Juan Maclean on In A Dream and Nancy Whang: "I Can't Conceive Doing It Without Her"
Photo by Tonje Thilesen
The last time that the Juan Maclean performed live in Miami, it was in 2009.
At the then-new LIV nightclub at the Fontainebleau, he and DFA Records diva Nancy Whang were booked for the megaclub's Dirty Hairy party, a weekly Wednesday-night party meant to mimic what was happening downtown, even going as far as to bring hipster party purveyors Poplife and Overthrow on board for cred.
"I remember that night," Maclean says. "It was an odd experience."
As he and Whang sang their way through "Happy House," bottles adorned with sparklers cut through a LIV crowd that couldn't have been less interested in what was happening on the stage. But if only the SoBe partiers had paid attention, they would have witnessed one of dance music's best acts.
"There was a VIP section right in front of the stage, so the crowd was set so far back."
Still, that night hasn't left the New Yorker with a bad impression of Miami. He's returned time and time again to DJ, sticking mostly to venues and crowds that adore him. In fact, he will be back for a daytime DFA BBQ during this weekend's III Points Festival. And there's certainly never been any doubt that Maclean deserves the adoration he usually receives.
In the 2000s, while DFA leader James Murphy had everyone bouncing to indie-dance tunes like "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," Maclean was pushing the limits of house music with disco flourishes and pop aesthetics. But now, with Murphy enjoying blissful semi-retirement, comparisons between the label's two most prominent figures have become ubiquitous.
"I don't understand it. It wasn't something I was really expecting. But since [this year's In a Dream album] came out, there's a lot of people writing about it and asking whether I've stepped into this role that LCD Soundsystem played within DFA. That's not something I ever even aspired to do. I've always been a bit more the more underground guy on DFA. I don't think I make the kind of music that could have the more mainstream success that LCD had."
See also: III Points 2014's Activation Schedule
Maclean may not be aiming for mainstream success, but In A Dream is perhaps his most pop-oriented effort so far, which even he acknowledges.
"From the beginning, there's been a trajectory, and with each album, songs have become more focused in terms of traditional song structures with verses and choruses and being increasingly vocal oriented," he says. "In A Dream is the most vocal-oriented album I've done. There are no experimental interludes like I've had on my previous albums."
That direction has most certainly been influenced by Nancy Whang, who's now as much a part of the Juan Maclean as the man himself. And it is true that she's always played a significant role in Maclean's work, appearing on classic cuts like "Happy House" and "One Day." But with In A Dream, there seems to be more focus on her. Just take the album cover: except for a bust of Maclean, it's dominated by Whang.
"She's been with me from the beginning. She sang on my second 12-inch that I released in 2002," Maclean says. "But with In A Dream, since there's such an emphasis on the vocal arrangements, she just has a bigger presence than she's ever had. At this point, I really can't conceive doing it without her."
Beyond surface appearances, In A Dream remains a classic Maclean offering, though with a bit more of a pop sheen. Nu-disco, Italo disco, and even glimmers of R&B pop up on tracks, almost half of which, in typical Maclean fashion, extend beyond the seven-minute mark. The track that best exemplifies this is "A Simple Design," a dance-floor smash that features New Wave synths and Whang singing "La-la-la-la-la" throughout the bridge and extended outro, as Maclean's swirling accents provide the perfect backdrop.
His perfect production is what has helped establish him not only as a compelling live act, but also as a sought-after DJ. When a Juan Maclean gig is announced, there's always the question, Will it be live or a DJ set?, which is quickly followed by, Who cares? He's great at both.
"When I first start doing the Juan Maclean, I was just a DJ. There was no live band, and there was no reason to think about doing it live. But after I made my first album, I put together a band and started playing on the road live. At that time, I was very aware, because it was the age of guys in bands starting to DJ a lot and most of them couldn't really DJ very well.
"After The Future Will Come, I did DJ-Kicks and that was really an attempt to solidify my identity in the proper DJ world. I devoted a whole year to DJing as much as I could. I try to maintain my success in both worths, having a live touring band and as a DJ."
For his III Points appearance at Gramps, expect a DJ set with a possible appearance by Whang. Maclean says he's excited to take part in the festival for a second time. "A lot of people think during Ultra Music Festival and Winter Music Conference that all this music is coming out of Miami. But, in reality, a lot of acts come into town for a week and then leave. It's great that III Points emphasizes what's really happening in Miami."
There's no arguing that there's a thriving music scene in Miami, be it rock, house, or hip-hop. So what's missing in Miami to bring attention to it on a national scale?
"People ask me this all the time. I really don't have an answer," Maclean admits. Still, when pressed, he really thinks, in his case, labels in New York, like DFA, act as a catalyst for the scene and acts. While there are plenty record labels in Miami, none have reached DFA levels of notoriety. But Maclean sees III Points as a step in the right direction for the city.
And when asked whether that 2009 concert at LIV left a bad impression on him, Maclean says no. "We knew what we were getting ourselves into when we did that show."
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The Juan Maclean DFA BBQ. A DJ set as part of III Points Festival 2014. 4 p.m. Sunday, October 12. Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami. Free. Ages 21 and up. Call 786-752-6693 or visit grampsbar.com.
III Points Festival 2014. Friday to Sunday, October 10 to 12. Soho Studios, 136 NW First Ave., Miami, and various other locations. Three-day general admission tickets cost $99 to $120 plus fees. Single-day passes cost $55 to $66 plus fees. Visit iiipoints.com.