Features I by I 20.08.13

“People just don’t ask for better anymore. I think we’ve lost the knowledge of how to do that”: Jeff Mills versus the modern condition

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A founding member of Detroit collective Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills is one of techno’s greatest ever producers and DJs. 

As he enters his 50s, Mills’ release schedule remains regular, though his later years have seen him increasingly fixated with the delicacies of the cosmos – his new album, The Jungle Planet, is inspired by the dreams of Charles Darwin and the idea of “the planet of planets”. It’s not been the easiest eighteen months for Mills: he retired his eclectic alter-ego The Wizard after 2012’s Detroit Electronic Music Festival, claiming that modern crowds didn’t understand it, and earlier this year he went viral after an Italian fan threw sunglasses at him during a live set. As he explained to FACT’s Tom Lea on the eve of his London appearance this weekend, however, when you’re used to club shootings and gang fights, it’s water off a duck’s back.

So The Jungle Planet is the latest instalment in your Sleeper Wakes series…

The Jungle Planet is the fifth chapter in the Sleeper Wakes series. It tells of a story about a time when Earth is reconditioned by guardian aliens for the next growth cycle and there is only one last human left. He desperately travels to only place where he might find the residue of human dreams, Charles Darwin’s dreams in particular, in hopes of jump starting human evolution again. He goes to a planet where the concept of humans was theorised and created. The story depicts his experience on this jungle-like planet.

Why Darwin in particular?

Because of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and its basic mechanism of human evolution. To accumulate such a theory, there must have been a large amount of discussion, debate and pondering about whether it made sense based on the information he had before him of where humans comes from. But these are assumed aspects of his work and matters during daytime hours, what his dreams. What might he have imagined in another state of consciousness? As someone that has spent thousands and thousands of hours thinking about evolution, surely he must have dreamt about its logic as well. Perhaps there were things he knew what he could not explain to the scientific community of that time.

How has it developed from the previous Sleeper Wakes records – both musically and conceptually?

With each chapter, I’d explored different recording techniques. On this one, I focused mainly on multi-levels of low and sub bass frequencies in order to create more depth than the other releases. For this, the sound level was purposely reduced so that not only can the notes and sound voices of the music be heard in a fuller dynamic, but also the slight vibrations that come from the sound ringing inside keyboards and machines I used. I was searching to find sound in addition to music. I wanted to effectively describe the contents of the story that enclosed in the CD album. The concept and creative perspective of this album is about the exoticism of new discoveries. The handling of unknown circumstances and the attention to sound representation.


It’s an opportunity to push back against the notions that ‘all dance music sounds the same’ or ‘techno music isn’t good for anything but dancing’.


That’s interesting about the vibrations inside keyboards and machines – did you capture them with external mics and then use them as ambiance?

Yes. That’s correct.

And when you talk about unknown circumstances, I guess that applies both those sounds and the concept of being on a new planet?

The possibility of trying new ways is really the purpose of these Sleeper Wakes albums. It’s an opportunity to push back against the notions that ‘all dance music sounds the same’ or ‘techno music isn’t good for anything but dancing’. The probable truth could be that more people are thinking about other planets than anytime in our history, maybe even more than thoughts about techno music. What I was hoping for with The Jungle Planet was to bring out the field recordings of electronic instruments.

What comes first for you at this point, the concept or the music?

The story comes first, then the idea of how to translate it. Whether by sound, by video or any other medium. After that’s established, I find the best format – vinyl 12″, CD, DVD, USB – that will allow me to convey the nature of the story. In this case of Jungle Planet, we used a character in the Jungle Planet story, a black cube animal for designing the actual album. The album is a USB black cube.

You’ve used USBs in the past, on the Axis retrospective. What is it about them that appeals, and are you still attached to vinyl and CD?

What I’m most interested in USB formats are the design possibilities of the item itself. With this format, its possible to conceal the information into something more relevant to the concept of the album. Reshaping the ideas of how music can be presented adds to the creative process and leans more towards musical product design and sound plastic art. For The Jungle Planet, we’ve created a black cube shaped USB, where the information key slips out and away from it. As an object, it serves as a reminder of the concept album, but doesn’t necessarily have to be placed, positioned and kept with other albums or in a certain area of one’s living space. Instead, it can remain in view within your living environment and only the owner knows its contents.

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When you sit down and record, do you already have a visual idea or concept in mind, or does that develop as you make the music?

I, at the least, have the introduction, turning point and ending segments in mind. The rest usually develops as I begin to match the sound samples up to the story. There is typically modifications to the album up until the last minute. Sometimes, I’ll recall the production of the album in order to change tracks which can greatly delay the album but its crucial that the finish product is as representative to the story as possible.

The artwork’s really striking – how did you get into Julien Pacaud’s work?

I’m often in book stores searching for ideas and I discovered Julien’s work from a book his work was displayed in of clip art I bought in Paris. His work really stuck out in terms of quality and I found it very relative to the sentiment I’m often hoping to convey. We contacted him in order to know if he’d be interested in working on the image of the story and he agreed. I sent him a few samples of the music, we discussed the story and concept and then he created the image. We are quite honoured to have him create it … It was a back and forth process – I think it was about two or three volleys, but it went very quickly.

There’s a lot of aspects to the cover that you wouldn’t normally group together – jellyfish, skyscrapers, mountains, lizards, an orb of sorts… How do they all fit together on The Jungle Planet – or “the planet of planets”, as the press release puts it? What does the planet represent, and what is its purpose?

I shouldn’t reveal the story here, but the story addresses and answers all those questions. I’ve already started writing the sixth chapter. The working title is called Afterism. In multi-dimensions, it explores time and space in the plural sense. My plan is to try and make it away from the reality that we know.

You’ve had a bit of a rough year on the live circuit, it seems – you had sunglasses thrown at you in Rome, and you retired The Wizard [Mills’ eclectic DJ alter-ego] after the last DEMF. Why do you think The Wizard didn’t go down like it used do? Is it a generational thing, with people not being around to recognise a lot of the tracks you play, or do you feel that modern audiences, despite having access to more music than ever, are more close-minded when it comes to something like The Wizard?

Compared to my past experiences and DJing in Detroit in the early 1980s, this year and the few incidents was pleasantly harmless. Imagine being caught in the middle of a Crips and Bloods gang fight! Or, being in a crowded club during a gun shot out. It’s these type of experiences that set real stress boundaries, not thrown sunglasses or a cup.

For The Wizard, I decided to stop those sets because there just isn’t much interest in mixed genre DJ sets – especially not of that style and technique. I found that we are not as open to various styles of music in a period of time as we used to be. We like what we like and not much else. The Wizard was created as a means to constantly present new music for the listener to eventually decide – to go out and search to buy the record and support the independent music industry and art form. I see little tolerance or patience for this now. In most situations where music is being played, people decide whether it’s right or wrong based on whether they like it or not. What this does is unconsciously steer a lot of music producers to make similar styles that they believe works immediately upon hearing rather than making something they really like and then making the audience like it too. That craft is gone. The Wizard was for the 1980’s and it was a lot of fun but, these are the 2010s – a different era with a different mentality.


“Enough time has to pass until a new, more conscious generation of people become the new producers of music with new perspectives and ideas, new consumers and audiences that expect more than the generations before them.”


Do you think it’s something specific to dance music fans, or is it a general modern condition?

I think it’s a general condition, that not only affects us in music, but all forms of creativity and entertainment. I believe are large part of it stems from an ineffective and broken level of public quality control and expectation. Put simply, people just don’t ask for better anymore. I think we’ve lost the knowledge of how to do that. I assume that we’ve reached a point where that to expect more from entertainment is a request that often get over shadowed by the powerful marketing machines and the waves of popular persuasion. It’s much harder to be different and to ‘stand out’ than it used to be, and I can imagine many people in the creative fields aren’t willing to work very hard for it anymore.

What do you think has caused that, and do you think there is a cure?

Complacency might be the likely cause, or a fear to make mistakes might be another. There was never any particular way or recipe for winning public acceptance. I guess it only feels that way because of the way the critics of entertainment make it their job to tell us what and when to like or dislike something and even somebody … For those that can’t take time to really listen, compare and comprehend what they’re listening to, there isn’t a quick and easy cure for that. A good sense of musical taste just isn’t available on software or an IPhone app.

I believe the only thing that could change and improve the quality of music is time. Enough time has to pass until a new, more conscious generation of people become the new producers of music with new perspectives and ideas, new consumers and audiences that expect more than the generations before them.

Bonus Beats: Read Jeff Mills and John Peel interviewing each other for FACT here, and catch him in London this weekend.

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