Mac DeMarco On the Brink

Mac DeMarco On the Brink
Photo: Brad Elterman
"I wouldn't call it modelling," says Mac DeMarco, as he reflects on that one time he was asked to try and "make love to the camera." Iconic sneaker brand Converse asked him to pose, but at least he was able to do it his way: by playing pinball. Though it didn't exactly go the way he planned it.

"One thing that pissed me off was that they didn't pay for my fucking pinball! What the fuck is that?" Mac says. "I was posing, and I couldn't even play. I had to feed the pinballs and I'd have these credits going and they'd say, 'No, no. If you could just lean away from the machine more and look in the camera…' And I'd be like, 'I've got a fucking ball going here, man! What the fuck's wrong with you!' But whatever."

He chose the location in Brooklyn, where he now resides, at his local laundromat/pinball arcade Sunshine Laundry. He and his friends have become pinball obsessives. He even has a machine in his living room, designed after the 1994, Alec Baldwin-starring failed blockbuster, The Shadow. "Cost me about 3,500 bucks," he admits.

The Converse photo shoot ran in magazines like The FADER as part of the brand's Rubber Tracks campaign, for which Mac also played some showcase gigs. But he seems to have come out on top: "They did give me some free shoes."

Mac is poised to get more offers like this because right now, everyone wants a piece of him and that gap-toothed grin of his. (At the top of his list would be his beloved sneaker of choice, Vans.)

His new album, Salad Days, is the follow-up to 2012's breakthrough 2, and it couldn't come at a better time. Most artists try to take a breather between albums, but Mac never got off the road. "Things really haven't slowed down for us at all," he says. "It's way past the normal album cycle and it's starting to wear us down. The mood for Salad Days is, 'Fuck man! I was just on tour for a year-and-a-half and I'm tired!'"

Anticipation for another album by his ever-growing legion of fans should make life even more chaotic for Mac. Thanks to his goofy, every-dude persona and his winsome lo-fi pop, the soon-to-be 24-year-old isn't exactly John Mayer. He's a joker who makes audiences giggle and mosh to a tongue-in-cheek cover of Rammstein's "Du Hast." But at the drop of a hat, he can reduce those same wired fans to heartfelt tears with a ballad like "Let My Baby Stay." He's genial, relatable, dorky and cool. He's everything you want in an artist and it's no wonder he's earned himself a rabid global fan base.

Mac doesn't exactly get his appeal though. "Some day I'll understand it. Maybe not."

A little known fact is that Mac DeMarco wasn't born with that winning name. His birth certificate originally read Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV, only to be changed to McBriare Samuel Lanyon DeMarco when he was five. "My mom switched it up when my mom and dad split, to spite the old bastard," he says.

Mac was born in Duncan, BC, but did most of his growing up in Edmonton, AB. Before any aspirations to become a musician, he was really into computers in his pre-pubescent years — in a big, nerdy way. "I was closed in, the first generation of growing up online," he says. "I wanted to work in a cubicle like the guys in Office Space. I thought that'd be so cool. I completely misinterpreted the whole idea of that movie."

At his "jock high school," Mac says he was "a joker who got good grades, a punk who liked to make a bit of a ruckus." He got along with everyone, but come grade 11, he began to keep to himself. Eventually he met future bandmate Peter Sagar, whose taste in tight jeans and emo appealed to Mac's classic rock tastes. Soon he began to both attend and play shows with Sagar and friends. There was a joke band called the Meat Cleavers, a joke R&B band called the Fountain of Love, and Belgium, with Peter, which would later become the Wire-inspired Outdoor Miners. "We sucked so bad. We were so terrible," Mac says modestly.

He held down various jobs throughout high school, as follows: a vet hospital, Starbucks, a clothing store, a road crew, a landscaping company and an insulation company. It's his one-week gig at McDonald's that he chooses to detail though. "I actually drove through the drive-thru and gave them my uniform," he says with a grin. "I was like, 'Sorry, I don't feel like working here anymore.'" After high school Mac moved to Vancouver and worked various jobs: rediscovering his talent as a coffee barista at Starbucks, working at a community centre, and even fulfilling his pre-teen dream of briefly moonlighting as a high school computer teacher at the age of 19. But music called.

Though he officially christened his music as Makeout Videotape in Edmonton, the project came into fruition once he landed in Killarney, East Vancouver. He quickly cut a lo-fi EP of '60s-infused garage pop titled Heat Wave!, which set off a prolific streak of songwriting. Drummer Alex Calder joined him to make some kind of an official physical presence, with various friends filling in to help perform. After a chance meeting with Edo Van Breemen of Unfamiliar Records, Makeout Videotape signed with the label and crossed North America in Mac's mom's Dodge Neon for a tour with fellow Vancouverites and label-mates Japandroids. Some cassettes were released on labels like Totally Disconnected, songs went up on MySpace and Bandcamp, and a seven-inch titled Weird Meats was released by Unfamiliar.

Relocating to Montreal simply to "try out another place" ended up being the jolt Mac needed. Like countless musicians before him, Montreal provided a communal base to push his music further. This involved dropping the name Makeout Videotape for his own name and going solo.

"By the time I got to Montreal I thought, 'Oh my god my band is called Makeout Videotape!' It's pretty hard to tell your grandparents that name," he admits. "But all the recordings were pretty much me with some by Alex. I figured I might as well change the name to my own, since it gives you a bit of freedom, and people don't think you're a band anymore. I was sceptical [though] because I always thought Mac DeMarco sounded like some Italian house DJ thing."

Mac recorded a mini-album called Rock and Roll Night Club and posted it to Bandcamp. Mike Sniper, owner and founder of Brooklyn label Captured Tracks, heard it when an employee in his record shop played it one day. Says Sniper, "I was really into the tracks, so then I saw the video for 'Only You' and I knew right then I'd have to sign this guy."

Sniper knows a thing or two about fostering artists. He built Captured Tracks on a specific model based on greats like Factory and 4AD, where he could release music he believes in, not to mention his own under the Blank Dogs moniker. Over the past five years, it's become a hotbed for discovering new artists (Beach Fossils, DIIV) and reissuing old favourites (Medicine, the Wake). Released in March 2012, Rock and Roll Night Club was an oddity. Sounding somewhere between some lost glam rocker's journey into a k-hole and a screwed and chopped pisstake, Mac fully admits it was a happy accident.

"I recorded it at home while I was pretty sick, so I couldn't leave the house," he confesses. "I was trying to write these fast, power-poppy Ramones songs and then the speed I was recording them at sounded so bad. So I sped them all the way down, like double slow, and thought, 'Whoa, this is interesting!' And my normal voice didn't work, so I just did some Elvis impression and slowed that down too. And I had a new thing going, which I guess confused a lot of people. It probably should have confused me, but I thought it was funny."

If the music didn't confuse people, there's a good chance the artwork would: Mac is caked in makeup on the cover like some budget Ziggy Stardust.

"Captured Tracks wanted to put it together really fast, and I didn't have any press materials or anything," Mac explains. "So I called my friend Chas who lives in Toronto, and he did these crazy photos of me, then sent the label a giant zip file without sending it to me. Later I found out he sent a bunch of nude photos of me in drag! But they got the photos and put the album together."

The twelve-inch received a lot of buzz, and immediately Captured Tracks ordered another release from Mac, this time his debut full-length.

"It was weird. Captured Tracks were like, 'Yo, yo. You got any more of these deep-voiced albums?' And I was like, 'Nah, not really.' But I made 2 and I didn't know what they'd think about it," he says. "When I sent them the final album they said, 'Oh, okay this works.' I had no expectations and just thought, 'Okay, if the label's gonna put my album out I might as well do something cool to put on vinyl.'"

What he thought was merely "something cool to put out on vinyl" ended up keeping him on the road for the better part of two years. Titled 2, Mac's album turned him into a minor indie celebrity not long after its release. Pitchfork gave it Best New Music status and the Polaris Music Prize jury added it to their longlist.

"You can kind of tell when things begin to get buzzy, like when you hang out with people in the industry," he says. "They're all like, 'Ooh yeah, check it out.' So yeah, I could kind of sniff it coming. But it's weird because it hasn't slowed down at all."

While his shows became legendary for his showmanship and covers medleys (everything from Weezer to BTO and Metallica), the album marked Mac's arrival as a bona fide singer-songwriter. Minus the slowed down trickery of Rock and Roll Night Club, 2 revealed an artist that a whole generation of music fans seems to have been waiting for. Sure, he writes minimal, unadorned pop songs, but there's something in his sweet deadpan voice and trebly, detuned guitar that sets him apart.

Says Mike Sniper, "I think a lot of people who don't like the sound of modern records can relate to Mac's aural sensibility. Just the sound of his records is rich and maybe more organic, like an early 1970s LP: Harry Nilsson, John Lennon solo, Emitt Rhodes, '70s soul... stuff like that."

Salad Days arrives at a time when Mac is primed to become a star. How much of a star he becomes is something he's prepared to control. Last year he got a taste of what "the big time" would be like when he toured with French pop giants Phoenix. And despite making friends with the band, he says that level of fame is not something he's comfortable with.

"[The tour] gave me a taste of what I don't want to come," he says. "Their audience didn't like us and the money wasn't very good. It was a huge pain in the ass, but everyone was telling us to do it, like it would be huge for our careers. I mean, don't get me wrong, it was interesting and the guys in the band were super nice, I really love them. But I would never, ever want to do that on my own terms. It's not really my thing and I don't think I would let it get there. You need a certain brand.

"My music is reaching a bigger audience now, but I'd still like to believe it's not reaching, like, the mall-shopper crowd. A career for me is more along the lines of Jonathan Richman. He's been able to make music his whole life and support his family. And he still tours around in a small car with his drummer. Why change things if they're working? I just have no desire to take that path. I prefer to keep it real."

Mac's right. Salad Days isn't the type of record to reach a commercial audience on the same mass level as Phoenix. (That said, Target did licence Rock and Roll Night Club's "Baby's Wearing Blue Jeans" for an ad, so anything can happen.) It's not a far cry from 2 and Mac says that was intentional.

"I recorded it in Jizz Jazz, my windowless closet-sized bedroom in Brooklyn," says Mac, who relocated to New York last year with his girlfriend. "I didn't want to freak anybody out with a huge sound change. I wanted to transition without changing the vibe too much. I've been playing a lot of keyboards and writing with them, but I didn't want to put out an album like that just yet. Maybe the next one."

Fans that want both more of the same and a little taste of something different will not be disappointed with Salad Days. Some songs recall the pitch-shifting ditties from 2, like the cockeyed "Goodbye Weekend" and the twinkly-eyed "Treat Her Better." But there are also subtle nuances that weren't there before. "Brother" feels like Mac's interpretation of something from the Stax catalogue, while the keyboard-driven "Chamber of Reflection" and "Passing Out Pieces" tease what he's referring to with that next album. Also, "Blue Boy" might be the best song he's written.

"Mac is a catalogue artist, he's making a catalogue of great records, and he's just starting," says Mike Sniper. "This conversation will be a lot more interesting in seven years or so, when he will only be 30 with probably five more records out. There's this new-fangled idea that artists need to wait three years between albums and totally evolve to the point that their new material is a huge change. That's some seriously bad advice. If the Smiths, the Stones or Ramones had done that we would've miss out on a lot of awesome records."

Like those artists, Mac is also very much a distinct individual in an industry that is overrun with people trying to pass themselves off as singer-songwriters. He could probably sell a million records though, and Mac still wouldn't feel comfortable being labelled a songwriter.

"It's my favourite thing to do, it always has been. But I don't know about when people call me a songwriter," he says. "Some musicians or artists are very adamant about challenging people's thoughts or making them question things. But I'm a pretty simple guy. I'm just reporting what happens to me. People at my label are saying, 'We've got to get you a publishing company, man. You can write hits for Rihanna!' And I'm like, 'No I can't. I really, really can't. I don't even think these songs work out if anyone else is singing them.' I guess I just do what I can do however I can do it."

He's being modest. If only more songwriters could do it the way Mac does. Can you imagine if Bob Dylan stuck drumsticks up his bum during a show? (Which Mac did on stage in Montreal during an infamous karaoke jam session.) Or if Neil Young swapped spit with band members mid-performance for the fun of it? (Which he also does from time to time.) Maybe they wouldn't be so damn old and crotchety. For Mac, having fun is all that matters.

"I think it's important for me to not take things too seriously," says Mac. "Sure, [in deep, pretentious voice] 'I'm an artist, I'm making art,' but music's supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be my job, it's supposed to be my hobby. So as long as I can keep that feeling I'll keep going."

One earnest thing Mac does address on Salad Days is just how much his life has changed over the past two years. On "Passing Out Pieces" he acknowledges just how blurred the line between personal and public has become for him: "Watching my life, passing right in front of my eyes/ Hell of a story, oh is it boring?" For a guy who's so easy-going and gregarious, it's almost a shock to hear. But even Mac has his comfort levels.

"Some of the kids that are into my shit are very crazy and send me strange messages on the Internet and know all about my girlfriend," he says. "At my own shows when I go and sell the merch, I look up and see a line-up of kids with their iPhones that want to take selfies with me. It's great, but I never thought I'd be one of those guys who has to hide in the green room. The weird thing for me is going to other people's shows. Like a friend's band will play in Brooklyn and I'll be chilling outside and the kids will want to take a picture with me instead of the band they just saw play. I don't understand it. It's pretty weird but I can't really complain. At least they're into the stuff, right?

"The way I rationalize it, is that I've been going to shows for a long time and even if I fucking loved a band I wouldn't go up to them and tell them to sign my face! It's fucked up! I've signed some kids that said they would get it done as a tattoo, but I doubt they did it. I really hope they didn't!"