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Mac DeMarco: “How the fuck do all these people know who I am?”

Mac DeMarco: “How the fuck do all these people know who I am?”

02 April 2014, 12:00

“Mesa Jar Jar Binks.”

The call rang out, but that’s unmistakably Mac DeMarco’s signature drawl that’s just greeted me ahead of the beep. Normally, if I got that kind of response from the machine, my first instinct, after wondering what the fuck was going on, would be to contact the PR people to double-check they gave me the right number. Instead, I redial, and call again. Of course Mac DeMarco’s message is a slurred tribute to a much-maligned Star Wars character. Of course it is.

It’s testament to the reputation that DeMarco has carved out for himself that I didn’t even think twice about that; in the thick of an insipid, increasingly corporate-minded indie rock scene that’s having its soul chipped away a little more by the day, the Canadian sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. The same questions spring to mind with everything he does, from his ramshackle first LP, Rock and Roll Nightclub – on which he turned in a lethargic Elvis impersonation almost as disconcerting as Alex Turner’s – to his notorious live shows, which frequently achieve a level of debauchery that make the Keith Richards of old look like a fan of early nights with hot lemon and honey. Who is this guy? Why hasn’t he got an expensive haircut? Why doesn’t he take himself even remotely seriously?

The answer to that last question is probably that you can ill-afford to do so when your real name is Vernor Winfield McBriar Smith IV, but the simple truth of the matter is that it remains enormously refreshing to find somebody who so delights in not being able to give less of a shit. Already, DeMarco is taking on the status of cult icon, an honest-to-god poster boy for the kind of indie kid that is used to seeing their heroes quickly subsumed by changing circumstances; the kind that despaired when Bethany Cosentino traded in her stoner persona for celebrity friends and Urban Outfitters lines, and is sick of seeing the music of DIIV and Sky Ferreira become a sideshow to the media’s unsettling preoccupation with spinning them as the next Kurt and Courtney.

Of course, the fact that he’s totally oblivious to, or at least stoic about, the wider significance of his actions only serves to make him all the more endearing. After all, it’s a sad state of affairs indeed if you can’t perform a decidedly loose interpretation of U2’s “Beautiful Day”, completely nude with a drumstick hanging out of your arse, without having to worry about what people might think of you. “I was super, super burnt out,” he croaks down the line once he does pick up the phone, having just offered profuse apologies for his flu-ridden state. “You end up hitting a brick wall after a long time on the road. Touring is crazy.” He offers that last thumping understatement with a disarming chirpiness for somebody who, for eighteen months, made it his nightly mission to outrage public decency.

Once you’ve heard Salad Days, though, you’ll quickly realise that such a hedonistic way of life didn’t pass off without leaving a mark on DeMarco. It’s a hazy, days-long hangover of a record – in the nicest possible way, of course – the slow down after a long period of throw down as he took the raucuous 2 across the globe. “I just had no fucking time to get anything new recorded,” he relates. “We were getting sick of having nothing new to play, and just dicking around with all these dumb classic rock covers every night. When I got back from tour, I kind of had to put my foot down, and say, “look, just give me a month of absolutely nothing. No shows, no press, no nothing. Don’t even fucking call me, just leave me to it.” Everybody was cool and backed off in the end, but buying myself that month wasn’t the easiest thing.”

A lot of the pieces I’ve read on Salad Days were in such a rush to point out the conditions in which the record was made – in a tiny Brooklyn bedroom with no windows, and only a prodigious intake of coffee and cigarettes for support – that they failed to delve into the actual process of writing the songs. “This time, I was sitting down with a really ‘start-to-finish’ kind of attitude to the songs. I kind of had to, with the time constraints. So, it was just, get the lyrics and the guitar line down – or keyboard, for a couple of songs – and then worry about fleshing it out later. It was pretty sketchy, by the end. We tracked the last drum part ninety minutes before I had to be on a flight to play shows.”

It seems incredible to think that much of the album’s gestation was marked by stress and anxiety for DeMarco; this is a guy who trades off of an image of being so laid back that he’s actually past horizontal. “It freaks me the fuck out when I listen to it,” he says. “I think I smoothed over most of the cracks that were showing, as a result of it being made so chaotically. A lot of that second record bullshit got to me, too, and drove me completely crazy for a while. I did feel that pressure of expectation, because people know who you are now, but I had to let go of it, in the end. It’s so fucking stupid.”

The press, in particular, seem to have had a field day with the fact that DeMarco comes over as a bona fide chilled-out entertainer. “They paint me as this big fucking party boy who just wants to get drunk all the time, but every fucking garage band I’ve ever met is exactly like that, you know? It’s just that their songs are about smoking weed and hanging out on the beach or whatever. With me, I think maybe the way I behave on stage sometimes contradicts the music a little bit, and that confuses people. It sets me aside, to them anyway. It might be a good thing, I don’t know.”

That confusion isn’t something that Salad Days is likely to dispel, given that, for the most part, it’s basically a collection of love songs; a lot of them – the wistful “Let My Baby Stay”, for instance – being pretty downbeat. “The main motivation was just not wanting to make the same record again,” DeMarco explains. “I mean, I was trying to throw people, a little bit, but I still want people to connect with it, even if they’re only listening because they saw our show or dug 2. I’ve always written love songs, but they were probably less mature than the ones on this record, a little more spiteful. It’s just an easy topic to home in on. There’s a universality to it, even if that’s as simple as just straight-up ripping off The Beatles. I used to do it all the time.”


Mac DeMarco

It’s not just the subject matter that’s more reserved, either; sonically, the level of restraint that DeMarco shows is remarkable, both in the pacing – the record shuffles along quite lackadaisically – and the low-key instrumentation; twinkling guitars, sparse percussion. It should go a long way to disproving any notion of him being a one-dimensional rowdy upstart, although that’s not the only misconception that DeMarco continues to battle.

“There’s the idea that I’m a slacker,” he groans, “which is hilarious, because we tour so much, and I’m always working; I’m always doing something that’s related to my music, all day, every day. I guess I can understand that there’s maybe something in the sound of my songs that gives that off, but then there’s also the idea that I’m a stoner or whatever, and that’s really funny. So many people assume I’m stoner number one, and I don’t even smoke weed. Kids come up at shows like, “hey, wanna go blaze a doobie in the alley, Mac?” and when I tell them I don’t smoke, they’re like, “what? You’re crushing my perception of you, man!” I mean, fuck, I’m sorry. Maybe you should have come off of that shit in the first place!”

You do start to get the sense that – whisper it – Salad Days might actually not be completely compatible with DeMarco’s live show. It’s not just his sharp appetite for unchecked depravity that they wouldn’t sit comfortably next to; his wicked, trademark wit plays a key part, too, with one notable party trick being to whip the crowd into a frenzy with his own rendition of Rammstein’s “Du Hast”, before abruptly curbing the track at its peak to chastise the gathered ‘losers’ for so enthusiastically getting into it. “It’s worth remembering that, sure, the crowd want to rock, but most nights, so do I,” he says, shooting down any prospect of him mellowing with age (he’s still only twenty-three). “We can work it out, I think. We can make some of these songs rock, for sure.” We should probably bear in mind that this is a man who brought some genuine edge to a U2 song. He could probably bring a touch of degeneracy to Songs of Praise, if he tried.

With notoriety comes expectancy, though, and DeMarco is only too aware that new fans are going to feel as if they’re owed something wild, in exchange for the ticket price. “I don’t want to let kids down, you know? The truth is, any chance I get to do something crazy, unless I’m super burnt out or super sick, I usually do it. I think that’s why, when I finally get back from tour, I feel so fucking relieved, you know? Because I just have a little trouble…” He tails off, momentarily. “I love drinking. I do love partying. I do love meeting people. Lots of people do expect us to be, like, these cool party guys who are super fun and who’ll hang out with anybody, and I don’t wanna let people down. I try my best. If I can do it, I will.”

There’s little hints, if you look for them, that life on the road with Mac DeMarco might not be the Mötley Crüe-on-a-shoestring affair that it so often seems. As well as displaying an admirably cavalier attitude to healthy living, the rider for his upcoming tour requests that promoters provide a map that marks out nearby pinball machines. “Oh, yeah, I guess I’ve become a big pinball guy,” he enthuses. “I actually own a 1994 The Shadow machine, it’s sitting in my living room. I just fucking love it. A lot of my friends from when I was growing up got really into it recently, and I became kind of addicted myself. I do sometimes think, “why the fuck did I buy that three thousand dollar pinball machine?”, but on tour, as soon as we find a machine, it’s fucking on, man.”

“It’s really funny, actually. We were just in South America and they got that rider down there, and they were so excited that we were coming that they were bringing machines to the venue for us. I don’t know where the fuck they were coming from, but they were the most battered, ruined, fucked-up, terrible pinball machines I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe how badly they’d been treated.” The upset at this is obvious in his voice, which sounds like it should be narrating an RSPCA ad. “In the end, they probably shouldn’t have bothered, because it was bumming me out more than it was flattering me. I guess it’s the thought that counts, right?”

That tour also provided DeMarco with an opportunity to take stock of his burgeoning popularity; the trepidation in his voice is palpable when I break to him that the recent venue upgrade for his Manchester show in May will see him playing to a room that holds three times as many people (his Glasgow gig’s been bumped up, too.) “Fuck, man, I know. It’s definitely terrifying. Those shows in South America were huge; it was shocking, actually, but it gives you a better scope on things than the internet, which is all either weird press shit or weird shit that kids post. You get to the show and think, “how the fuck do all these people know who I am?” I’m just trying to take it as it comes. I’ve become pretty good at freaking out for a couple of minutes, then going, “fuck it, I’m OK with this, let’s go!”

Salad Days was released via Captured Tracks on April 1st (when else?). Mac DeMarco plays four UK shows in May.

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