Interview Jeff Mills Part I
“Rembrandt was a paparazzo”
Jeff Mills needs no introduction. Always inspiring, always refreshing, always looking for new ways to connect electronic music and techno with everyday life to show electronic music is not just for the dancefloor but has something to say. Next week Jeff Mills will add another chapter to his special projects and initiatives when he will be locked up for five hours in the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam during ADE. In the first part of this special and extra large ADE interview Jeff Mills will talk about his special project in the Rembrandt House, Rembrandt himself, painting in relation to electronic music and more.
First about the special event you’re participating in during ADE. You will be locked up in the Rembrandt House on the 15th of October. What’s the main idea behind this special project?
The main idea is to try to capture electronic music inside the space where Rembrandt created his paintings: a mix of electronic music and soundscaping. My plan is to use the inspiration for his paintings to capture the acoustics of this room.
So it’s not really about creating a track there, but more about capturing sounds?
Yeah exactly, to create enough sounds to get the ambiance of the room. But I’m also very interested in trying to capture the echo and acoustics of that room, so the listener would basically hear my music in that studio, but then in another way back then. So it must sound like if Rembrandt was in that studio and listening to my music on the radio (laughs), that’s the idea.
How do we have to see that? You’re going in, and then?
Well, first I will look at some of his paintings, and try to translate what I see into sound. So, one of these paintings is the ‘Philosopher In Meditation’. I will look at this painting and try to imagine how Rembrandt painted it in that position, using the sunlight from the left of the room, and try to translate that into how that would fit and feel with regard to sound. I already know where his easel was and where he mixed his colors. His easel was at the left side of the room close to the window, where the light is coming from. At the right side of the room he mixed his colors and there’s a small window there with not much light. So light was very important to mix the colors and also in applying it to the canvas. He must have moved a lot between this easel to the mixing board. And when he stood back from the canvas at the left side of the room, which is very close to the window, he must have been standing in the position where I’m going to record the sounds.
That sounds like you already did a good room inspection.
Yeah (laughs), but it’s still a plan, it’s a plan. I’ll try to see if it all will work. I will get five hours so I should be able to come up with something. No, I’m sure about that. I’ve been in the museum and the room and I’ve studied it since: his life, how he operated in that house, what his interests were and who his influences were, things like that.
Did you set a goal for yourself, something you’d like to achieve in those five hours?
Well, I want to create as many compositions as I possibly can. I can produce very quickly, so in that time I can possibly come up with ten compositions. If I can come up with that amount it will be ok, but we’ll see. But I like the idea that nothing’s planned and that I will set it up and see how it goes, you know. What’s captured is captured. And when I play it back the sound of the room is the sound of the room. It won’t use a very complex microphone system; it will be very simple, and that’s it. My emphasis is to put more on making it less complex technically so I have a more mental space. In other words, I can set it up very quickly so I can think and imagine. And when the sun is making its way up above the buildings and creeping over the houses, that moment should be able to show me what he was doing. If the sun shines, of course (laughs).
What attracts you to the paintings of Rembrandt?
Of course, he’s one of the most famous painters ever and, well, I’m not an expert in Rembrandt paintings but you have no choice but to see the detail and the degree of the intricate stroke work, and the colors… that’s amazing. His paintings really captured the character of the time and the light of day and the shade… It’s almost like a photograph basically. I think he was master at that. In that way, he was a sort of paparazzo (laughs) because he captured the moment of the day. I can imagine that had great significance to the people buying these paintings or people looking at it, because it was giving them news about the day or a moment on a certain location, like paparazzi do. He doesn’t paint people posing all the time; he captures reality and a lot of his paintings are like that.
Which painter would you relate to electronic music or techno?
Picasso for sure. His cubism fits really well with the concept of electronic music. But electronic music and techno are sometimes very minimal and a bit sterile, so considering that, I would also link Ad Reinhardt and John McCracken to electronic music and techno in particular. Ad Reinhardt is a painter from New York who had some black years and therefore all his paintings were black in that period. I used to look at his paintings for inspiration in the mid 90’s when we were trying to understand more about minimalism. John McCracken is also an example of a minimalist painter. Richie Hawtin uses his work for a lot of inspiration because, you know, these paintings have a lot of information in them. You can relate the colors of a painting to certain numbers and those numbers can be related to keys of a keyboard. By doing that, you will able to create a composition.
You said, in relation to this event, that environment is very important for an artist, because every environment has a unique atmosphere and therefore will reflect directly in the art that is being made. What’s your personal approach when making music in relation to this subject? Are you first creating or looking for a special environment to work in or you just let it go and see what happens?
Well, I usually put the studio in place with a certain amount of light. I always work in a studio with very little light so I lose time. In a way I have very little chance to understand what time of the day it is, so it is very easy not to worry about what I need to do later. So, one thing is to record music in timeless places, without clocks. Besides that, my mixing console is always placed to a wall with nothing on it -- a black wall. On the other walls there could be tons and tons of stuff like keyboards and records and anything else, but the wall next to the mixing console has to be blank. That way it never looks the same every time I look at it while I’m listening, so it becomes a window, a special type of window.
Is the creation of a certain environment more important to a techno artist than, let’s say, a rock musician, when producing music?
Well, I think that in electronic music most effort is made for making people to dance. So yeah, one has to imagine the reaction to this kind of production. But in a lot of cases when I make music for film or contemporary dance, well, the equation is different. So a lot of times the way in which the equipment is set up is different and that creates a different atmosphere. I think the music I made sounded different in Detroit than when I lived in New York.
When I moved to New York, my music was much more aggressive (laughs) and very much to the point. In other words, I had no introduction in my tracks, the track just started, there were no strings around and stuff like that, the beat just started in. And that’s probably the nature of Manhattan (laughs). Then I moved from New York to Chicago and my music took another turn. After that I spent a lot of time in Berlin, and it took another turn. Now I spend more time in Paris and it has taken another turn again. So atmosphere and location are very important. I think that’s a good thing, because I know it does have an effect. So when I go to India, God knows how my music might sound then. I think this is a really interesting subject.
Can environment or location have a very negative effect on the music you make?
Yeah, I think so. It’s often the case producers have too much to choose from in the studio. I’m not sure if you keep track of electronic music and the gear that’s available and the costs of things, but they make this stuff really affordable now. So if you have a decent job, you can very quickly amass a large studio full of synthesizers and drum machines and modular synths and all types of stuff. I think it’s sometimes a bit too much and it gets away from music as a form of communication. It becomes too technical I think if you have too much to choose from.
If I went into a studio and had fifty keyboards to choose from, that would drive me nuts. I only use three myself to create, so yeah, it can have a negative effect. I’ve seen that happening a lot. I grew up in a time when those modular synths and modules were so expensive… As a young kid I could never afford those things. You had to make do with your little Yamaha (laughs). So you were trying to imitate Kraftwerk with this little type of Casio machine. But as a result you ended up coming up with something new. I think we’re kind of loosing that type of situations more and more with so much being so accessible. You don’t need to try so hard anymore and I think that’s having an effect on the music and the way it sounds the way it does.
Can I, as a regular listener, hear this kind of negative effects in your music?
No, because I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve done this long enough to the point I know I don’t have much patience. So if I can’t get into this keyboard in seconds then I get rid of it. All the equipment I have is very quick. Because, you know, I don’t have three hours to make one sound, I really need the sound in, like, minutes and then I need to move on the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. So you will not find that type of confusion much because I’ve worked out all those kinks many years ago. I got rid of the computers and software that caused that and went back to the older way of composing music because it’s quicker for me. That older process allows me to think more now about what I’m going to do.
Txt: Colin Kraan // Imgs: Scott Stephanoff (header image), Roberto Ty (second Jeff Mills pic) & Yoko Uozumi (fourth Jeff Mills pic)