“In the end, it isn’t music that we are wanting, its the feeling that listening to music creates.” – Ian Maleney talks to Detroit techno legend Jeff Mills.
As one of the founding fathers of Detroit techno, Jeff Mills‘ career in dance music is approaching its 30th year. His influence on the way we make, hear and understand club music today is difficult to overstate: he was there at the beginning and he continues to push all the boundaries he can. Obsessed with ideas of the future and imagining a better, more harmonious world, his music seeks out the space ahead of us and delves into the unknown.
In the past decade or so, his work has become more multimedia-based, integrating video clips and films to create a truly mesmerizing mixture of the aural and the visual. Continuing to challenge peoples’ expectations as a musician and DJ, while maintaining a non-stop touring schedule of the world’s biggest clubs, Mills shows no signs of slowing down. He took the time to answer a few questions after his set at the Button Factory last weekend.
You continue to release a huge volume of music alongside your busy touring schedule. How do you make time for creating music when you’re touring?
I can always find time to do the things I love, so I’ve never had any obstacles. I’ve never had to set time aside to make music, I get to it when I can and it comes out naturally because I’m always thinking about ideas and concepts. I’m lucky to this freedom and not the pressure to produce by request. Erasing the stress of staying current in this industry has a lot to do with a certain amount of distance from the listeners and people that follow the music. I try not to let their comments (good or bad) affect the creative process.
How do you get yourself mentally ready for one challenge or the other?
I’m constantly ON. I never turn OFF. For me, creating music is the matter of a inner connection. I’ve never had to force and creative gesture. The moment someone hears it, it becomes a communal relationship and essentially, out of my control. It becomes property of culture and art.
As someone who has been immersed in music for so long, you’ve seen a lot of trends come and go and come back again. Where do you go now to find inspiration or invigoration?
I find a lot of inspiration in the subject of our future. This includes, outer space and space travel, colonizing other planets, searching for life forms other than the ones we know. I’m inspired by a vision of what people will be like in the future. What they may be interested considering how Earth will change.
What kind of places, sounds or experiences drive you to continue making and playing music?
Huge, vast empty spaces. The scale and size of things so large that its difficult to imagine. Or, significant things so small that our human senses aren’t able to detect or recognize. I’m quite sensitive to silence. In fact, I prefer it over sound because its closer to being absolute. When I think about how many frequencies and sounds that my mind wasn’t able to capture and thus experience, its a disappointing thought.
Last year you seemed to make a distinction between art and dance music (“Well art is different, what I’m talking about is dance music”), do you think they cross over at all?
Yes, they do cross. In fact, I believe that music and art drive the same path and are practically the same because of their objectives. In the end, it isn’t music that we are wanting, its the feeling that listening to music creates. Or, the feeling that watching art or a film creates. We want these feelings because it gives us some indication or resolution to situations we have or have not experienced ourselves. It’s the lessons that we really want.
You’ve also moved away from the dance-floor at certain points in your career and you seem to have a great interest in the possibilities of multimedia performance and soundtracks. How has your experience of this changed in the time you’ve been doing it? For instance, is it more accepted now to have visuals accompanying your set compared to ten years ago?
In my experience, there was always interest in the other things electronic musicians can produce. The situation is that most dance music producers are only interested in making people dance. For this conservative way, they are often greatly rewarded and never pressed about giving their audiences more. The ability and interest has always been there (as late as the 1960’s), but few artist take advantage of the freedom to really explore. Keep in mind, the pressing of keys of a keyboard are for free. There are no conditions or restrictions.
Do audiences react differently?
Yes, they do. Not only do they like it, but the sense that so much more could be explored goes with the impression.
I was reading a previous interview with you where you said, “I’ve always understood the fact that everything in music is good. A person’s expression is just that – his/her expression.” Could you expand on that a little?
What I meant was that there is no “good” or “bad” in Music. Music is what it is. Music is a comment or opinion. Its with the interaction of people and “what they like” that creates this distinction and thus, segregation. People’s opinions can greatly vary depending on the listener’s level of understanding or attention. I think that the act of saying anything is always good — even if it hurts. It’s when people stop communicating or making a gestures is what I’m concerned with.
It seems to me that there can be good and bad within art of any kind, such as art that promotes hatred or exclusion or fear.
Yes, well, no one ever said that a creative gesture has to be pleasing or comfortable. As for music, I think this should apply as well.
Carrying on from that, you’ve also talked about working on projects where, “it doesn’t make sense to judge it”, which I think is really interesting. If it doesn’t make sense to judge a piece of work, does that not rule out a dialogue between artist and audience?
I can imagine the creation of things, including music without dialogue. Self-reflective works does not require the opinions of others. It makes perfectly good sense when the producer is looking inward or around an audience for inspiration. In these instances, the opinions of people do not apply.
To be honest, as I’m a follower of certain artist/musicians myself, I really would not want that artist to care about what I think or what I want to hear. I’m more interested in what the artists believes and thinks. I’m most happy listening to the musician being captured in their reality and oblivious to their surrounding. I’m more interested it hearing the truth and capacity of someone.
It becomes a situation where the musician or composer is dictating to a crowd in a “take it or leave it” sense. Is this kind of dialogue something you’re concerned with?
This really depends on why people make and listen to music. Some make it because they need to, some make it because they want to. Same for listening. There is no one correct way to interact with music or a musician/DJ. It may feel that there is because too many people involved in this industry wish to stop trying to evolve and go with what always work for the reason of financial security. I think there is a lot of room for the idea of one-way transmissions. I know that when I used to have a radio show back in 1980’s, I was much more creative with not having an audience in front of me.
Your idea of DJs phasing themselves out through perfected technology again seems to disregard the two-way discourse of a performance, in that a crowd won’t care that much as long as they can dance. Is the DJs ability to read the mood in a room and react to the atmosphere at a given time not vital for any dance music experience?
That statement I made about “DJs phasing themselves out” wasn’t made from a vision or grave hypothesis, it was made from actually watching DJs present pre-recorded mixes, letting software match beats together basically letting the computer play the music, all while the DJ is pretending to be controlling — the “phasing out” process is happening now. Could I see audiences more interested in watching things more exciting and relevant while listening to other than watching a person/people? Yes, I very much believe so.
If one would take a contextual look at the typical DJ/audience scenario, most people have no idea what the DJ is doing behind the console. There is no performance. If there were, DJs might be more conscious of their appearance and their time spent in front of the people. They might be doing things that are more entertaining, but because the sight of the audience is limited, this is rarely a concern. With this situation, the ability of taking the attention away from the DJ person is probable and most likely.
I know you keep it that way personally, but I mean more in regard to the wider dance community.
From my DJ vantage point, I clearly see that most of the audiences are unaware of what the DJ is actually doing. What they’re most interested in is the result and whether a person or software does it perfectly so that they can dance easily. If I played a mix CD and left the DJ console to go to the men’s room, few would notice. I think a lot has to do with the way DJ culture is evolving. Maybe in 20 years, the parties will become even more interesting because what the audiences are able to watch is something amazing. Let’s see.