Tuesday, May 19, 2009
juan maclean interview pt. 1
Here is the first part of the full transcript of my interview with John MacLean a/k/a/ The Juan MacLean. In this first part, we chat a bit about robots, Six Finger Satellite, and of course, the nadir of 80s television, Small Wonder.
Were you much of a sci-fi fan or a comic book fan growing up?
I was a big fan of sci-fi, but with a limited scope. I was not into the fantasy world-related stuff at all, but Philip K. Dick was always one of my favorite authors of all time. Obviously, his writing technically is sorta awful, but the ideas and themes of alienation were big. The cosmology was stuff that I really got into and the offshoots like Blade Runner. It ended up being enormously influential for me. Thematically, that movie has played out in so many of my songs. Setting these scenarios for some being that doesn’t know whether its human or android or not, the polarity between the two. I’ve always used that theme or allegory of robots and androids to represent my own feeling not exactly “human.”
That goes back a ways for you.
To the earliest days of my music career.
Was Six Finger Satellite your first band?
My first and only band. I feel like I’ve had such a charmed music career, two of them, that 6FS…I graduated from high school and with money I got for graduation, I was going to buy a motorcycle and take off. Instead I went and bought a guitar. I just want to be in a band, so I taught myself to play the guitar. Made the band and made 6FS.
Was it a RISD band?
Nonono. We were so far removed from those people on a social level. There wasn’t a single band. We made our first demo after being together for a year, a year of learning how to play basically. Sent a cassette to Sub Pop and they signed us. We were signed.
Did the robotoic aspect of it ever play out live?
Devo was a big influence. We had the uniforms and were very strict about not smiling or showing emotion on stage.
Was that aesthetic was your contribution?
That was my thing. Devo, PKD stuff, Kraftwerk was a huuuuuge one, pretending they were robots and singing about being robots.
Songs about factories...
The uniforms they had we copied. We had shirts with very strict regulations in the band. When you were on tour you had to be in uniform all the time. We had our uniforms with the 6 emblem, your name underneath and we would sell them as merchandise on the tour as well.
Now with YouTube, I keep finding weird Italo disco like The Droids and it seemed like there was this giant movement of robot-pop. Why is it always European though? Never American? Why doesn’t America like robots?
There’s a definite social and cultural aspect to it, because Americans are…there’s such a focus on individuality and personality and originality and those kinds of concepts in these bourgeouis notions where kids grow up being told that they’re better, everyone is above-average, everyone is in the 99% percentile. But this idea of being an automoton or robotic or you’re part of the factory or the machinations of everything else.
Is it anti-Communist? You can’t have that crop up...
Very much so. Whereas that’s a very European –especially German—thing. Efficiency and the factory and that kind of thing. It’s a sentiment that Americans can’t…it doesn’t resonate at all in our culture or in the arts. Literature tends to be about the opposite, about individuality.
America’s lone obsession is Small Wonder.
Never seen it. I never watch TV.
You should check it out, a girl robot that lives with a family. Just terrible.
For me to it’s always a way to hide behind the idea of robots, without having to see that you’re expressing these really human emotions.
Was it funny to be on Sub Pop?
Of course. We were signed to Sub Pop, the first non-NW region band to be on Sub Pop. It was Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Tad, all those guys. The Xmas parties were quite humorous. All those guys in grunge attire and we would show up in uniform. Then we made a ten inch EP Machine Cuisine that was entirely electronic in ’93.
I remember putting it on and thinking it sounded like NIN.
(Laughs) That at the time, there was no context for that whatsoever. And we made it with Steve Albini. And there’s no guitar, drums, or live instrumentation.
With Juan, why did you want to re-enact it?
My first twelve-inch, there are some tangential references to Italodisco with “By the Time I Get to Venus” was very informed by the Boney M song “Nite Flight to Venus.” It’s where I took Venus from. That song was the template for the very first thing that I did. I was really into Italodisco at that time.
Boney M is a funny phenomenon to me: huge in European, but in America, they don’t even register.
It becomes this esoteric reference.
The robotic thing is a studio construct now though?
Live, not at all. Live has been an attempt…because 6FS was primarily a rock band and part of it was being antagonistic and willfully contrarian. Totally contrary. So when you’re in a rock band immersed in this post-rock indie rock, to bring out keyboards and dress up in these Fascistic uniforms and march around on-stage and pretend that you’re robots, it definitely got a rise out of people and was controversial. In dance music though, the opposite is true, especially if you want to re-create it live. It’s so horribly boring to see somebody start up a laptop or something and try to play live electronic music. So it seems like bringing this punk rock live chaotic element to it is much more interesting.
In the lag of time between 6FS and Daft Punk, what was it like to see their success, to see it come across?
It’s seems to be the theme of my entire music career. To be too far ahead. It is finally gratifying to actually be for once making the music that is of the day, right now. It actually feels a little alien in some ways. After awhile, you do get tired of having to wait 5-10 years for people to say “Wow, you guys were doing that.” And then they went and did it at it was HUGE! But Homework was a huuuge influence for me when it came out. It was fine because I had made Less Than Human and that’s when DFA was signing its deal with EMI right at the same time. The album sat there for a year waiting to be released while they negotiated the deal. In that time is when Human After All came out. It wound up getting released a month after Human After All. It was so hard to take. The name of it and everything.
Rather than being five years too early, you were five minutes too late.
Basically. A hair too late.