Mac DeMarco: Still Chill After All These Years

A candid conversation with the musician about his great new album, ‘This Old Dog’

Mac DeMarco is tired. In order to promote This Old Dog, his fifth release in five years, he's been on the phone for hours, doing interview after interview, most of them on bad connections stretching overseas. When I call him toward the end of the day, he's looking for a quieter spot to take the call. Even on the phone, he sounds like Mac DeMarco: exactly the way you'd imagine him to sound. "I've been doing interviews since 10 in the morning," he says, a little sleepily. "But, in general, I feel great. I'm happy. Life is good."

The album, too, sounds exactly like you'd imagine it to sound, which is excellent news if you like Mac DeMarco albums. Since 2012, he has refined an insanely recognizable sound and image — not so much formulaic (it's not) as warmly familiar. This continues on this latest release, even as he branches out to use more synths and a different writing process. He recently moved from Rockaway, Queens, where he wrote much of the album, to Los Angeles, where he mostly recorded it. Yet the myth that fans have built around DeMarco is such that when you come across information like this, it seems almost like lore, or a factoid that a teen boy would rattle off from a questionable source — neither here nor there, bearing little on what's important about him. Because Mac DeMarco, or at least the legendary version of him that exists in his fans' minds, transcends both time and space. He's the kid in dirty clothes, with filthy fingernails, writing pretty music. His best songs feel like the sonic equivalents of hidden IP addresses, unable to be traced back to anything, floating outside of mundane reality.

Dead in the middle of the new album, there's a short track called "Sister," whose entire lyrics are: "Turns out not every dog has his day / So sad, so suddenly gone away / Wish there were more that I could do / Anytime you're hearing this / Sister, know my heart goes out to you." At just over a minute, it's a potent song, hinting at something darker. It's vague enough to wonder, but it also tells you what you need to know — the way a sensitive conversation arises in mixed company, with people speaking honestly about unnamed parties, with just enough clues to follow the story but not enough to discover the inciting incident of what happened.

Elsewhere, on "My Old Man," he sings more directly: "As the heart grows stronger, sometimes love is pushed away." The melancholic maturity in lines like that doesn't seem at odds with his often goofy public persona; it's more like a rare moment when a person, let alone a so-called "millennial," has been allowed to show off the complexities of their personality. (This is one reason Mac DeMarco is way more like Jimmy Buffett than The Chainsmokers.)

The closer you listen to This Old Dog, the more it sounds like an album about the inherent sadness of happy moments. He never goes bombastic and big (at least musically); he projects the energy of someone taking in the good times without getting their hopes up and falling to disappointment.

Similarly, he's not rising and falling with the tides of musical trends. He's just making what he wants to make, has been making, and will continue to make. As he sings on "Still Beating," "I never thought some silly songs could ever go and hurt someone / I never meant to sing my tune for anybody else out there but you." DeMarco's music isn't made for us, necessarily. But at least he lets us listen.

On this album, you call yourself an "old dog" and compare yourself to your dad. You sound at times like you're tired of something. Are you getting sick of music?

Mac DeMarco: No, I love making music. The dad stuff, that's kind of me investigating, or trying to understand, what that relationship is supposed to be and what it actually is. Then with the "old dog" stuff, maybe the term "old" is in there, but I'm 26. I'm not that old. It's mostly like, "Ah, you dirty old dog!" I'm saying it more like that. I'm still ripping. I'm ready to rip. I'll make a bunch more records and have a nice time. We'll see what happens.

Nice! I'm also 26. Do you think there's a big difference between your previous albums and this one?

DeMarco: Yeah, it's changed a bit, but people are still probably going to be like, "Oh, this is one of Mac's records." It's not totally out of left field or something. I don't know. I had a little bit of a different process this time, I guess. Nothing too extravagant or out there, just enough to make me feel fresh.

Your music has a timeless feel. Does this feel like a 2017 album to you, or do you think your music exists in this vacuum, like it could have come out at any time?

DeMarco: I feel like it's a 2017 album. It's not, like, radio Top 40 stuff. I don't think it would ever explode in that way, just because it doesn't sound like super-future music or like a lot of new stuff coming out. For me, because I'm the one making the stuff, it'd be 2017. For other people, I don't know. Maybe in 10 years people will go, "I don't know when that is! I have no idea." Either way, it's fun, take it or leave it.

Your music is so chill and soothing. Is that weird to you, considering all the craziness in the world? Are you interacting with that at all?

DeMarco: Yeah, I don't think anybody has a choice. Everybody has to kind of interact with it right now. Especially the last two years, things are pretty nuts. I don't like to engage — a lot of people made a point of doing the social media thing, and I think that social media is complete trash, so I treat it like that. I like Instagram. I like the funny photos. Other than that, it's not for me.

But yeah, I don't know. I get asked that a lot: "What do you think your role is, with all the people that look up to you?" I'm an entertainer, you know? I'm not trying to bombard anybody with anything, but at the same time, face-to-face or in real life, if I'm talking to some kid, I have opinions just like everybody else does. Some of them are probably good, some of them not. Especially living in the States right now. I'm a Canadian with a visa, so it's a little bit more complicated, too.

I have a friend who's a big fan of your Instagram live streams ...

DeMarco: I haven't done that in a minute. I should do it again. It's usually all of my feet, or sometimes there's a rainbow on the wall, and I'll just laugh at it. It kind of showcases the ridiculousness. I'm just laughing really high-pitched, in my house, in my underwear, laughing at inanimate objects, and, like, 30,000 people will watch me do it for half an hour. It's insane!

Do you like it?

DeMarco: I mean, I don't know if I like it or hate it. I'm having fun at the time, but, thinking about it a little more, it's like, What the hell is going on? What the fuck is this? But it's cool.

Do you think that playful side — the guy who's on Instagram live, just wilding out — is the same person writing the music? Or do you view those as different aspects of yourself?

DeMarco: Nah, it's me. Everybody's a multifaceted, emotional, living being, I think. Sometimes it's fun to goof around, sometimes you've got to think about things, sometimes you've got to be strange, and then you've got to be jiggly. That's just what being a human's all about.

This album seems a little more personal than your previous work. Has it affected your personal life? Is there a reason you decided to write that way now?

DeMarco: I don't think there was, necessarily. I think I just had more time away from distraction. Going on tour, you don't have a lot of time to mull things over. You're just kind of, "Another beer, another show, another song." [After touring,] I had a lot of time. Especially in New York, I lived really far away from everyone and it was winter, and I was kind of snowed in. Just a lot of sitting alone late into the night. Certainly that had to do with it. Stuff going on with my family, and just in my life in general. Just thinking about that. I'm probably going to be getting some weird phone calls once everybody's heard it, but it may be for the better! I don't know. We'll see.

How did the album's sound develop when you moved to L.A.?

DeMarco: I wrote a lot of the songs in New York, in Rockaway. When I wrote those ones, I didn't think, OK, I'm going to make an album. I just had some time off tour, just playing around, sitting with my microphone, recording songs. I didn't ever really think those would come out. I was just kind of messing around. Then I moved here. I had to figure out my life here, and get a bed and crap like that. Then the time came around where the label was like, "Well, if you want something to come out in early 2017, it's going to have to be done by, like, so-and-so." So I plucked some of the old songs and [wrote] some new ones. Everybody keeps asking me, "Is this your L.A. record?" I don't know. I mean, I was doing it in a bedroom in New York, I was doing it in a bedroom here. The only difference is when I look out the window, there's palm trees instead of snow. It's tough for me to say, but I enjoyed it.

Do you feel like living in L.A. is changing you?

DeMarco: I don't know. I thought you [were] supposed to get super healthy and start drinking green juices and stuff when you move here. I just eat burritos and burgers and sit on my ass all the time and never leave the house. Maybe! Maybe for the worse. Maybe for the better. My tan is a little bit better. That's kind of nice.

I've heard a lot of people compare you to Jimmy Buffett. Do you have any feelings about him? Have you been to Margaritaville?

DeMarco: See, that's the only song I ever heard. I don't know. Actually, when I first started putting out early music, the 2 record I put out [in 2012], all my friends' moms would be like, "Mac, I like your record! It sounds like Jimmy Buffett!" It's not even a new thing to me at this point, so I guess I sound like Jimmy Buffett. Is it a compliment? Maybe? I don't know. Do you listen to Jimmy Buffett? Would you throw a Jimmy Buffett record out? You can be honest.

I don't think it's an insult. I dressed as sexy Jimmy Buffett one Halloween, and no one understood it.

DeMarco: Everyone knows the name; nobody knows what he looks like. And everyone's heard that one song, but only on the radio.

He has a huge cult following. I think he also might have done the piña colada song.

DeMarco: Oh, "If you like piña coladas." Yeah, there you go.

Wait, no, I'm misremembering. "Piña Colada" is not Jimmy Buffett. It's by Rupert Holmes.

DeMarco: I've made that mistake as well before. It should be a Jimmy Buffett song, for all I'm concerned.

Moving on, what art and culture inspired you when you were writing and recording this?

DeMarco: When I was in New York writing, I had been listening to a lot of Paul Simon — Still Crazy After All These Years — and some later James Taylor stuff. They're great songs, but they have these crazy session guys playing on it, so [they're] pretty slick, ’70s-style records. I like that. And [in L.A.], a lot of synthesizer music. I really love a lot of Japanese music, like Ryuichi Sakamoto and this guy I got really into, Tatsuro Yamashita. When I was a little younger, I thought synthesizers meant Kraftwerk, cold, robotic, weird, Autobahn. But these guys are having a lot of fun on these things. Sometimes. Sometimes it's very somber. They could go either way.

I had this little guest bedroom that I was doing a lot of the recording in where I had a little projector, and I'd just play something on the wall, so something was going on. I'd be tapping away with the sound off so I could just play. I had a bunch of Wong Kar-wai movies. What's the one where a girl cleans the cop's apartment?

Chungking Express?

DeMarco: Yeah, Chungking Express. Watched that one. Wizards, this movie by Ralph Bakshi that I like to have around in the background. A couple of older Miyazaki movies: Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky. Something nice. You look up, and, "Oh, that's nice. They're in a castle, and it's floating in the clouds." That's nice to see.

All those movies sound like dreamy, meditative, thoughtful art.

DeMarco: They remind me of not feeling [like] a jackass, or feeling like maybe a more innocent or younger man. That's why I always crawl back to them. It sets a nice mood for me. [Laughs.]

Is there anything else that you feel moved to tell the people?

DeMarco: Brush your teeth every day. Be kind to others, your parents included. And keep it real! Most importantly.

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