator and curator of narrative and of context. "A DJs position is to be knowledgeable about new music but it was also a DJs place, or responsibility, to find music that was saying something that was relevant to the lives of people on the dancefloor. It was individual pieces pieced together. That story form, that narrative, is what the DJ works in - making something substantial." Does that substantiality refract back into the music that soundtracks it?  "What has happened over the years is that we needed to have something with a universal feel that can speak to those people, people you have very little information about. Dance music needed to have a universal style and that brought in minimalism, that minimal structure in music. The content we have today is shaped by the collective vision that DJs have about the people in front of them and how the world around those people affects them. In my case, I deal primarily not so much the here and now, but what lies behind tomorrow. So I think I'm serving a purpose that comes from a particular perspective, whereas another DJ will deploy another."

Those wanting to see his deployment strategy in action would do well to jet down to this year's Block weekender where Mills heads up a line up that also includes the luminous likes of Autechre, Ben Klock, ESG, Omar-S and Jackmaster.

The last time THUMP was in the presence of Mills we'd just watched Man From Tomorrow the avant feature by French director Jacqueline Caux. At the end of the screening the auteur and her subject (of sorts) were scheduled to answer questions from the audience. Mills decided to flip the arrangement. He walked up and down the plushly lined stairs of the ICA, mic in his hand, looking for all the world like a Vegas entertainer, asking us the questions. He wanted to know what we thought music would sound like in the year 3000. We were stumped. This time round I decided to end our conversation by flipping his flip. Jeff Mills, what will music be like in 3000 AD? "Thats a turn of a century. Every turn of a century is typically accompanied by a lot of change and discomfort. Usually things are in transition from one industry to the next. A lot of people are displaced by that. People at that time will generally have a sense that they want to be different, they want to represent a different time. That will affect everything: music, food, travel. Things we haven't been introduced to yet."

Woman in the Moon is out now on Axis Records

Jeff Mills plays this year's Bloc weekender. For more information on that event, head here.

Josh Baines is on Twitter