By Will Deitz
One of the Juan MacLean’s official artist descriptions is, “One of the most significant acts on the DFA label.” “Significant” is an apt word – they are not one of the most popular, nor are they one of the earliest or most prolific. But each member was there before, at, or near the founding of DFA Records over ten years ago: Juan MacLean, recovering drug-addict, longtime friend of DFA founder James Murphy, and former member of the iconic post-punk/electronic outfit Six Finger Satellite; Nancy Whang, NYU grad, artist, singer, knitter; keyboardist DJ (replacing the recently-departed Nick DeCarmine), an intern at pre-DFA “DFA”; and perennial drummer Jerry Fuchs.
If every current act on DFA represents a different branch of electronic music, the Juan MacLean would be the electro-housers. Synths, electronic drumkits, Theremins, and, unsurprisingly, cowbells are the order of the day, and each member excels at their respective role. Fuchs, like any drummer insane enough to accompany a live DFA act, has forearms of steel, managing songs over twenty minutes in length. Juan and Nancy both play keyboards and sing, and if their in-song rapport comes across as well-acted, that’s because it’s genuine.
We ran into the Juan MacLean at their practice space in Bushwick a few days before the start of their world tour, which is scheduled (so far) to span the rest of the spring and half of the summer.
Impose: So, on a scale of 1 to 10, how excited are you each of you about getting on the road?
Juan MacLean: Me, at least a 9 or a 10. I feel like it’s a process of, I go on tour, get really excited, have a really good time, and then I go home and get progressively more depressed, I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, then it’s about time to go on tour again.
Nancy: Yeah, that’s about right.
Nancy, what did you do before you knew James and before you know Juan?
Juan: Nobody knows the answer. I don’t know the answer to that question, actually.
Nancy Whang: It’s a well-kept secret. I was birthed out of nothing.
Nancy: I had just gotten out of school and was working for an artist, doing, like, art. Making paintings and stuff like that.
What kind of art?
Nancy: Ha. So yeah, I was working for this artist who also published a magazine. I met James at a party for it and we became friends.
Cool how things work like that.
Nancy: Yeah, I kind of feel like that’s how DFA, how everyone involved, how we all end up working with each other: we were all friends first.
How long was it between when you met James and company and when you actually got involved in the music. Was it immediately?
Nancy: I met James in 2000, I think. He started writing for LCD in 2001, maybe. So I guess, sort of immediately. I don’t know. It’s kind of a vague, amorphous thing. It wasn’t like he was looking for someone to play in his band, and he met me. We were friends, and then he started putting the band together.
So Juan, you’ve said gay house is your favorite kind of music. How did you get from Six Finger Satellite [SFS] to this current incarnation of dance music?
Juan: Well, when I was in SFS, which was very much a guitar/post-punk band that was really influenced by dance music—so, a guitar band with disco-drum/rhythm section and a lot of electronic keyboards which really was not done back then (but really commonplace now)—Kraftwerk was always a really big influence on the band, probably one of the biggest. One time I was reading an interview with Kraftwerk in some fanzine, and it mentioned how there was this whole scene in Detroit with artists who were influenced by Kraftwerk – this whole knew kind of music, “techno.” It just piqued my curiosity, so I went and sought out the Detroit techno stuff: Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and all that stuff, which then led me into discovering Chicago house music. We all got into that stuff, and it was something of an influence in SFS. When I quit SFS I was so disenchanted with indie rock in general, I just sort of leapt into electronic music.
Just as a transition? “I’m tired of this now, let’s try something new?”
Juan: Yeah, basically. I felt like being in that kind of band, and in that music scene – which is very much based on aggression and being obnoxious, confrontational, and the like – I really thought that was a young persons’ thing. When I started approaching thirty, I started thinking, “It’s done for me – it’s not going to be an honest sentiment anymore.” I thought it was better to quit completely while the getting out was good. I just swore off, said, “I’m never doing any kind of music again. I can’t handle being involved with a band,” because there was so much interpersonal conflict in SFS – people dying, and people doing all kinds of stupid things. I just didn’t want to deal with that ever again. Electronic music was a way that was more production oriented, so I could actually sit in my home studio and make the music. Eventually, I ended up with a band of more adult… kind… of… people.
Well, Nancy – you’re in The Juan MacLean and LCD Soundsystem when they tour, you’re in another dance band. When you met everyone from DFA were you thinking, “Huh, they do dance music; that seems cool?” Is “dance music” your home genre?
Nancy: You know, it wasn’t really like that to me in the beginning. I don’t- I didn’t really like dance music. I don’t mind dance music. I can appreciate it and there’s some that I really like, but it wasn’t because I loved the music that I got involved; it was just fun. The early days of DFA – there wasn’t a whole lot happening as far as “Things! Things! Things!” – a lot of talking about ideas and just hanging out with each other. I wasn’t really drawn to the music. It was also nice too to be able to, in the early days, go to DFA parties where there was a DJ, but they wouldn’t just play like, you know techno or whatever; there’d be all kinds of stuff. I could relate to that, and it was nice to be able to hear rock records, and see people dancing to that along with disco and rap music.
So, is DFA itself just like one big happy family?
Nancy: Yeah, I think so. Everybody pretty much knows everybody and we all got involved because we had friends who did it. DJ, playing with us now – he was one of the first DFA interns ever. Maybe the first. You were the first, right?
DJ at the keyboards
Nancy: So that was like, ten years ago.
Juan: …before there was a label, wasn’t it?
DJ: Yeah, there was no “DFA” yet.
Nancy: Yeah, so ten years ago. He was with us then.
That’s awesome to think of – DFA didn’t even exist ten years ago.
Juan: Yeah, Nick [DeCarmine] – DJ just took his place – had his band Automato, who DFA produced while they were in high school. Then Nick ended up playing in the Juan MacLean. You know, he got a little older. He was in our band for a long time, then he and Alex [Ferrell] made Holy Ghost! And now they’ve gone off to do that. That’s the way everything works at DFA.
Nancy: And Andrew Raposo from Automato plays bass in Hercules and Love Affair’s touring band.
Yeah, Hercules has about nine-thousand people on stage at once.
Nancy: Morgan [Wiley] too.
Nancy: Yep, Morgan was in Automato and now he plays in Hercules.
So, you’ve mentioned that The Future Will Come is a lot more lyrics-based and poppier than Less Than Human. What turned you in that direction?
Juan: Well, the same way with Six Finger Satellite, the moment I started the Juan MacLean I had the idea of this as a career trajectory, and knew that I would quit sort of at the peak of the band at a certain age. I always knew from the beginning of the Juan MacLean that I wanted it to be a little more instrumentally based and experimental, and move in the direction of being more song-based and pop-oriented. You know, instrumentally-based records are limited in a lot of ways. At the same time, I didn’t really know that I was making an album when I was making my first album. I was just making a series of tracks and 12-inches, and then at some point the label came together. Me and James Murphy went for a walk one day to get cupcakes, and he was like, “You should put out an album,” and I was like, “Yeah! Maybe we should do that. I think DFA can do it.” And it kind of went from there.
So, if you have this career trajectory already mapped-out, what’s next? What’s the next stage that you had planned 5-years ago?
Juan: For me, the idea is just not going backwards. If I ever felt like DFA was going out of fashion, or any of this kind of music was going by the way of electroclash or something, I think I would just choose to get out completely. I feel like the aesthetic of DFA and the way everyone operates seems to have made it so that it’s built to last, for a while. They set everything at such a slow pace that it’s hard for people to get burnt out on it.
So, I saw you guys when you played at the Empty Bottle a few months ago. Are there any tracks that you guys especially like to play live?
Juan: Well, “Happy House” is always my favorite. It’s always the last song; I always feel like I’m waiting the whole set for that song to come. It’s so uplifting the way it works – and live, the percussion that I play comes in and out. It’s such a fun song to play.
It sounds pretty different from the rest of the songs on the album.
Juan: Yeah. The funny thing is that they’re all recorded at the same time, the same session. People think “Happy House” was done earlier because it was released a year ago.
Who wrote the lyrics?
Nancy: I did.
Juan: All Nancy.
So any of your lyrics on the album are written entirely by you?
Nancy: For the most part.
Juan: Yeah, we like to help each other out with little bits and pieces, but mostly whoever’s singing it wrote it.
So you’re opening the tour in a few nights at (le) Poisson Rouge. I don’t know shit about New York venues – is it a good one?
Juan:</strong> It’s okay. Our friend Justine books the place, so we just kind of follow where she goes. I think people out of town find this hard to believe, there really aren’t any good clubs here.
Juan: I don’t think so at all, especially not for DJing. I don’t know – if you’re in a band, there are some much bigger venues that are fine I guess, like Webster Hall or whatever. But in terms of like, 500-capacity? I love Bowery Ballroom. But where else is there?
Nancy: Not anywhere. I like the Bowery Ballroom, but only because there’s really nothing else going.
It’s kind of funny – I was talking to Andy Butler about New York, and he was kind of down on it also. He was so excited to move to San Francisco, and I said, “Well, isn’t New York this great Mecca of dance music?” He was like, “It’s a shopping mall, actually.”
Juan: Exactly. It’s funny – we were here at a time when James and Pat [Mahoney] were often DJing late nights, with me and Tim Creedy doing every other Wednesday. People would come from abroad because planes were so cheap at the peak of the euro or the pound, and they arrived saying, “So, we’re just over here for the week, and one thing we wanted to see was you guys DJ!” They thought they would go to this club and not be able to get in because there would be a line down the street and it would just be crazy. Instead, they came in, there are a couple hundred people there, it’s not very exciting, the club kind of sucks, and they’re like, “This is it? Where do we go in New York?” You go to London, man! There’s a million things going. There are so many small little clubs and cool nights and hip little scenes. New York is just… not like that.
At this point, Juan has started tooling around with his theremin – think quasi-epileptic three-dimensional scratch-DJing. It’s pretty mesmerizing.
How often do you use the theremin on The Future Will Come?
Juan: I don’t know. I play it more live then I do on the album – I play it live whenever I can. It’s a real attention-grabber. You start playing it and everyone looks. We’d be at a festival in Europe, and everyone’s looking at Nancy. Then I turn on the theremin and everyone’s like, “Oh my god!”
So, you mentioned that you hoped to, in the future, have a shorter span between albums. What took you so long between Less Than Human and The Future Will Come?
Juan: Well, after the first album, I had gone on tour with the band for a long time, and the touring was really spread out and hap-hazard – it took like a year and a half. Then I started DJing constantly, and I was never home. I got so consumed with DJing that it never occurred to me that all this time was going by and that I should be making a new album. That’s hopefully going to change now.