Interview

The Dude Abides: At Home With Mac DeMarco

Up until now, it’s primarily been a merciful and mild summer in New York City. This day, though, possesses the kind of vicious sun that makes you feel like you’ve put yourself in some vague danger by being outside for more than 10 minutes, coupled with the kind of humidity that thickens beyond stifling and approaches suffocating. That’s not much of an exaggeration: In the 20 or so minutes it takes me to walk from my apartment to the site of Mac DeMarco’s barbecue, there are moments where I have to actually think about the process of breathing. When I get there, it isn’t the last-minute backyard party I’d expected given DeMarco’s Instagram announcement. In prime DeMarco fashion, that Instagram post was, uh, creative: The location marker was “staring at jacks ass,” and the caption featured details like “#penis,” “Bring a food bank donation and I will #makeyouafuckinghotdog,” and the promise of unreleased DeMarco music played “over my #carstereofucker #peaceonearth,” adding up to an impressively idiosyncratic use of the hashtag. The photo is of DeMarco holding a copy of his new record, Another One, over a grill, making a prototypical DeMarco face.

Before I walk up, I’d assumed this was one of DeMarco’s random, guerrilla approaches to fan interaction: just something he decided to do in a friend’s backyard in Bushwick. Turns out the barbecue is him standing behind two grills on the sidewalk outside of a bar, always with dozens of hot dogs in various states of completion, almost always with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. His ’87 Volvo station wagon is parked right there on the sidewalk; the color of the thing is like the sepia of a naturally-aged decades-old photograph made physical. That’s it; that’s the DeMarco BBQ outpost, where for five or six hours he sweats in the humidity and makes hot dogs and takes photos with adoring fans and, occasionally, their pets.

After Another One — which his label, Captured Tracks, has billed as a “mini-LP,” but he’s more likely to refer to as an EP — comes out on August 7, DeMarco will keep living pretty much as he has for the last few years: put out some music, keep touring relentlessly. As of this point in his career, DeMarco hasn’t really fallen into the typical rhythm of releasing an album, touring heavily to promote it, then taking off a significant amount of time and working on another record. Instead, DeMarco basically keeps releasing music in-between touring, which has resulted in the three years since 2 being marked by a kind of perpetual, incremental breakthrough partially rooted in this dude just always being around, doing something. The original premise of today’s barbecue is that Captured Tracks and DeMarco’s booking agent held some tickets for his four-night NYC run in August, and they wanted to sell them as four-day passes to kids who wanted to go every night — “which, surprisingly, some kids want to do,” DeMarco jokes. The original idea presented by the label was that DeMarco would scalp passes to his own shows, which does seem like one of those cheeky DeMarco Instagram kind of stunts, and which he was open to. Then he pointed out to his label that scalping has bartering involved, and they wanted them for a specific price. So DeMarco decided to do a barbecue on Meserole and Morgan instead, outside of a new Bushwick bar that’s opening tonight.

So here we are, amongst the day’s steady stream of hundreds of fans who love DeMarco enough that they’re going to stand in this kind of heat — and, later, torrential rain — just to get a quick photo, a quick hello, and maybe a hot dog. Over the past few days, DeMarco’s been recording instrumentals, which just earlier today culminated in Some Other Ones, a barbecue soundtrack that he threw up on his Bandcamp for free. Without DeMarco’s laconically sweet vocal melodies over it, and with his recent interest in cheap, retro synthesizer sounds, the music has this kind of woozy, warped lope to it that’s perfect for how your head feels after being outside in the sun for too long without water. Some of it recalls an old Super Mario Bros. game’s soundtrack that’s melted over two or three decades of use; funnily enough, that’s intentional: DeMarco later explains to me that he’s become interested specifically in the kind of cheap synth sound you’d find in old Super Nintendo games.

Something that’s striking about the crowd assembled here today: they are extremely young. There are plenty of college-age fans here, too, or people in their early- to mid-20s. But there are a lot of people who appear to be young teenagers, to the point that you see the older guy in a polo shirt and you assume he’s the parent of someone here. The extreme youthfulness of DeMarco’s fanbase is something he appreciates but can’t quite wrap his head around. “I was always the young buck in all my circles and with all my friends,” he explains to me in a later conversation. “Now it’s like, ‘I get to be Grandpa now.'” (He says it in a cartoonish faux-rasp, somewhere between an actual grandfather and a wizened kung fu master in a shitty movie you find on TV at 2 in the morning. It’s one of the mystery-bag collection of voices he puts on at various times.) At 25, DeMarco is young-ish to have put out the amount of music he has, and would still certainly be one of the younger bucks amongst some of the indie artists he sees constantly on the festival circuit. But he’s still got a decade or more on a lot of his fans, which leaves them seemingly looking up to him as some kind of benevolent, goofily avuncular authority figure or something. “That’s the reason that ridiculous shit [like the barbecue] works,” he says. “It’s the reason I feel obliged to do food bank drives, because I know it’s going to get fucking crazy with 800 kids or something.” He’s confused, still surprised, and gracious about the fact that this kind of thing happens to him at all, that he gets recognized walking around north Brooklyn or that kids will drive in from Pennsylvania and Jersey and Vermont to come to his barbecue. DeMarco, you have to understand, has an exceedingly casual zen attitude. He’s just a dude, doing his thing, and it happens to be working. What was so special to attract teenagers who are willing to wait out a storm just to snap a photo with him? “I never would have done that myself as a young man,” he reflects. “I liked bands a lot, but are you kidding me? That’s fucking crazy! But it’s cool at the same time. But? It. Is. Fucking crazy.” This is a common refrain in conversation with DeMarco, a refrain equal parts excited and head-scratching, a refrain of: Well, how did we get here?

***

A week later, I take the train out to the edge of the world. That is, I go visit DeMarco at his house in Far Rockaway, Queens. It’s one of those trips that’s kind of revelatory after you’ve lived in New York for several years — that this place is even bigger than you realize, and there are even more neighborhoods and variations of “New York” than you realize and that you don’t make time to explore, that there is a place where a musician from Edmonton, Canada has settled on the sea. Much of the A Train ride out there is above ground, with a portion that has you on a track a few feet above the water, parallel to a bridge in the distance, semi-dilapidated fishing village-type places to one side of the horizon and projects to the other.

Another One ends with a song called “My House By The Water,” a track composed of some wandering keyboard figures and the sounds of water lazily hitting the shore. At the end of the track, DeMarco lists his address, with the instructions: “Stop on by, I’ll make you a cup of coffee. See ya later.” So, I’m not DeMarco’s first visitor today. “I’ve had like 20 kids come over so far and the album’s not even out,” he laughs. “It’s going to get a little bit funky soon.” Today’s visitors drove in from New Jersey and they brought DeMarco some coffee and a pineapple. Others have been from the city, or from Long Island. “They come, they want a photo, and then they go,” he says of the usual visit. A few people have been older, but, like the barbecue, the bulk of the people are young fans. It’s another one of those things that DeMarco did casually, openly, without much thought, and now might describe, laughing again, with a “I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking,” perhaps envisioning a steady stream of fans ringing the doorbell once he’s left for tour, while his home is solely occupied by his housemates. But, as with a lot of things about DeMarco, it can be summed up basically as: Yeah, that was a weird idea, but it’s cool. The way he figures, the kids who come out here have to have listened to the record before it’s even available to buy, have to care enough to actually want to meet him, and they have to especially care enough to make the journey to Far Rockaway which, in a car from New Jersey, probably takes a good amount of time. Given all that, he welcomes whomever wants to stop by. And so you get mini-recurrences of the barbecue last week, young listeners making a pilgrimage just to say hello to DeMarco.

Last night there was another one of DeMarco’s sudden Instagrams. “We got a little drunk here last night…” he begins the story. “I just posted an Instagram photo that said ‘Got a question? Call Michael.'” The Michael in question is one of DeMarco’s housemates; they listed his cellphone number and waited to see what happened. So they videotaped it and played it out like a “public access call-in show.” For three hours or so, Michael fielded calls “from all kinds of strange people.” From Peru, from all around the States, from throughout Europe. Apparently, the common lead-in question was along the lines of “Oh my God! Is this Mac!?” to which Michael responded “No, this is the Advisor. What’s your question?” Eventually, they had to delete the post, because Michael’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. “I think Mike now is really understanding the repercussions,” DeMarco says, amused. “Like, ‘I have to get a new phone number now.'”

Whether guerilla-style like the barbecue, a “Why not?” like putting his address on an album, or drunken hijinks like the Advisor, there’s a common thread in DeMarco’s persona, a willingness to just follow through with random ideas and see what happens. What happens, usually, is that there are a lot of people who really care, that there are people who will make a pilgrimage to be in his presence. It’s curious, whatever it is about DeMarco that inspires that kind of fervent devotion and fascination. Nowadays, there is certainly something appealingly mythical about his day-to-day life: the eternally laid-back singer-songwriter, a small house on the water with his girlfriend of five years and a few friends, where you can just stroll up and have a conversation with the man if you want to make the journey. If DeMarco made darker or stranger music or was less accessible as a person, there might even be something mystic about it, the enigmatic artist living in a forgotten corner of New York, by the sea.

DeMarco repeatedly cites two primary influences: the Beatles and Jonathan Richman. He likes simple songs, he likes love songs. “If you follow that template, then it’s like … I guess it makes sense that people would catch on? Obviously I can’t compare myself to something like that. I’m just a shrimp making songs in my bedroom.” There’s something telling his constantly references to the Beatles and Richman, though. In the Beatles, you’ve got the purest, most universal representation of pop music ever. With Richman, it’s a little more askew: frontman of proto-punk heroes the Modern Lovers, later pursuing a long solo career of doing his thing, which has often been odd and simple songs with catchy melodies. You can hear that in DeMarco’s music, the perpetual relatability mixed with a thoroughly idiosyncratic approach and presentation.

There’s something off-kilter about the pop music DeMarco makes. It follows the simple and catchy formula of his heroes, but there’s always something a little bit woozy about it, too, like the way Some Other Ones hit me at the barbecue. The guitar tone that runs through his music — apparently a product mostly of the gear he uses, including a very cheap guitar, and some effects like chorus — is sickly-sweet, way too pleasant and pristine to the point that it makes it interestingly nauseous in quality if you listen to it too much. But it’s almost always earnest, direct songwriting, which is the other contrast of DeMarco as a figure. He writes a lot of sweet-sounding music that’s easy for a variety of people to enjoy, but his reputation as the cheerily vulgar arch-jokester, the anarchic stage presence, runs counter to that. Whatever mixture is occurring here, it produces someone people adore, someone people look up to. It produces someone people want to travel and meet just to say “Wow, we’re here,” and it produces someone that’s as appealing to a Bonnaroo crowd full of men in overalls and women who may have lost their clothes as it is to Shamir driving around Las Vegas with his friends.

The house really is on the water, with a backyard and an enclosed back porch and everything. It’s a sizable place for New York life, a place where DeMarco moved last October after getting sick of living in apartments — particularly because of the difficulty of playing and recording drums in a situation like that. He describes the house as “kind of a ramshackle weird art space,” and, fair enough, it’s full of a lot of random shit. In the porch area there’s a skeleton decoration and a comic book-version Captain America cutout hanging on the wall, a cactus, a birthday hat tethered to a pair of binoculars by its string, and assorted wresting dolls. There are instruments and cigarette packs in various places around the house, and a lamp made out of a Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup bottle. DeMarco’s room itself, where he recorded Another One, is full of instruments against one wall, behind which hangs a rug with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. (DeMarco has recorded all of his releases wherever he was living at the time, and doesn’t seem overly interested in using studios anytime soon.)

For a while, DeMarco and I sit in that back porch and look out at the water as we talk. It’s easy to hear how Another One was made here. If all of DeMarco’s music is his own warped, personal vision of pop songs, the new EP is specifically a warped vision of pop filtered through spending time out here. It isn’t hard to picture the album as music emanating from some beat-up old stereo, from one of the sailboats in the distance. For DeMarco, it’s pretty matter-of-fact: “I just wanted to write some songs, had a bit of time off, so I did, and I’m really happy with the way it came out. I don’t think it should be heralded as ‘My Next Big Release.'” It was a chance to get some more work out there — it’s been a year since Salad Days, but a year and a half since he wrote those songs. It was also a chance for him to experiment more with the structure and texture of his songs. “I think I definitely went in a different direction with this one,” he says. “But the basic way I did it … there’s more synthesizer, more keyboard on it, [but] it still sounds like Salad Days. It’s not a huge jump.” As DeMarco’s saying this, a tugboat starts blaring out in the water, a bizarre counterpoint to the carhorns and sirens you might associate with daily noise in the rest of New York.

“[For Another One], I just had fun and wrote some love songs,” DeMarco says, comparing it to its predecessor, Salad Days. When that album came out last year, the big narratives ran along the lines of “This is the mature Mac DeMarco record,” or “This is the sad Mac Demarco record.” DeMarco describes going into Salad Days grumpy and tired of touring, but says that the process of recording it reminded him why he likes doing all this. He shrugs off the narrative that was put onto the record (“It was a big release, and people were trying to find a spin”), and has moved well beyond how he was feeling before Salad Days. “It’s lucky that I get to tour and lucky that I make money off music,” he says. “It’s a privilege. You can’t complain about that shit, it’s fucking ridiculous.”

“This one is a very personal record for me, too, I think even more than Salad Days” DeMarco says. “With [Another One], they’re love songs. They’re all love songs.” DeMarco tried to angle the set of songs towards a set of qualities within the larger spectrum of love, to get at the idea of the whole experience, good and bad, sure and unsure. By his estimation, his songs have their specific meanings to him and his life, but that doesn’t even necessarily matter for listeners. “You can speak in general terms but people still catch the vibe of what you’re trying to say,” he says. Again, he cites the Beatles: “These very general songs conveying a pretty basic emotion are so powerful.” When DeMarco listens back to one of his own songs, he knows where it came from. But he wants his fans to take it on their own terms — in a way, it’s of a piece with his general openness as a person and a musician. “When you write a song and put it out there, it’s not yours anymore,” he explains. “It’s everybody’s. It’s something for me, but everyone else can do whatever the fuck they want with it. None of that shit belongs to me anymore.”

***

There is nothing much to do in Far Rockaway. DeMarco doesn’t have any local restaurants that he frequents. When we get into his car — that same ’87 Volvo that was parked on the sidewalk at the barbecue, which I now notice comes complete with a bead cover on the passenger seat — we cruise around his neighborhood a bit, to see some of the places that might be a daily part of DeMarco’s life. That’s the deli where he buys cigarettes, and then a little area near the water. That’s pretty much it.

It’s a weird spot to live, as a musician on the rise. An hour or so ago, DeMarco had been describing to me the turning point that occurred with Salad Days: He has “regular people” fans. He characterizes this as the dude who says, “Hey, baby, I bought you concert tickets,” which he conveys in another of his cartoon voices, this time a gravelly Southern accent. “I’m totally happy with anybody who wants to listen to the music or is vaguely interested or wants to come out to the shows; it’s just surprising,” he explains. “It’s not where I came from, it’s not what I was used to.” It’s serene out here, but it’s also odd to find a musician in that world — finding success and notoriety — remove himself to a degree.

DeMarco welcomes the attention, the fact that people are interested in his music. The times of broke tours in a vehicle threatening to offer up its last gasp, playing to almost nobody, are only a few years in the rearview, after all. But his particular brand of success — the kind that keeps him on the road constantly, a fixture on the festival circuit — also means he’s never been much a part of the city he’s lived in for almost three years. His scene is the bands he sees on the road all the time, not the up-and-comers in Bushwick. Sometimes he takes the train into Brooklyn or Manhattan if he wants to go out drinking; sometimes he’ll drive in to see friends play. “To tell you the honest truth, I just don’t go in there that much,” he says of visiting the city proper. “There has to be a pretty good reason.”

Mostly, he likes the serenity, the ability to focus out here. We drive down a blocked-off road that, once you get out and proceed on foot, leads to a muddy stretch of land along a marina. DeMarco gestures over toward a bunch of boats and docks, explaining there are some artist spaces out here, “full of weird people like ‘Yeah I’m a surfer but I live in New York.'” Trash, abnormally large fish heads, and the remains of dead horseshoe crabs litter the path as he shows us around. He points to another point in the water, where they shot the cover of Another One. “I had my keyboard in the water,” he says. “Which was a bad idea, because it doesn’t work anymore.” DeMarco hangs out here sometimes, on the ground looking out at the water. Other times, he brings his boat — “Yeah, I’ve got a little sailing dinghy” — around this area. The dude has a goddamn boat. This officially makes him the first 20-something New Yorker I’ve heard utter such a sentence.

As we begin our drive back to DeMarco’s house, talk of the future comes up. While he’d like to get more music out as soon as possible, it will depend on his touring schedule, which is substantial in the near-future. For what he’s toying with now, he’s gravitating more and more towards those cheap video game synth sounds, gravitating towards experimenting with that more than on just Some Other Ones. When his lease is up in October, he doesn’t think he’ll stay out here in Far Rockaway, maybe not even in New York. He talks about maybe getting a ranch-style house, with a lot of property, maybe somewhere upstate.

Having seen DeMarco a handful of times, meeting him briefly once before, and knowing his general persona in the media, I’m struck by the person I’ve actually been spending time with today. That whole narrative that came up around Salad Days — the arch-jokester in person, more serious on record — doesn’t line up here. DeMarco’s general conversation is very funny, the voices he uses for impressions are outlandishly spot-on, but he’s overall so much more thoughtful than people give him credit for. This isn’t a goofball with a guitar who stumbled into this. This is a dude who cares about this thing he’s built, even if he hasn’t had the time to truly process it. I ask whether he feels he has a different persona as a musician than in his daily life. “I’m not trying to act. These are my songs, they’re about my life,” he says. “The way I portray myself … obviously when the camera’s on everyone acts a little crazy. But, yeah, then it raises the question where they’re like, ‘Yo, are you like this all the time?’ There are times where I party, and when I’m crazy, but I’m a regular guy, you know?”

Maybe that’s where the allure is to everyone: to the teenagers who drive out to Bushwick or Far Rockaway to glimpse DeMarco. Nothing seems to really happen out here on a daily basis. And you get the sense that’s the way he likes it. Earlier, he talked about the idea of balancing doing nothing, absolutely nothing, with the times where you’re sitting there exerting, trying to pull out some creative work. Those days where some random kids pull up and have a coffee with him, those are important days. They’re those days to just exist, to be that regular guy not onstage saying a bunch of crazy non-sequiturs. And for the people who come out to say hello or run into DeMarco on the street, maybe that’s part of the mystique. It’s moments like the amazement DeMarco displays at a particularly big horseshoe crab shell, or as we’re just hanging out on the back porch again and he’s sitting there in his sweatpants eating chili, that you realize it. It’s not a matter of humanizing the dude at the center of his frenzied following; he’s not that kind of artist. It’s a matter of knowing he’s not that kind of artist. He’s the kind of artist who will actually welcome you into his home. He’s the kind who doesn’t have to try to be universally relatable, because he simply is — floating along, going with the wind, trying out random stuff and seeing what happens.

Another One is out 8/7 via Captured Tracks. Pre-order it here.

[Photos by Julien Tell except BBQ photo by Daniel Topete.]

Tags: Mac DeMarco