Brendan Maclean is seemingly plagued by passing airplanes. “They’re a constant feature of where I live in Sydney,” the Australian singer-songwriter says over the phone. “But I’m joined by some giant butterflies right now, so that’s a good sign!”
Maclean welcomes the good omens. He’s about to release his first full-length album, And the Boyfriends -- which seems odd, because he’s been consistently putting out singles and EPs for the better part of a decade. His last one, funbang1, debuted at No. 2 on Australia’s indie music charts, and spawned a bit of an international scandal thanks to the sexually explicit video for single “House of Air.”
After the whirlwind of funbang1 died down, Maclean took some time off to write his introspective follow-up. And the Boyfriends finds Maclean returning to the more organic sound of his earlier work, like his breakthrough single “Stupid.” It’s also a darker album, with fewer of the bops and bangers that defined his last EP, funbang1.
“I was about to turn 30, and as my producer said to me, ‘Saturn returns with lessons to learn,’” Maclean admits. “I don’t want to call it a coming-of-age album, but I may not be able to avoid that. That’s probably what it is.”
Still, the now 31-year-old hasn’t entirely given up on entertaining the world. In a recent chat, Maclean told Billboard all about his raw and honest new album as well as the party he plans to bring to the U.S. this summer.
You’ve said that And the Boyfriends has a concept. Would you call it a “concept album?”
Yeah, it is a concept album. I needed something bigger than me, and I used the imaginary band, The Boyfriends, to kind of clarify my message. And despite being called And the Boyfriends, it’s pretty much a love letter to all the women in my life. The stories that I talk about aren’t necessarily my own stories. This is songs about my mother and my sister and my friends who were being fucked over in the industry, or women who have tried to help me in my life. I’ve spent so much of my life not actively engaging with the women around me. I think a part of being a cis gay man pulls me into a society where I wasn’t including women in my life.
Tell me about The Boyfriends, this fictional backing band you’ve created.
In Australia, they’re all actually pretty well-known stars themselves: Kira Puru, Montaigne and Ainslie Wills. The executive producer of the album is my dear friend Sara Belkner. I knew that if I was gonna write an album about women it had to be full of women. Even just to call me out on things -- maybe where I missed the mark or where it wasn’t sincere. For lack of a better word, to use their energy to guide me. I wanted to explore something different.
And one way of doing that was creating the fictional backing band. How do you arrange for a band? It’s very different from just arranging for myself. Having the fictional band allowed me to not write and sing just for myself. It helped remove some of the ego—which, I know I have a huge ego.
Funbang1 was very synth-pop driven. How would you describe your sound on And the Boyfriends?
It’s still pop structures. I love pop music, but it’s…everything is real. The synth parts aren’t a computer, they’re beautiful synth keyboards from the 70s and 80s. It certainly adds more of a touch of Talking Heads to my usual Robyn-sounding thing. It leans more on my love of LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire. I want to call it pop rock, but sometimes it feels more like pop folk as well. It definitely keeps my love of hooks and dancability on some of the tracks, but sometimes I just let that go. To explore some of the subjects, they couldn’t be contained by just pop music. What you end up with is an album that almost sounds like a band gig. I’ve never done that before.
I have [sad] tracks like “Where’s the Miracle” which is just a discussion of my childhood. My mother was really abused when I was growing up. We lived in a very uncomfortable, aggressive house, a lot of alcoholism in my family. “Wolf Run,” the closing track, is actually about a physically violent relationship I was in that I never thought I could explore in music. I didn’t think I was allowed to. You get told by a lot of people in music, “Don’t make a sad record.” Who needs another sad gay record? But I needed to write it, otherwise I wasn’t going to write anymore music. If music’s just bops and making people dance in a club, then I’m done. I lay it pretty bare on this record.
Is “Wolf Run” going to be a single?
It’ll probably be the one we do after the album release. I use the refrain “Boys will be boys,” because that really applies to what men do to women, what men do to each other. I remember the police came over one time when we were having a [fight] and they didn’t know what to do with two young men having a fight. They were like, “Boys will be boys. You’ll be all right.” That was probably more than half a decade ago now, but it’s something that always stuck with me.
Even adults didn’t know quite what to do with queer people in distress. Queer people have so many problems with the police already, but the fact that they don’t know how to approach a domestic violence situation -- I needed to sing about that. I was just bawling in the studio. But that was the thing about being surrounded by women in the studio. They lifted me up and said, “You have to sing these songs.”
You’ve said you were really angry with the way you were being treated by the Australian music industry when you were making funbang1. What kind of reception have you gotten in America?
It’s odd, I get better reception in America. It’s boring to talk about, but I can see my statistics on Spotify and most of my listeners are from Chicago and New York and in London and Spain. Australia comes in at no. 10. I’m 31 now, and it was different when I started out [in Australia]. We weren’t allowed to have too much fun or too much personality as a gay person. It was something that was tokenistic. “We’re gonna play Brendan because it’s Mardi Gras!” And then I’d never hear from the radio stations or magazines for the rest of the year. I think that’s changed. Years and Years and so many great gay artists have pushed through that stigma.
I think it’s a generational thing. I couldn’t put aside that I’d already started my career and felt a little bit angry. It was like a grudge that I couldn’t let go of, which ended in “House of Air.” That [video] was my way of saying, “If you’re gonna shit all over me, I’ll shit on myself.” That was me bowing out of the pop construction that I’d made. You watch little me dancing in “Stupid,” and I see that boy and I go, “Oh, you’re trying so hard.” I think there’s definitely a different look in my eyes when I get to “House of Air” and I realize that my career belongs to me. A music career often isn’t quite linear and it doesn’t make much sense, but you can do whatever you want. And that’s what’s important.
I read your piece in The Guardian about the “House of Air” video. You wrote that “there are some queer artists who would find it easier to shave off the rough corners of our history, to wave our flag but leave out some of the colors that don’t sell to a straight crowd.” Were you talking about anyone in particular?
Oh, I think at the time I was probably talking about most gay artists. I was talking about Troye [Sivan]. I was talking about Olly [Alexander], who is now a good friend of mine. I was talking about Sam Smith. I think I was more angry that I wasn’t getting attention, but also mad that people I considered friends were being sold as a different version of themselves. I think now we are all working hard to say, “We will not make our art heteronormative.”
Queer musicians, we’re like a big family, and I think I was being the black sheep at the time, rebelling against the world. Like, “Fuck you all! It’s my way or the highway!” I think I’ve grown a bit beyond that now. But I certainly recognize that there’s an easier way to be queer than the route that I’ve chosen.
You’re planning some shows in the U.S. this summer. What’s you stage show going to be like?
I’ve never done a Brendan Maclean set [in the U.S.] before. There’ll be a few different types, but we already have Portland and Chicago and New York, and then I’ll just figure out a way to do San Francisco and L.A. I have played Oasis in San Francisco, which makes me feel good about my legacy. I think I’ll do a few club shows, because I really didn’t get to perform funbang1 at all. I’ll probably do some club sets with dancers and me doing jump splits for you all. Then I can make everyone morbid, sitting at a piano at Joe’s Pub or something.
I won’t be bringing over the whole band, but I’m sure I’ll have some special guests. I have a mixed bag of live shows, so depending on the venue, you’ll probably get a different show. But I want to play most of this album, to present it solo to people. And then we can definitely have the after party at your favorite gay club and I’ll dance my tits off for you.