The Music of the Spheres: Jeff Mills Talks
Where to start with Jeff Mills? The Wizard has spent the best part of his career joining the dots between techno, space science, and the far flung imagined futures of science fiction. Whilst some of his peers have been content to retread 909 grooves ad infinitum, Mills has sought to stay true to techno's founding instinct – to forge new methods of communication through the interface betwen man and technology. He's currently preparing for a special show at London's Coronet venue, where he'll be providing a sound track to Fritz Lang's early sci fi film Woman in the Moon – this gave us all the reason we needed to phone up Jeff for a chat about the universe, about his various attempts to capture the cosmos in music, and about the space opus he has finally completed after nearly a decade of work.
The first space related work I associate with you is Rings of Saturn, what was the catalyst for that work?
Well… I don’t know. I’d never created anything like that before then. At the time Mike Banks and I wanted to create a conceptual album, but we didn’t have any idea what the concept would be. The idea came to me as we were travelling over to Rome from Detroit, I think it was for New Years Eve. I was trying to think of what we could approach and I came across the idea of a planet, of Saturn, because the rings referred to a vinyl record, and it went from there. I told Mike when we landed, he thought it was a good idea and we went from there.
What caused you to come up with the concept a planet?
I’ve always been interested in space, including during that time. In my youth I was always around space science as a subject. I guess I’d always been looking for an opportunity to mix music and my interest in space together, so that was the first time to see if the idea was workable. To make a long story short, the album didn’t do really well, but we learnt a lot from it. I think it was too different at the time, it came out right in the middle of rave culture era, and people were not thinking about using music in that way, to inform people. What we took away from it was the knowledge of how to use music very calculatedly, to match it against information, and then compile all that in the form of an album. That really started the X Projects. The next one was Atlantis.
It’s interesting that you went from Saturn, very much a place recognised by mainstream science, to Atlantis, which is more of a land of the imagination, even if it may well have existed
Well, researchers have proof that was something there, in that area, and there are connections to other civilisations that were connected Atlantis. What intrigued me most was how the city was structured; it was a circular city with a temple in the middle, a temple of Poseidon I think, or Europa, I can’t remember. But it was a circular city, and everything focused around this one point. I think the myth goes that Europa, the princess, she had an affair with the Golden Bull in the centre of the city, and that’s when God decided to curse Atlantis and sink it into the sea.
But what I was doing with X-103 was kind of expanding the project, so it wasn’t just looking at space science, but the mythical side of things as well. The fourth one that was supposed to come out, but never did because I left Underground Resistance, was about black holes. All of these things have been of interest to me for a very long time.
When you say you were interested in space science as a kid, was you’re interest kindled by science fiction, or things like the moon landings?
Well, it was quite prevalent in all American cities during the late 60s and 70s, it was across all newspapers, magazines, TV, radio. The activities of NASA were well known and well documented. If you were young and you were a boy scout or a cub scout or whatever, you had to notice it
Were you a boy scout or a cub scout Jeff?
Yeah I was both-
I think that’s my exclusive right there…
Hahaha, yeah, you learn about pocket knives and stuff like that, how to grow things and survival tactics, you do all that stuff, so you’re attracted to all those type of subjects because they are there for you to notice. So as I got older and got into music, I put all that aside and I wasn’t really too involved in that. But once I really felt comfortable with composing music, I saw a few opportunities to go back to explaining those kinds of things. We were trying to look for ideas to create conceptual projects, and we wanted subjects that were above everyone, things that are above us all. Finding things that have a blanket interest across many different generations and cultures is quite attractive.
Speaking about something that is primarily confined to the area I grew up, to Detroit, that can be interesting, a little bit, but I would have to assume that it’s very difficult for anyone to understand without having been there or knowing a lot about the culture in Detroit, so bigger subjects, more universal subjects are more interesting for me to work on. Maybe there will be a time when I turn to my youth more, and try to explain things, of how things evolved and how Detroit came to where it is now, but I think there’s more of an urgency to say things that are relevant to everyone, and not just a small group of people.
You say you were going to do an X series of black holes – they’ve been in the press recently- have you been paying attention to the discovery of gravitational waves?
Yeah, I mean we know more about black holes than we did in 1994, when we were kicking around the idea to do it. So you know it’s still kind of relevant.
It’s still kind of on the drawing board for Underground Resistance, even though I left the group. Mike and I, we still speak about that project, it’s still there.
I think that it’s interesting to try and keep up with the discoveries of humanity and space science, because I know that in this century and the next century we will spend more time in space, the average person will be more into how space works, I guess, and as a result we will probably be able to see ourselves more vividly as being out there, rather than just here on the surface of the planet. So I think using these albums and these projects to try and familiarise the subject with people is an interesting idea, and I wish more people in electronic music would do it, as I think it’s the perfect genre to musically script this type of subject. But yeah, I think that black holes, galaxies, nebulas, all these kinds of things are so mysterious, that it really opens up a lot of territory to fantasise.
Apparently two black holes are merging every 15 minutes, so these vast reserves of energy are being created, which presumably someone in the future is going to try and figure out how to tap into
Yes, sure, if we’re lucky we can use it somehow, harness it from a great distance, or at least learn from it. I think there’s probably more merging in space than we can detect, even including time. I mean I’m not a scientist, but all these things open up many different possibilities to address musically. There’s lots of things to consider
Do you think you’ve ever made any pieces of music that have been truly successful in addressing concepts of the universal?
Well, I debuted a project last year called Planets. It’s a classical score, we haven’t released the album yet, it’s going to be released in September. It was very much influenced by Gustav Holst – I wanted to create something that utilised all the new data and discoveries that have emerged since he wrote the Planet Suite in 1918, to make a more modern version of it. I’ve been writing the music for almost a decade, and we debuted it in June of last year, and we have a string of dates for this year. This was definitely a step forward musically – I was able to blur the lines until it became indistinguishable whether it was classical or electronic- the score uses the two sounds in a variety of ways, there are many combinations between the two sounds. When I lay out the score, the idea wasn’t just to talk about the nine planets, but also the space in between, the darkness and the distance in between is also scored. It’s a very big project, and it’s done. We’re in the mixdown phase of the album, it’ll be in surround sound, mainly because of the planet Saturn, where the effect we recorded was in surround. After it was done I let a few people hear it. Jean Michel Jarre is indirectly connected to it, I think we’re going to use his studio in Paris to mix it down. Of all the work I’ve done over the years, I think that this one is the one that will have the greatest impact, it lays it all out in a very convincing way.
And of course you had two more planets to write about than Holst
Heh – yeah well in 1918 I think Pluto was just discovered, so they were still discovering the neighbourhood. I decided to include Pluto even though it was downgraded.
So with their being no precursor for Neptune and Pluto in the Planet Suite, with no Holst score for inspiration, your score for the last two planets is pure Jeff Mills. Did that change the way you wrote them?
Ah well, yeah. Because I am more aware of the planets in our solar system than Holst was back then. His work was more from a Greek mythology stance, and I wanted to write more from a space science approach – for example, the mass and the diameter of a planet really dictated the duration of a track, and the speed that the planets rotate dictated the tempo. The planets that had similarities together, for instance Jupiter and Earth, there are similarities between those compositions. Just before we did the performance in Porto last year there was a discovery that Pluto had water, so we modified the score to make Pluto have similarities to Earth. The score is designed to modify itself as discoveries emerge – it’s an ongoing project that has to change as we discover more about planets.
Are you aware of simulation theory? It’s the idea that it’s statistically likely that we exist in a simulation of a universe created by a higher functioning version of ourselves.
I think our future is going to be full of surprises. We have to assume that somebody has a theory that’s hit it right on the nail – you find a lot of this in science fiction because you don’t have to be a doctor of science to dream up crazy bizarre ideas, and this is why I like it so much, you’re free to imagine whatever you want. In a way you can hide behind fiction to toy with science, and I’m sure that in our existence someone has hit it right on the nail, but they never proved it, or spoke to any one that took it seriously. I think it’s always a good idea to be open to any idea, to consider anything. I think we’re heading to that kind of existence where we need to pay attention to everything because we just don’t know. We could be in the pull of two black holes merging together, our universe could be drifting towards something, and we can’t even detect what rate we’re moving. I think someone has some design, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject.
Do you have a favourite piece of science fiction?
Well I couldn’t say off the top of my head. I do collect Popular Science magazines, old ones, when space was one of the main topics. The delivery of how to explain these things to the public was quite interesting
It helps me a lot when thinking about how to explain things musically. The rocket and the space suit were the two things that they felt they really needed to explain, and then what happens when you get to the surface of the moon. The way the space industry had to think about how to explain this to a house wife, or how to explain it to a young kid, or how to explain it to the public at large, so they could get the funding to finance all these very expensive projects, was an art in itself. That kind of language and iconography is quite interesting for me to study
So now Richard Branson is looking to sell tickets to his private spaceship – have you considered buying a ticket?
Yeah of course! If I could afford it, of course! But I think the ability for the average person to take such a trip is going to come very quickly
Well it’s $250,000 to get on Branson’s spaceship
Heh- I can think of a few other things I could do with a quarter of a million dollars! But I think the price of all these things will come down to the point where a lot of people will go up in space. Boeing designing aeroplanes where it’s more visible to see at those higher altitudes will help. Like I said before, I think we’re in for a lot of surprises when that happens. We’ll be able to leave the planet and see a completely different environment in which things probably live and have existed for a long time. The average person will be more engaged with these species that probably live in the inner atmosphere of the planet that we’ve never seen before, wild life that live around the planet, but not on it or in it. It won’t be the ocean, it won’t be the jungle, it’ll be something else. It’s going to be a very exciting era.
JEFF MILLS LIVE CINE-MIX 'WOMAN IN THE MOON' takes place at Coronet on April 28th. Tickets and more info here