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Inventing the future with Jeff Mills and Jean-Michel Jarre

The two electronic music pioneers sit down for a discussion about technology, the future, and the barriers to progress

Jean-Michel Jarre is the French synthesizer pioneer who sold 80 million records, composed some of electronic music’s most iconic tracks, and played open-air concerts to millions at locations like the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids of Giza. Jeff Mills is the innovating Detroit artist who defined the early shape of techno with Underground Resistance and as The Wizard, held residencies in both Tresor and the Louvre, and broke down the barriers between the dancefloor and the concert hall with his orchestral collaborations.

The two artists have left an indelible mark on electronic music in their own different ways, and now they’ve worked together on a track for Jarre’s new album Electronica 2, the second part of a multi-album project that sees the French artist collaborate with a slew of musicians who’ve made a lasting impact on electronic music, from Gary Numan to the Pet Shop Boys to Laurie Anderson.

“This project, Electronica, is about working with people who are a strong source of inspiration to me,” says Jarre over the phone from Paris. “Jeff was high on my wishlist. The track is called ‘The Architect’ – in a sense it’s a tribute to Jeff. There’s a certain link between cities and electronic music, and obviously in the case of techno, Jeff is linked to Detroit. But beyond this, I really consider Jeff an architect of electronic music. His music is as abstract as a piece of modern architecture, but very organic also. I think the track is an absolute balance between our DNAs and between our worlds.”

If there’s a shared bond between the two artists, it’s their fascination with the future. Though they emerged in different decades, both found themselves drawn to the latest technology of the time and used it to explore new musical forms. And unsurprisingly, both are huge fans of science fiction, heavily utilising the imagery of space and a techno-futuristic world to imagine the next phase of humanity. “I grew up listening to Jean-Michel’s music,” says Mills, “We used to call it ‘progressive music’ in Detroit in the 70s and early 80s, because there wasn't a category for that kind of music. It was music that really represented a future reality.”

Ahead of Electronica 2’s release, the two artists spoke together to discuss the future, how electronic music can contribute to the future, and the biggest barriers facing progress towards that future.

Jean-Michel Jarre: (When we first met) we talked in my studio a long time ago about how to structure a piece of music. You had a fairly precise idea of where you wanted to go, which is unusual for a lot of musicians. We (also) discovered that we had the same kind of interests – one of the founding movies for both of us was 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Jeff Mills: (Meeting you) opened my eyes to a lot of things. Until then, I didn’t have a direct understanding about what electronic music actually contributes to the creative world, but after that – we talked for three hours – a common link was music being considered for practical reasons. Even if the reasons are far out, even if these were people’s dreams, people’s fantasies, people’s escape, it always had practical purpose.

Jean-Michel Jarre: I felt that when we mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, you were linked to this appetite for the future – this quite Romanesque vision of the future. The reason why yours and my generation have been so influenced by movies like 2001 was because it was a total spectacle, the fact that it was more than just a movie. I think that’s what we’re trying to carry in our music, in our sounds, where people can create their own movies on the music.

Jeff Mills:  2001 is like a multi-dimensional key. I think of it like that because for me, it’s not so much what the movie was about, but how the story played out and how it made you feel after you’d seen it. I always thought it made the watcher at least one step closer to what the future’s going to be like. I also hear that in your music. When I was young, we would search out artists and musicians that would make music in a way that would take us beyond the turn of the century, as far as possible. Music is one way of bringing things to people’s attention in ways that resonate and stimulate ideas that people already have in their minds about what the future could be.

“Music is one way of bringing things to people’s attention in ways that resonate and stimulate ideas that people already have in their minds about what the future could be” — Jeff Mills

Jean-Michel Jarre: What is your relationship with the future today? I remember in the days where we had hope for the future, (we thought that) after the year 2000, the social and educational system would be much better. Cars would fly; we’d have all of these fantastic tools. And it seemed that after 2000, we lost this kind of innocence towards the future. Now it’s a much darker period, based more on ‘Are we going to kill the planet?’ environmental issues. The superheroes for kids are Marvel, (the same superheroes as) the 1950s. It’s like we need to reinvent a vision for the future. I feel in the last three, four, or five years, we’re starting to go back to that – movies like Interstellar, Gravity, (and) even The Martian go back to the sci-fi vision for tomorrow.

Jeff Mills: I’m more than convinced that the time will come, perhaps even in our lifetime, that will be the result of things created in the 20th century. A lot of ideas we dreamt about, all the ways of communicating, will come to fruition at some point this century. For instance, the internet – I think we haven’t reached a point where we’re using it in its best and most effective way. We’ll really understand where it’s most important in some time of crisis – massive, large scale crisis – (and) I think we haven’t had one yet this century. So when I’m composing music, in a certain way I’m imagining that time and after, and how as a human (we will) have to adapt our lives. Part of our life as human beings will be trying to understand something that we’ve never encountered or experienced before. I don’t imagine that tens of thousands of years in the future, but actually much sooner.

“(We thought that) after the year 2000... cars would fly; we’d have all of these fantastic tools. And it seemed that after 2000, we lost this kind of innocence towards the future” — Jean-Michel Jarre

Jean-Michel Jarre: I have a slightly different vision of the future. Two centuries ago, we couldn’t imagine electricity, and then it changed our world – but we’ve been able to deal with it. And for the first time in the 21st century, we know that AI at one stage is going to be quicker and superior to the human brain, and when it happens, they say that one (or) two years later, one machine will be more powerful than all the brains of all the human beings on the planet. It’s not like being confronted by electricity before electricity. The first computer won the game of Go, now the computer is beating the best (Go player) all the time. So what’s the point to play the game again? What if suddenly the machine is able to make music or movies, and we cannot compete with it? It’s something that does not worry me, but is changing a lot about my vision of the future.

Jeff Mills: Are you trying to say that at some point we might lose our sense of purpose?

Jean-Michel Jarre: In a sense, yes. I thought a lot about the photograph you showed me, the prototype of your drum machine in Japan looking like a UFO. We’re all fascinated by people coming from a different universe and a different world, but I’m not prepared for something coming from this planet – that suddenly we (may) have machines taking control.

Jeff Mills: Maybe humans have too much freedom – we don’t know what to do with it sometimes. We need some type of direction, or directive, in order to make sense of the reason we’re getting up every morning, or why we’re going to sleep at night. To be totally free is a question of whether we really want that or not. If technology has a way of doing that, then why put so much emphasis on being enslaved by it? I’ve been thinking about what humans are really contributing to nature. I’m not quite sure. You know, nature can live without us.

Jean-Michel Jarre: I’m convinced that the earth is much stronger than us.

“We’re all fascinated by people coming from a different universe and a different world, but I’m not prepared for something coming from this planet” — Jean-Michel Jarre

Jeff Mills: It really hits the nail on the head of the question: why are we here? At some point, we’re going to try to figure it out and there’ll be some large scale breakdown, and someone will have to redefine and make sense of why we’re here and what we need to do in order to evolve or maintain. And someone has to come up with some kind of reason. That box seems to be unchecked, you know?

Jean-Michel Jarre: I was wondering if all these aspects of the future and the questions you have are feeding into your inspiration for music or not at the moment? I know you’ve been working on a great project on the planets, mixing classical pieces with music. All what we're talking about, is it (important to the project) or not necessarily?

Jeff Mills: The planets, in particular, was a project that I thought was quite important, because I truly believe that humans will go to each one of those planets, (either) physically or in the vicinity (where we can) see each of these planets with the naked eye. I’m positive of that. I truly believe that the best times for our species have yet to come, despite all the dark days. Adjustment always creates madness in societies – ‘out with the old and in with the new’ has this way of making people go nuts. There's a certain amount of time the world (needs) to feel more grounded – it took 50 years for the industrial age to end! We have plenty more decades to go before we truly feel comfortable with computers and things like that. I think we really haven't begun. We're kind of like in a waiting room, waiting to be diagnosed.

“I truly believe that the best times for our species have yet to come, despite all the dark days” — Jeff Mills

Jean-Michel Jarre: I totally agree with you. I think this kind of apocalyptic paranoia is also based on the fact that the media are selling us the apocalypse because it’s making money. Peace is neutral, and not very sexy. That’s why I’m against people saying, ‘Yesterday was better and tomorrow will be worse.’ We shouldn't forget that two centuries ago, people were losing their teeth at 18 years old, they had no antibiotics, 90% of people on the planet were starving. If you consider this, we are slightly better than two centuries ago, even if we are in a lot of trouble at the moment. As Jeff said, we're still babies in the digital age and the internet. It took quite a long time to get the industrial revolution, so we need more time for claiming the digital world.

But one of the big questions at the moment for me – this is the reason why I did a collaboration with someone like Edward Snowden – is that a very small group of people can control the world. They can survey us, they can spy on us. It’s always a problem when the governors are monitoring the governed. This is something I’ve been raised with – my mum was a great figure in the French resistance. She always told me that when she went to the resistance in 1941, people were considered as troublemakers, almost as traitors for some of them, because they were against the power in place. Now, because of digital technology, the governors have more and more power on the governed. This is something that worries me. As Jeff said, on a long-term basis we’ll find ways, but we need these kinds of whistleblowers and we need these kinds of people at every time in history to stand up against the powers in place. The use and abuse of technology has always been a philosophical problem for mankind – when we discovered the atom, we made a big step for medicine, but we also made the atom bomb. (It’s the) same thing with the internet. Technology is neutral, but it all depends on the way we use it. We always have to be aware.

Jeff Mills: As long as there are people, and people are supposed to live together and exist together, you're going to have these issues. But it perhaps signals a different type of reality than we may choose to live in, as opposed to a real one. A simulated reality is an answer to all of our dreams: we don’t trust each other, we don’t want to be next to each other, so why should we? (Maybe) I don’t want to be Jeff Mills on Tuesday – I want to be Miles Davis on Tuesday. And then, I don’t know, Michael Jackson on Thursday. It may be possible with technology to actually feel like you are those people and living the lives they live and an escape.

Jean-Michel Jarre: That's a fairly good week!

Jean-Michel Jarre’s new album Electronica 2 is out now