From experimental technical sets in 90s Detroit to elaborate orchestral performances Mills' futuristic approach to conceptualisation and curation of sound has crowned him as a highly respected leader in the techno sphere. His latest album, Mind Power Mind Control, dissects the practicalities of realism in an ever-disseminated digital age. Drawing on themes of deception and dubiety, the album conjures up an illusive exploration of reprogramming the human mind. In this insightful and futurist discussion, we take a look beyond the bassline. Exploring the role of cultural references in Mills’ projects, the folkloric history of music and the future of sound altogether.
Welcome to METAL Jeff Mills! As a founding member of the pioneering music collective Underground Resistance, you drove the vision of the techno scene alongside Mad Mike Banks and Robert Hood. Do you find today you are still surrounded by this drive and creativity, albeit from different outlets or individuals?
Yes, I can still recognise a certain attitude towards creating electronic music. The same ideas and thinking that Mike and I had beneath our work back in the 1990s with UR. I think there is still a large amount of freedom and leverage that can be found in the genre of music and this freedom allows people to act and speak with honesty and without conditions.
Both science and science-fiction serve as overarching muses within your work. Where does this innate curiosity of the state of the world stem from?
We are currently living in the age of Space. So, more than ever in the history of mankind are people regularly hearing and being informed about what humans are doing out there in Space. Whether we want to believe it or not, this activity effects everyone. And because of the nature of music that I produce, the subject matter connects very easily. I see techno music as a special form of storytelling. Without words or images, the sound style can make the listener feel as if what is being presented is about the future or outer space.
Likewise, many of your concepts are framed by inspiration from novels, shown by Time Machine, and motion pictures, as with 2087. Why is it that you draw on these cultural references within your work?
Because the form of storytelling is an ancient form of communication that we still find useful. We all live our lives like a story. We’ve been conditioned in this way to keep some type of daily routine, to have and abide by certain codes of ethics and have beliefs in which to judge others. Basically, the world we’re living in is the result of stories or documentation being handed down to one another. Improving and enhancing the information at every step. So, putting music in story form should actually be more comfortable than not.
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Your latest album, Mind Power Mind Control, came out May 20th, the title alludes to a well overdue examination of our societal state. Can you tell us, in greater detail, some more about the concept?
Mind Power Mind Control is about recognising the current state of media and how misinformation has blurred the lines between what is true and what people want us to believe. The deception and what it’s doing to public confidence and trust. The album explores what I think might be the only reliable device in combating this, which is the reprogramming of the human mind. Enhancing it to be able to filter out falsehoods and lies, conditioning the mind to detect and protect itself. And by doing this, gives the individual control.
The accompanying album cover art presents a return to conventional standards in which you adorn the sharp, and traditional silhouette of a well-tailored suit. What was the stylistic reasoning behind this?
The front cover image is of one person in the process of controlling another person’s mind. Dressed in a neatly pressed suit refers to how professional the game of mental persuasion has become. It is business and the commodity of someone’s mind is rewarding. Photographed in Detroit by Lisa Spindler, the process to create this image was tedious and painstakingly tough because the image had to be full of suggestions and clues, but simple enough so that it almost becomes of another space in time. The image had to be perfect in every detail because this speaks to how effortless it is to be courted by those who take our personal information or data and sell it to others.
The album is said to “configure nine tracks into a journey for the listener to enter the labyrinth of their own mind and confront whatever lies before them.” Do you have any belief in the discourse surrounding vibrational frequencies and their abilities to alter mood and energy within the human body?
Yes, of course. I’m a career DJ so, I’ve witnessed this vibrational occurrence happen thousands of times. Sound has the ability to change what people think and how they act. Almost instantly too. With this album, the target is largely on the listener’s mind. So, most tempos are slower. Sounds are warmer but clear and precise. I wanted the album to feel more like a formality. A procedure that happens by appointment. It’s not music that you want, but music that you need (for your mental health). So, it’s often that in certain tracks, the sound moves into an injection or extraction phase. Interestingly as full as some tracks are, there are no basslines on any of the tracks. Instead, frequencies are tuned to give that impression of low bass frequency. This is one of many illusions in the album.
The track Hatsumi from the album is described as a “constant inner juxtaposition of longing for years gone by yet always striving for innovative endeavours.” Could this ideology be applied to techno? Is there a bittersweet duality of observing the scene morph far from what it once was?
I think any art form of a certain amount of age and number of generations behind it will have this impression. I believe that the longing for something in the past is a sign of maturity (in a positive way). In comparison to other genres of music, electronic music is still young. The creators of it are still living, alive and well. A human life is relatively short (even in good health) and as we age, so can go the integrity of long-term memories so, one might see longing for something as a luxury. Like a sport. Jettisoning forward and looking back, I think techno music has been one thing in particular, but I sense this thing will change. There is so much about techno music specifically that is about us. That I think the genre will become what it needs to be.
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Catalysed by the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, virtual reality DJ sets and live performances shifted into the digital realm. Despite the return to normality, do you see this as a glance into the future of music?
No, I don’t. Overall, DJ sets being uploaded and posted during the pandemic did not reach a level of high recognition. Meaning, no DJ won a notable award or was asked to be on a famous talk show because of their DJ set as examples. Perhaps, the DJ sets would have been more effective if the cameras were positioned to show the viewer more about what the DJs were actually doing rather than the typical upper torso, front camera position. I think this gave them a generic appeal that anyone can create. The pandemic was a disaster with all the loss of life and people affected in so many ways by the Covid strain, but it also allowed electronic music a pause to look at itself and focus on parts of the genre that needed attention and improvement. From my point of view, we did not do that. We missed the opportunity to find ways to enhance the quality and value of the content and music.
Although unsure of the replacement, you’ve previously ruminated as to how having a physical DJ standing behind a set-up could disappear in the future. In this instance, do you think the removal of physicality in both, the DJ observing the crowd and the crowd the DJ, will take away from the performance in any way?
Eventually, it will all disappear. Music and sound will be activated by something else. And this technology may not be provided by the equipment makers we know now, but perhaps the ones that give us other forms of entertainment, like cinema and sports. With the enhancement of technology, some music will become art. Or, an artistic experience. Some will be for education or even medicine. The DJ becomes the artist, the teacher and the doctor.
Not only a DJ artist, but you’ve also showcased high-concept presentations in art galleries and avant- garde cinema, founded your own label, Axis Records, back in 1992 and created The Escape Velocity Magazine, a free Techno magazine, – you’ve really done it all. With that said, is there any medium or project you’d like to explore in the future?
Yes, I wish to create music to the point that the listener loses all senses as to who they are, where they are, where they’ve been and where they are going.
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