Space is the Place: Techno pioneer Jeff Mills introduces his live score to Fritz Lang's Woman In The Moon

As Jeff Mills' new 'cine-mix' for Fritz Lang's Woman In The Moon premieres at Glasgow Film Festival, we caught up with the world's most inventive DJ to talk about space travel, the origins of his unique sound, and his new audiovisual label, Alpha Centauri

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 01 Feb 2013

Relaxed and composed, wearing his trademark black jeans and polo-neck, legendary Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills is in town to talk about the soundtrack (or “cine-mix”) for Fritz Lang's 1929 silent science fiction film, Woman In The Moon. The film, along with Mills' soundtrack, premieres at Glasgow's Arches on 16 Feb at an event dubbed the Sonic Cineplex. Part of the 2013 Glasgow Film Festival, it will feature cine-mixes and audiovisual performances from a whole host of local and international electronic producers, performers and DJs, including Raime, Dieter Moebius and Optimo's DJ Twicth.

It's not the first time that Mills has re-scored a Fritz Lang film – his re-working of the seminal director's most revered movie, Metropolis, was released via the Tresor label in 2000, and although his sparse, minimal, resolutely futurist take has never been granted a license for a DVD release, it gets regular screenings at institutions, galleries and educational organisations around the world, from Tokyo to Chicago. The commission for Woman In The Moon came from the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, with whom Mills has previously worked on a number of moving image projects, creating cine-mixes for Sergei Eisenstein's October, Cecil B DeMille's The Cheat, and Buster Keaton's Three Ages, to name a few.

“I was slightly aware of the film,” says Mills. “Fritz Lang's other work, like Metropolis and M, I was more knowledgeable about. They thought that perhaps The Woman In The Moon would be more interesting, because I am quite fond of space, space travel, science fiction and things like that.” How did he approach the task of scoring the film ? “It's quite different, even from the other cine-mixes that I've done,” he explains. He began by creating a “theme” for each character, and other parts which “reinforced the interaction between the characters.” As with his work on Metropolis, this involved deep research into and observation of the characters, in order to “understand where each of these characters are from, and how they arrived at being that type of person.”

He also researched the life of Fritz Lang, and went into great detail about the socio-political context of the 1920s, when the film was made, finding out “what was happening in the world when the script was written, what might have been influential in terms of the way they approached certain things.” The research is vital: “Once I do that, I have an understanding of why a certain subject was touched on, why certain things about feminism or human rights are included. The political aspect of going to the moon, the financial aspects – you have to convince the investors... there are a lot of aspects to explore.”

As the people at the Cinémathèque Française correctly guessed, this was home territory for Mills, who has long had a fascination with space exploration. When asked whether he believes that we are on the verge of a new era of spaceflight, he replies: “I think yes, and soon.” The reason for this? The commercialisation of the NASA space programme, and other similar programmes throughout the world. “When you think of the temperament and the mentality of the very rich, billionaire entrepreneur, and how aggressive they can be, if they take an interest in something that is found out there, whether on the moon or an asteroid or whatever, if they can find some financial reward in going out there, they're going to do it, and they're going to do it quickly,” he says. “They're not going to waste any time.”

For Mills, this is a good thing: “I think when Obama made the decision that NASA should contract private companies for a lot of the work, that really opened up the gate. So I don't think it's going to be like NASA in the '60s and '70s, I think it's going to be like Silicon Valley. As a result, I think we're going to experience space exploration in a way that we never have before.” The possibilities for commercial exploitation of planets and asteroids is huge: “You're talking about land, and possibly new types of minerals and resources. Things that could be of great value. We're on the edge of that. People are smelling it – they're looking at the news, and seeing how frequently stories are coming about regarding new discoveries, exoplanets, all types of things. So in fifty years I think it should be one of the main topics. Like, you wake up and you want to know what the weather is – that bulletin will also include what's happening in space.”

Mills has talked before about how he wants his music to embody not just the wide-eyed idealism about the possibilities of space travel, but the very real dangers too. He recently spoke to former astronaut Dr Mamoru Mohri, a crew member aboard NASA's Endeavour shuttle in 1992, about this: “Take the sun – we see it from a distance, and we think of it as beautiful. But actually, the sun is quite lethal. It's a very violent, sensitive environment in space – and we as humans, in that environment, are only protected by the people that are monitoring us, controlling the atmosphere, the oxygen, the water, everything. So it's something to prepare for. Not to sound dark, but there will be lots of sacrifices, the more we go out into space. Things will happen. It's just not an atmosphere that is conducive to and compatible with Earth. There's no gravity, no land mass. There's no time, no north, no south. So we have to really change ourselves, and that change will probably start to come in the early part of this century. We have to redesign the mind to accept the unacceptable.”

Part of this “redesign” of humanity can, perhaps, be achieved through music: “I thought that perhaps I could have some minute role in creating soundtracks that explored that sphere, and that people could carry with them,” he says. “Fear is a part of that. It can be a good thing – fear keeps you alive, in that atmosphere.” Mills believes that “in time, we will conquer all of these things. We will control them... Earth's condition will probably get worse, rather than get better. Being here may not be as easy as we enjoy now. So logically, if earthquakes and typhoons and all these things increase, and the weather becomes even more unpredictable, we won't have any choice but to at least get up off the surface of the planet. That makes the sky a new type of territory.”

His efforts to create useful, futurist templates for the generations to come are in part what led him to creating his cine-mixes, but he is aware that often, a vision of the future can become outdated. Speaking of Giorgio Moroder's 1984 score for Metropolis, he says: “You have to put it in context. If you listen to it now, it seems a little bit dated – things have advanced so far since then. The soundtrack which I made, in thirty years, might sound passé.”

2012 was the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Mills' record label and production house, Axis. To celebrate, they released a book, Sequence: A Retrospective of Axis Records. Now that the book has been released, Mills says: “We're going to leave the last twenty years there, and move on. I had been wanting to restructure and recreate things for quite some time, but whenever I would think about these things I would think, well, maybe after twenty years I'll have more of an excuse. Then when we released this book, which was quite comprehensive about the things that we had done, I realised I would have no choice but to move forward.”

In early January of 2013, Axis unveiled the “fourth triangle” of the label, which is an umbrella for the labels Axis, Purpose Maker and Tomorrow. The new company, Alpha Centauri, will be focused on sound for moving image. The first featured contributor is Dutch video artist Heleen Blanken, whose beautiful, liquid, space-themed film, accompanied by a Mills composition, is showing now on the Axis website. Plans for a compilation of commissioned work by video artists, set to music from Axis producers, are in place for later in the year, plus twice-annual film events in different cities around the world. Mills hopes to visit the Edinburgh and Glasgow film festivals with his Alpha Centauri events in the future.

It's all part of Mills continued evolution as an artist, a promoter and a businessman: “From this point on I'll really be working much more with moving images, making not just dance music, but really using it strategically with other artforms, from dance to film and motion pictures to art,” he says, looking visibly enthused by the wealth of projects on his plate. “It's time to really expand now.”

Another project which has seen Mills take on the role not just of composer, but of impressario, is his Time Tunnel project. “The idea comes from the '70s TV show, The Time Tunnel,” Mills explains. “The characters of the TV show would travel through a time tunnel to different periods in time, to alter the future or the past. Adapting that, we take the same type of journey to explore music. All types of music, not just dance music.” The project debuted in New York in summer last year, and had it's official launch at La Machine concert hall, at the Moulin Rouge, in Mills' adopted home of Paris. “We just secured the agreement to get a contract to do two shows in 2013 and two shows in 2014 at the Moulin Rouge, and the production will be much bigger as a result of that connection,” he says. “They have a hundred years of expertise, in terms of making things work.”

Mills is writing the script for the coming Time Tunnel shows at the moment: “The structure is that there will be five different journeys, one hour apiece, or per show. It will explore music at any place in time. Back, forwards, dimensionally. We'll reinforce it this time with performers, to enhance the experience. It started off as a small idea, and then once I realised what is possible, where I could go with this... how far into the future I can go with this, and how far back... and not just the twentieth century, I can go back to ancient Egypt, all types of things, and reinforce that with performers. So it will get much more theatrical, and much more conceptual – in a very exotic way – but not commercial. Right now I'm trying to find a group of dancers from India to do a certain type of snake dance. All types of crazy stuff. But music is the main thing.”

Asked for his opinion on the colonisation of mainstream pop by electronic music, Mills gets reflective: “This is something I've been thinking a lot about, lately,” he says. “We might have made the mistake of thinking that anything that has a four-four kick, or anything that has the sound of an analogue machine, would fall under the category of techno. Thinking back to the early days of Chicago acid house, up until Detroit techno, and then thinking about where we are today, the thinking is so different that I'm not quite sure it's the same. Of course, the same machines are being used, but the intention of it then, our thinking, was based on futurism. Everything else followed behind that. I would even say that a lot of it wasn't even considered 'dance music.' It was danceable, because that was a good application for it. But it wasn't designed to be dance music, it was designed to be a futurist statement. When I think of Metroplex and Juan Atkins, all those guys, and knowing them... it was very different. If I think about now, about why a lot of music is being made, it's solely for the purpose of dancing, in a certain arena, a certain atmosphere. That's it. Maybe in time we'll realise. It took a turn maybe in the early '90s, and it kind of split off... and so again, same machines, same drum machines, same keyboards – it sounds the same, but the intention really divides and defines what it is.”

Anyone who has seen Mills DJ will know that his approach to mixing is radically different to other techno DJs and performers. Starting out as a drummer, and after that a turntablist hip-hop DJ, he developed a completely unique approach to mixing: “I would listen and understand the sounds of the music on the record as things that I could inflect on,” he explains. “As a drummer, with sticks, I can play soft, or I can play hard. I just looked at records as an extension of that. So, the EQ... I was always interested in using all of the knobs on the mixer, not just the line levels. Over the years, I guess I developed so many ways to use a mixer, and so many ways to mix records together and break them apart. I've done that for so many years that the idea of just mixing two records together, I just wouldn't want to do that now. Now I either want to take the record apart, or I just want certain things from one track.”

This deconstructionist approach to mixing elevates him above the great majority of club DJs: “I guess it's DJing on a higher level, where it kind of gets back to being a musician again,” he says. “It's really based on how I hear music; how I understand the rhythms. Because everybody's different. Some guys listen to the bassline more, some people listen to percussion. For me, I'm not really listening to any of it – I'm listening to the motion. This is what's most attractive. The motion which the track creates.” Getting a mix beat-matched perfectly is unimportant: “I'm just trying to capture, or somehow get control of the motion of it, to mix it into the motion of another one, and combine those two together to get a third and fourth perspective.”

His aim is to make his listeners forget themselves, and the music: “I think it's this that takes people to another level. If they listen to the song in this way, my idea is that they would somehow forget what the track was called, what label it was on, when it was released – it doesn't matter. Because it's being played in such a way that... you know, you lose time. You lose the calendar, you lose the territory, you lose who made it – all that just kind of fades away. You don't know where you are, you don't know what you're listening to, and it doesn't matter. That's the objective.”

This has meant that his record bag is packed not with tracks and songs, but with “tools,” as he describes them: “I needed to have music that was not one hundred percent, but maybe seventy percent built, and I would take care of the other thirty percent,” he explains. “I couldn't really buy that kind of music, so I started making it myself. It's not even music – it's just something that I can layer on top to create something completely different. I carry around a lot of this music. Most of it is not really songs – it's stuff I'm piecing together, like I'm in a kitchen, and putting in flour, and salt, and baking powder.”

Has he ever encountered another DJ who mixes this way? “No,” he says with a smile. “Most DJs play a record as a record. They play a track as a track. And I can probably imagine why there aren't so many guys doing it that way, because it's a lot of work. When you do things like I do, it's not always going to be perfect, because you're trying to hold four things at the same time. I just have to hope that what I'm working towards is worth the chaos, and that at some point people will understand what I was trying to do.”

With this thoroughly anti-commercial, futurist, and artistic way of approaching his craft, it has meant that Mills now buys and listens to very few new records. “I've kind of purposefully moved away, as a DJ, from the industry,” he confesses. “I just focus on what I need to make an unusual type of atmosphere. I don't care if it's saleable or not – what matters is that when I play it, it changes the atmosphere in the room. That's what I'm doing. I don't know where that's going to lead. Maybe my DJ career is headed towards its end, and I'll get back to being more of a musician. I don't know. But I don't want a song any more. I want the components to make a song, or to make an atmosphere.

"Maybe it's the future of DJing, I don't know," he offers in parting. "Maybe others will understand it. I want the percussion. I want the drums. I want the tracks that have unique sounds, and I want to take these sounds, and add them to the drum. Then I'm going to work the drum and create my own thing.” Having created his own unique style, Mills is still very much in the enviable position of enjoying his work: “It's very organic, because I have no idea what I'm going to do. It actually makes it much more fun.”

Jeff Mills cine-mix for Woman In The Moon premieres at The Arches on 16 Feb as part of Sonic Cineplex.