Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
“So we need some midi cabling and stuff, will you be able to get it there?” John Mclean, one half of DFA veterans the Juan MacLean, is giving bandmate Nancy Whang a shopping list of sorts. I’ve just wandered into a darkened pre gig Cargo and the band are trying to figure out how to replace a load of vintage synth gear. It’s been lost in the vortex of stupidity and perpetual tea breaks that is baggage handling at Heathrow’s terminal five.
Formed in 2002, the Juan MacLean have been a staple of the DFA roster since day one. Their first full-length, Less Than Human , was released in 2005 to much acclaim, but it’s this year’s The Future Will Come , that’s really planted a flag in dance music’s vastly overpopulated terrain. Tracks like Happy House (with that piano bit!) and One Day (that “Human League the way they should have sounded” tune) are a mix of knowing old school references and insanely catchy melodies, which have been the saviour of many a DJs set.
The next evolutionary step from the Detroit-heavy sound of early Juan, this new vocal led, glitterball friendly outfit are unafraid to walk the thin line between pastiche and, erm, party. I’m catching up with them on the home straight of their European tour to see how it’s all panning out.
“That should be totally fine. They’re like living in their apartment and have a bunch of stuff there,” says Nancy. Details are ironed out, apparently Hot Chip are loaning some gear, or is it SMD? I scan the room for equipment that’s accounted for, spotting a table football table amongst the hired amplification and unrigged lighting. “I think that’s there as part of our rider” John says “we’ve been getting them in all our dressing rooms so far. Maybe they thought we were actually gong to use it on stage here”. Nancy leaves. “Shall we do the interview outside?” says John.
Wow what an amazing day.
John MacLean: Yeah it’s great to be able to do these things outside.
So how did the name Juan MacLean come about?
John: Well do you know Shit Robot? It’s a friend of ours Marcus Lambkin. Before there was a DFA he was a big DJ in New York who’d come over from Dublin, and he was the one who taught us all to DJ and turned us on to a lot of Techno and House music. I was working on the B-side to my first single, TG3X; it was very much a Detroit sounding techno track. We had it blaring in the studio and Marcus came in, he was really high actually, he just looked at me and was like “Who do you think you are then, Juan Mclean”, referencing Juan Atkins. It stuck from that day.
So how’s the tour? I’ve heard it’s been incredible.
John: Yeah this one has been great, except that British Airways lost our most important piece of gear about a week ago and they don’t seem to be able to find it. So we’ve been borrowing gear everywhere we go and by the time we play we have this kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a set up. That’s never happened to us and it’s been awful.
Yeah, I heard that you guys don’t use computers live.
John: Yeah I mean it would be a whole lot easier if we were just turning on laptops. I mean we use a lot of analogue gear like Roland SH101’s that I’m constantly having to take apart and repair, which I actually have to do before tonight’s show.
So is equipment quite important to you.
John: It is. I feel like it’s been a defining thing at DFA in general. I’ve known James Murphy since about 1990 probably and we always had studios and were always really into sound and recording, we were both engineers for a long time. The DFA studio is like a synth museum. I think it’s defined the DFA sound.
Cool. So I want to ask you a few tourlife questions
John: OK, sweet.
So which book has put you in the weirdest headspace on tour?
John: Well I’ve just finished The Road for like the fifth time. It’s become everyone’s favourite on this tour. But I’d have to say anything by Phillip K Dick does the weird headspace thing for me. When I was really young I got heavily into that stuff and I think just because of all the drugs I was doing and being a kid, it really did my head in for a long time. I got really paranoid, and just fed into the whole philosophy of the man, which was a little dangerous as the guy was crazy.
That’s for sure! Tour bus or splitter van?
John: Oddly enough it used to be more tour bus in the past, but this year we’ve kind of all opted to go for the splitter van because the economy is so bad.
Can you describe your ideal day off?
John: Yep this’ll be surprising for ya – I’m a tea fanatic. I love finding a good tea place in the morning, and I’m also a yoga fanatic so I’ll find a yoga studio somewhere. Then I usually walk around and spend the afternoon reading and then at night I always like to go to the movies.
Wow. That’s pretty chill.
John: I know, tea, Yoga, a book, a nap, and a movie. That’s it.
Cool, so what sort of direction are you gonna take Juan MacLean in for the next release.
It’s hard to say because I tend to wait until I’m inspired, but you know, we decided it wasn’t going to take for years this time. We’ll there’s gonna be another twelve inch that wont be an album release, which is gonna be like the acid equivalent of Happy House basically.
Oh my god! That is going to be incredible.
John: You know like in the same way Nancy kind of transformed Happy House, from this 90’s piano house track into something new, I have some acid patterns lying around that I want her to jump on and kind of do the same thing with. So that’s the next thing.
Jesus! That’s going to be huge.
Later on that evening I return to a packed Cargo and see the Juan Mclean absolutely tear the place apart. In attendance are members of Hot Chip (who must be a little taken aback seeing their equipment get rinsed the way it should), New Young Pony Club, My Tiger My Timing, parts of Annie Macs cohort, and just about every aspiring bedroom producer you can think of. The thing with the Juan MacLean live set is that it’s so confident and fun. Happy House collides into the hundreds of packed and sweaty bodies in attendance, and when Nancy Whang steps to the mic everybody kind of forgets about tomorrow.
Post-gig, we’re all sat round a table in the garden, talking, shooting the breeze. The smell of heavy weed smoke wafts lazily on the breeze, though nobody knows were it’s coming from. I overhear a couple of PR girls scrolling through blackberry messages. They’re saying something about a Calvin Harris aftershow party. Why? Why would you think about Calvin Harris at a time like this? What is the purpose of Adrian Mole trance, when you have the Juan Mclean: a sound and science for the future.