Label of the Month: The Escape Velocity

Marcus Barns sits down with techno icon Jeff Mills to learn more about the celestial mechanics and sound behind his Axis Records offshoot, The Escape Velocity.

18 min
Escape Velocity Beatportal
Aug 1, 2022
Marcus Barnes

Escape Velocity emerged during the pandemic as an offshoot of Axis Records, Jeff Mills’ flagship label which he has utilised to continuously expand his creative world since 1992. Now available via Beatport for the first time, the platform is based around giving artists the opportunity to explore themes centred around space science, with Jeff offering guidance and input to gently encourage artists to expand their creative minds.

Jeff Mills has just arrived back to Miami, in Florida, where he currently resides, dividing his time between there and Paris. It’s a typically hot sunny day in the Sunshine State, and he’s at home ready to get stuck into his neverending stream of work. When I ask what he’s been up to, his response is, unsurprisingly, “Rather busy.” Not only is he working on the next album from his Escape Velocity outlet, but there’s also a few EPs due for release in the autumn, a film soundtrack that will debut this month along with “a few other things that are related to contemporary art and contemporary dance”. In his own words, “It’s all going on”, but this is Jeff’s way, a lifetime of dedication to his craft. Like any fully committed artist, he lives to create and creates to live. “It’s not like a job, where you work nine to five and then go have a beer afterwards. Or you wait for your vacation,” he says. “In music, it’s not like that. It’s all intertwined: work and living and travelling and relaxing.”

“There’s really no such thing as retirement, in any creative business — especially the music business, you don’t really retire nor do you reach a point where you stop learning as well,” he adds. Jeff’s way of being is centered around this process of growth; learning and experimenting, never opting to play it safe or catering to market demands. Of course, plenty of musicians don’t follow this approach at all, finding success in churning out rehashes of the same template over and over. Different strokes for different folks as they say, but the antithesis to what Jeff embodies. “If you’re the type of artist that has worked their way through their career by experimenting and trying out new things over and over, time and time again, then you realise there’s really no end to that,” he states. “Simply, there’s just no end. You die before you can find any type of closure to that. So you just do as much as you can in the short time that you have, and hope that you can produce a lot of ideas, and that people can use those ideas in various ways.”

Check out Allen’s ‘The Escape Velocity’ chart on Beatport.
Jeff Mills The Escape Velocity Beatport 1746x2048

There’s an inherent beauty in the notion of an eternal quest to explore the infinite depth of creativity, and it’s evident throughout Jeff’s entire career. From day one he has pushed the boundaries of his craft, embracing innovation, from his dynamism as a DJ, going back to his incarnation as The Wizard, through to his refinement of techno turntablism, blistering DJ sets with rapid-fire transitions and incredible accuracy. Alongside his production prowess, exploration of intergalactic themes, futurism, Underground Resistance, his Axis label, pioneering techno releases and his global impact. Living and breathing the art of expression every day, always creating, producing, and then moving on to the next project; film soundtracks, orchestral collaborations, virtuoso-esque live performances, mastery of the 909, and much more. His growth as an artist has been self-driven from the beginning and has bestowed him with an assortment of skills and disciplines. For instance, when working with orchestras, he has to retrain his ears to become attuned to the subtlety of live instrumentation — after being so immersed in club culture, he was accustomed to the powerful frequencies emitted by sound systems. He was desensitised and so initiated a process of training his ears for the more delicate end of the musical spectrum, buying a high-spec home system and using it to play records he grew up listening to before moving over to classical music.

Rather than think of them as individual projects and creations, Jeff sees everything as a cohesive body of work that he is constantly adding to. When he gets into the studio, his mindset is that he’s starting from zero, with no comparison to his previous work or to other artists.

He is humble, grateful and aware of how lucky he is to be able to live out his true calling. “When you really respect the value of creating something from nothing and appreciate how lucky you are to be able to make a living from that, I think you really realise that the more that you create, the more that you contribute, the more that you really can help,” he says. “It’s just… I don’t want to use the word addictive, but you’ve become conditioned to the idea of handing the public something, and it’s got nothing to do with money or being popular or anything like that. It’s just that you thought of something, you materialised it, and you presented it, and there it is, so you then move on to the next thing.”

I raise the question of death and the impermanence of life, and how that fits in with his work rate. For so many of us, there is a desire to establish a legacy and live beyond our mortal existence, either through our creations, our ideas, our philosophies or our impact on others. As a keen follower of science and the study of nature, human nature and beyond, Jeff has an acute understanding and appreciation of the cyclical rhythm of life. Life is finite. In fact, the lifespan of a human is very short, relatively speaking. “You only really have so much time to say something,” he asserts. “It’s not constantly on my mind, but it’s something that I realised when I was quite young actually that, if you’re able to reach more than 100 people in any minute of the day, then you’re doing better than the majority of humanity.”

“It’s a very unique position to be in, to be able to say something, and then so many people can actually receive that,” he adds. “To waste that by just either doing the same thing over and over again, or not saying anything at all, is counterproductive and actually goes against the idea of being an artist.”

Check out Shinedoe’s ‘The Escape Velocity Playlist’ on Beatport.
The Escape Velocity Beatport 3

Jeff’s impassioned, perennial quest fulfils his true purpose and permeates into the Escape Velocity project. Launched during the tumultuous period of global lockdown in 2020, the label and magazine project are centred around the structure of a foundation, as opposed to the standard corporate template a lot of labels are built from. Rooted to parent label, Axis, it’s a space where artists are encouraged to enjoy full creative freedom, with Jeff’s feedback offering guidance on how to truly flourish and embody their full potential. It’s shifted Axis from it’s former incarnation as an outlet almost exclusively for Jeff’s productions, to encompassing the work of a broad range of electronic music artists. Utilising the platform to cultivate and nurture artists to push out beyond the confines of what they’re known for has produced a slew of fascinating projects; a deluge of albums from a myriad of artists, including Mike Storm, Jonas Kopp and Jeroen Search, Orlando Voorn, Shinedoe, Optic Nerve and a plethora of other artists. Each one encountered a process of gentle mentoring, whereby Jeff would ask questions of them such as “Can it be more interesting than this?” and “Can you translate the subject in a more vivid and profound way?” The aim is to coach them into utilising the power of music to communicate in a more convincing manner. “Music is a form of communication, and the more convincing you can become at explaining things, the better you become as an artist,” he says.

This ethos traces back to his statements regarding the distinct position he holds as someone who has a platform through which he is able to transmit his ideas to a wide audience. Jeff honours this position, and the power of music, while also holding true to one of the core ideologies behind his platform, which is to build an insular body of work unaffected by outside influence.

Check out Oxygeno’s ‘The Escape Velocity Playlist’ on Beatport.

Jeff’s approach is meticulous and considered in every aspect of the label and his own work. For instance, the font and styling are inspired by art deco. But more than simply imitating a font style for its aesthetic impact, Jeff researched the history, tracking it back to Egyptian times and learning about why it appeared during the 1920s. Brought to life during a period of global transformation, art deco is a symbol of change and progress. Its presence in the cities Jeff lived in (New York, Chicago, Detroit, Paris and Miami), a lived experience of its simple beauty. Beyond that lies Jeff’s progressive ideas around formalising a font that represents electronic music. Over the course of its lifetime, electronic music has never really formed a coherent visual identity; flyers and posters are disparate in their design. Yet, when you consider other music genres (rock, jazz, and so on), you can imagine a font that is connected to their visual identity. Discussing these kinds of ideas comes so naturally to Jeff and his visionary mind.

When you turn your attention to his numerous projects, this expansive and conscientious mentality is clear to see throughout his work. When he describes the origins of his ideas, you can truly appreciate the full scope of just how deeply creative Jeff Mills is. It may be obvious to his fans, but it hits home when he talks through how various elements of his imagination are stimulated by his experiences and learnings. Similarly, Byron The Aquarius was under Jeff’s observation for a year before he was approached to release on his Axis label. Watching Byron’s activity, seeing his direction and listening intently to his releases from afar before inviting him to create the Ambrosia album, demonstrates Jeff’s diligence. The LP is already widely regarded as a classic, thanks to its exemplary coalescence of house and jazz. It’s this level of depth and attention to detail that truly marks Jeff Mills as a creative genius. There is not a single moment where he could stagnate. The flow of creative output is always moving, shifting and progressing.

Check out Pyramidal Decode’s ‘Axis/The Escape Velocity’ chart on Beatport.
Jeff Mills The Escape Velocity Beatport 1 1746x2048

With Axis Records approaching its 30th anniversary, Jeff is, of course, looking to the future, making plans around the milestone and developing new avenues. Critically, one idea revolves around how to connect with older listeners. Moving into its third decade, Axis can now lay claim to fans and followers who are in their fifties and sixties. “I’m almost 60 years old, and I don’t go out as I don’t socialise in dance clubs as much. I don’t do a lot of the things that I used to do when I was younger, so it’s harder to reach someone like myself,” he concedes. “And so I was proposing some ways, I don’t know if they would work or not, that might attract the attention of someone like myself. I mean, by my age, I’ve done a lot, listened to a lot of music, and watched many artists come and go, but I still want to be impacted by something. I want more mystery. I want to be intrigued by something.”

“So I thought that’s one of the things that we can play around with, we can explore, adding a bit more mystery to the things that we do again,” he adds. Anonymity and mystery were tools that Jeff utilised in the early days of Axis, the aforementioned cyclical nature of human existence and creativity arising here. Honing that enigmatic feeling will take the label back to its roots and, it’s hoped, connect with an older demographic that still has a need to be wowed by something refreshing. How this mysterious element will take shape has yet to be decided, rest assured it will come from a place of progressive intent.

To conclude, we return to the topic of privilege. Jeff believes musicians are gifted with their status by the public, as it’s the listeners who decide if you’re relevant, or not. To remain popular is a privileged position, decided by the record-buying public. “I feel lucky and feel that I should not waste any time and produce as much as I possibly can — as best as I can,” he states. “I don’t know what the end game is going to be. But I do know that it’s better than doing very little or doing less. I can clearly see that the more I produce, the more excitement there is, and the more directions I go in, the more people I can speak to.”

“It’s a gift, and I don’t think it should be squandered or wasted,” he adds. Prolific, progressive and prophetic, Jeff Mills could never be accused of squandering his precious gift. As he envisions the next steps for his iconic label, while also working on a myriad other projects, it’s clear the perpetual mission to create is showing no signs of slowing down…

The Escape Velocity’s latest album release — Interstellar Orbit by Allen — is out now. Buy it on Beatport.

Marcus Barnes is an author, journalist, copywriter, and tastemaker with over 15 years experience in print and online. Find him on Twitter.