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Barbican Meets: DJ Jeff Mills

photo of jeff mills playing music for a crowd
20 Apr 2017

We speak to Jeff Mills about his upcoming residency, From Here to There, which will see audiences transported into outer space, as part of the Into the Unknown: Journey into Science Fiction event series.

In your mind, is there a theme that links these four performances?

All of the concepts deal with different perspectives about time. I wanted to have a universal or composite concept that any and everyone—whether you listen to electronic music or classical or contemporary dance—can relate to. I thought that would be quite important.

The first performance is Life to Death and Back, so that seems pretty obvious how time relates. I see how it relates immediately to the idea of a Fantastic Voyage, what about Planets? How does time relate in The Planets event?

The concept of Planets is really about a journey. It’s about a tutorial journey to each one of the planets, and we measure time by the amount of light that the listener is conceptually moving away from. You feel and hear that in the soundtrack. So Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, has a different texture than say, Pluto, or Uranus, or Neptune. The further the listener moves away from the sun, the darker, the more mysterious the soundtrack feels.

Would it be right to assume that this will be a presentation of your new album?

Yes – but I have to add that there’s a certain percentage of the live performance that’s open to improvisation. I don’t have a score, like the other musicians. I basically memorized everyone’s part and I’m applying my instruments to how I feel and what I want the audience to feel at that moment. So, it’s a bit different than most other performances.

We live in a different era with different factors and different issues that we have to deal with. And also people were different from 1918 to 2017

Do both the performance and the new record take Holst’s The Planets as a launching off point?

Essentially, it’s a completely different score. There’s nothing in the score that is from the orchestration or the score of Holst. My intention was to make something completely different that was really representative of the time that we sit in 100 years after his version. We live in a different era with different factors and different issues that we have to deal with. And also people were different from 1918 to 2017. And so considering that and then all the discoveries that we know about the planets, I decided that I have enough information and enough reason to create something completely different. So it started from there. My version should be really more towards a journey and less of a spiritual visit to each one of these worlds. It’s more of a practical perspective of the planets, and not based on theoretical notions. It’s based on facts, things that we know.

Tell me about Light From The Outside World. I ask because I’m thinking about how the first two performances, because they’re essentially soundtrack performances, they’ve really got these visual cues. And now you’re talking about the cues that guide The Planets, especially since there’s already so much cultural data accumulated about The Planets. So what about Light From The Outside World, what are the cues there?

In that performance, there are about 15 tracks, and each one of the tracks works conceptually in the same way as Planets. There’s definitely an idea and a reason why I made the music in the first place. With the orchestra, my intention is just to play it out as well as I can so that the listener would feel or understand the idea or concept in a different manner or different way. So let’s say the track “Amazon”, for instance—which I made with Mike Banks—is one of the compositions in the score. At every opportunity, at every point, I worked out with the arranger to try and give this feeling as if at one time you’re listening to something in the Amazon. The second point is it’s all mysterious. The third point is that you’re kind of at a disadvantage because there’s so many other animals that are so adapted to the jungle than a person walking through it, so there’s the element of surprise. There’s this exploration and discovery idea that’s also in that track. So Light From The Outside World is 15 of these stories. And I had to explain it very thoroughly to the arranger so that we would not miss anything. We sat down and discussed each one of these tracks in detail and went back and forth with the different samples and sketches of how it could be. Light From The Outside World is a performance and score that I’ve been doing for about ten years now. It’s been improved over the years, I’ve made different modifications over time, just enhanced it, so it’s a very good shell now.

Going back to how all of these are linked with the theme of time, one thought that I had was perhaps there was this idea of transcendence, as well? You know, this movement from one state to another, whether it’s to the afterlife or the idea of travel. I wondered if that was relevant for you at all?

It is, yeah. I guess at this time—and it’s really being reflected in a lot of the work that I’m working on now for upcoming albums and things—the idea of taking people somewhere or moving people from point A to point B is what I’m really into. And in various ways: through virtual reality, through surround sound, through hypnosis, through magic tricks, in trickery and things like that. I just think that perhaps maybe we’re heading into an era where the average person may have the choice to be either here or there. And making music and releases about that subject and showing many different ways about how that can happen might open up more curiosity and people may understand it a little bit better. And in the end, really, essentially, what I’m saying is that in time we may have a choice about who and what we are.

Do you actually mean that in terms of basic life’s chances kinds of things? Or do you mean that in a more general sense of us being able to make decisions about ourselves in terms of who we are inside or whatever? Are you talking literally?

When you get into the subject of manipulating everything around us and there’s an intent from someone to want to leave, it’s much easier to convince, probably, that person’s mind that they should. Say, for instance, with virtual reality and all that’s happening and all that’s gonna happen. From that, as it advances and becomes more convincing, we could probably within our lifetimes have the choice of how we want to exist or how we want to live. Or where we want to do that. What do we want to do, how do we want to contribute to humanity, or not? I think that choice and the idea of mixing things and putting yourself in front of something that you don’t understand immediately or never will, but somehow you have to accept it, might become a large part of the life of the average human. So, all these ideas, Light From The Outside World, and Planets, and Life To Death and Back, and Fantastic Voyage are dealing with incredible stories. They’re all kind of otherworldly types of subjects. And so there is the underlying link. I just feel that the more I can put these types of ideas in front of people and use music as a device to be able to bring people’s attention to it, the more they might become accustomed to the subject, and maybe the more they might be ready for when it comes.

I love the scope of what you’re talking about. It’s pretty mind-expanding stuff. How would you describe the arc of your career?

For the most part, it’s always went in many different directions at the same time. Even when people assumed I was only doing one thing, I was always interested in many other things just as much. And I think, over time, it became a little bit more revealing of my other interests. Things always happen in parallel. I was always reading a lot when I was making music. I was always reading a lot of science fiction, or at times I was very much into art. And times very much into architecture, very much into science. When I see opportunities to bring that into the music world, I would take it. I don’t know if it’s an arc. There is a circular motion to it. I tend to navigate around the same or similar subjects but different perspectives of them. So time travel is something I’ve been working with for a long, long time.

Right, the man from tomorrow.

Yeah. And I just think there’s so much about it that I could probably make many more projects about it. The question of reality and Light From the Outside World, for instance, what we think we understand versus what could be possible, I suppose. It’s difficult to determine the direction of my career. It’s ups and downs, it’s flipping over, it’s going forward. I’m always working on many different things at the same time. So it’s never one thing. Sometimes they intertwine, sometimes they don’t. It’s really hard to explain, actually.

As a listener what still gets you excited? What are you looking for when you listen to new music? Do you still listen to other people’s music?

Yeah, of course. All the time. I just got back from Brazil so brought back a big batch of samba and all types of stuff I’m listening to now. I’m always listening for chord structure. I often listen to music as if someone is telling me something. If I’m speaking to you and then I tell you something for instance that makes you laugh, I’m listening to music in those types of ways. I’m listening for how the composer uses chord structure or notes, or sou to be able to make the conversation more interesting.

Humans, we communicate. We learn by listening and understanding and then being proactive

That really ties into the whole idea of narrative in the same way that you were talking about The Planets performance.

Yeah. Humans, we communicate. We learn by listening and understanding and then being proactive. So we are tuned for that. We are tuned for music, and we are tuned for storytelling. We are tuned for fantastic journeys and mystery and drama and suspense. We are obsessed by what’s behind the door. Even though it’s my career to create these types of projects, as an admirer, as a fan, I’m like everyone else. I want to have as many of these experiences as possible, so that’s one thing that I’m always buying and listening to music for—something that makes me feel a certain way. And that doesn’t necessarily have to make me feel good, either. I’m just trying to, I suppose, teach myself as much as I can about the way people think about everything. And see if there are similarities in the way that I think, too. Or differences. And that helps me when I’m sitting down to make music for people. Because I can have a general idea of what it might take for them to be shocked or catch their attention. Or make them sit on the edge of their seat or to make them very relaxed or to make them feel sentimental about certain things.

Does that differ from the way you make music for yourself?

Yeah. It’s a good percentage of the music that I make is just for me. The music that I make for myself is never really definite. I guess it’s the nuance of music, or the residue of music, I suppose. Because I don’t need to have the whole story laid out. I just need something to be insinuated and then my mind kind of takes over from there. So, when I’m making music for myself, as a sample to be able to understand something else, I’m just doing really what I feel, and then from there an idea, if I’m lucky, kind of pops out of that.

Listen to Jeff Mills mix, Astronomia, created when he last visited us at the Barbican.

a photo of DJ jeff mills playing a techno set in london at the barbican centre

Listen: Jeff Mills - From Here to There

In his second exclusive mix for us, the pioneering Techno producer takes us around the galaxy in music inspired by sci-fi.

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