Q&A interview conducted by Andrez Bergen in Tokyo - September
I first discovered your music in around 1993 or ’94,
and I’m still a fan myself – I feel that you’ve continued to create interesting, inspiring music. So that’s
where I’d like to begin this interview: how on earth do you continue to excite and/or amaze long-time admirers over
such a lengthy period of time?
“Well, I don’t
know if ‘amaze’ is the right word for it, but if that’s happening, then I’m really happy. I just assume
that there are some people who are interested in listening to a particular style, or music that defines a particular subject.
I think that there are people – like myself – who are into science fiction, who are into space, who are into hearing
new sounds and new perspectives on something that we’ve been listening to for quite some time now.
“I just assume that there are people out there
like that. Sometimes I connect; sometimes no… I mean, I love music – it doesn’t really matter what type
it is. Just in general. So I love to experience the sound of frequencies, notes and chords. I can never get enough of these.”
on a more sub-cultural level around the world. Do you ever think about making a commercial Top 40 tune again – just
for the hell of it?
“Well, I have – I have in the past. I think
the most popular may be a track called Take Me Away.”
That was back in the ‘80s, wasn’t it?
“In the ‘80s, yeah. But it was re-released
last year and became a hit again! So I’ve done that – I was in that part of the music business before Underground
Resistance, and I worked more with singers, big studios, and more structured songs. But at some point I just felt there was
a need to venture off and explore more uncovered territory; to experiment more.
“And then, once I got the smell of that, I became
even more curious.”
I actually went on a bit of a pilgrimage, about 2 years
ago – when I finally went to Detroit. I had a gig over there, but I also just wanted to see where all this music from
all these people like yourself has been coming from.
We have nothing really like Detroit back in Australia,
and there’s certainly nothing like it in Japan.
So I don’t think I was prepared for the sight I
saw when we drove through the inner city. I had no idea. It was like ‘oh
“Yeah, it’s alright. That’s the result of neglect, of bad ideas, and of bad government. That’s…
So, how much did
being brought up in close proximity to that environment effect the music you ended up making with ‘Mad’ Mike and
Robert Hood as Underground Resistance, and later with your own work?
“Surprisingly not as much as probably most people
think. Mike and I are both in our early 40s, and the city of Detroit really went into decline in the late ‘70s –
when we were already in high school and about to graduate. So we spent most of our youth in a city that was in decline, but
it was a very slow decline, and so it was much more different – and therefore more normal - than what you saw. By the
time things became very, very bad we were old enough to know to stay away from it.
“We knew better, but we were old enough to understand
what had happened to the city, and like many people we were drawn to music to try to describe that. I mean my visions of Detroit
were not like a ghetto – and in fact they’re still not. I refer to a majority of the city which isn’t abandoned,
and where there’s definitely a positive feeling.
“There are reasons for the abandoned east side
of downtown, which you probably saw.”
I still remember my friend’s story about seeing
Underground Resistance perform in Australia, back in around 1990 or ’91.
His description of UR was that they were the Black Panthers
of techno. How do you feel about that tag?
“Well, anytime a group of black people speak out
about what they think is wrong in their society, maybe you have that tag – I don’t know.” He smiles.
“Let me put it like this: not most, but all black men from America are the result of the Black Panthers, and what that group tried to do in the ‘70s.
For instance, they got guns, they went to the capital, and they protested against the government. They said “listen,
we’re not going to take this shit anymore, we are protecting ourselves”. The government looked at this as rebellion
against themselves, and decided it had to be wiped out – and so as a result they assassinated a lot of the members of
the Black Panthers or hounded them into other countries. All the ones who were still left here in America were given drugs
to disorient them.
“So, all the black men you see in America today
are the direct result of those actions: all the freedoms we have, as well as the restrictions, refer back to the government
and the Black Panthers in the ‘70s.
“So we make music. We make music about who we are
and where we’re from. Of course there are going to be links – that’s why we had songs with titles like ‘Riot’.
Because that’s indicative of the era we were born in, and the things we remember. As time goes on, naturally I think
the messages will get further away from that. It’s not a coincidence. There is a reason behind UR and Public Enemy and
Back in the ‘80s you were doing a radio show under
the alias of The Wizard. I’ve heard that you were spinning European electronic stuff like Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, Kraftwerk…
“It was anything that I thought was funky, that
would fit into a mix for the audience – which was Detroit – and knowing that Detroit wasn’t all black”
“I figured there were options, a much wider musical
palette that I could draw from, so anything that was happening in the street I could put into the mix. I was quite young,
but I had a very realistic view of what my responsibilities were, and my job was to play new music. And I did not make the
mistake of saying that all cool new music is black, so I played everything – and I think over time that had an impact
on the mentality of other people. You would go to a party and you’d see black people partying to Section 25, and things
like that. They were accepting much more than just soul and funk or hip-hop.”
That whole crossover element, yeah… another crossover
would of course be Japan – you’re huge over here!
No, really! Why do you think that is?
“I don’t know – maybe you should ask
someone here? I can’t really honestly answer that question.”
OK, well I brought a back-up bag of tricks with me today,
and I’d like you to comment - if you don’t mind - on what I’m about to show you.
First up is this little compilation [Sony’s Mix-Up Vol. 2 mixed live by Mills at Tokyo’s Liquid Room in 1995]. Some people
say this is the best compilation you’ve ever released. How do you feel about it a decade later?
“Well, it’s a mixed CD – my first mixed CD – after about 15 years of DJing before that. That means the accumulation of a lot of things,
you know? I wish it hadn’t taken so long to make one.”
Do you listen to it now?
“No. I don’t listen to it.” (He pauses
to reflect.) “I tend not to go back. It’s better to go forward. I think – at the time of that release –
more people had begun to know who I was; it was really a very high point in terms of having a connection with the audience.
With my own productions I was hitting a plateau in terms of style…”
This was when Purpose Maker [the label] was kicking off…
“Yeah, right. And I was developing ‘The Bells’,
which I was playing just as a sample around then, and ‘i9’ was made for that particular recording. It really captured
a certain time, and it was also important to record the audience as well.”
That was quite a new idea for a techno mix CD at the
time, wasn’t it?
“At that time, yeah. I think it was one of the
few mixes where we just let it run, and it captured the moment.”
Warts and all…
I love it still.
Next up is this one [The
Art Of Connecting compilation CD – of Mills’ Axis Records back-catalogue - on Melbourne label Hardware], which
was released in Australia. What’s the story behind this release?
“Well, I’ll tell you the reason for this
one – I’d done some research, and found that it takes about 10 years for music to disappear out of circulation.
Meaning that a record is released, someone buys it, they don’t like it anymore, they take it to a second hand shop;
someone who’s been looking for it buys it, maybe trades it, it’s sold again, and so on, over about 10 years.
“I released that CD because I thought it had been
about 10 years since I’d released a lot of that material. I thought some of these things maybe had life beyond the 10-year
What about the cover
“These buildings are the ones surrounding my office,
and that I see from my window. Yep.” (He smiles.)
Next up: Nitzer Ebb [in this case the rare Geffen Records
remix compilation of Lightning Man/Closer/Fun To Be Had, released in 1990, with
rejigs by George Clinton, Dust Brothers and Daniel Miller].
a very unique history in Detroit – they were very influential on some people from the first and second generations making
techno. Nitzer Ebb was one of those funky artists I said I played [on radio], mixed with Chicago house and Detroit techno,
and often layered together.”
Lastly, this little one – your new album [titled
One Man Spaceship, and to be released through Mills’ Axis imprint in October
I got this promo copy only yesterday, so I’ve only
had the chance to listen to it a couple of times – but it’s great.
Shades of Brian Eno and David Bowie’s darker instrumental
pieces like “Sense Of Doubt” and “Neuköln” on the Heroes
album back in 1977 – the same year Kraftwerk did Trans-Europe Express…
and it does remind me of shades of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack as well…
How long did it take you to complete the album?
“Well, I make music continuously, so there was
no starting point – but I’d say about a year and a half, piecing things together, then making third and fourth
Can you tell us more about how One Man Spaceship developed into the entity it is here today?
“Um… Well, I really did the things so that
I could highlight the impression that you and the music are away in space. I’m not sure if you noticed, but it’s
a very mountainous type of soundtrack, where it can become very intense, or it can become very quiet. Sometimes at critical
points I used single strokes; at other times I didn’t use a sequencer at all. Sometimes the sequencer had more importance….
“It’s just a variety of new ideas. It wasn’t
designed to please people as much as it was to bring forth a new idea, and then somebody may find this idea interesting. It
is what it is, it’s what I felt like doing at the time, and it’s the result of spending countless hours making
music by myself. There’s no-one to speak to, there’s no-one to look at, there’s no-one to affect me –
and this is what it sounds like. That’s what it’s about.”
Well, I loved it – and my 10-month-old daughter
Cocoa loved it too. She was pretty hyperactive all afternoon, and it chilled her out and sent her to sleep.
“That’s a good sign.” [he chuckles]
It was a great
sign! But I never thought anyone would sleep to Jeff Mills!
So it might be a therapeutic album as well…
“Well, that’s something I learned a few years
ago – it’s a certain kind of manipulation that uses time, and a particular kind of repetition that fluctuates
very slightly over a period of time, that kind of pulls the listener into a very serene state. I did that once on an album
called Time Machine .
I didn’t explain this at the time, but in my mind
I had this idea that the person leaves the spaceship and he enters a forest. It’s very far in the future, where the
plant-life has become so intelligent they’re like humans, they begin to seduce this person, and he actually falls into
I made this track, and I use that formula from time to
time. I think it happens at two points on the new album.”
The last question is probably the toughest – your
favorite all-time Japanese electronic artist. Who would you nominate?
“Maybe Ken Ishii…?” (Mills quickly
responds, then laughs perhaps at his rapid-fire decision). “I think he’s my favorite.”
Definitely best video-clip with ‘Extra’…!
“Yeah. I mean people might expect me to pick Yellow
Magic Orchestra, but Ken is still very much in motion.
“He’s very dedicated to what he’s doing,
and he’s still learning, taking these new ideas, and applying them to music. I think he’s got an interesting road
ahead – I’d like to see where he’s at in 10 years’ time.”
|Jeff Mills @ Womb, Tokyo - Sept. 2006 [Photo by Andrez Bergen]
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