Mac DeMarco Is Doing Exactly What He Wants All the Time

"How indie rock looks nowadays? It's ridiculous! Everybody's just trying to squeeze a buck out of something."

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jan 23, 2023

Judging by Mac DeMarco's thrift store fashion sense and his reputation as a goofy prankster, it might be fair to assume that he approaches recording with the same sense of irreverence. Spend a few minutes speaking with the man, however, and it quickly becomes clear that he's an expert studio craftsman who takes his trade seriously.

"I have an insane studio in L.A.," DeMarco tells Exclaim! during a phone call from his adopted hometown, going on to rattle off details about his preamps, converters and vintage Neumann microphones. "Everything sounds good all the time."

Having set up the ideal studio in his garage, DeMarco threw a wrench in his own process last year, creating a mobile setup and embarking on a road trip across North America. "It was portable and small, but it was pretty high fidelity," he says of the gear that he used to create the new instrumental album Five Easy Hot Dogs (which was named after the Jack Nicholson move Five Easy Pieces for reasons that aren't fully clear, even after DeMarco explains it to me).

Travelling between cities — including a stint in Vancouver, where he launched his music career more than a decade ago with the project Makeout Videotape, as well as a session in his childhood bedroom in Edmonton — he set up a new recording space in each location.

"If it was a hotel, or if it was somebody's crib or whatever, I just kind of shifted [furniture] around until I could put mics up," he explains. "It was basically any way I could finagle it, and usually it worked out. The interesting part for me was, some of the places sounded more similar to what I'm used to at home, which is just kind of dead, even sounding. Then some of the rooms were really bouncy and weird and just kind of shitty sounding."

The quirks of each space — needing to unplug a buzzing refrigerator or deal with unreliable power, for example — were all part of the fun. "That's the kind of thing that I nerd out on," DeMarco says. More than fussing about perfection, he notes, "The main worry was annoying people and getting kicked out of a place or something — but I never did. The only thing that could really have that happen to me would be the drums. But I played very quietly. I would make sure that, like, 'Okay, I'm gonna do a take and this is the take, and there's no second try. Let's get it good this time.'" He recorded all bass and electric guitar without an amp, and instead plugged directly into his recording setup.

DeMarco got his start using analogue gear and recorded his early works using a four-track, but he's been using a computer since 2017's This Old Dog. He runs Logic as his primary DAW and always has Reaper handy. But even now that he's mostly digital, he keeps his performances raw and doesn't quantize or comp anything. "I play the whole take — I'm just kind of classic," he says of his non-existent approach to editing. "When I had to do it on eight-track or whatever, I couldn't really punch in, especially on my own. It just feels more organic that way; it just feels more finished." 

For as much care as DeMarco puts into his music, you'd never know it from the end result. Not that Five Easy Hot Dogs sounds sloppy (quite the opposite — it's impeccable, from the crisp fidelity to the spot-on performances), but rather that it's so easygoing and relaxed-sounding, it's hard to imagine the painstaking work that went into it. From the playful recorders of "Portland 2" to the blissed out acoustic arpeggios of "Chicago 2" and the clicky-clacky hand percussion of "Vancouver 3," it's a vibey album that's perfect for putting on in the background while studying or making dinner. Even more than DeMarco's prior instrumental album, 2015's Some Other Ones (which the songwriter says will soon get a vinyl release), it ambles along at its own pace, welcoming listeners without ever trying to wow them.

It's reflective of an artist who, more than a decade since the surprise success of the 2012 releases Rock and Roll Night Club and 2, is free to do exactly what he likes all the time. He releases music through his own label, simply called Mac's Record Label — he's also signed to Royal Mountain Records in Canada — and isn't remotely trying to replicate the wobbly jangle pop and quirky lounge rock of his past work. "I mean, 2 turned 10 years old this year, which is psycho. I don't even remember the guy that made that shit," he says with an incredulous laugh. "Listening to [2014's] Salad Days, I'm like, 'What the fuck did I do to make this sound so strange? This is fucking bizarre.'"

If fans of that old material enjoy Five Easy Hot Dogs, that's great. If they don't, that's okay too, and the old material is still there for everyone to revisit. DeMarco adds that he's always working on new songs, and predicts that more will arrive this year.

"Here's music, listen to it if you want — I don't care," he says. "There's none of the hoopla, you know. Like, 'Here's my single, check this out! We're gonna try and sell a bigger venue this time!' This is designed to do none of that, because, the reason being: I don't want to do any of that anymore. Where we've landed with the music industry — and I'm a kid still, whatever — but how indie rock looks nowadays? It's ridiculous! Everybody's just trying to squeeze a buck out of something. Like, 'Upload the sped-up version, so they use it on TikTok!' Have you no shame? It's crazy."

The famously chill songwriter's voice is growing exasperated, but before he gets too unsettled, he sinks back into his usual manner: "I don't want to do that. I'd rather just make music. Put it out as it's fresh. If people like something then it can be organic. I don't want to shove anything down anybody's throat. I just want to make music that is nice. I like music."

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