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When Juan MacLean approached Nancy Whang about writing and recording In a Dream, the duo’s third record and its first after a five-year hiatus, there was a catch. “She said yes, but,” MacLean remembers. “ ’There’s one caveat. I’m never going on tour or playing live again.’ ” Though the Juan MacLean, as a musical project, bears his name alone, Whang’s participation was essential. “LCD Soundsystem had just broken up, and I knew I needed to make a new record….But at this point it was like, if she says no, I’m just not going to do it,” he explains. “I said, ‘Well, that’s fine, we’ll make a studio record. That’s great.’ But now here we are, so…”
“Here” describes the DFA stalwarts on a rainy spring afternoon at Williamsburg’s Marlow & Sons. The pair have just finished a rehearsal session for an upcoming mini-tour in support of In a Dream, which kicks off with six New York “residency” dates — three at Cameo Gallery and three at Union Pool. It’s the first time MacLean and Whang have played with a full band since 2009, when their longtime drummer, Jerry Fuchs, died tragically after falling down an elevator shaft. More than anything, these shows, as well as the songs on In a Dream, are symbolic of the rebirth that the Juan MacLean was founded upon.
The band’s origins go back over a decade, and run almost concurrently with the founding of influential dance-punk label DFA Records, whose second release was a 12″ of the Juan MacLean single “By the Time I Get to Venus.” MacLean met label founder James Murphy while playing in post-hardcore synth outfit Six Finger Satellite; Murphy was the sound engineer.
“I chose to quit on the eve of the release of our last record as we were about to embark on a three-month tour,” MacLean recalls. Then at the mercy of a drug addiction, MacLean had moved to Providence to get clean and began working on his own house-influenced compositions. It was the basis of what would become the Juan MacLean — once Murphy heard it and encouraged MacLean to keep making music. Murphy was also responsible for introducing MacLean to Whang.
“James and I were in the studio, and seriously, it was late in the afternoon, and James and I had tried singing on this track, and just none of it was good. And it was like, it would be better to have a girl sing on this. And James basically was like, ‘I know a girl.’ Not ‘I’m friends with a singer,’ nothing like that. And I never asked, ‘Can she sing?’ It was like, oh cool, you’re friends with a girl? That’s perfect.”
Whang was working just down the street at an event-production company. “I wasn’t a singer when I started singing with Juan,” she says. Having only taken piano lessons as a kid, she found the studio intimidating. “I was fucking terrified,” she laughs. “I was so nervous — I was like, ‘I don’t know what you are asking me…what is this thing that’s happening?’ And then I had to sing and they had to ply me with alcohol because I was so nervous. And that’s how I ended up in LCD, too, because I was friends with James.”
The Juan MacLean went on to release two full-length studio albums, 2005’s Less Than Human and 2009’s The Future Will Come, as well as a flurry of singles and a few remix and B-side compilations. On In a Dream, which came out on DFA September 15, the collaborative process between Whang and MacLean is more acute than ever. It’s been hailed as a more accessible, pop-oriented record than prior releases, owing in part to the fact that Whang’s vocals, and the lyrical content, have shifted to the forefront.
“They may not necessarily be like pop songs exactly,” Whang says, “but the way that they’re structured, they are. There was a conscious effort to do that and make an album that was a cohesive idea start to finish.” In a Dream reads almost like the band’s autobiography, touching on themes of reunion, redemption, anticipation, and undying devotion. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it an accident, but it wasn’t purposeful either,” Whang explains. “A lot of time has passed between this record and the last record, and a lot of transitions and a lot of changes in our lives and changes in what we did with music. Like going from being a live band to spending all of our time DJ’ing. Recovering from mourning, between Jerry [Fuchs] and, for me, leaving [LCD]. There were a lot of awakenings.”
Ultimately, it was a sense of pride with the finished LP that changed Whang’s stance on her original “no touring” rule. “I was just really happy with how it turned out,” she says, still sounding a bit surprised. “I’m too self-critical. I make something, and…always think I could’ve done better or I think I could’ve done it differently. But this record…does everything that I want it to do. I said everything I wanted to say.” Having achieved a kind of catharsis with writing and recording, she almost ended it there. “But then I thought, I do care about this record very much, and I felt like it deserves to be played. As much as I was against it, and bristled at the thought of going on tour again…I miss playing live, being onstage, playing music with other people. I miss that experience.” The pair might be “rough around the edges,” as Whang puts it, but their residency is a unique opportunity for both the band and fans alike. “It’s nice to feel connected to the audience, but also that the audience is [a] part of this process with us,” she says.
MacLean agrees. “When you get too far removed from playing this kind of music live, it’s too easy to think that it [takes] an insurmountable amount of work and energy to do it. Because it is, in the beginning — it’s incredible how much work and how much of your time and your life you have to put in to getting it going again.” For MacLean, who’s now a father of two, the sacrifices of touring are greater than they were years ago. He’s staying with Nick Millhiser, who produced the record, while the band preps for tour. “He’s reminded me of things I had forgotten, just as a fan of the band. I kind of went back to things I did in the beginning [because] he’s just really good at pointing out what’s good about something that you’re working on.” And in the end, it’s those friendships that have kept the Juan MacLean in the music business.
“Making this record and playing live especially…I’d kind of gotten to a place where I didn’t know if I wanted to do that anymore. I just wanted to make twelve-inches and DJ,” MacLean admits. “Other people pulled me back, got me to a place to make an album and play live again, and it was definitely a much better path. I would’ve been profoundly disappointed if I never did those things again.”
The Juan MacLean kick off their six-show NYC residency at Cameo Gallery on April 16. The band will play Cameo through April 18 before heading over to Union Pool April 23–April 25. For information on the Cameo shows, click here; for Union Pool tickets, click here.