In Depth
Exploring The Outer Limits with Jeff Mills

Jeff Mills is nothing if not inventive. The Detroit artist has been more adventurous than anyone we can think of across his 35-year career, utilising an exhaustive blend of music, film and documentary to present techno at its richest. Heavily influenced by space travel and science fiction, his dense body of work is as inspirational as it is ground breaking, often referencing subjects like The Jungle Planet, One Man Spaceship and Time Machine. But in this colourful artistry Mills doesn’t belie the genre’s innate spirit: he’s also an exceptionally skilled DJ, and still flourishes with the talents he mastered as a young radio host.

For his latest endeavour Mills has returned to the radio format, exploring the far reaches of space on the NTS Radio broadcast The Outer Limits. Produced in collaboration with NASA, the six-part series is best described as a run of fictional stories, comprising electronic, classical and narrative from Mills and a string of guest musicians.

Ahead of his overdue return to Farringdon at the end of this month, we contacted Mills to hear more about the project. In this rare in-depth interview, he discusses what he learned from hosting radio in Detroit, why we're living in an important time for music, and how technology could affect the future of our planet.

Do you remember what radio was like when you were growing up in Detroit?

It was quite important. It was a source of music that everyone depended on: on your transistor radio, in your car, on your home stereo. It was really the only alternative to having music on a hi-fi system, so people relied on it. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, there were many political or social discussion programmes you could listen to, so it would give the community a lot of information – not just music. So it really was an important medium to relay information.

How did you first land upon hosting your own show?

It actually happened by consequence. A case of being in the right place at the right time. This is back in 1983. I was in a club, a radio station came in to do a live broadcast, I just happened to be playing, and they realised the listener feedback was quite high. They thought it would be good to continue, and so they offered me a position.

You were only 20 at the time. What was the main thing you took from the experience at such a young age?

Even though I was young, I quickly learned that the average attention span of a person is about three minutes. So one thing is that you have to keep someone’s attention in that time. I also learned the importance of creating an architecture in your programming, so the music doesn’t stay at the same intensity. You purposely make your way to a point, and then bring it down again, and so on. Real programming is something.

“Music can be really wild, and really unrestricted.”

Every episode of The Outer Limits tells a different story. How does the way you program each one differ?

The shows are about improvisation of electronic and classical, so anything can happen. Music doesn't have to be played like normal radio. Music can be really wild, and really unrestricted. This is mostly what I work towards, and when I’m planning with the guest musicians, we can experiment unconditionally. In breaking away from the composition, we’ve moved from the standard way people listen to radio. And by making all new music, and sound effects, it allows us to explore the maximum of our imagination. The stories are all fictional; they’re based on science but on subjects that are so astonishing, far and massive that they can be interpreted in many different ways. It doesn’t have to make sense, or make you feel good.

When you say it doesn’t have to make you feel good, this reminds me of the 1963 TV series of The Outer Limits. In the opening credits the narrator alludes to the TV set being controlled, so there’s this instant feeling of uneasiness when you start watching. Are you trying to convey a similar emotion?

I’ve adapted the same perspective as the original TV show, in that there are plenty of other things to make you feel comfortable, or let’s say, to satisfy you. But the show is different in a number of ways. I like to think it’s a show that comprises many different textures and sounds, but they’re all beautiful in some way or another. Even with the hard parts, I’m trying to make this music and program it in a way that’s beautiful even though it’s disturbing. There’s a lot of meaning within even the smallest things you hear. It has to be when you’re exploring things that are quite different. It can’t happen if you have this weight on your shoulder where you have to please someone at the end of the show. This is what makes it really exciting.

In science fiction especially, our emotions feed off synchretic sounds, and we have a preconceived idea of what those sounds represent. So we could hear, for example, an intense speeding noise, but because we don’t know what that is, it affects our response.

My hope is that the listener gives up on the idea of trying to recognise anything or relate it to something they know. Ideally they would listen without any preconceived idea. It’s best not to think you’re going to understand the story. When you listen to general radio, and you listen to a track, you know there’s going to be an intro, and then a hook, a breakdown, and then the song is over. This is not like that. I’ve found a way to furnish 60 minutes with sound and music to evoke a certain type of emotion, and a certain type of questioning of what things are supposed to be. What radio is like, what a trip to the moon is supposed to be like, what the lunar surface is supposed to be like.

“The difference between electronic and classical music is quite small.”

You’ve worked extensively in film and documentary. Why did you look to radio specifically to present these areas of space?

I thought there should be a show that works like it worked in the 20th century. Everything was new. We should have something where you can hear the music for the first time, it’s not something that’s been released to the public already, where the story can be new, it can be very far out, and each show can be very informative. It can encompass electronic, classical, all forms of improvisation, literature, poetry, and all the things to describe the subject from many different perspectives. It enables me to display electronic music in a way that we don't see so often. It’s not always danceable, it’s not always ambient, it can be something completely different. I think because it has such a wide range of what’s possible, it’s very easy to see that the difference between electronic and classical music, or any of these other genres, is actually quite small. If you listen to any of these shows you begin to understand that the differences are not as wide as one would think. That the way I improvise an electronic vision as opposed to classical is not that different.

Electronic and classical music have become increasingly intertwined in the last decade, something you’ve had a big hand in. How do you see electronic music fitting in with other art forms in the future?

I think there should be something like this already. There should be this experience where you can hear aspects of electronic music and classical, or electronic and jazz, or electronic and afrobeat. There should be these hybrids existing already, and there should be artists presenting these types of things. So I think it’s just a matter of time. I think a lot of the things that are happening right now should set a template of what might happen later on in the century. This idea of mixing things effortlessly, and coming up with a combination of two or three or four different things could become quite common in decades to come. The way we do this now, and our acceptance of this, will create a blueprint of what music will be like later. So it’s quite an important time, and I think it’s quite important that a show like The Outer Limits exists. I don’t know how long this subject is going to last, but I’m going to do it as long as I can.

“A lot of electronic music will disappear, because computers will eventually disappear.”

How do you think new technology is going to affect our relationship with music?

I think in terms of electronic music, a lot of it will disappear. The machine, the drum machine for instance, will disappear, because computers will eventually disappear. They’ll be helping us, but the physical computer will disappear. I think from a classical point of view, where musicians are playing an instrument, those things will remain. But electronic music is quite different. We’re programming it, and these machines aren’t necessarily used in the programming. I think the physical computer will go away, and so will the machine. What could happen is that we find a way where our personality affects the music. Someone might create something in which one DJ can express themselves with music in a way that another can not, because they’re two different people. The character of a person might become a feature of the music.

If we look at machine learning and artificial intelligence, technology is already deciding for us what we should listen to based on our personality. But making music from that same personality is a completely new concept.

Maybe one thing we can listen to now that gives an indication of how things will be is if one listens to jazz. Free jazz, for example. The musician is trying to extract as much as they can from their instrument, and that could possibly be an indication of how things are going. Once we break away from the machine, once we unhook ourselves, and we begin to think in oscillators and resonance and cut-off, and begin to merge these functions, just by thinking about it we can affect it. There’s the potential for incredible things to come from that.

If we no longer use the synthesizer, for example, this totally changes the role of the musician. Who do you think those music makers will be?

It might become a determination of who has the most interesting imagination. Who dreams the most exotic dreams? Who has the most colourful mind? A person that does things to feed the mind’s imagination so it can become even more colourful might become an aspect of electronic music. Music may become the reflection of what one thinks about certain things, except without having to play the keyboard or use a synthesizer. Simply by thinking about it might become the machine itself.

“The character of a person might become a feature of the music.”

Do you not believe, for now at least, humans are becoming increasingly dependent on machinery? We might need to overcome this first.

Well, I’m almost positive that many physical machines will disappear. The thing you hold in your hand, whether it’s a screen or iPad, will disappear. The average person’s environment will become simpler on the surface, but much more complex in terms of what technology is in this environment. This will have an effect on how we listen to music, how we look at art, how we look at dance. And how we look at all cultural things. It will have an effect on how we socialise, what the party structure will be like, and DJing. Having a physical DJ standing behind a set-up could disappear. I don’t know what will replace it, but I’m almost sure that it will be gone.

A big part of the party structure as we know it is escapism. When technology starts to infiltrate our daily lives so dramatically, one would think this escapist rave experience should become more vital.

The problem with the physical social atmosphere is that it’s only applicable to the people that can make it to that atmosphere. If you live in San Francisco and there’s an event in London, you’re just out of luck. I think that technology will give us a way of somehow experiencing these things happening around the globe in real time. If you could apply something from your living room in San Francisco that allows you to experience this concert in London, that changes the whole scenario of a party. Just imagine a party where there are millions of people able to experience it in real time. Everything becomes magnified. Let’s say that a DJ does something that’s really impactful. If that’s seen by millions of people, the result can be enormous. I think that’s where we’re headed. People are not going to accept being unable to experience certain things for too long. If you can experience something anywhere, at any time – as long as you pay – that’s part of the future.

Photo: Jacob Khrist

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