The Rise of Django Django: An Interview with Dave Maclean
Bursting out of the Scottish music scene earlier this year with their twisted space odyssey of a debut, Django Django has spent the past 12 months racking up accolades and honing their live show for an increasingly rabid fanbase. Dave Maclean talks to PopMatters about all things Django Django.
It's been an eventful year to say the least for the members of Django Django. Upon releasing their eponymous debut back in January, the Scottish quartet have been the beneficiaries of an seemingly unending onslaught of heaping praise from critics, culminating in a nomination for the UK's prestigious Mercury Music Prize. The near-universal adulation is well warranted, as the band's superlative first effort is something of a revelation. From the very first haunting synth notes of "Introduction", Django Django drags listeners into an ever-expanding sonic labyrinth, with each song twisting into previously unfathomable directions, absorbing along the way a mind-bending array of musical influences that hopscotch across the musical and cultural landscape.
In no small part due to the group's familial relationship to the Beta Band (drummer Dave Maclean is the younger brother of Beta's John Maclean), Django Django has already received numerous, complimentary comparisons to the turn of the millenium Scottish stalwarts, but to simply identify them as the next logical torch-bearer for laid-back electro-pop would be a shameful disservice to the sprawling breadth of their music. Maclean and company aren't afraid to dip their toes into unfamiliar territory and adorn their songs with eclectic flourishes, whether it be the distracted Spaghetti Western soundtrack whistling that creeps into the album opener or the cheeky Middle Eastern riff that drives "Skies Over Cairo". The addition of singer Vincent Neff's alternately expressive and sullenly droning vocals only serves to further the band's oddball status. An album's worth of content spread across such myriad material could easily fall into self-indulgent buffoonery, but Django Django's keen sense of, and adherence to their particular brand of synth-pop keeps things shuffling along. The lads aren't afraid to throw a few curveballs, but they know when to reset the course, and bring the listener back into the fold with a certified crowdpleaser.
Unlike the elder Maclean's defunct outfit, Django Django appears to be built to last. Having already received the same kind of critical adulation the Beta Band enjoyed, Django Django may have found their first potential crossover hit with "Default". Currently receiving airplay on American radio stations, the propulsive, shambling anthem may have just the right combination of bizarre eccentricity and dance-pop sensibilities to bring Django Django that most elusive of all musical aspirations: mainstream acceptance. They may have ultimately lost out on the Mercury Prize to Indie poppers Alt-J, but Django Django's first musical salvo is an indisputably major achievement, a lambasting statement of purpose from one of the most promising new acts around. Amidst a hectic global touring schedule and dual duties as both Django Django's drummer and producer, Dave Maclean took some time out to answer a few of our nagging questions, and discuss the group's past, present, and future.
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How has the European tour been going? Have you had any difficulty translating the songs for live performances?
We have the last night of our UK tour tonight. It's been going really well, we're playing to our biggest crowds to date, it's always hard for us to translate the music from album to stage because we recorded it with so many layers and we now have to strip back those layers and keep what's important. We try to change some of the tracks from guitar led to synth led, etc. and extend parts into more dance-y grooves just to keep ourselves and the audience interested.
How was the experience of playing your recent hometown gig in Glasgow?
Glasgow isn't our home town, but for me playing anywhere in Scotland is like a home coming. I've family and friends all over Scotland so it's always a big occasion for me. Glasgow was the biggest venue on the tour so it was pretty special.
The Band came together at Art College, correct? How did the four of you come together? What were those early days like?
Me and Tommy lived together for three years at art college but we never made music. We ran a gallery in the city and I was DJing a lot.
In addition to being the drummer of the group, you've also been listed as producer and de facto band leader. Could you elaborate on those roles? Do you regard yourself as the face and leader of the band?
I'm certainly not the face of the band ... I'd rather my face was hidden in the shadows! I guess I see my job as kind of overseeing everything and putting all the jigsaw pieces together. I like to come up with rhythms ... I spent a lot of time before Django making hip hop, dancehall and house beats, some of them have slipped into Django Django. But as a producer for the most part I try to push a song or a riff that [guitarist Vinny Neff] brings me in the right direction and build on it.
How has the music progressed from those your days? Was there ever a clear moment when you realized the band was more than just a few friends having a good time?
Well, in the early days of the band it was me and Vinny trying to see what we could do in terms or writing and recording. It was fun to try and push what we had (a broken floor tom, a mic, and a guitar). I like having restrictions because it forces you to be more creative. I suppose it was the MySpace days so people would listen and think we were a band, but it was just me and Vinny hanging out in my flat. When we got the full band together and did a gig, from there it felt like no going back.
How would you describe the band's songwriting process? Is it a community effort?
Vinny and [synth-maestro Tommy Grace] bring me a bunch of stuff -- could be a full song, or a sketch -- and I try to imagine what it might work as, i.e. stripped back, dance-y, weird, straight up ... then I'll just see it through. Sometimes it doesn't work and we leave it and go back to it and put a whole new spin on it, but usually we keep working it 'til we think it's good.
Although you clearly draw inspiration from numerous sources, if you had distill the inspiration for Django Django's music to a single artist, who would that be?
Having your debut album garner such widespread praise and to be up for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize right out of the gate, to essentially go from relative obscurity to critical success in a short period of time, what has that experience been like?
It's been great. We live in a bit of a bubble so it's just head down and get on with the job. This year has been about finding our feet as a live band, but as we come to the end of the year my head is getting into the new album. The Mercury nomination was a great thing to happen. Being nominated was like winning it for me -- I'm keen to move on from this album now because even though it only came out in 2012, the songs have been with us the past two or three years.
Did your brother (John Maclean, formerly of the Beta Band) give you any useful advice in navigating the music business or has he let you figure it out as you go along?
I saw the rise and fall of the Beta Band, I was there so I guess I learned a few things. He's been there with Django from the start, listening to everything, giving feedback, advice. We're close so, yeah, we chat a lot about it. But the main thing I took from the beta band was to stick to your guns. Make what you want to make and don't chase the "pop" thing, if it come to you fine. They have left us with a lot of great music and in 50 that's all that will matter,
Having so quickly drawn the approval of music critics, do you feel at all beholden to them, to continue appealing to certain sensibilities and aesthetic preferences, or do you feel pretty unfettered to carve out the Django Django sound?
I don't worry about that stuff. Sometimes your damned if you do, damned if you don't. So what's the point? It's about pushing things forward, following your instincts and making music that you love, otherwise you shouldn't be making music. It's supposed to be enjoyable so we try to not get to caught up in thinking about who wants what from us.
What's your ideal vision of Django Django's music? Do you think it has already been reached?
On the last LP the vision changed from song to song. Once we do a track we want to be a different band sometimes, because we're bored of that track. That will probably go on in the next LP. It's good to have a theme that connects the whole thing together and that comes from the album artwork so when we do that we'll know where we're headed.
One of the most striking elements of your debut album is the boldness of scope and willingness to marry disparate music genres, like synth pop, surf rock, Spaghetti Western tunes, and Middle Eastern melodies; was there any material that seemed like a good idea in the studio but ultimately just didn't come together? Was there anything you would have liked to try and pull off but couldn't due to monetary or equipment restraints?
Some songs just didn't come together because of different reasons. Yeah, some tracks we played live were too garage sounding for me to cope with recording in a tiny bedroom and one mic. We never thought we were being odd or disparate at the time though. We just had an idea for a track, did it and moved on.
You seem to draw influence from just about every musical genre and sub-genre under the sun, but is there anything you consider off-limits for Django Django?
Nah. It's all good.
Looking back over the past year or so in music, it was interesting to see two landmark double albums get released by M83 and Fucked Up, especially considering how unpopular that format is today. With your penchant for the grandiose and eclectic, Django Django seems like a perfect candidate for creating a double album in a similar vein of The White Album. Would there be any interest on your part in taking on that type of project, even with all of its inherent challenges?
Yeah, for sure. Album three will be a bloated behemoth ... for sure 46 tracks at least.
Do you have any new material that you're working on at the moment?
I have a load of rhythms. They're quite odd, but I'm fine with that. I'll see what the others have been up to soon and we can get together and make some kind of Frankenstein's monster.