afropunk interview: jeff mills

March 5, 2019
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There’s almost no way to describe without hyperbole Jeff Mills’ influence on a handful of late-20th century creative pursuits and ideas born of American Blackness and vision. Radio and club DJing? Detroit Techno? Electronic music as a contemporary art culture? Afrofuturism? Mills has been central to the formation or evolution of all these forms over the past four decades. And yet at the age of 55, his pursuit and productivity has been hardly diminished, one reason he seemed the perfect grace note of our Black History Month conversations.

Because living history has been by Jeff Mills’ side. It was breathing heavily on his neck when he was a Detroit DJ prodigy in the early ‘80s, nicknamed The Wizard because of how he flawlessly used three turntables to play everything from disco to rap to the new Detroit music that producer Juan Atkins christened as “techno.” A staple of both the city’s club scene and its radio waves. Mills always favored electronic funk and industrial sounds, which in 1988 led him, “Mad Mike” Banks and Robert Hood to begin Underground Resistance (UR), a record label and music collective sometimes christened the “Public Enemy of Detroit techno.” UR not only helped cement the sound of the Motor City’s hard electronic beat music — as well as Detroit techno’s accompanying science-fiction influence and pro-Black outlook — it basically lay the groundwork for how this music was supposed to sound everywhere else. (Most specifically, in Berlin: “we were pretty much giving them ideas that we had created in Detroit,” is how Mills puts it now, matter-of-factly and quite correctly.)

When Mills left UR in 1991 — moving to New York, Berlin, and eventually ending up in Chicago — he became one of techno’s earliest superstar evangelists, playing flowing, hyper-futuristic DJ sets every weekend in clubs around the world. That exploration of the globe through a then-new lifestyle fed Mills’ creative approach, and his repertoire soon expanded beyond spinning 4am beats. By century’s end, Jeff Mills was creating new soundtracks for old science fiction films (his 2000 take on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is now considered an electronic music classic); collaborating with jazz and classical musicians, symphony orchestras and experimental filmmakers; and using Afrofuturism as a philosophical guide to contemporary society, incorporating innovative thinking about science, architecture, technology and the cosmos, design and history, all into his personal mastry. Between the expanding body of work and intention, and the continuous crush of club-packing DJ sets, Jeff Mills began to embody one of techno’s utopian ideals. And if a few ravers and critics rebelled against his constant elevation, well…Mills also disengaged with some of electronic music’s more industry-driven trends of the day.

We at AFROPUNK thought it was a good time to check-in with one of Black techno and musical Afrofuturism’s leading lights, because even by Jeff Mills’ own high standards and far-flung interests, 2018 saw him apply his productivity and vision in an extraordinary amount of directions. And to engage in collaborations that have reframed Jeff as an artist.

“The initiative to work with other people came from my realization that — as a result of the way we communicate, the way that we travel, and the amount of people we can come in contact with now, because of the Internet — we sit at a very unique time,” Mills said early in our Skype conversation, after I reached him in late January in Paris. It is where Mills lives, and from where he runs Axis, the record label/creative studio that is at the nexus of all his work. “The conversations that were not as possible decades ago, the effortless mixing of ideas and theories and of people. I see it across all methods of art. And music is no different. [Our] time is really reflective of the idea of getting with someone that does something completely different. And there’s an audience, a much larger audience for these type of hybrid projects.”

Tony Allen and Jeff Mills

This hybridity is at the core of all three exceptional 2018 projects we were there to discuss — Tomorrow Comes the Harvest, an EP of Afrobeat electronica he recorded with Fela Kuti’s legendary drummer, Tony Allen; Voodoo Magic, a third recording with his Detroit-meets-Japan jazz-fusion group Spiral Deluxe; and especially, The Outer Limits, a six-part radio show he produced for NTS, a kind of Twilight Zone-meets-Neil-DeGrasse-Tyson-meets-techno-Julliard exploration of contemporary cosmology. Yet by the end of the conversation, Mills was also addressing the limits to the notions of freedom that are in some ways his secret musical weapon. These limits are, in many ways, embodied by America’s history of engaging Black creativity that does not fits it model. What began as a pretty straight-ahead sessions, ended up as an extraordinary chat.  (The nearly 90-minute-long conversation was edited for length and flow.)

So let’s start with The Outer Limits. It seemed such a perfect Jeff Mills project — with music and science and mystery. How did that come about?

About a year and a half ago I was invited to do a DJ mix for a show on the BBC, nothing out of the ordinary. And it just dawned on me that, yeah, I could do it, play the same type of music that I play in the club; but at some point, there needs to be an upgrade to this idea of someone programming music, that perhaps these shows could be more conceptual, not just playing music by other people and trying to make something that sounds funky, but there could be a much larger idea behind it. So I kind of forced the idea of creating a mix of all original music made towards a particular subject. That subject was traveling to Mars, and exploring the surface of Mars as the first human being to actually do that. And they allowed me to come into the studio to create in their studio, and I invited a soloist, the violinist Thomas Gould, to be that lonely human searching over the landscape of Mars. So the show, The Martian Experience, aired on BBC, and it went very well.

A few days later, I was contacted by NTS Radio, who asked me if I could meet with them about doing a program that was similar to that. I presented them with this idea that all the music would be original for each show, I would find an invite musicians from all over the world and record them, and that I could do [an episode] every two to three months. And that I would pay for it.

That’s an offer they seemingly could not refuse.

I did radio before for a long time in the ’80s, and I knew that, if you’re trying to do all these things on someone else’s dime, you might run into restrictions. I decided to just finance the whole thing myself, so that I could be free to decide what it should be. Basically I did everything but the actual voice of the narration.

Jeff Mills, The Outer Limits

It’s interesting to hear that the kernel for this idea was a DJ mix, because, though The Outer Limits is very different from a DJ set, it’s still very much a collage narrative about the times that we live in, created using a personal lens. Which is also, of course, what good DJs do, narrate a reflection of the times they live in through the music they play.

I think it’s the same thing, the same process, but it’s more refined, because I have absolute complete freedom. There’s no audience in front of me. So I can dream of anything, and a template or types of tracks, is really irrelevant. To be completely totally free is probably the best thing that one can do with music, especially on the radio. [The Outer Limits] was basically designed to be something that kind of filled the gap of what I thought radio should be doing more of: playing original music, playing things specifically made for that time and space, almost like listening to a new album on every program.

And these days with recording technology, artists have the ability to make and play something [they] made specifically for one show. I work between two studios, one here in Paris and the other one in Miami, so I’m able to create all new music within just to like a month and a half and then organize it. It was a tremendous a lot of work. But it allowed me to be able to sit down with musicians and explore these interesting subjects together from a classical point of view, from a jazz point of view, from a poetic point of view. And it taught me a lot, so now I’m really kind of ready to move on to the next phase.

By contrast, Spiral Deluxe is kind of a straightforward electronic jazz quartet. How did that idea develop and how did you approach it?

In junior high and high school in Detroit, I’d always been into fusion jazz. (I’ve always been into it actually.) I used to play percussion and drums all throughout my youth, up until the point that I started to become a DJ around the late ’70s. And I always kind of wanted to get back to be into, a band — I came close at times, with Underground Resistance, and with The Final Cut in the early ’80s. But I still kept this idea through all these decades to form a band of musicians whose main function was to solo and to improvise, and that just about everything would be created on the spot, in real time, and captured. So I finally got the opportunity a few years ago to form something as a test and it worked very well. Immediately I decided to move on it, finding the musicians that would form this group. And in ways, the members of this band, we conflict at times because of our normal interest; but at times, there are lots of things that really tie together our perspectives on jazz, on dance music, on conceptual music, on experimental things. Luckily, it works. So once I realized that, then we begin to really plan and to kind of lay out the blueprint for what we’re going to do.

Even though this quartet first played and recorded in 2015, it’s pretty zeitgeisty for you to be engaged in group improvisation at this time, as it feels like numerous musicians are flexing their muscles that way. Do you look at the cultural landscape when choosing where to go with your projects? Because, previously, it’s always struck me that you work to your own timetable rather than working off of what audiences want or where the creative world is going.

I think that it’s safe to say that I’m working in parallel with everyone and everything. I can be active and explore very diverse things, but I keep in mind the different levels of what’s going on with music in general. I’m aware of what’s happening in jazz, in hip-hop, of what’s happening in dance music and classical and film soundtracks. It’s not possible to be narrow-minded and closed-minded when you do this. So it makes perfectly good sense for me to produce something like The Outer Limits — in a way it’s actually helping, by kind of widening my mind even more. And I have to assume that if I’m like this, other people are too in various ways. And I think that what we’re doing is creating the building blocks for what’s going to happen in the decades to come.

I think that the fruit of someone like myself doing all these things — exploring music with Tony Allen, then doing a classical performance, then a radio show, then DJ’ing, then working for film soundtrack — will have an effect. I know, because I watched artists when I was young, and it had an effect on me, and it had an effect on my friends, and on people we now really look to in Detroit techno. So this idea of reaching into other disciplines and art-forms is somewhat like a mechanism, a creativity I expect will trickle down to other people who are looking at what’s going on. And it doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be connected to music. It can be any other type of artists or anyone that creates for a living. Like, fashion. Right now, I’m working with a fashion brand, for [Paris] Fashion Week. So I’m quite excited, just to speak personally, about the time that we’re in because I can see the roots taking place and how people are reacting to what’s going on.

That’s a good segway, because Paris, from what I understand, is central to how you and Tony Allen started making music together. Tell me a little bit about that?

Yes. I met Tony because I was here, and he had rented out a studio in Paris, and was inviting artists to come into the studio just to jam, to record, to see what would happen basically. I was more curious about just meeting him and talking to him, than actually playing. But before I went, I listened to a lot of his music because, of course I’m not going to go into that situation not knowing what to expect. I realized from listening to Tony’s music that the way he uses his drums is so unique and unusual that going in as an electronic musician who just programs machines is not going to be enough. I thought I would need to create a new way to work, to be just as spontaneous as he is, or to find a way to be able to answer, basically, what he does on the drums. So I came up with this way of programming the drum machine pretty much on the fly, using the functions of the machine in a different way, where I can be just as free as he is, and I could think of ideas and produce them the same way I drummer does. And being a drummer myself when I was young, I still retain the sense of what it feels like when a drummer plays. So I could get a little bit closer. So not knowing if it was going to really going to work, I went to the studio and we met and began to play, and Tony immediately noticed that it was a bit different than playing with other electronic musicians, and more like playing with another musician. So very quickly we kind of clicked in terms of what we could do spontaneously. And there was the beginning of the common thread that we both worked off of.

You have now mentioned a couple of times creative freedom and its meaning, to you and maybe to people who will follow you. I think freedom and a kind of sonic and social openness that electronic music culture has traditionally promoted, is one of the reasons people get into this music. Yet as its popularity has grown, it feels like that idea of openness has regressed, that there’s a reactionary wing — audiences, critics — who are not looking for you to expand what you do. How much of that stuff do you engage with? And how do you keep focused on the work that you want to do?

Over the years, I have used the aspect of a certain type of disconnect from the audience. Earlier in my career there would be times when I would periodically, purposefully not go in the same direction as everyone else, just to create contrast. But then I would always, you know, kind of go back to the norm — using the 909 [drum machine], or using the TB303 [bass synth] or making music about a particular subject. Eventually, it had just gotten to a point where I began to disconnect more than actually connect. Around 2004-2005, I was really convinced that too many of us, producers and DJs, were basically doing and saying the same thing. The audience was getting to the point where they were expecting the same message. And I realized that if this continues, there will be too few new ideas and people will assume that we have reached a point where our job, our industry is spent, that we’ve done everything we can do.

It was around that time that I decided to just completely disconnect. So for about four years I kind of did not look at the industry, even though I spent a lot of time making music and reading a lot of science fiction and doing a lot of research, I totally avoided any contact with it and just began to create a different type of music, based on science, science fiction, space science, subjects that were much bigger, space travel and galaxies and universes and planets. I worked on trying to describe these things as best as I could in sound, learn how to make these comparisons. Around 2010, I was convinced that I had learned enough in order to be able to bring something new and different to the listener. And when I began to play out, there was a lot of ideas that we’re seeing now. Even now, I still have a certain amount of disconnect from the audience, so when I DJ, I prefer to start with the audience, but eventually, at a certain point, to let them go. My imagination and my mind kind of takes over, and I’m playing not to the audience, but towards a particular subject or a certain place. And the music I’m playing is basically describing what I’m imagining — that’s the best way that I could say. As I do that more and more, the disconnect gets further and further.

When I’m in the studio, I’m not thinking of the audience or the people at all; I’m thinking of a particular situation in the far future. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be dance music. I’m not thinking about how people are engaging what I’m doing. I’ve moved away from the showmanship, and phased the people out to be quite honest. Because I want to be able to make these presentations of music as colorful, as suspenseful, as dramatic as I can; and to be able to reach that, I can’t look at them while I do this. They’re on their own. I only meet with them in terms of the sound that I’m creating — and they have the sound. I don’t need to look at them for their approval and I don’t really care what they want me to play, because to be quite honest my mind is somewhere else. I can’t see the people, I’m looking at this machine [909], and I’m not connected to them when this happens. I can explore and play how I feel not.

I’m not looking for responses. I think what probably resonates and translates is that if people can see that I’m doing what I feel, then that should give them some initiative or some optimism that they can also do the same thing — or do it much better. Or explore even further. And so that freedom, that creative freedom is probably the most important thing that I can display. It’s not really the music, or the track, or the DJ set, not really the film soundtrack, or the orchestra performance. It’s not really those things, it’s the freedom that I’m using in order to be able to do these things. That’s basically what I…I’m trying to do as much of it as I can. I think that’s the most important thing I can do as an artist.

So, one last question. I know you don’t come to America or New York all that often anymore. Do you have any plans to do that, to re-engage by any chance?

There’s nothing really planned for the States. As an American, these are really interesting times. In a lot of ways, I think Americans, we need some other things, more important things. We need discussion and platforms for people to be able to get together and get closer much more than at any time that I have ever seen. And I think that music doesn’t do it enough. America right now is in a very special place that requires a very therapeutic approach, because everyone’s basically shell-shocked by all that goes on in the country. Even before Trump came into office, we went into this very nationalist, white supremacist direction. The country and the people have been shell-shocked for centuries. It’s not just Black people seeing the frightening scene of a Black bodies being strung from a tree, it’s also the young white kid that’s standing there, smiling, watching this happen, that is also affected by this.

I mean, one can’t possibly believe that people walked away from that unscathed by the drama of that happening, a life is being taken away. It doesn’t matter whether [the witness was a] Black or white person. These things, these crazy occurrences have been happening for centuries. So I just have to assume that everyone in the country is just shell-shocked by now with the tragedies that go on all the time. And I don’t think there’s much that I can do and say musically. I haven’t reached a point yet that I can make music that reaches so far down and deep into people’s souls. And this is what I think is necessary in the U.S. right now. We need less entertainment and more profound dialogue about ourselves, not just as Black and white people but as a species and what we’re doing to each other from an evolutionary point of view.

I know that religion falls into the fray, and sense of identity falls into the fray, the amount of fear that people have and what they think is the best direction for the country to go in. But some people really need to snap out of it, if it’s possible; or if they’re not able to snap out of it, then some discussions need to happen about how the country is going to exist when you have so many different views on so many important subjects, and how the people and the country are going to function while this is happening.

It’s not just the current administration that’s disrupting it. It’s been going on for quite a long time. The Internet is also responsible for making people aware of many different things that we didn’t know — especially history. Black history is something that was very much marginalized. People that taught me about history in my life were not able to discuss certain things because they didn’t know. Because of the way that we’re exchanging information, now we’re learning about things that we….Look, I’m 55 years old and I’m learning more than probably I learned in my whole four years of high school about my ancestry and things like that.

So I think people don’t need music — or this type of music — so much anymore. There are more, actually more important things that we need to be discussing and things that we need to be doing, as a people.

Jeff Mills (photo: Jacob Khrist)

It’s kind of remarkable to hear an artist say that there are things that their music can’t express something that is needed.

When I say America is very unique, I mean especially in terms of its relationship with Detroit techno, and techno music in general. The fact that this music, for the most part, comes from Detroit, a community of Black producers, but yet it’s not recognized as much in the country, even in Black communities, is something that is really unfortunate. With all the combined successes that us producers have had in Detroit around the world, it’s still not recognized in the Black community in America.

There must be reasons for that. In the time that I was in Detroit, and when Underground Resistance first started, we really made efforts to try to reach out to Black people in the country. This is Black music. We fall pretty much in line with the music that happened before — Motown and Berry Gordy, and Funk from the ’70s, jazz from the ’60s and the ’50s. These are our elders, the people that we look to, in order to make this music today. And there was absolute silence from all the people that we tried to reach, all these magazines. It was complete silence and it was partially because of that, that we actually began to turn towards Europe. So this strange relationship with America and electronic music has always been there as long as I can remember.

And this way of not recognizing the artist for what they’re doing and the successes has always been there. Even now, as I sit here, I would not know who to turn to in America in terms of the things that I’m doing in Europe. I mean, even this brand you’re interviewing me for. I wasn’t that aware of AFROPUNK, and when I looked on the site and seeing the photographs of the festival event that had happened, I’m looking at aspects that run very much through electronic music and the things that we discuss and explore. Yet there’s very little connection between this scene and actually Detroit techno. I mean when you’re talking about Afro-futurism, and you’re talking about space, and you’re talking about using music to explore the cosmos, well that’s what we [techno artists] do all the time and what we’ve always done. But yet, I couldn’t find any connections between AFROPUNK and Detroit techno, which is quite strange.

I know that [media] tend to respond and watch more if something’s happening somewhere else. That happens in a lot of countries. But the fact that a large percentage of artists still live in Detroit, and function, and still run labels and travel and do things, but they are just overlooked. And I just have to assume that — well, not assume — I know that there’s something wrong there. I still know that the country is special, and, the city, especially New York, is a very special place. But, again, I think that, there are more important things that should happen, because the people are very much in need of some direction in terms of how to be with other people, how to interact. What does it mean to be civil? What it used to mean to be respectful has somehow gotten off-track. What it means to really listen, what it means to really understand, what it means to engage someone without violence.

Like I said, I think the most important thing that I can do now is to show a certain sense, a certain level of freedom. And those few people that might be watching from America might see it. So the idea of creating something and materializing it, documenting it, archiving it, and preparing it to be explored later, is a big aspect of what we do with the label, making it possible for someone to be able to recognize [that freedom]. If not now, then later.