Few musical artists have embraced science fiction with quite the same vigour as Jeff Mills.
The pioneering Detroit producer has made concept albums about the planets, centred live shows around the cosmos, and is a lover of re-scoring classic films, including his recently unveiled soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Moon. Ahead of Mills’ appearance at Bloc Weekend 2015, we called up another noted science fiction buff – Scottish musician and designer Konx-om-Pax – to grill Jeff on the subject they both know best.
The pair talked Detroit politics, early German electronics, the future of science fiction and, naturally, Star Wars (oh, and Underground Resistance fans – there’s even a scoop regarding the group’s 2016 plans). Hold onto your butts – this one goes deep.
Konx-Om-Pax: One of the first techno records I ever bought was one of yours, The Other Day. I was reading the sleeve notes, and it reminded me of some of the topics that Robert Anton-Wilson would discuss when talking about quantum mechanics. I’m interested in the circular nature of how science and science fiction can influence art, but then in turn music and art can influence real-life scientific breakthroughs as well.
Jeff Mills: Well, both genres are designed, or structured in a way where they’re used to describe something. So I think there would be the first common link between music and science fiction. In the particular case of electronic music, where there are insinuations about what the future should be like or where we might be headed, it very much runs in connection with science fiction. That’s something that I’ve always known. It’s totally natural for me to connect the two together, and make music that’s based in science fiction, or use the science fiction style of storytelling to explain music.
What may result of that? I think it’s too soon to tell. You have people listening to electronic music that’s very conceptual when it comes to things about the future, [and] I think we have to get there, and then see where we are, and look back in hindsight and perhaps take the path back to where we once where. I think it’s only really been a good decade of focusing intently on using music to describe things in the future.
For me, with the early Detroit techno records, and even early British electronic music like Human League, the surroundings played a big part. The grim north of England influenced the Human League and their obvious interest in science fiction for example, and I know Juan Atkins would talk about Futureshock. Then you have Gerald Donald and Dopplereffekt, and Drexciya with their own myths and narratives, which built this whole world around the music…
I think it even goes back to seemingly non-related genres. I can imagine the way that music was presented out of Detroit in Motown. A lot of the things that were released at the time, they were pop or soul music, but it was music that was explaining something – well, many things. From the Temptations to Marvin Gaye, the way that they were using music is something which is quite synonymous with Detroit, I think. We make music, and there’s a reason behind it, and I think that was there before we all started making [techno]. But yes, we were convinced I guess that yes, this music can be danceable, but it should also have an educational aspect, and tell people something that they didn’t think about, or that they did not know. That may be different in Chicago, or it may be different in New York, but it was definitely very present in Detroit.
There was obviously an overt revolutionary, and reactionary tone to Underground Resistance, that’s the very obvious one. I like the idea that you’re interested in a narrative, trying to tell a story or discuss certain things.
I used to get a lot of criticism! This was the time of rave music, and got a lot of criticism about trying to explain something in detail through electronic music. Over time it’s got a little bit easier, but it’s still relatively new, this approach. Every album or project I work on, though, the chatter gets a little less and less. And my perception is that people are understanding it – or at least accepting it – more and more as something that is relevant.
I recently watched a documentary about krautrock and early German electronic music, and when Amon Düül talked about their early music, they said they didn’t want to sound like British music or American music, so they started singing about space. They used space and science fiction as a way of creating something new. Were you influenced by the early German electronic scene at all?
Yeah, I mean as long as I can remember we took a lot of influences from Germany. Maybe even more so than any other part of the country. Kraftwerk were very influential artists, they were really snapped into our minds from when we were young, you know? There was something about the discipline in the music that was quite attractive, and quite unusual for us, I think. And the fact that it made no qualms about the idea that it was displaying something about what the future was gonna be like. As young kids, we were all very impressed by that. This was the ’80s, so the end of the century was coming, and the year 2000 was a couple of decades ahead, and the idea that you could be part of this new thinking, this new movement, was…
It must have been quite exciting seeing Kraftwerk on the television.
It set the whole city on fire, in terms of dance music. Hearing them on radio too, radio was very instrumental in the city at the time. Out of all the countries that penetrated our minds [in Detroit], Germany had to be the big one – both the artists and the style of music gave us the notion that there could be more to it than just music.
“I’m a bit of a traditionalist, and my tastes are very much in the Ridley Scott, Alien, Blade Runner, late ’80s period. There’s only really been one or two in recent times that I actually like.”
I’m only discussing this because there’s a fantastic BBC4 documentary on it, which shows that the youth in Germany at that time just wanted to bury the past and think new, after being involved in the Second World War. They felt very passionate about creating a new reality to live in, and there was so much energy behind that that I’m not surprised that it spread and influenced so many other artists.
I can’t exactly say how much it influences what I’m doing now, but I used to be in a group that was very much a combination of Detroit techno and a more industrial type of sound, a group called Final Cut – before I moved to Underground Resistance. I’ve never really talked about it in detail, but we were interested in that more aggressive approach in terms of using music as a weapon, using an instrument to get what you want – to force the hand of your opponent, to turn the tide in your favour, that kind of thing. Some of that definitely carried over into my work with Underground Resistance.
That does sound like a similar rhetoric to Mad Mike and the revolutionary side of Underground Resistance, yeah.
I guess in the back of our minds, we knew that something was possible but we didn’t quite know what. We were working in earnest, we were working really hard, but we didn’t know exactly what those objectives would be. We knew that if we played a certain amount of notes in a certain way, something would happen, and that was better than nothing.
It’s interesting that you talk about sonic warfare and sound as a weapon – Steve Goodman [Kode9] wrote a whole book about that. It does actually sound like something from a science fiction movie, the way riot police can use loud noises to control crowds, it’s quite an evil way to use sound I’d say.
[laughs] Yeah, yeah.
What are you working on at the moment, then?
At the moment I’m working on a residency that I’m doing with Le Louvre in Paris. It’s a set of performances, collaborations, stuff like that. This starts in early March. And from that comes The Exhibitionist 2 DVD. We still have a little bit more filming and production to do, but it’s going to be very interesting. It still falls in the same line as the first Exhibitionist – it’s an observation about the art form of DJing, but it’s from more different perspective. We cover the art form in a very comprehensive way in the second one, so this probably will be the last one, but it really explains a lot about the mindset and the concepts and the procedure of how a DJ does what he does. Mike Banks and I are in discussion about touring [Banks’ and Mills’ collaborative project] X-102, maybe in 2016. We’re just figuring out how we would do it.
You just got me very excited about X-102 – I remember seeing a small bit of footage of you performing it at Sónar one year with a very big screen. Did you actually hook up with NASA directly for the visual aspect?
There was a film that accompanied the performance, which NASA helped out with – the images of Saturn came from there. They gave us a collection that we could use.
I always though it would be amazing to work really closely with NASA on a project like that, in the same way that Stanley Kubrick did, so that all of his stuff in 2001 was as interesting as possible, and based on scientific knowledge.
Yeah. If you’re gonna work in that field you’ve got to at least know some stuff about it. You don’t need to know everything, but you need to at least know what your concept’s about. Research has always been quite important to me. At a certain point with science fiction, the fiction part can take over, but I think you should at least be in the ballpark of reality as a starting point.
“I think the next Star Wars could be a turning point. If it’s intellectually stimulating, then we know that we’re on the right course.”
The research you do influences your music, too – I could imagine you using star charts to sequence synthesiser lines or something, it’s really interesting. Working with real-life subject matter to give yourself musical boundaries is really useful, too.
With The Man from Tomorrow, the whole project was something new, Something different. We wanted to make a film that was something of a documentary, something of a film, but hadn’t been done before, something from a different perspective. We wanted to open it up to interpretation, I suppose, an abstract snapshot of the mind of a DJ. We were really hoping that people would look at this film and it would give them ideas of how to elaborate on it, or to think about some of the things that were being discussed in the films. That too was one of those projects where we were depending on people to respond to it.
Another early release of yours that I got was your alternative soundtrack to [Fritz Lang’s] Metropolis. Do you plan to do any more soundtrack projects in that vein?
Well, we just released another [soundtrack to a] Fritz Lang film, a science fiction film called Woman in the Moon. We did a pre-release in San Francisco over the weekend. That’s doing very well, so there are plans to do more – I’d like to do the soundtrack to a film at least once per year. At least one film contract a year. I don’t want to say now, because I’ll probably end up changing my mind, but there are a few things I’d like to work on.
What do you think of current science fiction films? I’m a bit of a traditionalist, and my tastes are very much in the Ridley Scott, Alien, Blade Runner, late ’80s period. There’s only really been one or two in recent times that I actually like. It’s probably down to a lack of original ideas, or maybe it’s just harder to come up with something mind-blowing due to where we’re at.
I think we’re slowly, slowly getting there. I think that people with great ideas and great imaginations are slipping through the cracks in Hollywood, but we’re slowly getting more interesting things made outside of the Star Wars type frame. I think you and I are a little different, but I do I think people want to have more interesting, Inception-type films, things that really make you think about it. It’s slow, but if I think back decades – 10, 20 years ago – it’s becoming more advanced. The subject matter, and what we’re talking about it, is getting more interesting and closer to the reality of where things are going to be. That becomes really interesting, then, because science fiction.. well, maybe the word fiction will start to deteriorate, and we’re just left with science.
I think we’re slowly getting there, and I think in a couple more decades we’ll be watching so-called science fiction films but we’re really watching education.
I think it requires a bit more of a leap. When you think about it, 2001 was written in the late ’60s, so it’s only 50 years ahead of schedule in terms of ideas. I’ve always wondered what humanity will look like in 1000 years time if we haven’t blown each other up by then. That would lead to some interesting stories.
Well, I think the next Star Wars could be a turning point. If it’s intellectually stimulating, then we know that we’re on the right course.
I have faith. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it’ll be good, and less light-hearted than the other recent ones.
I don’t know, we’ll just have to see. Maybe we should talk again after it’s come out and analyse the whole thing, but we just have to keep our fingers crossed.
I have a few friends who stay in LA and are involved in the production of science fictions, and it’s amazing what people can do in your living rooms with a really powerful Apple Mac: home-made motion capture set-ups, and stuff like that. People within the industry seem to be predicting that traditional Hollywood systems are collapsing, and it’ll be a similar situation to when the old Hollywood systems collapsed and people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were allowed to slip in the cracks. It kind of feels like this is happening again, and that interesting science fiction films can be made on low budgets and still look good.
Right, right. If we can somehow get involved in the music, in that same phase, then we’ll be happy. We can only try.
Check out more of Konx-om-Pax’s work here. Jeff Mills’ Woman in the Moon score is out now. Konx-om-Pax photographed by James Anderson.