Jeff Mills. A Candid Conversation.

Jeff Mills. A Candid Conversation.

B. Westley Johnson, Managing Editor

Soulivity Magazine

Electronic  Music.  Techno.  From London to Paris to Las Vegas, people from all over the world are gobbling up this unique sound to the tune of over $7.1 Billion each year.  But, it just doesn't seem right to think of these musical forms and not include Detroit, Michigan; the place (some say) is where it all started, as well as, one of its pioneers, Jeff Mills.

I have known Jeff Mills for a long time.  Both of us are from the "motor city", and truly love our hometown.  I have watched and admired his journey over the years.  From his days at WDET, the local public radio station, to his immense success as the late night DJ known as "The Wizard" on WJLB Detroit, the founder of Axis Records has always remained at the cutting edge of something "fresh".  And, though those experiences were over 30 years ago, Jeff Mills still remains at the forefront of new art forms.

This summer, he released the "Kobe Session", a live recording of his first jazz fusion band.  Mills was joined by fellow Detroiter, keyboardist Gerald Mitchell, keyboardist Yumiko Ohno and bassist Kenji Jino to create a funky, smooth kaleidoscope of sound. This fall, he collaborates with Lighting Artist Guillaume Marmin to present "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind", which was inspired by the 1977 American science fiction film, written and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Luckily, we were able to catch up with him during his busy schedule of creating and performing for a great conversation to gain some personal insights on his creations; the music industry; and, the socio-political environment in the United States.

BWJ: You have been performing for a long time now.  What do you see as the history of technology for DJs, and electronic music performers?

JM: If we can compare the age of today's electronic music to Jazz and Rock and Roll, it's easy to see that electronic music is still in its infancy.  The originators – the people who created the genre – are not only living, but still are actively making music regularly and traveling around the World for this art form.

The history stems from African and Black American music roots…extensions of Ancient African tribal rhythms, from Gospel/religious, Jazz, Soul and Disco Funk. Techno Music is the beneficiary of all these genres.  One might question the most common European form mostly recognized today. 

But, those roots come from Detroit and Chicago, designed and pre-meditated by master thinkers of American Black, Carribean and Latino cultures.  Before the culture of DJs came along, the early producers and DJs were musicians (or, where like-minded and approached making Dance Music with the mind of someone who wanted to play instruments).

BWJ: Have things really changed that much, since "back in the day"?

JM: Yes, quite a lot. Many technical inventions have made the management of producing music different.  The process of musically printing an idea got quicker.  As the result, the amount of methodical planning and pre-conceptualizing got shorter, which could sometimes explain electronic music that seems "half-baked" or "minimal" in form.  I believe this is a very important point to realize, because it shows how the evolution of our societies has affected culture.  We are at the first tier of the 21st Century (and, a portion of time that still has the residue of the Century), but these psychological connections will gradually fade.  A lot of what we do is connected to economics or the way the average person feels about it; so, we should all expect to (if not, unconsciously) measure conditions around us by the consequences of how we see the poorest, the disenfranchised, and the helpless.  Not the opposite.  Music will always be steered by the voices of those who need to say something.

BWJ: And, you seem to need to "say something" in many ways.  Your music compositions are so creative, and seem to draw from many different influences.  From "Jungle Planet" to "Metropolis", there is uniqueness to the sound and feel of each piece.  What inspires you?  What are the sources of your inspiration?

JM: Overall, I would have to pinpoint the twist and turns of life – with all the risks and consequences that we learn from.  I prefer subjects that are somewhat, at a distance, from our normal everyday lives – either, in the "far-past" or "far-future". 

The selection of subjects is largely connected to my influences, as well.  In my youth (and, to some extent today), I was very much into science fiction and subjects of fiction.  Beneath most the projects that I worked for over the past few decades have had this Sci-Fi connection.

BWJ: Do you have a certain creative process you follow when composing music?

JM: This varies from project to project, but I like to walk into the studio with a clean mental slate.  When something sounds familiar, I usually scrap it and start over.  I usually record late at night, once everyone is asleep to work undisturbed.  I try to limit the length of tracks to less than 5 minutes.  As a way to maintain a certain intimacy to the process, no one (other than my family) has ever seen inside my studios.  Also, all the original music that is produced remains in the studio (where) it was recorded.  In order to make albums and releases, master copies are made.

BWJ: The business of music has changed so much over the years of your career.  There were the days when radio was of utmost prominence, now it seems that satellite radio and music streaming are now the norm.  What are your thoughts on the current state of the music industry? How have you navigated through this ever-changing landscape?

JM: Radio programming isn't an important factor of survival for a certain type of Electronic Music, but I still think it's a viable source for people to learn about new music.  As a label, one of the things we did was take the main emphasis off of making money and focused on subject matter and concepts.  During the financial crisis of 2010, we reduced the pressing unit amounts and increased the amount of releases.  We survived by channeling in on part of the dance music community that are most devoted, the record collectors (the ones that follow the progress of artists/DJs to get more fulfillment out of the genre).  The current state of the music industry is…maintaining.  It's not the best time for sales; but, in contrast, it's the best time for creativity.

BWJ: You seem to keep so busy with various projects, including DJ performances, Fine Art exhibitions, or Electronic/Classical Music concerts. How do you juggle your creative outlets?

JM: First, by making the objective of everything to be (hopefully) relevant to other people.  By doing this, and by always planning and thinking on the behalf of others, gives each project a bit more worth.  No matter the method or discipline, I always try to stay focused on the message.  Second, by not being dictated by someone else's time of timeframe, I rarely work under pressure or on tight deadlines.  I usually begin preparing for projects very far in advance to allow myself time to change my mind.  Everything I've done successfully has been tested in some way or another so what the public finally sees are things I'm confident of.  And third, there is no such thing as perfection.  Humans can grade on curves, but that's about as far we go. 

No one alive has ever witnessed true perfection because in the nature of things, it does not exist – it's a dream that each one of us feels.  So, I usually spend more time trying to capture the moment, then trying to make something perfect.

BWJ: What are your latest projects?

JM: At any given time, I'm working on various projects.  Some in motion.  Some being synthesized in my mind that will fall out later.  The next substantial project will be a classical/electronic music album about the 9 Planets of our Solar System, entitled "Planets"; inspired by Gustav Holst's "The Planets" (1914).  But, instead of his narrative of Greek Mythology, my contribution focuses on the physical make-up of each planet – a tutorial journey to feel and sense the dynamics.  The score was recorded in Porto, Portugal, with the Porto Philharmonic Orchestra, in June of 2015; and, is due out in a 5.1 surround sound version, CD album and 9 vinyl set in the Spring of 2017.  In my mind, I'm kicking around the idea of a project about Black Holes, and (what could be) the various conditions if we were to travel through them.  This is project that I've been thinking about since 1995; and, it's becoming more psychologically active after working on Planets.

From the upcoming album "PLANETS" by Jeff Mills ©Axis Records

BWJ: As you are aware, the United States is in the midst of a presidential campaign.  Many news outlets, as well as, independent journalists, have noted how "unique" this election has been.  What's your reaction to what is happening; may it be the current election, or movements like Black Lives Matter?

JM:  First, the US election.  Rather than get into a long drawn out explanation why I think who should win, what's at stake and all that – if the US public elects the wrong person…I thought it might be different to bring attention to subjects that might, not only answers my feeling about the race, but also the country and what it's going through.

The US is experiencing the inclination of a part of its society that is the result of poor morals.  Nationalism, fascism, racism, xenophobia and all these insane beliefs are just how we can recognize and categorize all the people with low morals.  With bad upbringing that deeply instilled elitist ideologies, it also harbors a deep sense of fear.  Weak-mindedness.  It's an inverted psychological condition that has vomited its way up to mainstream media and popular culture.  My opinion is that there is no cure for it.  It's nothing new, sadly, the World has seen worst.  But, like always, at a certain degree, oppressed people will take a stand and push back.

For African Americans and people of color, I think it's crucial to stayed focused on the problems; but, at the same time, plan ahead and lay the groundwork for generations to come: Amass ideas and options for future hypothetical situations and pass this information down to generation to generation.  Internally, and amongst ourselves, set precedence for a new existence in a country that doesn't care much about us.  Develop a parallel educational system that starts at birth and continues to mid-age.

I can could go "on and on"; but, I think you get idea.

BWJ: Absolutely.  I am sure that with your busy schedule, the demands must be tough when it comes to traveling, performing, and given the chance, sleeping! (laugh) What is your life like when you are on the road?

JM: It's systematic up until the point I perform.  Then, anything goes.  I'm free to explore with music and an audience that's generally open for new sound experiences.  This is why I (we) travel to play/hear the music.  Techno Music (especially) has a unique way of pulling people out of their comfort zones.  Even sometimes by force.  We all endure it because we know that by listening to it, we step closer to being the person (or people) we really want to be.  It's like a religion, but without someone telling us how bad or wrong we are.

BWJ: When not performing/working, how do you relax? Do you ever get a chance to really "unplug"?

JM: No, I never really unplug because I don't consider Music as manual work.  It's not something I dislike or tolerate, where I need a break from it.  I've been able to successfully integrate music with my everyday life.  Laying on the beach looking at waves is like listening to rhythm.  Watching and observing people is connected to considering all the perspectives I can take in trying to reach them with music.

There is no break, because there doesn't have to be.

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