Jeff Mills has been DJing and producing for 34 years. Detroit-born but now Chicago based, he was a founding member of Detroit's legendary techno collective Underground Resistance and now he runs Axis Records. He's teamed up with the French filmmaker Jacqueline Caux for Man From Tomorrow, a new film that uses a non-narrative approach in order to convey Mills' ideas about humanity, the future and his own experiences as a creator. Mills' minimal, haunting soundtrack sits perfectly alongside Caux's beautifully shot moments of isolation and slowness. We spoke to Mills about Man From Tomorrow, the future and the existential aspects of being a DJ that has travelled the world for thirty years.
Dazed Digital: How did you and Jacqueline find each other?
Jeff Mills: Jacqueline and I met through mutual acquaintances in Paris. We wanted to make a film that was representative of what people in electronic music go through psychologically, and try to make a film that hadn't been made yet. There are documentaries about DJs in motion – you know partying or whatever, but we wanted to make a film that came from a different perspective. There can be much more in the life of a DJ than just programming or playing music for people – maybe there should be more examination of the psychological aspect and the mental structure of people that create for a living.
DD: Your recent output has a sense of otherwordliness and is overtly influenced by science fiction and space travel. Is this still the case?
Jeff Mills: I'm definitely influenced by that era of sci-fi and its message. What I'm trying to do is look at what people really want from coming to these parties: what do they want from music and what do they expect? I concluded a while back they want the music to take them away, to have their minds taken to another place. Kind of like good sci–fi does. I try to create a pathway that's based on creating something that would allow someone to jettison off, create different perspectives on what reality is.
As much as we would like to think that we are not in space, we are on a planet floating through it. Whether you like electronic music or not, everything is related to space. I thought that maybe the reason I continued to make music should be for a more relevant reason, pertaining to wider questions. About ten years ago I decided not to focus on making "dance music". If you can dance to it then great, but I wanted to make something thought-provoking. I'm not saying that all electronic music should be like this, but there are enough producers and enough DJs out there. We should consider broader questions and use music to speak to people outside of the club.
DD: This isn't your first foray into film soundtracks. You've scored two Fritz Lang films – Metropolis and Woman In The Moon. How did the process for Man From Tomorrow differ from those films?
Jeff Mills: This film required no research process because I'm living this. It just required lots of discussion with Jacqueline over about eighteen months to accurately translate the life that we're living right now, where tomorrow is, and what it looks like. Mainly the discussion was about what my life is like as a result of being involved with music, as well as following space and science fastidiously. I had to get into what I think and believe about people, what I hope for them to have as a result of listening to my music, and how they would use that to help them in their lives. How does my music serve a purpose in society? You know, I'm there, but not really with the people. It's different from being in a rock band when everyone is singing along and there's an element of showmanship – as a DJ the focus is simpler, you are responsible for the music, the music is an invisible third person that you have to control and manage.
DD: In Man From Tomorrow, you appear as an isolated protagonist, bathed in strobe or cloaked in shadow. You don't seem sad per se, just suspended while the world happens around you.
Jeff Mills: Some people may look at it as being sad, but it's just the consequence of this profession. When you do it for this long, it's not really a question of whether you enjoy it anymore. I do it instinctively. I make ten times more music than I used to, it's not enough to just buy music and wait for someone else to make something that you like. When you go and play parties for people, you need to have music that makes a specific point about what you want to say. That doesn't mean that it needs to be pressed and made available for the public at all, so most of the time I'm in the studio making music for any shows that I have booked, for a specific reason. I can experiment more because nobody else is gonna own it, or hear it again, so there's less pressure.
DD: Throughout your career, you've travelled to many different countries, mostly alone. How has that affected your outlook on life and music?
Jeff Mills: Wherever you go, people make different assumptions about you. If I didn't open my mouth, people would assume that I was from Africa. These different assumptions mean that you sometimes adopt different characters. When you enter this profession, and you travel as much as I have, you are no longer the same person you were when you left your hometown, because your eyes have seen too much. DJing in front of people, having champagne at the hotel is just one part of the process, but what happens when you go home and you're all by yourself? What are you thinking about? What about when you're with your friends and you can't explain something? I'm supposed to be a master of communication.
Man From Tomorrow is screening at the ICA on April 19. Jeff and Jacqueline will be holding a Q&A after the film. Buy tickets here.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot