Mac DeMarco made his name as the ‘lovable prince of indie rock’: a chain-smoking, whiskey-fuelled joker who can’t help having fun on the road. But after 10 years of singing about growing up, he’s become a homebody just trying to keep his head screwed on.
Next to the front door of Mac DeMarco’s home in Los Angeles hangs two sets of keys with matching lanyards. One says, “SASSY.” The other, “STRESSED OUT.” It’s safe to assume the former belongs to Kiera McNally, the Canadian songwriter’s long-term girlfriend. The latter seems a better fit for Mac.
It’s the day after his fourth album Here Comes the Cowboy (featuring lead single ‘Nobody’) was announced, sparking outrage among fans of Mitski, whose album Be the Cowboy (also featuring lead single ‘Nobody’) topped numerous best-of-2018 lists. The online furore grew until Mitski felt compelled to clarify that, as grateful as she is for the support, it feels terrifying to have lots of strangers acting on her behalf in ways she’d never act herself. So perhaps unsurprisingly, Mac doesn’t seem keen on the idea of an interview today, even in the comfort of his Echo Park home.
After leading the way to his studio via the kitchen and the pool (surrounded by ashtrays piled with fag ends), the 28-year-old curls up, legs crossed in the opposite direction, as far away as possible on the other end of a couch. At times he lights a cigarette and then crosses his arms while inhaling, his shoulder turned towards the door. He looks like he’s trying to shield himself from attack, his body language screaming: ‘Don’t do it.’
“It always kind of smells weird in here, I’m sorry,” he begins. “I had a couple oranges… I remember dropping one of them. I haven’t been able to find it.” It smells of studio and hard work, I say, to relax him. “Okay,” he says with a shrug.
You’ve said that you went a little crazy making your new album. What does that look like?
It’s just being like, ‘What the fuck?! NO!’ Not being able to make the call. You learn so much and then you’re left with too many options. The concept of the record was that I didn’t wanna make a perfect record. Then I got into this circle where I was trying to perfect something that was supposed to be imperfect – perfectly crappy… I haven't even listened to it since I made it so I don’t remember what it sounds like. But I remember being stressed out mixing it, I tell you.
What’s contributing to that neurosis? You’re approaching the 10th year of your career. Is there self-doubt? Do you feel like you have to do something unexpected?
Uhm, maybe. Pretty fucked up to think [it’s been] 10 years since I put out a CD-R in Vancouver. I’m in a place right now where I just don’t care. Even with this. I assumed this record would pop up, fly under the radar, maybe some people listen to it. I’m totally fine with that. I’m always putting out music. It makes me feel like I’m not wasting my life away. I appreciate the people who listen. I like playing shows. Everything else? I don’t care.
It’s fine. I just wanna make music, hide in my little garage and I’ll just die someday. People can do whatever they want, say whatever they want, but I’m gonna make it. That’s gonna be how it is.
The last album was about your family. What’s this one about?
Reflecting on life, growing up. It’s always growing up with me. I’m stuck. Maybe it’s because I’m not a good lyricist but I keep it vague. With other music, I’ve always thought that if it’s vague enough that I can layer it onto my life, it’s cool. I try to do that. This is what came out.
The fact that you were open about your family history and your absent father on the last record [This Old Dog], did that become difficult to talk about in the press?
I wasn’t trying to say, “Fuck my dad, bastard!” But instead of being able to have the guts to go, “What’s up, dude? You’re dying,” I was like, “Maybe we can figure this out?”
And did you?
We have, in a way. I don’t have a lot of emotional outlets like that. It’s always been music. Now it’s on a scale where there’s a lot of people reading your diary. Kinda weird.
There’s something calming about the literal nature in which you write. I think people are drawn to your music because it lets them pull back and see some objectivity in small observations.
It’s cutting the noise out. The noise is important, though. I don’t have a problem with it. There are problems in the world that I have a problem with, but the way that the internet is… I tend to be in my little hovel and I’m not on social media any more.
Was there a breaking point?
I hadn’t used it since last summer. All I had was Instagram. I got rid of Facebook and Twitter a long time ago. You realise, just from sitting there, scrolling, not talking, seeing pictures of people I haven’t seen in years... that it gives you this false sense of, “I’m in touch with people!” They don’t care. You delete it and people are like, “Why did you delete your Instagram?” That is enough proof for me that it’s a problem. But I’m not here to preach about the internet.
Well, let’s talk about the album announcement and the reaction from Mitski’s fans. Did you anticipate that?
No. For some reason, I felt like Mitski would be chill with it, which she was. I talked to her for a while – we were texting yesterday. She had the same outlook. I was like, “It’s so crazy that it’s a similar title.” I don’t show anybody my record ’til I hand it in. By that time, I just said: “This is the title; this will be the first single.”
I didn’t know that one of her singles was ‘Nobody’ ’til two days ago. My manager told me and I thought, ‘Whoa, weird.’ Even if I had known, I don’t think I would’ve changed it. I didn’t think people were gonna run with it that far. It’s ridiculous. It’s just music. Mitski’s song and my song sound eons different. Most of the people talking about it didn’t even listen to my song. With music today, [it seems] a lot of it isn’t about music.
Did you feel as though the knives were out?
Sure... and I think a lot of people wanna dig the knife into me. Which is fine. It’s funny – there isn’t really a narrative with my new record. There’s no card to play. They found one, you know? I’m not trying to troll Mitski. I didn’t know who Mitski was! I’m bad at keeping up with music. I only listen to The Beatles and video-game music from when I was a kid. Sorry.
The upshot of all this is that Be the Cowboy is a great record that you’re now aware of.
I heard a lot of it yesterday. It’s really cool and I think we might even cover one of the songs because it would be fun and we could try to make sense of the situation. She seems really cool. Maybe I get to have a new friend or someone I can see at a festival and go, “Wassup?!”
Tell me about your move to LA from New York. Was this city what you expected?
I didn’t like LA for a long time. It’s hot, it’s bright, everybody’s looking at you if you’re in the street and not in a car. It’s a place about having your own space. In New York, people go to bars because if you have someone over at your apartment, the landlord will shoot you. For me, having a space [to produce music] is important. I haven’t lived in a cool neighbourhood for a long time. But I never leave my house, so I forget. I miss seasons, dense forest and mountain water. The main thing is my girlfriend. In New York, we lived far out of town. It made sense because we lived right near the airport and I’d just go on tour.
Is having this studio space lending itself to more exciting collaborations?
Yeah. Right now it’s in a shambles because we’ve been recording. Anderson Paak and his band would come over. I’d barely even play. We’d jam all night, record all of it. Anderson likes my snare drum. Mac Miller and I used to go back and forth to each other’s houses all the time. May he rest in peace.
The song ‘K’ on the record is obviously for Kiera.
A ’lil sweet Paul McCartney tune for her.
You still have the capacity to be a hopeless romantic...
She’s sweet to me. I love her. I’m sure she’s like, ‘For fuck’s sake.’ I like writing songs. Sometimes you gotta do something nice. I don’t even know if it’s nice. Maybe it’s embarrassing.
You’ve been together for so long. What is it about the relationship that works?
Me and Kiera have known each other six years longer than we’ve dated. It took time for us to get here but she’s part of who I am, I’m part of who she is, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m really lucky.
You grew up in Edmonton with a musical family, but rejected it ’til your teenage years, right?
My family were musical in a different way. My grandmother was a next-level opera singer, well respected. She just turned 90 and holds onto her upper-crust cosmopolitan lifestyle. When I got into music, I was into rock’n’roll. Edmonton is Anywheresville. It’s just somewhere in Canada.
You played in a hardcore band as a teenager. When did you develop vulnerability in songwriting?
It was terrifying! The only audience I had at that age were my friends. So if I wrote this heartfelt thing, they would go, “Shut up!” Then there was Bandcamp, so I put it on there and didn’t tell them. It’s the same now. I don’t show my friends my music. I don’t even know if vulnerability is good. I can play it off-the-cuff, always tongue-in-cheek. It’s a process. I like the idea of writing. The problem is what you’re going to write about.
You cite Jonathan Richman as a huge influence. When did that ball drop?
I used to hang out with these older kids who’d always be in record stores. They put me onto Wire and post-punk bands. I thought, ‘Jonathan Richman – yeah, he probably rocks.’ They were going to a show in Calgary and I went. Oh my god, I’d never seen a show like it. It was an attitude. He loves it up there. He’s a good model. It made me reject that cool guy, quiet, dark, sexy thing. Maybe I could never see it in myself.
Why did you move to Vancouver after school?
I didn’t have a plan. I went in the summer and thought, ‘I wanna move here!’ Then I got there in the fall and all my friends were in school. I was confused. I started applying to schools. Didn’t know what the fuck to do. I’d brought some recording stuff so I set up in my garage and made my first CD-R.
What were you going to study?
I wanted to do early childhood education. I didn’t really know. I never ended up going.
That was when you did Makeout Videotape. What motivated you back then?
I just wanted to be a part of it. There were a lot of bands there. I was making it out on my own. I had no purpose. Playing shows gave me a purpose, even though it was to nobody. It’s not like I was making money. But it’s the last time I felt part of a music scene.
When was the last time you left the house?
...I’m trying to think. When I was doing the record I didn’t leave the house; before that, I was on tour every night. Before that, Europe… I’m struggling. I have no idea.
You’ve talked about suffering from anxiety and depression in the past. There’s more focus in the media now on mental health awareness. Do you find it useful?
If anybody’s feeling weird about anything, the best remedy is to talk to people. I’m a very anxious person, manic depressive. I tend to try not to put that on display. I like to think what I’m doing is uplifting. But there were periods when I was drinking a bottle of Jameson on stage every night. I’ll always wonder, ‘Why do I feel like this?’ It’s the bigger picture. Being alive is crazy. The internet is anxiety-inducing.
Has it helped you, cutting that out?
Totally. But now that I’m not on socials, I look at the news and that’s equally as depressing. It’s okay. I feel pretty peaceful nowadays. I try to do things that make me happy, and things that make others happy. That’s all you can do.
Do you feel less pressure to keep up this partying caricature of Mac DeMarco?
I don’t know if it even was a character. I’m a savage alcoholic. My alcoholism stems from being scared of playing. I don’t really drink when I’m at home. I don’t go out to bars. It’s an ‘only at work’ thing, which is fucked up. I like to be with people, I like to party, I drink, I smoke. I’m just not as interested any more. It was the only way to get through touring, sleeping on floors every day, doing all the driving; you’re exhausted and it’s an energiser. Now I’m getting close to 30. My hangovers last two days. I’m sure people still like the idea of Mac being this rowdy, fucked-up, stinky, party master guy. I have been, maybe I still am.
Do you think that people don’t quite understand how difficult touring can be?
A lot of artists today don’t even have the drive that we did. I wanted to go on tour. But now people blow up on the internet and your first show is for 800 people. The reason why touring is hard is because I make it hard. It’s hard being away from home for two months. It’s tough waking up and playing every night. I used to love it. Sleeping in my clothes every night on a hardwood floor? Great. It’s not like that now.
You’ve had an intense relationship with your fans over the years. You welcomed them to your New York home after giving out your address. How do you feel about hero worship?
For the most part, the people that came to my house would have a cup of coffee and then take the train back. Nothing weird happened. I’ve always tried to minimise hero worship. It’s stupid. We’re all at this show together. I’m sorry I’m on this raised floor. If you listen to my music, there are four chords and a dinky guitar line. You could do this, too. Kids are doing it. A lot of bands out there sound like Uncle Mac-y!
As a man in music who’s been called out for joking about rape onstage, where is your sense of responsibility amid the #MeToo movement? Do you regret that stuff?
Oh, tons of stuff. You learn. What you’re referring to… there’s a bunch of different ways to look at that…
You don’t think it was a problem?
The conversations are important. I’ve learned a ton. Everyone’s learning. It hurt yesterday to see people say, “Mac is trying to minimise a woman.” Do people assume I would troll [Mitski]? That makes me sad. At the same time, I know I wasn’t. Mistakes get made. I’ve always tried to be positive. I understand that I am a man. I’m a white man. I’m a white straight man. With this album, I just made a record. I’m not trying to say anything about anything. I’m taking a back seat. If you wanna listen, you can. If not, that’s okay. I hear it and I’m listening. I’m not like, ‘Fuck this shit.’ No way. It’s important.
It sounds like you feel the need to apologise for taking up space.
Yes. Days like yesterday make me feel like that. I was just trying to do my songs. There’s nothing I can do.
The theme of this issue is hedonism.
I don’t even know what that word means...
Unadulterated joy. What does hedonism mean to you?
Creating things. That’s the one time where, if it’s working out, then man do I feel good. I think I’ve felt that way since I was a kid. It makes me feel better about everything. I never think about what I’m doing. I just pick something up, try it and if it turns out, then fuck yeah!