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Legends of Electronic Music

Techno icon Jeff Mills talks about 20 years of Axis Records and retiring The Wizard

By Christine Kakaire
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In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Black History Month beginning in February, today Beatport News kicks off a special Legends of Electronic Music series, tracing the legacy of dance music through some of its pioneers and key players. Check back here in the weeks to come for more special features with these icons.

“We know that our releases aren’t the easiest to understand or even listen to.”

This kind of admission would be startling from the head of any independent label, never mind one that has maintained a standard of musical credibility, technical innovation, and fan popularity for two decades. But knowing that this comes from Axis Records founder Jeff Mills gives it an entirely different context.

Mills’ history, productions, experiments, and innovations have been closely documented since the early 1990s, but of the pool of second-wave Detroit techno producers that he is associated with—Carl Craig, Underground Resistance—he is the one that has always remained slightly beyond reach. “Otherwordly” and “alien-esque” are words that still preface his name, and an ongoing obsession with deep space and the outer cosmos has permeated his vast body of work.

One of the mainstays of his career has been Axis Records, which, save appearances from peers Robert Hood and Claude Young, has served primarily as an outlet for Mills and his concepts—from the seminal track “Casa” in 1995, through the controversial and expansive Exhibitionist mix of 2004, to the most recent development, Alpha Centauri, a visual media sub-brand that will focus solely on experimental film.

The 20th anniversary release of Axis, Sequence, is as much a celebration of Mills himself as it is of the label, and the complete physical product is designed with the care and attention you would expect, including a 320-page book and USB stick. The digital version of Sequence—a collection of 24 classic tracks—is available exclusively on Beatport this week, and to mark the occasion we asked Mills a handful of questions about the label’s history and future. As was to be expected, we got more than we asked for with his answers: his thoughts on “future human scenarios,” his 30-year-cycle theory, and some insight into the official retirement of his DJ alias, The Wizard.

What has been your proudest achievement in the lifespan of Axis?

Reaching this 20-year milestone has definitely been the most uplifting. Considering how much the dance music industry has changed in the past decades, I think our greatest accomplishment was foreseeing and being able to steer the label out of the way of all the rapid trends and fluctuations to stay focused on what we believed in. Not long ago, a major part of the dance music industry had written off techno music as a style from a past era—a sound that people no longer wanted to hear. I believed then and now: that a lot of people had forgotten that techno was never really the style of the moment, it just felt that way. I could see early on that a lot of it was created with the future in mind. In the mid-1990s, I made it a point to try and stay focused on this belief, produce music, and manage the label without conditions. Needless to say Axis, has had it difficult moments, but we always found a way to provide a vision and perception of what the people really wanted to hear.

Has the core idea of what Axis represents evolved over the years? Or is it still consistent with your original vision?

It remains steadfast on the belief that we operate more effectively as a label that has a clear vision—one that speaks to many, rather than just a few. Even though we know that our releases aren’t the easiest to understand or even listen to, we remain devoted to the idea that a certain amount of people will always prefer to experience new things, rather than hear the same thing over and over again. We think there is still value in taking chances. For the earlier part of Axis in the early 1990s, this thinking wasn’t my main objective. Then, I was mainly concerned about capturing enough of the listening/buying audience—enough interest to keep the label afloat. Once I began to see that people could clearly differentiate our sound with all other labels was when I began to take more chances and reach out a bit further.

In one of the passages of the book, for the locked-groove release Cycle 30, you write “psychological cycles of trend and preference occur roughly every 30 years, when humans tend to repeat their experiences, giving a formula that one can strategically calculate.” How has that factored into your own career, and can you predict how it might affect the future of Axis?

So far, this calculation has proved largely accurate. People feel more comfortable revisiting and bringing back the past than embarking for new discoveries—which is completely understandable. The slight problem I have with this Cycle 30 theory is that people tend to use this comfort as an excuse to avoid the necessity of moving forward. We act as if nothing can be better than the past, partially because we were involved in making it happen. I think that thinking about the future is too displeasing for many people because there is no right or wrong answer. It’s not something we can accurately predict. The future will be the result of all today’s actions, and if we look around to see what’s going on in the world, it makes sense that one would want to avoid the topic. I’d like to emphasize the word “cycle” more than the number 30 because this refers to the progression of humanity. It’s much more important than a certain amount of years. What “cycle” means is a particular willingness to enact for the sake of continuation. Basically, we bring back trends because we want our offspring to grow to be similar to us, not grow to be drastically different and not understandable… or controllable.

You have also mentioned that all of your creative projects are ultimately rooted in electronic music in some way. Would you ever consider creating without that basis?

No. There is always a motive to push techno music forward in some way.

Forbes did an interesting profile on you, with your entrepreneurship and business acumen at the core of the article. What have been some of the challenges in reconciling a need to develop a business with a need to develop artistically?

Managing both goes well, but not perfect because there is always room for improvement. I’m lucky to work with a very talented team of people that never question going outside the norm on anything. This greatly helps because the industry is always changing.

You appeared as The Wizard for an eclectic closing set at this year’s Movement Festival in Detroit. How do you feel that set went? And do you approach that kind of eclectic set differently?

I thought it went well, but from what I heard afterwards many people were not satisfied with hearing an eclectic set, or at least an eclectic set from me. This was unfortunate to hear because Detroit had always been a place where the mixing of music styles was common—and infamous for. There were not many places that I can play as The Wizard outside of Detroit and the surrounding areas because certain tracks had to be recognized and highly noted by those who remember them in context from when they were first heard and introduced on Detroit radio in the 1980s. I sense there weren’t many people of that age or generation attending [Movement] last year, so as a clear indication to the way things have progressed, The Wizard is a historic concept that will indefinitely rest with last year’s festival.

Many of your records have been enhanced with something special—messages, art, fragrance. If you had unlimited resources and technology, how would you most like to enhance future releases?

If I had the right tools, we wouldn’t need formats anymore. Instead, a system created to capture the mindset of the producer or “dreamer” would greatly surpass the intermediate acts of presenting and programming. With this system, people would feel the same as the artist does in the spontaneous act of creating.

Would you describe yourself as a restless person?

No. I’m generally calm and very patient. Restlessness was always discouraged when I was young so I grew into someone that doesn’t mind waiting…just as long as there is eventual progress.

You mentioned in an interview earlier this year of your Sleeper Wakes performances that “it should start some dialogue as to how DJs could possibly be much more conceptual and be inline with the music and explain more to the people that are on the dancefloor.” Do you feel that it’s been successful in that sense? And do you have any further thoughts on how that discourse should develop?

No, I think that influencing other DJs to direct their music towards a particular subject or concept has so far been a failure. Not because many DJs aren’t capable, but because they just are not interested. There are other more attractive things, supported by the media and the music industry, that one is convinced to be more concerned about.

Developing and managing such a strategic method requires a bit of confidence and trust in one’s belief. The understanding of a response like “no” could mean “not right now” and that the compliment of “perfect” doesn’t necessarily mean it specifically. It’s important to remember that the art form of DJing came a long way because people took popular and unpopular chances to get us here. Once we stop trying to develop new ideas and avoid making those natural human mistakes, DJing will become nothing more than a button any promoter can push.