Tone Glow 085: Jeff Mills & Jean-Phi Dary
An interview with DJ, producer, and composer Jeff Mills and keyboardist Jean-Phi Dary
Jeff Mills & Jean-Phi Dary
Jeff Mills is a DJ, producer, and composer from Detroit who played a pivotal role in advancing techno both in his solo career and in his influential collective Underground Resistance. He’s released numerous records on Tresor and on his own label, Axis, and has released soundtracks for films by Fritz Lang, Richard Fleischer, and André Sauvage. In the past two years he’s released music as The Paradox with keyboardist Jean-Phi Dary. Dary was born in the South of France and has spent his life collaborating with numerous jazz, reggae, pop, and electronic musicians. Notably, he was in Psyco on da Bus, a jazzy Afrobeat group featuring Tony Allen. The Paradox released their debut album, Counter Active, in 2021. They performed those pieces live, and released a live recording of performances titled Live at Montreux Jazz Festival earlier this year. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Jeff Mills and Jean-Phi Dary on May 26th, 2022 over Zoom to discuss formative musical experiences, performing live, and the future of music. As a note, Jeff Mills was in the Zoom call first and Jean-Phi Dary arrived later.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: How’s your day been?
Jeff Mills: Good, good! It’s still earlier in the day here. It’s nice weather. We’re busy preparing to leave for Detroit tomorrow for a big festival. Packing will start soon.
How has that whole process of packing and traveling been for you throughout all these decades? Is that something you’re okay with now, or is it always a painful thing to do?
Jeff Mills: No, it’s not painful. After so many decades of doing it, you know how many sets of socks, how many sets of underwear, how many shirts, how many days, the setlist, the backline list you have for your travels. You check to see what the weather is. Honestly, there’s so many other things to be concerned and worried about that you really don’t need to worry about what you need to pack. As soon as you can get that out the way, then you can stress about other things.
What are the specific things that you’re most worried about when you’re on tour?
Jeff Mills: Usually the sound because that can vary from venue to venue, and from engineer to engineer. The acoustics of the room can always be different. It’s never ever the same for that. I’m always keeping my fingers crossed that the production is at a certain point or level so that I don’t need to worry about that in the middle of a set or performance. If it’s what is on the rider, what is on the backline, what is requested and everything is hooked up and everything works, all the lights work, then yeah, I’m much more relaxed about everything. That’s typically it.
That makes sense. If you don’t mind, I actually wanted to start our interview by getting a feel for what your family is like. I know your older brother was a DJ. Do you feel there are certain aspects of your family—your parents, your siblings—you see in yourself in retrospect? This could be in the way they live their life, or the sort of people they are.
Jeff Mills: I come from a big family. Six kids: four sisters, one older brother. I’m one of the youngest. I’m the youngest son, and I have a younger sister, and then everybody else is just old. I’m the only one that is in music. Everyone else has a technical job or a medical one—they’re a nurse or dentist or doctor. I’m the only one that swung out a little bit further than everyone else, and I’m on the road most of the time and never really around. Everyone in my family is healthy and well-off into their professions. Even for some of my friends that I grew up with who are also doctors and dentists, things move so fast and so quickly in my career that it’s difficult to speak to them about it, only just the highlights that they might know about. So, I might win an award that’s similar to a Grammy but it’s actually in another country, but if they don’t know certain things, I don’t really express so much—there’s no way I can keep them informed about everything I’m doing and everything I’ve done.
I wanted to get a feel for what it was like for you as a child growing up in your home. You had a big family—what did your parents do? Were they very much supportive of the arts?
Jeff Mills: My father was an engineer, my mother was a housewife because of so many kids. Our household and our family was very similar to my neighbors’, and similar to their neighbors’. All the kids of each family all played together in the same block, and we all pretty much did the same thing—listened to the same music, ate the same candy, played the same games. Again, I was one of the younger ones, so I’m following in the tradition of my brothers and sisters, so there was no expectation that I was going to go out and do something like become a musician. So in other words, for instance, when I told them I was leaving Detroit and moving to New York, I don’t think they believed me. I think they were like “yeah, sure.” Or when I was going to Europe, they were like “yeah, sure, sure.” Or when I was going to become a DJ, they were like “right, right, just don’t drop out of school.” And honestly, I don’t know the point at which they finally realized that their son is an artist/musician—that I don’t know, we never really had that conversation.
The households when I grew up, music was everywhere because of my older brothers and sisters, and my neighbors. Growing up in Detroit, music was there before school, during school, lunchtime, after lunchtime, after school, early evening into the night, and then you go to sleep and the next day you do it all over again. When you get to school, young kids talk about their singing, they’re imitating songs on the lunch break. The candy store is right on the corner and that’s where you buy music as well. So you would buy your 45 singles and put them in your backpack. After school, there was the other candy store that was more elaborate and that’s where we all hung out. There was music playing there. And then you go home and your brothers and sisters would play music.
My mother was a great admirer of music. There would be house parties all the time at our house. There, you would hear James Brown and B.B. King and blues and jazz and Chubby Checker and all this stuff. And you would grow up playing with these vinyl records like toys. That’s what it was like. So it wasn’t a concerted effort to be into music; it was what I grew up in. So all my friends, we all listened to music. We all knew Parliament, Funkadelic, Miles Davis. We all knew. So we don’t really talk about it—you just know it. Rhythm is like speaking. And everybody, all my childhood friends, were very familiar with rhythm. We had games during lunchtime—we had rhythm games. Who could play the most complex rhythm? And so we would play games on the desk with our wrists and our fingers. We would play on milk cartons and compete. Things like that.
Right. It’s part of the culture you grew up in.
Jeff Mills: Yeah.
Is there any specific house party that stands out to you?
Jeff Mills: Well, the case was that all the kids would have to stay upstairs because all the grown-ups were downstairs partying. I would get up early on the following morning when my parents were asleep and then go down and eat the rest of the potato chips and snacks, which would all taste like cigarette smoke (laughter). My parents did it quite frequently. There were always house parties at my house. In other words, these would be my relatives and neighbors that would come over and they would party in the living room like it was a dancefloor. We had a big stereo system, and it was a party! Sometimes, you would sneak down to take a look and see what was going on and they would be partying. It must have had some effect on me for sure.
Would you be dancing with the kids upstairs, listening in?
Jeff Mills: No, we would be playing board games or something like that. The kids of the guests would be upstairs if they couldn’t find babysitters. We would all be upstairs, doing something. That was the way it used to be. In Black America, they felt safer and more comfortable in their house than trying to go out and dealing with all that mess. House parties were quite common in Black communities.
Since you’re going back to Detroit tomorrow, I’m curious what your memories of Detroit are like for you from when you were a child there in the ’60s and ’70s, and how you feel it’s changed in the decades since.
Jeff Mills: It’s changed a lot. When I was a kid, it was very, very, very segregated. There were streets where there was literally no reason to go beyond it. It was, gosh, I did not venture outside my neighborhood because everything was pretty much within a certain amount of square blocks. The school, everything we did, was in a matter of three to four square blocks. The school, the candy store, where we went swimming, where you get your haircut, where you buy your clothes—it was all in that area, so you really didn’t venture downtown so much even though that’s where my father worked. You didn’t venture to the outer boundaries or other areas or neighborhoods of that city until you got your license and you began to drive, when you really began to see the city of Detroit. At that point, that’s when you knew where you really were, and what the city was all about. And you began to socialize with people outside of your neighborhood.
I really realized just how social people in Detroit are in comparison to many other places. Like, my parents having house parties—that was happening everywhere. When we became of age, we kind of realized all our parents were partying together and now we can see why, because we’re partying together too. So that’s one of the characteristics of Detroit that makes it a bit more special than other places in the country: we’re very social people, and there’s a long history of that. It was very easy for us to go to Europe, to leave the country, and to speak to people and connect with them. Somehow, we were able to connect enough to be able to play this music and have a relationship with certain markets like Berlin, the UK, Japan, and other places. So that comes from Detroit, and the history of socialization and its social fabric.
[Jean-Phi Dary joins the Zoom call]
Jean-Phi Dary: Hello, how are you? Sorry, I didn’t understand the hours! How are you?
Jean-Phi Dary: Good, good. Good to see you.
I was just asking Jeff about growing up in Detroit, his memories of it and how he feels it’s changed over the decades. Were you born in Paris?
Jean-Phi Dary: I was born in the South of France.
Jean-Phi Dary: Saint-Raphaël. Saint-Raphaël is just in front of Saint-Tropez. Not the same life, but South of France. It’s cool.
How long were you there for?
Jean-Phi Dary: I was born there. My parents are from French and British Guiana. Which is in South America, on top of Brazil. I was born in the South of France, and stayed there until I was 18 or 19. Then I went to Paris.
I wanted to ask you the same thing. Do you mind describing what living there was like at the time? Do you feel like there are certain characteristics about the South of France that have rubbed off on you and the way you think about life or art?
Jean-Phi Dary: It was really cool at the time. There was a sensation of people coming from the Caribbean, and they were orchestral. So my dad was playing guitar, and other guys played every kind of music. Most of them were playing music from Haiti, music from Jamaica, Afro-Caribbean music. So I learned with that, and the thing was to play all Saturdays—you play with the orchestra. It was like a party. It was fun, it was really fun!
Is there any specific memory you have of those parties or being with the orchestra that you feel was really impactful to you?
Jean-Phi Dary: Yeah, I think they helped me feel the crowd and feel different types of music without even learning how to play them. Just feel the vibes of this African music mixed with European music because we were also listening to the Police and Michael Jackson, and so we tried to play some salsa music and Michael Jackson music, and it was the same: it was just playing music to our friends and girlfriends.
That makes me think: obviously with dance music, jazz, and a lot of African music, this corporeal aspect is important—this idea of our body and moving to the music and really feeling it. How important is that aspect when you think about music, whether listening to it or creating it? How important is this idea of relating to the music with your body instead of just listening to it or thinking about it intellectually?
Jean-Phi Dary: To me it’s the same—everything is the same. When you listen to music, your body starts to move even if it’s something you’re trying to understand—your body moves anyway. Body and spirit are the same, you know? (laughs). It’s a mix, but more than a mix, it’s two parts of the same thing.
Jeff, do you have any thoughts on that?
Jeff Mills: Each person has a certain rhythm, you know? Or a certain rhythm that you feel most comfortable with. And for me, I’m always trying to lock into this rhythm. No matter what we’re playing, I always get locked into this rhythm that lets me feel most comfortable, and that typically is the starting point. I can venture out but I always end up going back to this personal type of rhythm, or type of tempo that I’m thinking about, whether I’m DJing or playing live instruments, it’s always that. The time it takes to switch to something, the time it takes to think about what I’m going to do next, is what I’m talking about in terms of rhythm. It takes me 0.5 seconds to turn this knob, so it means I have to be there maybe 0.2 seconds earlier so I can be there on time, and that type of intricate calculation is what shapes your personal tempo or personal rhythm. I pretty much learned that from being a DJ.
Just to give an example, when we used to play vinyl records, it took time to turn around to your record box, to filter through the records, to find the one you want, to decide on that record, to decide which song you want to play, and then turn back around, put it back on, put the needle on, and then have it ready before the next record mixes. You need to have a certain type of timing in relation to what the tempo was so that you were always ahead of what the people are hearing. So, of course, it changed when we stopped using vinyls; equipment changes, technology changes things, and you have to change your timing as well. But it’s something that’s really important. Without that, I can’t even imagine how you would be able to approach music. It’s there, and how you react to music, and how I react to Jean-Phi when he’s playing—it’s all part of this personal timing. I hear something, and it’s going to take me from that point to this point before I can react to it.
Now I’m wondering: are there times when you collaborated with people and you felt you had two separate, competing, or different rhythms, and had to figure out how to make it work? Or maybe it just never worked?
Jeff Mills: Yes (laughter). When I performed with Tony Allen, the first time we did a live performance, we really had to figure out in real-time how we’re going to play together. Should he play the kick drum? Should I play the kick drum? When he’s playing the snare, should I not play the snare? Should I keep it constant when he’s doing something and vice versa? We had to figure that out, where our place is, and what we like to do the most and where we like to do that. With Jean-Phi, without any conversation, just listening to what he’s doing, I can pretty much gauge where we might be able to go next so I can prepare and get ready for that. And I’m sure he knows when I break it down, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end, it just means I’m breaking it down because we’re going to build it back up again. You learn the rhythm of other people, and the characteristics of other people.
Jean-Phi Dary: It’s like when you talk with somebody. Sometimes, you have to figure out how people talk to really understand them, and you have to take your time to answer. Sometimes, if you just speak speak speak and don’t listen, it’s not possible. So you have to propose something, then listen to the answer, then propose something else, and then we start to understand each other.
Jeff Mills: It’s like an art in itself. Understanding in real-time, which makes it more fun.
Jean-Phi Dary: Yeah!
Jeff Mills: Because you never really know where you’re about to go.
Jean-Phi, I wanted to ask you about your experiences working with Tony Allen. Obviously you worked with him for a long time. You had the Psyco on da Bus group and album. Do you remember your first time meeting with him and what it was like making music with the group?
Jean-Phi Dary: Yeah, it was crazy because I used to work for major companies as a side musician and studio musician, and somewhere inside me I thought, I would like to go on tour. Tony’s manager called me, and said that he’d like to play with me. It was maybe Thursday and they asked me to come for Saturday. They said, “You just have to listen to the recording.” And so the first show—I think in the Netherlands or Rotterdam, it was the afterparty of a big festival—we played on the beach. I don’t remember how many people. People everywhere, they were naked, in the sea, with bottles of wine, it was so crazy! I was impressed with Tony. We used to meet in the club but we never really played together. So I said, “Okay Tony, we work?” and he said, “No, no, no just play. We play.”
Jean-Phi Dary: It was crazy (laughter).
Tony Allen was obviously an incredible musician. Do you both mind sharing a story that gives an idea of what kind of person he was for those who have never met him?
Jeff Mills: When we first met I went by the studio. I knew him of course—I played his music for many years before, and I just wanted to meet him. I wasn’t thinking we would end up playing together, I was more excited about just meeting him. When we met at the studio I was nervous because he’s such a legend in his work with Fela Kuti and that whole movement, and the things he had done and seen. I had a million questions that I wanted to ask, but I quickly learned that Tony isn’t the type of person you just run up on and ask questions. He has to know you, like you. So I was a bit nervous. Very conservative in my questions. To be quite honest, when I would see him play, my mind just went blank because he’s just so incredible as to what he was doing. We were playing together, and he was teaching me at the same time. During these performances, he was showing me things, that’s for sure. That’s really only between us. He understood what I could do on the drum machine. He knew that. And he was seeing how far I could go with it by showing me certain things that he was doing and how I could replicate that. So I was trying in performances to replicate what he was doing, and as a result, I was learning about that.
Jean-Phi, do you have a story that comes to mind?
Jean-Phi Dary: I have so many! One is really funny and I really love it. The first time we started in a quartet, it was with the same guys from Psyco on da Bus: Cesar Anot on the bass, Jeff Kellner on the guitar. Doctor L. was not there yet, and it was just Tony, Cesar, Jeff and I, and we started to roll in Europe. And a journalist came once and he asked Tony, “Tony, where is the first step? Where is the ‘one’ in your groove?” and Tony said, “The one is everywhere” (laughter). We were laughing, but at the same time, we were learning that the one is everywhere. So that means you can have a loop, and everywhere you can decide that is the first time, and the loop will be different. So it takes some time to understand, and when I teach sometimes, I try to make a lesson from that to students: with the same loop, you can move the first step and the loop is completely different. Different flavor, different vibe, different groove, but it’s the same loop. That, I think, was one of the greatest lessons from Tony. You can start a groove with a snare. European music, most of it starts with the kick. And Tony would sometimes start with the snare, which gives a different movement.
I love these stories. I think it’s interesting just thinking about the act of performance and collaboration as this spontaneous act of learning about each other and learning in general. I’m curious, obviously with this new upcoming live album, Live at Montreux Jazz Festival, these are live renditions of studio recordings. What was it like performing these songs live versus recording in the studio? Obviously the audience is an integral part of this performance, so I’m wondering how the audience factors into your performance.
Jean-Phi Dary: We have the track in mind, but we prop up something else, like another point of view of the track, and I think the crowd feels that. And if anyone does not recognize the track, they would feel that. I think improvisation is about that. It’s like in theater. Actors, when they do improvisation, they’ll have one subject, one topic, and from that topic, they create something. I think it’s the same for us. Sometimes, we’ll say we’ll play a track but we don’t play one note of that track (laughter).
Jeff, did you have anything you wanted to add?
Jeff Mills: No, it’s exactly right! It’s just to have that kind of freedom. When you take the pre-thinking away out of it, you just make it up as you go along. You are creating something from nothing. It’s special for that moment, and so for the audience, they are hearing things for the first time as we are making it for the first time. It makes it even more special. The audience is watching the creation, and they’re involved in the creation of something. And so, it’s more than a performance, actually. I think every opportunity to play together is an opportunity to create something new. Who would not be excited about that? And your input, no matter how small, is as important as anything else. Your gestures, what you do at that moment and at that time is part of what it is. People listen to it, and what they do with that might be something incredible. You never know what goes on, what these types of actions could be. When you see artists not planning anything and just playing together off the top of their head and it sounds great, it seems like they’ve been thinking about this and doing it for years. When that’s happening, there’s a magic to it. It’s more than performance.
Would there be a specific word that you call it, if it’s more than performance? How would you label it?
Jeff Mills: Uh, maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t deserve… (pauses). Well, I mean, yeah, in my opinion, it’s a more nuanced way of approaching music where you have no destination. It’s the travel, and the adventure of going someplace together at the same time in parallel sometimes, and sometimes not. But that’s what makes it so exciting—the travel aspect, the emotion.
I’m wondering, the live experience is not comparable to listening to a recording of a live performance. What is it like for you two to perform live and hear back from the recording? We can talk about this specific live album: what is the experience like for you. Are you okay with these things being recorded and consumed in this way? Or is it just an inevitability?
Jean-Phi Dary: To me, when I listen to something that we have recorded, when I talk with Jeff about that, if we don’t feel the same vibe, the same excitement we had when we played it, we say “Okay, not this one,” and we keep the ones where we do feel the same vibe. There’s an electricity somewhere. When you play, you feel something else than just you playing, and it’s this connection with Jeff when we play together and I want to feel the same thing. So if we don’t feel that in the record, we don’t keep it.
It’s more special.
Jeff Mills: Yeah.
Jean-Phi Dary: And it’s live, and you can hear the crowd. The crowd is involved in that.
Jeff Mills: I totally agree. It’s really what music does best. It’s making people feel there’s something special going on between the musicians, that there’s a higher level of communication going on, this non-verbal thing amongst them. They know something that they’re trying to explain to us; they feel something. Any musician would probably admit that that’s the objective: to create this special something, this special feeling, that hopefully the listener can detect.
I’m thinking now about this special feeling that you’re talking about, and how it can be created when you’re constantly stretching yourself working with new people. I feel like for both of you, you’ve worked in different contexts, with artists in different genres and mediums. We talked about this idea of our own rhythm and feeling comfortable. How important to you is this idea of being uncomfortable, to challenge yourself? Is that a goal for you, in your art, to constantly be challenging yourself?
Jean-Phi Dary: For me, it’s everyday life. Every day is like “Can I play this? Can I keep on playing this with my left hand while playing something else with my right hand? Can I do it?” If I cannot do it, I’ll have to figure out how I can. That’s part of my way to grow. It’s what makes us better. The more I can figure out how to manage these uncomfortable things or situations, the easier it will be. It’s like training: it’s better to train to do something you don’t know how to do, and once you can do it, it’s a new habit, so now you go onto the next thing that you don’t know how to do and so on.
Jeff Mills: It’s important to be comfortable with making mistakes. You simply have to learn to live with it and try to find a way to sleep at night, and hope that they don’t linger in your memory for too long. You’re going to have them. They’re going to happen. And you just have to learn to rebound from them as quickly as possible. That’s music, right? Music is not perfect. It’s not something you can calculate and always have the same result. In my case, I make so many mistakes that it’s become something in my toolbox (laughter).
I’ve learned to take advantage of mistakes to throw people’s attention off while I prepare something else. The room for complete chaos is always there. The opportunity for disaster is always there. If you are okay with that, you can be more adventurous and try things more because you know there’s a chance for you to rebound quicker. You feel that you really don’t have that much to lose, and you can be more adventurous, try new things in real time, explore more. You can play more recklessly, I suppose, and without regard, without conditions. Once you get into that mindset, that’s when music becomes really interesting. Life goes on regardless. You’re still breathing after a mistake. Get over it, it was just a moment, and now we’re moving on to the planet of Jupiter. The possibilities of what could be are much greater than what you just experienced. If you can convince people of that, then there’s no limit to what you can do.
I have two immediate thoughts. Do you have specific mistakes you’ve made that constantly haunt you based on what you’re saying?
Jeff Mills: My mistakes vary. It can vary at any time. No, I don’t have any… Jean-Phi what do you think?
Jean-Phi Dary: I start to really feel free in music when I stop thinking about mistakes. And what is funny is that if you go like this, you don’t make any mistakes because there’s no mistakes anymore—anything is possible. Something that Miles Davis said to Herbie Hancock. “Okay, this chord you played is wrong,” and he said “No, it’s a new opportunity to arrange the track,” and that’s something that we never thought of before. And I like this point of view about music. Of course, you cannot do that with pop songs, but we don’t talk about pop songs, we’re talking about music in general, and this kind of open, futuristic music. It’s open: there’s no more mistakes. If you think about harmony in the classical way, Debussy talked about the twelve tones. It’s not one scale like C Major or C Minor, it’s that all twelve notes have their own scales, and the best scale is that one. And if you use that scale, you don’t make mistakes anymore.
This idea of open, futuristic music is obviously part of both of your careers. Both of you have worked with and are inspired by the tradition of Black music throughout history. In today’s climate, politically, historically, what does the future sound like to both of you? What would futuristic music be?
Jeff Mills: Well, I think that if we look along the lines of technology, at some point, hopefully, someone will discover that there’s more to sound than what we’re getting through our left and right ears. What I mean is that, when we say we listen to music, we just listen to it based on what the creator has created and we’re listening to the result of what that person has done. There are other aspects to the creation of music that we have yet to find ways to be able to explore more thoroughly. Let me give an example. So we’re listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and we typically listen to it on a stereo speaker, and we’re listening to what Miles Davis has done. But that’s just a small percentage of the experience it took to actually make that. When he recorded that, there was probably an intern in the studio sitting over to the left waiting for the musicians to ask him to do something. There was the engineer in the sound booth listening to it from another perspective, maybe Miles’ girlfriend was sitting over on the side having her perspective. Maybe there was Miles himself hearing it not the same way that everyone else was. Maybe he was thinking about what to have for lunch. Technology should be able to allow us to experience music in all those aspects from the roadie standing off over in the wings, from the person all the way in the back with thousands of people in front of him. Maybe someone in the concession stand. Through technology, we should be able to choose how and where we want to be in the scope of music, not just always in front of two speakers hearing the result of what Miles did. When that happens, music won’t just be music anymore, it’ll become a way of education.
If you apply that to going to the Amazon, the same type of immersive surrounding where you’re able to experience things, you can feel the temperature, humidity, the insect that lands on your skin—technology might be able to translate all that. As a result, humans as an animal begin to learn in a much more profound way about things that we would never physically be at. Miles passed away, we were nowhere near that recording of Bitches Brew, but we might be able to go back and be that fly on the wall. That’s the future of music. The future of music is becoming something much bigger to be honest.
Jean-Phi Dary: Music will be more like medicine. To help people to sleep before surgery. You call that musical care. We did an album and the guy is a professor in medicine, and he’s still doing that, and he said it works. If it’s not a big surgery, we put on this music and the music takes them on their way and puts them to sleep so they can do their surgery where they take them, again with the music, and wake them again, and that works, and more and more they use that. So of course music will be more than, as you say, just to listen to.
Jeff Mills: I’m not sure if this falls under the category of music or even entertainment, but at some point, someone is going to come up with the idea to allow people to be other people. In other words, someone’s going to say, “Okay, Miles was bitchy, grumpy, nice to people, etc.” Someone’s going to come up with the idea to allow us to have some type of feeling the way he felt. Or let’s say, you Joshua, I want to be you for 24 hours. Something has calculated all your feelings, all your personalities, whether you’re left/right-handed, how you speak to people, and I’m going to be able to put all that on. Music, art, all the creative world, will all be tied up into that. We won’t just read about Picasso. We’ll be able to feel like Picasso when he’s painting and things like that. Probably to the point that we won’t want to go back to our original selves, but that’s a whole other discussion.
I love these answers because it gets to this idea of the future of music as something bigger than we already understand it to be, and I think it’s really optimistic. I love the fact that you’re talking about educating, and not just being a way of expanding our understanding of music, but to understand other people. Music as a way to connect. Was there anything that either of you wanted to talk about, or something that you’ve always wanted to have been asked in an interview but you haven’t been before?
Jean-Phi Dary: No, it’s okay (laughter).
Jeff Mills: No, it’s okay.
I always ask this question to artist at the end: do you both individually mind sharing, first, one thing you love about each other. It can be about them as a person, their personality, something related to their artistic practice. And then one thing you love about yourself.
Jeff Mills: The thing I like about Jean-Phi is that he’s not afraid to try anything new. And when it’s like that, then it’s clear what is possible: everything is possible. Then that means it can always be exciting. And who doesn’t like excitement?
Jean-Phi Dary: (laughter). Thank you, Jeff. Something that I like about Jeff is that he trusts you. When you work, when you do things, when you collaborate with people who trust you, as he says, everything is possible. Because at the beginning of a good relationship is just that: trust. It gives you wings to do many, many different things.
And then one thing you love about yourself?
Jeff Mills: Me? Nothing (laughter). I’m just waiting to become something else.
What would the ideal someone else be for you?
Jeff Mills: I don’t even know. If you gave someone one wish, and you said, “You could do whatever you want to do,” I’m not sure most of those answers would even be logical. I think part of life is not having the perfect situation, not being the perfect person, not doing the perfect things. Every day, you’re trying. You have another chance every 24 hours to get it right. Some people never do. In fact, nobody does. It has nothing to do with money, nothing to do with fame. That’s just the way it is, and I think you would agree. And you just get better at shaking it off. So, no, there isn’t a single thing that I like about myself. I can improve on all points.
Jean-Phi Dary: Wow. It’s difficult. I’m a bit like Jeff, I try to do my best every day. It’s not easy. I’m more passionate now. Maybe because of my age now, and more passions. Before, it was like “Wow, what’s happening?”
Are there any newer, younger, or new-to-you artists that either of you have been really excited by?
Jeff Mills: I’m sure there are! I hope so! I’m positive that there are. There is a Jimi Hendrix, he’s just figuring it out. I’m sure there is one right now somewhere on the planet. And I look forward to knowing who that person is. I hope I live long enough to see this person who took what Miles was doing and takes it much further. But as it stands right now, there’s so much information coming at you, so much available, that it’s hard. It wasn’t like this before. In the ’80s, it was easier to see if someone was very special and had very interesting ideas. It’s more difficult now because there’s so much information that it takes much longer to weed through it. I’m confident that there’s these geniuses who are there. Maybe they’re not in the right positions, maybe they have some other job, or they’re in school studying, or maybe they’re five years old listening to music. We are living among incredible people, that’s for sure.
Jean-Phi Dary: I think so. I think somewhere, somebody is growing up and is starting to put everything together. Not only the music, but understand how to bring all this humanity and heart and mixing all this stuff and bringing more positivity in this world.
Jeff Mills: Yeah. And I think it’s a safe and reasonable thing to say, sometimes it takes time. You just don’t see a Michael Jackson or Prince every day. Sometimes it takes years, decades of watching artists, and then the opportunity comes and you have to be in the right place at the right time. It’s timing as well, and people helping you, and having confidence in you, and to say, “He’s the one, let’s help him, let’s put money behind him.” It’s the nature of things, and it’s the nature of people, and the nature of time. Sometimes everything falls in the right spot, and sometimes not. Most of the time, not, actually. In the meantime, all we can do is just wait. And for those who have new ideas, put them forward so they can be accessible to other people. So what Jean-Phi and I are doing, I would think that some young musician is listening to that, and is saying, “I can do better than that. I can rethink what they’re talking about, and I’m going to try.” I’m almost sure that that’s the case.
Jean-Phi Dary: These are the kind of words Tony had in one of the last discussions I had with him. He said, “It’s your time. Do your thing. Do what you feel. I did what I could. Now do something different. Keep on telling stories to people.” That’s what Tony told me, and I still have these words with me, and exactly as Jeff said. You have to listen, figure it out, and share it with people.
I love this conversation! It’s this idea of the future of music, the future in general, that is not centered around any individual person but collective progress. I’m a high school science teacher for my main job, and that’s something I try to help my students to recognize. There are celebrity scientists, sure, but it’s not like as a researcher you’re not doing it for yourself; you’re working towards a common goal for the betterment of the entirety of humanity. The more comfortable you are with making mistakes, the more comfortable you are with figuring out how to work with each other.
Jeff Mills: It’s probably the greatest contribution one can give, is to teach, to hand down information. I can’t imagine more value to life than that. Whether it’s music, science, art, food. An idea, to hand it down and pass it over, it’s the most that we can do, I think.
Jean-Phi Dary: We need to feed this new generation with the most positive thinking. There’s a lot of information everywhere for sure. But there’s a lot of bad information and negative information and they need to know that there is another way to think—it’s not only business, or war, or bad people. They need to feel and to know that there is another solution, another way of seeing life. And having a good life is not having a lot of money. Of course, having money is cool, but having a good life is more cool.
Jeff Mills: Creativity is a way and a means. There’s great value to creativity, and if used correctly, it will supersede everything, including money and all these controls. When you’re using creativity in effective ways and your mind is open—and you’re not just creating, but consuming and digesting ideas from other people—you become like a superhuman. When there’s no limit as to what you can digest, nothing will shock you, nothing will surprise you. You just take it all in, and it doesn’t cost you anything. There’s not a price, you just decide to do it. And when you do, it’s like Sun Ra: you can decide where you want to be from, you can create your own universe, you are untouchable.
The Paradox’s Live at Montreux Jazz Festival is out now.
Thank you for reading the eighty-fifth issue of Tone Glow. Let’s become untouchable.
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