Jeff Mills Talks
After years of enigmatic interviews, musical innovation, and relentless forward motion, Jeff Mills recently agreed – for the first time – to allow a documentary maker into his life. The resultant film, Man From Tomorrow is part documentary, part rumination on creation, and part homage to techno as an artform. Ransom Note scribe Joe Europe caught up with Mills to ask him about the process that went into the film's creation, and find out where he plans on taking the sound that pulses through his veins next.
As Jeff says, “we need more pounding in our culture…”
R$N: Firstly your music over the years seems to have been very deeply inspired by film, your score to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis being the perfect example. Tell me a bit about the history of your relationship with the moving image.
Jeff Mills: The relationship actually started while in Detroit in the early 1990’s while with Underground Resistance. I was beginning to experiment with video for some of the music we were making, but it was different time than now. There weren’t many ways to show independent videos at that time. I remember recording the TV and of the declaration of War by then, President Bush and manipulating the controls on the TV set while he explained the nation why it was necessary to declare War. I was thinking of one of the tracks Mike and I made called “Elimination”. After that and with the birth of the Internet, I became more interested in creating different types of music-oriented content and had worked with ballet dancers, created short experimental films and moving image projects that were not released or evolved into other things over time. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s and the work on Metropolis that I had the opportunity to work explicitly on formal cinema.
Tell me about your recent collaboration with Jacqueline Caux on the “Man From Tomorrow”. What is the premise behind the film?
After months of discussion with Jacqueline, we agreed that the film should be about the psychological aspects of the creative process – what becomes the result of someone that has to think and work towards giving people the opportunity to escape reality. The films premise is to show a particular type of conviction towards a belief that by expanding and reaching for something that’s feasibly beyond our reach can reap justification and true purpose.
How did you first link up with Jacqueline, and how did the creative partnership develop.
We met many years ago. She made a visit to the US and made a trip to Chicago to visit my office one day. Since then, I spent more time in Paris working on various projects and we became in contact more frequently. A few years ago, she mentioned to me that she would like to make a film about my life and career and I declined it because I thought that what I do isn’t really something that unusual or extraordinary. After continuing to talk, I thought that if a film could be made that might capture how I think about particular things [that gives me the reason to act and be productive] then, it might be something that others could relate to – subjects that are rarely or never mentioned in music media magazines or topics that people have little way of knowing.
Tell me about the practical side of working on this project. Was the film shot first with the soundtrack being fit around it or did the two inform each other as the project developed.
Out of the many discussions with Jacqueline, an outline was set on the various parts of the film. The film was shot first. After I received the rushes of what had been created, I matched what I saw in those frames with music that I had created and submitted to Jacqueline about 50 tracks for her comment and suggestions. The final decision to use what track on what part of the film was Jacqueline’s.
The opening scene is quite intense, and the crescendo of flashing images and sound has a very physical effect on the viewer. Was creating a visceral experience for the audience important for you and Jacqueline with this project?
Yes, it was quite important. The strobe, in particular was used as a symbol of a certain trait that comes from nightlife and of Dance Music. A beacon of some sort, that we instinctively sense as “message” or information. So, the rate of blinking [off/on ] was actually a discussion in the filming. We wanted the film to start off in an exotic way to indicate to the viewer that this is a different type of film – where the director is going to allow the viewer the time to really see into the frames and notice the structure and design of the scenes.
How does your creative process differ when you’re working with film rather than music on it’s own?
It is practically the same. I have a habit of thinking in sequence or of a chain of events that must happen that would result into something more than its individual components or parts. I’m mostly concerned about the final result.
As someone who has grown up with techno music in a club setting it felt a little strange to me to sit in a cinema and be pounded by a 909 rhythm, but I thought it worked. Were you sure that taking techno out of it’s natural habitat was going to be successful?
It is this exact type of feeling you had that we hope this film contradicts and questions. Most of us think that Techno Music might only be suitable in clubs, but I’m not convinced. I think that because the situation of being seated in a theatre or cinema requires the viewer/listener to give more, if not all their attention to what’s being projected, is the perfect occasion to say something more [with Music]. In this case, the track “Utopia” may not have resonated with you because of your lack of understanding what the track means and why it had to pound at that particular time. Like with some of us, “growing up with Techno” doesn’t really mean we fully understand it. “Techno” has just been there, mainly in the club, waiting for us to play and notice it. Too few of us have stop dancing long enough to wonder what could be the other possibilities for this music we love and care for so much. This is one of the reasons I thought a film like this should be made and shown to everyone and why Techno Music should be not be reduced and made comfortable for the sake of what seems appropriate. In my opinion, we need more pounding in our culture.
Since it’s birth, Techno music has always linked itself very closely to sci-fi ideas and imagery. Why do you think this link was made at that particular time in Detroit?
Growing up in Detroit, it was quite obvious for me to conclude that people in the city had a constant fascination with science and science fiction. From a regular dose of weekly Sci Fi TV programs, to neighborhood comic book stores, to the communal observance of the activities of NASA and our Space programs. The means and devices to wonder outside our world and reality was everywhere. Whether by design or just sheer coincidence, our popular culture was riddled with the unimaginable. So, it is not unordinary to see it in our music as well. Growing up a fan and collector of Marvel Comics, the thing that really caught my imagination was when they released the “What If” series. Taking previously released stories and re-configuring the scenarios to create alternative stories. In my youth, it was these type of things that really influenced me a lot.
Do you still see this link between sci-fi and electronic music with today’s artists or do you think techno looks inwards to itself for inspiration?
I think Techno, as a body of producers and DJs mainly look in upon itself because this has been most rewarding. And, its simply easier if one doesn’t have to think very much about what they’re doing or what would be beneficial for their art form. Imagine that by doing the same thing over and over again will get you to be more popular and have more money, then how wrong could that be? We know this because Dance Music medias and journalists tell us so.
But I know, that while the strobe lights are flashing on cue for some, there has always been a certain amount of people in Techno that really care a lot about making sure this will be an art form that will expand and enhance itself to fullest capacity. They aren’t on the cover of Techno magazines or being featured in articles like this. They do not vote for who their best DJs and Clubs are. They prefer to stay silent, but they are watching and listening very closely to everything and everybody.
Inspiration can come in many different ways. We can also learn about what to do by watching those who make mistakes so the “art of attempting” and the method of trial and error are things that should not be excluded from the process.
Finally tell me what future projects do you have planned?
There are many projects I’m producing for the near and far future, but I’d like to consolidate the answer to simply say that I’m actively engaged in expanding Techno Music to all corners of our Universe.
Jeff Mills is playing at the next Lost event – more details on that here