The Juan MacLean is back with their most cohesive album yet, and despite the eponymous band name, singer Nancy Whang’s effortless vocals reign supreme on In A Dream. John MacLean and Nancy Whang charted two eerily parallel musical paths before uniting under the auspices of LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy. Their dynamic collaborations have established them as one of DFA Records’ most sought-after acts. After traversing punk and hardcore, post-punk, and the genre begrudgingly known as electroclash, the two musicians have hit their stride, taking on house and disco with a mature musicality. We sat down with The Juan MacLean in Williamsburg, not far from the bar where they had reveled in their sonic renaissance. Given the proximity to Club Luxx, the now defunct watering hole that doubled as a creative incubator, we were in the perfect place to recall their journey.
Considering how your musical work spans multiple genres, where are you both from and what kind of music were you first exposed to growing up?
John: I grew up in South Boston. By the time I was in 9th grade, I had become very involved in the Boston hardcore scene. This is going back to the eighties. Hardcore was a big part of my life. Just skateboarding around Boston, buying records, and going to hardcore shows. All through high school that was my life. That’s when I started playing guitar. And then pretty quickly I discovered a lot of post-punk stuff, bands like Mission of Burma, who were my favorite band and still are one of my favorite bands of all time. They kind of bridged the gap into discovering English bands like Gang of Four and Public Image Limited and all that kind of stuff. By the time I was nineteen, I had formed my first band, Six Finger Satellite, and we signed to Sub Pop Records. So I spent all the nineties playing in Six Finger Satellite making records, touring around the country. Then I was so sick of it, making music and playing in a band — dealing with people and the stress of being creative, that I quit very suddenly. I said I’m never making music again. I don’t want to even listen to music anymore. I got into other things. And that lasted like two years. Then I started making music as The Juan MacLean.
Nancy: I grew up in a suburb of Portland called Beaverton. I was in junior high school and was exposed to punk music and new wave. It’s funny how, I think specifically with punk, it’s not just about listening to bands that you like. It really takes over your life and it becomes this lifestyle. You identify with it and all our friends listen to it. Your whole existence involves that music and going to shows and buying records. I was seventeen when Kurt Cobain died. Pearl Jam and Nirvana were really big in the scene. But there were still a lot of punk bands, a lot of hardcore around Portland, punk houses where West Coast hardcore bands would just go up and down the coast and play. My first band was LCD Soundsystem.
Did you meet through LCD Soundsystem?
Nancy: Yeah, we met through James [Murphy]. Maybe we did “You Can’t Have It Both Ways” before LCD, right?
John: Yeah, that’s why I get irritated. Somehow the story that’s perpetuated is Nancy was playing in LCD Soundsytem and then started with me, but it actually predates LCD Soundsystem. It was 2002. James and I were sitting in the studio working on my second 12” You Can’t Have It Both Ways.
Nancy: It must have been before that because when did “[You] Can’t Have It Both Ways” come out, 2002?
John: Yeah, so it was probably a year before that.
Nancy: So 2001.
John: And then we were like, we should have vocals on this. And then James said maybe you should ask Nancy. It was at night and we called Nancy and we were like, why don’t you come down to the studio?
Nancy: The other thing too is when I was growing up I was a huge Six Finger Satellite fan. I remember they came to town. I never got to see them play because they always played in over twenty-one clubs and I could never get in because I looked like I was twelve.
What was New York like for you then, in the late nineties, early aughts?
John: It’s so funny because I remember we were just talking about this the other day. The first time I went to Williamsburg was around that time, to Luxx. And I remember being like, why would we go to Williamsburg?
And Luxx was like a nightclub then?
John: It was a club-bar kind of thing.
Nancy: It was the birthplace of electroclash.
John: I didn’t want to say that — I didn’t want to say electroclash.
Nancy: Larry Tee used to do a party there.
How would you describe the music and nightlife environment?
Nancy: I think that was a really transitional period for music and for a lot of things. That’s when DFA sort of got established. It came out of all of us coming from these punk and indie scenes and being a little tired of the arch judgment that happens in those scenes.
John: The preciousness.
Nancy: Yeah, you couldn’t have fun and everybody took everything so seriously and you took yourself so seriously. The music was serious. So it was about wanting to go out and dance and have fun while listening to good music and not have it be some serious experience.
John: I had just gotten out of a band for a decade of playing in front of an audience that would stand looking at you with their arms folded and then come up and say it was the best show they’ve ever seen in their life.
Nancy: There was a lot of fear of exposing yourself as someone who liked fun and who liked music that was kind of silly or party music. So before DFA was DFA, before it was the record label, it was just a group of people throwing parties.
Was there a particular series of parties?
Nancy: Yeah, they didn’t happen on a regular basis. There was no schedule to them. There wasn’t a regular place that we went to. A month or two would go by and we’d be like, we haven’t had a party in a while, let’s do a party.
Did it resemble the resurgence of Brooklyn nightlife going on now?
John: It’s such a cliché thing to say at this point. The Internet made it so that can’t really be true anymore because back then the Internet didn’t have the social connection that it does now. There could still be mystery to things.
Nancy: We promoted the parties by making fliers, handwritten fliers that we’d cut with scissors and hand out to people. This was even before text messaging.
In that way, it does sound like there is some overlap with the punk scene.
Nancy: Yeah, for sure. We still had that influence, that method of operating.
John: And in the proper dance music scene at the time, we had friends who were in that music scene like Marcus Lambkin who’s now Shit Robot. And that scene was terrible. That was really a very dressed up world, not very interesting musically.
Nancy: Red rope, bottle service.
John: And this was like people that came out of the punk rock scene making fliers with a sharpie on a piece of notebook paper.
Nancy: The parties were always super fun because we’d play rock music and disco, house.
John: Which is the true New York tradition of the DJ. It was like a lineage of throwing all these things together.
What is the process like collaborating in the studio?
John: It’s actually remarkably easy. Between me, Nancy, and Nick Millhiser, who produced the record, it’s astonishingly respectful without anyone trying to be. It all just flows so naturally because we are all longtime good friends and our shared musical background. We’ve all played together. After you’re done with your first record as a band or any group, if you haven’t sort of grown up and learned how to deal with people, I feel that’s a big reason why bands don’t make second records. So you have to be able to sit in the studio with people and be like, I think I’m right and he thinks he’s right and she think’s she’s right, what do you do? Well, I don’t really understand that, but I’ll go with it.
Is the songwriting and production different from your past albums?
Nancy: I think so. I feel like this record feels the most integrated. I did a lot of vocals for the first record. The second record was also a collaboration, but that one was more of a dichotomy between Juan and I. It was going back and forth, a lot of duos, call-and-answer vocals. It was really about the male and female voices. So even though it was a collaboration it was this kind of side by side, layered collaboration. Whereas this record feels more woven.
Dance music has changed since you released your first record, gaining more prominence in the U.S. in particular. Have you noticed that change at the shows?
John: Well the funny thing is now we are talking about dance music. Never before this moment for us had we talked about our music as dance music. Even though it is, and in fact the earlier stuff was even more dance-oriented. Nobody ever asked us what it was like being in the dance music world back then.
Nancy: Because we didn’t really have a dance music world, in the U.S. anyways. I find the term EDM really perplexing. It’s this new term to describe music that has been around for thirty, forty years. I don’t really know what differentiates EDM from other music that is dance-oriented made with electronic instruments. To me, it’s a similar thing. There’s this new genre called EDM. When did that start? When was the line of demarcation? When did electronic dance music become EDM and at what point did The Juan Maclean become part of that category.
Have you been paying attention to the controversy with drug use and big dance music festivals?
John: I feel like there’s been a whole genre of music that’s evolved that’s specifically made for people on specific drugs, which doesn’t give it very much staying power. I think it’s really uninteresting. It’s just so negative and it’s such a cop-out. It’s such a cheap way of trying to have some kind of transcendent experience. I have taken lots of drugs and listened to music. I think it has a lot of validity to it, but when entire genres and festivals are developing specifically to take specific drugs to experience it, it just doesn’t seem that interesting to me.
Have the drugs always been there and it’s just a case of them reaching a wider audience?
Nancy: I think dance music and drug culture have always been intertwined with each other. Maybe it’s just the popularity. There are just more people who are into it, who do it. It’s just numbers.
John: That’s what I think.
What do you think about the EDM scene becoming more a of boys club? Is that something you consider?
John: I hate it. I DJ a lot and I’m exposed to that world quite a bit. First of all, coming out of indie rock, what Nancy was saying, fun wasn’t something that was ever a big priority in that world.
Nancy: Or even allowed.
John: It was also lacking in any kind of sexuality and my entrance into dance music was early Chicago house music, like a track like “Your Love” by Frankie Knuckles, which I know is not really a Frankie Knuckles track, but gets credited to him. That is pretty much what made me want to make dance music. I would listen to that song and be so moved by it. It’s such a passionate, honest, and sincere song. And it’s also very gay and very sexualized. And then I learned the history of it and I was like yeah, house music started as this disenfranchised gay population in Chicago, which disco was originally. So somehow we’ve come to this point of like dudes wearing tank tops and there’s so much overt sexism in it now that I’m astonished at the things that go on. Like the whole Nina Kraviz controversy last year, she was brutalized. Also, now if you’re a woman in that world you can’t opt out of navigating that territory. Can you try to be good looking, wear sexy clothes or something? How do you navigate around that? And it seems impossible like it’s all set up now so that you can’t win if you’re a woman in that world. I don’t see how you can win.
Nancy: It’s like the world at large.
John: Yeah, it’s kind of just the world, but that’s the point. It was supposed to be an alternative to that world, but now we’re back in the frat house again.
Do you consider your work in line with acts like Inner City or Crystal Waters who straddled pop and house?
John: It seems very lofty. It’s like being in a rock band and saying like do you align yourself with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. But that’s what I look up to, especially the Inner City stuff. It’s such a go-to thing for me. A song like “Big Fun” is so similar. I really haven’t thought about it till right now, but “A Simple Design,” the song we just released, is very close to [“Big Fun”].
Does seeing what does well on the dance floor ever influence the creation of your music in the studio?
John: It does for me making 12”s that we made specifically for the club. “You Are My Destiny” is a direct [concern with] how can I make a track that works well in the middle of my DJ sets, but for the album, I don’t think either of us thinks about that. It’s just not a consideration.
Nancy: It’s challenging enough making music.
John: Plus I don’t want it to work in clubs. Either it works in a club or it works walking around with your IPod listening to it, or at home doing the dishes.
Nancy: Well I don’t think that’s true, though. I think our record might be a little unexpected, but I feel like there are songs in there that are fun and make you want to dance. If it makes you want to move a little bit at home, if you’re in the club it could definitely work. It might not work in the obvious sense, the expected sense of like, is this like a banger? No. If I heard it out on the dance floor while I was out one night, yeah.
You two include a lot of futuristic, almost sci-fi references in your music and album artwork. Is there an affinity between your music and these themes?
John: It’s always a big thing of mine from authors and movies. I think also it was a little bit of a vehicle for me to express the sort of standard science fiction ideas. Things like personal alienation, disaffection. Whereas now I feel like it’s been a progression, or I’ve left it behind because I’m not afraid to just come out and say it.
Where did you record the new album?
John: I spent over the course of a few months basically almost daily walking from Bed-Stuy to Bushwick to Nick Millhiser’s studio. This was one of the worst winters of my entire life. That really shaped this album for me in a melancholic, darker way.
Nancy: And I just woke up and walked down the hall.
Photos by Tonje Thilesen. In A Dream is out now on DFA Records.