Will the Real Mac DeMarco Please Stand Up?
After years being pegged as music’s go-to funny guy, Mac shows his human side on new album ‘This Old Dog’.
Photo by Coley Brown
For the last five years, Mac DeMarco has been trying to show his real side. Some artists create a character and run with it, or see themselves splintering off into Medusa-like multiples. But DeMarco's persona – if that's what you want to call it – was mostly created without his doing. "Maybe I painted some kind of weird picture," he'll tell me when we meet later in east London, considering how that persona may have come about. "But it's something you've gotta accept, because it's out of your hands. It's like making music. The songs come out and they aren't yours anymore."
It's hard to tell when the Canadian lo-fi singer-songwriter's reputation left his control in the first place. Like a cartoon character, the DeMarco of side jibes, fart jokes and general goofiness has been partly exaggerated. Not that he doesn't bring the reputation on himself. For proof that DeMarco really is a pin-up for inane humour, his presenting job for MTV's Weird Vibes is evidence enough – it's all faux British accents, inside jokes and the sort of awkwardly blunt conversations you might expect from a professional television host. And in the rare case that you're a naturally funny person, people expect you to perform. This is a guy who made a sketch pretending to be a guy called Dave Fuck, spending his life showing cars how to reverse into parking spaces. What's essentially schoolboy humour somehow doesn't come across as crude or stupid – it's hilarious.
But there's a separation between the meme-friendly Mac and the sincere guy you hear on record. Up until now, it's been hard to decipher between the two. Just when he'll look to settle into a groove of honest, no-frills songwriting, he'll throw in healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek satire. Take 2014's "Passing Out The Pieces" – a song about not being every stranger's property, a 24/7 jester, that also happened to be accompanied by a video where he kills his friends and gives birth in a bath of cabbages. It's a style of warped humour he can't seem to resist.
With the 5 May release of his latest record This Old Dog however, the playful side simmers down to a low cool. For a large portion of the record DeMarco is essentially talking to himself, staring at a mirror image, prodding away and seeing what's inside his head. The album itself is rooted in an honest account of family and, specifically, DeMarco's father, who recently became gravely ill.
Not that you'd pick up on Mac's heartfelt, deep-thinking side from the build-up surrounding this record. In one session video for This Old Dog's title track, he can be seen performing in the middle of a dog grooming parlour. "You may be asking yourself, 'Why is Mac in Groom Dog City? Why?'" he says, introducing the song. "Well," he sighs, "probably because the next song I'm gonna play is called 'This Old Dog'… And while I may not be speaking about a real dog in the song, this is what my press will probably look like for the next two years." It's a joke veiled in serious jadedness. He goes along with it, seeing the funny side, but there's also a sense he's getting tired of the schtick. He's been the funny guy for half a decade – perhaps that's long enough.
The very day this session is being filmed, he sits in the middle of Brick Lane's Beigel Bake with me, chewing on what turns out to be his third salt beef bagel in 24 hours. He's also being shown the footage of #Bagelgate, a beautifully brutal encapsulation of British culture that he doesn't quite seem to understand. This is my fault. It's been two days since #Bagelgate swept the nation, and because we're in a bagel shop (geddit?!), I've decided Funny Guy Mac will love this video. "Eight pieces of bread in one little nugget? That's going to do crazy things to your stomach and your mind," he says, offering some explanation of what he's being made to watch. But it's clear he'd rather steer the topic towards his music.
At an acoustic show later that night in east London, he happily tells the crowd how he's spent the day doing press, which he hates. It's easy to see why, when instead of being asked about his records, an average promo day consists of dog parlours and viral bagel-throwing videos, for the lols. It's very tempting to go into a Mac DeMarco interview thinking he'll be your best mate by the end of it. He's personable like that. And in fairness, his personality is part and parcel of why he's so huge, selling out a venue like south London's 4,900-capacity Brixton Academy in minutes. But – press notwithstanding – he's long attempted to break the myth of being that two-dimensional, fun-time, up-for-everything guy.
Up until last year, Mac lived in the Far Rockaways neighbourhood of Queens, New York. On 2015 mini-album Another One, he chose to share his address with fans. "Stop on by, I'll make you a cup of coffee. See you later," he says on "My House On The Water". This might seem like a strange move from a guy already idolised by countless flannel shirt-sporting, baseball-cap wearing, Viceroy-smoking kids. Surely by making himself accessible at all times, he'd be expected to live up to his persona 24/7. "There were times when it was like, 'Are you fucking kidding me right now?'" he admits. His invitation for a cup of coffee was approached broadly by fans, who'd show up to his place drunk at 2AM. "I never regretted doing it, though. It was cool meeting so many people, and nothing bad or sketchy happened." Like every fan encounter he has, Mac was himself: chilled out, unfussed, not quite the on-call jester you might expect from his online reputation. This was partly the point of giving out his address – to dispel the myth.
"I dress like a cartoon character and wear the same shit everyday – that's just because I'm lazy. You do that and then people start recognising it. I say 'God bless' once and that becomes something I say. The nice thing about having kids come over, or even meeting them at shows – perhaps people have a perception of who I am, maybe it's true maybe it's not, but in a face-to-face situation like that, I treat everybody like a human and we just hang out," he says. "To me it's important. That celebrity, super-cool sexy band guy secrecy world – it's all fucking horseshit. I want to demystify that a little bit." Growing up in hometown Edmonton, Canada, Mac was once that music-obsessed kid himself, and he'd stay after shows to meet some of his favourite local bands. "Because I was meeting these bands that I looked up to and them being like, 'Yo! What's up?', I realised I could do the same."
This Old Dog does a similar job of demystifying the weird hurrah around DeMarco. Lyrically, he's not performing backflips. Most of the themes being addressed are approached in a direct way, but with enough ambiguity that they're not rammed down your throat. Of everything DeMarco tackles, the feeling of growing older keeps cropping up. It's like a nagging thought that can't be erased. "Dreams From Yesterday" is the sound of a young kid hitting the jackpot, only to find himself in limbo. "Once your life set to settle down / Take a look around you, no more dreaming to be found," he sings. "My Old Man" even refers directly to a reputation preceding him. "There's a price tag hanging off of all that fun," he goes, like two split personalities having a private conversation. In truth, DeMarco has most definitely grown up. But not in a boring, fun-sapping way. Those previously loose guitar parts have tightened up, and these are neatly-bundled songs with a perfect flow. That's not to say there isn't a sense of youth racing through the album too, because there is – it's just staring the threat of old age directly in the face, jostling to get the upper hand.
He's been sincere before – 2012's "Still Together" is an earnest ode to childhood sweetheart Kiera "Kiki" McNally, who he's still with today, while 2014's "Let My Baby Stay" grapples with the thought that she might be kicked out the U.S. due to immigration laws. It's rare, however, for his songs to be so direct and autobiographical. "I'm not a great lyricist, so I can't go Bob Dylan style without looking like a jackass," he insists. "I'm not like, 'Chicagoooo, in October!'" he adds, just a shade away from a funny Sun Kil Moon impression. So – besides wanting to offer up a more honest portrayal of himself – what's the reason for DeMarco's new direction?
Part of the new approach is down to his 2016 move to Los Angeles, where he put music to one side while readjusting to a new place. "I had three or four months of getting settled," he remembers. "Because I had more peace in that sense, I was released from the party-guy-drunk-on-tour-every-night thing. Getting a big chunk of away time changed how I was thinking about things. I usually have a month off, and you don't have a chance to decompress and think about things, or realise, 'Oh yeah, I have a family!' But when you get a lot of time off, you step back and look at what's happening in your life. You've become a little older without really noticing."
Writing on-and-off in 2016 between New York and LA coincided with news of his father's illness, which at the time was taking a turn for the worse. It's documented in "Watching Him Fade Away", the new record's closing track, and its most striking moment. DeMarco's father was rarely in his life, prone to drug and alcohol abuse, appearing every so often as his son grew up, but never as a central part of his upbringing. Mac's songs have related this before, but "This Old Dog", and "Watching Him Fade Away" in particular, grapple with the idea of saying goodbye to someone who was seldom there in the first place.
"And even though you barely know each other, it still hurts, watching him fade away" he sings, torn between his dad's bedside and the exit door. It makes for DeMarco's most generously honest, gut-wrenching song to date. "The funny thing is he's now recovered," he says, awkwardly laughing. "I didn't think he was going to hear these songs, regardless of everyone else hearing it. But he's going to! I'll probably get an interesting phone call at some point."
The real Mac, warts and all, is a constant presence on this record. Both sides are bookended by short-lived, earnest songs. "Watching Him Fade Away" ends the second half, while "Sister" – a touching tribute to his half-sister Holly – closes the first. There's also "Moonlight on the River", a vast expanse of a song that seems to burrow down inside his psyche. Lasting seven minutes, its second half is pretty much just the sound of DeMarco screaming into an amplifier, creating a wall of maddening feedback.
"That was at like 4 in the morning, me in my studio alone, smoking and laughing like a jackass. It's a weird scene." He cites laughter, but the song's second half sounds like a musician climbing up the walls. Sticking to his honesty-first policy, he considers the bagel he's just consumed. "It's not the best one I've ever had, but it's pretty good," he says, wiping mustard off his face. "I think the bagel was a little less salted than regular. Which is, y'know… It's in the name – you need the salt. Usually I eat these when I'm really drunk, after a show. So there's that style. Today I'm completely sober. You know what? I enjoyed it. Now I understand the nuances of the beef."
He's still performing slightly, because that's what comes naturally. Less a defence mechanism and more a default, this persona hasn't plagued DeMarco, but it's threatened to. He only gets approached once mid-interview by a fan, and the conversation is typical – there's no expectation of him delivering a gag or pulling a funny face for a selfie.
As we exit the bagel shop, he starts up a conversation with a homeless man outside, handing him a £10 note once he's ruffled around his pockets for change, before piling his acoustic guitar into a cab for tonight's show. "On this one I just wanted to keep it real," he says, circuiting back to the record. "That's that. It feels right to me, so maybe other people will like it. These songs are personal to me, but if someone listening to it doesn't know my backstory, they wouldn't pick up on it. It's vague enough that they might not know what I'm talking about, but they could connect to it in other ways. That's another philosophy of mine with songwriting – keep it simple, stupid."
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