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The Juan MacLean’s synth-infused pop classics provide the perfect soundtrack this summer as he hits the road with partner-in-crime Nancy Whang (LCD Soundsystem) as part of the massive Summadayze festival circuit. We talk to the UK music maestro about electronica vs indie rock, live gigs and his latest album The Future Will Come.
• Sportsgirl: Coming from an indie rock background, how did you first get into house and electronic music?
• Juan MacLean: My first band, Six Finger Satellite, although a guitar-oriented indie rock band, featured a lot of electronics and dance music influences, like 4-on-the-floor disco drum beats, cowbells, and tons of analogue synths. We were very much influenced by disco and on the electronic side, Kraftwerk. So I was always hovering right around discovering house and techno as a kid. One day I was reading an interview with Kraftwerk in some magazine, and they mentioned that they were a big influence on the Detroit techno scene, so I went out and bought my first techno 12" No UFO's by Juan Atkins, and that's how it started.
• SG: How does your band background influence the dance/pop/ electronica you do today?
• JM: There are a couple of things I have brought from my live music background that have greatly influenced my sound today. One is my engineering background. I had a working recording studio in Providence, RI for many years, entirely analogue, long before computer based recording came along. So I think me and James Murphy having this sort of engineering experience has been a big part of shaping the DFA sound, recording a lot of live instrumentation for our tracks. Also, coming from a live band background has meant that I was immediately comfortable in recreating our music in a live setting with a full band, as opposed to relying on laptops or whatever. Again, I think this has been a hallmark of DFA, there is a pretty high standard for live performances when you look at Hot Chip, LCD Soundystem, The Rapture, and Hercules and Love Affair.
• SG: For those on the Summadayze circuit who have never seen you perform, how would you describe The Juan MacLean live show?
• JM: The most important thing to realise is that it's a full-on live band, backed by Jerry Fuchs, perhaps the best drummer in all of indie music (or maybe all of music in general). It's pretty bombastic, but not in the way that the new 'electro' is. It's a bit more chaotic and open to improvisation. 'Happy House', for example, morphs into a sort of psychedelic jam and can go on for 20 minutes, taking it up and bringing it back down again.
• SG: As someone who has done the rounds of touring, what makes for a fantastic gig?
• JM: Hands down the audience is the most important thing. We have played sold out shows on a Friday night in a club with the best sound system in the world, and the audience is dull and the show isn’t so exciting. But then we'll play some tiny club that barely has a p.a. and the audience is just totally up for it and everything gets crazy. Those are the best shows, regardless of size or quality of venue, the shows where people are really up for it. Oh, and it has to be dark.
• SG: On the other side of it, what’s the best show you’ve ever seen as an audience member?
• JM: When I was very young, some time around 1987, I went to an all-ages Butthole Surfers show. When we got there, we learned that the Butthole Surfers were refusing to play until it was dark. So the whole audience waited a couple of hours in this club, and I think at one point I forgot why we were there. Finally the band came out and launched into ‘Sweat Loaf’, which they played for at least 30 minutes, and there were tons of strobe lights and film projections. I think that was the day I decided I would play in a band.
• SG: What have been the most memorable moments in your musical career over the years?
• JM: Being signed to Sub Pop records at a really young age, that was pretty thrilling. It was the heyday of the label, with bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, Tad, Mudhoney, etc. The Christmas parties were always interesting.
The death of my best friend and Six Finger Satellite bass player Kurt Niemand, and being kicked out of my own band before I could do the same, wondering if I would ever make music again. The day I quit my short-lived job teaching high school in a juvenile detention facility in order to pursue music full time again, the epic tour of the USA with us, LCD, and Sh*t Robot on two tour buses a few years ago, meeting Nick Cave, getting in a fistfight in the middle of a DJ set in Atlanta, a band brawl with local thugs in Cleveland last summer, sitting at the desk in the studio as Nancy was recording the vocals to ‘Happy House’.
• SG: Festivals and smaller shows definitely have a different vibe. Do you prefer playing large audiences at festivals or a more intimate show? What are you looking forward to about playing Summadayze?
• JM: Honestly, I love both. Again, it has everything to do with the audience. Playing in the earlier part of the day can really suck at festivals. However, I have to say I love playing festivals, especially the camaraderie among the bands, just hanging out with your friends, seeing people you never get to see because we are all on tour all the time. Especially great for this festival is that James Murphy and Pat Mahoney.
• SG: The Future Will Come definitely feels more pop and vocal-heavy than your previous releases. Was this something you intentionally conceptualised before recording?
• JM: Definitely. Before I wrote any music for the album I sat down with Nancy and we had long talks about our vision for the album. Early on we decided we wanted to have equal male/female vocal representation on the album, and do at least a couple of duets. In terms of vocal presentation, this album is something of a reversal compared to Less Than Human. On Less Than Human, the vocals were sort of like another instrument used to embellish the music. On The Future Will Come, the music is arranged to support the vocals. In general I think this makes for a much deeper listening experience over the course of an album. It seems like nobody makes albums anymore. Most artists have like one good song and then they fill the rest of a CD with mediocre crap, and they tend to fill it to the max. My albums are shorter because I refuse to put anything on there that doesn’t serve the album as a whole. I should say that the last Cut Copy album is a great example of an album that makes sense from beginning to end, it was on constant play in our vans and busses on tour this year.
• SG: Nancy Whang is obviously a big part of the sound change and the live show, how did this collab come about?
• JM: Nancy has sung on various tracks of mine since my second 12", You Can't Have It Both Ways. She also sang on at least half of Less Than Human. So it was really a natural progression. For this album, however, I didn't want it to feel like she was a guest vocalist. She has embraced the role of front person beyond anything anyone would have expected. In LCD Soundsystem she is governed by James, who keeps her on a tight leash, as with the rest of the band, though some, like Al, seem uncontrollable, which has resulted in wrestling matches after their shows. Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this....