Thursday, August 25, 2005

Interview: The Juan Maclean

This was supposed to be the feature article in this week's Terminal City. Unfortunately, DFA Records cancelled The Juan Maclean's Vancouver show, so it was pulled at the last minute.

Next interview: Tom Vek.

Tomorrow: A full review of the new Broken Social Scene album, and music from Astral is Annie.


Back in 1992, a couple friends down in Rhode Island formed a band called Six Finger Satellite. Only a year on, they signed to Sub-Pop, and quickly developed their sound into a unique new-wave post-punk freak-out – years before it was popularized and co-opted into the genre that became known as dancepunk. From the ashes of Six Finger Satellite we now have The Chinese Stars (along with members from Arab On Radar), and The Juan Maclean – two projects which share a common ancestry but sound absolutely nothing alike.

John Maclean (aka The Juan Maclean) left Six Finger Satellite to escape from the rock'n'roll lifestyle. "I moved out to the woods in New Hampshire. I went to school and got my degree, became certified to teach English. I taught English, music, and art in a juvenile detention facility, working with youthful offender types. I sold all most of my music equipment, vowing to never become involved in making music again."

OK, so some serious shit obviously went down, but through it all, John never lost touch with his friend and The Satellite's producer, James Murphy. In order to further his production work, and set up a home base, Murphy, along with Tim Goldsworthy, were in the process of setting up a studio in New York called DFA (Death From Above). Yes, these are the same guys who got Toronto's DFA to change their name to DFA1979 – next time you're at one of DFA1979's shows, and you're up front, ask Sebastien (the drummer) about it.

Eventually, Murphy managed to convince John to start making music again - this time for The DFA - under the name The Juan Maclean. Propelled by the popularity of the label's other acts (The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem), John's dancefloor-oriented 12" releases reached a receptive audience who kept wanting more. I asked John how the album came about: "At first, it was just releasing 12"'s, working on them for literally like a year at a time sometimes. I was working a lot, getting divorced, that sort of thing. I had no idea it would blow up the way it did. When things took off, then I started thinking in terms of an album, and straight away knew that I didn't want to release an album that was a collection of previously released 12"'s."

Maclean's debut album, Less Than Human, features only one of the established hits which first brought his name to our attention. Instead of feeling recycled, it sounds completely fresh, with some serious legs – there are quite a few tracks which, while not instant dancefloor killers as presented on the disc, will offer up many months worth of remix opportunities (as evidenced by the lead-off single, Tito's Way, which was released as a 12" double-pack, with three new mixes.) With help from vocalist Nancy Whang, Maclean has added a solid dose of human presence to the album, which is an ironic twist, given the title.

Less Than Human traverses the electronic landscape from atmospheric lounge tunes with syncopated beats to deep electro and techno, to disco-funk. Give Me Every Little Thing, the only track to be previously released, is already a crowd pleaser with it's synth-pop hooks, catchy bass, and soul-influenced vocal – but even with the big sounds of some of the songs, the pacing of the album allows it to remain listenable within the confines of your home. The organic nature of the percussion is in keeping with the DFA tradition, and recalls early-80s touchstones Liquid Liquid, Public Image Ltd., and Gang of Four. John's more electronic influences are as one would expect, "loads of disco, particularly Moroder productions. Detroit stuff, [like] Juan Atkins, Derrick May, [and] Carl Craig, [and] Chicago [producers], Mr. Fingers and Frankie Knuckles."

"In many ways albums are my favorite format, I love records, with the artwork and all that. But for me, it is a grueling process, really torturous, because I want it to be a great album, not a collection of tracks featuring one single available for download, and 45 minutes of filler that is not worth the 1's and 0's it is printed on."

I have to hand it to John for being such a nice guy through the entire interview, even when I asked him some horribly inappropriate questions about my own relationships. We're talking about a guy who has been around the block more than once – who has left music, come back, and succeeded not only at making a name for himself, but doing so with a completely different sound and attitude. After our quick digression into love and life, John finished things off with some glib, self-effacing humor: "It's 3am and I am in Mexico City. I'm listening to Underground Resistance and asking myself what I'm doing in Mexico City at my age playing music so that girls in their 20's will like me." How it is, man. How it is…