The Juan Maclean: The future has arrived

The Juan Maclean’s latest album The Future Will Come counts as one of the strongest entries into the ‘nu-disco’ catalogue that we’ve seen this year so far. The perennial DFA formula of pristine analogue production is augmented by the vocal talents of Nancy Whang, along with the heartfelt songwriting of John Maclean himself. With a string of successful singles like Happy House, Simple Life and the popular One Day the Juan Maclean are getting the recognition they deserve. Juan Maclean chats with ITM about upstaging Cut Copy on their tour last year, Paradise Garage’s Larry Levan and the front man’s delinquent past.

As an avid reader of your blog, I get the impression that you are a former hustler and ex con turned English teacher and then house music extraordinaire, how much if this story is fiction? How did you get together with the DFA?

I’d say that it’s about 80 per cent truth. There is always a bedrock of truth to it, with embellishments to make for a more interesting story. Your general outline is true, however. After a life of criminal activity, with some encouragement from the legal system, I got my life together. I went to school and got certified to teach English, but because of my criminal record, I could not teach in the public school system. So I went to work at a juvenile detention facility, teaching the worst of the worst. It was great fun.

The DFA bit evolved out of my friendship with James Murphy. James and I have been friends since the early 90’s. When I made my first 12” as The Juan MacLean, By The Time I Get To Venus, there was no DFA yet. So James and Tim Goldsworthy formed DFA ostensibly to put out my first record and the first Rapture record. It’s come a long way since then.

Are the guys from Cut Copy still friends with you after you upstaged them at all their shows on their last Australian tour?

Oh sure, they were very good about it. One night after one of the first shows, Dan from Cut Copy knocked on the door of my hotel room. “Juan, can we have a chat,” he asked? So he came in and sat next to me on the bed. “You’ve stirred feelings in me that I never knew I had, seeing your live show. Especially the way you play the Theremin, I can only think it’s as revolutionary as the early years of Elvis and what he was doing,” he said. I comforted him a bit and sent him on his way. I’m not sure exactly what he was after, but we never spoke of it again. We are all great friends. Their album was a constant listen in the van on tour.

The new album has a sort of “human league vibe” to it, what was the thinking behind this?

I knew I wanted this album to be more vocal oriented, and that Nancy would be on board more than my first LP. We talked about doing some duets and basically having an equal male/female vocal presence on the album. So, with this in mind, we sought out other music that featured this type of dynamic, thinking there must be many examples in pop music. However, the only thing we really came up with was the Human League. I was always a big fan of early Human League, but I had never paid much attention to the band at the point when the girls came aboard and they plunged into a career as pop music stars. So I went back and listened to Dare for the first time in my life, and was totally blown away by how good it was. I got the Greatest Hits album and was astonished at how many hits they had.

How did you get into house and electronic music?

I grew up in Boston, and dance music was the antithesis of what I was into as a kid. I was totally immersed in the punk rock/hardcore scene in Boston, going to hardcore matinee shows every weekend, skateboarding around the city from record shop to record shop, fighting, causing all manner of mayhem and destruction. Anything with a synthesizer on it was completely reviled. When I graduated from high school I also graduated from that scene, getting fully into post-punk. This was the time in USA of early Sonic Youth, Big Black, Sonic Youth, etc. I was also really into Gang of Four, P.I.L., The Birthday Party, the entire post-punk scene. Kraftwerk was a huge favorite of mine. Somehow they seemed very punk to me.

At one point I was reading a big magazine article about Kraftwerk and the article explained how there was this techno music scene in Detroit that was largely influenced by Kraftwerk. I had no idea what techno was, so I went out and bought the Juan Atkins 12” of No UFOs. From there I got into Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, all those Detroit guys, and then into Chicago House, Frankie Knuckles especially. But it was all from the perspective of an outsider buying records and just being into the music. If there was a scene for that stuff in Boston at that time, I was not aware of it or interested in it. It wasn’t until the late 90’s that I went to my first proper dance club.

I know there was a bit of controversy about Happy House sounding vaguely like a Dub Tribe Soundsystem track, from certain people with a lot of time on their hands on the internet, what’s you view on that? And how do you feel about using samples?

That bit of controversy really cracked me up. Right off the bat, we are dealing with a genre of music whose history is a lineage of sample dependent tracks. People recycling the same loops of samples over and over again. So immediately I found it a bit odd that it would cause offense. On the other hand, I did pretty much lift the piano line from Dubtribe song, and from Paul Johnson’s Get Down. They are pretty much the same thing. The funny thing is that the Dubtribe song utilizes samples, so it is not even their original material I was stealing from, it was stealing from someone who was stealing from someone else. I always thought this was a great thing about electronic music.

I remember someone put together a reel on YouTube that had clips of like a dozen Daft Punk songs and after each Daft Punk clip there was a clip of the track they had stolen their bit from. People were passing it around, claiming outrage, like ‘I could have done that’ type of stuff. My response is always “if you can do it, then go ahead, no one is stopping you.’ The internet has given a voice to a lot of people who don’t deserve to be heard.

Which seminal disco re-editor/remixer would you most want to remix one of your tracks: Walter Gibbons, Tom Moulton, Shep Pettibone or Larry Levan and why?

I would have to say Larry Levan, simply because I feel a sort of allegiance to him because of his history with New York City and his influence on all of us at DFA. His remixes, or re-edits, are always great. He seemed to just take a track and make it more DJ friendly, which is always my goal in remixing, though I do tend to deviate from the original versions quite a bit. I have a record that has a whole bunch of his acapellas that he would mix in while DJing, it never leaves my record bag. Buried in there is Religion from PIL. The fact that this gay black disco DJ from NYC was mixing Religion into his DJ sets totally blows me away.

The Juan Maclean’s The Future Will Come is out now through Popfrenzy and Interia.