Call & Response: The Juan MacLean
NXNE starts tomorrow (good luck getting into the Broken Social Scene party). It's always fun to decide where to be every night and there seems to be more choices than ever this year. I know where I'm going to be Thursday night: Tattoo Rock Parlour for New York dance crew The Juan MacLean (DFA Records) and Swedish electronic artist The Field (Kompakt Records). Both have amazing, new albums out and the vibe in that room should be killer.
Juan MacLean bandleader John MacLean's eclectic music career started with hardcore guitars and has led him down a sweet path of old school disco, electro and classic house. I spoke to John MacLean about "Happy House", his band's new mascot, and Toronto girls (he likes them).
blogTO: What artists or songs have inspired your sound the most over the years?
John MacLean: It seems to be the same cast of characters that date back to my days in Six Finger Satellite: Juan Atkins, Kraftwerk, Chrome, Human League, Grace Jones, DAF, Moroder, Frankie Knuckles, Patrick Adams, Public Image Limited, Big Black, Kevin Saunderson. Lately I have been mining 90s piano house classics.
I love "Happy House". What inspired you to create that song? Did you set out to make a super long, epic house song or did that just happen by accident?
Well, there are a couple of obvious references in terms of the feel of the piano part. It sort of a cliche piano house riff but it mostly came from the Paul Johnson track "Get Down" and the Dubtribe Soundsystem track "Do It Now". I had a basic loop written of the drums, bass, strings, and piano. Then we (me, Alex Frankel, Nick Millhiser) went into the studio and just started jamming on those parts, replacing my original programmed sequences with live playing. From there it just grew into what it became, very organically. I thought Nancy's vocals very nicely saved it from being an obvious house type track and brought it to a different level altogether.
What does the line "launch me into space" mean?
It means shoot me into space in a spaceship. It's a double entendre about taking certain drugs that make music better.
Why did you call your new album called The Future Will Come?
I have always been influenced by music that was made to sound futuristic. For example, people like Kraftwerk and Gary Numan were very concerned with sounding and looking futuristic. At this point, I think it is impossible to achieve this sort of aesthetic. With the internet, people have so much access to the history of everything that has happened in the last 50 years in pop music, no influence or trend remains mysterious or unturned. Everyone knows everything. So, in many ways the future is irrelevant. I was thinking about this once when I was sitting on a bus with MSTRKRFT as we were traveling across Canada, and I just said out loud "the future will come". Everyone looked at me and said, "wow, that's some deep next-level shit".
It seemed like the album release was delayed. Wasn't it supposed to come out sooner?
Maybe a little sooner. It's hard to coordinate the release schedule with all of the territories in the world, and since I insisted that every territory release the LP at least during the same week, it became a difficult thing to pull off. I just hate it when it gets released in the USA first, and then a month later in Europe, for example. It's not fair, and it sort of discredits the importance of the EU/UK scenes, where our type of music does quite well and is highly revered.
The rest of the album has a more "robotic" feel than "Happy House". Was that single made before or after the other tracks?
It surprises people to hear that "Happy House" was made during the same sessions as the rest of the album. We released "Happy House" first as a 12" simply to get back on the radar. It had been a while since I had released anything, so we picked a deeper track from the album, one we knew would not be a single, to put out there, to get some awareness going again. I had no idea it would blow up the way it did. Now, ironically, we are re-releasing it as the second single for the album, with a shorter, edited version and video.
A lot of people mention The Human League when talking about your album. Are you a fan? Do you agree with those comparisons?
I agree with the comparison, and of course I'm a fan. There are some obvious Human League influences, mainly in the vocal interplay. However, I think it is an easy reference. Musically, there is really no Human League influence. I think it is an unavoidable comparison with the duets, the male/female back and forth vocal style. They were really the only group to do this type of thing regularly in the pop music world.
What's your favourite piece of gear to use in the studio?
In the studio, it is my EML modular synth. I have two of them actually, and use it in one capacity or another on everything, either for filtering external sounds or using it as a stand alone synth with its keyboard. They are pretty rare and expensive. Sometimes I just spend hours and hours getting lost in it, patching things in endlessly, altering the sound for hours with a sequencer playing it.
What's your favourite piece of gear to play on stage?
On stage, the Theremin is my favorite thing to play. I think it is the hardest instrument in the world to play. I have developed a style with my left hand (the volume hand) that makes the Theremin sound like it is stepping from note to note in the same way a keyboard would. This has taken me about 5 years to perfect, after an initial 5 years or so of just learning to play the thing in the traditional fashion.
I love your new mascot. What do you think of NookaNooka?
I love Nooka watches. I felt a bit like a douchebag at first, when I first got one, as it is a new way to tell time. You have to actually relearn how to tell time with them, so it's a bit like "what, the old way wasn't good enough for you"? I had stopped wearing watches years ago, with the advent of cell phones, and now I wear mine every day like I did in the old days.
How did that project come about? Will he be in Toronto on June 18?
I'm not sure if he'll be there in Toronto. I don't remember how the whole thing actually developed, it was one of those organic thing of various friends knowing each other and the idea was proposed. Then we enlisted our long time DFA OG Mike Vadino, who is the principal DFA graphic designer, to create the robot, and then Pat Mahoney (LCD Soundsystem drummer) to machine out the parts.
Have you hung out in Toronto much? What have you enjoyed while here in our city?
I love Toronto. It actually reminds me a lot of New York. I have made quite a few friends there that I have kept in touch with over the years. There are great record stores there, the food is great, the people are great, and there seem to be a lot of really good looking girls there.
What do you like best about the neighbourhood you live in?
I live in Williamsburg, an area of Brooklyn polluted with hipsters. The best thing about it is everyone knows me there, so I never have to pay for my coffee or food. Whenever I pop into a cafe or something, they always wave my money away, like "you're money's no good here Juan, it's on the house".
Are there any NYC bands/artists we should check out?
Well, I suppose they are they aren't so unknown now, but Chairlift are a fantastic new group out of New York. I am certain they will be quite big by the end of the year. Also, House of House have just released an amazing, ah, house-y 12" that is one of my favorite 12"s of the year.
What can people expect to see/hear/feel at your Toronto show?
Well, for starters we are a full-on live band. We are a four piece that is built upon the greatest drummer out there, Jerry Fuchs (formerly of !!!, also of Maserati). He is simply a phenomenal drummer, a marvel to watch. The whole thing is a very live experience, the polar opposite of what many electronic/dance music artists do "live", which is getting up there with a laptop and a few gadgets. We play a very lively set that culminates in an explosively climactic version of "Happy House". So expect to dance.
The Juan MacLean w/ The Field
Thursday June 18, 2009
Tattoo Rock Parlour
567 Queen Street West
Call & Response is a series of Q&A's with bands from or playing in Toronto. Photo: DFA.
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