It’s difficult to overstate Jeff Mills’s influence and achievements. With scores of critically acclaimed releases behind him, Mills commands quite a legacy. However a legacy can be a burden as well an honour. Despite being very active for the last thirty years or so Techno has inevitably changed very significantly. A predominately black working-class, radical and rebellious sound has in many ways become homogenised. Depending on your perspective, the improved racial and socio-economic scope has led to incredibly fruitful sounds. The world would certainly be culturally poorer without the playful blips of early Japanese video game music, the liberating thumps of East German Rave music and the hedonistic squelches of Britain’s take on Acid House. All these musical approaches are indebted to early Mills-era Techno. Yet just as with so much black music before it, there’s an uncomforting whiff of cultural appropriation in some of these adaptions to the music, especially if the adaptations themselves go counter to the themes of the original music.
Thankfully there are few examples of politically opposite genres that have spawned since the early days of Techno (the extreme rights adoption of some Hardcore genres being a troubling exception). Overall perhaps most disappointing about the branching paths of mainstream Techno is the loss of musical radicalism combined with social awareness. The dominant American sound of ‘EDM’ thrown on at hyper-commercial events with an extreme deficiency of social awareness and of course major label backing couldn’t be further apart from the principles that drew Underground Resistance together. The ‘Underground’ itself has provided many examples of radical socially conscious artists but has failed to provide a coherent voice of criticism and too often adopts style without substance.
Techno was conceived as the music of the future, in part as a vehicle to criticise the complex cultural and social failings of the present. For all the intent and purpose, that vehicle has slowed over the years. This is unfortunate as never have we needed effective, critical and transformative music more than now, especially in the birthplace of Techno. The gap between the poorest and the richest in our society is constantly growing, race relations in America are at breaking point and we’re nearing the point of no return when it comes to the environment. Things aren’t going well for the inhabitants of planet Earth at the moment. Perhaps this is why Mills has so consistently been drawn to the future of life on other planets and distant outer space.
The failings of the present are a given in Mills’ most recent work. In a series of high concept albums Mills presumes that humanity’s mistakes have led to a broken Earth and this has led to an effort to colonise distant planets. Yet as with all colonisation things become particularly problematic. In his own words…
“Approximately fifty-one years from now, the Planet Earth year of 2065, a change will occur in this Universe. An explosion of realization by all remaining lifeforms in the perimeters of light and darkness. Three newly formed and seemingly unrelated Universes will align themselves and co habitat to exert a force in which our minds can only strain to formulate and conceive.”
This approach is quite different from the utopian view of space and technology that proto-Techno musicians such as Tomita, Raymond Scott and Vladimir Ussachevsky held. Having finished being critical of the present, Jeff Mills has turned his critical and artistic voice to picking apart the failings of the future. Despite leading to 30 years of spectacular music, this Detroit vision of Techno as a cutting instrument of social criticism has failed. Maybe the future of the music lies in criticising the problems of the future. I spoke to Mills himself about the themes behind his recent work and his fascination with space and time.
Your recent work presents a dramatic and quite bleak vision of an imagined future. Other Detroit Techno artists have shared similar dystopic science fiction visions of the ‘tomorrow’. What influences this direction in your music and does it have anything to do with the city you and your contemporaries have become so associated with?
I guess my impression of the future is based on probabilities resulting from what I see today. In this world, we live among people that believe that causing harm and chaos is the best way to change opinions and people’s minds. By force and threats. Unfortunately, its nothing new and it reaches back to the beginning of mankind, so there is no reason to believe that it will somehow vanish from our mindsets. Let’s face it, by our design, the world is bleak place.
You freely mix electronic and acoustic instruments in your recent work and have previously worked with orchestras. What draws you to particular timbres?
Mainly not really knowing what the outcome will be. I like to explore, so not knowing the results beforehand until they actually happen can be quite exciting. Musically, I’ve always had this explorative fixation.
Music in general has always relied on abstraction in some form or another, but Techno has done so especially because it’s difficult to attribute these foreign – almost alien – sounds to tangible things in the real world. Techno does come from real instruments but they are intricate, obtuse and more abstract than traditional instruments. space too is real yet distant. How do you connect the ideas of the cold but organic outer space with your music?
I create on the premise that in the coldness of space are answers than we need to evolve to know the questions to. The art of “unlocking” the unknown appears to outlast the average human life, so by pulling these “unknowns” closer to people makes the distance more tolerable. Less alien or unidentified. Trying to think in abstraction helps and sometimes paves the way for reasons to always consider the alternatives.
Emerging Crystal Universe is set 51 years from now. It’s a future that likely only your youngest fans would be around to experience. Was this a conscious decision to imagine a world most of us, including yourself, will have impacted but not be around to experience?
This has to do with my belief and perception of time. Pre-dating ideas is nothing new, I think its a area of the creativity that I’d like to explore more. I realise that not all music, all ideas, are understood in context to the time they are written and presented. In Classical music, it was often the case that musician’s work wasn’t discovered until long after they died. Considering this, I thought that it could be interesting to create something for shortly after I die (if I should be so lucky to live a long and full life).
A large amount of Techno is thematically critical of the way the world is now. Kyle Hall’s Boat Party, and a sizeable proportion of Industrial Techno, carries on a tradition portraying the bleak socioeconomic failure of modern cities. Do you still hold that rebellious UR side and do you wish to criticise the actual world in your recent music?
Well, I tend to look to the far future in a more negative-positive light, but understandably, I can sympathise with such a dark perspective. For some people in this world, life is not easy, it’s not fun, or they don’t have the choices and opportunities you or I have… at the hands of other people. To raise attention to the conditions of the world is more realistic and responsible than ignoring it or brushing it under or off the mind. As a musician, I’m hoping “The World” seeps into the music more because I think that’s what music is mainly for – informing others.
Although you’ve appeared in videos before, ‘Man From Tomorrow’ marks exciting new territory for you. Please tell us more about the project and what brought you and Jacqueline Caux together?
The idea to venture into film was really the result of many conversations Jacqueline and I were having about music, art and the creative process. Looking at the similarities between our generations and what things we could clearly see that were important to a sustainable art form. We wanted to create a film that explores the mindset and belief system of someone (myself) that has spent almost a lifetime making and playing music for other people to enjoy. Until this, its really been a topic of discussion that hasn’t been seen very much in electronic music. It’s really one of the first films of its kind in this genre.
Which filmmakers and visual artist’s inspired the aesthetic behind ‘Man From Tomorrow’?
Jean-Luc Goddard, Orson Wells, Nicolas Roeg and Claude Chabrol.
I was drawn to a passage in the film where you discuss human’s living in sequence. Do you find sequencing in electronic music empowering or restrictive?
I find it to be both – which I think is a good thing. Living in sequence is the result of learning from our mistakes and we conform to a procedure that we believe will produce the best results. A sequenced life is a life of hope.
You also speak about the nature of time and the possibility of time travel. Music of course is linked heavily with time. How do your views on time in relation to music shape your artistic vision?
My perception of time isn’t a normal one. 4AM is the same as 4PM. Sunday holds the same importance as Tuesday. The Moon is as important as the Sun. In this mindset, there is no down time. I’m constantly working because I feel that it’s truly a privilege to be able to speak others through music. So, there is a certain amount of urgency to say as much as I can in the short life span I have.
I’ve asked you a lot about the futurist themes of your work. What does the future hold for you as an artist and as a person?
It’s a chance to stretch the imagination. After a certain amount of years, the human mind encounters less and less chances to learn about new things. Life and its cycle takes control of the hours of the day. Its mainly at night, when we sleep are we independent enough to let the mind free. In music, I’m trying to enhance this experience by strategically putting subjects out that might make people stop and think deeper – like dreaming.
Words: William Warren