By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
David MacLean’s Scottish brogue cuts through the airwaves early on a Sunday morning, his broad and cheerful Aberdeen accent imbuing our conversation with crackling energy. MacLean, drummer and producer for UK-based “art rock” band Django Django, is at home in his East London flat, indulging in that most British of summer pastimes: watching the Wimbledon tournament.
“You should probably be watching this as well,” MacLean insists, somewhat in disbelief that I was not already. “Is it morning over there?”
After confessing that I did indeed get out of bed for the explicit purpose of interviewing him, MacLean suggests that I turn my attentions to the events on Centre Court. As Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic duke it out for the title for the second consecutive year (spoiler: Djokovic wins), I serve up my first set of questions.
MacLean engages directly and professionally, his tone slightly more reserved as the conversation turns to business. A new-found economy of words catches me off guard. It’s clear that he takes music very seriously, and it’s this kind of focus that has turned Django Django into one of the most exciting (and prolific) touring bands in Europe.
“We aren’t being weird or avant-garde for the sake of it,” he confesses, as the action on the screen is halted due to a rain delay. “We want to be accessible and dance-y, and give people a good show.”
The title for Born Under Saturn was inspired by a book you found in a thrift shop. You were originally drawn to it because of your interest in the occult and mythology and space. Where else do you draw inspiration for Django Django?
Everywhere really, from real-life personal events to politics to films. It can come from anywhere. It can be something someone said, or something you overheard, or something you read that seems like it might be a good title, and then you work backwards from there. Things just kind of pop up from almost anywhere, and if you let everything influence and infiltrate your thought process then you don’t worry too much about where ideas come from. You just soak them up and away from everything.
In terms of how you put together this album, has your process for creating music changed or evolved since the band’s debut?
Not really. [Laughs] We mapped it out in the studio on the drum kit, and did a few things that made this album be recorded a lot quicker. It took six months for this one, versus three years for the last one. We didn’t have the luxury of spending loads of time tinkering on every track. It was a case of getting an album made in a six month window, so you had to kind of do things differently to get it done in time. But other than that, the production sensibilities are exactly the same, and the way I work is exactly the same, really.
You’ve finally made the transition to making music full-time. Do you think that played into the sense that you were able to expedite the process for this album?
Yeah, a bit. Even though you’re doing music full-time, it’s still strangely hard to find the time. As soon as we finished the first record, we were out on tour for two years, so it was difficult to write or get bits of production done. It feels the same way, like you’re always struggling to find time for the studio.
On the other hand, you’re traveling, and making the whole live show work as a viable business to pay your rent. It’s a big part of this business, and you have to almost split the two things. It soon becomes your job, but it’s a job you’ve got full control of and that feels good. You’re your own boss, and you can do the things you wanted to do, but you’re still weirdly striving for that studio time, in a way. [Laughs]
Which one do you enjoy more: being in the studio or on the road performing?
I enjoy the studio more, only because time is more rationed. When I’m on the road and playing live all the moment, you can easily get a sense of “Groundhog Day” when you’re playing the same thing every night. Your mind wanders to new music, and being in the studio. But on the flip side, when you’re in the studio and writing new songs, you can’t wait to get out there and play them, so… [Laughs] It’s a good kind of quandary to have; just at the moment, I’m sort of itching to get back in the studio.
You’ve called this album as a “mixtape” versus a concept album. How do you decide which songs make it on the record?
Well, in both cases, almost all of the songs have made it on. I think we left two songs off on this album. A lot people said thirteen tracks was too long, and it’s almost an hour. You just kind of get a sense that the body of work you’ve created is a complete body of work, and then you can move on. It was a real struggle to find two songs – or even one song – that we wanted to ditch out of those thirteen. All the songs feel like they belong somewhere, and you don’t want to leave them, as you get quite attached to them.
If you were making a mixtape/mix CD for a friend, what song would you open with? Openers are key.
[Pauses] I guess I’m a bit of a mixtape purist, in a way. I’ll make a mixtape that’s just one genre, or one idea – maybe it’s all Beatles covers, or 90s drum and bass or underground West Coast hip hop. I get into an idea and find the records that fit that idea. The opening tracks are usually something that builds in slowly, so often I’ll put an ambient or spoken word thing at the beginning of a mixtape to ease it in. Something that bubbles in, so that you can ease people into the journey of the mixtape, really.
Sounds like you would have a really good time doing something for the DJ Kicks series.
Yeah, massively! We did a Late Night Tales once, similar to DJ Kicks. I’ve been making mixtapes since I was 8 years old, and I got my first turntables in 1992, when I was 12, then I got into hip hop DJing. So, I spent more than 20 years making DJ mixtapes, and almost 30 years making compilation mixtapes. I feel like I’ve made a few, and enjoy it a lot. If I have a day off, that’s something I’ll do to chill out, going through records and listening to stuff that you haven’t given a chance. There’s a MixCloud for Django Django mixtapes that’s got about 10 on there, but having time again to do this would be nice. I’ve done two house mixtapes for the Kick and Clap label recently, and am working on a dancehall one at the moment. They all make their way to the blogs, or SoundCloud or MixCloud, or whatever.
Have you given thought to taking on a concept album with Django Django?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I guess “concept album” is kind of pompous or prog or something, but I love that. I love soundtracks, or library albums, which tend to have concepts. We’ve done a couple of soundtracks over the last year, and I’d love to score a film, which is something I’ve always got in the back of my mind. Recently I loved the “Under The Skin” soundtrack, which was done by Mica Levi – she had a band called Micachu & The Skins, and I’ve been listening to that a lot. There’s a UK label called Death Waltz, and it re-releases a lot of horror and sci-fi soundtracks by John Carpenter. I think John Carpenter is probably my favorite soundtrack artist or composer, and his music stands alone. You can get into listening to his music anywhere, which I quite like.
Let’s talk about the “Art Rock” label – is this something that you guys welcome? Does it limit you? You guys have art school backgrounds, but is it fair to affix it onto the music you make?
Uh, yes and no. It’s easy for the press to slap that label onto things. Calling art “art” is something that only people outside of the art college experience do, in a way. If you’ve been to art college or studied art, you don’t think about it in general terms in the same way that musicians don’t think about music in general terms – music is so multi-faceted. Art, food, and music – what do these terms really mean? You can’t really call a chef a “food chef” or something like that. Art can be anything. Music is art, really. It’s like the term “indie music” or any of these kind of things – I just take it all with a pinch of salt, because it makes things easier for people to latch onto. A lot of people went to art school and made music, and you don’t really call The Beatles “art rock” because they went to art school, so. You know.
How do you adjust your live performances and your mentality from a large outdoor festival setting to a more intimate venue?
We quickly discovered that a lot of the intricacies of the first album were lost on the big stages. Our first few gigs had a big attendance, because we had sort of built a lot of buzz or hype – or whatever you call it – online. We figured out that we had to strip songs down and be a bit more bombastic, and forceful, and speed things up. You know, you get away with things on the studio that you don’t really get away with live. It’s hard to stand in front of 60,000 people and tap a rhythm on a milk bottle, or drum on a deodorant can like we’ve done on the record. It just gets lost. [Laughs] Everything gets beefed up, or speeded up, and becomes bigger.
When you play it like you would on the original recording, it just feels too slow and small, so you play with it and fiddle with it. We’re in the process of doing this with Born Under Saturn, and it’s a process that keeps going on until the audience clicks with it. It’s the same as it is when I go out and DJ – I want to please the crowd, and build the set so it does work for people. It’s an ongoing process.
Which do you prefer playing?
I prefer the indoor, small things. It’s nice to come over to the States and play the smaller shoes, because obviously we’re less well-known in a lot of places, so we get to play little club shows. The audience gets to feel like they’re part of something special that only a few people are getting, and we get the same sense as well – so there’s a back and forth buzz that is better contained by being indoors. You feel that when you’re playing, and it makes you feel and play better, and then it feeds the audience back. It’s more fulfilling to play little club shows.
That’s the excitement for British bands going to America. As much as people talk about making it in America, and playing big shows in America, it’s the excitement of playing small shows for a lot of bands that they really buzz off. I know a lot bands that are around our size that really enjoy playing a place like it [9:30 Club], because there are so many great clubs like it in the States. Is that near that Ben’s Chili place?
Yeah, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a few blocks from the venue!
I actually get quite excited about going to that chili place, Ben’s Chili Bowl. And I can’t remember what I get, but I’ve been there a couple of times; I guess I always go for the classics, really. You don’t really get food like that in the U.K., or places like that to eat. When I come to America, we go to places like Katz’s Deli in the Lower East Side in Manhattan, or Ben’s Chili Bowl – those are the places that the band always remembers, and we head straight there. But I also remember there’s a couple of really good record shops around there, on that street that goes up a hill.
There are a couple of cool record and comics stores around there, yeah. I guess it’s funny to hear a Scotsman get excited about eating smoked meats and chili.
[Laughs] Nah, it’s wicked, especially when you get to those places where the decor hasn’t been touched for ages and it’s got that old-school vibe about it. We grew up over here watching movies and Seinfeld and American culture, and to get to go and experience it still provides a kind of buzz for me.
I heard you met Ron Jeremy in Los Angeles once. What other strange encounters have you had on your travels?
[Laughs] He was a great guy, actually, full of crazy stories. It was a great night hanging out with him. That was fun.
I guess, one thing that stuck in my mind was hanging out with Chris Isaak, after meeting him in France once. I’ve always been a bit of a Chris Isaak fan, and I always thought he was such a cool guy. Then to meet him, and he was such a nice guy, and wanted to chat and hang out – that’s always stuck in my mind, what a nice dude he was. I’d love to work with him, and I always think about how nice of a dude he was. He’s got a great sound, and I’d love to produce an album for him.
Band portraits by Fiona Garden.