Jeff Mills and Rafael Leafar: Where No Man Has Gone Before

Entrevue réalisée par Elsa Fortant
Genres et styles : Electro / Jazz / Techno

renseignements supplémentaires

An architect of Detroit techno since the 1980s, Jeff Mills has been at the forefront of electronic music for over 30 years. During his prolific career, the “Wizard” has collaborated with symphony orchestras and explored futuristic jazz, with his band Spiral Deluxe, and electronic jazz, with the late Tony Allen and France’s Jean-Phi Dary. Today, Jeff Mills joins forces with Detroit multi-instrumentalist Rafael Leafar. With The Override Switch, Mills and Leafar offer a musical conversation in which horns and machines answer each other, taking the listener into a musical future that goes beyond the usual stylistic boundaries. A journey that Jeff Mills opens up about in this interview.

PAN M 360: After reading about Rafael Leafar and you, listening to the album, I have the impression that you share a common vision of music. On Rafael Leafar’s website, music is described as a vehicle, and the creation process is seen as a journey, which seems to resonate with your approach of music. Furthermore, the title of Axis’ webzine, The Escaped Velocity, induces, too, the idea of movement in space, in time. It makes me wonder, what place does this concept of movement hold in your personal creative process? And how is it expressed through The Override Switch?

Jeff Mills: I recognize music as a vessel and a carrier of not just information in the sounds we receive, but also, the soul and spirit. I think it’s a general understanding that would not be difficult to find in Detroit among musicians, as many of us were taught to respect what you feel, not just what you learn. Most modern and popular forms of music derive from blues, so the idea of using music to take someone somewhere or to use music as the excuse to reach a higher level of consciousness comes from channeling thoughts about what sets us free. To re-connect to where we’re originally from—the stars. To be able to communicate through ways that had been taken away and suppressed—harmonics. And, to have a sense of more purpose in the time and space we’ve been given. We both understand this.   

PAN M 360: I understand The Override Switch is about experimentation. To what extent is it an improvisational album? Was it a lot of trial and error? Was the mix of your creative thoughts organic?

Jeff Mills: Actually, it is more about the intricacies of communicating than trying to find new ways to translate. I think we knew what the objective was and how to get there. I think experimenting is a consideration when there is no apparent goal. We reacted accordingly and in a natural way, in a musical conversation about what it might take to overcome obstacles in life. We improvised the same way you would with a stranger about weather. Creating the mixes were the third and final step in that conversation. They were only designed to emphasize points of the discussion.

PAN M 360: If I am correct, the album was recorded in studio, but due to the pandemic, you weren’t together. How do you manage to create an undisturbed environment while being apart from each other? How would you describe the interaction you had with your own instruments or machines while working with what the other produced?

Jeff Mills: We both have private studios, the right gear and method that enabled us to record individually. So, we were free to apply whatever we felt made the compositions address the subjects. There wasn’t much verbal or written discussion. All compositions were created in three steps. One, I created the foundation of the track. Two, Rafael recorded all horn parts, and three, I mixed all the tracks down to master version.

PAN M 360: I read that you were introduced to each other by Mike Banks. Can you tell me more about a musician or players in the field who act or have acted as a bridge between different musical spheres and opened new horizons in music?

Jeff Mills: Yes, it was through Mike Banks that Rafael and I met. It was just by chance and good timing. Rafael was staying Mike’s place for a short time and I was regularly talking to Mike about finding musicians to work with. Detroit has a rather tight-knit community of musicians, that also includes DJs and many people that are connected to music. If we’ve never met, we’re about only one person away from knowing them, so it’s easy to connect.

We’ve always and often shared information and ideas about Music. I think this directly comes from the legacy of Berry Gordy’s Motown. Like Nashville, Chicago and New Orleans, Detroit is one of those special cities in America where you can find generations of people that are well connected to the industry of music – that understand it in deeper sense. Not just in the frame of a popular commodity. So, there are many bridges. 

PAN M 360: The relationship, the bond you each have with the city, and of course to Detroit in particular, seems very important. Can you think about a place in Detroit that has been structuring in your work or has the potential to be structuring (or inspiring) for the next generation of Detroit musicians?

Jeff Mills: Well, not exactly. There is no specific place. It would be more of a mindset. And just about anyone can possess it because it’s always been accessible. Meaning that, any and everything that has ever been released under the category of Detroit techno is probably available to find. In hindsight and looking back, I think one of the most important qualities of Detroit techno was that all those independent labels weren’t signed up, compiled and shelved by larger media companies. We still remain loose and flexible to chart our own courses. So, future artists can come at any time, from anywhere for any reason. 

PAN M 360: Will you be presenting this album live? In what kind of physical spaces do you think The Override Switch would fit the best?

Jeff Mills: We would like to present the album in a live performance. Rafael is such an incredible musical force, that I think if you ever have the opportunity to see him play, you should not hesitate. I can’t really suggest a specific type of setting because how would we really know, but like the album, I think the subject connects to any and everyone.

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