Click here for Part One of Mike McGonigal's interview with Jeff Mills.
In the second part of our interview with Detroit-born techno pioneer Jeff Mills, we address his work as a designer, the need to create limited edition objects for fans, and what it might be like to be a fly on the wall while Final Cut or Underground Resistance were making their ground-breaking music in the '80s and '90s.
Metro Times: One thing that you've experimented with in the last decade is making limited art versions of your releases, from vinyl versions that come in very fancy, limited packaging to a USB stick that doubles as a sculptural object.
Jeff Mills: It's a response to the idea that the majority of people that buy music now, especially vinyl, are not DJs. Most DJs now use computers to mix, so they're dealing in digital files. The majority of people actually buying records are collectors, and collectors are different animals. They need to know everything about the release: They need more information about it, they need to know all the backstory, they need to know how things came to be, how it's numbered. Every little thing about it should be symbolic of something related to the release. So we are responding to what we see as the new market for electronic music. I collect a lot of things too. I collect magazines; I've always collected things.
MT: Can you give some examples?
Mills: Sometimes strange things. I collect pulp fiction magazine original art.
MT: Are you still able to find that? It's been pretty rare in the last few years.
Mills: It's really rare. A lot of the publishers that were in New York discarded much of the artwork used for those old magazines — they would just burn them. But a lot of the descendants of the artists who painted them are still living, and sometimes they pop up at Comic-Con, or some other type of art fair.
MT: I read a lot of older genre fiction, so ...
Mills: So you know what I'm talking about. Some of those covers are just amazing.
MT: Are we talking mostly sci-fi type things?
Mills: Right. Amazing Stories, things like that. That's one thing, very simple thing. My office in Chicago, for instance, is just full of things. One that is kind of developing now is magazines from the 1960s that had articles about the preparation for space travel. I've found quite a few in Paris, things like Look magazine, Time, or those old magazines where they're explaining what a space suit is, explaining what propulsion technology is, trying to write things down in very elementary ways to explain to the housewife why we need to go to space. I've been collecting all these things for years now.
MT: In the design aspect, did you always create your own graphics, even going back to the 12-inch label art?
Mills: Yeah. That's always been. Back in the days of Final Cut, I was in an industrial band, Underground Resistance. It was too expensive to make an album cover. We found we could get the music out quicker and it could be more economical to just make a 12-inch jacket with a hole cut in and we'd just deal with one or two sides. We were very conscious about what the label design would look like. The font, the titles, the credits, the image in the back: All those things were thought out.
MT: Because you had a limited space to tell everything?
Mills: Exactly. We would have afforded to do [a full cover] but that would have cut into the next release, and so we didn't do it so often. We were thinking more about the music, actually. We were convinced that when you listen to it, the music will explain everything to you. And then the label and the font and titles would reinforce what you just listened to.
MT: So you expect a lot of your listener? You're never trying to talk down.
Mills: Right. A lot of discussion would go into things like, "How will the track start off? How does it end? How many breaks in the track will there have to be in order to get to another record?" All those things were very much discussed, and different takes and different samples were made until we were convinced this was the version that it should be. It was far from just throwing the music together. It was a lot of placement that was happening. We didn't learn that from anywhere — we just thought if we're combining our ideas together, these common links are the things we should agree on.
MT: When you're saying "we," there, who are you referring to?
Mills: Anthony Srock on Final Cut stuff. And then with my band Underground Resistance, there would always be lots of discussions about what the tempo should be, or what should be most prominent in the track. That wasn't something that we learned anywhere. We were collaborating and making the track and thinking that when a person listens to it, they are also being brought into the discussion. That helped make the music a certain way, made us focus more on the structure of it. We knew music had a lot of power, because that power was used on us. We all grew up listening to music and what we bear witness to the power of it, from Motown to hip-hop to acid house, all that. We were quite aware of the history of that music.
MT: What you're explaining sounds like what any people collaborating on music would be having, could have videotaped that and sent that to people than a lot of the silly sort of "that's not real music" discussions could just be blown away.
Mills: They would be blown away. If you could have recorded just a session of what that was like and what we were concentrating on, it would explain a lot of why the music sounds the way it is, at least at that time, and what we were really trying to say. It's safe to say the listener is only hearing about 20 percent of the process of what goes into the whole process of making music. You have to take a lot of things into consideration. What was the day like? What led up to the moment where you actually pressed the keys? Did you have a nice day or a bad day? Was it sunshiney or cold hail? What made you decide that now is the time to go into that room and make this stuff?
MT: And that would be way more important than, say, the sample rate in that year?
Mills: Right. This is what we're missing out of this equation. Sometimes the translation doesn't come out like you would like it to. I'm convinced that in published music you're probably not getting most of what it actually took to get up to that point, that we're missing or losing a lot because we don't have the technology in order to be able to capture it, to go back and find the footsteps to get to that finished composition point.
MT: I don't think this is something that many people are talking about or are as interested in as you are. Maybe by even putting those ideas out there, that's helping to make it happen. Do you see this eventually occurring through what is typically called virtual reality?
Mills: Maybe that's the start. Understanding how Miles Davis felt when he recorded Bitches Brew, listening to the whole album would kind of be important. It would help, to feel the way he felt.
MT: I don't know if I'd want to feel what Miles felt, though. That's an extreme example.
Mills: Yes. But just imagine how much we would learn about history in general. To fly an airplane or to surf or to be a ping pong champion. Just imagine if we can understand the mindset. Video games seem to be leading the way for the average person. People are being pulled more into the virtuality of things and they seem to be adapting to it fairly well. I can't imagine that this is gonna stop, this desire to be more in the experience. I can see probably in my lifetime that somebody may be able to experience what I'm feeling as I'm DJ'ing in front of a thousand people.
MT: So what's happening next?
Mills: There's a new album in September called Freefall, which is about fear, but not from a frightful point of view.
MT: What other point of view is there?
Mills: It's more so from the euphoric idea of fear, experiencing something frightening so many times that you begin to adapt to it, and then you overcome it. It's a very natural thing that we all go through. You fall off your bike; you keep falling off your bike to the point that you don't mind falling. You get better at falling. It's speaking to the notion that in time, we will explore things that will literally break our civilization down. And they will become even more harsh the more time goes on. But the ones that will survive, the ones that will realize and learn from those experiences will take giant leaps forward. It speaks to that notion of process of not just getting used to, but in a way wanting to fall, to have the experience in order to take steps forward. That's the next recorded album.
MT: With all of your talking about future concepts and ideas, I'm really impressed with how little time you spend dwelling in dystopia.
Mills: I'm more optimistic, definitely, than pessimistic. We are humans, so we will always makes mistakes. We'll also learn from those mistakes. We'll achieve many more great things. Amazing things, actually. We'll always fight against time; we will never live long enough to experience all the things that we want to do. Maybe not now, but maybe 10, 15, 30, 50 years from now, if music is still around, someone might discover [what I'm doing] and find it useful. It might make sense of something that's happening in that time.