"I say it to this day, if you ain't listened to the The Wizard
You ain't have a fucking clue what you was missing."
That's Eminem on the 2013 song "Groundhog Day," talking about Jeff Mills, a fellow Detroit musician once known as The Wizard. Pretty big talk coming from guy who famously claimed "nobody listens to techno," but not exactly surprising. It's hard to imagine any music fan catching The Wizard on Detroit radio in the '80s and not liking what they heard. Mills, then in his 20s, had already mastered the art of DJing. His sets on WJLB and at parties around Detroit brought a virtuosic mixing technique to the range of dance records available at the time—pop, hip-hop, new wave, post-disco, industrial, electro, whatever. Save the odd bit of early acid house, few of these records were made with DJs in mind, so blending them took an extraordinary level of creativity and technique.
With the '90s and the rise of techno, Mills' style changed. The Wizard's jump-up party vibes gave way to minimalist, tunneling, cosmic techno, a sound Mills honed alongside Robert Hood and other members of Underground Resistance, and also through his own productions and his label, Axis Records. His approach to DJing, though, more or less stayed the same. His records may have been specifically optimized for DJs and clubs—a luxury unimaginable in his days of blending rock and pop records. But he attacked them with the same alacrity as he always had, blasting through them like a man possessed, layering two or three at a time, cutting, beat juggling and augmenting their drums with his Roland TR-909. In performance, he has always been less DJ than one-man band—his face focussed, his hands like two hummingbirds flitting over the mixer in a constant flurry of activity.
Mills is among the most original and influential DJs of all time, in any genre. But more than that, he is a tireless champion for DJing as an art form. In his mixing style, he intentionally raises the bar for what can be expected of a DJ. In his films from the over the years--The Purpose Maker, The Exhibitionist—he offered a visual document of his technique in hopes that it would inspire young DJs (Objekt, in an early edition of this feature series, named The Purpose Maker as a key influence).
At 55, more than 30 years since he first started mixing, Mills is reflecting on his legacy as a DJ and a techno artist—not least with The Director's Cut, his series of Axis reissues, whose second installment comes out this month. On a cold and sunny afternoon in February, I met him in the private room of a café near his home in Paris, where we spoke about the past, present and future of the art of DJing.
What's your preferred DJ setup at this point?
Well first, are you a DJ?
OK good. Because I'll explain some things that only a DJ would be able to understand.
My setup is very basic compared to other DJ setups. I typically run four Pioneer CDJ 2000s. And a very basic mixer, Vestax PMC-500, which is an old, discontinued mixer. I come from the hip-hop era, so a mixer that's very simple appeals to me more than one with gadgets and delays. I don't use sync or MIDI or anything like that. Four CD players into one hub, and that's it. The booth setup is three return monitors at a certain position. And that's basically it. Nothing special about it.
What is it about the Vestax that suits you more than, say, an Allen & Heath?
Certain DJs use certain techniques to mix. So it's not always pod up pod down. Some DJs use the EQ to filter out the frequencies and thus the audio. Some DJs use the crossfader because it's a very literal way of going between tracks. Some kind of feed and tease the line levels. Some DJs work in a way of, I suppose, amplitude, where they mix by building sounds together, but not so much attention to subtracting and deleting.
I typically work in a way where, I don't put so much emphasis on adding things together. I'm thinking more about how I'm going to get this track out, rather than how I'm going to mix the next track in. My style is mainly of subtracting, not adding. Subtracting sound away. That's just the way I learned. So, a mixer that will allow me to hide frequencies the best—that's the reason why I use the Vestax. The three-band EQ is really like a filter. Literally, you can pod them down to zero, to absolute silence. So with that mixer, I can take all the highs out. It's similar to a Bozak. I can take all the midrange out, or all the bass out, completely. I can take it down to zero.
Something like that, it puts you in something more like a recording studio, where you can then begin to very strategically and tactfully pick your sounds to create something completely different. If I've got four CD players, I can take the highs from this one, the mids from this one, the lows from this one, and maybe something else from the fourth one, and blend these things together to create a composition that doesn't even exist. With that mixer, it's possible to do that very cleanly.
Also, there's a function where you can split the line levels between A and B. So that by shifting which direction the line levels are in, you can kind of feather the fade out, so it's very smooth. You also have this grade for the type of mix, so you can choose very sharp ones or very gradual ones. But using this A/B, you can feather it in a way, you can feather the sounds and frequencies away very, very smoothly.
When you say "feather"--
I'm feathering it. I'm listening to the rhythm of the music, and I'm picking small areas in between the notes where I'm actually making the transition. So if it's a 4/4 beat, I'm in between the one and the two, the two and the three, and the three and the four. So, the listener doesn't really feel that anything is decreasing, because I'm making my movements in between the beats. That's why it looks like I'm doing something and sometimes I'm not, because I'm trying to find a way to get in between the beats to make the transition. So I'm touching it, trying to find a way to do it.
I saw a YouTube comment where someone said, "He's doing all this stuff with his hands but I can't hear anything changing." And someone else said, "That shows he's doing it right."
What a DJ does with their hands isn't something you can expect to hear every time. It's like sports, you know? Like you're a tennis player, and your timing is really everything. You're trying to time it at the right moment because there are musicians playing in the music, there's things happening, and you have to find the right moment and the right split second to make that slight adjustment, so it feels like the track is very slowly melting away. If you take your attention away from it, the track would have seemed like it disappeared. That's the trick.
This is how we learned in Detroit. Some DJs learned via other DJs, like Ken Collier. He was really the master at that. But he did it in a way that was even more unusual. Because you could hear the mix, but before you know it, the track was gone. It's like watching a magician. You see the big elephant, you see the curtain go down, the curtain goes up and the elephant's gone. That was the way he used to mix. You'd listen to it, and follow it, but it would disappear, and you could not track its movement.
So this is the way some of us learned. To needle away the track. To get a response from the audience sometimes, to throw something in in a split second, [snaps] that's one trick you can use. But it takes me two, three, maybe four minutes, to make the subtraction.
So, bringing something in, you might just cut it in and get a nice reaction, but the taking out is the delicate part.
Yeah, it's a long and delicate process. And that's where, actually, if I'm doing a DJ set, most of the time is spent.
I guess especially if you have more than two tracks going. Even with two tracks it can be a matter of subtracting elements to make it sound right.
Two tracks is actually more difficult. Three tracks is easier, because I can hide some of it with the third track.
This is not something that you learn overnight. Anyone can be a DJ. But when you get down to it, it's more like a science. You're really a sound scientist, because you have to know which frequencies match up, and which frequencies hide other frequencies, for instance. You have to know how to anticipate when the track will naturally break down. You have to know when you don't need to do anything, because the track will work itself out. And then you have to keep in mind the audience and how long they've been listening to this transition.
These are the more detailed things you learn after many years of being a DJ. To mix two records together is not so hard. You match the beat up, make the transition. But to make people feel like the track has dissolved and disappeared, right in front of their ears, is something else, and that requires a lot of practice.
A particular image that sticks with me is in The Purpose Maker when there's this flurry of activity over the mixer, you're making many small adjustments very quickly. To me, it seems like you hear something that I wouldn't hear if I had those headphones on. You can sense these minor adjustments that need to be made. Maybe it's hard to explain, but in that moment, what are you hearing? What tells you, "That needs to go down, that needs to go up," and so on?
As a DJ, you're getting much more than what the audience is hearing. The DJ is hearing the pre-cue audio, and all the things that are happening, the merging of the track together before you pod up. So you're hearing a lot of different things happening at the same time and trying to make sense of it, trying to organize these things in a way that would make for an appealing and smooth transition.
A lot of the flurry of activity is setting up the track that you're listening to, to be conducive to what I'm about to bring in. How I can situate that track will determine how I bring this next track in. If I take all the bass out, for instance, or if I take all the highs out, all the treble out. That will tell me that the track I'm about to bring it, I can bring that in with the treble, because that fills the gap. Or I can just make it all bassy, so the two basslines merge together to the point that you don't know which one is which. The flurry, as you say, is preparing what I need to do in order to make this transition in the most interesting way.
On The Exhibitionist, I didn't have an audience in front of me, so I didn't have to worry about that so much. It was more about showing the many ways you can make the transition between these three turntables. The whole project was a demonstration of what a DJ does. My intention was to show the various ways that sound can be masked over with certain techniques. Sometimes I use the crossfader, sometimes I use the EQ to needle out certain frequencies, sometimes cuts, sometimes blending two things together, sometimes layering things—you know, a variety of things.
With all that, if you do it long enough and you practice with it long enough, you can begin to connect it to how you feel, which is a whole other subject. Putting your personal character into the way you do things is something else.
I'm curious about how you cue. If you have three tracks playing, and you're deciding how you'll tweak the EQ to bring in a new track, how do you use your headphones to make that decision?
It's a good question, because some DJs only use the headphones to get the beat matched and then they take them off. Some DJs keep them on the whole time and never take them off, like myself. Typically, I have the mix perfectly synced for about 30 seconds before you hear it. In those 30 seconds, I'm making the decision, trying to imagine if it's going to be impressive enough when you hear it. Sometimes I'm not convinced, and I change it to something else, to another track. But yeah, I have it about a half a minute, and I'm just riding it, trying to get it perfectly aligned.
Or, not perfectly aligned. I'll let it fall off a little bit before you hear it, so you can feel it coming together. Because, you know, we're dealing with people, and people are not machines. Perfection is not always the point. To hear a mix come together creates a whole different excitement in itself. When you hear the tracks merge together, conceptually it pulls you into the whole process. If you never let the audience hear that, then they might believe that you're perfect, and that you mix like a computer, like software. So that's not always really the point. Sometimes I purposely lag the beats slightly, and then bring them together again, and that's because I want you to hear that mix perfectly, and then we can move on.
I guess that comes maybe from my days of playing the drums. If a drummer just did everything they were expected to do, just played the beat so the bass player can play and the guitar player can play, well, yeah, you served a purpose, but where's the individuality? I think DJing is the same. There are times and places for that to happen.
Listening to some of your old mixes, there were times where the kick drums phasing would become an interesting sound artifact on its own. It's a weird sound, it doesn't sound like two kick drums, it sounds like something else. I wondered if that was intentional.
Some of that is on purpose. Some of it is because I'm just anxious, and I need to get this mix up so I can turn to something else. I'm already thinking about the third and fourth thing I'm gonna do, so I just need to get this mix up. Again, I don't focus on the addition, more the subtraction. I just want to get it up and get it in. It will fall into place, and then I can turn to the more interesting thing of, say, layering the third turntable or, you know, layering the fourth turntable.
What's your mental state like in the middle of all that?
Well, to mix three turntables, or to mix three CD players, all three of them have to be perfectly calibrated, otherwise it becomes a herd of horses. So that's the first thing I establish as I'm playing. I see what the calibration is. Sometimes the CDs are off. When I use vinyl, you have so many DJs playing on these things [turntables]. I need to learn the condition of them, learn which one is gonna be a problem, and then that's the one I don't use as much. First you figure out the calibration. Then, I have to be sure that if I match two players together perfectly that it will stay for a certain amount of time. And if that's done, then I know that once I do that, I don't need to listen to it anymore, those two will stay. Then I can turn and concentrate on the third and fourth. If the third is perfectly calibrated, then I know those three will stay, and I can concentrate on the fourth, or the drum machine.
Conditions vary. The humidity in the room plays a role. The vibration of the return monitors shaking the table, or the basses up under the table, also play a role.
You mentioned before that part of your technical rider is three monitors in a certain position. How specific are you about the conditions of the booth with each gig?
I wear my headphone and the cup is on the left side, so the ear that I'm going to use to listen to the output is on the right side. Typically that return monitor is a bit closer. I just recently started requesting three return monitors, because for some reason it seems like the venues I play in now, the DJ setups are closer to the audience, which means the DJ booth is closer to the soundsystem, which means the mix between the return monitors sometimes gets confused. I typically have the right side monitor a bit closer, and the third center.
Position-wise, I don't change position as much as I used to, because I use USB sticks. When I used vinyl, I would purposely put the vinyl at a distance, as long as my headphone cord would allow me to go. That means that, in order to find a record, I'd have to kind of leave the DJ setup, which would give me an escape, out of the area of the return monitor. In a way, I'd have some intimacy with my records. If they're too close then I can't escape. I'm in the middle of it all the time for two or three hours. So I'd put the records as far as my headphone cord would take me, and it has to be only that far because I need to listen to it at the same time that I'm looking for the record. So the distance would be five feet or something like that.
Now I'm closer, and I stay within the pocket most of the time. I don't go away, but I typically kneel down. I keep the music I'm playing down on the floor. It gives my ears an escape. If you're constantly in the sound, your ears change because they're protecting themselves from the sound. If you break away from that, your ears readjust, so you stand back up and it sounds a little bit different, because you've moved away from it. So I typically keep, whatever it is, CDs or whatever, on the floor, because that's where there's less volume. Also, it's better on the back and the knees to keep bending up and down.
It's two or three hours of pretty constant movement. I feel like your set is more physically demanding than whoever plays before or after you. Is it tiring?
No. After so many years you learn how to pace it. I don't sweat, hardly ever. Because I've conditioned myself to not sweat so much. When it's very hot, very humid, I move less. Because I've been in many cases where it's just a disaster, I can't touch the mixer because it's soaking wet, with humidity dripping down, I can't grip the line levels and stuff. Sweat dripping, the headphones and the whole thing just becomes a mess. So over time I can't control that. I don't drink so much because I don't want to have to go to the restroom. Even though that was never an issue anyway. You don't drink a lot before.
As an activity, I'd say your DJ sets are somewhere between a live performance and what we'd normally think of when we say "DJ set." You're fully engaged the entire time, you don't have time to chat with anyone, you're not hugging anybody.
No. I don't consider myself a party... um, a party...
[laughs] No. I'm not a party host, I'm not a cheerleader, I'm not an aerobics instructor. I am a DJ. And my task has always been to play music, but to make it as interesting as I can, to make it as appealing to the audience as I can. And that might be slightly different from a DJ's objective today. Back then, a DJ's purpose was to play music, not necessarily hits, but that you were sensing could be a hit, and you had to make it work. You had to play this record in a way that would make it just incredible to the audience. You had to sell it. I learned to DJ in a way that, yes, you're mixing music together, but you're also trying to make it appealing to people.
To take a mediocre track, and make it sound incredible, you know, that's Larry Levan, that's Frankie Knuckles. DJs from the '70s and '80s, that's what we had to do. Not everything was a hit, not everything was perfectly made for your audience and this situation, like it is now. Some things were not pressed well. A lot of early Chicago music was horribly pressed, the quality was terrible, but the track was just great. And somehow you had to make that work, you had to play it for the people.
My approach has never really changed from that. It's great to play "The Bells"—you put it on, you know people will like it. But there's some things that maybe need more attention, more help. That's where the strategic part of playing music comes in.
"The Bells" is an interesting one. I guess Laurent Garnier has "The Man With The Red Face." But I can't think of many DJs who have this track that's kind of like a band's big song, one everyone is expecting to hear at some point. What's that like for you? What purpose does "The Bells" serve for you?
I've tried not playing it, and people were sad! [laughs] So I kinda just gave up. Now I look at the track as a turning point. Once I play that, typically that means... I'm ready. I'm fully awake, I sense that the audience are listening to what I'm doing. I play "The Bells," and we're ready to go. Right now I use it in that way. I don't think of it as an anthem or anything, it's just an indication that, I'm awake, it's four o'clock in the morning, I've tested out everything, the return monitors are working, everything is great, I feel comfortable. Once I play this, the party will kick into another gear. That's typically how it works.
Do you still play a lot of new music?
Yeah. I take the opportunity more than people know actually. Typically, days before the party comes, I'm making things. I'm making things now, actually. Making things to test, to see how it works. Maybe I've learned something at the last few parties, and I'm working on certain things. For instance, the track "Accessory." It's a track that doesn't have all the four elements to make it a composition. One or two tracks are meant to be layered on top. I've always made those type of tracks. Then when I started using the 909 more, it made even more sense to have those types of tracks. I literally have an archive of tracks that don't have a kick drum, or don't have drums at all, don't have any type of melody, just a repetitive type of thing that just runs. That's designed for me to be able to layer something on top, so the audience can have a different impression of that track.
It's like an accessory—if you were to wear a hat, or a piece of jewelry, it's the same thing. This started way back in the mid-'90s. Robert Hood and I were talking about this. It's for DJs that are a bit more advanced, where just playing two tracks is not enough. If you're using two or three turntables, it makes sense. If you layer the track on top and then take it away, it's like a transition. I make a lot of tracks like that, and they would never be released because there's not enough there to make a full composition.
Do you shop for music much?
Not as much as I used to. I would first try to make it. Or I would alter someone else's track, just for me to use, not to sell it. But if say, I like someone's track, but just the bassline and the drums, I'll make a special version of that just for me.
There's that. And then, of course, I'll buy material. But I prefer to have some hand in what I'm playing, I prefer to go in the studio and come up with something that has a strange scale in the drums or something. I prefer to make that myself, test that myself.
Do you use Rekordbox?
Do you have a "crate," so to speak? A batch of music that comes on the road with you when you play gigs?
It's more than what I play. This goes back to the hip-hop days. There would be things in my record box that are only designed to remind me of certain things. All throughout the '90s, during the whole rave thing, I would put albums by James Brown in the bag. Not for me to play, but when I'm filtering through the records, it reminds me to keep it funky. Or Steely Dan—it reminds me to keep it deep. And then I would grab something and play it in that way.
Digitally it's the same. There are classical works, John Cage stuff, things that I would never play. Or maybe I might try at some special moment. But they're more in there to, as I'm trying to find something, it reminds me of a certain thing. There's certain go-to tracks that, if I'm in trouble and I need something to play quickly, I don't know what to play next but I know this one will start on a dime...
A get-out-of-jail-free card.
Exactly. And there are a certain amount of tracks, things with ambiguous types of introductions that aren't very clear, that I tend to listen to at the very beginning. But I tend to focus on the last quarter of a track.
Do you produce music?
Right. Well, if you produce music, and your track is five minutes long, by the last quarter of the track, mixing it to your master, you have figured out what the track is really about. So the last quarter of the track is typically the best. You've introduced all the sounds, you've made all the mutes and things you've done from the very beginning, you've sorted out the introduction, brought in the important sounds. By the last quarter of the track, you've done everything that you need to do, and your impression on the track becomes much more relaxed, much more comfortable. And I know this, because I make music and that's what I do.
So when I buy music, I typically focus on the last quarter of the track. And when I'm DJing also, it's the last quarter that I'd prefer to play more than the beginning. The track breaks down in the last quarter and becomes more solidified. That's where you find the better mix between sounds, that's where you find the real groove of the track, and the most important elements of the track. All in the last quarter.
I'd like to go back to how you learned all this, and to what your personal discovery of DJing was like. Can you recall a particular moment when you gained a sense of the DJ not just as someone mixing records, but as someone with this magician role you mentioned before?
I got into DJing during hip-hop culture. At the time, in the late '70s, early '80s, you became recognized by how fast you were, how precise you were, how nimble you were. To be like a surgeon was how you became recognized. And that's how I learned.
Who did you see that made you realize there's something special to this?
That's a good question. Hip-hop wasn't on MTV so much. Whiz Kid from New York came to Michigan a few times, up in Ann Arbor. I think I saw him twice. First time it was just a demonstration, at the university. I don't know how I found out, but I was there. It was a room with about 80 people and he just DJ'd to demonstrate what a hip-hop DJ does. He was scratching and cutting.
You look at that, you go home, and you try to figure it out. Or you would hear, somehow through the grapevine, what a DJ did at some party somewhere else. Like back-spinning. I learned that from hearing that someone did it. My friend told me about a DJ in New York that just kept playing the same phrase over and over again. That was it. So I went in the basement and figured out how to do that.
Just based on a rumor?
Just based on a rumor. All the way from New York. I guess the grapevine back then was very strong. So you'd hear what DJ Marley Marl did, what DJ Red Alert did, GrandMixer DST, and you'd figure out how to do it.
How'd you get your first set of turntables?
My first set of turntables... I'm not sure if they were Technics or not, but I probably got them at a place called Radio Shack. I had a friend that worked at Radio Shack, who actually made Technicolor on Metroplex. I had these cheap turntables, the mixer was from Radio Shack, a small black line-level mixer, I don't think it had a crossfader. My older brother was a DJ, and his wife didn't like it, she made him quit. He gave me his turntables and his mixer and some records, so then I had a better level of equipment. GLI PMX mixer, Cerwin Vega mixer with this crossfader you put on a timer, one to four seconds, and it would make the transition automatically.
What was your practice regimen like? You're down in the basement...
No, it was in my bedroom. On the cabinet, where you keep your clothes. I'd close the door, I had speakers from Radio Shack, and I'd practice all night long. At first it wasn't dance music, because where would you get that? I wasn't old enough. It was a lot of progressive rock. When the drummer would break it down, I'd get a copy of that and a copy of something else, and practice mixing rock, blending things together to make smooth transitions from one rock record to the next. I was mixing Grand Funk Railroad. Stuff I had enough money to get, two or three dollars per record, just to practice.
I heard a recording of you mixing on WJLB in the late '80s. The thing that struck me about it was that many aspects of your style have continued to this day. But the music you were playing was not purpose built for mixing. If you're playing with all these different genres, this super hands-on mixing approach is a matter of necessity, it's the only way all these records can go together.
Right, because a lot of those records are made by bands. The synchronization is not perfect, it's not like a drum computer that's keeping the MIDI. And also, you have to know what works together. If I put this on top of this, what will it become? You had to use a lot of your perception, and your sense of what might work, or what might not work but is still interesting, still funky. If I put this track at 45, even though it's supposed to be at 33, and pitch it down, and then put another track on top of it, it could be interesting. And that used to happen a lot. Now that doesn't happen. But tracks used to be in various tempo ranges, you'd have to take something very slow and put it at 45 RPM, make something new out of it.
Now that doesn't happen, the music is made for very specific situations, knowing what DJs are like, and what audiences are like. It's very fixed. There are very few options for what can be done with the music that's made today. Usually, I think a lot of people don't really realize it because they were born at a time when electronic music was already here. But there was a time when we were still mixing other styles of music with what we call techno. Industrial dance, Nitzer Ebb and Front 242, post-disco, funk, New York garage, house music, Chicago house, bass station, which now we know as electro, new wave. All types of things, and you had to find a way to make them work. Not based on how smoothly they mixed, but based on what to play next.
Programming. It's still around, but it's becoming a lost art. It's slowly—no, it's quicklyfading, actually.
How would you explain the idea of programming?
To be a programmer, you have to put yourself in the audience's position. Not only that, but you have to really know your audience, and you have to anticipate what they want to have, and what they need to have, at what time. When I think of these type of things I think of DJs like Larry Levan. He knew his audience, because he was part of his audience. He knew exactly what to do at what time for those people. There was no division between what was happening in the DJ booth and in the audience.
Today, it's typically the case that you have two parties happening. One with with the 60 people behind the DJ, and he's speaking with them and drinking with them, and then you have the audience just kind of left on their own, watching this happening. I guess they're supposed to be thinking, "Look how cool they are, I wish I could be up there with them."
But there was a time when there was no distance between the two. The DJ's mind is very much in the audience. So, you know, you are mixing music and prescribing it, but you're also in the audience, wishing that something will be played right now, and then you play it, and the crowd just explodes because it just feels... right. Exactly right. That's become a lost art.
If you're jumping around between genres, that programming is a little more obvious. If you're playing all techno, it's subtler. Instead of, "Now it's time for a hip-hop track," it's like, "Now it's time for one with claps." But the rest more or less stays the same.
Yeah, right. Because now we have music specifically made for what we need to do. So you don't need to make such brash decisions. You don't have to take chances so much. It's too tailored, too bespoke. There's advantages and disadvantages to that. We have the music we always wanted to have. Beats? We got beats galore! There was time where we would kill to have a record that was just beats. A DJ would travel half the country just to have that, pay hundreds of dollars just to have something with real beats. Now, they're everywhere, and you know, it dampened the creativity a bit.
Until you begin to bring a drum machine into the mix. Then it gets interesting again. Because now you have the ability to create on the spot. And it sounds just like a record. It means the DJ now has the ability to become a musician. At your discretion, at your whim. I'm not sure that's DJing, but that's another way of playing and programming music that's a bit beyond a musician and a bit beyond DJing. A mixture of the two. When you have so many things at your disposal, and you take certain frequencies out of a track, and layer a drum machine with that, then modify what the drum machine is doing... that's more than being in the studio, because you have an audience in front of you, so you're making something that's effective in real time. That's a much higher level of DJing, and it takes a lot of skill to be able to do that un-synced. I've been doing it such a long time that I can make it look easy. But it's very hard. And it's very risky. Maybe the reason we don't see so many DJs trying to do it is because it is so risky, and when it falls apart, it really falls apart.
When we talked about your DJ setup, you didn't mention the 909...
Well, when you bring instruments, that's a whole other article, because of course things can be linked to that drum machine. Various turntables, drum machine, synths, some with a keyboard that you can play or some with a sequencer to programme strange scales and patterns that are completely un-synced. From doing that, I learned how to do that in the studio, so sometimes I'll make tracks in the studio un-synced, MIDI-wise. So you have various elements working in parallel together to create multidimensional impressions. I do that a lot in soundtracks for films, when you have multiple characters in the same frame, or the same segment. To make sound that represents each person at the same time.
I don't want to get too much into production, but the thing you just said about how there will be one sound for one character, is there the same kind of theatrical idea behind your DJ sets? Is there a sound that in your head means something, represents something?
Of course. The pad string sound represents distance. The fluidity of the story I'm trying to tell, it's not meant to be anything you're really meant to notice, but it's there. Similar to the way clouds cascade across the sky. If I'm trying to speak about something like a jungle, the Amazon jungle, well, it's perfect but then it's not. There are no symmetrical lines in a jungle, you expect things to be crossing over, you expect different layers of things. And sound can also be positioned in that way, to create the feeling that you just don't know what's gonna happen when you open the brush. I use sound in that way. Or very clean and minimal, almost to the point that nothing is there. But you feel that perhaps something was there, and this is the residue of what it was. Then there are things that are very literal and very poignant. Sounds that are... confident. You don't have to like it, but it's there. And it's not asking for your opinion.
I can go on for a long time on that, on the different sound application for different things. But I'm talking about things that you don't learn overnight.
You were speaking before about these different eras, one in which people had to be really resourceful with their records, because you didn't have this steady stream of club tools. Next era, the opposite is true. It became rare to play something other than quantized club tracks. For you personally, how did you get from one to the other? I guess in a way, how did you transition from The Wizard to Jeff Mills?
Well, there are some aspects that never changed. My view on music is still the same. And I'm still in the mindset of selling music. Selling the idea of it. As music became more tailored, in a way easier to program and to play—you have this window of BPM, you know every 16 bars something's gonna happen, it works and by now people have grown up on this type of music so it's gonna make them happy. So, it's easy for someone who comes from a time when you had these totally different things and you had to fit them together like a puzzle. I tried to spend time finding ways to make it interesting, to make it more tailored for someone like me. Layer tracks on top, make it more creative, not so predictable, and still leave open the possibility for mistakes to happen. That's important for me as well.
I will purposely let the track almost run out, and not have an idea of what to play next. It's effective on a few different levels. It gives people a break to hear music break down but not off. And to not always be in control. It becomes too predictable. If I know, exactly, the track is gonna break down, then the beat will come back and I'll layer this on top... yeah, maybe I have time to smoke a cigarette, or drink some Courvoisier, or talk to my friends.
It's hard to imagine you doing any of those things.
[Laughs] Well yeah. I think it makes the DJ set less predictable. You let things happen. It's OK for the track to run out. There's no bloodshed. It's alright! The audience is not gonna leave the dance floor because there was a moment of silence. If they do, then, maybe that's not the right place to be anyway, right?
DJs now, they learned differently. And it's much easier. They're generally playing for an audience that... the story is already written, they're just turning the page. It's easy. Anyone can be a DJ. If you can mix two records together, do the right thing at the right time, you can be on the cover of any magazine, you can be considered a master of the art form in a year. It's a false narrative, a false impression. Just me sitting here speaking to you can give you some impression just how complex the art form can be, right? And this is what makes experienced, good DJs... there is a lot to it that younger DJs don't know, and they don't think they need to know, because they're successful with what they're doing. They're already being rewarded. So the art of DJing becomes that. When actually, it's much deeper.
Something like staying up all night, learning to mix from one prog rock record to the next, with that kind of practice as the basis for your craft, you'd form such a fundamental appreciation for how music works, how rhythm works...
And how musicians work, how to anticipate human reactions. Machines are easier to predict. And the whole thing becomes easier. It can be so easy that it becomes too easy, and it loses its value. Because it becomes less special. DJs are doing less special things. And it ends up in the discount bin. The whole art form.
It seems like you're anxious about electronic music's legacy, it's staying power.
I'm 55. After my generation, it's clear to see a certain amount of knowledge will be lost. With this loss, the art form will become one of a few things. An art form of mastery and technique and the creation of sound, or it will become extinct. Too easy, people take it for granted. In my mind that's really the choice.
I think the standards are too low in electronic music. I think media plays a big part in making the standards too low, because they talk too much about people who haven't done too much. That is my professional opinion, as a DJ and an artist. I think that we should only speak about people that clearly have done something special. Then it raises the value of everything, and everyone remains at their level until they do something special. But we don't do that. So, it dropped.
If you're DJing today, next weekend, whatever, do you still get kind of a boyish buzz out of the whole thing? Do you have fun?
You know, it would probably be smart for me to say yes, because I'm playing music for people and they're paying to get in. But I have to be honest. No one ever said that a DJ is supposed to like what they do every time. No one said they have to enjoy the people in the audience. There are many things happening during the party. There are times when I'm looking straight at 2000 people and I don't even see them. There are times when I only notice them for a hot second, and then I go back into another type of mindset. I'm sometimes very much in a fishbowl.
And, be honest, you can't pay attention to the people the whole time you're there. You can't, and anyone that says they're always in tune with the audience is lying. So, there are times when I break away. I break away from the audience while I'm in front of them. While I'm staring at them, I'm not thinking about them.
I'm thinking about... approaching a planet. What that could possibly feel like. When I turn to the music, that's what I'm trying to get to, to describe that. And at times I find it more enjoyable than paying attention to the audience. Because these are otherworldly things. And it's a very private, intimate thing. I'm breaking away, because I'm searching for something to bring back. I'm hired to play music for them, so I need a reason to make the music more interesting. Just looking at people is not gonna do it. Doing something to make someone jump up, it's cool for a couple minutes, but you can't do that all night. Some DJs do that, and that's how they structure their DJ set, they're just trying to get a reaction over and over and over again. I do it differently. In my mind, I have a place where I want to go. I'm using the music to get there.