The Life We Know: Django Django's Dave Maclean interviewed

Space-age second album Born Under Saturn sees Edinburgh-formed four-piece Django Django on riotous, mystical form. Dave Maclean talks planets, poltergeists and percussion

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 29 Apr 2015

The cover art for Django Django’s new album Born Under Saturn is of a statue named The Sluggard. Stretching his arms, yawning wide, with his bronzed genitalia tastefully covered by a superimposed piece of plastic fruit, the 19th-century work finds itself the poster boy for the London-based band’s spiritual new take on their musical output. Dave Maclean, the band’s drummer and producer, gleefully explains that it all “came about by accident,” that “there’s just all these connections with stuff that I’m into. Mythology and outer space… the solar system.”

Legend has it that those born under specific conjunctions of Saturn are predisposed to melancholia, genius and insanity – and, as a consequence, could have the perfect temperament for artistic creation. In an apt twist of fate, Maclean stumbled across the phrase in a Stratford charity shop: “There was this book called Born Under Saturn, and I just immediately thought, 'I need to read that.' I thought it would be something to do with mythology or maybe cults, but it turned out to be an academic thesis on the birth of art, from Italian craft to what makes a person an artist, what their mindset is. We nicked the title because it all just seemed kind of connected to the statue as well. If you’re born under Saturn it can be said that you’re lazy, or maybe idle in some way.”

“There’s just all these connections with stuff that I’m into. Mythology and outer space… the solar system” – Dave Maclean

This persuasion for the arts and the otherworldly shouldn’t really come as a surprise though. Maclean met bandmates Vincent Jeff (vocals, guitar), Jimmy Dixon (bass) and Tommy Grace (synths) while studying at Edinburgh College of Art, and their leftfield art-pop sensibilities have always had a touch of the uncanny about them. Born Under Saturn is the group’s sophomore album, following 2012’s self-titled debut which propelled them on to worldwide tours, huge festival billings, pop charts, FIFA soundtracks and numerous best-of-the-year lists. As debuts go, theirs was stellar. The new record's been three years in the making, but as Maclean puts it, it’s felt anything but a lengthy process: “It’s always funny when people say we’ve been away for ages, because it just felt like the opposite to us. Touring permanently, are people sick of us? There’s an element of people wanting everything, wanting a live band to tour in every corner of the globe, wanting them to write and record. You just have to kind of concentrate on one thing at a time.” Culminating a massive two years with a headline set on Edinburgh’s Princes Street for Hogmanay 2013, the band felt it was time “to draw a line” and get back to the studio. And that’s where they’ve been since.

The result is a second album of giant proportions. Where debut Django Django carved a name for the band as party-starters, purveyors of baffling rhythm patterns designed to affect your feet and heartbeat, Born Under Saturn picks up the baton with gusto. Yet lead single First Light is a deceptively chilled first impression of an otherwise riotous 61 minutes. Maclean laughs, “it was just the first track we finished that stayed with us as a favourite. It just bubbles away and does its thing. We thought it was a good kind of... easing back in.” But by contrast, take a track like Reflections. In now typical Django fashion, it opens with an urgent, driving beat and fills out almost imperceptibly, all dance-influenced chords and builds, as Maclean describes, in a definite “house direction”. Yet, the peak is chronicled by a loose, loungey horn section – an emphatic turn from the predictable path of “a Radio 1 house banger.”

The band are careful not to shoot themselves in the foot, he says – “we don’t want to be genre-based, it’s not really what we’re about.” These are perhaps unsurprising words from a band who so plainly delight in borrowing from and blending genre. He expands: “I mean, we do listen to a lot of different music. Some people say, 'Oh, that rhythm’s quite dancehall,' or 'Oh, that guitar is… whatever.' But it’s not really like we’re consciously sitting there like, ‘Let’s make a wacky mish-mash!’ I wouldn’t want that at all. It’s more that you let things bleed in where they’re necessary… actually, I think we’re quite restrained in our influences!” 

This restraint, or perhaps lack thereof, is explained further by Maclean’s own eclectic background. Whie a student in Edinburgh, pre-Djangos, he describes that he was part of a “dancehall, reggae kind of sound system, I’d make rhythm beats for the MC. I always imagined I’d end up being a hip-hop producer, or maybe acid house. That’s the kind of stuff I was tampering with. But then, when I heard Vinnie [Jeff]’s stuff, it reminded me of the 50s rock’n’roll that I was into. Now the two worlds of those things have sort of ended up… colliding, a bit.”

The result of this planetary collision is hard to pin down: Born Under Saturn is a shape-shifter of a record, transforming from Shake and Tremble – a brash bone-shaker with a shadow of the sinister about it – to an ethereal, prophetic kind of tone on a track like High Moon. It definitely sounds as if the band’s propensity for the spooky has seeped in somewhere… or is that just superstitious guesswork? Maclean laughs. “I mean, maybe me more than the others, but we’re all interested in that kind of stuff. There’s something about synthesisers that automatically sounds kind of sci-fi, and we’re all really into Joe Meek’s productions. He was fascinated with mixing, with what was, at the time, brand new technologies – synths, tape loops, stuff like that, but with the traditional kind of Buddy Holly style rock’n’roll too. A bizarre mix, but that kind of thing ended up being the soundtrack to a lot of TV and film, sci-fi stuff. Even in dub and reggae the effects they use are all kind of… Star Trek-y and weird. I collect a lot of film soundtracks, and, er, effects records with all sorts of odd noises on them…”

The only problem with this magpie-like mindset for the weird and wonderful is that, when it comes to recreating their music live, the band “just keep making it harder” for themselves. Taking to the stage in Edinburgh this past February, for the first time since the Hogmanay show, new tracks were given their debut. They’re back in Scotland this month, headlining Live at Glasgow on 3 May, but Maclean jokes that the audience shouldn’t expect more than “four… or maybe five… new ones ready to go.” He explains that the band, during the recording process, “were a bit like kids in a sweet shop. Going in a studio and there’s loads of synthesisers. We just get them all out, use them all! But then, we don’t own these synthesisers, so how are we going to do it live?” Describing the process of prepping a song to play live as a kind of “reverse-engineering,” he reflects that it’s probably for the best: “We do want a live set to be different from the record. Give people a surprise when they come and see us. The tracks do tend to keep evolving. Keep adding bits, work out a better ending… It’s a good thing. You don’t stay stagnant that way.”

It seems, then, that Django Django work best with an odd mix of mystery and pragmatism in the air. These contradictions are neatly encapsulated by the band’s Twitter feed – for the most part manned by Maclean – which is a mixture of purposeful, passionate political opinion and open calls for first-hand experiences with mischievous spirits. How can a band juggle a predisposition for the ghostly with a pointed interest in George Osborne’s latest misdemeanours? “My mum actually has a go at me about the things I tweet. She says, ‘You can’t use that language!’. But yeah, someone sent me a YouTube video of someone claiming that they had a poltergeist. I just started thinking, I mean, obviously this could be a hoax, but has anybody actually ever… does it happen? Is it always a hoax? I just don’t know. There’s definitely something unexplained. I don’t presume to know if there’s a God, or an afterlife, or spirits or anything. Even if it’s just about the human psyche? Maybe what’s lurking in our own consciousness is interesting enough.”

Playing Live at Glasgow on 3 May and Manchester Cathedral on 23 May. Born Under Saturn is released on 4 May via Because Music. Django Django will make a live in-store appearance at HMV Glasgow, Argyle Street on 4 May (onstage at 5pm).