Unedited version of an early 2015 interview with Jeff Mills.
With the amount of projects it seems like you're balancing, it would be my impression that touring doesn't really disrupt your workflow...
Not at all, it's actually factored in. I'm constantly working on projects and albums, I actually have the opportunity to be able to put them into action.. I can see what an audience responds to, I can have first accounts of what things can be like... and I bring those ideas back into the studio. It's actually a large part of the process.
Speaking of process, when Jacqueline Caux discussed making the film "Man From Tomorrow" with you as the subject, she mentioned a series of conceptual conversations that kicked things off. How does one begin such a conversation?
We knew each other, but not very well - but it really kind of started with me explaining from my impression, what I do.. for a living, for a career, and then I guess from there, moving onto how I think I do it differently from anyone else, what my approach is, and what I suppose my beliefs are regarding the best way. That led into the the method and process which I use creatively- I read a lot, I look to other ideas for inspiration for music, and that led into many of the different subjects or stories of what I've experienced.
In time, we kind of realized that we were narrowing down common links between her life and understanding and mine as well, and it was from those common points that we began to agree and disagree about what the film should be. For instance, I believe neither of us are really into a certain type of technology - y'know, like, I still don't use a computer to sequence music, I would prefer to use the hard way of plugging one machine into the next.. and she also works similarly in the way she shoots film.
So re-enforcing this belief, we both understood that it's not about technology, but skill, and that skill comes from experience, and experience comes from doing things and getting older and that comes from travelling, and... you just create these chains and links of how we can kind of see the screen together, from two different perspectives, and then to kind of work towards, cinema-wise and sound-wise towards the same thing.
Tracing back to common reference points and branching out from there?
Working in film before, your relationship has usually been scoring a finished work, like Fritz Lang's Metropolis - but at what point in "Man From Tomorrow" did the music integrate itself into the film?
Actually, the music was made long before the film, because the music was the result of what I was thinking many years before. So when I was with Jacqueline and we were discussing these things, I was doing so because I had spent time working on the ideas and beliefs; years and years before. So the music was there, the result of those thoughts - but it was only being listened to, it wasn't applied to film. So actually the film was made based off conversations that music had touched on before, and I had a lot of music - a large collection of things based on time and space and space travel, reality, memory... all these things were just sitting around and not really being used, they were things that I made mainly for myself.
So when she asked 'how should I apply the music to this film', and whether I should score something new, I said 'well, maybe you should listen to some of the music that I had made first' and I think I gave her maybe a hundred tracks, and she collected the ones that she thought were most appropriate.
It's interesting, because despite the fact that your identity is mostly obscured in "Man From Tomorrow", whenever you're touring, I hear a lot of the discourse around you referencing you as an "originator" or "forefather". For someone who's so interested in what tomorrow holds, how do you process this kind of praise?
I mean, I don't. I don't visit the past so often. It's something that I did, y'know, all those years in Detroit, and Underground Resistance - it's something I did, but not something that I use directly in what I'm doing now. My objective when I'm recording music or coming up with ideas is to totally start from zero. And after years, well, decades, I'm getting better at cleaning the slate, and finding ways of putting things off in a way, and kind of forgetting those things - I get better at that. And so I don't really pay that much attention because what's done is done, I can't change it, I can't make it better. it's like a step on a ladder - it was necessary to do those things to get me to this point. But then these things I'm doing now are also necessary to get me to where I want to go in thirty, forty, fifty years from now. So I'm very active in doing many different types of projects - contemporary and classical dance, because I know that I'm going to need the knowledge later. So contemporary art, all these things, I need to experience them to know how they're all linked together to know which is most important in the whole creative process exactly - I'm more interested in forward than back.
When you talk about moving forward, I think how in a lot of circles of young folks nowadays, there's been a renewed interest in science fiction and futurism as a response to all the inequalities in the world now - authors like Octavia Butler who touch on race, gender as issues that we have to think about when we think about the future. When you're thinking about the push towards the future, are there politics tied to those ideas?
I'm definitely looking at the news constantly. Actually, more than constantly - I'm definitely looking at things trying to imagine where they lead to, and how we may be living in the future, in a world that's the result of what we're watching on TV today.
Which is kinda terrifying...
Yeah, I mean, and it's just everything - from weather to nature to conflicts to religion, everything. And so that's part of the process in between making the music and playing the music - there's all these things that are happening in between those two points - watching the news, reading the newspaper, reading books, looking at films, everything. I wouldn't say that there's a political aspect to what I'm doing but for sure it's the result of what I'm seeing, what's happening today, and an idea of where I think we may be headed - the consequences of where we're at today.
So I kind of have a sense that this music I'm trying to make today, may be even more useful in those circumstances that we'll see - understanding other places other than earth could be the result of nature becoming so extreme that maybe, one day in this century, we decide that the surface of this planet is too difficult to be one - so we have to stay near Earth, but we can't stay on the surface because it's just too volatile. So being in space may be the next step for us - and just as an example - in my mind I kind of formulate these ideas, and this leads me to making these albums, and the subject, and the different directions, and the sound that you hear - it gives me an idea of what I think may be needed. So it's not so much about now, actually. I don't spend much time thinking about the past or now, actually - only using now in order to be able to make an equation for later, for tomorrow.
One more thing... this isn't really a question, just a comment, I guess, about the emergence of some kind of futuristic order. There's a photo of you in this recent set you've played where you're wearing a sweater with sort of large circular arm holes at the shoulder - And in all photos, it might've just been the exposure, but it creates this visual trick where every shot looks like you're completely armless. Maybe it's because your arms are moving fast or something? It's really surreal, it looks like it's from another period in time.
I dunno, maybe it's just the capture - but I mean, as far as what I'm doing creatively, it's not just the music - it's the atmosphere and everything in between that I think people may begin to understand. For me, it's not just a techno party. I know that's what we think we've been doing for the last twenty five years or so, but for me it's not just a social event. It's not just a party. My view of it is really multidimensional, something really interesting is being created through the energy of all the people in the audience and the sound and this conversation that's happening between the audience, and how they're reacting - something very unique is happening, and I think that most of us don't even realize that's happening.
And not just music and DJ and setup and stuff, but there are many other factors to this whole atmosphere, this experience, that I think in time we're going to understand more… how to make these happenings more believable, and more interesting and more meaningful actually - and this may have to do with what's happening in the world as well. Of course, it's an escape, but an escape to what?
A lot of people in our industry believe that this isn't going to be the next rock'n'roll, but it's going to be the next something. But we don't really know what. So, I kind of sense that it's something that we've never experienced before. And I do hundreds of parties a year, everywhere, so I have a pretty good gauge of how people are thinking and seeing what this music really represents - and it's nothing I can really trace - I can't trace it back to jazz, I can't trace it back to rock, I can't trace it back to anything I can remember in my lifetime. So I think we're headed towards something new, and all of use, DJs, promoters, everybody should consider every aspect of the atmosphere - what people see, what they don't see, what they think they see - everything should be taken into consideration now.