Running Back: An Interview With The Juan MacLean

The duo of John MacLean and Nancy Whang talk to Chad Parkhill about new album In A Dream, nostalgia, technology and TJM's journey from a solo project to a fully-fledged musical partnership

Photograph courtesy of Tonje Thilesen

In A Dream, The Juan MacLean’s third album proper, is almost too close to the platonic ideal of what a Juan MacLean album should sound like: shorn of the punk-funk and house revival signifiers that marked, respectively, the duo’s first two albums (2005’s Less Than Human and 2009’s The Future Will Come), it delivers a collection of finely-honed songs whose themes revolve around longing and nostalgia, and whose production values are lushly detailed. (Album opener ‘A Place Called Space’ even chucks in a prog-worthy guitar line.) It’s a far cry from John MacLean’s earliest work under the moniker of The Juan MacLean, such as ‘By The Time I Get To Venus’, which possess a brutally pared-back approach to dance music, offering just the rudiments of what is necessary to get the party started.

Due credit for this transformation must be given to Nancy Whang, whose involvement with the The Juan MacLean has steadily deepened since she was called in to perform guest vocals on ‘You Can’t Have It Both Ways’. Now a fully-fledged songwriting partner in the group – a role proudly emblazoned on In A Dream’s cover, where a flesh-and-blood Whang stands watch over a plinth bearing a marble bust of MacLean’s head – her influence has seen The Juan MacLean move ever closer to traditional pop song structures, with intelligent takes on traditional pop song themes of love, betrayal and nostalgia. Indeed, there’s a tight fit between the album’s warm, glossy production style – perceived by many as nostalgic for an era of hi-fidelity analogue audio that has been made redundant by cheap digital technology – and the personal nostalgia of its lyrics. This is exemplified by the bittersweet album highlight ‘Running Back To You’, in which a woman voiced by Whang considers leaving her partner but is drawn back by the comfort of her relationship: “Playing with the thought of/ You and I apart is /Nothing but a perilous game. /’Cause every time I think /About my life without you /My world goes dark, so dark.”

I talked to John MacLean and Nancy Whang in two separate Skype interviews; the following transcript has been pieced together from both conversations.

What strikes me about In A Dream is that there’s a sweetness and nostalgia in its tone that seems to be absent from your two previous albums. How did this sweetness and nostalgia come about?

John MacLean: In terms of content, that feeling of nostalgia is a function of Nancy and I both being a bit older – we’re not 22 years old any more. We both lead these lives where we’ve been on the road for many years: both of us DJing and playing live with The Juan MacLean, and Nancy with LCD Soundsystem as well. We’ve had over a decade of doing that, and it translates into a longing for a return to something, but I don’t know exactly what that is. I know there are themes in the music that come up a lot for me, and it seems that way for Nancy, too: a return to some place that feels like home, a return to the solidity of a relationship. But I think a lot of that feeling of nostalgia is a product of our lives being in a bit of turmoil from playing in bands over the course of many years.

I honestly didn’t think it would be perceived as quite as much of a retro-sounding record as people have pointed out. In terms of that kind of nostalgia for a different time in music, I think that’s just a function of where music production technology is at now. To me, this album was my idea of making a futuristic pop record, but I think it comes off as sounding like something from another era simply because of the way I record music. I record live instruments with microphones and then mix it in a real studio, that kind of thing. So it has this very – and these are really overused terms in the recording world – warm, organic feel to it. I’ve been an engineer for over twenty years, so for me that just means it sounds good. Now, when I listen to new music that Pitchfork champions, for example, it’s the sound of a laptop – it’s this chirpy, thin, distorted sound that people seem to respond to. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, I’m just saying that I think the way I make music gets classified as sounding retro simply because it sounds … well, I was about to say ‘good’, but that would sound like I’m patting myself on the back.

Nancy Whang: Well, I actually think that there’s a lot of what you’re describing in the first two records, it’s just that, because of where they’re coming from, they don’t necessarily get read that way. I mainly mean John himself: just by virtue of the fact that he’s a guy, and singing, especially on the first record, singing through a vocoder, and the sounds on the first record were a lot more angular – so those don’t necessarily read as sweet and nostalgic. But as far as the message and the meaning behind a lot of the songs, it’s all there. My deeper involvement in the making of this record just makes it more feminine, I think.

Can you tell me more about the deepening of your involvement with The Juan MacLean?

NW: The first record was John’s first solo record, so he was making that on his own and I just came in as a guest vocalist on some of the tracks. I wasn’t really part of the creation process; I was just like another instrument that he used. With The Future Will Come, I was definitely more involved. I think [the deeper involvement on In A Dream] has more to do with the fact that I’m just older and I’ve done it more often. The Future Will Come was one of the earliest things I did where I was involved so much, actually writing songs with somebody. There was a lot of back and forth between John and I both in terms of making the tracks and the vocals took the form of call and response with a male/female duo singing to and at each other.

So with this one I was just there more during the writing process. John worked a lot in the studio in New York, and I would be there in the studio with him, whether I was recording vocals or not. I didn’t want to be a layer on top of each song; John and I wanted to make this record together, so I wanted it to really sound like we were together.

Do you think this is a stable configuration for The Juan MacLean from now on, or is this a point in a longer trajectory?

JM: When I started in 2002, after I released my first 12", By The Time I Get To Venus, I thought I’d always be an instrumental artist, with the occasional vocoded or effected vocal. When I made my second 12" just six months later, You Can’t Have It Both Ways, we called Nancy in to do vocals. The first time I ever met Nancy was when she came into the studio to do vocals that night. Ever since then, her role has been increasingly front-and-centre.

But I also think it’s gone hand in hand with the structure of the music. After I made my first album, I came up with this trajectory of how I thought the music would go over time, which was that I would make increasingly pop-oriented tracks, for want of a better word. I thought it was interesting to go from this place of being more experimental and abstract to, over time, honing it in and becoming more focused on vocals and traditional song structures. So this album is that vision come to fruition, with the vocals as a centrepiece.

In A Dream certainly has that sense of being the product of a full creative partnership. I don’t want to disparage the earlier records by suggesting they weren’t like that …

NW: I hear it in those records as well, and that was my experience in making them. It’s interesting that you can really hear the process in the final product – and not just the technical aspect of it, but the collaboration or the humanity. Whatever’s happening in the studio – you can hear that, it comes out in the music.

Also, with this record we had Nick Millhiser from Holy Ghost! producing, and having him involved meant all three of us became woven together. We’re all really close, we’re all good friends and we’ve known each other for a long time, so there’s already this way of communicating that we use on a daily basis that’s very familiar and comfortable. So in the studio, that really helped bring everything together.

The form of technology used to make a record, too, will also invariably influence the result in a certain way. We’ve recently seen the democratisation of the music-making process where enthusiastic amateurs can produce what can sound like quite good music, but it has a very different timbre – you can often tell it’s made with a computer.

JM: It’s funny, I often use the term ‘democratisation of music-making’ as a point of disagreement, because I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing. In the old days there were the people who made the music – who wrote the songs and played the instruments – and there were the people who documented that in the studio. And of course, sometimes this didn’t go very well because there were two different visions of the way things could sound, or that sort of thing… but now, with people combining those two roles, a lot has been lost in terms of expertise and in terms of the way recordings sound. And there are just some objective standards, of certain things sounding better than other things.

It reminds me of how, in the nineties in indie rock, there was a big movement of really lo-fi recording and people making records with four-tracks. There was this idea that we didn’t have to rely on these expensive recording studios and we didn’t have to listen to engineers telling us that we had to sound a certain way. That really direct and rough sound was exciting for a little while, but it seemed to age very quickly, and with the perspective of time, it just went by the wayside – that kind of thing just doesn’t age well. I think that a lot of the music made in the past few years will also not age well – it will be marked by its sound as being of a very specific era.

On the subject of sounds, the DFA label seems to be in a really interesting space right now. Previously there was a tight aesthetic coherence, where all of the artists were making very similar music, but it seems like the artists that have stayed on the label have all developed in their own idiosyncratic ways and the new signings are more diverse.

NW: In the beginning, what was being put out on DFA was considered adventurous: it was a really new sound that was just emerging. So at the time the label started it was very much at the forefront. But the label’s gotten older, we all as people have gotten older, and the roster has increased, too. At the beginning there were only like five artists on the label, so it was easy for all of us to have a similar sound, but as the label grew and more artists signed … you can’t have twenty artists that all sound the same, because that’s boring. But everyone that’s signed to DFA, they all represent the aesthetic that defines DFA. Even though we got labelled as this ‘dance-punk’ label nobody really likes to use that term because it was really narrow: it doesn’t really define the people on the label and the music we all listen to. Before DFA, that phrase didn’t actually exist, you know? ‘I’m a dance-punker, what are you?’

If I were to listen to something now that was recorded in 2003 or 2004 it would be easier to pick out a very specific mid-noughties texture to the sound that perhaps we weren’t aware of at the time.

JM: I think that’s been the problem with the internet: it’s given everyone this idea, or this feeling, that nothing can be new any more, that everything’s been done. It seems like each generation has the music journalists, or the tastemakers, who, as they get older, often promote this idea that things are not as good as they used to be, and everybody now is repeating what’s been done in the past, and nothing new can be done. I think that’s just nonsense. You could have said that ten years into the beginning of rock music – you could have taken rock music in 1965 and said, ‘Well, this is over, people are doing the same things over and over again.’ And it’s true, it’s just that now we don’t have any sense of linear time – with the internet you can listen to music from 1955 up until something that might have been made two days ago that someone’s posted on YouTube, so there’s no sense of linear history. Older music was really hard to find – you had to seek it out in a record store, and it gave you this idea of time progressing in a different way, whereas now everything is happening right now. So of course it seems like everything’s been done, and we’re just repeating old tropes. It’s really frustrating as an artist because you can basically be paralysed by this feeling that there’s nothing new I can do anymore.

There seems to be something formally very timeless about In A Dream: it has an opening track, and deep cuts, and a kind of narrative arc that makes it sound like a ‘proper’ album, rather than the kind of collection of singles that a lot of other dance music albums sound like.

NW: That was very deliberate on our part: to make an album in the way that albums used to be, where there’s an art to the tracklisting. There’s a beginning song, there’s an ending song, and the songs in the middle, they come up and go down and come up again. You know, an album would come out and you’d listen to it start to finish, lying on your stomach next to the hi-fi system, looking at the liner notes while you played the record over and over again. But we do recognise that people don’t make records any more, people don’t make albums any more: people make a collection of singles. I don’t really know how the general populace buys music any more, because when you download an album you get the whole thing or buy these individual tracks. I don’t know how our record is being bought, but if someone were to come in and buy individual tracks they wouldn’t necessarily make sense.

Of course I think all of our songs can stand alone, but they’re different from the 12"s that John and I make. We also make these dance tracks that come out on 12" that are specifically made to be played out on the dancefloor, but this album is different – the motivation is different, and the function of the songs are different. This is mainly down to John: he knew that we needed to start work on an album, but that we needed to do these 12"s first. Because when you work on an album you kinda drop out for a while, you’re not making other music in tandem, and we weren’t going out DJing that much. So John had these demo tracks already under way, and his intention was that these would be 12"s that would come out before the album. Before You Are My Destiny came out there hadn’t been a release in a while; we needed to put something out, basically.

JM: Those 12"s were meant to be played in clubs; they’re very functional DJ tracks. I wanted to save the more song-oriented tracks for the album. I really think that most people don’t want to listen to a dance music track at home that has a 32-bar percussion intro. That was a very conscious decision. I knew we were going to have an album come out in a year and a half or so, I just wanted to put out some 12"s to play in my DJ sets, really.

It’s funny because Nancy doesn’t really have much of an awareness of, or I would say interest in, the kind of background I’m coming from, which is one of pretty traditional house and techno. The early days of Chicago house and Detroit techno were my biggest inspirations when I started The Juan MacLean. And that’s why I always thought Nancy and I worked really well, because I’d give her these loopy electronic tracks, and instead of doing these house diva vocals over the top of them, she’d do these vocals that were out of place in a really interesting way for that kind of music.

NW: Synth pop is always my ground zero whenever I start writing music. Obviously John was around at the time, but he’s a little bit older and that era was when he was getting into hardcore music, so he really rejected all that stuff. But for me, I was still in elementary school, and I really love that stuff – it’s part of my fibre. Even if I tried to write something that was not sprung from synth-pop I would have a hard time. It’s my default genre.

In A Dream is out now on DFA. The Juan MacLean will be DJing in the UK on Thursday November 6 at Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds and on Saturday November 22 at XOYO, London

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