Every Little Thing
An Extended Interview with John Maclean of the Juan Maclean
The new album seems much more song-oriented. How is it playing those songs live? Are you able to stretch them out for the dance floor and play around with them a little?
It's sort of splitting the difference. We play at least three-fourths new songs, and most of them we're playing them generally the way they are in the recordings, and then we leave room in a couple of places in other things to stretch them out. "Happy House" can be anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes long, it can turn into an epic sort of acid jam.
There's more singing on the new album done without the use of a vocoder—was that an easy transition?
Yeah, it was fine. It was made easier by it being a very conscious decision. Before doing any of the music for the album at all, I approached Nancy [Whang] about not just being a guest vocalist on the album, but being a full-time member and a full-on presence on the album. Then from there we had a lot of discussions about what we wanted to do vocally—and by the time we were done, we had both the lyrical concepts defined and structurally how we wanted it to be. So that made it a lot easier. Whereas in the past, it was more making instrumental tracks and figuring out a way to fit vocals on top of those.
So the lyric writing was collaborative?
Yeah, for sure. Each of us always writes our own parts; whatever one of us is singing, that person has written that lyric, generally. We also did a lot of just sitting there together writing back and forth. All the lyrics were written with both of us in the same room together.
The traded vox remind me a lot of the Human League, and a friend even suggested that the beat on "A New Bot" sounds like a sample of "The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of"—
I actually never thought of that; I'll have to listen to that.
Were the Human League an intentional touchstone?
Well, when we first were talking about having an equal male/female presence vocally, we were like, let's go out and compile songs we like that feature that kind of thing. And I just assumed there was all kinds of stuff out there like that, but the only thing we could really find was the Human League. So I think that's what makes it a really obvious reference point. When it comes down to it, I can't really think of anyone else in the popular-music world that has consistently done that style of vocals. They became an easy sort of template to use.
It seems like a handy device, because you have all these songs about romantic struggles and strife, and instead of them being one-sided, they can be a little bit more multidimensional.
The intention from the beginning was to take it away from the first-person observations of relationship stuff into this realm of getting both sides of the story in a narrative sense. I thought it made for a much more compelling narrative arc.
Where does the fascination with robots come from?
Originally, it came from two places equally. The first is probably Kraftwerk. I've been a really big fan of them since high school, and especially being that young and discovering this German electronic band—these guys who were professing to be robots and would dress up in these uniforms, and at one point they actually had robots that took their place playing onstage, and they were singing about [robots] and using vocoders and playing really locked-down music that, back then of course, sounded really futuristic. That became such an influence for me throughout my entire music career.
I'm not really a big science-fiction fan, because I have an aversion to the whole fantasy realm of science fiction, but a writer like Philip K. Dick was a really big influence on me as well from the time I was in high school. He raised a lot of philosophical questions about the nature of androids versus being human and what the differences were.
And it's a handy way to open up, with an economy of words, broader philosophical discussions.
For me it became an easy device to use, an easy metaphor for my own feelings of alienation or inability to connect with people.
The other thing that comes to mind listening to some of this stuff is the journal that you posted online a while back, about your days of heavy drug use and how monotonous and robotic and unfeeling you made those days sound.
Oh, for sure. That's a big part of it. I feel like, in writing about that kind of stuff, it tends to get misrepresented and romanticized and glorified in any sort of media. But the fact is... my experience being addicted to those drugs was that it was an incredibly monotonous existence, very ritualistic and monotonous—doing the same things every single day, really unexciting things with episodes of insanity. You do become very robotic in your existence.
It just seems like a really demanding day job in a way.
Well, it is. I mean, there's no way—that's what it is. It becomes your job, and when you're at that level, there's really no way around it; it has to be a full-time job.
At the same time, though, there's—not necessarily in regard to that, but in regards to the romantic stuff happening on the album—some simultaneous feeling like it might be better to be more unfeeling, like that could be a strength also.
Yeah. I think that's part of the conflict represented on the album. You know, it always seems like the person who's more unfeeling or colder wins out in these kinds of struggles, for better or for worse. Like, the colder person always has the upper hand.
I want to talk about the album's bookends, "The Simple Life" and "Happy House"—
It's interesting that you refer to them as bookends, because that's exactly the word I used, that's how they were conceived.
They seem like total flip sides of each other.
For sure. For one thing, I still sequence albums in terms of vinyl LPs, so I think of it in terms of a side one and a side two. So there is a loose narrative arc to the album, and I wanted to end each side on an optimistic note. At first, we had thought that we would follow a very specific narrative line, which started to become silly and too difficult to do. In general, it's supposed to be a story, told from each side, of two people trying to come together, and there's some sort of resolution that's optimistic. So that's generally how it was conceived in terms of sequencing and how those tracks ended up where they are.
Originally, there was a trilogy that started with "One Day" and went into "Human Disaster" and then "Tonight." "One Day" was supposed to be about they just had this total inability to connect, they go their separate ways; then "Human Disaster" is one of them basically at home lamenting that inability to connect with this other person and how much he's messed up this relationship; and then, in "Tonight" it was supposed to be like both people go out to a club and they meet up together and they realize they want to be together and that's the story of them going home together and staying together and ending happily ever after. That's just the stuff we would talk about in the studio, these long, complex story lines. There's a lot of backstory to it.
I feel like this album and the latest Animal Collective album both mine similar territory about the tension between the mundane world and wanting something bigger, something that escapes or transcends the day to day. Is that something you were thinking about?
Yeah, and I actually thought the albums were very complementary. There definitely was meant to be a sincerity and an honesty in the lyrical content that I felt laid a foundation for the transcendent moments to seem really gratifying. There was a conscious effort to do that, so that it's almost like you've earned the more uplifting moments on the record. And by use of things like having longer, more hypnotic tracks, like "in "Happy House," it's definitely this attempt to induce some kind of feeling of transcendence, meant to evoke a feeling of just what could be considered this optimistic or goofy, everything's going to be okay message.
The first album has a slightly more sarcastic or deadpan tone, something like "Give Me Every Little Thing" is like a kind of arch dance song.
Right, right, yeah. The first album was pretty cold or bitter or sarcastic at times, and Nancy and I talked at length about trying to be as sincere and honest as possible. Which is always difficult, because the moment you do that you're opening yourself up to criticism in an entirely different way. Which is why I think people often couch things in so many layers of irony, because you can always hide behind it.
So when is Nancy Whang going to do a solo album?
For about 10 years now, that's been the joke. She's been talking about doing a solo album forever, and I think she's set out to work on it at different times, but who knows? There'll be an LCD album coming out again soon, and then touring for that...