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Who is The Juan MacLean?  I don’t mean in the physical sense.  That we know.  The Juan MacLean is John MacLean, a refugee of 90s indie rock and synth-heavy post-hardcore outfit Six Finger Satellite.   The Juan MacLean, as a recording act, also often includes Nancy Whang, the icy, understated vocalist who plays diva on some of its biggest tracks, namely “Happy House” and “Feels So Good”.  The Juan MacLean, as a live band, has featured Whang, Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel of Holy Ghost!, Dennis McNany of Jee Day, and the late, great drummer Jerry Fuchs.  The Juan MacLean, as an in-demand remixer and globe-trotting DJ, the one who will be appearing this Friday at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn, is just plain old MacLean.  Got all of that?

Trying to pin down the musical identity of The Juan MacLean gets even more slippery.  MacLean is a tenured resident of DFA Records; one of the artists that helped carve out the label’s identity as rock expats who had tired of the scene’s rigidity and embraced the release of dance music.  Cue up DFA Compilation #1, and there in the lead-off spot you’ll find “By The Time I Got to Venus”, a song that label manager Jonathan Galkin says James Murphy played for him at his West Village apartment in 2001 and, in doing so, convinced him to start DFA.  (The other song Murphy spun that night was The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers”.)  “By The Time I Got to Venus”, like following single “You Can’t Have it Both Ways” and much of 2005’s full-length debut Less Than Human, introduced MacLean as a purveyor of sinister, proudly analog electro, the kind of music that should be sealed with instructions that read: “Do Not Open Until After 2:00 a.m.”  At the same time, the squelching, thumping “Tito’s Way” and the unapologetically bass-riding “Give Me Every Little Thing” hinted that MacLean might also be pushing towards daylight and the dancefloor.

But nothing really indicated where MacLean would head with 2008 single “Happy House”, a monster, endlessly climaxing, and spit-shined house epic that extended well past twelve blissful minutes.  The song brought MacLean to a wider audience, and with each indie dance night that pops up across the country, it probably continues to do so.  It closed MacLean’s sophomore effort, 2009’s The Future Will Come, but didn’t quite define it.  The record was full of melancholic synth pop, songs that channelled New Order and the Human League, songs that were neither “happy” nor “house.”  Last year’s odds-and-ends compilation Everybody Get Close was similarly a mixed bag: the dubby, droning “Deviant Device” saddled alongside the happy house of “Feels So Good”, the acid electro of “Let’s Talk About Me”, and a handful of ambient experiments.  Unlike other DFA mainstays like Gavin Russom and James Murphy – whose arpeggiators and bass lines, respectively, are recognizable a mile away – MacLean’s songs don’t immediately reveal themselves.  This, in part, is what makes his music so hard to define, but it’s that uncertainty that makes his forthcoming third LP – which he discusses with BYT below – so eagerly anticipated.

As a DJ, MacLean’s M.O. is decidedly more straightforward.  He’s a champion of house music, and as those who caught him last weekend at DC’s U Street Music Hall can attest, he spins it the old-fashioned way.  Despite advancements in technology, in MacLean’s world,  “there will never be a shortcut to mastery.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBGs8JkVkFY

How’s the new record coming along?  Are you still eying a late 2012 or early 2013 release?

It’s coming along slowly! Obviously, I am not caught up in ever quickening race to release stuff as fast as possible, but this is getting long even for me. I’ve got some 12″s coming out in a few months, but yeah, in terms of my next album, 2013 for sure.

The Future Will Come departed from Less Than Human with tighter structures and, occasionally, more conventional pop songs.  Does the new album continue in that direction or head elsewhere?

Yes, it is very much in the direction of more song-oriented stuff. There are still some more ambient and electronic departures, but the emphasis is on tracks that are more in the “song” world. I’m not sure about the rest of the world at this point, but I still love the album format, and I still put a lot of thought and care into making a proper album, even if,  at the end of the day, it ends up as some wrongly sequenced list of shitty MP3s with some Don Mclean tracks thrown in on someone’s ipod because they’ve downloaded it from some torrent site.

What’s do you find to be more of a challenge: whittling a song down or building it into something expansive?  Some songs on The Future Will Come – “One Day”, in particular – felt like they could have gone for twice as long.

Ha, I have to give credit to James Murphy for that sort of editing. I can’t edit my own stuff that severely. James can come in as an impartial listener and start muting the “filler,” shortening the verses, etc. He’s not married to some synth part I took three days to program. However, now that I think about it, it’s a bit odd because LCD tracks go on forever!

You’ve mentioned that you missed the deadline for turning in the new record, which in turn led to the Everybody Get Close being released as bit of a stopgap.  Was there anything particular tripping you up, creatively or otherwise?

The music is not some discrete part of my life. Not to sound too much like a hippie, but it’s an extension of everything that’s going on in my life, and it has to flow naturally. I have to be coming from a strong position or I’m not going to do it.

There are a few factors that have kept me from writing an album properly. After The Future Will Come I was dying to go back into the studio and record a new album. But then Jerry died at the end of our touring campaign for that record, and that just blew me out of the water in many different ways. I buried myself in my DJ career, which has been incredibly rewarding, but it kept me on the road most of the time. I pretty much just wanted to be alone, on the road, DJing, and that’s what I’ve done.

In general, there has been a huge realignment around me, with my friends and people I work with, like Nancy and James, with the ending of LCD Soundsystem.

What’s the process of creating a record like for you?  Do go into recording it with an overarching theme or concept in mind?

Yes, I do go into it with thematic ideas first. My first album very much about alienation, about feeling disconnected from a lot of stuff, hence the title, Less Than Human. I was using very electronic sounds and looser structures to create more of a landscape and tone of disaffection. 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. The next album is something like, “Ok, there have been huge personal and career-oriented shifts….How do we sort this out?”

Do you jump around between songs or try to buckle down on one before moving on to the next?  How does jutting across the globe for DJ gigs affect the process?

I write when I am out on the road, sketching things out in little mobile studio. I then have other people replace my programmed parts, like live drummer and keyboard playing. This is almost always done by Nick and Alex of Holy Ghost!. To be honest, those two deserve an enormous amount of credit for a lot of my stuff. It’s nice because I don’t think when they play with me that it sounds much like Holy Ghost! stuff, though I do love Holy Ghost!

In general though, the whole process is very much a reflection of what I’ve experienced out on the road: the sounds I’m hearing in clubs, the experiences I’m having being out and about in the world, and the effect it is all having on my, um, “personal” life back home.

How would you describe your creative relationship with Nancy?  There appears to be a great deal of collaboration, but do you have final say?

I tend to compose all the music first, and then Nancy will come in with vocals. She has played some keyboard bits as well, but mostly that’s how it works. I’m always there when she’s recording vocals, and I definitely offer input, but it is mostly all her, the lyrics, melody, arrangements, etc.

During the recording of my first album, some of it was very intense. For example, on “Dance With Me”, it was like 2 a.m. or so when Nancy did the vocal track. We were in the studio and she wanted to be alone, so I looped the song and went upstairs to the office for like a couple of hours. When I came back she had done this vocal track that nearly had me in tears, it was a very moving time.

On the other hand, with The Future Will Come, Nancy and I went to a studio in Woodstock, NY, and just sat on a couch writing lyrics back and forth, helping each other, recording each other. At the end of the day, though, I suppose I do have the final say because I am the one doing the final editing and mixing. But I am not a control freak in that regard by any stretch of the imagination. I would much rather have other people’s input, like Nancy, Nick, Alex or James.

Your live sets are all vinyl and no computer programming, as was your DJ Kicks mix, which you recorded in one take.  Why? Do you think there’s a tangible difference in the quality of the performance or is it more of a principled decision?

I could write a thesis here about this question, and it has certainly engendered a lot of discussion and debate lately. For me, there is something inherent in the process of DJ’ing vinyl that makes it a deeply personal and meditative experience. From the beginning, you need to be very discerning when buying records because they are a bit expensive. From there, you have to choose about 50 of them to bring with you on the road. When it finally comes time to perform, the process of mixing records is far removed from what happens when you are using a laptop.

As an aside, I am not discrediting other formats – I don’t really care what other people do. For me, however, and others I know who play vinyl, there is an entirely different approach. Despite what people like Deadmau5 say, it takes an enormous amount of work and perseverance to learn to DJ with actual records. In any craft, when there is a difficult apprenticeship period, you learn things that cannot be learned by observing others or reading about it in a book. You are developing an intimate connection with your craft. I spent at least a year in my bedroom practicing every day before I ever dreamed of playing in front of people, and when I finally did start playing out, I went from being awful to passable in a period of a couple of years. It is only through years of playing and practicing that I have achieved the confidence that I have now.

Like photography, film, graphic design, and other areas revolutionized by the advent of digital production and software, we are at a point now where virtually anyone can be a DJ without much effort. However, there will never be a shortcut to mastery – it will always require the discipline of persistent hard work. Even if people on the dancefloor know nothing about what format DJs are using, they generally know great from mediocre.

If all of this sounds like I am giving too much credence to playing music for people to party to, I would refer to A-Trak’s brilliant “Don’t Push My Buttons” essay in The Huffington Post recently. He speaks from a bulletproof position as one of the greatest technical DJ’s of all time.

How does your experience as a DJ inform the music you make?

I would put the music I make into two categories. The first is DJ friendly, dancefloor material that will be released as 12″”s, like ‘Happy House’. For making tracks like that, my experience as a DJ is indispensable in terms of knowing what generally works on the dancefloor. For album oriented material, the more traditional song type stuff, I try to stay away from loopy dancefloor production. So the way my experience as a DJ manifests itself on those types of songs is more in the way that being a traveling DJ impacts my life.

Electronic dance music has skyrocketed in popularity in the U.S. over the past two years, but the artists who are drawing the biggest crowds are those that make little excuse for their lack of subtlety.  As someone who’s been on the scene for a decade, how does it feel to be watching this unfold?  Does the popularity of a DJ like Skrillex or Deadmau5 bother you, or is there a general feeling that a rising tide lifts all boats?

I tend to be optimistic about it. I think the more people those guys are bringing in, the better. If kids are only familiar with Dubstep and that sort of thing, at some point some of them will become curious about other types of electronic music. We saw it at HARD in Los Angeles last summer. We had our own DFA tent that was surrounded by all this bombastic stuff like Skrillex. But kids would wander over to our tent and check it out, and I spent a lot of time talking to some who were like, “I’ve never heard of any of you guys but this is awesome, is your stuff available anywhere for sale?” Lol.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty9CfOzakPs

Do you keep up on the singles and EPs that DFA puts out?  Your keyboardist, Dennis “DJ” McNany, put out a monster this year with “Aura Go”.

Of course, I still get everything DFA puts out. DJ is a close friend of mine, so I had heard that track before it came out. And of course, DJ is the keyboard player in my band!

Why release “Can’t Let Go” as Peach Melba?  What does the alias free you up to do?  Are there more Peach Melba releases envisioned?

I just wanted a vehicle to release more House-y stuff that didn’t really fit as a The Juan MacLean release. There will definitely be more coming. I really liked working with Amy Douglass, and it’s just so different than my usual stuff, so I created another thing.

When I saw you open for LCD in ’05, I was scarred to look at you the wrong way – you were a beast!  But you’ve appeared to slim down now.  What happened to hitting the weights so hard?

I started doing a lot of yoga, specifically Ashtanga. That’s not a joke by the way. I even went to India for six weeks this past February to study Ashtanga at the source. I used to be a lot angrier, I guess. I haven’t gotten into any fights at shows in a long time. Don’t push your luck though, I’m still a bit of a loose cannon if I don’t have my green tea.

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