New York DJ Juan MacLean flew to Austin for a set at Beauty Bar on 7th Street. However, QRO interviewed him in the upscale, second-floor breakfast area of San Jacinto Street’s Hampton Inn. In the conversation, MacLean discussed Juarez vs. New York City, Europe vs. America, playing guitar vs. playing keyboards, playing vinyl vs. playing CDs, going from his hard rock band Six Finger Satellite to DJing, the growing popularity of dance music in indie circles and the mainstream, the Die Hard franchise, the DFA Christmas party, and much more…
QRO: Do you go by Juan or John?
Juan MacLean: Well, actually Juan. At this point, I think the only person that calls me John is my mother.
QRO: How does she feel about you being called Juan?
JM: She thinks it’s funny, and she calls me Juan when, I think, she thinks my ego is getting too big or something. Every once in a while, she’ll call me Juan for laughs.
QRO: I feel like it would be the opposite, wouldn’t she call you by your Christian name to take you down a notch from your star-power Juan name?
JM: No, because I think she thinks it’s more a joke when she’s saying it. I just know that even friends of mine that I’ve known for many years, like James Murphy [of LCD Soundsystem – QRO live review], I think he just at this point believes my name is Juan because he’s so used to calling me that.
QRO: Would you say your music is more Scottish or Mexican?
JM: Oh, it’s much more Mexican than Scottish, for sure. It’s funny, I go down to Mexico a lot and play, and I think at first when I started going down there, they were surprised when they came to pick me up at the airport. I don’t look like a Juan.
QRO: Yeah, we’ve got a Juan Huevos in Chapel Hill who doesn’t really look like a Juan.
JM: Yeah. Really, I got the name – Marcus Lambkin, who’s also on DFA Records, gave me the name very early on when I was making my very first 12” because I was working on a techno track in the studio, and he came in and said, “Oh, are you supposed to be Juan MacLean?” in reference to Juan Atkins, who is a big Detroit techno pioneer, because I had heavily ripped off Juan Atkins at the time. He, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson were all high school friends. I think Juan Atkins definitely put out one of the first records that was first called techno, like 1985, somewhere around then.
QRO: How would you say the Juarez and New York City scenes are different?
JM: Oh, that’s funny. Because Juarez, I would say, is much better than New York City. I think people are often surprised that the music scene in New York City is actually very bare and there’s not really a lot going on. I think people to come to New York a lot from Europe and the U.K. and think that they’ll be in New York and every night have a selection of shows to go to or something, and it’s just not true. Especially for DJing. I pretty rarely DJ there, actually. I DJ more in Berlin, and Paris, than I do in New York.
QRO: I talked to the Norwegian DJ Bjorn Torske last year, you know him?
QRO: He was saying the same kind of things, that a lot of New York DJs end up playing more in Europe than they do here, and that the audience is more primed, especially for experimental electronic music, in Europe than it is in the States.
JM: Yeah, for sure. And I actually have a much better time DJing anywhere in Europe than in the United States. But there are definite cities in the United States where things always seem to go pretty well. There’s the obvious – Chicago, of course, is always a great electronic music place, and L.A. is always good. There are places.
QRO: What instrument are you most comfortable playing?
JM: The only one I really know how to play is guitar. But somehow, it’s the one instrument I don’t have on any of my recordings, actually.
QRO: You mean you get somebody else to play it, or there’s no guitar track at all?
JM: There’s just no guitar track on any of my songs that I’ve made as The Juan MacLean. It’s all drum programming and keyboards, basically, and I never learned to play keyboards properly, so I always feel like I’m making it up by ear.
QRO: You can’t play any kind of synthesizer or anything?
JM: No… I do now, but I’ve never taken a lesson or anything.
QRO: I know some pretty good keyboard players who still have the notes written in stickies on their keys, so that doesn’t necessarily have to hold you back too much.
JM: Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard or seen that about me, but I actually have, when we play live, a series of color-coded stickers that I have out on my keyboard that are numbered that tell me what notes to play.
QRO: You’re using the Suzuki method.
JM: Exactly. Yes, it is.
QRO: When you say New York is bare bones, that there’s not a selection of shows to go to every night, what’s absent there? Is it an absence of the right venues, or the fans, or the right music, or what?
JM: It’s really hard to say because there’s plenty of DJs that live there that would do quite well in other places and all over the world, but for some reason you just don’t do as well in New York, and it’s such a big city and there are so many music fans there. I honestly don’t know the reason why.
QRO: Have you played in Austin much?
JM: Well, I was here with my band in September. And I’ve DJed here a few times. This is probably the fourth time I’ve DJed here, I think.
QRO: How do you like it?
JM: It’s always been great playing here live. And actually, when I’ve DJed here, it’s gone over quite well. I always think it’s not going to be so good because I don’t think of it as much of a club scene here, so much as a live music scene. But it’s good, I’ve DJed at Beauty Bar before and it’s good.
QRO: Were you at all involved in the Six Finger Satellite reunion plans?
JM: No, not at all. I really had nothing to do with it. And I’m friendly with those guys; I just don’t have the time, and I think they sort of don’t want me involved as well, which is a little odd.
QRO: Do you miss anything about playing guitar in a rock band, with them or otherwise?
JM: Not really, because I feel like when, with that band, I did everything I wanted to do in terms of playing that kind of music, and playing guitar in a loud rock band. I think I’m a little old to be doing that kind of thing now, actually. That’s why I like dance music. I think loud, aggressive rock music is very much a young person thing, an in your twenties kind of thing.
QRO: Roger Miller (Mission of Burma – QRO live review) and Steve Albini (Big Black, Shellac) are still doing a pretty decent job, and they’ve got a few years on you.
JM: Yeah, they do. They do. I feel like they’re anomalies, a bit. For me, I just want it to be a discrete part of my music career and end it and move on, basically, and leave a decent legacy.
QRO: When you said you’d done what you wanted to do, did you feel that way when you left Six Finger Satellite, or did it take some time to feel that way about it and decide you weren’t going to continue with rock?
JM: No, when I quit, it was a very definite decision. When I had started Six Finger Satellite, I knew that I wanted to quit when I thought things were still sort of at a peak. I never wanted the band to fade away into mediocrity. For me, it just felt like the right time, where I felt like I was about to run out of inspiration and not be as passionate as I was about it. For the first time ever, playing in the band, I just started to have feelings of it not being as exciting as it once was, and that’s when I always told myself I would quit, and I feel like I kept my promise to myself in doing that.
QRO: Do you still feel any influence, like any way that your experience playing guitar in a live rock band has affected your DJing?
JM: Yeah, definitely. It’s something that I think really allowed – contributed to the success of DFA in general, like me and James Murphy had come from indie rock band, punk rock backgrounds, and I feel like we brought a lot of that aesthetic into the dance music world, which hadn’t really seen that kind of mentality before. I think it really helped us.
QRO: Is there any way to describe in mechanical terms, how a James Murphy or Juan MacLean disco beat, or disco track, is going to be different from somebody who hasn’t had that experience?
JM: Well, yeah, yes. One thing – me and James come from engineering backgrounds as well; we were both engineers and had studios for years and years. I think to this day, we still can record things, especially live drums, which I think are really important in a way that most people in electronic music just can’t do, they just aren’t familiar with recording live instrumentation, because it’s a kind of music that’s traditionally done with a sampler and a computer, which – I use a lot of that stuff, but it’s in the recording and playing of the live instruments that makes all the difference with the kind of music.
QRO: And drums are the hardest part of all that.
JM: They are. They’re the hardest thing to get right.
QRO: How long have you been DJing in America?
JM: God, I guess almost eight years now. Since a little bit after 2000, which is when my first – no, my first 12” came out in 2002. I guess six years.
QRO: Beat-oriented music has dominated the pop charts more and more in America. Have you seen any changes in the audience for live dance music?
JM: Yeah. Well, two things have happened. I think you saw traditionally indie rock audiences start going to clubs, and start going to nights where there was just a DJ, as indie rock audiences got more into dance music. And I think it’s just become more mainstream. I think you listen to really mainstream music and you can hear things like DFA influences, everything from Kanye West having house-y piano parts in his new songs, Justin Timberlake playing The Rapture (QRO live review) as an opening track to his concerts, that kind of thing.
QRO: Do you ever get heckled?
JM: Yeah. I mean, I think in DJing, you get people giving you a hard time in general, because drunk people sometimes think that it has a lot to do with playing requests; people think they’re at a wedding or something and they want you to play something that–
QRO: Maybe their wedding was that day, man. Who are you to deny them?
JM: Well, that’s what they think. You simply just don’t – I still play vinyl records, and I can only play so many. And with the advent of laptop DJing as well, people do have almost infinite playlists, so when they come upon someone who plays vinyl, they don’t understand why you don’t have something.
QRO: You don’t use a laptop at all?
JM: No, only for e-mail and Facebook.
QRO: I’ve suspected electronic musicians of that before. Who knows whether they’ve got a CD-R in the player and they’re just on IM or whatever? Have you ever done that?
JM: No. I think maybe one time my records got lost or something and I played one of my own mix CDs or something. [laughs] But I shouldn’t say that.
QRO: Did you just pretend to move knobs around?
JM: I did. I just pretended to be playing the CD players the whole time, and would randomly tweak the EQ knobs on the mixer.
QRO: Probably bobbed your head a few times during that show.
JM: Yeah, I did that too. It was a long hour and a half, I’ll tell you that.
QRO: Which of the films in the Die Hard franchise do you feel represents your stage persona the best?
JM: Well, actually I would say IV. Which is the one in New York City with Samuel Jackson. I thought it had a good blend of dark humor and action.
QRO: And the policeman’s older, and has left his guitar rock days to pursue a new kind of work.
JM: Yeah, it’s something like that. One of my things I need to do is sample a Spanish version of Die Hard, because they’ll be referring to Bruce Willis’s character as “Juan MacLean”.
QRO: You were talking about how when electronic music started getting big, indie rock audiences started to go to DJ nights. It’s now become commonplace that the same venues are going to host rock shows, and are going to host hip-hop, and are going to host DJ nights. Over the last decade or so as labels like Merge and Matador have started to have both electronic and rock acts, all these acts that have different audio needs are playing at the same clubs. Do you think it works out all right?
JM: On a technical level, it certainly doesn’t. A lot of times I go to rock-oriented clubs, live music clubs to DJ, and things just aren’t set up properly; I feel like they don’t sound right. But it’s a hard thing to complain about because it’s just a consequence of electronic music or dance music becoming so much more popular and again crossing over with indie rock audiences, which obviously has been really good for me. So it’s a mixed bag.
QRO: Do your friends ask you to DJ parties in New York?
JM: Yeah. I feel like the only time I do ever DJ there is when someone else is doing something and we’ll go out and play. Except for the yearly – DFA has a big Christmas party every year, which we all DJ, which is a really big deal for all of us.
QRO: Would it subscribe to most readers’ conceptions of a company Christmas party?
JM: I think so. There’s a lot of dressing up in costumes, and presents, and people getting too, you know, taking in too many substances and making fools of themselves.
QRO: Do y’all have smoked salmon?
JM: No, we don’t have that. But probably the DJ/musician equivalent.
QRO: When you’re DJing, do you ever wish you were dancing?
JM: Well, you can while you’re DJing. I do a bit when I’m DJing, anyway.
QRO: What all body movements do you make while you’re DJing that aren’t related to the operation of your equipment?
JM: Well everyone, I think all good DJs, have funny little things that they do. I move one leg in time to the record that’s playing, and something with my hands in time with the record that I’m cueing up, as a way to use your body to get them in sync with each other.
QRO: Makes you look like a real musician too, doesn’t it?…
JM: Yeah, or it makes you look like you’re having a seizure sometimes.
QRO: What’s so good about the disco beat, technically speaking, for dance music? Why is it so popular and driving and whatever else it is?
JM: Well, the four-on-the-floor drumbeat, there are many theories about it, actually. Most dance music’s at 120, 125 beats per minute, house, techno, disco tracks. And people point out that that’s about what your heart rate when you’re dancing. So it mimics your heart rate, which I always thought was a really interesting theory.
QRO: How do you usually dress for DJing, and is it different from how you dress for playing a band-type show?
JM: Oh, God. Well, in the band, Nancy Wang, who sings in my band, makes us – orchestrates our stagewear, actually. Left to my own devices, I end up DJing in dirty jeans and t-shirt.
QRO: Shouldn’t you be the frontman, though?
JM: I am, but it’s kind of a dual thing at this point with her, because we both share vocal duties so much. She sings with me on my new album. We both sing equally throughout the entire thing, male-female sort of duet vocal parts to the whole album.
QRO: Thanks, Juan. Anything else for the readers of QRO Magazine?
JM: No, just that I have a new album coming out in April, The Future is Now, on DFA Records.
QRO: It’s all about the plug, isn’t it?
JM: Of course, every time. Got to direct people to the millions of illegal downloads they’ll be looking for.