When speaking to someone like Jeff Mills, asking questions about the past—as impressive and fascinating as his is—should be the last thing you do because 1) he's one of the most industrious musicians of all time so you're hardly short of new interview material and 2) the future is the very thing that defines him; everything he does in music explores what could be to come. It's appropriate, then, that he became involved in film through French filmmaker Jacqueline Caux, whom he helped produce Man From Tomorrow, a documentary about techno music that he featured in.
In 1929, Fritz Lang directed the classic silent film Woman In The Moon, one of the first science fiction films ever made. In fact, it's notable for a lot of reasons, not least because it didn't just accurately predict space travel as it is now, it actually inspired it. Nearly 90 years later and Jeff Mills was invited to once more rescore a Fritz Lang classic. Having previously scored Lang's 1927 film, Metropolis, and being a fan of the film himself, Mills relished the challenge. Once completed, he performed the audio-visual sets using a technique known as "cine-mix" on tour, before releasing the three-disc soundtrack in February. Complex speaks with the sci-fi-loving musician.
Interview by James Keith
This film is nearly 90 years old and yet he's exploring a lot of the same ideas you are: futurism, unknown future and what it could hold.
I think that when you have the responsibility of creating something for the public, it's not unusual to think about subjects that would pertain to everyone. There seems to be a chain of subjects that a lot of artists touch on in the world, things that we all have to look at from the same perspective. Subjects of those manners, they always come to light or become more attractive. You look at the things that were created in the past and you look at where we're going in the future and you try to find examples of how to connect those two things together.
The reason why it's so difficult to think about the future, that maybe we've unconsciously made it this way, is because there is no future to actually think about.
Soundtracking Fritz Lang's films long after his death is an interesting idea. If you scored a film now, you'd have input from studios, producers, directors, etc. Did you get involved with this because that wasn't going to happen?
There were a whole bunch of reasons why I was interested in doing this. They asked me to look into Fritz Lang's catalogue and choose a film to rescore. This film, after Metropolis, was really the next science fiction film that he had made, and it was his last. He moved to America after this film and, because of the landscape change, he was making more drama type films and things like that. Also, in the film, he was showing the moon and space travel, and this was really the first time that the German public was seeing this. They were seeing the topography and the geographical structure of the moon, the lunar surface, for the first time in his film.
Another aspect was that the film was banned by the Nazi party because of the sensitive technological information that Fritz Lang was getting from consulting with scientists that were also designing rockets for the Third Reich. So the Nazi party allowed the film to be shown but they forbid the rocket parts to be shown. Also, many decades after we're finding ourselves in the same situation: the space travel industry has been privatised and now we're beginning to see that it's more likely that we'll actually be going into space without having to be astronauts, instead as tourists. We ourselves may experience this journey in the near future.
I'd read that scientists watching the film in turn learned several lessons from certain scenes in the film. For example, the rocket launching from a pool of water.
Yeah! You know, NASA got the idea of putting the rocket on a type of stand and pushing it out to the launch pad. I think the most important thing was the countdown from 10 to 1 comes from that film. Fritz Lang created the concept of the countdown.
You said the soundtrack has had an affect on how the audience would interpret the film. Was that deliberate or was it something you discovered after the fact?
I grew up with NASA and regularly watching launches and missions and space walks, and stuff like that. That's something Lang and his audience could only dream about. I knew what happened after that film was made and all the progress that man has made since then. So that was added in. For instance, I really wanted to make the contrast between the melodrama that happened earlier in the film and then the idea of space travel because the atmospheres are drastically different.
You also have a new solo album, Free Fall Galaxy.
We're preparing it now. It's the ninth chapter of a special series of science fiction music. This one deals with the possibility of a fourth type of galaxy, the three being: spiral, elliptical and irregular. I created this story that explains that this galaxy is more like a predator, that it consumes other things and it acts like a nomadic type of hunter. It's kind of an aggressive, very primitive type of album. It looks from two perspectives: one from the predator and one from the prey. So it's an interesting album that sets the scene for the next stage of these albums which is probably coming some time next year.
In the press materials, there's this line, "What is it about the future that intimidates humans?" which perfectly linked back to the soundtrack and the idea of futurism.
Exactly. Again, I just made this up but I was thinking that the reason why it's so difficult to think about the future, that maybe we've unconsciously made it this way, is because there is no future to actually think about. Perhaps we have somehow fallen into a motion where our time is going to end. Perhaps the reason we can't think five hundred years ahead is because maybe there's nothing there for us. Perhaps this is the natural cycle of nature.
What I found interesting is that track 11, "Entering The Free Fall Galaxy", is really the beginning of the story.
I wanted to let the listener understand that they are not in control. It's like if you open a door and what has been going on, you're only able to capture a part of. Something had happened before you opened that door and something will go on after you close that door. You're only capturing a small part of the story which, in the back of your mind, should tell you that there's much larger things happening.
You also said the Sleeper Wake series will never stop.
No. Even after I'm gone, I'm planning for someone else to take the series over. That may not be in music, it may be another medium, but in the remainder of my lifetime I need to meet someone I can hand it to. That was the design from the very beginning. I'm only a resident artist on this. It's designed for someone else to take it. I can only be here for so long but the idea is something that can last for decades. So if I can find someone I can relate to that can truly understand the meaning of it and how it's supposed to play out... If I can do it, then it should happen. I'm counting on it.
You're closely associated with the Roland TR-909 but you're now working with orchestras. Is that drum machine still an essential part of your set-up?
For now. It's not something where if I don't have it I don't play. It's just the machine of this moment. I imagine I'm going to discover something else at some point. I'm still discovering things about it and how I can integrate it into a DJ set-up and make the time more special by doing things that reflect that moment, not something that's pressed on a record months ahead of time. I want to make those moments special and only for those people in front of me. I'm also looking for other instruments that would allow me to do something similar but have even more ability. If someone were to make a machine that's a combination of a CD player, drum machine, keyboard and synthesizer it would be the ultimate machine. It's tough to make those sorts of mixed performances at shows. When the DJ or the musician can have more control—and I don't think it's very far away either—things will change drastically for dance music.
I completely agree, especially now the band format is basically dead. Despite that, people still want to know what the person on stage is doing and how it relates to the music.
Right. When you see someone hitting something or pressing the keys, the audience can recognise that and connect with it more easily. I think that's missing in electronic music. The audience can't really see what the DJ is doing. You see the person, but you don't really know what they're doing. You don't know how they're generating the sounds. I think that if the audience could see more, if equipment could be more "acoustic" in certain ways, it could be very different. We can only wish at this point.