Jeff Mills: ‘We should know what we’re dancing for’
After three decades in the game, the techno pioneer remains true to his mission
Jeff Mills: ‘We should have a Bob Dylan in electronic music, someone who really speaks to the way people are and what they’re going though the music’
It is the day after Jeff Mills became an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in Paris. The award, for his contributions to the arts in France, is not his first time at this particular prestigious rodeo, as he became a knight of the Order a decade ago.
The new medal reflects the huge number of collaborations between the Detroit techno leader and various French musicians and cultural institutions over the years.
This roll-call includes performances with the Montpellier National Orchestra, Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne and Orchestre National d’Île-de-France, and collaborations with the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, Cinémathèque Française, Cité de la Musique, Nuit Blanche and Musée du Quai Branly.
The more Mills has worked with people beyond electronic music, the more opportunities have emerged. “I think these opportunities were always available, but we in electronic music missed them because we were so focused on dance music,” he says.
“People always wanted to work with artists like me to understand our music more and benefit from the energy and creativity. But there were very few opportunities for them to meet someone like myself and sit down and discuss electronic music’s links with contemporary dance or film.
“Over the decades, the connections became more apparent as people saw that electronic music was not just for the weekend. There’s more to it than just making dance tracks for people to dance to in underground clubs in the middle of the night. It’s an art form and culture and the French people get this. They’re hardwired to appreciate it.
“The more I began to search these things out, the more I found, which led to this very high frequency of doing projects in France. It’s a great place to be and a great place to work on projects and ideas.”
Political things like Brexit stem from people feeling they have to fix their lives now
There’s another reason for Mills’ predilection for such non-club outings.
“I got older,” he laughs. “I looked around and my friends were older too, but we liked electronic music, we still liked to be in the industry. I’m lucky, I’m in my mid-50s now and I can still go out every weekend and DJ, but a lot of people my age cannot because they’ve like a two-year-old kid at home or a job.”
Mills firmly feels age should not be a hurdle or hindrance. “I’m not convinced that you need to be pushed out of the industry as you get older.
“There’s this idea that it’s just for young people because they have time and freedom, but I don’t buy that. So I began to explore all the other things that electronic music could be attached to. I began to see a bigger picture than what we had been doing.”
Sketching that bigger picture with other artists from different disciplines always starts in the same way.
“It’s the emotional standpoint – what do we want to convey to the person who is listening?” says Mills. “What is the objective? Then you begin to scope out a map or a plan to get from here to there. I can do that differently to a classical player but the objective is the same.
“From there, the conversations begin and you realise the distance between your genres is not that far after all. It helps greatly if you can explain in detail what you do, why you’re doing it and how you’re doing it. That’s a huge help when you’re talking to someone who has no idea about electronic music.”
Trials and tribulations
Mills feels electronic music is “perfectly poised” to address the trials and tribulations of this era.
“When you think about people, you have to address the short- and long-term effects of evolution. As a species, we need to be doing things which helps future species. But it seems to me that we’re just focusing on ourselves.
“Political things like Brexit stem from people feeling they have to fix their lives now and they’re not thinking about climate change and what their grandchildren are going to have to deal with.
“By putting out the idea that there is more to just 24 hours a day and more to getting up and going to your job, music might play a role in medicating the soul and the spirit. It can define an era too, like it did in the 1960s and I think those things are going to come again.”
While Mills’ achievements are lauded and acknowledged in France, it’s a little different back home.
“I think Detroit missed a trick, but I think that also applies to the Midwest and the whole country and not just electronic music, but jazz and blues as well,” he says.
“They don’t make a habit of recognising and noting people that do certain things well. They don’t care, which is the hardest part. They recognise other things – guns and stuff (laughs) – but not music and culture.
“You would think they’d have a way by now of recognising people in society who do good things and not just movie stars. That’s the way it is, so artists like me have had to leave and work in other places.”
When he looks back at his days at the helm of the Underground Resistance collective with Mike Banks in the late 1980s, it’s their philosophy which still burns bright.
“The reason why we established it in the first place really represented a turning point in our thinking,” Mills says.
“Until then, we assumed it was routine that an artist should only get 8 to 10 per cent of the money when they license their music to a big company. You really were giving your music away just to be noticed.
“We sat down and discussed these things and decided to do things differently. It was pre-internet and we didn’t have many ways to communicate – I think we had just got a fax machine – but we knew if we wanted to have any chance, we had to be able to speak to the people directly and work with independent retailers and distributors to make a highway to get information across.
“Underground Resistance has been through a lot and Mike is busy trying to keep it afloat, but at its core, we believe that having direct contact is the most important thing. Let the people decide, let the people choose.”
We should have a Bob Dylan in electronic music, someone who really speaks to the way people are
Techno is still a huge draw for Mills, though he wonders if it’s time for it to to beyond just being a celebration of life.
“It’s evident to see that techno is a form of escapism. People come to clubs to feel different to how they feel during the day when they’re working or whatever. They want a bridge to go somewhere and a DJ is doing certain things to make that happen.
“But at the same time, I feel there will be times when it’s difficult to build that bridge because of what’s happening around you. At times, it’s clear that we should know what we’re dancing for. You have the celebration of life, but it would be nice to have a specific sense of what we’re dancing towards.
“A lot of energy is created every week in clubs and at parties, but I would imagine the world and the situation people are in should play a role in electronic music.
“We should have a Bob Dylan in electronic music, someone who really speaks to the way people are and what they’re going though the music. I’m not saying that every artist should do this, but we should definitely see it as we’re living in very uncertain times.”
Jeff Mills performs Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind with Guillaume Marmin at the AVA Festival in Belfast on June 2nd