Name: Jeff Mills
Occupation: Producer, composer, improviser
Current release: Under the name of The Paradox, Jeff Mills and keyboarder Jean-Phi Dary have just released their debut album, Counter Active. It is out now on Axis Records. European customers can also order on vinyl via News Distribution.
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Your current project with Jean Phi Dary, is based on a series of very free improvisations. Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. What kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
There have been many moments and experiences in my past.
The earliest must have been in my youth, growing up in Detroit USA, where music is so engrained into the urban landscape that there is no escape from it. It was there that I realized how impactful music can be, if used in ways that can universally speak to people.
As an electronic musician and to produce music, it is not uncommon to take on all the musician’s duties and instruments in the programming and playing, but it is through the usage of percussion where I’ve been able to better understand other instruments. Most instruments are percussive in some fashion, so working on perfecting my own human rhythm made more sense.
The genre of Science Fiction is one that has guided most of musical works for the past few decades. Contemporary Art and fashion are also things I watch very closely for inspiration.
The Paradox started during the recording of your project with Tony Allen, Tomorrow Comes the Harvest. How do you look back on that project and in which way is the music on Counter Active possibly influenced by those sessions?
With every rehearsal and performance with Tony Allen was a masterclass on rhythm. At times, I was so mesmerized by what Tony was creating, I lost where I was.
The typical sound check would start with stage and equipment set-up, then sound check where each instrument level and EQ is set by the sound engineer, then an impromptu jam with Tony and Jean-Phi. During this time, the engineer can get a balance of us playing together. It is this balance that the audience will eventually experience. During these impromptu moments, it was there where the idea for The Paradox was formulated. Each performance and situation was creating ideas and samples for what Jean-Phi and I might do in the studio.
When we eventually went in to record these ideas, we improvised throughout all the sessions to create this album.
Counter Active feeds from your collaboration with Jean Phi. But collaborations can take on many forms. What is it that drove this project would you say: Your differences or your commonalities? What are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
The main objective was to speak to one another – to have a common conversation.
To tell each other something “meaningful”. In the way we play together, it is also very easy to get lost – to reach a point where neither of us are understanding where we it is going to go.
The track we made entitled “X-Factor” is good example of this. Recorded in one-take, the path is mostly uncertain. But this resulted in a fantastic journey that we couldn’t have pre-planned.
In the press release, you said that, often, "the drums were laid down" and that "no MIDI connection or computers" were used. So, what equipment did you work with? How does the relationship with your instruments change when you're working in an improvisation setting rather than a production setting in the studio?
On some of the tracks, the drum were recorded first as a drum solo. Then, Jean-Phi would play to react to what he heard. In this way, the track is more spontaneous and free-flowing in its character.
Yes, no connection of MIDI or sync were used between our instruments. Using a drum machine, tempos, breaks, etc. were all made in real-time, while listening to what Jean-Phi was doing on the keys. We would play together, but not connected to one another.
Counter Active is a collaboration between two musicians, but it contains a third element, which is technology. In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at? Would you go as far as to ascribe a co-authorship to your tools?
Technology is used slightly in the creation, but nowhere near the amount of using our own human rhythm and intuition to produce the tracks.
Before recording, the only plan we had was to create in any way we could. On my part, lots of acoustic percussion was used. Or, the drum machine was used not as a programming computer, but an acoustic instrument.
Many jazz musicians believe that improvisation works best in front of an audience. And yet, on Counter Active, no one was present except you two. From your point of view, how does playing live in front of an audience and in the studio compare? What happens, when you subtract the audience from the equation?
It depends. In some ways, an audience can be a driving force, but they can also be a distraction. When the audience isn’t there, the imagination can take over and guide your actions.
One of the things Jean Phi and I noticed when we played together was how free we are and how quickly directions can change. With an audience, time is one factor that can direct the shape of the composition because thoughts about “how long”, “how fast/slow”, “how loud/soft”, etc”. As a career DJ, I’m trained to always think about these elements, so its hard for me to remove these concerns.
How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition?
I would always prefer to have the freedom to do what I feel. I think this method serves music in the best possible way.
Could you take me through the process of working with Jean Phi on the basis of one the performances on Counter Active that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind and how do you translate these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Once all the instruments are set-up and plugged into the recorder, I would usually fool around for about 10 minutes to find a drum pattern that I could start from. Jean-Phi would listen to it and start to play. While playing and when he hit a melody that we both liked, we would start to work on building the track around that melody. We would record until we both felt it was enough. That’s basically it.
There would be discussions and talks in between the recording, but these are topics of completely different subject that have nothing, but everything to do with music.
You've said about the process: "A concept and direction would be imagined and we would both address as best we could with what we had at our disposal." Can you tell me a bit about what these concepts and directions would consist of? Did you find that you and Jean Phi had very different approaches to translating them into sound?
For example, I would say, “Hey”, let’s have a lead/solo piano that’s complex and always moving – like the way Thelonious Monk would play”. We would often speak through the language what remember from other musical examples. So, Miles + Herbie + Eno might sound like … Needless to say, these sessions are always a lot of fun.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’m lucky to have never had any serious obstacle when recording music. I’m ready anytime, anywhere and for any reason. There is never pressure in working with music. But at the same time, I can easily do many things other than be in the recording studio. When recording, it’s generally about finding the “perfect beat”. What feels and sound interesting (to me).
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
For sound, using as little notes and beats as possible makes the tracks seem simple to the listener, but it's actually quite difficult to extract while keeping things interesting. When the track has space, it's generally easier to listen to. When it's easier to listen to, the quality of the voices are heard more, so time is spent to make sure there is a certain richness there.
In terms of space and distance, there is a point that if too far from the audience, an isolated feeling occurs. And in many cases, it's hard to clearly see individuals in the audience, so they’re viewed peripherally. No one performance is never, ever the same and I always learn something new during them.
Counter Active sounded fresh and exciting to me, but it is based on a very primal concept: Two people in the same room, making music. With 'visions' of AI generated compositions making the rounds, do you still think this constellation offers the best potential for stimulating and, possibly, innovative results?
Well, it really depends on how the instruments are used - what the goal and target is. If to be aimless, like how all the tracks were created, we both know when it’s right or ready to stop or when there is nothing more to say and/or do with it - the track is done. Where this method and way of recording music is on a scale of prudence, I’m not sure, but I think the results speak in contrast to the way a lot of music is being made today with computer sequencing, pre-planning compositions, etc. Overall, I’m trying to add much of my character into the music as much as I can.