Jeff Mills AKA The Wizard: “I don’t expect it to ever truly end. Ever.”
Jeff Mills is a musician who has been at the forefront of techno music for over two decades now, having been involved with the genre since its infancy, and working as a DJ way before the music even existed. Highly regarded thanks to his forward-thinking approach to music, soundtracking the future in his own inimitable way, Jeff Mills is a highly regarded proponent of high-quality, innovative music and live performances. This year his record label, Axis, celebrates its 20th anniversary and to coincide with the anniversary he has compiled a huge book documenting some of the visual projects that have released in conjunction with the label. I was very fortunate to be able to speak to Jeff about his story so far, here’s the full version of the interview…
It’s been 20 years since Axis started, what was your original intention with the label?
The initial objective was to create a label that constantly focused on bringing forth theories and subjects that related to everyone. Not just party and dance music, but also explored the listener’s inner self. In 1992, I felt that the world had enough dance-music-only Techno labels and that there was plenty of room for labels of a slightly different nature.
How has your own musical vision evolved in those 20 years?
By design, it has changed and evolved as I have as a person. Rather than measuring my progress based on the movements in the dance music community, I chose to create products that are closely held to my character and personality. In all the years of my career, there has always been a constant desire to describe what the future will be and sound like.
And how about the way in which Axis itself has evolved?
There have been ups and downs like in any business in the music industry. Over the years, I’ve realised that it’s better to not focus on trends and what people would prefer. What makes better sense is to keep a particular style and character to the music, while exploring subjects that are relevant and useful to the listener.
What would you say have been some of the key developments in your approach to music in the last 20 years?
Realising that technology only makes things easier to materialise. It isn’t responsible for the creation of a idea or concept. Only by working on one’s belief system will you be able produce those obscure and abstract ways of seeing reality and the world around us. What I truly believe is the best piece of equipment I own.
And which developments within music/technology itself have affected your musical output most?
My technique and method towards making music hasn’t changed in 20 years. I still do not use computer software to sequence. Only classic analogue synths and machines. Through the web, I can develop concepts much quicker than in 1992. Searching out archives and information necessary to build the projects.
When you started Axis, did you have any firm targets and, if so, 20 years on – which of those targets have you successfully completed?
Over the years, the targets have changed, but overall, yes. Around five to six years ago I began to see the apparent change in the type of people that follow the label’s output. I don’t consider it anything like a success, but it’s fantastic that after 20 years, the label has people who really understand its objective.
How have you been celebrating the 20th anniversary of Axis this year?
Though special parties and events. The main feature is a book of photographs documenting the projects and concepts Axis has presented over the two decades. The book is entitled Sequence, it’s 320-page book with 30 track compilation on an inserted USB card. The book will debut in October 2012.
How long did it take to put together and how does it represent Axis and yourself?
I started putting together various ideas about four years ago. We really started the task of gathering the bulk of the information about two years ago. What the book displays are all the projects that we’ve created. Most were materialised and presented, but some never saw daylight or have yet to be presented. The book was designed as a reflection of what Axis was, and has become, as the result of the patience and patronage of the listeners.
How important has Axis been to you over the years?
It’s been, and looks set to be, my life’s work. Around 1996, I made the commitment to spending the rest of my life to creating this style of music. Since then, it became more clear as to the type of things I need focus on or the way Axis needed to be managed in order to survive all the changes in the industry. Selling music isn’t the only objective.
Of course, your career spans more than 20 years – in the beginning, could you ever have imagined making the impact you have?
I have a strong belief that Techno is more special than any other genre of music and that with it [and with a certain focus] its possible to achieve extraordinary things. For instance, with Techno it’s possible to move tens of thousands of people within seconds. Or, it’s possible to generate feelings about the future without playing a single musical note or chord.
And could you have ever have imagined still being recognized as such a significant musician?
I think that doing or being something significant in music has a lot to do with how the producer feels about the music he or she is making. If music is being made for a reason that many people can identify with, then the chances are greater that enough people could think of that as “relevant” or “key”. I tend to think more about the intent of my actions more than how I’m measured.
What keeps you motivated after all these years?
The idea that tomorrow is always the chance to start again or discover something new. I try [though its difficult] to decrease the economics of this industry, leaving more mental space to explore and take more chances.
Away from music, how do you like to spend your time?
Normal things. Museums, movies, reading. I’m really into collecting things, so quite a lot of time is spend searching. At the moment, I’m in the process of building a larger collection of books of Science Fiction and Space Science.
You now perform music in a far more insular, almost selfish (dare I say), respect than you did in your formative years… what brought about this change?
I realised that what the people mostly wanted to hear is the same thing over and over again. As a DJ and producer, when I would try to venture off to present something new or different, it was often met with disappointment, negativity and even hostility. Or, a notion that I lost my way and that it’s over for me. I began to understand that it’s a trap of opinions that so many others have fallen into and become confused as to how to continue to please the people and, in the end, the producer is pulled further and further away from what they would really like to do.
I stopped believing the idea that DJs are only there to play people’s favorite songs and I started to realise more that some people are as informed or even more educated, about music as I am. I started to playing music that I thought that might appeal to those people – the most educated, not the least.
There is this common idea that all DJs must be attentative to their audience, but I disagree. I believe that whatever it takes to make the experience and music more interesting is far more important. When programming music, there is a certain amount of time a DJ has to get their point across. Some DJs use this time by smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka shots, while others are deep in thought and trying to make something unique occur. If I’m thought of as being selfish by not looking at the audience as much, then this is what it’ll have to be in order for me to bring something different. I’m willing to accept this term.
Can you ever imagine going back to playing with the sole intention of pleasing a crowd?
I did that for many years and it eventually lead people to believe that I had nothing creatively more to offer. So no, I’ve moved on from that way. There are thousands of other DJs that will do only that. If given even the slightest chance, I will always work to play something new and different.
Your approach to DJing can be fast-paced and hard-hitting, where does this style come from?
It really depends on the circumstances on where I’m playing. If I feel its a fast-paced, hard-hitting audience, it’ll be some of that. If I feel that I can go deeper, I’ll certainly pursue that too. In general and in most DJ sets, I tend to explore all possible textures – if people have enough patience. Like all other major genres, there isn’t one standard way to play or present the sound.
Are there any Detroit DJs who you would credit with being inspirations in terms of this style of playing?
In terms of style, it really derives from my early years from being on the radio and producing a nightly show under the name, The Wizard. At the time, I would often use drum machines, three or four turntables and many other things to make the music more interesting. It wasn’t a style I borrow or was influenced by. It was developed as a matter of competition with the rival radio station and other DJs. It has developed over the years and suspect it’ll probably change even more as technology will have an influence on the type of equipment DJs will be using.
Who were your musical idols/inspirations in your formative years?
Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Jeff Beck, Steely Dan, David Sanborn, Stanley Clarke, Return to Forever, Rush, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Jazz Messengers and many other Jazz/Rock/Funk fusion artists. These were my high school years. Then, when I was old enough to drive and go out, I got into dance music. Georgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, etc…
You played at DEMF earlier this year, how did that go? What was it like playing back in your home town?
It was fantastic. Playing in Detroit is always a very special experience because I have such a long and deep connection with the city. It’s the place where I learned almost all my skill, technique and a lot of life. I really owe the people of the city a lot for listening and dancing all those years. It was like to playing for 10,000 of your schoolmates or neighbourhood friends.
Do you keep a tab on how the music scene is in Detroit nowadays?
Yes, always. Over all the years, it still maintains to generate a certain amount of new talents.
What direction are you heading in, musically, over the coming years… do you have a firm idea of where you want to go with everything?
Yes. Its quite apparent that another Space Race will start between countries again. Space and Space travel will [again] be at the forefront of sciences in the decades to come and I hope to see Techno music as playing a slight contribution in making people better understand what’s out there and how it works. Also, I believe that the sound of music will be matched or superceded by the experience of imagining something that doesn’t exist. I hope that Axis can be in a position to add to this experience as well. We have plans to explore Techno outside the scope of music.
Where would you like to be in another 20 years time?
I’ll be 70. I hope to be in good health and spirit – able to make music or whatever brings forth feelings about the future.
What’s happening with Axis now?
Right now, we’re planning the first few projects for 2013. An album entitled “Oneness” that explores the subject of minimalism and singularity. Another one will be a DVD or USB compilation of experimental films and dance performances. A graphic photo book about UFO sightings and many other releases such as Something In The Sky and Taken as well as other products throughout the year. There is also the chance to revisit a project entitled “The Exhibitionist”.
Over the course of your career, you’ve been involved in many aspects of producing music and performing, what else is left for you to achieve now?
I come from a generation of DJs where there really wasn’t much before us, so I’m not really sure how far it can be taken. One thing is sure, if given the opportunity to expand the genre, I will pursue it.
When you’re retired, what will you look back on and think of as your proudest achievement? When do you imagine you might retire?
I don’t plan to retire – there is no reason to. It’s not like a 9-5 job or profession. It’s something much more fulfilling. Before the time comes when I can no longer physically produce, I will have [hopefully] found a way to translate my ideas another way.
As far as merits, I think it’ll be the people that will eventually decide what achievements were made. Honestly, I’m just interested in producing as much as I possibly can in the short time I’ve been given.
And how will you spend your time when it’s all over?
It’s not really my nature to look back. Somewhere along my career, I became convinced that there is more value in thinking forward than reminiscing about the past. In this way, I don’t expect it to ever truly end. Ever.
For more information on Axis Records click HERE and for more informational on their seminal book, Sequence, make sure you click HERE. And you can catch Jeff live and direct at Cable, London on Saturday 25th August – for info and tickets click HERE.