A mere bio seems silly and insignificant in the wake of his accomplishments: Who would believe that one man could be responsible for so much? A founding member of Underground Resistance, classic 12-inches for his own Axis imprint, a soundtrack to Fritz Lang's Metropolis and plenty more? Almost anyone would be content with one of those things. But Mills, thankfully, isn't. He resolutely pushes forward, playing sets around the world, and preparing myriad projects for future release.
In advance of his upcoming show in New York, we only touched on a few of these things. It led us on a meandering journey in which we talked about taking Axis digital, creating music for one-off performances and how his sets change from city to city.
Because most DJs are using the digital format. It was a matter of necessity. Not so much preference.
Would you have preferred to have kept it vinyl-only? Did you really have no other choice?
In the end for me, as long as people get the music: That's the most important thing. The formats—and how it is delivered—is actually secondary, so if more DJs shift to eight-track tape, then we have to shift to eight-track tape, you know. It's not something I would chose as my first—or most desired format—but we have to get the music to the people, so that was the main decision.
You also started adding bonus tracks, is that correct?
Yes, there were some tracks that were made for the original releases but because of the time constraints on the vinyl I would have ended up doing double vinyl sets and stuff like that, so it was an opportunity to add on to those releases finally.
Speaking of new material, you just released The Good Robot. What can you tell me about that release? Was there any particular thing you were trying to do with that?
It's called The Good Robot, but in reality it's not really about robots, it's about us—the people that are programming the robots, and the degree to which we give the robots our own character and individual traits. By using the robot it's almost like creating a simulation or a likeness of ourselves. We should be able to look at what a robot really does—and what it's really used for—and that should tell us a lot about ourselves. That's really what it's about. As the release goes into the other 12-inches, it will become more focused on people—more so than on the robot or the machine.
How many releases are there going to be altogether in this series?
Five. This was the first one.
How has the meaning of Axis changed over time for you?
It hasn't changed, it's stayed the same. Maybe I've changed a little bit, but the label has stayed the same. The objective has always been to release a certain type of music—to fill certain gaps—and to bring to the attention of the listener things that should be paid attention to and it's always stayed that way.
The Jeff Mills starter kit
Sure, Jeff Mills is often regarded as a legend in techno circles, but sometimes we often forget exactly how wide-ranging his career has been. To piece together the disparate strands of his solo work, we humbly offer five singular entry points.
A true techno classic, and perhaps Mills' greatest solo success after he left the UR camp, this pounding 4/4 tune is leavened by its titular instrument.
Truth in advertising: One of Jeff Mills' most relentless cuts is an exercise in the sort of sonic brutalism that came to define some of the finest mid-'90s techno.
Live at the Liquid Room, Tokyo
This CD helps to outline exactly what witnessing one of Mills' mid-'90s sets was all about. More than 35 tracks are used over the course of its length.
Mills' 2000 soundtrack to the Fritz Lang film of the same name reflected his burgeoning interest in moving things away from the dance floor.
Orchestral versions of Mills' work, as well as an interview that proves to be a fascinating look into the man's fertile mind.
Yeah, I do. I think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that most electronic music labels are really based on dance music, and you only need to look at where DJs and promoters and everyone in the dance music industry are heading: towards a level in which the actual DJ or the actual person won't be needed. And so, therefore, you won't really need the labels; you won't really the need the company to have artists because everyone will be able to do it themselves.
It's got to a point now where there are a lot of structures that were created back in the '70s and '80s that were basically dissolved because of the way we now communicate and so it's much harder for instance to make a "hit" or like an "underground hit" because now it's so splintered and no one really follows one main source for indication now. So it's hard to know who is playing what or what is happening here and there and what styles are coming, so you literally have to spend hours and hours and hours online to have some type of idea as to what the general consensus is on certain topics and certain records and certain labels and things like that on the electronic music scene.
I think that's because it was pretty much a primarily a genre of the people, now it's a genre of person, so you really have to go to that person that find out what they are about now.
Do you think that it's easier to find these things out then it was before?
I mean technically, yes. You'd think it would be easy, as all the information is at your fingertips. But there is so much information now and so many things happening and it's so splintered now that you have to have a cue word to know where to go; where to search. Over the past few years or so I've been travelling in places that really would not be considered for electronic music and really good parties but when you get there you realize there are scenes and layers and layers of themes and labels and DJs that you just had no idea about.
It wasn't quite like this back when all these labels a couple of decades ago would have to go to a few sources. On the one side, yeah, we gained [something] because everyone is an individual, but then on the other side we're so individual that we've gone in a million different directions and it's hard to understand what is really going on. So for a label rather than having the same thinking than twenty years ago, you have to just assume that there are people you make music for and people that you play music for and that's about it.
You said recently in The Wire that "for many years from the mid-'90s, I assumed that by breaking the music down I would speak to more people but then I learned that we are all intelligent animals," I wonder if that somehow connects in a way—you made this realization at some point that you should stop trying to speak to some sort of imagined audience and just speak in your own language, secure in the knowledge that people were going to come and find it.
It would be nice to think that it would work that way, but from my experience from watching other DJs...Let me give you an example: When we first started going to Europe to play music, a lot of us really did not know what to expect. We knew that techno music was happening; we knew that raves and other things were going on; we knew that music was really popular but most of us did not know the history—when I say most of us, I mean DJs from America.
We did not know the history of the people who were at those parties so we didn't know how far their knowledge of dance music went back. I remember asking people "Where are your older DJs that played in the discotheques, or those who have moved into production?", and most of the people told me that there weren't any. For most of them, it started with rave music, or it started with Detroit and things like that. With DJs in America it goes back really far through our older brothers and sisters and fathers.
And so a lot of us had to readjust the type of music that we were playing over in Europe and a lot of us today still do because their knowledge just doesn't go back as far. Playing music with vocals is perceived in a much different way. House music has always had some difficulties in certain places in Europe—mainly Germany. I can remember very clearly taking things out of my record box, because even if it was Chicago house they didn't want to hear the voice of Xavier Gold or Jamie Principle and things like that. So being yourself and playing what you want to play is fine—and you're lucky if you're actually able to do that—but I don't know many DJ that have the ability to be able to do that to be honest.
You would think that you would be able to do it. And I know some DJs that have done just that: they play the music they grew up on and play the music that they were influenced by and got quick indications that the crowd did not want to understand, so you had to change it—that's the reality.
How do you play when you come to New York, for example?
Whenever I play in America it's different, because I know that the people—especially in New York—have a deep and long history with dance music and that they know much more than in a lot of places all the parameters, and what dance music can do. So my experience of when I used to live there, I could see really why New York was so unique and you were never quite sure who was going to walk through he door or what the majority of the crowd is going to be. New York is one of those few special places that I consider to be at a much higher level.
The music I'm bringing to New York this weekend, for example, is music I'm actually making for the night; its material that's not released, probably won't be released and music that you can't buy and I'm making for this particular night.
Speaking of which, your project for Japan, The Sleeper Wakes, is coming up. You'll be DJing on New Year's Eve 2010 for the first time in the country in five years to present it. How has that project been going, are you near completion?
Yeah, it's great. We have just finalized what we called "transmissions" which is basically a video or some type of broadcast into Tokyo. We have just finished the details for a satellite transmission for Chicago into Tokyo at the end of September. The costumes and the wardrobe for the night, special effects, special screens and staging and all that stuff will happen shortly after. And then the album should be released shortly after the performance on New Years Eve.
So there are plans to release that material for sure?
For Japan—yes, sure—but we are still searching for a partner in Europe. It is difficult. The music is not the general sound of electronic music; it's not the popular sound of techno right now, so trying to find a partner that understands…it's not really pop music actually: it's danceable, but it's not really dance music either so kind of difficult. We kind of had the same problem with One Man Spaceship: It wasn't exactly the music that was happening at the time, so we had difficulties releasing it in Europe—the same for Contact Special—so we just decided to keep the release to Japan.
How important is it to have these types of experiences where the music exists only for this one place? Obviously you are releasing them, but clearly they are meant to be heard in their specific context.
To have a specific location that you are targeting the music towards—and a certain culture that you are targeting the music for—makes it even more interesting I think. Having spent so much time in Japan and knowing a lot about their habits in terms of how they collect music, how they follow the labels and DJs and things like that, it's actually really very interesting to plan for all of this. You don't just create one act, you create multiple layers of acts and situations because you know what their reaction is going to be, but then you kind of left hook 'em with other things so it makes the whole music production more interesting rather than making music for people who you don't know.
Jeff Mills soundtracks Cecil B. Demille's The Cheat in Paris
It seems like the cliché is "everyone is big in Japan." Why do you feel like Japanese audiences are receptive to so many different things?
I know some things, and then I've also heard some things. The country is an island and they have a long history of importing things. They have a history where they weren't able to bring everything in, so they searched for the best and most interesting things that were out there and these were the things they bought back to Japan. So what you have over the centuries is a place where it is the tradition for the people to read much more into the things that they are interested in, to kind of find out all the details, all of the circumstances, what the main objective is and then you would then associate yourself with it and you move and grow with it.
It's different from Europe, as they tend to use music as a symbol or a sign; they use it more politically then most. If you listen to this type of music, then you are this type of person. Say, for instance, when we were in Berlin just after the wall came down, there was Tresor and a lot of us were playing techno and they associate this type of music with the fall of the Berlin wall and so it was the sound of freedom in a certain kind of way. In the UK, as well, the music was representative of this crazy law they had that more than twenty people couldn't stand together, so there was this kind of rebellion against governmental ordinances, so it is seen as more political there.
In my case, it has actually helped. As soon as I got into it and we opened up a shop and we began to search out brands and travel around and speak to designers, you quickly realize that there is very little difference between people in the music and fashion worlds. The motives are almost the exact same. You are creating and applying a certain type of idea, so you can talk and communicate very easily with people from the fashion industry.
We buy clothing for people here in Chicago in the same way I buy music as a DJ to play for people at parties. I'm sure what Richie is doing is practically the same: he is probably creating things the same way he creates music and maybe the ideas and nature of his product are coming from the actual ideas of music. The brands that we chose are as conceptual as the music we make.
I think that in time more DJs will begin to show that they are interested in other things other than just music; they are interested in creating things. They're creative people. Maybe it will take people a while to get used to the fact that for most of their lives they have made music, but now they want to do something in addition to that. But there shouldn't be any problems with that.