This Friday, Le Bain presents Juan MacLean, one of the key artist of the DFA story. Before becoming one of the most exciting house DJ’s around, MacLean has played a major role (as guitarist) in the post-punk scene of the early 90’s. We met Juan MacLean for a Standard Q&A from the dark to the light.
Hi Juan, we are excited to have you back this Friday at Le Bain. You just released your new compilation Everybody Get Close (DFA) and it seems the mood is balancing between dark and uplifting. Do you think good dance music is about melancholy?
That’s an interesting observation because this release is a compilation of older stuff. Unlike putting together a proper studio album, I didn’t really give any consideration to the balance of emotional tone and that sort of thing. So I suppose it’s a testament to how much I naturally gravitate to melancholy sentiments. I think the greatest dance music songs somehow convey both a darker and uplifting feeling. New Order’s “Blue Monday” is a great example.
You have been playing a key role in the history of DFA records. Back in 1993, you were a guitarist for a band called Six Finger Satellite, which has James Murphy as a touring engineer… There was no DFA label yet (until 2001), but James Murphy called your noisy post-hardcore disco style “Death From Above”: D.F.A… What memories do you keep of the early 90’s?
James and I have been reminiscing about those days and he has a lot of stories that I have forgotten. I don’t remember much detail about the early 90’s because of the amount of drugs involved on a daily basis. It was a very dark time. The drive of the band was to absolutely destroy people with a live show. For James, this meant making it as loud and terrifying as possibly. One show was so loud he made a kid throw up in the middle of our set. One thing that I find quite ironic in retrospect is that the formula for the band - angular guitars, disco influenced rhythm section, and analog synths - was very contentious at the time and sort of limited out success. Using synths on stage was pretty taboo at the time.
How did John MacLean become The Juan MacLean?
I was in the studio working on the B-side to my first 12”, a track called TG3X. It was very influenced by Detroit Techno. Marcus Lambkin, aka Shit Robot, was in the smaller studio down the hall smoking pot and working on his own music. He heard James and I listening back a mix very loudly, and he poked his head in, giggled, and said “who do you think you are then, JUAN MacLean,” implying that I was ripping off Techno innovator Juan Atkins. James and I had been knocking around potential names for my new project that day, and in that moment James proclaimed “from this day forth, you are Juan MacLean.’ At this point I think that he has forgotten that I was ever called anything different.
The Juan MacLean ‘By The Time I Get To Venus’
It seems the 80’s band The Human League has been a huge inspiration to the music of The Juan MacLean. Do you remember when you heard The Human League for the first time?
The first time I heard The Human League I was in high school and “Don’t You Want Me Baby” was huge. I was totally immersed in the Boston hardcore/punk scene and hated it enormously. I despised synths and the romantic drama of the song. As I became disenchanted with going to shows and rolling around with a bunch of dudes with no shirts on every weekend, I discovered the world of post-punk, bands like Gang Of Four, PIL, The Birthday Party, etc. I soon found out that The Human League had started off as a noisy synth punk type of band and tracks like “Being Boiled” really blew me away. Much later, I came to love their breakthrough album “Dare” and all their big hits. At this point I favour that stuff, the really melodic hook oriented productions.
Since a few years you have embraced a worldwide DJ career. Last year, your mix compilation for the DJ Kicks collection has been rated number one of 2010 by English mag DJ Mag… When you have been a guitarist for a major post-hardcore band, what makes DJ’ing so exciting?
It’s a very strange transition to a lot of people. Even when I played in Six Finger Satellite though, what I most loved about music was the visceral feel of a beat played loudly through a soundsystem. As I got older, I felt less inclined to live out my personal existential crisis by inflicting bad feelings on the public, I became more aroused by deeper and more complex emotional tones. A lot of the dance music I love is either very basic stuff that is punchy party music, like disco, that still sounds very tough, or darker House that is still funky and makes you want to dance. A few years ago I met this girl at a show in NYC, and the first thing she said to me was “you broke my boyfriend’s nose when you lived in Providence.” I only have vague memories of this, but when I was in my late teens/early 20’s me and my friends frequented a club in Providence called The Rocket (later, Club Babyhead). On most nights they had punk/post-punk bands coming through, big international and national touring acts from that world, it was amazing. But on certain nights they had a dance party with a DJ, and me and my friends thought this was a fucking crime, an insult and abomination. So we would show up and pretend to dance and just start trouble, trying to pick fights, which is heartbreaking to me in retrospect. So apparently this girl’s boyfriend came up to me and gave me a hard time and I punched him in the face, breaking his nose. The irony is profoundly disturbing.
Who is your main inspiration as a guitarist?
If I had to nail down one guitarist as my all time number one influence it would have to be Andy Gill of Gang Of Four. His style is very minimal, dynamic and rhythmic. Instead of strumming chords, he was slashing away throwing out shards out of angular lines that had more to do with drumming than traditional guitar playing. Like a funk guitarist, except with this terrifying tone.
Human League ‘Being Boiled’
Your most inspiring DJ?
That’s a tough one. It’s evolved over the years. The person who really got me into DJ’ing was Shit Robot. He is the one who taught me how to do it in a technical sense, and the basic stuff of how to structure a set. Tim Sweeney was also a huge influence. Even though he was only like 16 when I met him, he had been dj’ing for like 10 years already, and he was very adept at mixing different styles of music. Plus he had a lot of energy, and I would be mesmerized by his long hair. The next people who blew me away and sent me back into my bedroom practicing was Optimo, those guys were just miles beyond anything I had ever seen. I played with Jeff Mills at Space in Ibiza a couple of years ago, and I think he was the last DJ to make me feel like a clown, his technical skills in terms of mixing are just off the chart. In this age of laptop DJ’s, you don’t see that very often anymore. This guy is older than me and he just had so much energy, always moving, always mixing.
What was your favorite super-hero as a kid?
Catwoman. Her costume was very revealing, you could really see the outline of her boobs and this drove me crazy.
If you had the power to change something in your music career, what would it be?
This is something outside of myself, but if I could somehow magically change anything it would be the state of record labels. There is this hideous idea floating around for a few years now that with the death of labels, music will be democratized and everyone will have the ability to just release their music directly via the internet. This would be the death of music as we know it. Labels serve a lot of vital functions that the public doesn’t know about, but ultimately their greatest service is to be curators. They are filters, they set up a system of hierarchy, and bands and artists have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get signed and get music released. Without that, the public would be left with what, going to a space like MySpace and randomly sorting through millions of bands/artists? I just don’t believe in the “unheard genius”, the guy who is amazing but is getting shafted by a system that won’t support his vision. I suppose this is easy for me to say because I have been signed to two iconic independent labels, Sub Pop and DFA.
And in your life?
I would love to have health insurance.