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A Quietus Interview

Playing House: The Juan MacLean Talks Past, Present & Future
Rory Gibb , December 4th, 2011 09:18

Rory Gibb takes the release of a new compilation of The Juan MacLean rarities as an excuse to sit down with John MacLean to discuss DFA, DJing, the sexlessness of indie and a lifelong love affair with house music

It's an exhausted John MacLean that arrives to meet me in the low-lit lobby of a Shoreditch hotel. The Juan MacLean mastermind has spent two nights on the trot playing late at DFA label events in Europe, and has barely been in London an hour.

We're ostensibly meeting to talk about the release of a new Juan MacLean full-length of sorts, Everybody Get Close. More compilation than album proper, it's a digital-only collection of rarities, unreleased material and remixes running all the way from the sort of big, pop-song oriented dance music you'd more readily associate with MacLean and DFA (ever-building highlight 'Feel So Good') to odder excursions that, by his own admission, would sound out of place on one of his albums. The echo-drenched 'Deviant Device', for example, is dubby and slowed to a heartbeat's pace, allowed a full nine minutes to slowly unfurl. Try fitting that onto The Juan MacLean's last full-length, 2009's The Future Will Come, which set Nancy Whang's chanted, mantric vocals adrift across thick, rattling disco and house backdrops. Its highlight, and MacLean's best known track so far, 'Happy House' neatly summarised their approach in twelve-odd minutes of stargazing dancefloor manna: catchy, accessible pop songs, refracted through knowledge born of total immersion in dance music culture and history.

Since the release of The Future Will Come MacLean himself has remained busy, DJing, working closely with Murphy and DFA, and touring with his live band, who tragically lost drummer Jerry Fuchs in an accident in late 2009. Last year MacLean recorded a mix for !K7's ongoing DJ-Kicks series that worked as a neat complement to his DJing - its tracklist, featuring Detroit legends Rick Wilhite and Theo Parrish, Todd Terje and a host of other similar names, was a potent reminder of his roots as a house DJ first and foremost. With that, and a jackin' club 12" under the pseudonym Peach Melba released earlier this year, it seemed the perfect opportunity to pick MacLean's brain about his own musical history, and where he feels his music fits into New York's ongoing club music lineage.

It's already getting dark. We settle in an area of the lobby stained a soft, clinical blue by blanket strip lighting and immediately start to chat about clubs. It's getting harder to find decent, intimate and atmospheric spaces to go dancing in London, I say. "New York has the same sort of problem," MacLean agrees, "where it's one of the biggest cities and cultural centres of the world - for music, art, and the history of house music and club nights. But there's not a single good place to DJ there. I never play there. Never."

I wanted to ask you what the club scene was like in New York actually. On a more general level too, I know the States is a huge place, and I imagine that the club scene over there is quite different from the UK and European scenes, but I have no idea in what way.

John Maclean: It's funny, because in New York, there's no 'proper' house night. There are small things, but international DJs don't go there.

That's so weird considering how much of a centre New York ought to still be.

JM: It's this funny thing that, in the late 90s, stuff like DFA - and at the same time electroclash - started happening. We stayed away from [electroclash] as much as we could, trying to exist alongside it, but both DFA and electroclash really did wipe out the New York club scene, which had become very velvet rope/dress up. It was the heyday of progressive house, trance was taking off and all that stuff, and people were all just so tired of it.

And there was obviously a fantastic underground house scene in New York in the past.

JM: Oh God, yeah, it was amazing forever, it was incredible. And then it just fell off and this other thing took off completely. Now everybody's back into digging up old house stuff, and looking around and being like 'Those nights just don't exist anymore'.

It seems like there are quite large differences between US and UK clubs in terms of audiences and atmospheres.

JM: There's a really big difference. Historically, in the US there was a very big divide that could not be crossed between dance music DJ culture and live music. You were either into one thing or the other, and you never did one of the two. If you went to see bands and you were into indie rock, you were not only not into DJing, you hated it. And I have to say that DFA played a big part in bringing those two things together.

That's a huge divide that you guys bridged.

JM: For better or for worse!

Did you find that people were resistant to it when you guys first started?

JM: I'm older, and I was involved when I was a teenager, and grew up really into punk rock, hardcore, mainly post-punk, Gang Of Four, PiL, all of that stuff. When James Murphy and I first started making electronic music, a little before DFA was even formed, it felt like those punk rock days. In New York we would DJ, and go into these clubs and walk through the big line outside of people really dressed up for the night, and we'd be in the clothes we'd worn for a week, old t-shirts, beards, sneakers. We'd walk up to the door and the bouncers would be like 'Whoah, you guys aren't coming in here'. And we were like 'We're the DJs!'

It was really consciously combating that culture, so it was pretty exciting. And also, on the indie rock side, it was so soulless and not fun in any way, so it felt like [we were] making the world a better place for those two things.

[In the UK] you might go to [a night] and if someone was into 'real' house - if they were going to see Levon Vincent or Move D or something - you might have an audience that's very familiar with DFA. In the US, if you took the LCD Soundsystem audience, most of them will have nothing to do with dance music or house music.

That's something I'm intrigued by, because in my mind there's a definite division between DFA and more underground house music. I imagine that the audiences DFA attracts are wider, because of the nature of your experiences and past successes. You DJ a lot - do you get quite a different audience for your DJ sets compared to your live shows?

JM: It's a really ongoing question. I think about it all the time, and it's different all over the world. It used to be really problematic for me, because I used to get booked a lot in these so-called 'indie dance' nights, which are my most hated things of all time. They would make me miserable. That's not what I do at all. But I kind of dug my way out of that. I think it's really hard when you're making song-oriented music, like I do with The Juan MacLean. Right off the bat I think there's a stigma, and people think you can't be a real DJ, because it's the age of celebrity DJs when a band is playing, so of course the guitar player is DJing the afterparty.

So it's about finding a way of distancing yourself from those sorts of associations.

JM: Yeah. All of last year - you know I did the DJ-Kicks - the whole year was dedicated, and that tracklisting, everything was dedicated to saying 'I started off as a DJ, that's what I do'. And that was also me trying to foist house music onto hipsters somehow!

Do you think it worked at all?

JM: To a certain extent, yeah. Well, to the extent that it sold more than my Juan MacLean album [laughs]. There were things about that - I actually mixed the entire thing, first of all, which sounds like a funny statement to make, because it seems like it should be self-evident. But nobody really does DJ mixes anymore, they make a collection of songs in Ableton or something. And I mixed it all on vinyl. That was the first time they said anyone had mixed one in ages.

I really think you can hear the difference. Even in recorded mixes when you can't see how it's being done, there's a looseness to a vinyl mix, and an energy to it that you just don't hear on a computer.

JM: Of course! And anyone who's ever tried to make a mix with vinyl and record it, it is painfully difficult. It's brutally difficult. In a club those little things that are off - you bring the next record in a little bit so you can hear the hi-hats, and if it's a little off you can tweak it - nobody knows what you're doing. But in a recording you hear every little thing, [and it has to be perfect]. In a club, people hear it coming in, and it's kind of exciting.

I think it's exciting when you can hear a little bit of tweaking. There's actually a Move D set I was listening to the other day, from Panorama Bar, and it's like three or four hours [laughs]. Again it seems like a funny statement to make, like you shouldn't have to distinguish this, but he's actually mixing by ear for three hours. The guy's been DJing for years, he's a classic DJ who certainly is a technically amazing dude, but you can still hear he's fiddling with things, maybe he was talking to someone, you can hear all that stuff and I love that. But audience ears have become so accustomed to computerised mixes that now it's like an unrealistic standard, and I don't even think it's a standard that anyone should aspire to. Why would you want to do that?

And you make all your music with analogue gear, correct? Presumably it's the same attitude that informs that approach?

JM: Yeah.

There definitely seems to be move, or a tendency, among a lot of house producers at the moment to either stay resolutely with hardware or to move back towards that. I find myself wondering whether it's largely a reaction to the precise cleanliness of a lot of the stuff that's around at the moment.

JM: I think it definitely is. In the 80s, in the recording studio world, it was the advent of digital stuff in the studio. So now we're stuck with all these 80s recordings that have all these big gated digital reverbs and other stuff. It sounds terrible, but everyone went crazy for it at the time. The same thing could be said about this music that's being made on laptops.

When you're doing live performances, do you find people react in the same way as when you're DJing?

JM: At DFA we all had this idea that just never was going to work, that somehow we'd play these live sets that were like DJing and people would dance, like a dance night. But when it comes down to it we're playing live venues to a live band audience. That's the vibe of the whole thing.

Have you ever found that you've had shows that have bucked that?

JM: Oh, definitely - you look out and there's just a sea of people going crazy. Indie rock bands in the US especially, you'd be playing a huge show and people would think it was amazing, but people would stand still with their arms folded looking at you. All through the 90s at indie rock shows that's just the way it went - there's no way you were going to concede that you were having fun, or anything like that.

I'm interested in that transition you made from punk and rock into electronic music, because I did exactly the same thing. Were you always into electronic material, or did something shift?

JM: There were some things that made sense, because really by the time I was a teenager I was so into Gang Of Four, The Pop Group, PiL, Kraftwerk, and all those groups had come from the punk scene and were using disco elements almost as a fuck-you to people. Especially Public Image Limited, that was a definite 'I was in The Sex Pistols and people are expecting that; I'm going to take elements of the most hated type of music and throw it back in your face'.

Disco sucks.

JM: Yeah [laughs]. And then call a song 'Death Disco'. I was so influenced by that, and that actually got me into disco, and in the 90s I started buying tons of disco records, almost as a joke or something, but I just got so into it. And Kraftwerk is a big one too. They're a funny one because they inspired so much on that side of things, the post-punk world, but also there'd be no techno without Kraftwerk.

My introduction to dance music was reading an interview with Kraftwerk, and in the preface they talked about how they had influenced these guys from Detroit, so I went and bought the early Juan Atkins 'No UFOs' 12". That's how I discovered it. So the transition for me personally made a lot of sense. I also think that those two things - punk and post-punk on the one hand, and then dance music - people tend to think of them as being diametrically opposed to each other, like they're opposites. But they're both very visceral forms of music, very physical experiences, as opposed to jangly indie rock or something, which is a very heady kind of thing.

With indie rock, one of the things that drove me away from it was its weird sexlessness.

JM: It's funny you say that, because I've been saying it for years. It was the sexlessness that really upset me, and the lack of fun. It was almost taboo in the 90s, any sort of sexual element to that stuff was just thought of as distasteful in general. [It was] very conservative. That's why I said 'I don't want to have anything to do with this kind of music ever again', because to me it had become very fascistic. There was a uniform that you didn't deviate from, there was just a way of behaving, and things you talked about, all of it. I was like 'This is the most conservative thing I've ever been involved with in my life'. Parading around as 'alternative culture' or something, it was very homophobic, without... There's a lot of people who would pat themselves on the back for being very liberal, but at the same time if you had any gay aspects to your music they were really frowned upon.

Or there was comment passed on them full stop - they were considered to be unusual or outlying traits.

JM: Whereas with dance music it's part of what it was in the first place. You know, I played in a band [Six Finger Satellite] in that scene, on the biggest indie label Sub Pop in the United States in the 90s, and it was like 'This is a thing for guys'. It was a very male dominated thing, both in the audience and the feel of the music. And dance music is very feminine.

I wanted to ask about the new record you've put out, this compilation Everybody Get Close. Was that basically about gathering together these tracks that haven't been properly released before?

JM: It's basically that I'm working on a new album right now that I was supposed to turn in last month, and I've just taken too long to make. It's the kind of thing you put out when you want to buy a little bit more time [laughs]. There's stuff that I always wanted to put out that I wasn't going to put on a record, and there's no place to put it out.

There's a few tracks on there I really like - 'Deviant Device', the really slow one, for example.

JM: The Basic Channel-ish one? Exactly - what was I supposed to do with that? You'd never put it on an album, it's for putting your headphones on when you're high, in bed, trying to go to sleep at night.

How's your new full-length record coming along?

JM: Oh, great, really good. It's funny, all our conversation about house music and dance music, because it's even more [an album of] analogue electronic pop songs. And it's funny, because in making an album, I've just more and more decided that I don't want to make any concessions to the dancefloor or dance music. There's no reason to, I'll make 12"s for that. I don't think people want to hear it on an album so much.

What I really like about your albums is that they're sequenced really nicely. It's pretty far from the tired dancefloor track-dancefloor track-dancefloor track format, where you have a whole 'album' full of bangers.

JM: That's just the culture of DFA. We put a lot of effort into sequencing, which I guess is a lost concern, or art, in general. Especially when it just seems like now you only need to have one good track, then throw whatever you have onto the rest of an album. 'It's good enough'.

Like a picture frame around the centrepiece.

JM: Exactly! You're right, it's just the stuff that holds up the one track. [At DFA] five people will have a say in the making of your album. So much effort goes into that, it's really a painstaking process.

If you're putting that much effort into writing your music, why be slack at the last minute?

JM: It's true. James and I did an interview together, a few weeks ago, and he was saying 'With all our stuff we spend so much time, effort and money making this stuff - way more than can be justified for how much is sold'. Just because it's what we want to do. That was always the intention of the label - to put too much time, money, effort into making one little cool thing, you know? James was remembering one of the early DFA parties, and making these silkscreen posters that cost an incredible amount of money, and I think they were done the night of the show, for 50 people or something. Just because we thought it was cool.

You recently released a 12" as Peach Melba, which very much seems like a 'dance' 12". In light of what we were saying before, was that basically just an outlet for more directly dancefloor music?

JM: If I want to do something that there's no way can be a Juan MacLean thing because it's just pure DJ-centric stuff. I have more of them, too, that I want to do. All of my Juan MacLean stuff, even 'Happy House', I don't consider it to be a house track because Nancy's vocals are from a different world.

She's not your typical house diva.

JM: Exactly. I want to reserve the Juan MacLean stuff for song-oriented things.

Having that division is probably quite good, because you can focus on both without feeling like you're diluting either.

JM: That's what it is - it's about not diluting them. I don't want to have to be like 'Well, I think I should make this less dancey'. People used to do it all the time, have different aliases or whatever and I miss that. I can't think of too many people who do that now. Well, now that I say it, I know that there are people that do that, but I really can't remember!