Jeff Mills Q&A: ADE15

Paintings and music are rarely, if ever, featured in the same sentence. At the celebration of ADE’s 20th birthday, the unimaginable was executed, creating a moment where the two merged. The King of Detroit and a King of Dutch-painting became one at The Rembrandt House Museum where Jeff Mills composed three new tracks inspired by Rembrandt’s Louvre piece, Philosopher in Meditation. Later that afternoon there was a Q & A that revealed the meaning behind it and what went into the process.

What drew you towards this project?
A lot of is in the place of a landscape photographer today. I am really excelled at capturing a scene or the frame.

Did you feel a kinship to Rembrandt? You are an independent figure as well.
Any one that makes something for people - we all have something in common, looking at similar signs from the public to know the temperature to understand what they are thinking and feeling.

How do you approach translating a space into music?
As a DJ you develop a certain way of viewing your audience in ways that the average person doesn’t think about. You look at a group of people, like a frame, and learn how to measure the movements, facial expressions, the noise decibels… So when you look at a painting you can translate the frame. So on the left side of the room is more low-end where the room is dark and vica versa. It has to be logical for me in order to get started with it. When I went into the room I looked at how things were positioned, the lighting was important, which was all on the left. But he mixed his paint on the right where there was no window. So he must have depended on the light source from the side with the windows. Therefore he probably painted in the early hours of the day due to the sun and possibly with candle light.

"I make more music for film and contemporary dance, than I do dance music"

I took the room as a frame, to see where the sound would be concentrated. The room is made of wood, so it has a certain resonance that I wanted to capture for the acoustical recordings.

You had 3 - 4 hours of time. Presumably when you make music you don’t usually have these limits - how does it influence your work flow?
If I were in my studio, in four hours I can maybe maybe 25 tracks at around five minutes a piece roughly. I’m in the studio every day for at least 4-6 hours, Seven days a week. So the music I officially release is only a small percentage of what I make.

What did you bring for your technical set up?
It’s simple because I intended on playing, not just programming, the synths. But no drum machines because I wanted to create those frequencies in another way, so I used the synth to create a similar- but not the same sound. I’m working on a project that’s about a period and didn’t want too much in it that would date the composition. I thought I could create something in between a note and a chord and a percussive sound.

It’s not all about dancing. To emphasise, I make more music for film and contemporary dance, than I do dance music. So I find many other reasons to create music.

What is it about a conceptual project that attracts you?
It’s the challenge, and trying to describe anything is not easy. Then you need to find something in the machines to create it. Something in these projects appeals to people who are into more than just dance music. From a communication perspective it’s more fulfilling.

Has the expansion of club culture limited our knowledge of electronic music?
In independant dance music, we are quite free and not hindered from doing anything we want to do. We’ve always had this freedom, but somehow let more colourful opinions shape the status quo of the industry. In electronic music we have made the mistake of letting certain topics go on, without confronting them and telling the truth for fear that you might be attacked.

Does the term ‘Techno Pioneer’ encapsulate what you do?
It doesn’t resonate. I still have problems trying to find the chord and note. I’m still learning. Any musician will agree that you never stop learning. There are certain things in the industry that are the way they are for reasons outside the artistry of electronic music. I’m part of a large community and it’s hard to say my contribution is more than anyone else’s.

Back to the project, you had a book on your left where you periodically flipped through - tell us about that.
There were five or six of his paintings, mostly portraits. There was one of sailors in a ship being taken over by the sea so there was a lot of distress. So I created soundtracks for those pages. I had been planning this for about four months. Throughout the summer I travelled with a small recording device before and after the party I went to see what I could create with the smallest possible pieces of equipment.

How did you condense four hours of audio?
I wanted to create a symphonic score - a soundtrack of 21 minutes which is more listenable.

"Space is a subtitle, the title is us"

Do you anticipate doing anything with the music you created today?
It’s the first of a new type of thing I’m interested in. The next project is a soundscaping of a temple in Madrid. The Temple is of the Egyptian God ‘A Mun’ - the God of Wind. My idea is to create compositions of each point leading up to the temple under each of the three arches, in front and then inside the temple. The final performance will be with an audience to capture the moment of the space. The next project will be a recording in the ocean to see how sound travels across certain frequencies across the water. 

How do you balance these projects with touring?
You prepare and you plan. 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, I’m convinced that we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s happening to electronic music. It’s easy to assume that everything has already been done but I keep on having ideas of how to expand it.

Do you give throught to the phrase ‘ageing gracefully’?
If I think of electronic music as a sport, and if I was concerned about the ability to mix two records together, then I would be concerned. But that’s not the case. The notion that older DJs are frustrated because they are older is not true. We’ve made a career through something we love and we continue to do it. We know how to make a craft and how to survive in the industry, which is not easy. The reality is that, age is an asset. I played in London over 300 times but in Berlin at least 400-500 times. So you gain a lot of knowledge about places and music, which helps when you tell stories with music. With age you realise this is a special art form. You enhance yourself by the more experiences you have. The result is something you might not fully understand but it’s clear that with more knowledge the wider my options are in terms of speaking to people.

Are you listening to other artists?
Of course I do. I’ve played music my whole life, so I watch anything and everyone to look at the industry as a whole in order to identify what can help us.

This morning you would occasionally would walk around the room - what were you doing when you weren’t pushing buttons?
I was curious as to what was happening outside the window. Many people, when they walked by were just looking at the house from the street. It reminded me that what happened outside the walls was completely different from what was happening inside the room.

There’s only one window which is why I chose that room and the mixing console is placed where there is no window next to it. The wall has to remain blank, which is the one I face when I’m making music. I want to have something blank so that I can create my own thing. I studied some Salvador Dali, to learn how to map distance and space which helped me calculate.

You’re interested in science fiction but this project is more rooted in the past.
I tried my best to translate the feeling of being in the room and the context from which I’m working. The more I do this, the better I’ll get at it. The same thing happened with working in cinema. The first one I did was Metropolis. Maybe I was lucky but it took a while to create that soundtrack. I just recently did Berlin, Symphony of a Great City - I get better of describing the process of things moving within a frame. The more I do it the easier it is to lead me somewhere.

How do you describe your music?
Not ambient or atmospheric, but soundtrack based. Often we do a bad job of categorising pieces of work. I like to think that we are more knowledgeable about music to be able to distinguish the difference between atmosphere and ambient. I was trying to create the lines and colours of his painting.

Where are we going in terms of electronic dance music?
We can party 24/7 but how is it changing us as people? As a DJ there are many other things happening in the club setting. It’s not all about strobe lights or speakers. As DJs we know what conditions make people coming back again. The rave culture in the mid 80s - thousands of people coming together for music hadn’t existed since the 60s. This may play a role in how we act together in the future. Music has no vocals and this universal communication works. From there, many things are possible.

What messages are you trying to communicate through your own music?
I’m very realistic. You can’t do everything. It’s better to specialise in one particular thing so that you can spend your life trying to master it. Back then I decided to get serious about what I was doing - music, so that I could do things in a way seriously. I understood the ways the industry works. Times are going to change. A major point is that our future is uncertain. But this century we will be tested a lot by many different things. Space is something I work on a lot. I’m worried about humans being in space and not knowing what to do. So I’m trying to help people face situations that they might not be able to deal with. Space is a subtitle, the title is us.