Why Jeff Mills is the man where techno and cinema best mix

Écrit par Trax Magazine
Le 13.06.2016, à 12h38
12 MIN LI-
Écrit par Trax Magazine
A pioneer of Detroit techno at the core of Underground Resistance, then with his label Axis Records (which celebrates its 25th birthday in 2017), Jeff Mills is the man where techno and cinema best cross paths: the release of the film Man from Tomorrow by Jacqueline Caux, the second volume of the DVD The Exhibitionist, a carte blanche for the ‘seventh art’ from the Louvre museum… All of this makes Jeff Mills an artist in the fullest sense of the term, and the perfect person for our cinema special. (Interview published in TRAX #188 Dec. 2015 – Jan. 2016)  By Smaël Bouaici and Sophia Salhi. Translated by Henry Hodson.

What is your first memory of cinema?

In Detroit, there were a fair few cinemas in my area, and one just a couple of blocks away from my house. I was a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, of thrillers, of dramas, and of science-fiction obviously. I really liked horror films when I was a boy, but I don’t as much anymore. Once you understand the special effects, it’s not exciting.

We know you’re a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yes, it’s one of those films which change your life, which touches everybody with the way it’s written, its ambiguous ending, the scarceness of dialogue. The minimalism of the film leaves so many questions hanging, so it can be appreciated in any time.

Is there a film which brought together your generation of techno artists in Detroit?

Yes, many in fact. When you’re young, you don’t have money, and if you want to discover new things there are certain ways you have to go, the local cinema or the comic store down the road. The television too, on rainy Saturday afternoons. We all watched the same shows. In Detroit, in the 70s and 80s, the influences were fairly limited. There was Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Lost in Space… There was the radio too, we all listened to the same kind of music. As an adult, you meet Juan Atkins, Derrick May or Kevin Saunderson and you realise that you have many of the same interests. We were all into comics, sci-fi. A bit predictable but oh well…

How do you see cinema as an art? Do you consider it as a political weapon, as a reflection of the subconscious… ?

I think filmmakers are aware that their films have a heavy educational bearing. When you leave university and you set off on your professional career, you have few occasions to sit down, to listen and watch something that you’ll learn from. And cinema is the main medium for learning things about life in general. Certain scenarios inspire you, you ask yourself what you would do in the place of the protagonist. Cinema really does have more of an impact on life than people think. There’s always the good and the bad, the heroes, the baddies, and that kind of thing shapes the public conscience. Sometimes, it’s not used in the right way. Sometimes a film imposes its values or beliefs on the public.

“Cinema has more of an impact on life than people think.”

So cinema can be dangerous.

That’s why it’s important for the public to know who is behind the film. If it’s a religious fanatic, for example, who spreads false ideas on the creation of man. Some films do impose unhealthy values on their audience. We can’t regulate it, but it should be understood who is behind the film.

So it’s important to read in parallel.

Yes, you’ve got to read the newspapers so as not to lose touch with reality. If you concentrate only on cinema, you lose sight of that. The average person has very few opportunities to express what he/she thinks. Most jobs have no scope for free-thinking, they don’t even allow you to express your thoughts. It’s hard. So cinema, independent cinema, can constitute the vision of an average person.

How has cinema influenced your music? Are there certain soundtracks which made their mark on you?

Of course. First I was drawn in by certain movies, then I researched the ones I liked the most. I found out about it all, who made the costumes, the accessories, the make-up, Giorgio Armani and American Gigolo, Giorgio Moroder… I started to completely dissect the films I liked. When you’re young and you open that window, you start to rationalise, to connect everything you see in a film. For example, the colour silver naturally reminds me of the cosmos, and spacesuits. It was no longer just a colour and that comes from cinema.

Was there ever a moment where you imagined becoming a filmmaker?

No, never. I like to be sat in the audience with my popcorn.

Have you ever watched a film and been so taken by the music that you forget about the images?

Yes, with 2046 by Wong Kar Wai, a very dark Chinese movie that takes place in the future. The soundtrack was more interesting than the movie because it was made up of classical and electronic music both at the same time. It was hard to distinguish. And the sound quality was impressive. I remember playing the film on my speakers just for the music.

In an interview about Underground Resistance, you said: “The music we were making at the start of the 90s was based on what we were reading.” That means you were very open to other forms of art. Is this something lacking in producers today, do you think?

It’s different today because the world has changed. Back in the day, Underground Resistance formed mainly in reaction to the majors and the way they affected independent labels. Mike and I have both had bad experiences with the majors, we knew we had to change everything and that implied a certain language and a certain vision. But now, it’s different. It’s difficult to judge other people’s mentality.

It’s always a good thing to be open to other forms of art, isn’t it?

I don’t know, not always.

Should a musician stay focused uniquely on music?

Certain people don’t need to be free or don’t want to be. They want to be like the others, to fit in, to be confined to a certain way of being, because it’s easier.

Is that the difference between a producer and an artist?

I don’t think there’s a way of creating which is of value for everyone. For those who really want to, yes, one has to be open. But throughout my career, I’ve come across people who don’t know what to do with this freedom. For example, in electronic music, you are really free to compose what you want. But most electronic producers don’t do it. They do the same thing all the time, on a computer with the same software, and come out with practically the same track every time. They were free to create what they wanted from the start, and they decided not to use that liberty. While there are so many possibilities at their fingertips, they don’t do it. Why? Because there’s a certain formula for success, and they say to themselves that if they do it 50 times, they’ll become popular. And it works.

Seth Troxler was saying much the same thing last summer in Trax #184. Electronic music is the most open area of music but it is under-exploited.

From a professional point of view, I think that collectively, as an industry, we only use 10-20% of the possibilities offered by electronic music. That’s not enough. When I look at my software, when I see all the things which are possible, and I compare it with the majority of music made… That’s the result of having so much freedom that you don’t know what to do with it. If you put someone in a room with so many keyboards and bits of hardware, they’ll be scared, and that goes for most people. They forget that they can make whatever kind of music. There is no right way of composing. Conclusion: there are people who don’t want to use the freedom they are given.

“As an industry, we only use 10-20% of electronic music’s potential. That’s not enough.”

It also goes for liberty of expression. Electronic music is becoming a voiceless art.

There are consequences when one uses one’s freedom of expression, especially with the pretty low standards of the entertainment industry. And the majority aren’t ready to do it, because they are afraid to lose something in expressing themselves and they fear the repercussions. In the past, there were points where we should have expressed ourselves, but we didn’t, because we didn’t understand the reality. We neglected certain sides of it and it became an industry which tries to create the idea that its artists are superstars, when they don’t do much at all in truth (he chuckles). Everything is modelled around show-business and the most popular forms of entertainment.

You lived in Detroit then Berlin just after the fall of the wall. Do you think that artists, in that era, had a more developed political conscience than today?

Without a doubt. And not only in Detroit or Berlin, everywhere in the world. And having so many possibilities and resources has changed people’s mentality. When we had less, we had to think more, we thought before acting. When you are less conscious of who is listening or who is really watching you, without Instagram and this possibility of immediately estimating the audience, we were more attentive, more careful, and we had to impose fewer restrictions, because we didn’t know what it would lead to. When you made a record, you gave it to the distributor, but nobody said what would happen to it, or where it would sell. So we were more conscious of what we were doing. Seen as the record had a big impact on us, it seemed obvious that it would resonate with other people. Today, that’s no longer the case really.

There are consequences when one uses one’s freedom of expression, especially with the pretty low standards of the entertainment industry. And the majority aren’t ready to do it, because they fear the repercussions.”

When you compose music for cinema, how do you go about it?

I watch the film four or five times to memorise it. Then I compose without the images. When I’ve done enough, I put the two together to see if it really works. I watch the film one more time to check I haven’t missed anything and I keep going with this back-and-forth until I’m satisfied.

You never compose live in front of the film?

I have done it, but I find it more interesting to memorise the film, because in doing that, I find my own perspective. It’s not exactly what I see, but what I feel about the film. It gives a better result.

Do you try to remove your personal touch to be more in line with the spirit of the work?

No, rather the opposite. I try to subtly feed my character in, my way of seeing things. That’s the freedom offered by cine-mix. Nobody tells me that the soundtrack has to be such or such genre. For example I just did a cine-mix for Berlin, a Symphony of a Great City, a documentary on 1929 Berlin. I wanted to make the most minimal soundtrack possible. So a lot of silence, air, sparing use of instruments, strategic even. I had never done it and I wanted to see if I could manage.

For the soundtrack that you created over Metropolis, was it requested?

First of all, I did it kind of illegally. I had a copy of the movie which was in a bad state. But I found that that added character to the film. The movie was shot in the dark, it’s full of shadows, so I used that aspect, but also the facial expressions and the climax, to write the soundtrack.

Was it the perfect film for a techno soundtrack?

There are others that work well too. George Lucas’ THX1138, Wes Anderson’s Logan’s Run, Westworld with Yul Brynner, Hitchcock’s Lifeboat or Psycho, and Mission to Mars too. There are lots of films where it’s easy to see how electronic music could fit. In these films, there are certain really weird passages, which are put to music with a few notes and strings. It’s cool, but it would be even stranger with electronic music.

Do you work with a keyboard?

Yes, like Oskar Sala, who made the music for The Birds. To put a chaotic scene like the attack of the birds to music, you’ve got to have something tactile. He created these super-weird synth sounds with his synthesiser (editor’s note, the Trautonium).  

Afterwards you released the film The Exhibitionist 2, which shows you in action behind the decks and your machines. Is there a right way to film a DJ set? What do you think of the Boiler Room model?

I find the way they film… it’s not bad, I think it serves a certain purpose. It could be done more artistically. But it could be better directed, again more artistically. Putting a DJ in the middle and surrounding him with people jiggling aimlessly around is one perspective. But it would be good if someone made something more interesting.

Any suggestions?

The DJ is looking to tell a story with the music. He could be framed in a certain way, with visuals reflecting the music’s tale. It could be almost theatrical, the music coming to life there and then. Or the DJ could be on a set, like a laboratory or something. Basically, it could be more conceptual and no doubt more interesting.

But the image of the DJ has always posed a problem, right?

I don’t think so. DJs already have quite a lot of confidence in themselves. They aren’t afraid of the crowds, it would be impossible to survive in the business otherwise. I think DJs have enough confidence in themselves to hold it together in front of an audience and play a show.

“The majority of DJs are themselves onstage. Rock bands often project an image that doesn’t fit with who they really are. When a DJ raises their hands during their set, or stays completely deadpan, that reflects their real personality.”

But people started to tire of seeing just a DJ behind the decks. That was when VJing was brought on.

It’s the entertainment business. But we have the luxury of being able to choose our path through it: we can hide away from time to time, or put ourselves in the limelight if we want to. I find the representation of DJs pretty realistic, it goes with the times. In my opinion the majority of DJs are themselves when they are onstage. More so than rock bands, who often project an image that doesn’t fit with who they really are. When a DJ raises their hands during their set, or stays completely deadpan, that reflects their real personality. 

What are we supposed to take from Moodymann then with the mask he wears during sets?

I’ve met him numerous times and he’s truly special. Him and Carl Craig are two nuts from the same case, you could say (he laughs). They’re very special people, and it’s certainly something to do with their childhood. Moodymann grew up with music around him. He developed a deep respect for people and that way of communicating. In any case, I think DJs are more likely to be flexible according to the crowd than other musicians.

The music is important but the visual aspect almost outweighs it now.

Not yet, I don’t think. Today it still all revolves around the music. But one day, we will have to put on more of a show, and give more of a place to the visual side of things. And that day will come sooner than we think.

There is already technology for that and some artists who use it, like video mapping and Amon Tobin and his immersive audiovisual performances.

That stuff’s really great but I think that there are more interesting things to come. 3D glasses in particular. I think technology will be able to create completely immersive environments around us, turning virtual experience into reality.

A kind of Boiler Room 2.0.

Boiler Room 1000.0 rather! It will be much more compelling. To the point where we won’t even see the difference between the real and the virtual. We are getting close.

Why have you never played in a Boiler Room?

Let’s just say that I don’t like their way of presenting the DJ. It’s pointless to show 200 DJs in exactly the same format. But there are so many things you could do with a DJ and a camera. It’s a shame to keep a fixed format. What a waste! Personally, I’ve seen too much and I’m tired of it. The hosts don’t even know how to hold the microphone in order to speak clearly… It’s just my opinion, but be more professional, please! There are DJs who have been in the business for a very long time and who deserve to play in a more professional setting. They can do better.

Are you interested in documentaries? We are still waiting for Lil Louis’ film, The House That Chicago Built, for which he interviewed over 150 musicians and DJs. Can you imagine the same kind of film on the history of Detroit techno?

There are some people, like Derrick May, who are thinking about making a movie telling the story of Detroit. But I think that it’s too early, because we are all still moving forward with our careers. We’re all alive and active, and the story isn’t totally written. The ending would stay open because the lessons are not yet learnt. At the moment, I am reading Miles Davis’ biography. It’s interesting to know about his childhood, his tastes and his life, how he influenced other people like John Coltrane etc. And they’re all connected. I think that Detroit hasn’t yet evolved as far as it could yet. We can’t yet link all the figures of Detroit. If you asked the same question to ten Detroit musicians, you would have ten different responses. It’s still too early.

Laurent Garnier is directing a film based on his book Electrochoc, a fiction. 8 Mile, with Eminem, also paints a romantic picture of the Detroit rap scene. What would be the right way of telling techno’s story?

For Detroit, that would depend on the person’s point of view. We have about forty people, Mike Banks, Carl Craig or Dopplereffekt, all taking a different path. A complete understanding of the history of Detroit would be impossible, because it’s still too disparate, and above all unfinished. It will be interesting to see what happens with Chicago because they are two similar stories. Frankie Knuckles had his view of things, so did Ron Trent…

The risk, if a key figure from the scene takes the decision to make a film, is having only a partial view and forgetting certain people.

Exactly. We all know each other, but we do different things, each in our own way. So it’ll be difficult to tell a communal story, because time has not cemented the facts. Mike Banks and I knew everyone, but we worked for ourselves. There was Eddie Fowlkes, we saw him every once in a while but we knew he was making music, Kevin (Saunderson, editor’s note) wasn’t far, Lorne and Lenny (Burden, the Octave One brothers, editor’s note) on the other side… Certain things are still debatable, like who played the most important role in the development of techno. We don’t know that yet, because we haven’t finished bringing new things to techno. There could be some 21 year old guy who comes from nowhere and changes it all. You never know.


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