Juan Maclean is kicking ass and taking names. On his new DJ Kicks mix for !K7, Maclean preaches a purist house gospel; in conversation he is just as direct, taking tiresome music and fans to task. And he’s got plenty of room to talk. You can’t really imagine New York nightlife in the early 21st century without Maclean or his cohorts at DFA Records. As part of Six Finger Satellite with future DFA co-founder James Murphy in the 1990s, Maclean was ahead of the curve making indie rock that winked at synthesizers. Debuting in the fall of 2001, DFA’s punk/funk vibe added much needed grit to the hyper sanitized party scene during Giuiliani Time. Channeling the DIY ethos of late ’70s dance rock and early ’90s house music, the label’s roster including LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture and the Juan MacLean (and eventually Hot Chip and Holy Ghost) gave nightcrawlers a reason to buck Drachonian Cabaret Laws and bottle service trends. It’s easy to forget that Juan Maclean has never and still does not live in New York. We caught up with the part-time professor on a pleasant early spring night at the Hotel Indigo in New York’s fading flower district to discuss the lost art of turntable mixing, global perspectives on dance music culture, the appeal of live musicians and the straight/gay disco divide.
URB: When I first got this mix, I thought where’s the Poppers?
JM: That’s the idea. When I was playing a lot of these indie rock parties, which I started to despise, they wanted to hear a very de-sexed house music; as soon as it got a little gay they got turned off.
URB: It’s like they’re ok with shaking this up here [shoulders], but they’re afraid to shake anything down there [hips].
JM: That’s why I have such a good time playing around the world. They really get into it. Even going to Canada is better than playing in the United States sometimes.
URB: Canada has always loved deep disco.
JM: What’s his name came out there – Gino Scoccio… I was going to say Sergio Moroder – it’s been a joke at DFA for a long time, Giorgio Moroder’s brother.
URB: The cover for this is very Sergio Moroder/”dollar” disco.
JM: That was just me at the studio one day. It was a long shot that got cropped. I wasn’t even posing for it but we liked it.
URB: What about the tattoo?
JM: That’s a tattoo that [drummer] Jerry Fuchs had. It wasn’t deliberate but of course people have been curious about it. We were in the middle in the tour, and you may have heard, he died. After that it was just inconceivable of me to keep touring. So I decided then to do this DJ mix.
URB: What’s the appeal to having a live band or drummer?
JM: I was always programming things to sound live. I spend hours and hours doing MIDI samples and all this stuff to make it sound live, and that’s when I thought, ‘Why not just use a real drummer?’ That’s how i make a lot of tracks. It’s like making your own samples, like Dr. Dre.
URB: There are only two old things on here – Armando and Theo Parrish; it’s all new tracks.
JM: I wanted to make it feel old, but it’s all new material. I didn’t want to just play hits because I thought that was pointless. A couple of the tracks have never been released. “Take Me” real old school sounding thing and it’s a friend of mine who’s a DJ from Australia. Also, “Like a Child,” from this guy who played in my live band.
URB: What are you up to now?
JM: Right now I’m doing a series of 12″ collaborations with people. The first one is Florian Michael. He’s a young guy from Berlin, a tech house guy. There’s going to be a Green Velvet 12″ too.
URB: Oh great, I love the “Every Little Thing” Cajmere remix.
JM: Everybody loves it. I still hear people play it – I play it. I just heard it at SXSW. It’s one of my favorite things of all time, my favorite remix that anyone’s ever done.
URB: Speaking of mixes Jimmy Edgar says he has a remix of “Happy House” for you for you but he doesn’t have your email address.
JM: That’s funny ’cause he asked me for the parts but I never heard back from him.
URB: “Happy House” turns up at the end of this mix, nice fade-out.
JM: Honestly, I just wanted to make an outro; !K7 was like, “You have to call it something, make it a track!”
URB: This mix was all vinyl. Why?
JM: I didn’t use computer at all. It’s one single take from beginning to end. On the one hand, I still kinda cringe in spots – “I wish I could’ve fixed that hi-hat,” etc. Then again, there’s rarely just one record playing. It’s about juggling a couple records. It’s kind of a lost art.
URB: A lot of people like to hear that.
JM: That’s the big thing. I think with mixes made in Ableton, they get old really quick. It just sounds like it was made in a computer. People who don’t DJ can’t put their finger on it. But DJs like hearing you tweak the record and fading it in and out. I think it gives the music a presence. It’s like the DJ is there with the listener. I feel like there is a tension that comes through in a live mix that keeps you engaged.
URB: There are a lot of short, fast loops.
JM: I had a tape delay, and even that is not in perfect time.
URB: It’s very churchy, yet “down in the basement” kind of dirty.
JM: I hate using the word “soul” because it’s so over used. But if you’re playing deep house, that’s what it is. It gives it a timeless quality. That’s intentionally what I wanted.
URB: Good, because “deep house” got very pastel.
JM: I like the old stuff, with loops that weren’t quite right, sampled preacher stuff, heavy vocals.
URB: In the late ’70s, early ’80s, a lot of those people couldn’t really sing or play but they had a vibe.
JM: There’s been a return to that in contemporary dance music. So it’s an exciting time. In the indie rock world people started migrating to house. The French new electro banging sound was really un-melodic and people got tired of it. It was so draining and tiring.
URB: Are you talking about the second wave now or the earlier “French Touch”?
JM: I love the old French Touch stuff. I’m talking about everything that Justice has inspired, the Ed Banger scene. It’s such a straight guy thing. It was a chance for straight guys to be into dance music without seeming gay. That’s my whole take on it.
URB: It seems like as the house world crossed over it divided between the jocks and bikini babes versus all the minorities and gays.
JM: And that underground’s always been my scene, that’s where the fun is.
URB: Don’t you think that’s just part of the music life cycle? Every genre goes through this where it bubbles up and goes mainstream and it just needs to become a blunt sound to move as many units as possible. Subtlety doesn’t sell.
JM: That’s what happens. The DFA stuff we started doing in 2000 set in motion a lot of things that are mainstream now. Holy Ghost is about to come out with one. They spent like a year working on it and I was there for the process, remixing things and perfecting things and living with it. It’s also extreme as the Black Eyed Peas doing dance music. Now their music doesn’t sound that different from Justice. It seems like dance music in general has come back in a big way. But that’s definitely an American perspective–and maybe the Internet has something to do with it—because everywhere else, it didn’t go away. We were just afraid of it here.
URB: Most soul music has to go elsewhere, going back to jazz – it goes to Europe then comes back.
JM: That’s how I discovered Detroit techno. Shortly after graduating from high school I was reading an article about Kraftwerk and they mentioned these guys in Detroit doing this stuff called techno inspired by Kraftwerk. That’s how I found out about an American sound, reading about a German band. Europeans appreciate it first. In general with dance music culture, the United States – and this is getting esoteric, but – I think this is rooted in deep-seated homophobia in the here. Even enlightened people, ever since the days of disco, if it’s too gay it gets kicked to the curb. I feel like I’m on a mission to make disco acceptable. I want to see if I can trick people into loving house music.