By Matt Miner
Calling himself the Wizard, Jeff Mills began his storied DJ career as a regular guest on the Electrifying Mojo's forward-thinking Detroit FM radio show in the early 1980s. Later that decade, he founded the subversive musical collective, Underground Resistance with "Mad" Mike Banks, a partnership that whetted the edge of Detroit techno. Mills briefly relocated to New York during the 1990s -- where he took residency at the legendary Limelight nightclub and recorded for the venerable Berlin techno imprint, Tresor Records -- before permanently settling in Chicago.
Over the course of two decades plus, the prolific producer has released no fewer than nineteen full-length albums. Mills' varicolored interests -- among them, film, design, visual art, science fiction--permeate his musical output, including his latest release, Jungle Planet, but, at its core, his sound remains unadulterated techno. The underground electronic-music icon will deejay for five-hours this Saturday night on Beta's cathartic-like-a-punch-in-the-gut Funktion-One soundsystem as the top headliner of the third-annual Great American Techno Festival.
Westword: You've created a series of concept albums with a science fiction motif called Sleeper Wakes, the fifth and latest of which is titled Jungle Planet. Will you tell us about your new release?
Jeff Mills: It starts off with the end of humans on Earth. The last surviving human somehow tries to find the residue of human dreams in order to kick-start the evolution of humans again. So he travels to this planet where he finds out that the concept--the theory of human life was first conceived. And he travels to this planet in search of these aliens that have this formula. So the album documents his journey to the planet, across its landscape, and then he finally meets these aliens called Dream Collectors.
I tried as best as I could to create more of a soundtrack than dance/techno music. So I tried to keep the sound more subdued to tactfully emulate the idea of being in [an uninhabited] landscape, using some sounds to imitate what animals might sound like, in the near or distance, treating the music in certain ways to give it more of an open, airy type of feel, a very exotic feel at times.
Things happen in very unpredictable ways. There are very few clear, straight lines in the composition. And that was done in reference to the idea that it's a jungle planet. There are no manmade structures, or lines, or things like that. It's done symmetrically. So the album is positioned in a very crisscross type of way, or kind of a very clustered, layered type of manner.
The French artist, Julian Pacaud designed the cover art--which is quite surreal and rather elaborate--for the vinyl version [coming mid-October]. What particularly appeals to you about his work?
While I was producing the first two tracks of the album, I came across his work in a book that I bought in Paris. And his work, well, the two examples that the book was showing, really connected to what I was imagining and trying to do with the music. In various, small, subtle ways, he could create a very deep, remarkable type of response. And so I just took a chance to contact him to see if he might be interested in creating the cover for this album, and I forwarded him the two samples that we made. We had a little bit of a discussion and I told him more about the story, and that was the result. We're really, really happy with how it came out.
In contrast, the other version of the album is an austere black USB cube. Why that format?
I wanted to take something from the story and make it an object, to make something that the listener could set in front of them, could touch, could hold in their hand. Something reminiscent of the story that I had wrote. We looked on the front cover of Julian's artwork, and at first we were thinking maybe we should do the ostrich with no neck, no head, so we were looking into a creepy kind of toy thing to manufacture, and then we thought maybe we should consider the cube that's on the front cover.
There's also a part in the story about a black box. That's how [Picaud] came to put this cube on the front cover. We thought that maybe this might be the most logical object to take something from the story and to make it reality. So after months of trying to figure out how to design it, we finally came up with that design, and a USB was the most convenient for that particular shape. So that's how it came about. It wasn't that we wanted to make a USB; it was more so that we wanted to take something from the story and make it an extension of it. Something from the story that becomes a reality. And so that's how it came about.
You have another album out this year, Where Light Ends, which is a collaboration with Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mori and several other electronic musicians. Will you shed some light on that project, so to speak, and can you tell us if will it receive a domestic release?
It came about at a production meeting in Tokyo with our label partner there. We were informing them as to what the new project was going to be, and I was telling them that one of the albums that I wanted to make was an album about the experience of leaving Earth and going into space, and what that experience would be like in a very descriptive type of way. I kind of jokingly said it would be great if we could find someone who could tell this--who had had this experience--in a first-hand account: What it's like to be thrust into the atmosphere and free-floating in space.
One person said that they knew someone who knew someone who knew Mamoru Mori--he's the director Miraikan museum in Tokyo--and that maybe he might be interested, because he's a very interesting person and he's very open to things. So we made contact with him at his office. I went back and officially asked him if he would be interested in collaborating on this project about his experience of going into space. We didn't know this, but he had written a story about that in a very poetic way, which we used for guidelines for how I put the music together, and also a film that we did for it. And so we had a few interesting conversations about it, very personal conversation about his journey into space, and from these conversations is how I actually made the album.
The title, Where Light Ends, comes from a comment that he made about how dangerous the sun is to the earth. It's probably the most dangerous thing that we could ever imagine. Our existence is just so fragile, and the sun is actually what's deteriorating everything. So the title comes from my response to that: Well, then maybe we would be safer in a place where light ends, or just beyond that point, where we would be out of danger.
So we made the album released it in Japan and did some special events. The project has moved on from other international releases. We actually scored it for classical orchestra, and we're gonna perform it for the first time this November. So it may not be a domestic release of the original album, but it may be a classical performance.
A third project you've completed recently is the score for a short film, The Alignment, which is directed by Dutch filmmaker Heleen Blanken. How does your soundtrack interact with her picture?
We commissioned her to make a series of film for Axis [Records; Mills's label]. In January we started a film division of our company called Alpha Centauri. I knew Heleen because she did the graphics at parties and festivals, so we started talking about what type of short films would we be able to make where I wrote the music and she directed. We wanted to make something that was timeless, that in a very short period of time just took the viewer away from reality for a few minutes.
And so she explained an idea about making something that was very abstract, and I made a small sample of music and then forwarded that to her, and then she continued to create the whole piece, and then I forwarded her the rest of the music, and we pieced it together and released the first film in January, and then a second film came three months later, and we have another one to do before the end of the year, and then that project's over. And now we're speaking about making a short science fiction film with actors and costumes and locations and production. We're in discussions about that now.
As a performer, you've had a rough go of it lately, with the incident in Rome in April (Mills was struck in the head by a pair of sunglasses thrown from the audience) and the poorly received Wizard set at Movement in May (Mills had been performing as the Wizard since the early 1980s; the alias is now on hiatus). To what do you attribute the hostility?
It's not the first time that someone has thrown something at a DJ to either get their attention or satisfaction.
And it's not the first time it's happened to me. I've been in much worse situations. Life-threating situations. So that was something that I thought that it's unfortunate, but, the scenario of when DJs are playing in a club--you just can't do those things, because it's dark, the DJ is often behind a lot of lights and can't see, and if we allow that to continue to happen, it could be very, very dangerous. So we have to respond to that, and so my response was just to stop, and let the people know that there's a limit to what people can do in that type of scenario. So it wasn't a rough time, and I haven't had a rough year--actually, it's been one of the best years.
I had been thinking about stopping the Wizard long before this year. It just came to the point that there's just no interest in a DJ playing this format. At least not for me and those kind of sets. So taking that off the table frees up more opportunities for other things, like classical performances, art shows, film projects, and things like that. It hasn't been difficult; it's been great.
What have been some of your more positive experiences this year as a DJ or as a live act?
I've probably done some of the most interesting parties in my whole career this year. I think that people are wanting to go out and to party more than ever. And I have a lot of years to compare to, but I really started to notice the middle of last year the enthusiasm of people going out to parties. It's just really unbelievable. Every DJ that I know is never home, or always on the road, always playing somewhere. So it's a really great time I think as far as performance-wise.
Music industry-wise, there's a surge in vinyl. The waiting time to press a record, even for us--and we've been around for twenty years--is three to four months. There are so many people pressing records, so much product out, so it's really a very interesting time, and we're just trying to stay busy.
You recently told another journalist "People just don't ask for better anymore" with respect to music, a problem that you associate with commercialization. What can listeners do to demand more?
From my perspective, from behind the scenes, from looking at other DJs, and then comparing them to years past...DJs today don't play at their capacity. They probably feel that they don't need to. It's gotten to the point now that it's not about skill. You don't have to be skillful to be a DJ; you just have to know what buttons to press. The technology has made it that way.
Which is great on one side, because it opens up opportunities for people that aren't so skillful to play in front of people, but the negative side of that is that the quality of music has gone down, and the quality of DJs has gone down drastically. It's not just the DJs that are a part of the problem; it's also the audience, too. The audience doesn't seem to care whether the DJ is mixing live or letting the computer do the mixing for them.
If I were to think of any other scenario--a jazz band: If they were on stage and they were letting the computers play the music for them in front of the audience, I think that the audience would not accept that. If it were a rock band that was letting the computers play the guitar and play the drums for them, I don't think the audience would accept that. For some mysterious reason, the audiences in electronic music just accept it or don't care.
Are there any musicians who you feel are doing it better?
I know a lot of DJs. A lot of musicians. And I'm telling you, 99.5% of them...it's so bad. I've known DJs since they were in their teen years. I've played with these DJs, I've seen them evolve, I've seen them become incredible DJs. But then at some point, they felt that being incredible or demonstrating such skill would be a disadvantage.
Maybe they felt people would not react to it the same way because they're reacting to a DJ that isn't that skillful better. So they tend to dumb down or just don't even show the best that they can do. And I've seen this from so many DJs. It's mindboggling how it can become like that. So nobody asks for more, so no one tries as a consequence.
What can techno fans expect from your five-hour set this Saturday night at Beta?
Well, five hours is a long time, so I have a lot of space to travel, so I'm bringing extra music for that. It's been quite a while since I've played in Denver. It's been years [Mills played Vinyl in 2007]. I've made a lot of music that probably has never been heard in that market, so I'm bringing all that. In five hours, I should be able to cover different areas, different parts of that, to create different types of atmospheres. Not just the same beat for five hours, but, if it's possible, to create different landscapes at certain times. So, I'm hoping that it's possible to do that.
Continue on for our interviews with Lusine, Ctrl_Alt_Dlt and Brendon Moeller