The Juan Maclean builds anew from experience and pieces of his past
New Hampshire might not be a hotbed of the electronic-music scene, but John Maclean uses the rural void to his advantage. “My home is just a studio with a bed,” he says. Free of urban distractions that have plagued him for years, Maclean — aka the Juan Maclean — is finally getting around to releasing his first solo album, more than a decade after he first started making music professionally as guitarist and keyboardist for the Providence, R.I. — based electropunk band Six Finger Satellite (6FS). Marked by tinkering melodies, sparse beats and robotic vocals, Less Than Human (DFA, 2005) lives up to its name, setting a far more computerized tone than the raw, rock-oriented 6FS sound.
In the early '90s, 6FS' studio, The Parlour, was designed specifically for the band's needs. “It was a steadfastly analog, old-school studio,” Maclean remembers. “In those days, we could go to the local pawn shops and buy Moog Rogues for $50. But the defining feature was the drum room. I specifically designed it to make our drums sound like drum machines. It was about 10 by 10 feet, with a 12-foot-high ceiling, and all the walls were offset at odd angles to minimize flutter and standing waves. There was double wall, heavily insulated, and the surface of the interior was coated with this red furry material. It was as dead as dead could be, like a sensory-deprivation chamber.”
Customizing equipment was often a common indulgence for Maclean and former 6FS soundman and producer James Murphy (aka DFA founder and LCD Soundsystem front man). The practice eventually found its way into their live shows in the form of a portable sound system they called Death From Above. “We got sick of crappy P.A.s in clubs, so we built our own that we could carry around, in the style of the old Jamaican sound systems,” Maclean recalls. “It was magnificent. We would take it on tour and absolutely destroy people with it. People would be crying, holding their hands up to their ears. James would just be standing at the sound booth with dark sunglasses on, pretending he couldn't understand whoever was yelling at him to turn it down.”
Eventually, tension within the band led to 6FS' demise, but Murphy and Maclean remained friends. After taking some time away from music and with some encouragement from Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy (U.N.K.L.E.), Maclean began building a new studio. “My studio now is much more synth-oriented, and I have a very small mic and preamp selection,” Maclean says. “Like The Parlour, though, I use all outboard shit. I can't seem to make soft synths sound any good.”
Each of the tracks on Less Than Human started with a bass line and drum track that Maclean programmed. Having kept many of 6FS' multitrack tapes, Maclean often samples drums from older work. The vocals snippets speak in mechanized tones, an effect partially achieved through the recording setup. “I have this old Altec saltshaker mic that I really like, plus the Electro-Voice 635A broadcast mic,” he says. “Like the Altec, it has a really diminished frequency spectrum — greatly attenuated highs and lows — so it is mostly 2 to 2.5 kHz, [which is within] the range of the human voice. I also use lots of vocoders. I have an old vocoder that was actually a voice modulator built by the phone company, which I got from my uncle, who was a lineman with Bell.”
Once Maclean has a solid start on a track, he takes it to DFA's professional studio, Plantain. “It's just packed with gear and synths nobody has ever heard of,” he says. Music then has to go through the Maclean-Murphy-Goldsworthy gauntlet. “A lot of people barely escaped that setup with their egos intact, which is the best thing about it tome,” Maclean continues. “You are talking about three really opinionated people who have been around for a while and have proven track records. Tim comes from a programming background. James is audio-engineering-oriented. I have a foot in both sides of the pool. There isn't a lot of back patting, but the implication is that if everyone in the room didn't believe you were brilliant in the first place, you wouldn't be there — so no crying, please.”