The interview with Mac DeMarco didn’t get off to a great start. Skype is confusing, and a few technical issues led to a good five-minute hiccup in communication (turns out the guy had turned the sound off on his laptop by mistake).
Still, the downtime gave me a chance to do a little more research on this enigmatic Canadian; although rather than look into his history, I listened to ‘The Stars Keep on Calling My Name’ from 2, his second album of the year. A spry, twisting gem of a pop song, it’s a perfect example of a songwriter at his best, cramming hook after hook into its two minute runtime, before ending with a nimbly bent guitar solo. If it sounds like the work of a twenty two year old, well-versed in classic pop music, that’s because…well…he is.
“The first music I started downloading was eighties new wave – I was really into the Human League and stuff like that. I heard it on video game soundtracks or something,” he tells me from the couch of his friend’s record label office in Montreal. “From there you find out about everything else.” Everything else included his mother’s beloved country music (“which I was really not into”), before working backwards through the Beatles’ catalogue. His savvy way with a pop song led him to experiment with home recording from an early age, and sophomore effort 2 ups the ante from March’s Rock and Roll Night Club by sounding like the kind of record your weird friend would thrust into your hands with a mumble of “I’ve been working on this stuff lately…” Playing every instrument himself (“I’ve tried to record with other people on drums and on bass and stuff and I always just find that I can make it sound the way I want it to sound doing it myself”), DeMarco claims that “the reason it sounds relaxed is because I was sitting on my couch at home for the most part,” with the aim to construct a cohesive album.
Not that DeMarco has any aversion to studios – he’d just rather do things his way and not annoying the engineer on the other side of the glass. “I’ve been in studios a bunch, and I just always feel kinda like for some reason I can never really get what I like about the recordings I get at home. It’s cool because you can do so much more. You just have to have the balls that it’s going the way you want it to go. I just feel weirder trying to experiment and doing a whole bunch of takes – I feel like I’m pissing the guy off a little. Where at home I’ll stay up til like six in the morning in my undies just doing whatever.” The homespun production values are most noticeable on the album’s final track ‘Still Together’, recorded at three in the morning sometime in June, which ends with a hushed conversation between Mac and his sleeping girlfriend – the kind of spontaneous interaction you’d struggle to find on a studio-recorded LP. “I was recording it into one mic in the living room,” he tells me, “and by the time I was finished with that take, I turned around and noticed she had fully passed out.”
The 22 year old doesn’t need to worry about a day job anymore (“I was working at a grocery store – like a nightshift vegetable stock guy, around winter last year”), and lives with his girlfriend in Montreal, a city which he claims is “extremely cheap to live in – I’m not making that much money, but I’m making enough to live and hold down an apartment here.” His touring plans, which include a string of dates in the UK starting in London at Birthdays on the 19 November, are taking him through to the start of 2013. “I finished the album in June or something, so I kinda even forgot it was coming out. Then by the time we got back to New York,” he explains, adopting an exaggerated hipster doofus voice, “everyone was like ‘AWWW YOUR ALBUM’S COMING OUT, DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GONNA GET BEST NEW MUSIC?’” He pauses. “I’m really enjoying it now, but it’s a little strange having to wait so long.” The European tour will be DeMarco’s first trip abroad to play shows, and it’s not just the gigs he’s looking forward to; “a lot of kids that I’ve known from Canada have moved over to places like Berlin and London and whatever,” he tells me, “so it’ll be cool to see old friends.”
Still, after releasing two solo LPs this year, Mac’s in no rush to start on anything new, and has no concrete plans to do anything for a little while. “There was talk about me doing a collaboration album with another guy on Captured Tracks, Chris Cohen, and this guy Matt Mondanile that plays in Ducktails and Real Estate. But we’re all really busy – I’m sure I’ll have another record done before that comes about.” His touring history also takes in Makeout Videotape, the band he started back in Vancouver in his late teens; “Canada’s music scene is like pretty interconnected, so everybody sorta knows what’s going on all over the place. We went on a big tour, I went back to Edmonton with my family for a little while, recorded some more and we kinda slowed down playing shows.” He claims the difference between that formative band and his current work is down to finally having a solid band behind him; “it’s kinda the same idea in that it’s me recording at home, and then whoever can play and tour will do it, and I’ve just run into a couple guys right now who are doing a pretty good job. I guess I’m just lucky.”
For all the cross-country gallavanting he’s been doing, Mac is also lucky to have extremely supportive parents behind him; “I don’t talk to my dad that much, but he knows that I put records out, so when I see him, he’s kinda like ‘YEAH, ROCK ON, MAN.’ His mother, meanwhile, even granted him the use of her car for his first few trips across the States, “and we’d return it to her and it would just be filthy and stinky. But she was always pretty down with it. Every time something about me on Facebook comes up, she’ll always say something embarrassing, but I just think it’s kinda funny.” Mac’s Facebook profile also addresses every new post to a mysterious figure named Gary, but it turns out he doesn’t exist after all. “I just think it’s a funny name. I just like the name Gary. Now it’s nice that Garys have come out on Facebook, and I have a couple friends named Gary, so we have a special affinity.”
However, the most special affinity in Mac’s life seems to be his trusty Viceroys, a brand of cigarette he loves so much, he’s even dedicated 2‘s best song to the brand; ‘Ode to Viceroy’ is blessed with the record’s smoothest melody, and it’s most disturbingly heartfelt lyrics – “Don’t let me see you cryin’,” runs the chorus, “Oh, honey, I’ll smoke you ’til I’m dyin’.” Aptly, the song ends with the flick of a lighter, a hefty drag and a hearty cough. Indeed, our interview takes place during some downtime for a cheapo video shoot for the track (“some warped cigarette commercial style thing. I already got two packs smoked, so we’ll see if that does it”). However, asking him about just what’s so great about the brand (which isn’t actually available in the UK – I’ve checked) leads DeMarco into a potted history of his life as a smoker, related to me like a true expert.
“I guess I’ve been smoking since I was eighteen, nineteen. And I never thought I was gonna be a smoker, then you try it and you get addicted because it’s pretty addictive! I used to be on Canadian Classics. That was my jam, those were my cigarettes in Vancouver, because they were cheap, I liked them. Then I moved to Montreal and they became Quebec Classics, and they were a little bit more expensive. Then I went to Pall Mall, but I don’t like the Pall Mall. As for Viceroy – they’re very cheap, I think it started because they were one of the cheapest ones you can buy. But it also gives you that, like… toxic haul, and you really feel like you’re smoking, like it hurts every time a little bit. I like it a lot, I don’t know why.”
And, I ask, how has all that smoking affected your singing? “Well,” he deadpans, “I think I could probably hit the high notes a little bit better before.” If that’s the worst of his problems, though, we’ll all be fine. So take a trip – dive headfirst into the nicotine whirlpool of Mac DeMarco. Your throat might hurt a little afterwards, but it’ll all be worth it.
Mac DeMarco’s albums Rock and Roll Night Club and 2 are both out now on Captured Tracks. Catch him on his UK tour at the following venues:
19 – London, Birthdays
20 – Manchester, Deaf Institute (with DIIV)
21 - Bristol, Start the Bus
22 - Brighton, Green Door Store