Juan MacLean gets his DJ-Kicks

The DFA artist opines on the art of the mix.

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“Am I really deejaying in that big main room?” asks a wide-eyed John MacLean, who’s spinning at the Girls & Boys--hosted Hot Chip after-party at Webster Hall on Friday 23. “Jesus!” The veteran music maker seems genuinely shocked and a bit humbled to be spinning in the club’s massive Grand Ballroom, but he shouldn’t be. First of all, he’s played in the space before, albeit with his almost-self-named combo the Juan MacLean. (Just to confuse matters, when in DJ mode, he’s Juan MacLean—no the—and happily answers to “Juan” in real life.) Second, the DFA artist is much loved by clubland citizens of all stripes—his band’s 2008 glitterball epic “Happy House” ended up on plenty of year’s-best lists, and tracks from last year’s The Future Will Come still pack many a spinner’s record box. Third—and perhaps most important—he’s simply a great DJ. If you need proof, MacLean’s just put together the latest edition in !K7’s long-running DJ-Kicks mix-CD series, a riveting trek through the land of house music—featuring tracks and remixes from the Revenge, Rick Wilhite, Theo Parrish, and labelmates Still Going and Shit Robot, along with an exclusive new floor-burner from his own band called “Feel So Good”—that manages to both jack the body and tingle the spine.

You’re quoted in the DJ-Kicks liner notes as doubting the relevance of mix-CDs.
That’s just because there are DJ mixes everywhere nowadays. My Facebook inbox gets filled every single day with people’s links to DJ mixes on Soundcloud or whatever.

So you went ahead and did one anyway!
Yes, and doing the mix made me think about personalities and how they relate to people’s perception of music. The classic example is when I’m spinning somewhere, and the opening DJ might tell me, “When I play that record, nobody cares, but when you played it everybody went crazy, like they never heard it before!” When you put your name and face on a mix, people have a different reaction than if someone else had put out that mix. People still want to be able to relate music to a personality, and mix-CDs let them do that.

That’s like what some people call the DJ Harvey syndrome. Harvey can play some bizarre track and people love it, but if someone else plays it, they’re like, “What the hell are you doing?”
In some ways, it’s like if some model wears a dress, she’ll get into People wearing that dress, but if somebody else wears it, nobody cares. And there’s nothing really wrong with that; that’s just the way it is.

What is the difference in the feeling you’re trying to convey when deejaying, as opposed to when you’re doing your own music?
I’ve actually never really thought about that, but I think I try to convey the same sentiments with deejaying as I do with my own music. When I deejay, I’m actually picking tracks that I wish I had made myself. They tend to be of the same emotional tone that I’m constantly trying to get across with my own music.

And what tone would that be?
Well, I’ve really gravitated toward the deep-house side of things as a DJ. Deep house can be characterized by having an uplifting aspect to it, but tempered with these really minor-key movements. It evokes this kind of happy and sad tone at the same time, which is what I really like.

You’re still spinning vinyl, right?
Vinyl is all I play at this point. I used to play the odd CD, but now I stopped bothering with that.

So this mix was made with two turntables and a mixer?
Yeah. And this is just the anal DJ in me, but I still cringe sometimes when I listen to the mix. I’m like, I wish I could go back and do that part over again. But having it be a bit loose gives it a presence I don’t think you get with mixes made with software. Someone recently described it to me in a way I hadn’t thought of, which is that it gives the listener the feeling that they’re listening to it with the DJ.

Still, it seems pretty precise, with lots of long mixes.
On a lot of the mix, there are two records playing at the same time, which is pretty difficult to do with vinyl. I think I wanted to impress other DJs, mainly.

Were there any songs you wanted to get but couldn’t license?
When I originally conceived of the mix, I had the entire thing built around these spoken-word pieces from Hawkwind’s live Space Ritual album, but I couldn’t get it licensed. I was like, Here, I want to license some 30-year-old Hawkwind thing and release it to young people who are into music, and at least a few of them would then go and find out more about Hawkwind. What are they worried about—that Nissan might want to license it for a car commercial instead?

Juan MacLean spins at Girls & Boys Fri 23.

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