Juan MacLean: Past Perfect
- Words: Joe Colly
A look at some of the defining influences of DFA future-pop whiz The Juan MacLean.
Taking his stage name from Juan Atkins, one of the founding fathers of Detroit techno, Juan (a.k.a. John) MacLean has never been shy about revealing his musical tastes and influences. A record geek at heart, the dance punker-turned-future-house purveyor is known to draw liberally from music’s past in the creation of his work as The Juan Maclean. And part of the appeal of his tracks—which, likely informed by his DJ sets, range from epic 12-minute dancefloor burners to shorter, pop-focused cuts—is their knowing admiration of dance music’s canon. He can cop from historic acts like Kraftwerk (see the Ralf und Florian-like ambient synth hums of “In the Afternoon” or the automated Parliament-style funk of “Give Me Every Little Thing” from 2005’s Less Than Human) and make the results sound contemporary and reverential rather than derivative.
For his latest effort, The Future Will Come, MacLean—a former member of Sub Pop synth punks Six Finger Satellite—employed a fresh set of inspirations, and a new recording methodology. Encouraged by his time touring Less Than Human with a live band, he wanted an inclusive-sounding record with more live instrumentation, leading him to bring in musician pals such as Holy Ghost’s Nick Milhiser and Alex Frankel and LCD Soundsystem vocalist Nancy Whang (with whom he does many back-and-forth duets). “I just always think that you make an infinitely better record when you have [other] people contributing,” he explains.
Aesthetically, the album draws heavily upon British synth pop of the late ’70s and early ’80s, an influence that MacLean will be the first to point out. “Nobody at DFA has cared about [revealing their influences] from the very beginning,” he says. “Which is surprising to people, because I think people perceive all of us as these elitist hipster douchebags. But we all just want to make songs that we secretly believe could be played on the radio. We want to make music that people like.”
We asked MacLean to take us through some of the core influences on The Future Will Come and break down the music that inspired some of its standout tracks.
The Human League
“Early on in the making of this record I knew that I really wanted Nancy involved, and not just as a guest vocalist. And at that time I revisited The Human League. In our world, I feel like you’re supposed to say The Human League were great until a certain point, which was when the two girls came along. And in a kneejerk way I went by that. I always listened to the earliest Human League stuff, ‘Being Boiled’ and tracks like that, which are great and have always been a big influence on me.
“But then, thinking about Nancy singing, I put on the Human League record Dare and was so blown away. I realized I hadn’t given it a chance at all; that the production values were really good and that there were still these really interesting sounds. And the hooks were amazing. I also realized for the first time that the girls couldn’t really sing very well, which I never thought of as a kid because I always thought of them as this very professional band. I didn’t realize that they operated in this punk way, with Phil Oakey just finding these two girls in a club and saying, ‘Do you wanna be in my band?’ In that new context, I listened to that record again—even songs like ‘Don’t You Want Me,’ which I had always liked but sort of wrote off as being, like, kitschy, jokey ’80s music—and really fell in love with it all over again. It made a lot of sense to me instantly. I have to admit that I very much referenced it and used it as a template for the album in many ways.”
“‘The Simple Life’ was sort of my attempt at ‘I Feel Love,’ the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder track, which I feel like is untouchable in many ways. But it was a huge influence on that track, mainly with the arpeggiated bass synth line and in the way it’s so stretched out. The idea of having these very melodic, poppy vocals buried in this really heavy dance track also comes from that.”
“I feel like there’s a big Grace Jones influence on ‘Accusations.’ She was another big influence on this album. That might not come through so overtly, but around the time we were recording I had been listening to a lot of Grace Jones— again—and in this track, musically, I feel like it came through. I guess it’s sort of the most disco and has a little bit of a funk element to it as well.”
“‘Human Disaster’ is a very odd song on the record, the ballad. It’s sort of an answer to Alternative TV’s ‘Facing Up to the Facts.’ That song is very empty and spare and just has those same piano strikes. And, oddly enough, the Swans record (the first one when Jarboe came along) that has lots of spare instrumentation and piano was also a big influence on this track.”
Dubtribe Sound System
“It’s no secret that I stole the piano part on ‘Happy House’ from Dubtribe Sound System’s ‘Do It Now’—because they stole it. Their song is a combination of three samples, and they had taken it from something else. And those chords are just clichéd house things; they could be a million house tracks. People, for a little while, really liked to send me links to blogs where guys—it’s always dudes—were arguing about it. You know, ‘This song isn’t as good as everyone thinks it is because he stole this from a Dubtribe Sound System song!’ Interestingly, Sunshine, who is one of the members of Dubtribe Sound System, got in touch with me and was so happy about it. We’re going to re-release ‘Happy House’ with some new remixes, and I think I’m going to have him do a remix of it. Kind of like as a ‘Fuck you’ to those people.”
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