Mac DeMarco by Gary Canino

“When I’m home, I’m completely alone. I get the creative bug, and if I’m sitting here long enough not working on music, it drives me insane.”

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Photo by Kiera McNally. Courtesy of the artist.

Mac DeMarco’s latest record, Another One, is in his words, “just an EP,” supposedly a stopgap between Salad Days and his next full-length, but there’s been nothing understated about its rollout. Contrast the plaintive, light, hermetic spirit of this EP to the impromptu BBQ DeMarco held celebrating its release, which brought out over 800 kids armed with their millennial selfie-sticks. Another One is not the wild party that was, and there’s nothing wrong with that: seven low-key love songs and one instrumental work their way through the pipeline before Mac invites you to his Far Rockaway home, address and all, and then that’s that. The tunes are mostly in the key of the early Beatles, a half-decade before “God (is just a concept)” or “Monkberry Moon Delight.” One could call it Spotlight on DeMarco (Mac is a huge Nilsson fan). It’s a more personal record than he’s ever made. The results, however, are still in 3D 75mm, particularly the unsettling chord progression and synth patch of “A Heart Like Hers,” or the introspective “Without Me,” which is like if Roy Orbison sang over the credits of Sixteen Candles instead of OMD. 

His pseudo-stardom can be mainly attributed to his goofy cult of public personality—unusually vulgar with wild abandon—but also to the broad appeal of 2. A recent comedic collaboration with Tyler, the Creator has also ensured a throng of young new fans. However, the stardom hasn’t gotten to DeMarco. This ostensibly wealthy young man records and engineers his own music for free at home, drives an ’87 Volvo, and shares a home with six of his friends. So it’s refreshing to hear him keep everything dialed down on this latest release, and between Another One and the instrumental album he released in early July, he’s managed to remain creative under the crush of fame. I called DeMarco recently to discuss his new interest in synthesizers, the difficulties of putting on a good live show, and the role of creative downtime.

Gary Canino I know you live out in Far Rockaway. Do you get to fish much out there?

Mac DeMarco I bought a fishing rod and some tackle, but I don’t know if I’ll use them. If I actually caught a fish, I don’t think I’d have the guts to take the hook out of its mouth, or club it to death or anything. I’m not made out for that stuff.

GC Are the fish safe to eat out there? I hear from a local fisherman that as long as they’re not too big, they’re safe.

MD I see guys across the way, sitting on this rock, and they cook and eat fish right there, so I’m assuming it’s okay, though it’s probably not the best. There’s a lot of fish in there, so it can’t be too polluted.

GC I know you were born on Vancouver Island. How does the water there compare to the water here? Also, Five Easy Pieces is supposed to take place on one of the Washington Islands, but it was actually filmed on Vancouver Island.

MD Oh, crazy. I didn’t really spend much time on Vancouver Island. I was only there for three months, but I did live in Vancouver when I got older. It’s funny, most people don’t even realize that New York has beaches. Most just think of the city, or the East River. I live on the bay side of Rockaway, so my side is docks, dingy water, and a lot of sea life. The other side has a white sand beach, which is pretty nice, but weird, because you’re in New York City. The beaches in Canada are very natural—cliffs, et cetera. It’s a very different vibe.

GC Salad Days was sort of a turn for you because it had these two synthy ballads. “A Heart Like Hers” and the title track on Another One also continue this trend. They remind me of Yellow Magic Orchestra, a band of which I know you’re a big fan.

MD I got obsessed with synthesizers over the last couple of years. I’m not necessarily good with them or anything, but I’m so interested in the sound. These old keyboards are not cheap either, so I got to put them to use, which is cool because I get to go to a different place. “Passing Out Pieces” and “Chambers of Reflection,” the two keyboard songs on Salad Days,used these patches that were punchy, obviously synth sounds. On Another One, the keyboard songs are more textural, with a less punch-you-in-the-throat sound, maybe because I was writing more on a keyboard as well.

Recently, I put this instrumental album out on bandcamp, and that’s where I’m really trying to be Yellow Magic Orchestra. I really am so fuckin’ obsessed with YMO, and their side projects too. I didn’t get into them until later actually, but what got me there was Haruomi Hosono’s Hosono House. His solo electronic music is very out there, very cool but very experimental. So I thought YMO would be in the same vein, but they’re actually this sort of superpop, which was very surprising.

GC I heard a track of theirs the other day that I love called “Behind the Mask.”

MD Yeah, Michael Jackson reworked that song.

GC It’s actually a Thriller outtake!

MD Yeah, Ryuichi Sakamoto was not happy about that, which is funny.

GC They actually first recorded it for a watch commercial.

MD There you go.

GC Another One is a mini-LP, and you’ve mentioned that the length is in reference to the 1980s, but I tend to associate that period with Felt, who were always putting out classic twenty-seven or thirty-three-minute albums.

MD To me, Another One is just an eight-song EP, but they’re calling it all kinds of crazy shit. “Mini-album” confuses people. They’re taking it as my next big release, but it’s just an EP. You know, a nice little quick one.

GC And you played all the instruments on it, correct? Whenever I try to record everything on a track, I am always battling my attention span.

MD I always do it that way, in my bedroom. I record it, then put it out. Teach the boys after the fact. As to the work process, now I’ve got it pretty locked down. I always demo the songs before I make final masters, so through that process I understand how it works and how things go, then I go and do final recordings. I’ll play the drums to a click, but I can usually get it pretty streamlined; it depends. This one was a little weird because a lot of the songs weren’t guitar scratch tracks, but keyboard scratch tracks.That took me a little while because I’m not a great keyboard player. It’s especially tricky working on tape, so that took a little time. But I’m getting better everyday.

GC Todd Rundgren was known, at first, for recording all the parts of a record himself. Prince was a big fan of Todd and did most of the music on his own at first, too.

MD Yeah, that first Prince record is all him, which is insane.

GC Todd was also known to take the 1970s version of Ritalin to focus as he recorded.

MD (laughter) Yeah, like speed. When I’m in the zone, recording, I could forget to eat, piss, et cetera. But you gotta do what works—if you’ve gotta take speed to record, that’s your bag.

GC Is it the Tascam 388 that you’re working with?

MD That’s what I used for the record. I got it this year and hadn’t used it for anything. It’s a really great machine, and it broke as I used it. Gotta get it serviced.

GC The last song on your new album, “My House by the Water,” recalled, to me, the television show Fishing with JohnHave you ever seen that?

MD (laughter) It’s got that vibe! That’s cool. The soothing fishing track. That track is funny because there’s no real reason to put an instrumental track on an album, especially a basic one at that, but I went and recorded the water by the house and said my address at the end of it. I’ll probably move out of this house at some point, so maybe it’s just something to remember the old crib by.

GC I read an interview once with Guy Picciotto from Fugazi, who said that the high of playing a show wore off almost overnight for him, and he’s been playing shows for over two decades. Do you ever get scared that could happen to you?

MD It really depends. I think there are things you can do to remedy that, to just keep it interesting, and there are steps we take to not make it sterile. We’ve played a couple of gigantic venues so far, and I much prefer the smaller ones. If we can do more shows in smaller venues, like what we’re doing in New York in August, I feel that’s better. We’re also not the band to learn the songs exactly and do them perfectly, because we’re not good enough musicians to do them the exact same way every night. So, in that process, it’s just us fucking around for an hour and a half, and that keeps it fresh. But there are some shows where it’s like, “Just punching it in tonight! Clocking out!” If I can keep it not feeling like work or a job, that’s great.

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Another One (2015) by Mac DeMarco. Courtesy of the artist and Captured Tracks.

GC I guess the tricky part for you is that people come to a Mac DeMarco show expecting a party, and you have to throw that party forty or fifty nights in a row sometimes.

MD Well, playing shows is great, and I have a great time doing it. Even if I’m in a weird mood because I’m exhausted, often the kids come and they’re so jacked up and ready to go that I feed off that. It’s a weird relationship with a crowd. But it can go the other way, too—at a festival or something, we can be really into it, then go out on stage and they’re not feeling it at all.

GC Another thing people don’t realize is that for the musician, the sound on stage can contrast so wildly from what the audience is hearing. And if it sounds bad for the musician on stage, it can be tougher to put on a good show.

MD Yeah, that’s hard too! Especially when I’m trying to get amped up, and the crowd is all amped up, and the sound onstage is just fuckin’ dogshit. Then you get in a battle with the monitor guy. It could even just be the stage itself—you know, are you standing above the subs, et cetera. There are a hundred different things that can throw you off.

There are tricks. We’ve gotten to playing bigger and bigger stages, and as they get bigger, they normally get weirder. Sometimes I look over to my left and Andy [White, guitar] is forty feet away from me, and I can’t hear his amp. I like the trick that Thee Oh Sees do, which is they play extremely close together, and then John [Dwyer, vocals and guitar for Thee Oh Sees] will monitor his vocals through his own PA, or through a stack of amps behind him. So then it doesn’t matter what the monitor guy is doing. But it could still sound fucked that way.

That’s why bands take monitor people with them sometimes, though I don’t think I would. It just gets extremely frustrating. Front-of-house is definitely important to me, but what I’ve been doing recently is to bring a really big two-hundred-watt keyboard amp, take a really small Fender amp—actually the one we use to record the albums with—and put that on top of the big one. Then I’ll mic that small Fender amp with my own mic, which goes into the keyboard amp, so it’s just a giant cab for the little guy. Then I run all the keyboards on the stage into that big keyboard amp as well. So monitor guys ask me if I need anything, and I just tell them, “Fugetaboutit.” I got it all right behind me; it’s all good, just as long as they give me my vocals.

GC Yeah, if you’re setting it up yourself, what’s the worst it could go?

MD Exactly. I mean, I could get too drunk and set it up completely wrong, that would be rough.

GC The Grateful Dead had their own famously bad PA, the Wall of Sound.

MD Yeah, they were bringing their own insane rig around! That was so fucked up. (laughter)

GC It took their roadies six hours to set it up before the show.

MD That’s not even that bad these days. We toured with Phoenix, who built this insane projection system behind them every show. They have this whole team of laborers. The Dead were probably one of the first to bring their own around, but it’s not out of the question. Now, if a band brings their own thing around, it’s a refined curved speaker set. But the Dead had this wonky looking giant wall of stereo speakers with all these tweeters and subs. (laughter)

GC They had to sing through these crappy, phase-canceling microphones because of it. And since so much time was needed to set up and dismantle it, roadies would only sleep two hours between dates on tour.

MD (affecting a Dennis Hopper voice) “Whatever man, on the road with the Dead, man! Can’t complain man!” The strange choices some people make. So complicated.

GC In a recent interview, you mentioned that you had trouble figuring out what to do with your downtime.

MD If I’m on tour, I have something I’m focused on for one or two months. There’s a routine: now you’re in a different place, now you’re meeting people, et cetera. When I’m home, I’m completely alone. I can get the creative bug, but if I’m sitting here long enough not working on music, it drives me insane. For example, last week, I tried to record that instrumental album and put it on bandcamp for free. I don’t think my label is necessarily happy about that, but it was nice to do because I want to be creative. Even when I am trying to be creative and work on music, I’m always thinking, “Will this be used for anything? Will it be used toward an album?” So sometimes it’s nice to just chuck out some music for everyone.

GC Brian Eno said the “difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing,” and he compared the creative downtime to sleep.

MD That is true. People get a certain high or rush from creation, you know, “It’s mine.” And then what do you get from just relaxing? I’m so addicted to working that I can’t just go into a city and relax anymore. I can’t go on vacation anymore because I’m just too antsy from not playing shows. That’s a good point he brings up. It can drive you mad in a way.

GC I know the process of releasing music is very drawn out as well; from the time you submit a record to the day it comes out can be forever.

MD I’m in a funny spot right now because I’m excited Another One is coming out, but I did just record these new songs, so it already feels old, even now, and it’s not even out yet! But it’ll be cool to learn these songs and play them with the band, especially because the set has been based on 2 and Salad Days for so long. It’ll be a treat to learn them and play them for people.

Gary Canino is a musician and writer based in New York City.

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