Check out this exclusive (and extended) two part interview with Jeff Mills...
D: Your work recently has started looking beyond the dancefloor. When did that start?
J: Well, around 2000, people were very fearful, there was Y2K, the world’s about to come to an end, and this whole kind of what-if kind of scenario, so I made an album based on that. And that was really the beginning of this period.
D: Your performance last night still had the intensity of a rave. Is that something you aim at?
J: Yes, there has to be a balance between making it enjoyable and also trying to show…. It’s really hard to do, actually, because in that kind of setting it’s very dark, you really don’t have that much control over people. I’ve tried over many years to do it in many contexts, and it’s hard to balance out.
D: How did Metropolis come about?
J: Well, it came from a few conversations with people in Berlin. And we were discussing why we don’t hear electronic music in cinema, even if it’s a movie about science fiction, or space travel, you just hear classical as a standard. And it got to a point where I just thought somebody has to do something. We just need to see what would happen if there was something we could use at a reference. So I decided I’m going to try and do something…. So I went home and bought a DVD out of the store, and illegally copied it, and then began to compose a soundtrack for the film, and then edited the film down to the length of the soundtrack…. So I just wanted to make something that was an example for the music we know and deal with, up against a movie.
D: How different was the way of working?
J: Metropolis wasn’t very far from ….. well, it was a black and white film, my copy was very grainy and bad quality, and I could very easily imitate what I’d seen… so a lot of the music was very similar to this grainy, grey area…. And the drama, and the face expressions, and it was quite easy… not easy, but easier.
D: The Trip references ‘moments of drama’? What are those typically? There was lots of use of faces.
J: Yeah, you’re looking at this….. non-descriptive fear, panic, especially for last night, in the slightest way, and then re-examining that. So, very slight moments that display certain sorts of fear or apprehension, things that maybe go by so quickly you don’t see it the first time.
D: Is the use of visual loops equivalent to sampling?
J: Exactly, and that’s difficult, because at first if you loop it, at first people might get the impression that there wasn’t an idea there, so it has to be done a certain amount of times, a certain way, and what goes before it and what goes after it has to have some reference to it.
D: By using a lot of faces, does it help to have a personality transposed onto the screen?
J: Well, yes… well, I could hide the DJ stand in the corner and people would have no choice but to look at the screen, which I’ve done in the past. But it was more so that people could recognise something to connect with, in this somewhat disturbing situation people still feel something to connect with, so very still images or very slow footage of a person’s face, and the slight winking of the eyes… and the intensity in the face…
D: What attracts you to the ‘disturbing’ nature of the films?
J: It’s the idea that even against all the odds – at least in these science fiction stories – even against these enormous odds, they still feel the urge to go on, to discover. And I think that’s a common theme, or feeling that humanity has had from the very beginning. We could have just said the world is too difficult, we can’t catch these animals to eat them, let’s just pack it in. But we don’t, and I think that’s something which is not really spoken of, or explored too much, but it’s just this burning desire to want to keep on no matter what.
D: Is this a will to power idea, that there is something which will just keep going?
J: Exactly, no matter what happens. Whether the planet is
affected by disease, or something alien from outerspace, some
meteorite, terrorist attacks…. We still come together to want to
move on, to progress
D: Do you feel you are recontextualising the films, reclaiming them?
J: No, I’m not seeking to…. These were just accessible. I’m not trying to revise them. It’s just the messages embedded inside the plots, what the characters are doing…. And in that way it becomes very timeless, actually. Because of the situation, the face expression. The same face expression that you saw on the film, someone has today, waiting on the bus…. I’m choosing these different parts to draw the viewer in to what I’m trying to say
D: Regarding Futurism, you reference in your installation the idea that without risk there is no sense of achievement. Is there a similar sense of crisis in the world or your work now?
J: In Futurism, they embraced risk, used it as some kind of symbol against the status quo. For me, yeah, in the mid-90s I understood it wouldn’t be easy to materialise some of these ideas slightly beyond the dance floor in electronic music. Actually there’s quite a lot of resistance against changing or using music in other things. People thought I was wasting my time – why would I?
D: But you’ve been doing this since X-102…
J: Yeah, at that time it just didn't make any sense, the world was raving, why would we make an album about Atlantis…. Projects like Cycle 30 …. At that time, it was really out of time. And I guess people thought that I was wasting a chance to release something they could use….. something that they could use as a DJ, and not these crazy loops that just play over and over again. Cycle 30, what does that mean, and who cares? So I’ve been experiencing that status quo …. In a very negative way…. For many many years. Not just with my peers but also in the press. Being totally ignored. …. It wasn’t even something of discussion, even up to Metropolis. People didn’t care… why… for our style and structure of electronic music, to be carried into Metropolis, a film by Fritz Lang, a very famous film, I thought it would get a little more attention, but it did not…. I realised then it would be really hard….
D: The visual side does seem to have gathered pace since then…. So the response has been better?
J: Yes, it’s been better. Perhaps it’s been something people have been waiting to see….
D: You used static images in X-102. How did you choose them?
J: The way that I chose the images were based on more practical… we only took the images and the short films of the things that we were making music about…. [Minus, Phoebe, Xanadu, Keeler’s Gap etc] then figured out what techniques to move from one image to another, some were blended, some were cut. It was done practically, scientifically…. we were trying to make it as close to the reality…. So when you were listening to Titan, you were looking at the first images that were ever shot of that moon.
D: There were technical problems presenting X-102 at Sonar?
J: Yeah [laughs]. It was unexpected, but I’ve been dealing with these kind of things for years….. I realised like 12 minutes in, and decided to [abort]. Because the beginning of the film was so important, without that there would have been little understanding of why we were showing the images in the first places. I had to abort it, and step away, and hope that the people understood exactly what was happening.
D: Can you talk about the role of tempo I these tracks? Do you aim for some sort of correspondence between tempo and the idea of speed?
J: Yeah, well…. I knew a certain amount of the tracks had to
have a tempo that wasn’t common for dance music. I don’t know why,
but we tend to put a little more importance on the tracks that are
slower. Slower tempos are just kind of connected to the idea of
thinking more about what the music is trying to say. … there are
tracks that have no beat at all, which are meant to be transforming
sort of pieces. I wanted very much to use the motion of drifting in
space, too, a very slow, uncontrollable drift, and so part of the
soundtrack was reminiscent of that, too…. There is a part of the
soundtrack where it even veers off the to the right side, regains
itself and the majority of the sound comes back very slowly to the
left side. My idea was to make it unnatural, because most of the
music you always hear is very balanced between stereo left and
right, for something in such a big setting with very important
images, for something to veer off to the right side is kind of
strange, and that was to signify that in space you have very little
control of the forces that are there, and so you are victim to
these kind of movements. And then of course there are the very
strong, very thrashing….
D: There are also interludes, interpolations added to the original album?
J: Well first I had to study the original album, I had to figure out what were we trying to use as the common thread between all the tracks…I was trying to figure out what we trying to do to make it unique from the other music that we were making at that time. And one of the things was this combination between crash and hi-hat, we were using it together with a lot of reverb, to give this idea of this filling of distance, you know, and that’s what we used in the newer tracks…. And hoping It had the same feel. The technology was much different back then, we didn’t have….. the entire album was put together by [tape] edits. So the music wasn’t made and then the tape was cut. The music was made to the tape edit, and then the tape edit was then put together as a track. So there’s a difference because you record only what you want to record to the tape piece, which means the music has a certain type of intensity, because you ‘re pushing the levels to get the greatest response, because you know that you’re going to cut the tape, and the difference between those two pieces of tape could be drastically different. So we were making the music with the intention of only making it in different pieces and then piecing it all together. And that was very different than what we did now… so now we make a whole composition, so five minutes, we make five minutes worth, but back then we were making 30 seconds- and so what would happen in 30 seconds, and then the next 30 seconds would be a whole other track… and the next 30 seconds would be sort of transitional…. So that was why it was very choppy.
D: Do you miss that way of working?
J: At times, yes. It took much longer, it would take a whole day just to piece… and then if it didn’t work you would have to peel away…. But you had these different options, you could flip certain sounds, split the tape in two, not vertically but horizontally, and the replace them…. All types of strange things that it would take you hours and hours to do on a computer.
D: It was the fist time you’d worked with Mike Banks for years. How did that come about?
J: Well, we’re friends anyway, we talk a couple of times a month. And The Rings Of Saturn was always something we kind of knew that if were had to do something together it would probably be that. We had left it kind of open ended, we had planned to do other things with the project like a tour, and we knew even then that we didn’t have all that much information, and I’m sure Mike had seen like I was seeing that the were discovering more about the planet, and this opportunity might come again.
D: Were there particular scientific discoveries which influenced you to try and access it again?
J: Well, when they found these geysers on Enceladus… it was time to move and more quickly… that was the main thing to kind of push us to go ahead and do it. And I had learned that they had more, they were constantly taking images of the planet, and I knew that there were a body of images that we could use if we wanted to do that.
D: Do you remember moon landings when you were young? Are these things embedded in your psyche?
J: Sure, very much, in America we only had four TV channels at that time, so everything stopped. It was a summer afternoon, and everything came to a standstill to watch… it wasn’t the first Apollo, it was maybe the second or third…. That was in the days where everything could stop, you only had three TV channels, four radio stations, America was somewhat connected [more] closely than now, you didn’t have cable TV…. So everything stopped, and you’re just watching spacecraft going up into space…. And that carried on throughout the whole 60s, I remember the late 60s the Apollo missions went on all the way to 16 ,17. I guess back then it became something that must have been kind of normal, I guess. I was too young to go to theatres to see science fiction films, my parents were very restrictive about going to go see these things that might corrupt your mind….but on TV, there were quite a few things that used to come on. In America we had a variety of Science Fiction shows that used to come on, so every day, after school, there would be, from Lost In Space to Gulliver’s Travels to many different things for children, knowing that they’re coming back from school. And then Saturday afternoon, of course, there were always Godzilla and some feature from Japan or somewhere, and Sunday afternoon, that was the day they did all the horror movies, so Frankenstein, Dracula….. and all the kids in the neighbourhood watched these movies, so we went to school and we discussed them, and everyone watched Dracula versus this…. So, you just grew up with this as your routine….
D: It’s an interesting routine…
J: Yeah, a lot of people maybe don’t realise how connected people really are in America, it’s a very large country, but when you’re young you’re very much steered in all the same directions in all the cities when you’re young. There’s only so many things you can do, so, comic books and animation were always one thing, one group of kids that you could be with in the summertime, so many, many young kids illustrated when they were young, to the point where they could have become professional, I mean it was really intense, in my neighbourhood, we would all, Saturday afternoon there was nothing to do, at least for that part of the day, we would all illustrate, we would get comics and wanna be like Steranko, Jack Kirby, and we’d all do this…. You don’t really realise that until you go to Comic Con, or some comic convention, and you see everybody around the same age, and you realise it was all…. Going in the same direction. So you’re all kind of fantasising and learning these things together. Even if you interview guys from Detroit that are into electronic music, you realise we were all into the same kind of thing, we were attracted to the same type of movies, we did the same type of hobbies…
D: So comics, movies, TV… it was all a shared outlet…
J: Sure, our parents put us in the same situation… and so we
have similar interests I think. And as we get older, you want to
kind of go back, and drag these things into your profession and
your life…. So it’s not surprising for me that I would use a whole
host of science fiction films…. Movies like Metropolis and
Blade Runner, these kind of ‘what-if’ theories, because
there was a ‘what-if’ comic book on Marvel, just…. Looking at space
travel the same way, and reducing it down to normal travel… or,
that’s not even the point anymore, it’s your destination that’s the
most important, you’re not worried about how you get there but just
the planet itself, and just bringing these things back to very
elementary kind of ….. just the same way that we would read the
D: With space travel, obviously that was massively funded in the 60s, 70s and 80s, since then it seems NASA has had a hard battle to keep the interest going. Perhaps people have computer games or something. Do you think space travel exerts the same hold over the information as it once did? It seems to be something that is explored less now, would you agree?
J: Well, from a physical point of view, yes. We have not put much emphasis on putting astronauts into space to the moon and things like that, but they are sending unmanned probes, and they are gathering an amazing amount of images and showing us these images. And I think that’s affecting the psychology much differently than seeing two astronauts splash down in the ocean after coming from space… I think it’s setting the platform for us to use our imagination to imagine what Titan is like, or…. Well, we don’t even have to imagine now, because we have the landscapes of these planets… so we’re learning, and so I think that over time probably our fantasies will become beyond what we know, what we can learn, but actually outside of our galaxy, the binary black holes, and the nebulas and things like that, and we’ll begin to… The same way 500 years ago they thought about space and stars, and we found out what that was and we moved on to more graphic discoveries, and it’ll go on and on and on.
D: Do these unmanned probes offer something more?
J: They offer more, I believe so, because they have less restrictions. I imagine lots of preparation has to be made simply to keep the human alive, to man the probe, but in this case you can plop it right onto the surface of mars…
D: Dopplereffekt is an artist who has been exploring low-level physics in electronic works. Is that of interest to you?
J: Sure, well…. Dopplereffekt was one that was overlooked in the work they had done on this subject….. Anything that will – not just space, but psychological subjects as well – anything that will get us to understand ourselves more and what our place would be in this reality…. makes sense. I would prefer to spend time working on something like that, to make a project like that for people to listen to more than anything else. With that I have to add that a response is not really needed. My wish is just to make it available.
D: By response you mean… a crowd response?
J: A crowd response, or what people think, or how it’s judged. It’s not so important. I guess I’m taking this cue from how, say, when space agencies discover something, and they show you images of a planet and you’re response can’t be well, ‘I don’t like it, I wish it was a more reddish colour’ you just have to accept the information as to what it is. And I very much want to create these sort of projects where they head in that direction, where it doesn’t make sense to judge it, it’s just addressing something which you should probably know a little bit more of, not that you should become an expert on the subject, but you should just be reminded of these things to give you some scale as to where you are as a human being. And that’s primarily what I’m trying to do when I choose these subjects.
D: You have several labels, and maybe on the run-out grooves you’ll have some writing which will indicate some of your interests, you ideas…. Often it’s very eloquent, it will talk about untapped potentials…. I remember a line about untapped potentials, or seeking a certain balance. I was wondering if you think humans have an ability to be rational, and fully understand their reality?
J: Yes, very much so. It depends on how it’s presented and how
it’s explained as well. Using electronic music as an example… I
assume, now…. And I’m sure this is a very controversial subject and
that people will disagree…. I assume from what I’ve seen that a lot
of DJs and producers do not produce the music for the full
well-being of the listener. In other words, they do not produce at
their highest capacity, because they feel the people will not
understand it, that the people are not intelligent enough to figure
it out. So they keep the sequences very simple, and they keep the
structure very simple, because it’s easier to translate. And even I
did this for many, many years, from the mid-90s, I assumed that by
breaking the music down you speak to more people. But then I
learned that we are all intelligent animals, we wouldn’t be here,
we wouldn’t be able to survive if we weren’t, so there’s no reason
why we should discount, and not put forth out best efforts in
presenting this kind of music, with these kind of ideas. And so,
this has become the type of mantra that I use before I sit down,
that the idea of making something convenient is not the issue.
D: So what do you have in mind, something true, or….?
J: It’s really….. I really now do what I feel is probably best for the subject, not best for the listener, but best for the subject and how to describe it, to the best of my ability. And I know that at times it’s not easy for the listener to dance to, or to listen to, it’s too layered, or it’s not clear. …. That is my purest intention. And I think that in the end that will have more impact…. Once you really connect and understand it. So that changed the way I began to make music.
I began to go back to the time when Mike and I were making music and we did not know about music, and we were just imagining that Europe was this very, highly advanced electronic music place, where the people were mixing the genres together, and actually the DJ was at a disadvantage, because the people were so advanced, and the DJ would have to …. Have a big toolbox of how to modify the music, to keep up with the people. And when we came it wasn’t like that, so then we changed the way that we make music, so I said I want to go back to that way of thinking, of producing music and producing ideas, and that’s when I decided to at first…. Making the music for someone is highly intellectual, who has heard every pop song, every experimental, every John Cage, every Phillip Glass, every classical, has heard everything, so I must make the music in a way that will speak to that person and will say something new
D: An ideal listener?
J: Yeah, it would be the perfect listener, and it started there, and then it moved on to making music for not even the person, but for…. Something that is not even human. And so I thought that the only way to be able to speak, notes and chords are not enough, so the idea of using frequencies as notes and chords, they maybe travel further…. If you listen to the most recent, they’re very bleepy kind of, almost like data, like signals, so the idea of trying to dance to it had become not so important. So this is kind of where I’m headed now. If you listen to a lot of the music last night, it was that kind of computer in running mode type of situation, where it’s either computing or sending out information, and those are the kind of tracks that I’m kind of attracted to.
D: Your music has changed a lot….. go back to Waveform Transmission, it’s brutal, filtered…. Something like Contact Special is very clean, using delay, seeking a lot of space. Do you think that’s true?
J: Well, if you work at something over and over and over, you begin to perfect it, you should be able to isolate exactly the type of sounds you want to have, and all the extra things, maybe in Waveform Transmissions 1 & 2, you put them aside. And Contact Special is a perfect example, at times I wanted the tracks to have the motion of a machine, computing, or the feel as if something is unnatural is happening, but is happening in a certain sequence, or BPM…. A lot of the album was based on the subject of three, of three pieces. And so these rotating three pieces would create a certain sort of sequence if spun. It was a complex album, the tracks were very simple, probably because I was so tired after trying to figure out what the sequences were…. That was a very hard album to compose.
D: Did you feel satisfied with it?
J: Well, the album didn’t do so well, we only released it in Japan, we didn’t have a chance to release it in Europe. But it was definitely an achievement and it showed me how to move on to One Man Spaceship, which was the next album..
D: What progression did that show?
J: Well, I could very well capture only the sounds I wanted, to produce a very concentrated type of sound, where it’s very pure and very clear, not clean….
D: A sinewave sort of tone?
J: No… the best way I can say is that it presents itself in a
very obvious way, without the feeling that it was a mistake. And in
electronic music we had kind of gotten away from this, for a long
time we were in this very random type of way of producing because
of the sequences that were coming out would allow you to produce at
random. It would just pick notes out up of the keyboard and then
you would say, ok, this is the bassline and this is the topline….
We had gotten away from specifically placing notes in particular
places to create a certain type of equation that would speak. And I
was doing that in contact special. If you listen to some of the
tracks, the sounds fit…. I mean there are many different layers of
sequences, but they fit almost like a puzzle, almost to the point
you don’t really notice after a while that those are like six
different keyboards interacting together, separately, creating the
sequences kind of like themselves. And then I carried that over to
one man spaceship, but with orchestration, string arrangements, and
was trying to find a balance between this kind of machine computing
data and soundscaping type of …. Sounds which felt like wallpaper,
or a kind of feel that was multilayered. There were notes and there
were chords, and then there was a also on that album ….. an aura,
kind of, that went with the tracks that was different from anything
else I had.. different from Contact Special. Even when I
listen now, there’s a kind of strange way the tracks segue
together, some of the tracks are unclear, some are very clear….
D: It sounds like you’re intrigued by this whole process yourself.
J: Sure, which will give me information I need to move on to the next album which is called The Sleeper Wakes.
D: Can you describe the ideas which inspire it?
J: Well, a project called Time Sensitive, Contact Special and One Man Spaceship were connected to a residency that I did in Japan. And we were acting out these albums in a live setting. So for instance Contact Special was about alien abductions. And every Friday night at a club called Womb, we would make a script of what would happen from the time the doors opened to the time the club ended. And every hour was divided, and a lighting scheme, a sound scheme, a special effects scheme was put in place, and at a certain point for contact special there was a point where the abduction would happen. So we had these enormous lights that would create almost like a sun, and we filled the club up with fog, then used strobes, and everybody would be totally disorientated, and that would be the abduction part. And after that, we used fans to blow the people, to blow them back away from the stage as if something was coming. And just try to make everything as crazy as we could. And One Man Spaceship was based on this idea that… it could be a positive aspect to be isolated. Because you would have to use your imagination to kind of create the world around you. So we designed the setting to emphasise that. So the DJ set up had six turntables, we created a whole spaceship out of equipment. And as the people came in we took photographs and exported the images to a VJ that immediately broadcast the images of that person on a large screen, so that happened in seconds. And we were trying to give the whole event a very personal kind of feel. And so this one man spaceship goes off on a journey, and The Sleeper Wakes is when he comes back after this long journey. So I have not been back to Japan since 2005 to DJ, and that’s because I needed to put this time in between One Man Spaceship and The Sleeper Wakes. So there a special party that’s going to happen on New Years Eve  in Tokyo where I introduce the music that I’ve been making for The Sleeper Wakes, for all this time, for all these years. I’ve been making music for all this time, for that night. At that time, all of us will awake to a different situation. So that gives me an opportunity to make a really different type of music and introduce it in a context in which it might be accepted more.
D: More complex concepts are emerging in these new albums. I was wondering, are there aspects of your work which you are interested in less as times go by? Loops?
J: Musically, it’s becoming less, but actually in other ways
it’s becoming more interesting, like in video, the idea of looping,
simply looping , is becoming even more interesting, if it’s
something which is very significant, if it’s the right part of the
film…. For instance, Josephine Baker…. I stumbled upon the idea of
capturing the exact moment or exact point where…. looping a short
piece of film of someone speaking, and I would use it to be able to
control what that person or how that person is saying something.
And I was able to do that with Josephine Baker. …. I was given some
really rough footage of her dancing at the Moulin Rouge, just to
use to see what I could do with it, just to create like a music
video of it. And on the same reel was a very short piece of film
where she was speaking to the person behind the camera. And I guess
they were trying to figure out how she was going to say her piece
or whatever. It was just a conversation, just the words coming out
of her mouth, and I decided to loop at least one word or half of a
word, and then try to find the perfect point at which the
background stays stable, the rest of her face stays stable, but her
mouth was repeating that motion over, and I was lucky enough to
capture it, and from that point on I can manipulate her trying to
say that word in a more intensive way or in a slow way… the video
is called The Word. And I modified it as if she’s trying
to explain to you what the word is.
D: It’s interesting hearing about your use of computer data sequences…. Does that mean you're ending up with something more complex, does that mean there’s any conclusion?
J: Not that I’ve detected so far. At this stage the conclusion won’t come from me. My interest is more in touching on things that we’ve yet to, the sounds, the type of tracks that we’re yet to explore. The idea of a conclusion is something probably I’ll have the opportunity to deal with later. But I think now the idea of trying to get back to making music which had substance is most important right now. And maybe it’s reflective of what’s happening in the world at the moment, I mean things are changing at an enormous rate, and I think that maybe there might be the opportunity to inject new ideas into new electronic music, so people might consider it in more important terms. It might be a symbol or symbolic of some period or some time, or at least change itself maybe. So I think now is a very important time to do as many things, as many different things as we possibly can.
D: Do you think human technology will be able to come up with solutions to problems like over population, climate change? What faith do you place in technology?
J: Well, like with the idea of overcrowding, population explosions and things like that, I think there won’t be any moral way that we can deal with that, we’ll have to try and find ways to change the impression of that reality. So the idea of simulating reality might become as common as taking aspirin for a headache, or taking cold medicine for the flu, that it’s a temporary fix. So it gives you the illusion that you only see every other person, but actually there are four times as many people around you. Or things that will give you the illusion that things are okay, but actually it is not.
D: A scary thought.
J: Well, there’s a great commodity to that. If you allow people to escape, right now there are ways people can do that in a very illegal way, but if someone should ever [come up] with something that can be passed by the FDA or some medical association that is unharmful to your mind at least, I’m sure there would be a great commodity to that. In Chicago, in America, people have facelifts like going to the make-up counter. So the idea of mentally escaping from what you don’t want becomes…. [enough] If we had that pill right now, it would be in high demand, it’s like Viagra.
D: Is that just like being in a rave and off your head?
J: … well, as a DJ… That is like one of the lowest forms of the medical field. But you see that the people are coming to these events because they want to be different from who they are when they’re walking down the street or whatever. And so the setting is created for them to be able to go beyond, and what beyond is I’m not sure, each person can define that. So… Lights are put in the ceiling to blink like stars, it’s dark, like space, and there are these strange sounds. People who have never heard these things before adapt to them in a second. They want the opportunity to…. maybe become the person they really are. So, this type of escapism is there, the people are ready, and if you can just say the right thing at the right time it happens. Say like, Ritchie and his idea of the Cube and what he does and the way it’s presented, is another example of people in enormous crowds are ready for something they can like latch onto to be able to escape.
D: Something outside their normal experience.
J: Sure, yeah. We’re all conditioned to watch TV, we’re all conditioned to look at the screen of our computers. Our eyes are already conditioned to accept the impossible. So I think we’re setting ourselves up for this type of commodity.
D: Many years ago, in an interview we did with you, you said it was becoming more apparent that things moved in cycles. Do you still believe that?
J: Sure, I do. And now I think it’s not so much because of events but more how we react to events. Let’s say, when I was young, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and watching how my parents react to that would probably prepare me – and I hope it never happens – for if Obama is assassinated, and I react to this and my daughter sees me, how I react to it. And that passes down a certain type of mentality of how to deal with the issues, and that I think is the influential thing that creates these cycles I think.
D: A cycle of received wisdom
J: Yes, and not so much just crises, but good things as well.
And going back to what I was saying before about being American,
we’re all pushed and raised in the same way, perhaps the generation
of my parents and their neighbours and their children was probably
a very much similar situation. They didn’t go onto the streets and
start shooting white people, they were very sad of course, but kept
control. So I think that’s the most impactful thing. It’s how you
react to certain things, because we’re always going to have crises
in different situations, and things we did not expect. But how you
react to them determines how you move on. And I think young
children see that, and they learn from their parents, and that’s
what creates the cycle I think, not bell bottoms in the 60s, and
then bell bottoms in the seventies….. more important things I
D: Have you got more visual projects planned?
J: Yes, we finally get around to releasing a book. It’s using film but in a book form, like a sequential frame kind of thing. So a viewer can see the things that they would never see, what a DJ is doing. So you actually see there is a certain kind of method to it. The DJ is not just putting the needle on the record… There is a certain kind of communication between the hand movements and body movements.
D: Obviously you’ve done the Exhibitionist DVD as well. Do you want to do less DJing? Do you want to communicate through technological means rather than being there?
J: Well, I think the art form of DJing will run its course. Meaning, it will stop when the people feel it’s not so important. And I don’t think that time is too far away. So wanting to move away from DJing is not something…. It’s going to happen, naturally, because of the way the technology is moving. It’s creating a situation where the person is not needed. And the people are accepting that as well. And I can clearly see the time is not far when the music is just programmed, and the people are passive to it, and they come and listen to it, and they dance, and people go away.
D: Then there will be less response between crowd and DJ….?
J: Well, it’s not me, but this is what other people are pushing toward I think. By creating software programmes which basically mix the records for you. Which allow you to put all the records at the same level so there’s no fluctuation in volume, so that it’s all perfect. It’s telling me as a consumer that eventually it’s going to get to the point where we won’t need the DJ, we won’t need him to stand there, we can have something else, we could have video screens or something like that…. The music could be programmed in real time, but presented by a computer.
D: Does that not lose the sense of the artist performing his art?
J: Well art is different, what I’m talking about is dance music. I think that it’s still interesting to see the artist think and create within seconds, to kind of figure it out right there in real time. You very easily the capacity of what this artist can do, and how he can manipulate and think ahead But as far as dance music is concerned – again, it’s not me, but…. I don’t think that dance music is best served by making it perfect. The audience are humans and not machines, and there should still be some room for human error, because you’re presenting music for humans to dance to. And so it should not be perfect. The presentation of it should be … I think it is most unique when it is at the capacity of the person that’s presenting it. And shows all the limitations; it shows the potential; and I think electronic music is best served in that kind of setting. When you put it in a computer that can quantize, and keep everything perfect, it becomes something else I think. It’s not the discotheque anymore, it’s kind of like a cheap thrill…. It becomes an even cheaper thrill. This is what the majority of DJs want, what the majority of producers want to have: the ability to phase themselves out of the scenario.
D: So they become... software programmers?
J: Something like that.
D: Was last night the first time you’ve DJed with just CD decks?
J: I think so.
D: That’s funny that you’re not sure.
J: It’s different, and I really don’t like it so much. Having to look at a list of what’s on the disc and pushing too many buttons. …. Vinyl, you don’t have to look at the meter. Your mind can be elsewhere, your eyes can be elsewhere. You use your ears less in the digital format than you do in analogue, in a vinyl situation, because your listening very much to the frequencies to know, or the structure of the song to give you cues for when to do what. Or how to weed away those frequencies so that you can mix the next record in. But when you have to look at the screen or a computer read out it’s different. In some cases, it’s OK, because last night I was concerned about the vibration, because we were setting things on the floor. But I would much prefer to use vinyl, because of the physical aspect of connecting with this motion, this clockwise motion of this disc, information, the frailty of it all. The needle is just tracking on the surface of this record. And that any jolt would totally disorient it, and everyone else, and myself. And that I think is most reflective of the life of what we are, and who we are and how we live. We don’t control our destiny, we don’t control our life, we don’t control what tomorrow is going to be. It’s by coincidence. We have to adapt. And that I think it is why I think I like vinyl the most, because it puts you right on the edge of disaster. And that I still like.
D: It’s interesting, then, does the Exhibitionist DVD feel like your writing yourself out…. Maybe becoming codified and commodified, really?
J: Well, I’m just being realist. In one way the Exhibitionist was very much the idea of documenting something, or at least learning how to present something that could be more useful for the viewer or the dancer, in the event that I can’t physically be there myself. For whatever reason. Or maybe the time comes when we don’t have this presentation, when the DJ doesn’t stand behind the deck any more, we might like to have this piece of information to remind us of how things used to be, of how unique it was. So as a piece of history I suppose, and that was another aspect of it. It’s kind of sad, because as I’m saying this, I’m thinking about how DJs mix now and they just plop a computer up, and they press a button… you really have no idea what happens after that point. The time is actually now, the Exhibitionist now is actually out of place… it’s kind of sad but strange…
D: Is it as easy to DJ at the same level as you get older? Does your DJing style change over age?
J: Yes of course, well you get older. Everybody gets older. Your reflexes change, your attention seems to wander a little bit more, it becomes a little bit harder to focus. For me I develop new ways to compensate. So, when I was younger I used to be really fast as a hiphop DJ, I mean, faster than my eyes could see. I used to do things that would even surprise myself, I didn’t believe I would be able to cue the record that quick. Just without thinking. And over time you begin to realise that the body is not designed…. I used to be into fusion jazz when I was in high school. Billy Cobham, percussion, Stanley Clarke and those guys, really master musicians. I learned, basically, how to DJ in this very intensive, very focused type of way from those kind of musicians.
D: Do you play any instruments, and to what sort of standard?
J: I used to play drums, and for a young person, yes. I had double kicks and rolling toms, lots of cymbals, it was very noisy. I was in a couple of bands, and then DJing came and totally wiped that away.
D: You broke DJing down in the same way as drumming?
J: Yeah, I was very even-handed, ambidextrous, and I carried that type of style and technique into DJIng. So backspinning and those kind of things was just very easy. Like those musicians, it takes so much on the upper body, your body burns quicker. So dealing with three turntables now is one way to compensate, multi-layering three and four turntables together gives you the feeling of a very intensive type of effect, but actually you’re moving slower.
D: I got that sense with your video DJing last night, Like setting plates spinning.
J: Sure, and then let it go, and take your attention completely away from that, and have confidence that it will continue to spin, which is very hard to do, and then deal with something else….. the generation before my generation is the Frankie Knuckes, Tony Humphries, David Morales, and they could tell you maybe even more about how the body reacts to it, and the sound and the ears. But yeah, it changes.
D: Some of the greatest DJs in the world, reggae DJs, only use one deck.
J: Yeah…. I don’t think I would get to that [laughs]. But you find ways to compensate, you want to be involved, to stay with it, so you find ways to stay a part of it…
D: What’s your plans for future releases?
J: Well, I’m constantly working on albums, but I don’t really count them until they come out.
D: I meant to ask, did you make a soundtrack to Blade Runner?
J: Yes I did, it didn’t come out. I literally broke the whole movie down into different parts and then made tracks … I used dialogue, but I never released it. I only released the one track, a 12”. I have the whole album, I never released it. Sometimes I use it in DJ sets. Yeah, it’s the whole… Tyrell, the conversation, and then I reconstructed the soundtrack beneath it, and then made new parts to the story, Decker had a child, I threw that into the scenario, and made a whole soundtrack. There’s X-104, I’ll start that album in January.
D: You’ve never used that name before?
J: No, we stopped at X-103, but X-104 had always been on the drawing board.
D: With Mad Mike?
J: No, with Robert Hood. It’s about black holes. So that could be a possibility. And there’s another project about the whole idea of belief systems. So, different events – using myself as an example, what events made me believe, or how I’ve seen things, to make me believe what I believe right now. So I believe that most people are generally good at the end of the day, that we all basically want the same thing, it’s just the method of achieving these things are different. So I go back to the events in my memory…
D: And soundtrack them?
D: Any particular films you’re going to take on next? I notice there were no 80s films in the visuals last night. Are you not so interested in those films?
J: Well, no [that’s not the case]…. I was considering using the
film The Trip, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, that was the
original idea. I had started work on that film and realised, OK,
there isn’t enough here. So then I needed to go back to science
fiction. Same idea, different context. So grabbing these science
fiction films, taking the most tripped out, turning point parts of
the film. And doing that. I kept the title.
D: Fritz Lang, he made Metropolis in Germany. Which is quite a utopian film. He went to US after that, and then made very pessimistic films. Do you prefer those older, silent films?
J: Well, they’re easier to work on, because you can very easily do away with the soundtrack. And the direction was to emphasise the face expressions and the positions of the characters, so it’s very interesting to watch with the eyes. So those are quiet attractive. But… Like with Blade Runner, the dialogue has multiple meanings, or at least if gives you the impression that they’re talking about something else. And, if those things are extracted, yeah I can very easily work with them.
D: Does dialogue open up new realms?
J: Yeah, as long as it’s interesting, for sure.
D: Any directors, and countries of film you’d like to work with?
J: Well, science fiction drama, adventures…
D: Do you think science fiction films are as good as they were?
J: No. Looking at these films for the project last night, and comparing to the films we have now, I think no. With all the special effects we have now, we should be able to make it…. There are no Space Odysseys any more, or 2010s, there could be. Movies that had depth.
D: Have they lost their power to amaze?
J: Well, I think that the market is different now, it’s mainly for young kids. And Hollywood has this set structure, there must always be a love story, there must always be this, there must be some character we can turn into a fuzzy doll we can sell in the supermarket. There must always be something they can do marketing with. And I don’t know, maybe they all use the same special effects agency and the same guy, because they all tend to look the same. It’s sad because now Marvel Comics, the company, has come into play with Hollywood, they produce most of the science fiction big blockbusters from Spiderman to Ironman and those kind of things. And as a kid, reading those comic books, they were much more intellectual and thought provoking than those movies you see. I’m just waiting for them to get back to the type of story form they were doing, they were teaching us as kids, to see that on the big screen. Maybe then they’ll have usage for a different kind of soundtrack, a different kind of music. I don’t think that time is too far away, because they’re coming to have more power in these kind of films, they’re producing their own films. I think Ironman was the first one they independently producer. So electronic music, the Juan Atkins kind of Cybotron thing, there should be more communication between those stories and this type of music in the future, I hope. The distance between those guys, those illustrators and the people in electronic music is not that far away.
D: What’s your equipment set up now?
J: it’s just pieces [of analogue equipment] connected together, no computer, CV triggers, MIDI…. I’ve always made music really quickly, so if the track is five minutes, it probably took me twenty minutes to make it. Fifteen minutes to program it, couple of minutes to set it up, five minutes to mix it. So in a couple of hours I can make a lot of different things.
D: But if you’re trying to reflect concepts and actually say something, maybe that is where the real work is?
J: Well the way it works is that…. If you know what you want to say, for instance if I want to make something in reference to this scarf, and the texture of it, and how it’s not constructed, it’s just a very organic kind of thing, after dealing with music for so long, and dealing with a very simple type of set up, I know exactly what to look for, what sound to find which would come close to this, it’s a black scarf, it’s knitted, it’s this, it has these frilly edges on it…. I have more chances to find the sounds that would translate to that. So for instance like Saturn, just looking at the one dimensional picture of the planet, and the landscape of it, and the few information, if it’s of ice or dust or whatever, I can find the sounds which would give you this kind of crystallised feel, shapes as well, very abrupt…. By putting the stereo sound in a three dimensional kind of way where you begins to use gates to cut off the end of it, it doesn’t take long. The more vivid picture I have in my mind the quicker it takes. So for example Keeler’s Gap, which is the gap in between the rings, the blank spot. They don’t quite know why that is, they don’t know why it doesn’t carry over, they don’t know why all of a sudden there’s this big gap in the ring. And I asked the scientists, carry over meaning that gradually the dust and particles carry it to the point we can’t see? And he said, so, it cuts off literally like this [a sharp edge]. And what forces are keeping that from not turning over they don’t know. And yet there’s a moon which is stuck right in the middle of the gap, which is really strange. So from this information I knew how the sound had to be, if you listen to the track. So it took just a few moments to put together, it’s a very simple track. And sometimes the less information you have the more you have to use your imagination and the more vivid the track becomes.
If journalists were to ask musicians, how and why they do what
they do, we would understand much more about how things come to be.
But what I read in the press is that they don’t venture into these
kind of questions. Why does your music sound the way it does? Why
did you choose these keys as opposed to those keys? But they’re
rarely asked. So that gives you the impression that the we don’t
really care to know the real reasons why the music is the way it
is. Why techno is different from hiphop, etc. We don’t really want
to know, because if we did we would ask.
D: …I’m not sure that it’s not people wanting to know. Maybe it’s more, it’s almost such an obvious question to ask, maybe it would be rude…? Perhaps you wouldn’t expect someone to have an incredibly precise answer. For example, sometimes people will hear a sound and associate it with a colour, but the question maybe wouldn’t occur to ask why they would associate it with a colour….
J: Say, for a long time…. … I’m not musically trained, and there’s other musicians in Detroit that aren’t musically trained. We use the black keys for certain reasons. Not because it might be the key of C or something like that, we use it for the subject matter. So for instance if it’s the track "The Art Of Stalking", you don’t use the white keys, you use the black keys, all the black keys. Because it’s the unknown. If it’s something very warm, like Nation To Nation, or more jazzy type of stuff, you use the white keys, because that’s the light.
D: Because that sounds very natural, you see, I wouldn’t have guessed.
J: If you dig even deeper, not with me, with someone you wouldn’t think, who makes a hundred dance tracks, if you ask them why you are making most of your tracks in the key of D, they would probably have an answer. Maybe because, I don’t know, my hand just navigates to those keys. And so you learn how these things come to be how they are. I think we would understand more about electronic music if those questions had been asked in the earlier stages. We would be so much further ahead I think, and probably would appreciate the music in more different ways, if we understood that there is a psychological method similar to this artistic expression similar to painting, and an artists only using lighter colours because of something which happened in his childhood, or where he grew up and the sounds he heard, these things were reminiscent. I’ve never heard an interview with someone asking Juan what was your life like when you were making the Cybotron album? Because that’s not an album that’s reminiscent of Detroit. I was there at the time in Detroit at that time, and life was not like that. So what was he thinking at that time? What was he smoking at that time? And it wasn’t just one track, it was an entire album. Even I would like to know.
D: The obvious question is, do you think there’s a racial element to that?
J: Well, no, that’s a different discussion. Quickly, Europeans, there’s a multilevel field we have here. Musicians from Chicago and Detroit you’re perceived by Europeans differently. If you come from these cities, you’re expected to produce at a certain level. But if you’re black you’re supposed to have the funk, the rhythm, but that’s not necessarily true. So I think there’s this expectation, it helps sometimes, it gets in the way sometimes. I’ve seen so many different perspectives of that. And people are still trying to figure out, how am I being perceived, what I supposed to do, my actions, are they judged good or bad based on the colour, what I am. What is acceptable, what is not, what are my limits. Should I be negative, should I be positive, should I use this badboy image, should I move in a more artistic way, should I reach out to people. So you just have this struggle between how you’re being perceived.
D: Do you find it a struggle yourself now?
J: Well for me, I found no comfort in any of those positions, and I’ve been through them all. And now I just rest at the point where it is what it is, and if you don’t like it that’s just tough. Most of the things that I make are not designed for you to fully understand. I don’t expect people to fully understand Contact Special. But just to throw the subject up so that you take notice of it is good enough. And that enables me to produce, much quicker… If I take away the end result I can move on much quicker to the new project. If I take away what the public perception is. The Rings Of Saturn, I don’t understand if you understood it or not. There was no story, it’s just an observation of a planet with soundtrack. That’s that. And I can very easily move on to The Trip, I don’t have to wait for the OK. And it makes producing much easier, and if you ask any artist, that’s close to the ideal situation.
D: Are there any articles of faith in your work which aren’t asked about? For instance, say the drum machine, that’s been a constant in your work.
J: They still don’t ask about that, why do you use the drum machine. I was using it to be more interactive, to be able to have more control. To change the context of what the soundtrack is, because there’s no strings inside the machine, it’s just percussion, so to change the context of the images, to change the mood of the room. To make it more tribal, to find that common link between everybody. If you’re from the city and you’re an accountant, or you’re an artist, this tribal is the common link to all of us, whether we understand it or not. So that pulls people together. I’m not sure if you noticed but the reaction. And it’s everywhere. And it’s not because people understand it’s a Roland TR909, I don’t think it’s because of that. It’s because people know drums are coming, percussion is coming, it’s not music anymore. And it’s something everyone can relate to, and it generally creates more enthusiastic, more subliminal type of reaction, it’s really interesting.
D: To take it to the other extreme, you mention you don’t have any classical training of any sort, but some of the recent work, Metropolis, has very interesting string arrangements. On what basis do you decide whether it’s major or minor, whether it’s using the black keys and the white keys together, or if it moves from one area of the keyboard to another?
J: Again, it’s the subject matter. For instance there’s a track called "The Plans", and it’s where one of the workers comes up and shows the master he had found sound plans of a revolution. And thinking about that situation, you are now faced with information of how something could change your situation drastically. And you must come up with a solution, you must come up with a plan. So the way that I composed it was, the majority of the notes were made in the centre in the keyboard, and then the parts were there was pondering, or the person was thinking, I generally moved up to the black keys, and kept one or two fingers on the white keys to create this…. Strange, off kind of chord structure. I did not venture into the higher part or the lower part of the keyboard, I stayed pretty much in the middle, because of uncertainty. And that’s how I made that track.
D: And made quickly?
J: And made quite quickly.
D: Do you have to do different takes of keyboard stuff? I just mention as you might hit one black note and white note and it might sound bad….
J: I’m usually finding out the keys, and then I record, and then play the part. I can’t play, just, play. Well, I did that on the entrance, where I just played, and hoped the right note would fall in the right place. And that was the first time I’d done that.
D: Do memories of soundtracks come back to you when you’re working this way? Ideas which you’re gravitating towards? Because there is a classical feel to some of these pieces.
J: Sure, I listen to classical, not a lot, but I do, for that reason, because I would like to be influenced by those kind of chord structures and those kind of techniques. Whether it comes out that way when I do it, probably not, but at least I’m thinking about. But a lot of it really has to do with how fast my fingers can move to the next keys. So, they don’t move very fast, so I use a lot of reverb to carry over the sound until my fingers can move to the next keys [laughs]. And that’s how it comes out. And it’s more comfortable for me to move up and then down, this is the easiest motion for me, to play for the black keys to the lower keys, and it’s always from the right corner to the left corner, so it’s very rarely to the right side, because I’m left handed, so this is the lead key, so it always comes back this way, and that creates that succession.
D: Motifs, which recur…
J: Yeah, and it’s probably within most of the tracks that this step down is always in the same direction, in chord structure.
D: Your installation, my favourite bit was where the woman was flying on the aeroplane. It’s quite a brutal scene, very intense scene. The music is very interesting, moving from minor to major. Is it a deliberate feeling of mixing happiness and sadness?
J: Right, exactly. I purposely threw the off notes, because the situation was just so crazy. At a certain point she was completely out of control as to what was going to happen. Whether her life was going to end, whether she was going to break away. And that there was the most important part of the whole piece, these very off notes, where I’m just striking the keyboard, and not even looking at the keys I’m hitting. Chords weren’t the issue. Finding some security was the most important thing. That was how I saw it.
D: You listen to it and don’t know how to react. I felt an uncertainty…
J: Well, I’d listened to some Philip Glass before hand. The inclination of the strings, the chord structure, is from some of his ideas. And then on top of that came the subject matter.
There is a reason for everything that we hear. Just pursued, you might be really surprised. Dysfunctional, bullied as a kid…. not me, I mean, but you might be surprised by why someone’s tracks are so aggressive, others so passive.
D: That suggests to me a lot of your tracks are influenced by previous experience.
J: Well, hopefully I can say this in this Belief
System, hopefully I can lay it out. First of all I tried to
write all the things that I believed. It’s a very long piece, but
it’s just very simple, ‘I believe that all people are good’, ‘I
believe…’trying to figure out some kind of pattern to it. That was
done a few years ago. And I think all of us can think about
different people, different places, different points in our lives
that we remember the most, and what the reaction was. So I had my
first fight in the second grade, because this kid… let me explain
what happened. It was snowing outside, we had rubber boots, all
kids had rubber boots. I couldn’t get my boot off, so I called my
friend over to help me pull my boot off. As he was coming over I
pulled my boot off, so my friend gets mad for calling me over for
no reason. So he says, I’m gonna beat you up after class for
calling me over. So I was scared the entire day that I was gonna
get into a fight. So we got outside, I couldn’t find this kid, so
this kid comes and he jumps on my back, [laughs] and I flip him
over, which is not really a fight, we do this at lunchtime
everyday. So I end up on top of this guy. Now, for young kids, you
won if you pinned the guy down, so I’d basically won, but the kid
didn’t realise this, and he wanted to fight. So I couldn’t figure
out how to get up off this kid and end the fight, without having to
fight more. So I decide I’m going to get up off this kid and run
[laughs], So I get off the kid and I’m running, and we live just
across the street, and this kid is chasing me, and there’s my
neighbour and he’s playing football with some other big kids. So
I’m running next to this kid, he’s really tall, and I’m trying to
tell this guy, look, this guy behind is trying to beat me up, I
need your help. But he was ignoring me because he was playing
football, right. So he’s like, ‘hey, Jeff!’ [laughs] And this kid
who was trying to beat me up thought I was running with this older
kid, and so it was okay, he left. And so I found refuge running
along with this older kid! It was a very dramatic situation, I had
to think quick, I had to find a solution. When you’re seven, it’s a
very traumatic kind of thing [laughs]. But these were the
circumstances, miscommunication, misinterpretation – basically
people are generally fine, except when trying to…
D: Will these details be made present in th