“Watch your step,” John MacLean warns as he navigates through Plantain Studio, situated in a West Village basement three floors beneath the offices of DFA Records. It’s not that he’s unfamiliar with the layout here—the dark-gray studio couch serves as his bed when he makes the trip down from New Hampshire. Instead, it’s that the entire studio floor has been pulled up, with bared 2x4s and piled sawdust strewn about as we step around sacks of cement and hunched-over carpenters at work. In a measured, soft voice, MacLean explains that he woke up one morning to six inches of water in the studio hallway, the result of a burst water main out on the street. Thankfully, the studio equipment—and his own imaginary circuitry—was spared.
Today, MacLean and his girlfriend are shooting some photos for his alter ego, the music-making android known as the Juan MacLean, in anticipation of his second full-length, The Future Will Come. It’s a familiar trope, as he’s been portraying a disaffected and melancholic robot (albeit one with a stellar collection of Italodisco and ’80s synth-pop stored on his hard drive) since the days of his first band, Providence, Rhode Island’s Six Finger Satellite. In person, MacLean comes across far less menacing and far more personable than he did in those days, playing guitar for a band wholly disjointed from its time. Not only were they the first non-Northwestern band signed to Sub Pop in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind, but also one of the first bands in ’90s underground rock “to bring out keyboards and dress up in these Fascistic uniforms and march around onstage and pretend that we’re robots,” as he recalls. Disparaged for the most part in such underground circles (this young college DJ conflated the band with Nine Inch Nails and swiftly wrote them off), they could only watch as Daft Punk took that human/robot conceit to the bank a few years on.
When I mention how—apart from Devo and the hapless ’80s sitcom Small Wonder—our country has never quite gotten behind the notion of robots, perhaps because of their Communist undertones, MacLean nods in agreement: “Americans have such a focus on individuality, personality, originality . . . where kids grow up being told that they’re better, everyone is ‘above average,’ everyone is ‘in the 99th percentile.’ But this idea of being an automaton or robotic, or you’re part of the factory or the machinations of everything else . . . it’s a sentiment that doesn’t resonate at all in our culture.”
It’s a concept the artist himself has embraced regardless, describing his Juan MacLean persona as “some being that doesn’t know whether it’s human or android or not, and the polarity between the two.” On his debut album, Less Than Human, MacLean coupled the sleek surfaces of the production with that modern quandary of being more individual as well as more of an automaton. (It also didn’t help that Daft Punk’s Human After All was released the month before.) But a chrome front is also an artistic sleight of hand, as MacLean readily admits: “It’s always a way to hide behind the idea of robots, without having to see that you’re expressing these really human emotions.”
For Future, he investigates an even older schism: that between men and women. As a foil, he’s turned to Nancy Whang, who remains one of the DFA label’s secret weapons, whether she’s playing keyboards in the live incarnation of LCD Soundsystem or lending her by-turns-icy-and-emphatic pipes, evoking a Debbie Harry–Tina Weymouth–Cristina hybrid, to projects like this one. “Juan and I met on the couch at Plantain,” she remembers. “He was working on Less Than Human and wanted female vocals on one of the tracks. So James [Murphy] called me up.”
Take a track like Future‘s “The Station,” its backing bed an expert amalgam of Giorgio Moroder, gleaming Italodisco, and the Human League. Atop, MacLean engages in a bitter and resentful back and forth with Whang. “Should I beg for your forgiveness at the top of the hour?” he haughtily intones, before—as is often the case with such fights—she gets in the last word: “Does it even really matter if the taste is so sour?”
“We would sit on the couch and write back and forth to each other and laugh,” MacLean recalls of how Future‘s narrative arc about a relationship’s highs and lows came about. “So much of it was about our experiences of being musicians and living that kind of impermanent lifestyle. For me—and Nancy as well, but for different reasons—it was just about being this type of person who seemed totally baffled by relationships and never having them work out for any long period of time.” Opener “The Simple Life” seemingly suggests a newfound domestic bliss, although doubts remain at the fore. “You’re not writing, ‘It was sooo nice when we cuddled on the couch and watched TV,’ ” he admits. “That’s great, but it doesn’t make for compelling songs. The time when I’m most compelled to write is when I’m nearly suicidal.”
That said, the album’s biggest hit is also its happiest (and longest). Go figure: It’s called “Happy House,” one of 2008’s biggest underground hits on both rock and house dance floors, buoyed by Whang’s unabashed exclamation: “You are so damn excellent.”
” ‘Happy House’ says something that people would have a really hard time expressing themselves, especially if you’re a self-centered hipster, like we are,” MacLean confesses. “You can’t be excited and honest about anything. Operating in this world, where lyrics and vocals tend to be couched in irony or some kind of surface, we made the decision to be as honest and sincere as possible, at the risk of sounding trite. And three people have told me that they have used it as their wedding song.” Whang echoes such an honest outlook: “We both knew it was necessary for us to be genuine about what we were doing and not be afraid to make ourselves vulnerable.” Which is, pretty much, crucial advice to making any relationship work, artistic or otherwise.
So is the human John MacLean happy now? “It is cool to have this public domain for this art project where you can purge all these things,” he says. “Now, I’m pretty much perfect, I would say.” At which point, his girlfriend perks up from her spot on the studio couch and laughs.
The Juan MacLean play (le) poisson rouge April 17