It was 1996 and Jeff Mills had just created a monster. Having already earned his moniker, The Wizard, from his mastery at three mixing decks, Mills produced a track that would arguably change techno forever. Countless DJs have described "The Bells" as not only their inspiration, but as their first touch point with electronic music. It's a track that defines an understanding that any art form can be truly timeless in its own right.
This exchange is more than just an "interview." This was a rare insight into the mind of a creator―the cosmic astronaut of techno, if you will. Jeff Mills is more than just a DJ or a performer, he's a creator and a builder, a mover and a shaker, and one of the original gangsters to grace this entire industry. Our discussion expanded far beyond the horizon of techno music, encompassing philosophical queries and metaphysical talking points that Stephen Hawking could have chimed in on.
Jeff's consciousness in music operates at a galactic level of efficiency and understanding, far more than your average performer. To him, music isn't a collection of sounds wired to a club's mega-system. "Music generally derives itself from a particular belief system and a particular fashion of ideas extracted from the producer's mindset. The more I work with the subject [of music], the more I come realize a fragmented view of it. This helps in re-building the subject in order to attack it from multiple ways," Jeff explained.
Mills has seen it all and has been involved since the very start. "Though I've been quite involved for many years, I've always managed to keep some creative distance from the inner core of 'it' by never truly believing what people tend to say or imply. In my mind, I've always felt that the genre [of dance music] is best served by the many ways we can approach it."
As a techno loyalist, Mills' way is truly his own. He abides by a big-picture approach to the production of dance music, one which frames music in space and time rather than wavelengths and BPMs.
He explained that his "general interest in space and space science is not an extreme or abnormal one," and that it's a fitting concept to match his production approaches. "I think my influences became more noticeable as I began to lay out these visions into music. As a producer, the concept comes first and above everything else, after that, I think about how to materialize it―which art form or style of music."
Of the many art forms Mills has tried his hand at, he has certainly mastered one: DJing. On Friday night, Mills played a relentlessly heavy three-hour set in Montreal. There was no concept of a 'build' or a 'drop,' but rather a constant progression of sound moving forward, linearly. It was easy to see where he was coming from and where he wanted to go with the crowd. Thunderous kicks would follow minutes of drum programming from his TR-909, with no traditional breakdowns to be heard. Of course, the centrepiece of the set, "The Bells," rang endlessly throughout the warehouse.
It's been a natural progression to the top for Mills. "One thing lead to another. There was never anything I needed to practice or learn. Looking first at the objective, rather than the method or device, it becomes clearer to understand things that I've never worked with before, like film, contemporary dance, art, etc."
Yet while he keeps one eye on the future of his beloved genre, Mills works to ensure that he stays relevant every day. "I think it's essential to be aware of the current state of things if a person wants to understand where we all may be going [in the future]," he said.
Almost sadly, he admitted that the current state of dance music bears room for improvement. "In music, of all the vices I see that weigh on creativity and innovation, [the worst] is the circus surrounding the competitiveness among DJ/Producers," Mills explained. "This sporting tournament to be the best, the most liked, the most successful, unfortunately overrides any other aspect of the art form."
Jeff's latest feat, his production of Man From Tomorrow with world famous director Jacqueline Caux, is an experimental, documentary-style piece that encapsulates the creativity of Jeff Mills in its fullest form.
"The film was made to expose a particular mindset and belief about the future and Man's tomorrow," he said. "Jacqueline created a scenario where this information would be explained by a humanoid figure that transcends time to reveal the state of the future to the viewer. This figure could be also represented as anyone that has deep thoughts about the future. That 'Man' would be extended to 'Human' or 'Humanity.'"
There is an inherent theme of minimalism throughout the piece, which has acted as a spring board to other subjects that influenced Mills' music for years.
"Overall, the film is really a reflection of who I am―an impression of how I think and the things I perceive to be true. The film sheds light on my character, but only through the psychological lens of Jacqueline. I do not really see myself on the screen, but rather a simulation. Colours, shapes and lines are not exact. A character to use as a guide or point of reference."
The film never shows Jeff's face in detail. Instead, he is represented by a shadow-like figure. "My position is and has always been to be secondary before the people I'm DJing to or making music for. Only the silhouette or the shell of my figure is needed to make people feel as if the music is the result of a purpose. For me, and in contrast to how many people may think DJs are today, the needs of the people have always come first and foremost. In truth, my direction is being guided by others."
On Friday night, Jeff gave the people what they wanted. It wasn't about him―there were no mics, no cakes, and no hype man. There wasn't even the performer's logo, which traditionally plaster every wall of the building. Instead it was a visceral journey through the space and time Mills so flawlessly connects to his music―with him and his TR-909 at the helm. Performances like this speak to why he's grown to have a worldly cult following far removed from his home in Detroit.
Jeff's approach to how music, art and humanity fit into the lineage of evolution and survivalism could be neatly wrapped up into a university course. It's an approach that separates the men from the boys. He makes it very clear that artists of this stature have a deeper understanding of their roles within the industry, compared to your average DJ.
His thoughts on where techno was and will be, leaves us enlightened, to say the least.
"In 2100, the term "techno" won't exist. The harmonic form we recognize as music will be there, but just barely. By then, someone will have created a way to transpose external feelings into feelings. Meaning, a person would be able to feel that same way I felt when I made "The Bells," at the very moment I made it. In 2200, being on another planet will be as normal as being here on Earth. Whole populations of people that will have never visited Earth will exist. From that, we can't expect that the music we know and love would be less considered and appreciated, as it has very little to do with worlds that are millions of miles away. This may produce art forms that pay homage to this new awakening. In 3000, few humans will exist on the landmass of Earth. Mainly because of famine, drought, and disease, large swaths of people will be exported to the Moon or floating satellite canvases and inner atmosphere colonies. This may bring a sense of a detached relationship that may be connected to the way we use entertainment [and music]."
Jeff Mills really is what his film bares him as: the Man from Tomorrow.
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