ART:CAST SPECIAL & INTERVIEW Juan MacLean

He enjoys the freedom of having the time to focus on his music – these days he even has more than last year and last year was already a strong one in Juan MacLean‘s career in terms of producing music, which – unfortunately – is or was released on labels like Correspondant, Aus Music or Riotvan just when the pandemic hit and brought societies down to its knees. This, however, does not hold the New Yorker back from having, according to him, the most productive time and (re)discovering and concentrating on certain preferences in music, that he processed in his art:cast. Above Juan, how close friend’s call John, talks about a possible future of club culture, New York landlords, the benefits of live-streams, the perfect banana bread as well as of how he spends his days and what routines he’s developed over the past couple of months – in an honest, pure and straight forward manner, just as he seems as a person, just as his music is.

It has been very surreal, having this music that’s mostly meant to be played in a club, be released.

Torture the Artist: Hello John, tell us something about your day.

Juan MacLean: I live in Brooklyn, and today was pretty typical of my pandemic schedule. I woke up, ate breakfast and walked to my studio, which is around three miles from my apartment. I worked all day in the studio. My friend Nick (of Holy Ghost!) lives a few blocks from my studio, so typically I stop by there on my way home. We sit outside on beach chairs, on the sidewalk, and drink beer. This was not allowed pre-pandemic. If the police saw you drinking alcohol on the sidewalk you’d get a summons to go to court or maybe even arrested. So this is what we do, we sit and talk to people who walk by from the neighborhood, talk about music and synthesizers. I’ve never sat outside so much in my life, this has been a great thing about this pandemic.

Torture the Artist: You’ve been musically on fire this year and put out quite some things, e.g. EPs on Correspondant and Aus Music plus tracks and remixes on Motordiscs, Spin On This or Riotvan. Certainly all this music was not produced during the lockdown – has 2020 been your most productive year and can we expect it being topped next year?

Juan MacLean: In 2019 I had planned for 2020 to be a massive year in terms of releases and touring. Most of those releases were, of course. planned well before the pandemic hit. In early March, right as the pandemic was very quickly kicking in, I had embarked on a six week EU/UK tour. I almost got stuck in Marseilles, but eventually made my way back to New York after my gigs quickly got cancelled one by one.

So I came home and had a flood of big releases, and a string of cancelled tour dates. It has been very surreal, having this music that’s mostly meant to be played in a club, be released. On the one hand you could say that it’s a bit of a waste. On the other hand, it’s all music I cared very deeply about, and the response has been phenomenal. So on the purest level, for me, it has been very gratifying actually.

I have a feeling next year will be even better. I’ve been having the best time in the studio, being super productive and generally making music that is very pure, entirely devoid of external pressures and considerations. I have also raised my intake of psychedelics quite a bit, which has been a huge help. It has been a very exciting time!

I do have confidence that my tracks usually have pretty distinct personalities.

Torture the Artist: Most electronic music is aimed for the (currently non-existing) dance floors, don’t you fear all this music that you worked hard on is over-heard or lost since it cannot or barely be played out to the masses and people generally do not check too much club music these days?

Juan MacLean: Because I very much pour my heart and soul into this music, I am happy to simply have it released and acknowledged, even if there are no dance floors to play it to right now. I very much strive to make music that is not disposable, even if it is fulfilling a very utilitarian function as being a tool for DJ’s. I do have confidence that my tracks usually have pretty distinct personalities that are unique to me, even if I am reaching across different genres or sounds. It will still be here when we start DJing in clubs again.

I still get just as excited about finding new tracks that blow me away than when I started DJing 20 years ago.

Torture the Artist: Are you still on the hunt for those club bangers you could imagine playing at your Good Room residency or have you also developed a different digging as well as listening habit?

Juan MacLean: I have always mostly played new music as a DJ. I have never been much of a digger in the sense of combing through the past for rarities and that sort of thing. I’ve always been much more interested in new sounds, new scenes, new producers, and that’s where my digging energy goes. I guess it’s been a big part of my longevity. I still get just as excited about finding new tracks that blow me away than when I started DJing 20 years ago or whatever.

During the pandemic I have been very selective about doing online mixes and live streams. I have only done live streams for Good Room, and we do them live from the venue. When I’m there doing them, my approach has been to sort of go into that zone when I used to play in the club when it was packed with people dancing all night. So I plan sets that are probably best suited for someone at home who has turned out all the nights, maybe taken some mind altering substance, and wants to dance or strap in for the ride for a few hours. With this in mind, I still hunt for those tracks that will work in that scenario. If anything it has helped me to stay feeling connected to the music, and to a certain extent with the people who used to be on the dance floors.

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Torture the Artist: Regarding the question before, do you produce different music during the pandemic than you did before and maybe it is aimed at a different target group of listeners?

Juan MacLean: Because I already had a pretty full and solid release schedule for 2020 all set by the end of 2019, all pressure was off in the studio when the pandemic hit. In the beginning, in March, I went through a period of intense despair. I really thought maybe I would never get to DJ again, at times, depending on how bad I was about staying off of social media. So some days I would just go to the studio and lie on the couch and listen to music.

And then at some point I realized I could just do whatever I wanted. There truly is no pressure to conform to any sort of sound or expectations. And that made me super productive. What has been coming out of me mostly has been super slow psychedelic spacey or even cosmic sounding stuff. I have also been taking a lot more psychedelics on a regular basis, and I think that has influenced me, though that has always been part of my being.

Torture the Artist: What’s a song you would love to produce but have not yet for whatever reason?

Juan MacLean: It might seem like a funny aspiration, as people are often aiming at the opposite, but I have yet to produce a great ‘goes nowhere,’ linear style track. It’s like I can’t help myself from every track turning epic in some way or another. Maybe the closest I’ve come is my track ‘Deviant Device,’ which is a very dubbed out track with just drums, a synth, and two tape delays. But I find it incredibly difficult to make the kind of track that has very few elements and doesn’t really go anywhere, but is still very compelling. I mean, Ricardo Villalobos is the master of this, of course.

Torture the Artist: What has been the most challenging production so far throughout your career?

Juan MacLean: I suppose my last album was the biggest challenge so far. It went much more into a lot of proper ‘song’ structures, and that’s not something that comes easily to me. I am entirely untrained. I do everything by ear, which is fine for more groove based things, but a lot of the tracks on that album had things like pre-choruses, a term I didn’t even know existed before!

Torture the Artist: Not going to ask you what artist you would like to share the studio with, because it is just not possible at the moment, but what’s an artist you would like to work with remotely, and why?

Juan MacLean: Right now I would say Fabrizio Mammarella. I have probably played his tracks more than anyone else’s over the years, both originals and remixes. Plus, I’m sure we would have some great meals when we took breaks.

There is a lot of criticism on socials about live streams, and I try to remind myself that these are the same people who were complaining about all kinds of things on social media long before the pandemic hit.

Torture the Artist: Most artists do live-streams now, also to benefit a lot of clubs that struggle financially since government’s financial support for the culture and the arts is either non-existing or very low. You just did your third live-stream though, would you say that this is going to be somewhat of the future for club-culture to emphasize on the streaming aspect as well as real events, once it is possible?

Juan MacLean: When I was doing my first live stream for Good Room, I had this thought: when we open back up at very limited capacity, why not also do a live stream of the event? There is a lot of criticism on socials about live streams, and I try to remind myself that these are the same people who were complaining about all kinds of things on social media long before the pandemic hit. But I like the live streams. For me, it both helps to keep the spirit of the venue alive and stay connected with the audience. We have even created a new audience! Lots of people have written or commented in a chat that they didn’t know about Good Room, or about me, and that they were excited to go to the club when it reopens.

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In terms of financial support, I think we have sort of leveled off. We definitely hit a point of donation fatigue very quickly. I don’t think it’s because people don’t have $5 to donate, or whatever. I think it’s just human nature. It was gratifying at first, there were waves of donations for all kinds of things. But the thrill is sort of gone. That said, every time I do one we reliably get a very nice bit of support. Someone donating $5 feels really good, it’s very gratifying to see. Also, someone just tuning in and watching the live stream or listening to the archive and interacting is equally if not more gratifying. Anything to keep the spirit alive!

People, like me, will always want to take some mind altering substance and dance in a dark room with strangers all night.

Torture the Artist: As actually all artists you are affected by the current situation, to what extend do you think the entire business will change in the future and what’s something you think definitely has to change in the scene?

Juan MacLean: There is so much talk about the future of the ‘industry.’ At first, there were a lot of loud voices telling us the way things are, and the way things will be. A lot of mansplaining. I’ve always maintained that we have no idea how things will play out. However, I am pretty optimistic. Some clubs will close, some will stay open, and new venues will open. But people, like me, will always want to take some mind altering substance and dance in a dark room with strangers all night. It has also made me extremely grateful about the choices I’ve made over the years. I never aspired to be ‘bigger.’ My only goal has been to play smaller venues to people who were down for this kind of music. I am friends with many of the promoters who continually bring me back. It is much more community oriented, and rooted in friendships that formed around the music. The stakes are lower than, say, a Blessed Madonna or Dixon gig or whatever. So the scenes I am involved with are more nimble, and find a way to persevere. I played a secret private party with another DJ for 8 people last week. It was more like a psychedelic dance ceremony. A lot of care went into securing a sound system, decorating the space, all of that kind of thing, and it was one of the great DJ experiences of my life. People were crying while dancing at times.

I think in general there needs to be a reimagining of property ownership.

Torture the Artist: With New York’s rents being tremendous, does the pandemic fasten the process of clubs as well as artists having to leave the city because it is simply not affordable any longer?

Juan MacLean: That is the number one factor in determining who will remain open and who will close. A lot of the landlords here are awful. They have no interest in what would be best for the community in terms of how their spaces get utilized. That said, I understand there is another side to this equation, that a lot of landlords have mortgages to pay. However, I have not heard anything about landlords being in dire financial straits and asking for a break from the banks or help from the government. I think in general there needs to be a reimagining of property ownership. Why does one person own a multitude of buildings that they collect money from other humans live in, entirely unbridled in terms of what they can charge for rent?

New York City is probably one of the most stressful places in the world for this. Living here is brutal. Most people in the arts live far out in the outskirts of Brooklyn, with many roommates, in very small spaces. And most of their income goes toward their rent. However, I still do love it here, and the music scene is strong. At the end of the day, those are the people I love having as friends and being around. Some of us are very peculiar, odd people for whatever reason. Whether it’s due to gender identity, sexual orientation, or just being strange people with strange tastes, we just couldn’t survive without each other, living outside of this environment, and the music is the thing that really unites us.

Torture the Artist: What does a live-stream have to have so you would watch it from start to finish?

Juan MacLean: Personally, I want to have the experience of being in a club! I think my criteria are the same as when I’m on a dance floor. For example, I really appreciate it when someone shows up to the live stream and starts a set with a definite intro, setting a mood, and takes us on a bit of a journey, even if I’m just lying on the couch listening to it. I also enjoy being in the chat rooms and commenting on the music with other people, like you would in a club. Like ‘wow, what IS this track!?’

And conversely, if someone is going to take out their phone and start texting or whatever, it’s a real turn-off, same as when clubs were open. Or if it seems like they’re just playing a series of tracks, without much consideration.

I’ve been a hipster most of my life, or whatever equivalent there was at the time.

Torture the Artist: What side of yourself have you (re)-discovered over the past months and what is a habbit you’ve developed?

Juan MacLean: I’ve rediscovered how much I love super slow music, and how much fun it is to make that music under the significant influence of psychedelics!

A habit I have developed is eating outdoors, in the park. I really love it. For now they have allowed us to drink alcohol in the park and public spaces (I realize how silly this sounds to those living outside the USA). It’s so nice. Reminds me of being in Berlin.

Torture the Artist: What are three tracks that you will definitely play once clubs are allowed to open again?

  1. Romie Singh ‘Cry Freedom

  2. Laurie Anderson ‘Born Never Asked

  3. The Juan Maclean – ‘Here In The Twilight’ (dying to hear it in a club)

Torture the Artist: What’s a hidden talent of yours?

Juan MacLean: I have perfected my banana bread recipe. If they cancel DJing forever I guess I’ll be a banana bread maker.

Torture the Artist: Have you ever been a hipster and when were your heydays?

Juan MacLean: I’ve been a hipster most of my life, or whatever equivalent there was at the time. I’ve always lived well outside of mainstream tastes and ways of living. It’s always been curious to me, people who toss around ‘hipster’ as a term of derision. It’s usually done by people who by all appearances would be classified as a ‘hipster:’ stylish clothing, alternative music, interest in things outside the mainstream. I’m not sure what group these people would consider themselves part of. Bros? Basics?

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Torture the Artist: Name three types of tracks that make you immediately leave a club.

Juan MacLean: Hip Hop, because it’s just not my thing. What is referred to as American EDM. Anything without even a touch of darkness. An uplifting Disco track every once in a while is fine, but I don’t want to listen to it all night.

Torture the Artist: What’s a super power you wish you had and what’s the occasion you’d use it for?

Juan MacLean: Invisibility. I’d use it to sneak into the White House and put a strong dose of MDMA in Donald Trump’s drink before he was about to give a big speech. Then I’d slip in some Ayahuasca after the speech when he got home. I’d just repeat this cycle until the job was done.

Interview by Holger Breuer