BYT Interviews: Nancy Whang
phil runco | Dec 22, 2014 | 9:00AM |

“With The Future Will Come, I think that Nancy and I were both coming to grips with a lot of the personal fallout of being in touring bands the previous few years, and that became a central theme,” DFA Records mainstay Juan MacLean told BYT several Augusts ago. “The next album is something like, ‘Ok, there have been huge personal and career-oriented shifts… How do we sort this out?'”

It turns out that question would take a while to answer. In fact, two years would pass before DFA released In a Dream this September.

But it was worth the wait: The Juan MacLean’s third record is a stunning synthesis of house music, synth pop, Italo-disco, and rock. Near entirely created with live instrumentation, it’s an album of such lush detail and warmth that it almost makes the duo’s previous releases feel slightly underdrawn. Those singles and records are great, of course – In a Dream is just something different. Its 58 minutes are consuming; each of its nine songs feel like a little climax of something that MacLean and vocalist Nancy Whang had been working towards since she first showed up on “Give Me Every Little Thing” in 2004.

There was a third voice in the room this time around too. Scan the liner notes of In a Dream and one other name comes up a lot: Nick Millhiser. The Holy Ghost! synth maestro and his Yamaha CS80 and Prophet 8 are all over this record. He co-produced and engineered it with MacLean to boot. And taken together with Millhiser’s own Dynamics and Museum of Love‘s recent self-titled debut, In a Dream completes a trilogy of thoughtful, impossibly smooth records from an iconic label that made a name for itself with barbed dance music.

Whang and MacLean haven’t left fans of its more straightforward house music unsated, though. In February, it put out “Get Down (With My Love)”, the final installment in the trio of expansive singles to precede In a Dream.  Like “Feel Like Movin'” and “You Aree My Destiny”, “Get Down (With My Love)” is a track engineered for the dancefloor. And like those tracks, it would be wholly out of place on In a Dream. With each album, the gap between LP and 12″ material seems to widen. If there’s a romanticism to the album format, the two are keeping the flame alive. “I still try and hold on to it and hope it comes back,” Whang told BYT in September.

2014 was a busy year for Whang outside of her flagship project, as well. She turned in a guest spot on another DFA artist’s record, as she has a habit of doing – in this case, “Do That Dance”, an infectious highlight of Shit Robot’s underrated We Got a Love. She released an EP of classic disco reworks with a stable of current dance producers for Gomma Records. Her single with Classixx, “All You’re Waiting For”, continued to grow legs and took her to Jimmy Kimmel Live. And The Long Goodbye, the last document of LCD Soundsystem – perhaps the band she’ll always be most associated with – finally saw release.

I reached Whang at her apartment in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, where in between fending off the encroachments of her dog, she discussed the making of In a Dream, and what lies ahead for the Juan MacLean and her individually.

Nancy Whang and Juan MacLean DJ U Street Music Hall this Saturday. In a Dream is out now on DFA Records. Read Carly Loman’s excellent BYT NYC interview with Whang here.

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When I spoke with Juan back in the summer of 2012, he said that a new record would definitely be out in 2013. Obviously, In a Dream was released jut a few months ago. Why did it take as long as it did?

Making this record was a long process. The initial phase was this slow, drawn-out period of time. Last year and the year before that, Juan was working on some demo tracks, and we had started recording vocals and stuff, but there was a lot going on. Juan was touring a lot – like, DJing – so he just wasn’t home.

And, unconsciously, there was some hesitation to get it done, because once it was finished, then inevitably what follows is all of the trappings of having a record out, which means thinking about playing live and going on tour. We’re still kind of struggling with those questions.

So, we weren’t in a rush to get it done. Things started picking up once we finished a couple of tracks and started to mix them – then we picked up a lot of momentum. During the last few months of working on the record, we got a lot done in a very short amount of time. But we weren’t anxious to finish it.

How has your working relationship with Juan developed through the years? How did songs generally come together for this record?

No one track is the same, but we usually both have ideas about the kind of song that we want to make – either in general or very specifically. Often, Juan will make a demo, and he’ll have a reference in mind – something that’s inspiring him. He’ll send me the demo and say, “This is what the influence is. This is the direction I’m trying to go for.” And I’ll usually try and follow that root. But I’ll often hear stuff in the tracks that aren’t necessarily the things that he thought about, and I’ll put those references in.

But, in general, we kind of start each track similarly: Juan creates this very basic instrumental thing, and I’ll listen to it over and over, and try to come up with vocal ideas, and then we’ll track some vocals, which might not be completely fleshed out, but Juan will take the track back and add some more instrumental parts and shape the song around those vocals. There was a lot more back and forth with this record – demo track to vocal ideas to adding more instrumentation to adding more vocal ideas, or coming up with different arrangement ideas altogether.

 

I was surprised to the degree that Nick [Millhiser] was involved in the record – co-producing, playing something on all the songs, sharing songwriting credit on a few. How would you describe his involvement? How did it come about?

Nick was a bridge between Juan and me.

Juan and I have a lot of the same influences in terms of the music that we grew up with, but we differ in what we choose to focus on. I’m familiar with a lot of the house music stuff, but it’s not necessarily my strongest influence. I like it, but it doesn’t inform the way that I write music. I’m more of a synth pop, ’80s era, song-oriented girl. Juan knows all of that stuff too, but it’s not what he thinks of first when he’s making music. Nick helped merged our two ideas together, while also bringing his own. Nick and I share all the ’80s synth love, but he also can talk with Juan about house music and gear and studio equipment and production ideas. He was a good bridge between us.

And Nick’s been in our life for a long time. Juan and Nick have worked together for a while. He always wanted to have Nick involved with this record. He respects his ear and his ideas. I also live with Nick, so that was convenient.

The three of us together was a good balance of ideas and influences, because we do kind of come from the same place. Nick was also good at tempering our tendencies. If Juan started getting a little too… I don’t know, there were a lot of expansive guitar solos, which were great, but Nick was able to dial it back a little bit. Also, when Juan and I are together, we sometimes want to make something really goofy and silly, and Nick can be more serious, so he’ll let us know if it’s getting a little absurd.

I don’t think that it was initially intended for Nick to be as involved as he was. Juan definitely wanted him to work on the record, and then it just felt so natural for all three of us to be in the studio together. It happened very organically.

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Are you considering touring behind the record? Has the Juan MacLean performed live since Jerry [Fuchs] passed?

Nope. The last time that we played was 2009. That was a lot of the hesitation with even finishing the record, because, again, once we made the record, then the idea of playing live was going to come up, and neither of us wanted to really answer that question. For a while, I was like, “I’m totally happy making this record, and that being the end of it.” Touring just wasn’t something that I thought I needed to do for this record.

It’s been a long time since we made a record, and a long time since we played live. We’re talking about going on tour, but there are a lot of things to figure out. We’re still deciding if it’s even makes sense. It’s fucking hard out there to be a musician, you know? It’s expensive. It’s expensive to put a band together, and to find a place to practice, and to go on tour. We’re still in a good place, but because it’s been so long, we need to catch up with ourselves a little bit. We’ve been this band for so long and put out enough records that I’m not really interested in being a band that just throws our gear into a van and cruises around the country playing shows to whoever shows up.  That’s not exciting for me anymore. I’m an old woman. [Laughs] I don’t need to be touring around in a van.

That being said, I do miss playing as a live act, and now that the record’s done, I’m really happy it, and, personally, I feel like it deserves to be performed. If we can do it an a way that makes sense, that’s practical and worthwhile, then I’m very excited about doing that. But there are a lot of questions – the least of which being personnel. Who is the band going to be made of?

I would imagine that DJ gigs make more sense from a financial perspective.

Totally. As a DJ, you have no overhead, except for maybe an airline ticket to wherever the gig is. It’s ironic, because the fees that you get to DJ are usually better than a live act, where you need to rent a backline and a vehicle and pay for people to help you – like a sound engineer. The economics of it are really weird. I don’t really get it.

Juan and I don’t really DJ together. We’ve been doing a bunch of gigs together recently, but I have my set and he has his set. The music that we play is  a reflection of our stronger individual influences. It doesn’t make sense for us to DJ together – like with our backs together, or as one unit.

And it’s not the same. DJing just isn’t as satisfying as performing live. I don’t play our music [when DJing]. Juan will sometimes – he’ll play some remixes or make dancefloor oriented edits – but I don’t ever DJ our music, personally.

Someone suggested the whole idea of Juan DJing while I stand next time to him and sing over the music with a microphone. I know that people do that, and there’s an audience for it, I guess, but it just doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t bring myself to do something like that, even though it would be the easiest thing for us to do. We wouldn’t have any gear. We’d just have a bag of a records. Or we could have a fucking USB stick and a microphone. [Laughs] But I don’t want to do that. It’s not interesting to me.

You’ve been active as a guest vocalist with other DFA acts and elsewhere. What sort of fulfillment do you get out of it?

It’s a way for me to make music without really making music. There’s less pressure. I don’t have to basically create an entire composition – that stuff can reek existential havoc on a person. [Laughs] I have the privilege of being able to create music without having so much of my personal health invested in it.

And it’s easy. It’s easy for me to sing. You don’t really need to learn anything. I play keyboards, but I’m not really that great of a keyboardist. That’s the only instrument that I know how to play. Writing can sometimes be awful and not fun, but as far as singing, I find it easy.

It’s exciting to have these things that I can add flourishes to. It’s exciting to be able to make something with somebody that’s sort of mine but mostly theirs.

Given that degree of distance, can you say that there’s a track that you’re especially fond of?

The Classixx track was the most surprising – the response to it. When we made the song, I don’t know them very well. I knew them through Holy Ghost!, and we’d met a bunch, but I wasn’t close friends with them. They were the first people that I did vocals for who weren’t my close personal friends. But they were endorsed by Holy Ghost!, so I was like, “OK.”

I didn’t really think much of it at the time. They asked me to do it, and we recorded the vocals in one day at Nick’s home studio, and that was it. It was a while before they finished the record, so I kind of forgot about it. It was a good year-and-a-half between when we’d made the record and when it came out. Before it came out, [Classixx] reminded me, like, “We’re still working on the song.” And I was like, “I don’t even remember how it goes.” [Laughs]

But now it’s been received very well, and that makes me very happy. I’ve had opportunities to play live with them – more than anybody else. I did a couple of shows with Shit Robot, when he played with LCD, and that was fun, but I think that I only did that once or twice. With Classixx, I’ve been able to sing with them a bunch. And we made a video for it, which I love.

But there’s also the Ministry cover [“I Wanted To Tell Her”] that I did with Holy Ghost!, which was a song that we’d been collectively talking about covering for a long time. That’s one of my favorite songs of all time, so to be able to cover it was great.

And someone reminded me recently of this old Munk song that I did backing vocals for with James [Murphy]. It’s called “Kick Out the Chairs”. I like the song, but it was just really fun to make. I think we just got drunk in the studio and were yelling into the microphone.

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You have no website. You have no Facebook page. Is there a reason you’ve eschewed self-promotion like that?

In the beginning, it was because the internet and social media makes me very nervous and anxious, which is still true, but I realize that it’s absolutely essential to participate in social media in order to not disappear into oblivion.  At this point, it’s just laziness. Facebook actually does freak me out. I never look at it. There are a bunch of Facebook pages that have my name on it. One of them is actually really good about posting the things that I’m doing – announcement of gigs and whatnot. I don’t know who does that, but I’ve been meaning to find out and ask them if I can take it over.

I started using Twitter, like, ten months ago, and the first time that I ever tweeted I thought, “This is so fucking stupid. Who gives a shit what I say? Who gives a shit what I’m thinking about? It just seems so dumb.” I was so self-conscious about it. But now it’s just like, whatever.

It feels really unnatural to me, but on the other hand, I get obsessive, so I’m afraid that it’ll takeover my brain. It takes me ten minutes to compose one Instagram post or a tweet, because everything has to be fucking perfect. I can’t make it spontaneous. I would like to have more of a presence. I like the idea of being more engaged and being more present, but I also don’t want to do all of the things that it takes to be more involved – partially out of fear, partially out of laziness.

You probably hear this question all of the time, but have you given thought to making your own record? You would have quite the Rolodex at this point.

I get asked that question about every other day. [Laughs] Some days I know the answer, and some days I don’t. The answer is yes: There has been thought. I think about it a lot. I think about wanting to do it, and I think about never wanting to do it. It changes from day to day. It’s the same thing as social media: It’s partially fear and partially laziness.

I like the idea of doing my own thing – something that’s all mine. Having done as much stuff I have with other people now – being in LCD, and making this Juan MacLean record, and the collaborations – I feel comfortable doing all of that, and it’s fun, and I know that I can do it, so maybe what I want to do is make something that’s all mine from the beginning. Maybe I really want to express myself or whatever. [Laughs]

But I get overwhelmed with the idea. I feel some pressure or anticipation, and then I get a little fearful. It’s the same thing as going on tour with Juan – before I even start making music, it’s hard for me to not think about what’s going to happen when I stop making it. Do I have to put on a live show? Do I have to go on tour? I’m just like, “I can’t deal with that. It’s a lot of work. It’s really stressful. I kind of don’t want that in my life.” [Laughs]

I started making this little demo for somebody recently, and it was the first time that I was ever in the studio and made the music myself, and I was like, “This is fun. I could probably do this more.” [Laughs]

Usually my method of operation is that I’ll put something off, and think about it and dwell on it, and then ignore it for ages and ages, and, finally, one day, I’ll be like, “OK, this needs to happen right now.” And then it just happens.

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Was there any personal significance in seeing The Long Goodbye released this year? Did you find closure in LCD’s final document coming out?

No. That was intended to come out much sooner than it did. It was a long process to get it done – James took a long time mixing it, because it was a lot of music, and it needed to be perfect. [Laughs]. That’s why it was released when it was, and not sooner.

It was kind an epilogue.  It was released on Record Store Day, and I don’t even remember where I was. Rough Trade in New York did a big Record Store Day party and a release for that boxed set, and our friend Ruvan [Wijesooriya] – who was our unofficial official photographer – had an exhibition. And I wasn’t here for that, so it was sort of anticlimactic.

But I wasn’t really anticipating the release, so there’s not like a climax that I was waiting for that didn’t happen. That box set had been in the process of being made for a super, super long time. For me, the show felt like the end. That was closure for me.