You turn on the television and its one crisis after the next, its very depressing, but having hope is like having a life preserver. Without it you have absolutely no chance. I think its vital you have some kind of vision that at some point things will get better for most people. I think without that idea there would be no sense and wed all just kill each other, thered be no reason to carry on.
Chatting down the line from his Axis (of Techno) headquarters, Jeff Mills admits positive thinking remains a central tenet of the philosophy thats helped make him one of the worlds most respected and enduring DJs, over 25 years after he first took to the decks.
Perhaps THE key pioneer of techno, the teenage Detroit native first made his name as the Wizard, broadcasting new wave, industrial and early house to hundreds of thousands via Detroit stations WDRQ and WJLB, sprinkling the first aural seeds that would inspire so many of the first wave producers. Sustaining himself through the period doing day jobs including office cleaning, he went on to form still active agit-prop techno collective Underground Resistance with Mike Banks, moving on two years later and setting off on the road to global stardom.
Always experimental and culturally conscious, hes gone on to compose film scores for Fritz Langs Metropolis as well as pioneering DVD/ CD decks and working with 70 piece philharmonic orchestras as well as performing countless gigs to his armies of adoring fans. Still hugely popular, hes nevertheless low key and understated, and cheerful despite his concerns,
Without hope there would be no reason to carry on, so I think being optimistic, in a way is like having some kind of an insurance policy that may or may not be honored at some point, but to have it gives you some direction, he explains.
Music makes it easier to deal with whats happening with the world, so I can also imagine too, that as times get harder, people will probably turn to music much more and messages will probably be inserted into the music, music will be used for ways for people to communicate in amongst other reasons, he predicts.
His reason for chatting to Skrufff today is to chat about The Bells, a constant techno anthem, since it first appeared in 1996 and now getting the DVD treatment with a 10 year anniversary special edition.
Skrufff: Youve just issued a special DVD of your best known track The Bells, to mark the 10 year anniversary, was it an easy track to make?
Jeff Mills: It was quite easy actually, and when I made it I wasnt really thinking that it was really going to be something that would stand up and apart from all the other tracks I was doing, I made it with the idea that I needed those sounds in my record box, it was really made as a transition track, which was how I was making most of my tracks then. It was intended to be a track that made its point, which I could move on from easily in my sets.
Skrufff: Youre also re-releasing it on vinyl, where do you stand on the future of vinyl debate?
Jeff Mills: I think its logical to realize that some tracks just sound better, more resonant, somehow a little warmer, on vinyl. Though for me personally its not so important what the format is, as long as the DJ can play it for the people and the people can be affected by it.
Skrufff: Do you feel any emotional attachment to vinyl?
Jeff Mills: To be honest, no. I love it, because its what I grew up on, like cassettes too, but Im not attached to it, and dont want to draw lines so I have to choose between one format and another. Im dedicated to music, the vehicle is not that important to me. Some people entertain themselves with the idea of trying to take sides on the issue, but the most important thing to remember is its about the music and whats being said in those sounds, chords and notes. It doesnt really matter what the format is.
Skrufff: The press release for the Bells says Axis Records, discovers approximately 4.5 unauthorised remixes every year, what actions do you take when you find them?
Jeff Mills: Im quite flattered people would take the time to want to try to remake it, that out of all the records out there, they choose this one. So I dont try to track the person down in fact, Im quite happy to hear these versions. I remember a few years ago a group of 8 DJs teamed up and all made remixes of the Bells, put them on a CD and sent them to me: they did it as a project. Some of them were really interesting and were trying to be really different. I think its better to allow people to be able to experiment than try to prohibit them or forbid them to do things that probably would not make them much money if it were released, the learning process is much more interesting.
Skrufff: The press release also highlights the fact that The Bells has been used for weddings and high school graduations, did you go to your high school prom?
Jeff Mills: Yeah I did, it was a bittersweet affair. We wore tuxedos and it was a very formal event spent with all these people that you spent the last four years with. It was boring and I think we ended the night kind of early.
Skrufff: Were you part of a group at school or more the unusual kid forging his own path?
Jeff Mills: I was pretty much an outsider and I really did not attend that many functions of the school that I was enrolled in, but actually went to more parties at other schools, where the people were a little more interesting. At that time, the schools had social clubs and over the years I gravitated towards where the best parties were. School was just a place where I went and studied then at 3. 30pm I left.
Skrufff: Nowadays, youre closely identified with Detroit, did you go to clubs in Chicago and check out DJs like Ron Hardy, in the early 80s?
Jeff Mills: No, I never had a chance to, I never caught Ron Hardy. I can remember seeing Farley Jacknmaster, Joe Smooth and a couple of other people then but Id be more likely to go to Toronto which is very close to Detroit, and I was so busy DJing at the weekends that I was almost always occupied.
Skrufff: You started DJing professionally in the early 80s, were you particularly driven back then, did you have a sense of unusual purpose?
Jeff Mills: Detroit, especially at that time between the late seventies to mid eighties was really, really competitive, and it was the era when what mattered was being the best. If you were a hip-hop DJ you had to be the best to be noticed, so that required lots of practice and lots of focus. You had to buy records constantly and be really perfect. I then started doing radio and that was another reason to make sure I was perfect because Id be doing live mixes on the radio and you cant afford to make mistakes. Youd have hundreds of thousands of people listening at any given time so I devised tricks and ways that meant I could limit the margin for error then became faster and better over time. So I found myself in situations where I had no choice but to master it, I had to learn and learn quickly. Then after a while it becomes second nature and you no longer need to practise, it becomes a part of who you are.
Skrufff: Did you have anybody in those days telling you Jeff, you are going to have to get a serious job one of these days?
Jeff Mills: Yes of course. Parents are always the most vocal. It took a while for them to realise that I could possibly have a career from music, it took a lot of convincing and a lot of patience. There were compromises and there were times when I decided OK maybe I need to create more of a balance so I can keep the peace meaning I could still DJ and do other things. So I would have to take a job during the day.
Skrufff: What kind of day jobs were you doing?
Jeff Mills: Ive had numerous jobs such as working at a cable station repairing cable boxes at the facility, to cleaning waste baskets at a office building. I had that cleaning job during the Underground Resistance period. I d be going to college in the morning, working the job in the afternoon, then we recorded in the night. I never went home from one day to the next.
Skrufff: Did any of the people in the office know you were a producer/DJ by night?
Jeff Mills: No, because I was going by the name of the Wizard at the time and was asked to keep it anonymous, so not many people knew who I was. I still DJed at the weekends in numerous clubs at the time, the job was just something to keep my parents quiet. Then when I couldnt take any more Id quit and would find another job and that went on until Mike (Banks) and I really began to put the label together and it wasnt necessary to have another job anymore.
Skrufff: Was there one moment when your DJ/ music career took off?
Jeff Mills: I think the biggest transition time was when I moved from Detroit to New York. Back then New York was such a different place compared to Detroit. It was like basically going to Europe or going to a different society, so I think that was the biggest transition. At first there was the shock of living in Manhattan, but before too long I began to realise and accept and deal with the city. Then I got used to it and I began to travel more in Europe and the whole process of traveling from country to country and meeting people that you will probably never see again became much easier. I learnt how to handle it much better.
Skrufff: How do you see the dance/music scene in America at he moment?
Jeff Mills: Well, its difficult because the country is so large. When you pick up a magazine it doesnt do a very good job of covering all that is probably going on, so its really hard to get the information about certain things here, so its really hard to gauge. I think as a result of that I would have to think or maybe guess that things happen on a very consistent, but very low and minimal way, but they are consistent. So if theres a techno party happening in Seattle, its probably very, very small but it probably happens there very week and they probably get a certain amount of people, but its different from in Europe and outside of America.
Skrufff: Why do you think electronic music, techno, hasnt crossed over the same way in America as it has in much of the rest of the world?
Jeff Mills: Its linked to Americas history with probably black music, I think Detroit techno especially and house music from Chicago and New York falls into the same situation like jazz. Americans have an uncanny way of overlooking things that come from the black community with rap music being the exception. The country has a way of overlooking or ignoring something until it reaches a certain level, then once it reaches that level its hailed as a new and happening thing. The media chooses to acknowledge other things and I can often feel theres a general belief here in this country that techno/electronic music is dead.
They want to believe that its dead and they think that by saying its dead they are then moving onto the next thing, though I believe too much has happened to too many people, in too many places for too long for that to happen. In reality, electronic music has become a genre of music that people are living their lives creating, playing and DJing and its not as easy as putting something on the front cover saying electronic music is over, something else is in; its a little too late to say that. The way people view it is the same as drum & bass and lots of other genres that came up in he 80s and 90s and are still here.
Skrufff: I interviewed Jo Claussell recently who starts his new mix CD with your track Human Tracking Device whats your take on ID cards and todays surveillance society?
Jeff Mills: Firstly, about that track, I wanted to put across the idea of something that sounds like a computer or a radar type of pulse, something thats not very human. If I was being investigated or stalked I would assume that it would involved me being attracted to something that I wouldnt recognize as being a tracking device: I could imagine it being something very beautiful, very soft and very emotional, which would catch my attention, then as a result I become the tracked. Thats what inspired the track and I was really happy Joe used it for his CD.
Concerning whats happening with the invasion of peoples privacy and spying thats going on, along the lines of George Orwells theories I think it was probably inevitable that wed arrive at this situation. On the one hand people have more freedom through the internet and other technologies but the authorities increasingly need to control the different societies around the world and what people are actually doing. I would assume this process should intensify and people should resist it even more and more as time passes.
Skrufff: Are you optimistic about the future of the world?
Jeff Mills: I think in the end, you have to be. Its difficult, you turn on the television and its one crisis after the next, its very depressing, but I think its like having hope is like having a life preserver. Without it you have absolutely no chance. I think you have to have some type of idea or some type of vision that at some point things will get better for most people. I think without that there would be no sense. I think we would all just kill each other and there would be no reason to carry on, so I think it is in a way a very small type of insurance policy that may or may not be honored at some point, but to have it gives you some direction. Music makes it easier to deal with whats happening with the world, so I can also imagine too, that if times get harder, people will probably turn to music much more and messages will probably be inserted into the music, music will be used for ways for people to communicate in amongst other reasons.
Skrufff: I know you are intersted in science fiction, do you believe in alien life?
Jeff Mills: Yeah I do, I admit it. Its just logical for me to believe that the universe is so large and so huge and theres so many different things that we dont know and because of our technology we are not able to see whats in most of the universe that we know of and there are things out there and I think its not very difficult to put the equation together and I think its probably just a matter of time or things may have happened and things were maybe held back from the public or things will happen in the future and maybe some people know, some people dont know .but this planet is not protected by anything, we are basically floating in space like all other things, so at some point there should be some contact with something, good or bad.
Skrufff: I interviewed Dj Pierre and Farley Jackmaster Frank, and both of them went through quite long journeys into religion evangelical Christianity. Is that a path you ever thought about?
Jeff Mills: No, no I dont .anything that clearly divides people, Im not with it. Christianity is one of them. The Bible is a book made up of numerous stories written by many different people and changed by so many people at so many different times, and theres so much information about why and where these stories come from, that we dont know ..the stories are interesting and they are good, but I think it just doesnt make sense to put very much faith and try to mould the life based on that. Im not trying to say that for other people they should not believe, but for me its just not convincing. I would prefer to worship the sun actually than I would some guy walking around parting oceans and .It just seems much more logical to me.
Jeff Mills: The Bells is out now on Axis Records
Jonty Skrufff (JontySkrufff.com)