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Axis of the Primeval: Jeff Mills Talks Space, Time, Techno

Jeff Mills courtesy Axis Records

They call Jeff Mills “The Wizard” for a reason.

Mills makes mixing records look not just like art, but a dark art. Less a DJ than an alchemist, he doesn’t merely mix records; he seems to extract their very essence, fusing and refining base materials into a perfect alloy of rhythm and texture.

Long before the technologists invented the sync button, Mills was juggling records in perfect time across four turntables at once — techno, hip-hop, house, industrial, new wave, you name it — and cementing the human/machine interface by adding a Roland TR-909 drum machine to the mix. And he did it with more finesse than any digital process could ever muster.

See photos from Jeff Mills’ upcoming book now!

Actually, Mills’ fingers make him — excuse the pun — the ultimate “digital” DJ. The way his fingers work the faders and the EQ, he could be Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix. While his peers were making jack tracks, Mills seems to have jacked into the machine itself.

But it’s not just Mills’ dexterity that has led him to be anointed as one of techno’s most iconic figures. More thinker than tinker, Mills has spent his career pursuing the big questions, like the nature of time, space, subjectivity; who we are, where we came from, and — crucially — where we’re going. As Brendan Gillen told the Detroit Metro Times‘ Carleton Gholz, “He is the theories and concepts of techno.”

Along with fellow Detroiter Robert Hood, Mills more or less invented the idea of minimal techno, stripping the music back to its sinewy essence, all pulse and glinting timbre. But Mills, who left Detroit years ago and now divides his time between Chicago and Paris, was always just as interested in pushing techno outward. It’s that quest that has given shape to his own work and the output of his label, Axis; his curiosity has led to performing live soundtracks to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Buster Keaton’s Three Ages; collaborations with symphony orchestras; DJ tools, created entirely with a Roland TR-808, meant as homage to legendary drummers like Jack DeJohnette and Buddy Rich; and concept albums involving time travel, climate change, and extraterrestrial life — part Prometheus, part La Jetée, all set to a flickering four-to-the-floor rhythm.

This fall, celebrating 20 years of Axis, Mills will publish Sequence: A Retrospective of Axis Records, a 320-page hardcover book documenting his recordings, performances, and forays into sculpture and visual arts; a USB stick included with the book will showcase 30 tracks from his back catalog. (A double-CD compilation will also be available separately.) A catalogue raisonné of sorts, the book teases out Axis’ philosophy across a collection of cover art, photographs, explanatory texts, and various ephemera, like the proof sheets for the session that created his Purposemaker logo. (It’s not all such heady stuff: His high-end clothing store Gamma Player, now closed, and his sunglasses line also get a few pages.)

I spoke to Mills about the book; he talked about why raving is like floating in space, why techno is in desperate need of an overhaul, and what he learned from DJing on his knees.

How did you go about trying to represent the extent of your work in book format?
First of all, everything in the book is the result of electronic music. It would not be in the book if I wasn’t involved in the genre. I thought it would be interesting for people to see that, other than making music for the dance floor, these were the things that I thought were very much related to the genre — sometimes as a result [of the music], and sometimes they were the reason I made the music.

I’ve always been in the process of creating visual aspects of the concepts I’ve released, like albums and things like that, but I never really had the opportunity to really show them. Social media only came not so long ago, and it had always been very difficult to bring these things over to Europe or take them to Japan, so I just kept them. I would spend lots of budget to create certain things, but it would not go very far. So this book is actually really the first opportunity that I really had to show what I’ve been doing for quite some time. It displays various projects and ideas. Some things got off the ground, and some did not. Some things have been in the works for a very long time.

Your records have often been like puzzle, hiding bits and pieces of information in the track titles, the center sticker, the liner notes, sometimes even engraved after the run-out groove. As we go digital, and move away from physical products, does it become harder to tell the kind of stories you want to tell?
We’re a record label, but we like to make things, you know? We started off making vinyls not because we wanted to make records, but [because] I like to make things and design things and create things for people to hold in their hand and to use. I’m not against the digital revolution. I think it’s great, but I don’t have a desire to put aside the idea of making things. Our office is pretty much a workshop. This is what I think is quite important, in a certain way, to connect with the listener or the person that’s interested in the label: To put something in their hand, to establish a certain type of connection, and to build something that can be grown off of.

I was surprised that the compilation accompanying the book is on a USB stick, rather than a CD.
We reach more people. More people use computers to listen to music than turntables or even CD players. And computers have USB ports, not CD. We wanted to make it possible for as many people to hear the music as possible, so that was the obvious format.

Now you even have DJs playing off USB sticks instead of CDs.
Once the information is in the machine, and you can utilize all the various devices on it, I think that doesn’t make that much of a difference. I’ve been a DJ for a long time, so I understand that it’s not really the device, it’s the music itself. From my own experience, in the end it doesn’t really matter what I’m using, as long as I get the music and I can play it to the people. And what the music is saying and what it’s doing to the people — that’s the most important thing. I love vinyl, I love CD, you know, but USB is the most convenient, and I’m sure tomorrow it’ll be something else. And I’m more than happy to embrace that too, as long as the music gets to the people.

I noticed that the tracks accompanying the book are not sequenced chronologically. What kind of story were you trying to tell with those selections and that sequencing?
For the tracks, my plan was to make something that was easier to listen to — not thinking that people would use the music for dancing, but that it would be mostly used for casual listening. So the majority of the tracks are the ones that kind of tell a story within themselves and are structured in a way that you kind of get the sense that the music is really trying to say something. And collectively, it really points to the direction in which I’m trying to take the label and redefine people’s ideas and expectations about what techno music should be. I’ve always been a supporter of the idea that music is much better if there’s a story behind it. Of course you can dance to it and everything, but it seems much more useful when there’s an idea or direction. So this compilation is made up of those various things I’ve always been interested in — space, space travel, planets, time travel, and all those things. I really tried to kind of give a comprehensive view of what I’m doing now and, more importantly, where I’d like to go.

In the introduction, you said that Axis had been fueled by “hoping and expecting, rather than opinions and answers.” I wondered what you meant by that.
I learned very early on that when you’re in the creative business and you create this system where you’re expecting a particular indication from the listener in order to understand where to go next, that’s the first mistake. That’s where you get into trouble. When you rely on the “yes” or the “no” or the correct or incorrect response from the listener is when you really lose control over what you are making and creating.

I was only interested in the idea of hoping for a particular response, but if I don’t get it, it does not stop the system of releasing music that I think is most interesting. Axis wasn’t designed to be a label that really hangs on every “like” or “dislike,” it functions on its own. It won’t fall into that category where the people in the end will really control it. And, over the years, various times, I’ve tried to take the money aspect out of the label by trying to find other ways to support the label, beyond selling records.

So you can be more autonomous, and do what the music requires, rather than what the market expects.
Right, and not what I “should” do to sell more records. There are two parts in this industry. One is the business and the other part is the creative, and managing the two is sometimes very difficult. But at least now I have this mindset where the music will be released regardless, whether it’s noticed or not. It’s coming out. Then, at that point, the people can decide whether they like it or not. At that point, it’s really out of my control.

I would imagine that as a DJ, it’s difficult to maintain that kind of autonomy. When you’re up on stage in front of 10,000 people, it must be hard not to fall into patterns where you see what generates a response from the audience, and you simply keep delivering that.
At first, many years ago, I thought that it was difficult to do. I really would very much try to read the audience to find out what they wanted, and then apply it to them. But I realized, and I don’t know how many DJs would say this, but I realized that I was basically playing the same thing over and over again. You’re looking for an indication, you see the people want a particular thing, and you do it — and you do that night after night after night after night, and then year after year. I’m not sure if DJs know this, but they’re doing the same thing over and over again. Playing the same records, the same types of music, at the same particular time. In the end, it’s not really working, and it’s not pushing or reminding me to play a lot of new material. It didn’t quite fit with the times that we sat in, when we had this explosion of technology and all the things that are possible. Playing the same thing over and over again just didn’t feel right. It didn’t make any sense.

So I tried not noticing the audience as much, basically not even looking at them for any indication as to what I’m going to play. And as a result, I ended up playing what I felt was most interesting. And then there’s where I really made a turning point.

I was looking at the images of Sleeper Wakes, where you had your decks on the floor, and you were performing on your knees. That’s really the opposite of the way that most commercial dance music functions these days, with these massive, spectacular audio-visual shows.
It actually comes from a way that I used to record many, many years ago. I needed more space. I’m not sure if it’s something that producers from Detroit used to do, but a few of us used to record everything on the floor. Just in order to be able to connect everything together and not have to walk around your gear — you just kind of walk over it. I thought that maybe it would be interesting to create that in terms of something that is happening live. It’s nothing really new. It’s enhanced greatly, but the idea is visually taking the technology away, so that the people have more opportunity to see the person that’s creating the music. As a result of being seen full-body, and not just the upper torso or the arms, I have to think about what I’m wearing, what I’m doing, what’s behind me, the images. I just believe that it makes a much more visually stimulating type of experience. And we can go far beyond that into more of a theatrical type of presentation. The images really become something instrumental in the whole process if you can see all of it, and it’s not obstructed by something that’s just holding the equipment.

We don’t need to see the technology to understand it. I think we’re past that. I’m only pushing buttons and moving levers. And to do that, I don’t think we need to have a huge setup where it’s just holding the turntables or holding the CDs. It seems to me to be a waste, and taking that away opens up the visual relationship between me being on the stage and the people that can see and understand. Again, I go back to theatrics. What happens is that it looks more like a performance, or performance art, than a DJ behind a setup. And it makes me have to think about what’s going to happen from the moment I take the stage to the time that I leave: The type of lighting, what happens at this time, how to position the lights to create various types of impressions of the depth of stage, and all that. I think it should start some dialogue as to how DJs could possibly be much more conceptual and be in line with the music and explain more to the people that are on the dance floor. If my attire is in the direction of the way that the music sounds, it should make more sense. It should all connect the dots together for the viewer.

In the book, you write that in 2006 you found techno to be relatively stagnant, and you designed “Sleeper Wakes” as a response to that. Do you continue to be dissatisfied with the state of techno?
I think it’s a house that needs to be remodeled. I think it needs to be redesigned, because nobody really took the time to do it. I know a lot of people in electronic music, and I’ve followed it and watched people in their careers, and I can say that no one really took care of the industry. No one took care of the genre. Certain things weren’t done because people were too busy or they didn’t care enough about preserving things, bringing things to people’s attention, expanding different areas of it, speaking about it, showing things, reminding people of certain things — no one really cared. Everyone just wanted to be a DJ and travel around the world.

So it became apparent around 2004 or 2005 that this music deserved more than that, the people deserved more from it. I just thought that there needed to be some redesigning of the genre as a whole. There are a lot of things we never really explored that we should have, that other genres have [explored], but in electronic music, I suppose most of us didn’t take it seriously. Deep down, maybe we thought that it wouldn’t last this long, and perhaps there wasn’t enough to hold people’s attention over many years — that maybe it is a genre that is only heard on the weekends, in clubs in the middle of the night, but Monday through Friday, it’s not really necessary. And I just didn’t believe that. So that kind of pushed me towards this idea to show more what the genre is about, show the results of what’s come from electronic music while constantly keeping a campaign to push it further and further. If not in my generation, perhaps the next generations will be a little bit wiser and a little bit smarter, and do the things necessary in order to explore as much as they possibly can through the sound of the music.

There’s where it comes from. In a way, yeah, I’m criticizing the people in this genre because they haven’t demonstrated enough that they care enough about it.

You studied jazz drumming when you were younger, and you have a history in hip-hop and house music as well. Do you know what it is about techno that makes it, for you, the ultimate genre?
I know what it is so far. It’s evolving and it’s going to go much further. So far, it is a genre that’s difficult to determine exactly what it’s supposed to be. And that opens up all possibilities. For instance, I can tap on a table, but if I can tap on a table with my hand in a way that gives you the impression you’re experiencing something that is reminiscent of the future, that, to me, falls under the category of techno. It’s one of the few genres, maybe the only genre, that deals with frequencies at the same level as notes and chords — meaning that the sound of white noise is perceived the same way by the listener as a note on the piano. That’s the most important indication, because that means that the people are really willing and ready to explore more of the unknown, which you don’t quite find in other genres. You don’t find that in rock or hip-hop or other things. So that’s also a very strong indication that whatever sounds may come in our future, they will probably find a place in techno or electronic music. And that gives the genre some type of insurance that it can always accommodate whatever’s going to come. You can see it now with the way that we’re using computer sequencers and software to sequence the music. I think that’s also an indication that it’s going to transform and do whatever it takes to move forward. Even without us pushing it, I think it’s set up for that already. That I find to be very exciting. And I think that using all these tools, and if people utilize them in the right way, the genre could become much more relevant to people’s lives way off the dance floor. It could be come something closer to what rock was to people in the ’60s.

You grew up in an era when space felt not just like the final frontier, but the next logical step for humans. Lately, though, with budgets shrinking, space feels like it’s getting farther away than ever. Does that disappoint you?
I find the opposite. I just heard last night that China plans to go to the moon next year. I think NASA is planning to get [a person] to Mars by 2030. The idea of commercial space flight, what Virgin and many other companies are doing, is the first indication since the earlier days of space exploration that there’s more activity and more momentum for the idea of leaving this planet and exploring what’s out there. I’m anticipating in the years to come we’ll be faced with more information about what’s out there, and that at some point, they’ll have to teach the average citizen what to expect. There may be a robust effort to remind or inform people as to what the moon is about, how it’s structured, how the sun works, and at the same time, explaining how delicate our existence is here on earth, as well as the possibility of life other than humans. I believe that the years are coming where they’re going to have to do that. Looking at music, I can see it playing a great role in that. Especially if I think about the scenario in which people are dancing when they go to clubs — it’s the perfect type of setup to simulate what it could possibly be like to be in space. Because of the magnitude of sound systems, they’re very overwhelming, and the imagery is very, very colorful, and there’s a lack of light, which means you can really have a visual and almost physical control over the people. It’s the perfect place for that. I can see that it’s going to be part of the human reality, much more. So I’m quite excited, and trying to position what I do to assist more in that direction.

You talked about this idea of the nightclub as a microcosm of outer space in an interview with The Wire. You said, “If I had to translate the atmosphere of the way parties and festivals are structured, I have to assume that what we’re trying to simulate is outer space and the cosmos… The feeling of being surrounded by the emptiness of space and vast distances between planets; enormous systems for sound that penetrate the human body in ways that seem uncontrollable and abnormal by the submission they demand. All these things point to the way we perceive ourselves in endless flotation.” That sounds much lonelier than the way we typically think of clubs or festivals.
It is that. You have to admit, when you go to a club, it is close to that. And that happened naturally. There’s no instruction book saying that when you do techno parties, the lights must be dim, the few lights must be in the ceiling, and you use strobes and telebeams and these things, and the sound system must be enormous, you know, to push the people from side to side. All those things kind of happened naturally, I think, because of what we are. We’re human animals, and what we’re doing is probably nothing new. Our ancestors probably danced under the stars, around the fire, and listened to some shaman tell some story about the stars. And so what we’re doing is really nothing new. It’s just modified for the time that we live in, and I suspect that it’s not going to change 50 or 100 years from now; it’s going to be basically the same scenario, because of what we are. This is what I strongly, strongly believe. And as a DJ, I’ve seen, for many, many years, when the atmosphere in a club is at a high point, at a pinnacle point, the atmosphere becomes much more tribal than the audience probably can notice from their side. It becomes more ceremonial, actually. I can see that the people are getting together, and they’re creating something amongst themselves. I think that’s just because of what we are. Each person on the dance floor doesn’t go off into their own corner, they come together. That’s what most DJs can see. I can see thousands, millions and millions of years of history there.

Your latest album, The Messenger, has a fairly apocalyptic message. I read it as an allegory of climate change.
Definitely, yeah. The album points to the idea that, at some point, our climate definitely will change. It’s inevitable that earth, the time that we’re living in, the way that we’re living now, will change, either as a result of nature or something that we’ll create ourselves. And so it points to the idea that there is an expiration date. We already know that it’s there, and it’s something we’re going to have to accept as humans move more and more into the future. And so the album addresses the idea that there are other life forms, and these other life forms were responsible for our existence, and it was revealed that the purpose of humans was nothing more than merely as a product. That the human animal was simply a concept, it was created, basically. Like, I don’t know, some chemical that we use now, like food coloring, or something like that. [Laughs] It really is the beginning of the story. The next chapter, that I’m working on now — it should be ready in November — is called The Jungle Planet.

I wondered if you were a fan of Chris Marker, the filmmaker who recently passed away. Your album 2087 reminded me of the time-travel themes in La Jetee.
I’m aware of his work, and yeah, I think that it’s definitely our future. The earth is not in a situation where we’ll be able to be here forever. Even if we want to stay here, I think the surface of the planet will become too extreme, and at some point we’re going to have to leave. Maybe not go far, maybe our inner atmosphere, but there may be the time when the surface of the planet will become too violent and too unsecured. But the planet will be able to produce things that we’ll need to survive. I can see all that. Perhaps, maybe even in my lifetime. I can see that happening. So space and space travel, it’ll for sure become part of our daily lives.

Have you been following the news about the discovery of the Higgs Boson?
Yeah, sure, sure, sure. That was a giant leap forward, I think, in terms of understanding any- and everything around us. But it certainly won’t be the last giant leap. I think we haven’t even started to begin to understand how many giant steps there are. I think that we exist in a living organism that is probably too large to even imagine. And of course, within any living organism, there are important parts of it, the things that make this organism function, and then there are things that are somewhat irrelevant but are there as a result. And I think that earth is one of those things, and humans are one of these things that are just a matter of coincidence. The factors were just right. And there were things similar to us before us, and there will be things similar to us after our time.

People talk about your work in terms of futurism and technology, but I see a deeply spiritual aspect to it, as well — this idea, for instance, that we’re part of a larger organism. Is your belief system evolving over time?
Well, yeah. I’ve worked really hard to kind of deconstruct or reduce what I expect in terms of what I believe. You know? The ultimate, for me, is just to be completely open to any and everything. For the rest of my life, it probably makes more sense to not conclude anything, just to be open. Believing something to be definitive doesn’t quite make any sense to me. I don’t think we’re existing in a time and place where it’s possible to do that. I’m not religious. I believe more in facts than I do in innuendo and what people have said thousands of years ago to be the truth, and things like that. I truly believe that we’re a species that is ever-evolving and discovering, more and more, and I think that it’s better to be open all the time and to expect the unexpected. Or the unreasonable. Or the impossible.

It just makes more sense than to fall into a situation where I believe in a particular religion, and practicing ways based on what the religion says. I think for humans, our only objective is to survive. We just need to breathe the next day. That’s it. We don’t need to have offspring and have children. I just think we need to eat and breathe for the next day, and the duration for all of us is just the duration in which we were designed to live for, given our circumstances. Maybe we could live longer if we didn’t have so much pollution, and all this other stuff, but given the circumstances, we’re just supposed to make it ’til tomorrow. With each day, we contribute somehow to making the process much better for the next person that’s coming. And that’s about it. That’s what I believe we’re supposed to do.

So I look at music as a way of making people understand — or at least making life a little bit more understandable for the next person or the next generation. I never wanted to create a label that depended upon getting a response from people. I just wanted to project the ideas, because I’m not sure who I’m projecting to. It was always a one-way situation. I come up with an idea and I just throw the idea out there, and I turn my back to the idea and move on to something else.

That reminds me of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, which included images of life on earth and music by Bach and Chuck Berry — a “bottle [launched] into the cosmic ocean,” as Carl Sagan called it.
It’s something like that. And I don’t expect a response. I don’t expect anyone to answer, but I know that nothing can happen if I don’t create something from nothing and just push it out there. That’s what the function of the label is. And that’s probably what I’ll spend the rest of my career doing, just making music in that direction. And I’m really happy with that. Because for me, as a producer, I just need to make it possible. And that doesn’t mean it even needs to be released to the public. I just need to extract what I’m thinking at the time, and record it, and that’s it. Or I need to photograph it or just materialize it, and then that’s it. I need to demonstrate, once, to the people what it’s like to take away the equipment so that I’m putting the idea out there that a DJ can do things differently. He can still play the music, but it can be presented differently. That’s it. I’m not really waiting for a response of whether people liked it or not. Sleeper Wakes is just about projecting ideas, and then the people can do whatever they want with it.

In Europe, you’ve been able to reach two different publics — there’s the conceptual side of your work, which often gets presented in museums and arts festivals, and then there’s the nightclub or rave side, in which you may DJ for tens of thousands of people. Are you playing those kinds of massive events in the U.S.?
No. I haven’t been lucky enough to be invited to too many of those things. Over the years, I’ve just kind of presumed that the music I make is not commercial enough, or maybe my appearance, I just don’t look bizarre enough — you know, I don’t have braids or gold teeth. I was once told by a magazine that I looked too normal to be on the cover. I just assume that in America, these big festivals are just interested in a different type of artist. I’m American, I’ve always been there, and I’ve always been doing these things, but I just don’t fit the criteria that the organizers would like to have. And I don’t expect ever to be asked by them, either. I’m not waiting around. I’m busy recording music. It’s OK.

I’ve been DJing all of my adult life, and I understand that you can’t play everywhere all the time. Even, say, the most popular DJs, the big DJs like David Guetta and all those guys, they can’t go and play a small party any more. It’s never really perfect; it’s never really the ideal situation. You just do what you can, wherever you can do it, and do the best that you can and try to make the music mean something. And I never thought that these big festivals were really about music; it’s more about people and masses, and the most people that they can attract. But it’s not really about music. Perhaps those things happen elsewhere.