Electronic music is always likely to have its pre-programmed elements, but the music of The Juan Maclean is about exploring the human side of the process. The man behind the project is the slightly less exotically named John Maclean, a New York native signed to DFA by James Murphy. But as he gears up for the release of new album The Future Will Come, his group is growing; vocalist Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem now enjoys a full time role.
It was about this and other topics that we spoke to Maclean from his New York abode, beginning with confirmation about how his style has changed since debut album Less Than Human.
“Well I think there is quite a lot that has changed since that record”, he says. “In my first album I had all the tracks myself, in my home studio, and after completing it I wanted to put together a record that was based on tour, and The Future Will Come was influenced by that. I wanted to use the live instrumentation that we now have, and at the same time incorporate that into obviously shorter pop song structures.”
The word ‘pop’ being the operative one, helped by the acquisition of Whang. “Oh for sure,” says Maclean, “She had sung on lots of my stuff in the past as a guest vocalist, but we talked about how she would be involved from the beginning. There were bits where we talked a lot about how we would do it, the tone, the subject matter, all those things, and we found that it was actually quite a difficult thing to blend our two vocals together.” And now it’s faster, too. “It is?” he muses. “Oh, that’s interesting, I never really thought of that but you’re right. Again I think that mostly came from having a live band play.”
Male vocals, female vocals, electronic loops – all are prominent musical features of one of Maclean’s favourite bands, The Human League. He’s more than happy to credit their influence on the new record. “I think it’s a pretty big influence, and they always have been a big influence on everyone at DFA. Up until now it’s tended to be the earlier stuff, before the girls were added. When Nancy and I were talking of adding her vocals to the mix we were surprised there wasn’t much of that sort of thing in pop music, and so we ended up listening to a lot of the later Human League stuff, and I really got into it for the first time.”
So The Future Will Come – a title of intent for a second album. Was there a subtext? “It was really meant to be evocative of an influence by music that was meant to sound fantastic but in fact was quite dated” he says. “It’s about a style that for me harks back to the work of Gary Numan and Kraftwerk. The problem is now that with the internet it’s impossible to sound futuristic, not because everything’s been done, but because people can reference the history in seconds. With this record though it really was this idea of playing around with the future, and there was a strong science fiction element to it.”
This picks up on the general tone of Less Than Human, where Maclean seemed to be looking at robotic workings through a more emotive eye. “That was always intentional”, he agrees. “Again that was so influenced by Kraftwerk, and it was about finding the human element in the machines – a locked down, synthetic approach.”
“It was about finding the human element in the machines – a locked down, synthetic approach” – John Maclean looks back on debut album Less Than Human
So does that mean a loosely applied label of ‘intelligent dance music’ fits the Maclean sound? “Yeah, I suppose.” He doesn’t sound convinced. “Except with that kind of label it’s evocative of more heady types of music, complicated things you might expect from someone like Aphex Twin. With The Juan Maclean I would say that structurally it’s actually incredibly simple, and a lot of the melodies the music is based on could be described as sing-song nursery tunes.”
And did his label bosses like it? “James (Murphy) and Tom (Goldsworthy) you mean? Yeah of course, they love it I guess!” He laughs. “Well actually, they act as very strict filters for my music, which is incredibly valuable. I’m always running tracks by them. If I have 20 tracks I always pass the music by them, as they’ll tell me exactly what they think – this one isn’t good, or yes, we definitely have to keep this one. It’s how we arrived at the final make-up of the album.”
“They act as very strict filters for my music, which is incredibly valuable” – John Maclean acknowledges the input of label bosses James Murphy and Tom Goldsworthy to his work
Murphy it was who brought Maclean back from relative obscurity to record Less Than Human. So is it true this was his last throw of the musical dice? He considers. “I would say it was more that I hadn’t really planned in getting back into music – it seemed to be accidental, and happened in spite of my lack of attention to it. In the very beginning I had gone back to college and was teaching high school English in New York – I moved there from Boston when I was 18. After the first time I visited New York I realised just what an amazing city it is and decided I had to live there.”
So it looks like Maclean will stay put – but in the immediate future he’s looking forward to getting out on tour, including a visit to London in April to play in the Southbank Centre’s Ether festival. “We’ll be playing at a Noise Of Art night”, he confirms. “I’m really looking forward to it, as we really enjoy playing live as a unit. It is a very human show I would say, with the live band – it’s four of us, it’s very live, and we play the songs almost entirely live. We’ll do three-quarters of the set from the new album, and a quarter from the old.”
It’s quite an exact calculation. But there you have it, in a nutshell – the coming together of a precise, robotic approach and the more flexible, human side of things. Maclean is well placed to further explore that particular meeting of minds, both on tour and on future records.