Mac DeMarco's Wild Ride
Published Apr 28, 2017The music of Mac DeMarco is pretty well known in many parts of the world, but perhaps even bigger than that is the legend of Mac DeMarco. The guy with the "Pepperoni Playboy" nickname has been called a slacker, a prankster and a goofball; he used to submit himself to medical experiments for money and has an earned a reputation for getting nude; he has on many occasions kissed bandmates on stage, belched shamelessly into microphones during shows and, in one infamous incident, gotten naked and stuck drumsticks up his bum.
At the same time, he makes super-chill tunes that reflect the Canadian's mellowed-out vibe. His last album, 2014's Salad Days, was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize; his previous full-length, 2, was also nominated. He's an accomplished artist whose music has long been tasteful and sincere. Yet amid the partying, the lewd behaviour, the wonky and sometimes raunchy sense of humour, Mac DeMarco's image has kind of gotten away from him.
"I'm essentially a walking, talking meme to a lot of kids," he says on the phone from his L.A. home. "A lot of kids haven't necessarily heard my music, they've just seen videos or interviews and they go, 'Oh, this guy's funny.'"
On this afternoon, at least, he's not especially funny or goofy. He's certainly breezy and charismatic — those are qualities you can't exactly turn off — but indie rock's supposed class clown is interested in reflecting on his life and work, and not so much in monkeying around.
"Sometimes I'm goofy and sometimes I'm not. I'm just a human," he says. "I understand why it is that way. The internet and social media is extremely polarizing, so if something's gonna get somebody to click on something… People hone in on certain aspects, which is totally fine. I'm just a piece of meat. And I don't care. I don't really participate. So if people enjoy 'goofy, goofy Mac DeMarco' that's totally fine. But at the same time, I think my friends realize that I can be completely earnest, I can talk seriously, and there's a whole scope of emotions."
With the release of his third full-length album, This Old Dog, the signs of maturity are presenting themselves more and more. Yet, increasingly, there's a gulf between the image of Mac — the party animal king of chill — and a contemplative, focused artist keen to explore humanity through art.
Fascinatingly, one might not even exist without the other.
Most of the Mac DeMarco myth was formed early on. He was 19 when he released his first psychedelic, self-produced album under the name Makeout Videotape in 2009. By 2012, he started to get serious buzz as a solo artist with the release of the mini-LP Rock and Roll Night Club. He fleshed it out with 2, his proper solo debut, and continued to build a fan base around his free-and-easy vibe and beach party live shows leading to Salad Days, which debuted at No. 30 on Billboard.
Most of his output — most recently a mini-LP, Another One, in 2015 — has similar traits and overall feel: clean, jangly and vibrato-heavy electric guitars; soft, unassuming drums; casual, effortless, John Lennon-esque crooning; and an atmosphere fit for a lazy summer day drinking for hours in a half-broken lawn chair by the water.
Mac DeMarco's music is plenty good, but on its own, it's not exactly on the cutting edge of hip. There isn't a whole lot of hype for influences like Shuggie Otis, Jonathan Richman or Steely Dan among Pitchfork-reading, summer festival-going 20-somethings. The fact that it's made by someone as effortlessly cool as DeMarco seems to transfer that coolness onto his music by extension.
It's a vibe born of charisma that is both natural and completely unintentional for a man of such simple pleasures. He barely takes part in social media, because he thinks it's "baloney" — the one exception is Instagram, because, he says, it's "the funniest one." His main interests, other than music, are pinball and going out for a nice meal. He swears by one brand of cigarettes, a loyalty immortalized in the song "Ode to Viceroy." He shops at Value Village and claims he wouldn't know how to buy clothes anywhere else. He loves Elton John and Jackie Chan, hates octopi, and his guilty pleasure is Coldplay. But mostly, he loves chilling out. "It's a treat to sit on my ass on the couch when I'm not on tour. That's what I end up doing a lot of the time. It's just quality time, relaxing."
Raised in Edmonton, DeMarco has been living in Los Angeles since August. Before that, he lived in New York — and famously gave out his address on Another One, inviting fans to stop by for coffee. Before that was Montreal, and before that, Vancouver. The aimless life of an itinerant musician, wandering the Earth in search of inspiration and new experiences, is a compelling image of an artist. But in reality, he just thought it would be cool. "It's not that I get bored of a place, but every three or four years, I think it's time for something new," he says. "So I just kinda go. I'll probably stay in L.A. a little bit longer than that, maybe not — who knows. I'm enjoying it for now."
This most recent move partly made This Old Dog the album that it is. DeMarco demoed about ten songs at his home in New York in early 2016 before heading out to California, where they sat untouched for months while he adjusted to life on the West coast. That was unusual for DeMarco, whose routine has been to bang out an album's worth of songs and ship them out immediately. "I just let it be, just let it flow," he says. "I wasn't really thinking about it too much. I just let the songs do their thing."
The result is a record with lots of room to breathe, and that shows DeMarco's ongoing instrumental tinkering and a newfound love affair with the acoustic guitar. ("It's funny that the acoustic guitar is a new thing for me," he remarks.) While writing the album, he aspired to the likes of acclaimed songwriters Paul Simon and James Taylor and rolled with an idea about making a synthy, drum-machine version of Neil Young's Harvest.
"It's funny to be like, 'I'm going to try to write songs like these guys.' They're some of the best songwriters that have ever lived. You're aiming pretty high. I don't think I've even come close to something of their calibre, but maybe it's a good thing to shoot for."
Thematically, This Old Dog finds DeMarco older and wiser, thinking about family, his experiences and how they all fit into what it means to be alive and to be human. He's 26 now, and spent the better part of last year on a break from the continuous grind of touring and making records, giving him time to reflect. In these songs, he comes closer than ever to diary-style writing, an idea that still weirds him out. The title track finds him reflecting on his lifestyle — the drinking, smoking and partying, plus the fact that people are sometimes shocked, apparently, to find out he's 26 years old, and not 40.
"It's the rough-around-the-edges shit that I've noticed about myself as I'm getting older and it's like, I'm not a kid anymore," he says. "Well, I am, but it's about catching yourself before you fall off the cliff. When I would go on tour five years ago, it was all, 'Aw yeah, party every night! Sleep on the floor, drink 12 beers, blahhh!' I think some part of that has drifted off. I don't really give that much of a shit about that kind of stuff anymore. I like to have a good time, I like to meet people, I like to travel and I really love playing shows, but I'm finding more interest in the musicianship side. It's just a different palette. Maybe I'm getting a little older. I'm still pretty young — it's hard for me to even say 'older' — but you can't beat your body up. You can't do it."
What's fairly unique to someone of Mac DeMarco's level of fame is how much his personal life plays out in public. His girlfriend of about seven years, Kiera, appears in many photos of DeMarco, and his mother Agnes has been an unusually (but adorably) significant part of his life in the public eye. His mom is sometimes involved in interviews, he and his manager fly her out to a lot of shows, she keeps in touch with her son's fans, and she was even his onstage announcer at the Laneway festival in Australia in the summer of 2015.
"We hook her up because, you know, she's my ma," DeMarco says. "She hooked me up for what, 20 years or something — single mom. You've gotta pay your respects. I love her too, so it's really cool. But it is strange that she's such a force in the whole image of what I'm doing."
Still, there remain disconnects in DeMarco's relationships. Often, the people closest to him experience his life through the same lens as everyone else. And as he's become a click factory for news websites and social media, family and friends get an unusual window into his life.
Some of those are innocuous — getting some attention when Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard covers one of his songs, or getting featured on TMZ — others, less so. He recently joked about becoming a father, which "almost" gave his mom a heart attack when she read it online. And there was the infamous drumsticks-in-bum episode which, by now, feels cruel to even bring up (twice, no less), but warrants mention only because it startled his family enough when they saw it in a YouTube video that it inspired the apology song "Freaking Out the Neighborhood." That incident seemed to mark a turning point for Mac — the realization that being a public figure is a weird thing.
"As the years go by and they watch what you do on the internet, there's a skewed view of everything," he says. "Everything becomes strange. The internet creates a false sense of closeness, when it's really as filtered and far apart as possible. You want to hold the ones closest to you closer."
This Old Dog is more than just a stylistic shift, but a symbol of poise and maturity from a guy who's long been viewed as a loveable goof. He's still the laidback, come-what-may everyman with the charming gap-toothed grin, and he still doesn't care what people think or say about him. The party isn't over, but it matters less year by year.
"You take a moment when you're home and everything's quiet, and it's just reflection — trying to understand, instead of being completely immersed in this 'Ah, crazy tour lifestyle! See you later family!' Where did I come from? It's just me trying to sort it all out. And it's working so far. You'd think that you'd understand more as you get older, but I don't think you do.
"Life is crazy, man. It's so bizarre. Relationships with people and experiences — it's a wild thing, a very strange thing. A blessing or maybe a curse, who knows? It's not up to me. It's just a wild ride. It can be confusing. It's a lot to think about sometimes."
Get Mac DeMarco's new album on limited edition silver vinyl here.