THIS may be jumping the gun a bit, but when everyone’s making end of 2014 lists, we reckon The Juan MacLean’s A Place Called Space should be up there as one of the tracks of the year.
The opener of the DFA duo’s third album In A Dream sets the stall out from the off — an arpeggio-led eight-minute space disco jam that recalls Black Devil Disco Club, Giorgio Moroder and your favourite 80s sci-fi movie chase sequences. Producer John MacLean says it’s no accident that the song acts like a mission statement, saying: “I really write albums that people will listen to from beginning to end. Before anything, the first thing I think about is an opening song and an ending song.”
We’re chatting to MacLean on Skype ahead of his DJ set at the Red Bull Music Academy in Belfast, and he agrees that In A Dream is The Juan MacLean’s best yet, a sure-footed dance-off between sweaty analogue house and synth-pop. The new LP has long-time collaborator, LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang trading vocals with MacLean, taking command in her deadpan role as undisputed queen of New York cool.
MacLean says the record could just as easily have been called “The Nancy Show”, as it was more of a collaboration this time round, adding: “Usually Nancy would come in and I’d have written the instrumental and she’d sing over it in the end. This time we wrote vocal parts as we went along so it just made it a little more cohesive.” In A Dream is only the Juan MacLean’s third album in nine years, after 2005’s Less Than Human and 2009’s The Future Will Come, each one a DFA Records bullseye powered by tough analogue synths and an assured pop sensibility.
MacLean keeps his eye on the club in between these gaps, DJing worldwide and dropping game-changing 12-inches like Happy House Feels So Good, but says they wouldn’t fit on a cohesive LP: “Those 12-inch records, they have the rigid 32-bar intros of drums and percussion or whatever… I don’t wanna listen to that outside of a club.”
MacLean came pretty late to the house game, in his 30s, and explains: “In the late 80s I was a teenager, very much involved in the punk scene, but I got into techno through Kraftwerk. I heard that these guys in Detroit were making music that was really influenced by Kraftwerk so that’s when I discovered the early Detroit techno stuff like Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson.”
An avowed hardware junkie, MacLean hasn’t tried to seek out Kraftwerk’s latest live show that’s touring art galleries, conservatories and festivals — sleek and streamlined, with all the wires digitally disposed of: “I was never that interested to seek it out…it’s not my kinda thing. If they ever resurrected all their old synthesisers and analogue gear then i’d definitely go see them. I think now it’s just a visual performance with a backing track. i hear it’s pretty good but it just doesn’t interset me. It’s just not what i liked about them. I actually liked the sounds that kraftwerk made more than anything. But even in saying that, I’ve heard it’s really good.”
MacLean spent most of the 90s in post-hardcore act Six Finger Satellite, who gave two of those fingers to so-called alternative rock with their caustic synths and vicious riff stabs in the vein of Jesus Lizard or Big Black, with krautrock flourishes. He says the Six Finger Satellite song Rabies (Baby’s Got The) was “the kind of song that DFA Records was built on in the early days”, as label mainman and LCD Soundsystem leader James Murphy was the band’s sound man — naming their colossal rig ‘Death From Above’.
After years of tangling himself in analogue synths, MacLean admits that he misses the guitar, but it made a comeback on A Place Called Space, with its soaring Moroder-style prog riffs. He says: “There was a guitar lying around the studio and I started picking up every day and playing along to songs. At some point I just thought I’d use it. By the time we were done with A Place Called Space I was calling up my old bandmates in Six Finger Satellite trying to sort a reunion tour.”
Just to make sure, we ask if he’s joking, but he says: “For sure, we’re serious, it’s not just nostalgia, when we were out, indie rock had become very boring — everything sounded like Arcade Fire sounds like now, one of my most hated kinds of music. When I started in punk and post-punk it was an underground reaction to mainstream music, people trying to do provocative things, but Arcade Fire just sounds like a Sony commercial, it’s just boring.”
MacLean is quick to point out that he doesn’t hate Arcade Fire — just the endless run of indie-rock bands blindly following behind, nicking their moves, as he explains: “I’ve always been a fan of Arcade Fire obviously — it’s their imitators I find boring.”
Even so, it’s surely one of the most left-field instances of Arcade Fire inspiring a musician, but bring it on — Six Finger Satellite are go.
Originally published in the Irish Daily Star