As he prepares to release The Juan Maclean’s third studio album, John Maclean talks to Attack editor Greg Scarth about the development of his creative process over the last five years.
The Juan Maclean sits somewhere in the indefinable grey area between solo artist and collaborative project. John Maclean, the near-eponymous creative driving force behind the project, is the one constant, but he’s been joined by a rotating cast of collaborators, musicians and co-producers almost since day one. Former LCD Soundsystem vocalist Nancy Whang in particular has become a key component of the Juan Maclean formula, both live and in the studio.
With third studio album, In A Dream, due for release imminently and an album launch party in London on September 6th, we asked John Maclean to go into detail about the making of the new album and the “terrible black hole of despair and self-criticism” that motivates him to make music.
Attack: It’s been five years since The Future Will Come. Was it a conscious decision to leave a long gap between studio albums?
John Maclean: It’s not a conscious decision at all, it’s been a function of two things. One is my touring schedule. This is a tired sentiment at this point, but generally people don’t pay for music anymore. They either download your album from torrent sites or other sources, or increasingly they’re just listening to music through streaming sources like Spotify or even YouTube. I’m not making a judgement one way or the other about whether or not this is a good or bad thing, it simply is where we are at. Because of this, I and the record label generally lose money when making an album, so the only way to stay afloat and earn an income is to be on the road. There’s a big plus side for me in this equation because I love DJing and playing live, I love being on the road in general. I began touring at a very young age in my first band Six Finger Satellite, so it’s pretty ingrained in me. But when you’re on the road for 200 days a year or more, you have little time to work on an album.
The second reason has to do with my recording process. I work mostly in the analogue domain, in studios with lots of outboard gear. It’s a lengthy, painstaking process that nearly kills me every time I do it. I get deeply lost in making an album. I tend to block out everything else in life, much to the detriment of my mental health.
Are there any specific tracks which you think highlight the evolution of your music from The Future Will Come to In A Dream?
I tend to think of albums in terms of vinyl LPs, pieces that will be listened to from beginning to end. I like to have long intro songs that set a tone, and ‘A Place Called Space’ is definitely a companion piece to the first song from A Future Will Come, ’The Simple Life’. They’re very similar structurally: they each have long, dramatic instrumental intros, and the vocals finally come in when you’ve decided it’s going to be an instrumental track. And they’re both duet-style with Nancy and I contributing verses that tell a bit of a story.
However, ‘A Place Called Space’ is much more fully realised in terms of its vocal arrangement and the immediacy of the chorus. The vocals feel more integrated into the arrangement of the song, which is a conscious decision I made. It’s the progression that I envisioned before making any music for this album, that the vocal arrangements would be constructed in tandem with the rest of the track, as opposed to arranging a track instrumentally and then fitting the vocals over them, which was generally how I worked in the past.
the progression that I envisioned before making any music for this album was that the vocal arrangements would be constructed in tandem with the rest of the track
Critics have often seemed to gravitate towards framing a lot of DFA’s output in terms of its relation to other musical movements or scenes, whether that be disco or post-punk or house. The landscape of electronic music has changed quite significantly since the last studio album. Is that something you think about much? Do you ever consider the broader context of how The Juan Maclean’s music fits in (or stands out) in comparison to what’s going on around you?
I always seem to be slightly out of step with what’s going on around me, ever since my first band, which was a post-punk band signed to Sub Pop, a primarily grunge-oriented label. When I finished my first 12”, ‘By The Time I Get To Venus’, I played it for a friend of mine who worked in a record store in NYC. He was very concerned. He told me I’d be making a fool of myself if I released it. This was at the peak of IDM – a lot of electronic music had very advanced programming and was much headier and intellectually oriented at that time, and I made this record that was very simple and dumb in terms of its arrangement and melodic movement. And then I released ‘Happy House’ during the electro craze, when everything was pretty bombastic and distorted, and I’m releasing this melodic happy sounding house thing. And my timing with that one was doubly bad because now everything sounds like that with the whole retro house craze.
So In general I just sort of put my head down and do what I do. That doesn’t mean that I’m unaware of what’s going on around me, quite the contrary. As a DJ, I spend a lot of time exploring new music, and my DJ sets are mostly just-released or not-yet-released tracks. I love so much music that’s been released over the years and I continue to get excited every week playing out new music. But when I go home to the studio, I tend to not think about that stuff and just let it come out in less direct ways, just let the influence of that exposure work its way into my music in more abstract ways. Joining in on a scene or sound that’s big at the moment can get you some degree of in-the-moment success, but over time it’s a very uninteresting way to go, in my opinion. My favourite producers are people who seem to remain relevant over time despite what’s going on around them.