Back to The Future
With one ear tuned to the past, the Juan MacLean crafts disco for the new millennium.
Three phone calls straight to voice mail? Getting in touch with the Juan MacLean took a little persistence. His new album, The Future Will Come (DFA Records), met with many a positive review; he’s been steadily gigging ever since. The 40-year-old nu-disco stylist is lucky to spend any time in quiet New Hampshire, where he fled after too many drug-addled years in New York in his twenties. Amid back-to-back tour dates, MacLean returned our call from the road.
Time Out Chicago: Before your move to the electronic realm, weren’t you in a band?
Juan MacLean: My first band was Six Finger Satellite. It’s the first and only band I was ever in. I started when I graduated from high school in the ’90s and quickly got signed to Sub Pop. I became very disenchanted in the late ’90s and quit. I just dropped out of music completely.
TOC: Hence your teaching English?
Juan MacLean: That’s one of the things I had done in between music careers. I got certified and was doing that for a while.
TOC: You contribute a lot of amusing travel stories to your website. Are they all true?
Juan MacLean: Funny you say that. My girlfriend is sitting here laughing out loud at my latest entry. They’re all true stories, generally with a lot of embellishment. I have an incredible amount of people subscribing to it. It was overshadowing the music for a while. People would say, “I love your music, but your blog entries are amazing.”
TOC: SFS tried to channel disco influences, but now the tables seem to have turned a bit.
Juan MacLean: They’re sort of complementary opposites. A big part of the DFA sound is that we all come from indie-rock backgrounds and got into making dance music. Live instrumentation is the biggest thing we’ve brought with us into this electronic-music world. Playing live shows, none of us are standing up there with a laptop.
TOC: You and DFA founder James Murphy go way back, right?
Juan MacLean: He was the live sound engineer for SFS, so we spent a lot of time riding around in a van together in the ’90s.
TOC: And he played an integral part in getting you back into the biz?
Juan MacLean: For sure. He had recently teamed with Tim Goldsworthy, who had come over from England to do a record at James’s studio. Tim and James got me my first sampler and computer setup. I was a longtime audio engineer, but I hadn’t done that kind of programming before. I started making tracks until I went into the studio with James and Tim and made my first 12". DFA was essentially formed to put out that and the first Rapture 12".
TOC: What were some of the musical influences for you guys during those early days?
Juan MacLean: Wow. In the early days, we were all influenced by postpunk, like Gang of Four. Disco had become big for a lot of those groups. Also, really early Chicago house and Detroit techno stuff. Hallmark tracks for us were “Your Love” by Frankie Knuckles and “No UFO’s” by Juan Atkins.
TOC: Since we’re talking influences, “Happy House” bears a striking resemblance to a Dubtribe track.
Juan MacLean: I totally ripped off the piano from that song. The thing about that Dubtribe track that people don’t realize is that the entire track is two samples. It’s “I’m Every Woman” from Chaka Khan and I forget what the piano part is from, so I didn’t feel so bad about lifting from it. I’ve been in touch with them since. They were really flattered.
TOC: That’s definitely a more positive outcome than you’d expect.
Juan MacLean: Oh, for sure, but in electronic music it’s a little different than playing in a rock band and stealing somebody’s guitar riff, although plenty of that happens.
The Juan MacLean plays the Double Door Tuesday 16.