Op de nieuwe DVD ‘exhibitionist’ van Jeff Mills staan behalve vier mixen en de “Making of…” ook twee interviews. Één van deze interviews gaat over het ontstaan van het label Axis en de ideeën van Jeff Mills. Dit interview kan je hieronder lezen.
Q. Previously, I think I’ve read that you said understanding Axis allows you to understand Jeff Mills and you also said, to quote, “Theories and subjects of substance fuel the mind within our Axis.” When and why did you decide on that conceptual composite for your music?
A. Well, it was after I left Underground Resistance and was thinking about the idea of starting a record label. I was in New York doing a residency at the Limelight and I wanted to take the time to think about how I would structure the company or the label to last or.…
Q. What year was this?
A. This was 1992, the end of 1992, winter of 1992 going into 1993. And I thought that maybe it’s a wise time—before I introduce the label, begin to start releasing material—and I should kind of narrow in on a certain direction in which it would kind of ride with the time. The ideas of the label, the label structure would actually ride on time, so as I got older, I would not feel like maybe I was too old to compose electronic music for people, so I thought that the label itself should have basically the same mentality, the same character, the same form as myself, meaning it should focus on ideas that I think are interesting or maybe someone might find interesting. Kind of like having a conversation and it’s like, hey, I heard this really interesting thing on the news today, or I read this interesting thing in the paper—but through music on CD or in vinyl, that type of situation. So I layed out a structure of how the label should actually look. I tend to like darker colors. I, at the time, I was really into very rich colors like gold and very pure colors like black and white, so I chose those three colors as the basis, and I knew that it would be…I had a desire to make more than one particular style of music, so rather than trying to put all these different styles on one particular label, I knew that I would eventually create other sections of the label, which led me to the design of the logo and then the name, actually. I knew that it would be multiple things revolving around one particular point and I looked that up and I saw Axis and then from there I created the logo and so the logo was actually created before I even created the labels. I’m actually making my way around the logo. There are three labels now, Axis, Purposemaker and Tomorrow and I haven’t approached the fourth and last label yet.
Q. It seems that sometimes a personality is given or maybe even demands a kind of demi-god status or a pedestal position. What I was wondering was what you find wrong—if you find it wrong—what you find wrong about that pedestal position for a DJ?
A. Well, I mean it’s really easy for me to discuss, because I come from an era where the DJ wasn’t looked at in that position. I mean I come from an era where the DJ was the guy in a booth kind of tucked away in the corner, though the people acknowledged him because he was the one controlling the music on the night, but the party was in another direction, it was amongst the people themselves. They used to face each other on the dancefloor, it wasn’t about what the DJ was playing. You would only be surrounded by other DJs interested in knowing what the song was and then they would go back to the party. You would have little contact throughout the night. So it’s easy for me to see how that has evolved, how the DJ is perceived today. What I think is wrong is that I think…Well, I don’t think anything is really wrong, but I think that a lot of this persona of what a DJ is supposed to have today is actually…I don’t think we as DJs really asked for that, it was something that was kind of created in the media to kind of excite the readers and to kind of create a situation where you have a person that kind of acts as a leader of a certain type of subculture, so they created this situation where these DJs are actually the ones that are kind of leading the people. DJ’ing here in America growing up, there were DJs that we looked up to because they were known for being great DJs, technically and theory wise. People like Larry Levan and Ron Hardy and I mean these are DJs that were actually laying foundation for a whole dance culture. When I went to Europe, I discovered that they have a different structure and when I…The first thing that I noticed in Europe is each country has like a…they have like a shelf structure of DJs. There was the number one DJ in every country, and then a number one, a number two and a number three DJ, and I couldn’t quite understand how they could determine who was the number one, because me being a DJ myself, every night can be different. You could have a good night, you could have a bad night. I wasn’t quite sure how they were actually accounting for this type of structure and it was something much different than what we had here. Later then I kind of found out that they really needed to actually have this. It was the number one DJ in Germany, the number one DJ in Paris, and the number one DJ in the UK. Paul Oakenfold and so on and so on. I thought this is completely ridiculous. I found out that they really needed to have this structure to kind of… They somewhat needed a leader, actually. They needed a person to be a representative of a certain territorial culture, someone that is the mouthpiece or at least the model of what they were doing, you know. I still don’t believe it’s really necessary, but it still exists in Europe and outside of America. We do it a little bit different here.
Q. Related to that, obviously, is that the live performance of techno is crucial to its understanding, I think. The development of that live performance has kind of led to maybe a pattern or infrastructure that’s probably developed in the last fifteen years or what have you. At this point, given that there can be a really repetitive structure to what goes on, how live performances is presented to the audience, is there something that you find that you think might be limiting about that structure, that needs to be re-evaluated?
A. I mean what has been created is a very…I suppose it’s the easiest structure. The basic structure is to hire—well, I can break it down for you. The basic structure is to hire an international DJ or a DJ from another country to play with local DJs and maybe a live act which is actually someone bringing in equipment to perform for a crowd. The setting is typically a very bare room with maybe visual images, video or some type of stationary hanging type of visual. If you’re lucky, maybe dancers or some type of fire show, and that’s it. That’s the structure, that’s the basic structure, and it doesn’t go very far out of that structure. On the average I do about 180, 190 parties a year and that is the basic structure of what we have. Could we go out of that structure or maybe develop it much more, yes, I think so, and I think in time as electronic music artists and electronic…well, multi media artists, as they merge more and exchange ideas, I think then we’ll begin to see very different settings. I thought that maybe for a long time that it would have to do with technology, but I think it’s actually more-so the emerging of art forms that actually will make something different than we have now.
Q. Earlier when you were speaking with the Burden Brothers, you mentioned that you were finding the set-up limiting as far as what kind of performance the actual DJs could give a crowd.
A. Yeah, I think that…It’s really only been a good well, a little over ten years you know, of the whole idea of the traveling DJ or the traveling electronic music artist. It’s only been about a little over a decade and half of that decade was basically spent in the studio developing the techno that we have today, discovering minimalism and discovering trance music and drum ’n’ bass and trip-hop and all types of different derivatives and things like that, so we’re actually kind of at the beginning of discovering what is possible, what is really needed, what is not needed. A lot of us are becoming of age where we’re not looked at as young kids any more, that we actually have things in common with people, curators of museums and galleries and things like that, who are production managers and producers of TV shows and things like that. That was actually a big problem in the early ’90s. I think the generation gaps were actually too wide, so we were looked down upon as these rebellious young kids who were dancing in the streets and they’re much different from the older generation. But now it’s beginning to close in, so more opportunity is actually coming for this music. I think that in time somewhere in the near future, I would think that we should begin to see electronic music artists exerting more of their character through art or at least trying to show more what techno sounds like actually, and I think it’s just a matter of time. I think we’ve basically mastered the fundamentals of electronic music and how to produce it, and it really advances just slightly ahead of what we’re getting into in terms of technology. In terms of theory, what one is supposed to do and what is possible, I think that we should begin to see those things evolve much more.
Q. I think when one starts looking at your work in depth a bit, you quickly recognize that there’s a lot of theory or conceptual framework behind it. Is it at all frustrating for you to have your work looked at outside of whatever the conceptual framework might be for progress?
A. Well, I mean I started…I’ve been conceptualizing with music for a very, very long time, even before I had ever come to Europe, it was my job to actually produce radio shows. When I was the Wizard here in Detroit, it was my job to produce a radio show every night, six days a week, twice a night and each show had to be different. I would…I learned at a very early age to play with music and kind of group it together in terms of a theme or some type of concept, and when I began to produce music, it just naturally carried over into that. I’d always kind of looked at music as a vehicle to be able to explain some type of place or event or thing or psychological state or whatever, and at times it’s frustrating that I get indications from people that they would only prefer to have a particular style of music, and it’s difficult for me to understand why someone would not want to have a variety or different options in terms of music. Maybe it’s how I grew up, maybe it’s growing up here in Detroit, where listening to the radio you could listen to very good rock ’n’ roll to very good gospel to very good rhythm and blues to whatever. It’s puzzling to me that someone would only want to hear a particular type of music all the time. I don’t think I can do anything all the time for long periods of time, so it’s kind of strange that someone comes up to me and they go your latest works are okay, they’re not really for the dancefloor, but I don’t really care for that, I much care for the more hard driving material, you know, and I don’t know, it’s just…it’s just kind of puzzling to me. So I try to make the music as diverse as I possibly can for those people that just are music lovers—not someone that just wants to dance all night. It’s always been that way. I mean, even through Underground Resistance through going back to Final Cut. If you look at the materials that I made ever since the beginning, it was always diverse. I just assume that someone who comes up to me that would say something like that probably just came in contact with the music that I make, or just came in contact with techno or electronic music, and they don’t quite understand that it’s not one particular sound or pace or BPM or drum machine or whatever—that it encompasses many different styles and forms, and that’s what I encounter.
Q. Do you think techno can expand its range more—or people’s understanding of its range—if it were embraced in concept more than it usually is?
A. I think that it really has a lot to do with how tolerant the people are to listening to things that they’re not quite familiar with, how tolerant the media is to report something that isn’t the agenda of the month or what’s trendy at that time, and it involves patience for someone to just listen to something where they’re not quite sure what the outcome is going to be. It takes those things to happen for something to evolve and I mean you can have an army of producers making very innovative music, but if no one takes the time to really listen to it, and then acknowledge it and say hey, there’s something very special about it, then we really have no chance. This is what I know has happened from house music to disco to techno to…I think it’s a very important thing, event that has to happen I think, the acknowledgement.
Q. With respect to trying to place techno somewhere in between art and entertainment, I wondered if you thought contemporary art in general today was inherently a form of entertainment. And if so, does that leave the door open for techno to be considered a very contemporary art form?
A. Well, if you compare the two, they’re both vehicles and means for one to be able to communicate. If you look at a painting and you listen to electronic techno composition, the intent is generally the same. I mean someone chose to use blue paint instead of gray, or someone chose to play certain keys, black keys as opposed to white keys. I mean, there is intent there in both situations. So it’s a process of someone trying to communicate through a format and I think they actually are basically the same. When you break them down it’s just a form of communication. So entertainment is one application, education is also another one. Education and awareness and many other applications.
Q. Also, I guess with respect to that answer, what do you say to those who want to engage with the music, but not necessarily with the concept?
A. In terms of conceptual?
Q. I guess in terms of, yeah, the conceptual. For those who want to engage the techno music, but not necessarily the concept that’s starting to emerge here that you have to offer?
A. I mean when you really break it down, any effort to communicate, through sound or through color or through any type of format is conceptual, actually. Some are more defined than others, some are more detailed than others. But, I mean, when someone makes a composition, whether it be trance music or drum ’n’ bass or techno or whatever, and they give it a name, there is an idea behind it. If there wasn’t, then there would be no reason to give it a title or there would be no reason to only make it at the time limit that it’s at, five minutes as opposed to fifteen minutes. There is some structure, it’s just basically under developed concepts basically is what it is. When someone has an idea and they make the transition from what they think to their fingers to the keyboard to capturing it on tape or CD, there is a concept there.
Q. Assuming at this point that techno is more than just music to you, that techno may be a theory or may be a way of life, whatever is the case, what else would you say that techno is in order to relate your feelings to us? Is it architecture? Is it like a theme that runs through a book? Or is it too much to call it a philosophy?
A. Yeah. My experience is it changes. The form of the changes for what I…It actually…I can basically describe anything or use electronic music or techno as a format to exert any type of idea or any type of feeling. For example, I just finished a project called The Healing Channel, and it’s using electronic music as a therapy, actually—so using the same equipment, the same drum machines, I would normally make a track for someone to dance to through the night, using that same equipment to create something that creates a very gyrating massage type of sound for a completely different application. So it really depends on what I need it for. It’s kind of like an all-purpose type of format, you know. I never really thought of it as a structured tool where I can’t bend it to serve my purpose. It’s always been like that from the beginning. I never looked at it as something I go to, but as something I kind of create around me. And the most techno thing about everything, or the most techno thing about the music that I make, is actually not in the keyboards or the machines that I use, but actually more in the idea itself. I never really relied on a particular sound or a particular keyboard or one that does a particular thing, because I’m shaping the sound for my need.
Q. What I’m understanding is that it has such elasticity to it. Do you feel it’s chosen a very rigid path in a short-term history?
A. I don’t know, maybe the first four years, I suppose. Not the first four years, but maybe the late 80’s to the mid 90’s, I suppose and it was rigid because it was the era of acid house and the era of heavy drugs and ecstasy and a very circus-like atmosphere of electronic music, and it was rigid because you at times have situations where young people are doing things that they’re not supposed to be doing, so you have the authorities and city officials and the police trying to control the situation, so it was rigid because of that. Through the ’90s, it began to take on a much wider form and people began to not rebel, but they were interested in producing music in another direction, so shortly after acid house, a very short phase came where people were producing very intellectual type of electronic music in groups like Black Dog and Aphex Twin and a lot of groups from the UK and Germany were coming in. It was more towards art form and tainted [IS THIS THE RIGHT WORD?] with machines and modifications and things like that, and things became a little bit more stabilized. The whole party scene became a little bit more settled. The structure of the whole industry in Europe and outside of America became a little bit more…More form came about and it became easier to travel around countries and play music for people and perform and things like that.
Q. The way in which you’re able to apply techno far beyond, say, a studio setting, far beyond the context of music really—do you see that as a future for maybe people who aren’t even making this music, [a direction] for techno in general to expand, other avenues it can go considering it is that willingness to explore?
A. I think it really has to do with something that…I believe it really has to do with how other things influence a younger generation of people outside of music, how a younger generation grows up and what their influences are. How the world and everything in the world is really affecting them, actually, and I think as they grow up, as they become older, they have a certain view on life. For me, I mean, I grew up in the ’60s. It was a very turbulent time, especially here in Detroit, you know, riots in Chicago, riots in Detroit, lots of riots, the Civil Rights movement. I can remember the Army coming into Detroit and stabilizing the whole city and there were fires just one block away, and my parents thought it was too dangerous and they took us to Montreal, to Canada, at the time because it was just to violent to be here in the city. And at the time, I don’t know if it was just by coincidence, but it was actually Expo in Montreal in 1967 and while this was all happening in Detroit, I was being exposed to how people were actually dreaming about what tomorrow would be like. And we stayed there until maybe two weeks, until things calmed down here and then they brought us back to Detroit. And, I mean, just growing up in that era and watching how the city kind of recovered from that and the state that it’s in now and watching the automobile industry kind of decline and stabilize and what’s left from—you know, what remnants are left from that era—and listening to the ideas of what people plan to do to kind of fix it and patch it up and move on from here. You know, growing up in these types of eras, it shapes a particular type of character and I suppose all of us, the techno community here in Detroit, we have similarities, we grew up…Most of us grew up in this era, so deep, deep down within ourselves, there are similarities and probably the same reasons why we make music the same or very similar ways. Or why we have such an urge to want to leave the city of Detroit and kind of bring the sound with us and show other people what it’s like or what we kind of experienced, the type of people that we are. And so I would think that the same thing would happen to a younger generation and that will kind of shape what the music will be like, what they’ll use, what they’ll find interest in, the type of message they’ll put in the music and I think that’s generally how it works throughout time.
Q. You were just talking about being in a situation where you had people thinking about tomorrow and I think in the simple form, if it’s not too simplistic, I think of techno as being a series of guesses about tomorrow. And I think there have been generations, people who have grown up thinking about tomorrow with the 21st century being a sort of benchmark of that process. Now that we’re here, do you think people, maybe younger people, are still thinking about tomorrow? Is it a different process?
A. I want to say yes, but honestly I would probably have to say no. I mean I think that the world has become more complex, more…It’s a very complex world that we all live in today and I think the average young person is exposed to so many…much more harsher things in life, I think. I mean when you turn on the news and you listen to just the nightly news and you know, the things that you hear like in one week or within 24 hours, it could just be drastically different. After a while it really shapes one’s character and how one views the world. I’ve always just kind of discovered that it’s hard to get people to discuss the future, actually. I’ve always found that it’s hard to get in conversations with people about the future and what they think the future may be like. It’s almost, to a certain extent, where people find it kind of disturbing to discuss. Whether some people don’t want to make a prediction and then it doesn’t happen, or maybe some people have views on the future that are maybe too bleak. I find that people are not as optimistic in these days as maybe in the ’90s, I suppose. I’ve always found it difficult and even through making music, I find it difficult for people to really accept a concept or a story or some type of idea that takes place in the future and the music is actually asking the listener to kind of imagine the situation or the scenario.