In the interview below we discuss his roots into music and how he got involved with James Murphy and the iconic DFA Records. Juan opens up about life on the road and his opinion of London in general. He also discusses his forthcoming album set for release in 2014 and the art of the DJ.
Comparing playing around the world as a DJ to playing in a band, which do you prefer?
Touring with the band is a very stressful thing. We play with a lot of instruments that we have to ship around and we’re also moving around a touring party of six to eight people, which costs a lot of money. Whereas DJing I’m just by myself and logistically it’s a lot easier. It can do your head in though, just travelling by yourself for weeks at a time, moving from place to place. I love DJing but there is a lot that I miss about playing with people on stage that is really fun.
Are you touring as a vinyl DJ still?
I used to play vinyl only, till about three months ago, and now it’s bad because people used to make such a big deal about this and I never really cared honestly, I just did it because that’s all I had ever done. Three months ago I started doing digital sets, so sometimes when I’m travelling it’s just CDJ’s and sometimes I’m carrying vinyl. It depends where I’m going I guess.
I think it’s a little silly people making such a big deal about vinyl honestly. I just got tired of stepping up to play vinyl, when it’s my turn to DJ, and sounding ten times worst that everyone who played before because the turntables are setup so badly in clubs now.
Lets talk about your roots. Are you originally from New Hampshire?
No I’ve lived there for about ten years now. I was born in Boston; I’ve only lived there for a relatively short period of my life.
Did you travel from Boston to New York a lot whilst growing up?
Yeah, more so when I was a teenager and was playing in my first band ‘Six Finger Satellite’. We would play in New York a lot, so we’d go back and forth, plus I had friends who had moved to New York, so I started to spend a lot more time there in my late teens.
How does the scene compare to what it was back then to now?
I guess it depends on what area of music you’re talking about. Back then being in the wide music scene there were these iconic clubs, like CBGB. It was definitely a much more punk aesthetic back then; it was a lot more dirtier and dangerous in New York. Now the same company that owns all the clubs has bought everything out. Honestly London has a lot more of a vibrant music scene than New York does.
Have you considered moving over to London?
Yeah I was just talking about it with Alex Frankel from Holy Ghost! and Alex grew up in New York. Just taking him a round a lot of places he was saying that he could see himself living here. I think it’s really appealing, it’s pretty comparable to New York and I think there are a lot of similarities. It’s just a lot nicer here; it seems a lot more interesting.
Have you mainly focused your time in East London?
I always stay in the East as it’s where all my friends live and it’s where I’ll be DJing, so I find that I don’t leave east when I’m here. There’s no reason to go anywhere else.
You’ve played in a lot of clubs in London, what do you think of our music culture?
Going back to your first band ‘Six Finger Satellite’ you were in the band for a short time, what happened?
For me it was from 1990 – 1997 when I quit. They carried on without me for a while, which is strange because it was a band that I started.
Was there much friction when you left?
Yeah there was quite a bit of friction. I quit in a very bad way without warning. I just called everybody up on the phone one night and said I was done and was quitting. We had an album that had just come out and a lot of tours booked, so it was actually not a nice thing to do at the time.
Going out with guns blazing then?
Yeah that kind of appealed to me, I’ve always had a self-destructive streak and I think that the drama of doing it that way was appealing but was definitely not fair to the other people in the band.
Lets talk about DFA Records, how this small family started and how you got involved with DFA?
I had quit making music all together after I left ‘Six Finger Satellite’. Sometime around 1999 or 2000 I was visiting James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem in New York and he took me out and bought me a sampler and a bunch of other things so that I could set up a studio at home and I started to make dance music.
When I made my first 12” record “By The Time I Get To Venus” there was no DFA at this point. James and I were talking about labels on which to release my record and we even talked about going back to my first label Sub Pop.
We weren’t really coming up with anything. James said that he was thinking of starting up his own label, and said do you think that’s cool that we just put out my 12” on the label with The Rapture’s 12” that they had recently done, that’s how DFA started.
Tell me about the origins of the name ‘The Juan Maclean’?
I was actually working on the B Side of my first 12” and it had a very techno, Detroit sound to it. James Murphy walked into the studio and said as a joke “who are you The Juan Maclean” referencing Juan Atkins and that’s when James decided that that was to be my name, that was it.
Were you thinking of any other names?
Yeah I was but I forget what I was thinking of back then. James and I were sitting in the studio writing them down on a piece of paper. It’s a really hard thing coming up with a name for a project. It feels like it can make or break the whole thing. So I was relieved to have it taken out of my hands and for James to make the decision. I can’t remember the early names for it at all.
You released a record under the alias ‘Peach Melba’ – are you developing that project further?
I was always making these very housey type tracks that were just trackier and loopier, they just didn’t seem right to be Juan Maclean tracks, so I just wanted to create a side project, an alter ego, so I could put that stuff out.
This year I’ve had a 12” “You Are My Destiny”, which came out in March and I’ve just released “Feel Like Movin’”. Then I have another record coming out in a few months and a new album being released in 2014. After that I have a couple more Peach Melba releases.
Is “Feel Like Movin’” part of your new album?
Yeah you never really know, putting out 12” records, I always assume that they’re not going to be on the album. I assumed “Happy House” wouldn’t be on the album because it was a 12 minute long dance track. I was like no one wants to hear this on an album but it was James Murphy who said that I should definitely include it on the album.
Would you say your music career has been built upon “Happy House”?
It’s definitely a defining moment in my career. It’s certainly nothing to complain about but it’s one of those things that no matter what I do at this point, people are always going to come up to me at shows and say that’s their favorite song. It’s fine with me, I feel lucky to have done something that has been considered one of the great dance tracks of the last decade.
Do you have a track on the forthcoming album that will top “Happy House”?
For me my new track “Feel Like Movin’” is actually “Happy House” part two. It has a housey piano line and features Nancy’s melodic vocals.
The vocals and melodies in your music have a nursery rhyme type sound to them, they’re catchy and have a hook – When you and Nancy are working on vocals how do you decide on them?
In terms of the nursery rhyme aspect, I feel that everything that I’ve ever done has had that kind of sound to it. I remember once reading an interview with Phil Oakey of “The Human League” that he had this theory with writing vocals that you should always be able to sing every part in the song like a nursery rhyme. That’s how the process works for me, anything part in a song that’s not like that I just cut it out. Nancy always writes her own parts and then we sit in the studio and sometimes we leave them where they are or we develop them together.
How did you meet vocalist Nancy Whang?
I’m really not sure, I think James Murphy met her in a bar somewhere in New York and very shortly after we were working on my second 12” “You Can’t Have It Both Ways”.
James did some vocals and I did some as well. We were both like gosh it would be great to have some girl sing on it. James said that he knew this girl who could do it. Nancy had never sung on anything before but she came into the studio to do the vocals on the tracks and that was the first time I met her. That must have been in 2003.
You said in a previous interview that without DFA Records you wouldn’t be releasing music as The Juan Maclean – can you expand on that please?
For me it has always been an inherent part of the process, because DFA is not just a record label, it’s a collection of friends and a lot of our friendships revolve around music, the label, making music together as we’re involve with each others bands and records.
If you removed DFA I’m not sure I’d be interested in making music at all. It’s kind of like saying to a married couple if your wife died why wouldn’t you just replace her six months later and be happy again. Removing that DFA context wouldn’t work for me.
You also said that sequencing was a lost art in creating music.
I know that at DFA whenever someone’s making an album I’ll still think of it as a vinyl record, that you listen to one side and turn it over and play the other side.
There is a lot of thought that is put into the track sequencing of an album. I feel that a lot of people who edit themselves can put 70 minutes worth of music on a CD, might as well fill the whole thing up.
I’m a real big fan of short albums, if you have 15 songs you should take the best 10 or 8 and that’s the album. I’m also into albums that are really engaging and that you wish there was just one more song on it, as opposed to suffering through a couple of songs to get to a good one.
What are your essentials when producing music?
The most important thing to me is that I’m using real instruments that exist in the physical world. It’s not part of some purist thing that they sound better or anything like that, for me I tend to make songs around sounds, so when I’m playing a synthesizer and am able to tweak the knobs it’s just a lot more interesting to me and I can get a lot more done. Live drums as well are a lot more inspiring.
When I’m trying to sequence stuff on a laptop it just sounds really flat and uninteresting to me. You can make stuff that sounds half decent but it sounds like other things. I think that’s something that has made DFA in general more special and can stand the test of time.
If I can say so you hear a lot about DFA being timeless and I think a lot of that is because there is a lot of live instrumentation on it and that always withstands the test of time I think.
Tell me about the experience of making your new album?
Making this album is a lot like making anything else I’ve made. I take a long time between albums, the only schedule that I’m on is when I feel it’s time to make one and when I’m inspired to do it.
I take my laptop around with me and I sketch out basic tracks when I’m travelling. I feel like my last album “The Future Will Come” thematically and even the lyrics are about life on the road, often about relationships not standing the life of a touring musician.
With this album it’s the same process. I sketch it out on my laptop and then I’ll go into the studio in New York with people like Nick and Alex from Holy Ghost! and a few other people and we’ll start replacing all the tracks with live drumming and live keyboards, percussion and all that stuff. I’ll then go to my home studio and start editing it down. We then do vocals, which is what I’m in the middle of doing now with Nancy.
At the end I go to New York and hunker down in the studio. James Murphy will come in and do some work or whoever’s around really.
Are you working with any visual artists for the artwork?
No I haven’t really got into that yet. That’s another thing that we’ve always taken seriously even though now a lot of people will tell you that it’s not worth putting a lot of time or money into because everybody is just seeing it as a tiny little JPEG on iTunes, but I still feel that it’s important.
You’ve remixed Matthew Dear – Tell me about remixing?
In terms of remixes I’m always getting people to do them before they really make their mark. I got Booka Shade to do a remix of ‘Tito’s Way‘ really early on in their career and after that I never heard a remix from them so I guess I was in the right place at the right time.
Tell me about the art of the DJ?
Oh man it’s really hard to not sound like an old person talking about that. I mean everyone is a DJ now and a lot of people are just mediocre at it I think. It seems that the easier it has become to DJ the less effort people put into it and the whole thing seems to be watered down quite a bit.
In some ways I think it was good that vinyl was actually so difficult to do because straight away you had to spend a year practicing before you even dreamt of doing it in front of people. Now you can go out and buy some basic stuff on Friday and be DJing by the next week. It just seems to have made people really lazy and I don’t think people put a lot of effort into it.
Track selection is essential to being a DJ, the process of when you bought that record and what it made you feel is paramount to building up a DJ set. Having your entire music catalogue on a laptop is good, but also makes the DJ set less rhythmic and more random.
Yeah I mean riffling through records to select what I’ll be playing next is a very physical thing. Just having the labels on the records is a very emotional response whilst flipping through your records. When you see one, you just know that it’s the right thing to play next somehow.
I find with digital DJing I just don’t remember what a lot of the stuff is. Pulling up the name of something takes me a while to think about it and to remember what that track is. I never had that with DJing vinyl.
Finally do you have any words of wisdom or warning?
My words of wisdom for people who are trying to do what I do is that if you don’t absolutely love music, then don’t become a DJ. I’ve just always been a fan of music. If you’re not a huge fan of music then just don’t do it, go and be something admirable like a lawyer or a doctor…don’t ruin it for the rest of us.