The Anniversary

Salad Days Turns 10

Captured Tracks
Captured Tracks

Mac DeMarco was always an odd fit for Captured Tracks. By the time he’d signed with the buzzy Brooklyn label in 2012, it was an indie hit factory, releasing debut albums from bedroom acts like Beach Fossils and Wild Nothing, American kids obsessed with the sounds of 1980s Britain and the undying melancholy those records conveyed. They were a far cry from their Canadian labelmate DeMarco, whose first release for the label, Rock And Roll Nightclub, sounded like Elvis fronting Ween. His first proper album, 2, which arrived later that year, sounded less like the C86-inspired songs of his labelmates and more like a Dead bootleg that’d been left out in the rain. The bands on Captured Tracks were often called dream pop; DeMarco referred to his own music as “jizz jazz.”

Despite the differences, or maybe because of them, he quickly became the label’s breakout star, known as much for his deformed pop as for being Mac DeMarco. As a live act, he was the rare indie frontman who seemed to relish the spotlight, delivering stage banter with the sleaze of a ’70s DJ and a flash of his gap-toothed smile. Sets often concluded with extended medleys of half-practiced covers — an obscenity-filled take on the Bachman-Turner Overdrive, a sour-note spin on the Police. On one especially raucous night, he shoved a drumstick up his ass while singing U2’s “Beautiful Day”; on another, there was some lighthearted “poobanging.” “If you go to a show and people just play the music, that’s fine, if they’re good,” he told Adam Friedland in 2023. “It’s kind of boring, though.”

Every night, DeMarco and his band would chug beers and pass around cigarettes, bringing the vibe of a basement show to clubs and festivals. Adoring kids in the audience referred to him and his girlfriend, Kiera McNally, by their first names, as if their hilarious friend also just happened to be the headliner. “I’m like a meme,” he said in 2017. “My music is one thing, and then there’s also this weird personality that people attach to it.” His rabid fans, he admitted in 2014, “kind of scared the shit out of me.”

By the time touring for 2 was winding down, DeMarco was burnt out. “At first they’re like, ‘I’m so excited to hear these songs!’ And then after about five months, they’re like, ‘Are you going to do something else?'” he said. “And then, like, eight months: ‘Where’s your new album?’ So, I’m like, ‘Oh God, I gotta go home right now and write the best album ever.'”

Home had recently changed for DeMarco, who’d moved from Montréal to Brooklyn. The plan was to buckle down and track the new record in his apartment, but the high expectations for his follow-up began to weigh on him. “A lot of pressure from the label, a lot of pressure from every which way,” he told The Guardian. Still, he kept after it, trying his best to tune out the rest of the world. He smoked two packs a day in the tiny windowless room, a habit that began to warp his reel-to-reel tapes, and played every instrument himself, just like he had on previous albums.

In time, the place began to feel like a hermitage, a dimly lit cave where he could hide away from the hype. DeMarco had been reading a lot about the Freemasons and was struck by a key part of the initiation called the Chamber of Reflection. “It’s like a meditation room, and they lock you in there for a period of time,” he told Pitchfork. “The purpose is to reflect on what you’ve done in your life already and move on from it.” Staring at his half-broken equipment, rickety plywood loft, and pristine Steal Your Face flag, DeMarco believed he’d found his own. It’s a feeling he’d commit to warped tape on “Chamber Of Reflection,” a song built on Shigeo Sekito’s “The Word 2.” The synth-drenched song is a departure from the lighthearted jammy tracks from 2, with the chorus featuring just two words, repeated over and over: “Alone again.”

Another synth-forward track addressed his burnout directly, attempting to process the disorienting experience of becoming a recognizable face. Like “Chamber Of Reflection,” the massive sound of “Passing Out Pieces” belies the modest recording space where it was recorded. Lyrically, it’s a spiritual sequel to “Freaking Out The Neighborhood,” a 2 highlight he wrote after his mom learned of the drumstick incident, though “Passing Out Pieces” isn’t apologetic. DeMarco seems to accept that being an artist requires sacrificing yourself. “What mom don’t know has taken its toll on me,” he sings, sounding uncharacteristically morose.

The eventual record these tracks would appear on was called Salad Days, a title that led many critics to assume DeMarco was looking back fondly at his early records while moving on from their childish tendencies. The A.V. Club called it “a strikingly mature achievement.” The NME proclaimed that it marked “the end of DeMarco the prankster.” It’s easy to understand why: “Chamber Of Reflection” and “Passing Out Pieces” sounded like the work of someone reckoning with the direction of his life, while the album’s opening title track sounded like an introduction to a coming-of-age opus: “Always feeling tired, smiling when required/ Write another year off and kindly resign.” But like nearly everything DeMarco had done to that point, the song was both sincere and winking. He knew it was ridiculous for a 23-year-old to believe his life’s already over. He knew it was ridiculous to crib the title from a legendary song about the same thing. Even the breakthrough he’d had in his home studio, he knew, was ridiculous. “Isolation, man. That’s what indie rock’s about, man,” he joked while mixing the record. “Get yourself a fucking cabin in the middle of nowhere, man. That’s when your brain can really feel it, man.” Fittingly, the album was released on April Fools’ Day — 10 years ago today.

The promotional cycle for Salad Days was mostly indistinguishable from his earlier antics, albeit in front of a much larger audience. The record was announced (under an alternate title) with a bizarre video of a naked man and someone singing the lines “Gimme pussy/ A little bit of pussy.” On tour, he asked audiences to “kneel for Neil” while he played “Unknown Legend.” Deluxe versions of the album came with a coke mirror.

Despite the outward-facing persona, it’s clear DeMarco’s mindset began to change during the production of Salad Days. Captured Tracks wasn’t convinced the record he initially delivered was finished and suggested he re-record some songs from his previous project, Makeout Videotape. When DeMarco refused, they urged him to write a single they could pitch to the late night shows. He reluctantly complied, writing the chipper “Let Her Go,” but the experience left him bitter. “It’s like going to the art gallery and being like, ‘Your painting doesn’t look done to me,'” he said.

Critics often compared DeMarco to one of his heroes, Jonathan Richman, another cheeky singer-songwriter who balanced wide-eyed youth and self-aware cheese. For DeMarco, Richman’s music was only part of what made him legendary. Despite finding success with both the Modern Lovers and his solo work, Richman intentionally resisted the trappings of the music industry — he drove himself to shows, largely refused interviews, moved to rural Maine. Throughout his career, he’s refined his signature sound rather than reinvented it. “He knows who he is and it’s a fucking beautiful thing,” DeMarco told Marc Maron. “He’s him. He’s happy.”

Salad Days’ popularity afforded DeMarco the ability to follow Richman’s lead. His next two records for Captured Tracks were low-key affairs, ones that lacked a T.-ready chorus like “Let Her Go.” In 2019, DeMarco finally left the label and started his own. From that point forward, he’s done whatever he’s wanted, including driving across country recording an instrumental album, data-dumping nine and a half hours of demos, and getting sober.

As DeMarco has retreated from the spotlight, he’s only gotten more popular. “Chamber Of Reflection” went Platinum in 2022, while Salad Days was certified Gold in 2023. (In total, DeMarco has an astounding three Platinum and seven Gold records.) Most noticeably, the sound of Salad Days has become a fixture in popular music, with acts like Rex Orange County, Steve Lacy, and Dominic Fike sanding down the rougher edges for maximum impact. It’s hard to imagine DeMarco caring.

“Maybe I’ll be an old songwriter/poet/pimp someday, but essentially I’m a fratboy or something like that,” he said back in 2013. “I don’t know. I gotta get a Neil Young-style ranch. Drink 500 beers and relax.”

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from The Anniversary