On the surface, Mac DeMarco’s music is a lot like the man behind it: chilled, approachable, and secretly competent. His voice is soft, soothing, and often sparse; his warbling, warped guitar tone makes it sound like your turntable is broken, but, like, in a good way. From 2 to Another One, DeMarco’s music has always been a decently easy listen, sounding effortless even though we can’t begin to guess the amount of work that went into them.
But beneath the surface – the odes to Viceroy and jaunty hooks – is a discography that sounds increasingly anxious and vulnerable. This Old Dog, DeMarco’s latest, is no exception. Though he releases music videos that feature guys in dog masks kissing Winnie the Pooh statues and pairs them with press releases shamelessly and inexplicably describing the plot of A Dog’s Purpose, the album itself is less jovial than the publicity stunts suggest.
On it, DeMarco sings about life and loss; about mortality. On lead single “My Old Man,” he sings about seeing more of his father in himself. This isn’t exactly uplifting stuff:
Look in the mirror / Who do you see?
Someone familiar / But surely not me
For he can’t be me / Look how old and cold and tired
And lonely he’s become / Not until you see
Mac Demarco – “My Old Man”
The rabid Mac DeMarco fans who’ve followed his story know enough even without knowing the exact details. They know that DeMarco, born Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV, had his name changed when he was five-years-old after an ultimatum from his mother to his father. His passport now reads McBriare Samuel Lanyon DeMarco.
“She did it to spite my father so he wouldn’t get the namesake out of me,” said DeMarco to Red Bull back in 2013. “My dad peace-d out pretty early on. He was one of those ‘Christmas Dads’ who just pops in on the holidays. My mother was the one who raised me.”
The finer points aren’t important here: Cobbled together from interviews over the years, we know that DeMarco’s relationship with his father has always been complicated. Families often are. What’s interesting is that on This Old Dog, it seeps into his music more than ever before.
His relationship with his mother has always been a close one. She regularly tours with him, even popping by his Hot Ones taping to watch him sweat out dabs of Blair’s Mega-Death Sauce. In that same interview, he talks about how he’s never wanted (or needed) the excesses of a tour bus. Famously, he used to tour in his mother’s old beat-up minivan. He’s a momma’s boy. He’s proud of it. (And he should be – moms rule).
This is all to say that for all of his eccentricities—the nudity, binge drinking, and cigarette cloaked press photos—Mac DeMarco is more than a punchline. At the very least, he’s in on the joke. He’s the class clown hiding his dirty laundry in plain sight; if not literally, with the thrifty aesthetic his fans have so faithfully emulated over the years, than figuratively, in the emotionally fraught music they’ve been inexplicably (and sometimes violently) crowdsurfing to for years.
But what it boils down to is this—I called Mac DeMarco to talk about his new album, and I realized something as the phone rang; I realized that a 20 minute call between two people who’ve met only once, casually and under the influence, might not be the time for psychoanalysis; that while I’d love to talk to DeMarco about life and loss and loneliness, and about the turnover in his band and the reasons why he’s bounced around from Edmonton to Vancouver to Montreal to New York and now to California—where our phone call was interrupted at various points by barking dogs and a hawk—this isn’t the time to do it. I am not Dr. Phil. I am not Marc Maron. I cannot ask him stilted, existential questions about paternal dread in between jabs at his guitar tone and smirking references to my stand-up career. I even resist the urge to tell him, in my best Marc Maron voice, that he can really wail. (Ed Note: This was written before we knew DeMarco would be on Maron’s WTF podcast.)
And so I asked him if a hot dog was a sandwich.
Wait, who told you I have a love of hot dogs?
“I know you have a love of hot dogs,” I say. “I want to know what you think.”
He tells me I’ve been misled.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t really like hot dogs that much,” he says. “They’re kind of nasty-ass. But a nice sausage—a nice Italian sausage—I can get down with that.”
I tell him that I know about the barbecue and listening party he threw for fans when he released Some Other Ones; he cooked the hot dogs himself. I mention this picture:
“Oh, yeah. I guess I’ve done some hot dog things…,” he says, trailing off, laughing.
This would be an awkward impasse in an interview if it was with anybody else. A false start at the beginning of a chat with one of my favourite artists. Here’s the colour my face went. But Mac DeMarco is disarming. That’s kind of his thing.
From there, the interview carried on conventionally. We talked about how he played every instrument on This Old Dog, and when I compliment him on the bass grooves in “For the First Time,” which is a total boner jam, he laughs that I said “boner,” then modestly deflects; “I usually try and write busy, crazy bass lines, but on this one… I’m not a good bass player at all, but holding back is a big part of the instrument, so I tried that within the confines of doing it all myself.”
The realest things get is when I ask him about the dichotomy between being a goofy guy who jokes about “jizz-jazz” and writing music that’s more vulnerable than it is smirk-filled and convivial.
“Especially with that persona… I do my part to make it what it is, but I think that what other people hone in on or gravitate towards is just a part of me,” he explains, his voice more serious than I’m used to.
“I can swing both ways, it just depends on what people want to portray. It’s not a thing I really think about or struggle with. I have a good time when I have a good time; when you need to do the other times, you do the other times. One can’t exist without the other.”
I have a good time when I have a good time; when you need to do the other times, you do the other times. One can’t exist without the other.
This Old Dog is the first Mac DeMarco album with an illustration on the cover. Usually, he’s front and centre. For such a personal album, it’s interesting that this album’s jacket is instead adorned with doodles. There’s a dog, a steak, bananas, an Adventure Time-ish cartoon mountain and, perhaps in a callback to Makeout Videotape’s Ying Yang, a big ol’ dick.
It turns out there’s a reason for that, too. Copyright.
“I had a different cover that I was going to use, but it had a trademarked image from Disney, so that wasn’t going to fly. I really liked this photo…
“I used to think—I still do… You know when you go to Value Village and there’s the bins of French Canadian singers’ records and it’s just their face? I think that’s funny, and I just used to do that. The weird, squiggly, shitty drawing on the front is the way I used to do things when I was a lot younger, when I was 18, 19. It’s kind of a throwback to that, in a way.”
Mac DeMarco Album Art – Through The Years
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Makeout Videotapes - Ying Yang
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Rock and Roll Nightclub
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This Old Dog
We talked about how he likes to mess with people. Usually, artist riders are complex and extravagant: Mötley Crüe asked for 12 foot snakes, machine guns and fancy mustard; Mary J. Blidge insists on a private bathroom with a new toilet seat.
Mac DeMarco? His old rider simply asked for enough McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish to feed his band and “anything that’s beer.”
“That was a joke. When the reality became that people were actually going to buy us McDonald’s, we were like… please don’t do it.”
We talked about how he messed with his press team, and the music blogosphere, by offering up the synopsis of A Dog’s Purpose as the story behind his newest music video.
— Pitchfork (@pitchfork) March 30, 2017
“Pretty good joke, right?”
It was. His jokes usually are.
People like talk about him shoving drumsticks where the sun don’t shine; they love to laugh with—not at—him about his gapped front teeth and Alfred E. Neuman cackles. They chuck cigarettes on stage and travel hours out of the way to visit him at his former New York home, the address to which he recited at the end of Another One.
DeMarco is accessible, sometimes to a fault. But he’s careful about it what he lets out, even when he’s letting everyone in. I don’t know whether he would have been okay with me asking him about his family history in a phoner at the end of a marathon day of press. Maybe he would have been fine with it. But he sounded tired when I called, and quickly, I could hear him smirking through the phone. So instead we just talked, casually, as people are often wont to do with him.
In the end, I got my answer.
“A hot dog is not a sandwich. A hot dog lives in its own world.”
Just like Mac DeMarco.