Q&A: Juan Maclean on DFA Records, His DJ Kicks Entry, and How DJ Mixes Are Great for Doing the Dishes
The summer months can grind down a big-name DJ. The traveling is constant, the sets start at ridiculous hours (in some cities, 4AM is considered "peak time"), and there is something kind of lonely about shuttling around the globe with only your records to keep you company.
But Juan Maclean doesn't mind. "When I'm on at 4AM in Barcelona," he explains, "it's [feels like] only 10PM." The producer, band leader, remixer and DJ is booked solid these next few months, doing DJ tours in support of his pumping, throbbing entry in the DJ Kicks compilation series. He's doing a set this Friday at Webster Hall, so we met up at a hotel in Chelsea to discuss this new release, his transition from post-punk to dance music, and why DJ mixes are great for doing the dishes.
Your old band, Six Finger Satellite, broke up about ten years ago. After that happened, did you ever think you'd get back into music? That you'd be here, today, in this position?
No! I quit Six Finger Satellite very suddenly, a week before we were scheduled to leave for a giant US tour. I was so disenchanted with the indie-rock scene, and with playing in a band in general. It's like being married to a bunch of people at once. We toured endlessly, for months at a time, and this was before the Internet or phones or anything, so it was pretty extreme.
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Also, I just kinda felt like being involved in that scene was the province of very young people. And it was at a time when 25 seemed old to me [laughs], and maybe it was old to be making this sort of aggressive, contrary, post-punk music. And so it was like, "Now the band's kind of at a peak, I'd rather just quit while it's still good," which people seem to rarely do.
At the time, I was like, "I don't want to have a thing to do with music again for the rest of my life!" I mean, I sold most of my music equipment-just about everything-about a week after I quit, and I moved away from Providence.
There are a lot of tracks by DFA artists on this mix that you made, and I was just thinking about how unusual it is for an artist to spend almost a decade on a label, first of all, and second of all, to have their respective aesthetic sensibilities remain in step for a decade. Is that because you know James Murphy and Jonathan Galkin so well?
Yeah well, I made my first 12-inch right before. DFA was formed to put out that and the first Rapture 12-inch. And more than being a record label, I feel like DFA is this collective of friends. I mean it's gotten away from that a bit-in that they're putting out records of people overseas and such-but still, at its core, it's a really incestuous situation.
Take someone like Holy Ghost. Tim and James produced their first band, Automato, when they were in high school. They were big fans of DFA. They had this band that was signed to a major label at a very young age and had DFA produce the record.
When I had people start playing in my live band, Nick [Milheiser] and Alex [Frankel] started playing with me, and they started playing their own music, and decided to have their own thing, Holy Ghost. And that's worked well for the label. Not to be a hippie about it, but it's made it more of a collective and communal experience than a record label.
I remember right when DFA was formed, walking down the street and James was like, "You know, I think we should make it like Rough Trade, where all the artist have a stake in the company." And that's the kind of deals we have with the label. It's almost like a profit-sharing deal-you're basically part of the label as a business and not just as an artist.
Thanks to the Internet, DJ mixes are everywhere now. How did you get around that mentally to get yourself excited about making this comp for DJ Kicks?
This may be a kind of an esoteric, deep explanation, but I think what has gone by the wayside with the sort of democratization of music making with the advent of the internet is this idea of personality, which throughout my entire musical career, I've always placed a lot of importance on. It was part of why Six Finger Satellite was so contrary at the time to the rest of the indie-rock scene. Because at that time, it was politically correct to say, "We're regular people making this music. We could be you," whereas we were like, "No, we're going to dress up in these suits and put our pictures on the album." We were very concerned with image, and I think that personality and image actually affect people's perception of the music, going all the way back to something like Elvis, who wasn't really doing anything groundbreaking musically. It was more that he was this white guy and the way that he moved physically and his personality that made people respond. And I think that people heard the music differently because of the personality someone brings to it.
In the end, that's how I got my head around doing a DJ mix. You know, my Facebook inbox is filled everyday with links to 500 mixtapes that might have the same tracks that my mixtape may have, so I really try to impart as much of my image and personality on the mix as I could. And I think it even goes so far as when someone looks at the cover and sees my face on it. If people know what I do, and they can reference what my music sounds like and my influences, it puts the mix in a context and makes it specific to me and they experience it differently.
Another common thing is that I'll go to DJ somewhere, and I'll play a track, and the opening DJ will say, "Man I try to play that record every week and people hate it, and then you play it and people go crazy!" And I really think it's the same thing when people bring a different set of expectations.
Do you ever listen to any of those 500 mixes that land in your inbox?
Surprisingly, I do. I actually listen to a lot of DJ mixes in general because I listen to music so much throughout the course of a day. DJ mixes I find really good for doing the dishes at home, or cleaning up, or taking a bath, or that kind of thing. So I actually listen to them all the time, I actually enjoy them.
There's a time commitment inherent in mixes that's kind of a double-edged sword. When you get an album, if you don't like a track, you can just pop to the next thing, but you have no choice but to ride it out in a mix. In a weird way, it's like more of a time commitment, which is hard to get out of people these days, but it does make them good for the dishes.
It's also interesting to me because I think of it like an experience you're shaping for somebody. Which is interesting as an artist, especially when you're trying to do it with somebody else's music.
Is that what spurred you to make that first 12-inch? Was it to slot yourself into dance music? Or were you listening to a lot of electro-funk and got inspired or something?
Actually, that's a good call because I was listening to a lot of '80s electro, like Herbie Handcock even, or breakdancing music, but I was also very much into electronic music, which I had gotten very deep into after becoming very bored with indie rock in general. The world of electronic music seemed like an exciting frontier that was untouched by me yet.
But looking around at what was going on in house and techno especially, they seemed to be at these really commercial, uniform, genre-specific points, and I think that's what a lot of the talk was [about] at DFA: how to do something that flies in the face of that. It just seemed like that was going to happen naturally if we took our natural influences and tried to make music in that world, that we were going to make something that was totally contrary to what was going on. Which was actually a big source of anxiety at the time...
That it maybe wouldn't?
No. Basically, I had a friend who worked at Other Music at the time, who I had known my whole life. And I played him my first 12-inch, and he very seriously tried to persuade me not to put it out because he said that it was stupid and rough, and the melodies were sorta like sing-songy children's melodies. And at the time, IDM was really big, like broken beat and advanced drum programming, and this was so dumb and obvious and simple. It seems funny now, but at the time it was terrifying. I really thought people were going to laugh at me.
Getting back to your mix, was there an arc that you wanted it to have?
Yeah, there is a bit of an arc, that seems like an obvious DJ technique, which is starting things off very exciting and up, and then I wanted to sort of smooth it out in the middle, which is where it gets a bit tech-ier, and then it gets more serious at the end. Like serious and uplifting. But in general, I think there was a tone that I was more concerned with, this certain tone that's in a lot of deep house music. It's not so much like happy good time party music, but there is a certain uplifting aspect to it that's always tempered with minor key feel to it.
Which, now that I think about it, is pretty much why I think that "Happy House" is the best track that I ever made, because it nails that tone perfectly. Sort of being happy and sad at the same time, which is my favorite emotion in music in general.
I'd always thought of it as being very akin to a kind of solitude, which is why I think it's so good for a lot of electronic dance music. Because ultimately, it's dancing you do by yourself. You can go out clubbing with friends, but when it starts, you're going to be dancing with yourself.
Yeah, that was the point. Nailing that emotional tone to me is the hardest thing to do in music. It's easy to be very somber, or very party, happy kind of thing, but blending them is really difficult.
Your blog posts about your South American tour made it sound debauched and silly and funny. I'm just wondering how that compares with, say, the relative grind of touring with a band. What separates those two at most for you?
Since we were talking about Six Finger Satellite, it's funny. I laugh now at how different it was in those days. It was unpleasant, but we actually thrived on the unpleasantness of it. It was a collection of pretty bitter people, who were constantly angry at each other and at the world. Fun was never really part of it. Or rather, any fun that was had seemed to be really malevolent or something.
But now, touring with the band is actually pretty similar to DJ tours. When you're with your friends, DJing, they tend to be just ridiculous, like shenanigans all over the place. And I think a lot of it has to do with the kind of music that we make. And especially being a little bit older, it's just easy to leave behind all the sort of bitterness and all that stuff that's fine when you're young, but looks silly after you turn 30.
So they're both pretty equally fun. In fact, playing with the band may be a bit more extremely ridiculous because you're with a group of your best friends, basically, so it's easy to have a good time I guess.
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