“Techno people are Romantics, the type of people that care about how music shapes us”

Sight, sound and space are the three interconnected elements, object of the perennial quest of an artist that really needs little introduction. Sight Sound and Space is also the title of his more recent work and latest addition to The Director’s Cut, out on his own label Axis last 4th October. 

Globally recognized as a techno pioneer, acclaimed as a visionaire since his early days as The Wizard, championed for his impeccable DJ sets, Jeff Mills’ career span over 30 years across numerous and diverse projects, making him one of the most influential figures of all times.  

For the latest installment of the series of Axis reissues, Mills dove into his extensive catalog to select tracks that embody his feelings on sight, sound and space.  At Monument, we had the pleasure of having him for the in-depth interview that follows: not just a journey through the three elements of his artistic exploration, but a deep and thorough reflection on the role of music and yet another sublime love declaration to techno.

Hello Jeff and thanks for taking the time out for this interview. We are thrilled to have you at Monument and talk about Sight Sound and Space. The compilation is made of 42 tracks, split over three CDs, each one exploring one important area of your productions and interests. In a recent interview you have spoken about the importance of “knowing a little something about your typical listener’s character”. I believe that artists think about their typical listeners and there might actually be a different listener for different types of works or performances. Did you have a specific type of person in mind when compiling the tracks for this album?

I have always realized that some forms of Electronic Music and especially Techno aren’t the easiest to understand. So, I have viewed Techno people as those that are either naturally open-minded or in the least, willing to try and understand. That they must have some faith and recognize value in the time spent listening to this music. I believe they are inquisitive animals. Romantics: the type of people that generally care about how music shapes us. I have always created a vast amount of music for this type of person. So, some things in the production of music are rarely needed, because I can imagine enough to know and sense what this person might be feeling or thinking. For instance, certain sounds, like a kick drum aren’t always necessary in a track when it’s being played to people that have listened to this type of music for many years, because they have been conditioned to imagine it there. The pulse of 4/4 kick drum had been burned and transferred into their minds.  

Let’s start with Sight, where the tracks have been selected from works you previously produced for films, “thought for moving images or inspired by watching something”. I believe that the concept of sight here is both intended as physical and spiritual. With regards to its physical meaning, you have said that you have “ideas of experiencing film to being much more than just watching and listening. Situations where the would-be watcher becomes a participant in the story”. What’s the role of music in this?

Sound in cinema helps translate the idea of what’s being seen. It can also be the means to insinuate and insight the viewer. If we think about why we use visuals to tell a story, or why we use sound and sound effects to make the scenes more real, it’s because we want the viewers to feel as if they are watching through a reality window. I suspect that in time the idea of just watching from that distance between your seat and the screen will be greatly advanced and possibly shorten to a point of undistinguishable differences. That we might be able to engage a story in a much more reality-based way. Basically, the viewer is in the film and story watching from all vantage points. If I am correct, in this far-fetched idea, then music soundtracks might not be needed anymore and the sounds of a would-be real-life situation would replace the watcher’s position and distance. We have to remember, sound in cinema is still relatively a new invention, it’s not even a century old! So, I suspect that there are many more ideas to come. 

With regards to the spiritual meaning of Sight, you have talked about the power of music to help looking in one self’s inner space. Can you explain this further? If this is one of the functions of music, do you agree that maybe we need this approach now more than ever, and possibly way more than 30 years ago?

I imagine that any person’s spiritual objective is to strengthen their mind and the minds of others, whenever possible: the system of enlightenment. Truthfully, we don’t need music to survive. We preserve it because we’ve deemed it important to what we are – that it can enhance our minds and thus, our lives. In ways, music becomes something of organic learning, it can fill the mind with sounds that provoke memories and thinking back in hindsight. It can reinforce a view or perspective of a subject, where one might seek out commonality in the people around them. There are many ways we can use music, but most importantly, we keep music around because we want it to shape us. So, thinking about a person/ DJ that has a gift to play music in a certain way, that makes just about anyone a believer. One can see a bit about the role DJs play in our society and cultures. I am more concerned about the reasons and why people make music, then how DJs are playing it. I am convinced that if music can still represent something, some idea or view, then it will always be useful to society. If we just speak about everything but the music itself, then I’m concerned. Then, I think the future for this genre won’t be as bright. 

The concept of inner space takes us to the third CD that is, in fact, about Space. Unlike your previous works on the topic, in this compilation there’s a clear will to connect the albums and tracks to certain world events. Which events did you have in mind and why? I see this as a much wider concept of Space, that’s not just Inner and Outer Space, but maybe a reflection on our relationship with that space, a thought on the space we occupy in this universe, as humans. Is this something you had in mind at all?

I have tried to approach the subject of Space in a few ways. One: our recognition of what we are in relation to where we are. Two: the realization of the term infinity and never ever knowing what’s beyond the Space Horizon and Three, really, does it matter? Focusing on the third point, there is where science fiction comes in play. I often use the genre for inspiration because it pulls from our sub-conscious feelings about what we don’t know and, by doing that, it creates a clean slate in which to build ideas upon. All unknowing minds are equal and thus, together.  

This also made me think of a recent Netflix documentary about memory and its role for humans, intended as emotional learners. The documentary explains how our story is basically made of all the moments that we can somehow re-live. How do you think that music can help or enhance this?

Next to physical health, memory is the second most important thing we’ll cherish and value, as we all grow older towards death. I’m not a Geriatric physician, but being able to remember something (good or bad) might have more of a role of how we’ll summarize the way we’ve lived our lives and as we get older, I can imagine, even despite of failing health, positive memories might have some type of positive affect. So, my suggestion would be to anyone, “If you like something, take the time to really enjoy it. If you can, spend more time doing it. Don’t worry about what others think, because they’re only responsible for their own life, not yours. Your time is now and in the end, you’re going to depart the same way you enter into life, by yourself”. 

Still immersed in this cosmos you describe, you depict techno as a “spacecraft with no one actually driving it. The genre floats along aimlessly rather than travel in any particular direction.” Has this always been the case or do you see differences in how the genre has been considered and understood throughout the years of your career?

I still believe this to be an accurate statement and I’ve always seen it as such. There is no driver. And this is surely by design, rather than consequence, because there were times in the past when opportunities arose that could have steered this genre into something else, but so far we have been moderately left to our own devices. Sometimes, there is consensus or general sentiment about certain topics, but there isn’t one driving force that supersedes and commands direction. Simply put, my Techno sounds different from yours because it can. I can’t imagine anyone that would disagree with this. In time, I already know that my music will change again and again, because not only am I changing, but the world is changing too. I think that to try and keep it the same is like a psychosis of only existing in a fantasy bubble, hoping it never burst. It will because it has to.  When I was young and becoming a DJ, it was my dream to bust it! 

Space makes me think of machines and the role that they have both in your output and in what have seen and witnessed in the music scene. We are moving then towards Sound and I would love to know what’s your take on how machines have changed music and, more in general, our life. Don’t you feel that we are becoming too dependent on them? Where are emotions in a machine-dominated space?

Overall, I think we have become too dependent on them. That it is beyond the point of even questioning how much of our time is spent with and on machines. I think that most of us feel that our lives are better with them, than without. That’s a chilling thought because we aren’t growing machines and technology in our home gardens. They’re made and produced by someone or people that may or may not have our best interests in mind. I assume we won’t know until it’s too late. 

In regards to how machine and technology may help us in our Outer Space endeavors, I think we might have look more into our inner spaces first! Evidence suggests that Outer Space doesn’t like us very much! We are not compatible with the physical constraints. So, in order to work and play out there, we have truly dependent on one another, much more than we do here now on the surface of Earth. I think you and your readers know the answer and there is no machine or program I know of that can solve this problem yet. Our problem is much more difficult to solve. 

Your works, being them specific types of performances, productions or compilations like this one, always seem to be telling a story. I have always considered you as a sort of messenger, someone through which music and the story and evolution of the genre is passing. Did you ever consider yourself being either a storyteller or a messenger?

Well, it’s what being in any creative art form is about. The most interesting thing about it is that an artist must (for their own mental health) accept the fact that there aren’t things such as “right” or “wrong”. Things exist because they do. And generally, something is better than nothing. So, I am never confused about what my purpose or objective is. It’s finding the ways to materialize them that can be a challenge. When it comes to how well the idea is translated, I try to (because I have to) imagine that, as long as I can make the presentation impactful, then my task is done and that chances are 50/50 whether the idea is understood at first glance or experience. Time has a way of deciding how impactful things were….and remain.   

The exquisite blend between music, movies and art, in general, have always been part of your signature and interests as a musician. Is there any cross-pollination with other forms of art that you have not studied yet and would love to?

Not always! There were times earlier in my career when partying, entertaining the ladies and making a lot of money were my top three goals! But like anyone that cares about something, in time one’s craft and art form require more attention and focus. For me, this difference happened around 1995. Until then, I thought I’d always go back to school if music didn’t work out. I have an overall belief that Electronic Music should be more free-sounding. That (eventually) we will find ways to use the machines to free ourselves from them. This may be when DJs and producers start to take giant leaps forward. But, it’s still early in our evolution. 

Do you have any interest in exploring the connections between AI and music? How can this be done respecting the artist’s creativity and uniqueness?

I am not sure if it can be done while maintaining a type of respect that human workers will accept. I mean, why ask a person when artificial intelligence can do it better, faster, longer and with no complaints? As an artist, my interest and goal is showing the value of my knowledge, view/perspective, skill and technique. It’s not how well I can program a machine to do these things for me. As an example, my interaction and application of always using a Roland TR-909 drum machine in a more hands on way is an example about how I’m trying to regain some of the human-ness back into my DJ sets.