A punk-only doctrine morphs into the electronic dance of the Juan Maclean
In the last half-century, dance music has been viewed suspiciously. Folkies thought pop and R&B were frivolous, and arena-rock fans thought disco sucked. Punks thought new romantics and electropop were silly and effete. Techno was dismissed as merely the product of computers.
John Maclean, who performs with LCD Soundsystem at EarthLink Live on Saturday as the Juan Maclean, once shared that hostility. The one-time member of Sub Pop recording artists Six Finger Satellite admits that in high school, "I had a really strict punk-rock background. I was the first person to be almost fascistic about what type of music I liked." He liked Joy Division, for instance, "but I thought New Order was an entirely different thing — more upbeat and dancey, too many keyboards."
There's nothing on his album Less Than Human to suggest a once-doctrinaire punk is behind it. With funky keyboards, a bassline that recalls disco and an insistent return to the title phrase "Give Me Every Little Thing," the song could be the soundtrack for throwing your hands in the air, then partying like you just don't care. "Tito's Way" features cowbell-like percussion and live whistles that bring house music to mind, but the spare, single-note beeps and boops that outline the song suggest the band that introduced Maclean to electronic music, German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk.
"They fancied themselves a rock band and claimed the MC5 and the Stooges as influences," Maclean says by phone from his New Hampshire home. Kraftwerk's affinity for the Detroit proto-punk bands is most easily heard in their shared affection for relentless repetition, but Maclean heard another similarity. "It never occurred to me it was entirely electronic; it sounded so much to me like rock music."
It doesn't take a subtle ear to hear Kraftwerk's influence on Less Than Human. The electronically treated vocals have the robotic quality Kraftwerk aspired toward, and tracks such as "AD 2003" and "Love Is in the Air" share Kraftwerk's cool, futuristic loveliness.
Kraftwerk led Maclean to Afrika Bambaataa and Detroit techno, where he heard the German band's sonic influence. "To this day," Maclean says, "the Detroit techno scene is still where my biggest influence comes from," particularly pioneers Juan Atkins and Carl Craig. Through them, he discovered Chicago's techno scene, then house music once he started going to clubs. He admits that he didn't get house at first. "It wasn't tough enough for me." Similarly, he didn't much care for electropop, with the exception of the Human League's 1978 debut EP, which featured "Being Boiled" and "Circus of Death." "I found most [electropop] too poppy," he says.
Toughness, however, isn't one of Less Than Human's defining characteristics. Aside from "Shining Skinned Friend" and its ominous dub reggae echo, the album is often bouncy and attractive. The melody on "Love Is in the Air" is pretty, though it is performed on a keyboard that badly emulates a flute — too airy, too tubular — but that's part of the track's charm for Maclean.
"I've always been a big fan of synthetic sounds," he says. Between his home studio and the one he works at while in New York, he uses approximately 30 analog synthesizers. "I really like the sound of synthesizers as opposed to keyboards or other kinds of instruments that emulate real sounds. I don't think there's anything on my album that tries to pawn itself as standing in for some real acoustic instrument. There's piano on the album, but I wanted to play the real acoustic piano."
That sort of sonic mingling has been one of the hallmarks of Maclean's music. Six Finger Satellite combined electronics with aggressive rock 'n' roll, and because he comes from a punk-rock background, he has no emotional investment in electronic music's futurism or dance music's various subgenres. It's an aesthetic he shares with other artists on the DFA label, but electronic music purists have taken issue with some of Maclean's keyboard choices, particularly the Roland TB-303. They consider the keyboard unduly retro as it provided the bass sounds for acid-house music of the late '80s — a music not nearly as respectable as that of Kraftwerk. Still, in a recent West Coast series of dates at clubs that typically host indie-rock shows, he found the predominantly indie audiences as receptive as European audiences. "Overseas, they're more open to seeing rock live, then going to a dance club," he says.
If indie rock's musical rationale is questioning the trappings of genres, then it's easy to hear why indie audiences would find common cause with the Juan Maclean. Just as indie rock takes the arena, pomp and much of the sexism out of rock, and indie pop lacks the sheen that defines much commercial pop, "Dance with Me" takes the repetitive element of dance music and uses it to make the song hypnotic. Booty-shaking is possible, but not probable. The track has the seemingly obligatory female vocalist, but rather than being diva-like, Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem sounds ambivalent about dancing and life itself. In short, "Dance with Me" and Less Than Human is dance music for the head as much as the backside.