The newly LA-based singer-songwriter discusses This Old Dog, a touching attempt to come to terms with a father-son relationship that never got off the ground
“This is nuts, this is nuts, this is nuts...” Mac DeMarco repeats the words softly, as if casting a protective spell. “Just the whole goddamn thing: life, relationships, family, friends. It’s fuckin’ nuts!”
It’s 9am in LA, and DeMarco has just been summoned from his bed to contemplate, among other things, his strained relationship with his dad to a stranger on the phone. Like most things about Mac, one of life’s natural sharers, much of this is already on the record – he sang breezily of Mac Senior’s crystal meth addiction as far back as 2012, on “Cooking Up Something Good”. But the 27-year-old songwriter was forced to reckon with the issue when his dad fell seriously ill at the end of last year.
“It was looking grim,” says DeMarco, who crashed at an old flatmate’s place in his Edmonton hometown while his dad was laid up in the hospital (he’s since been discharged and is “up and about”). “I’d just never really thought about it, and there was this moment there where it was like, ‘Well, this might be my last chance to think about it.’ Y’know, a lot of these songs I didn’t think I was gonna put on the record, I was just writing songs in New York and then funnily enough, I went on ahead and did it.”
The result is This Old Dog, easily DeMarco’s most sober and serious collection of songs to date, and a touching attempt to come to terms with a father-son relationship that never got off the ground (DeMarco’s dad was kicked out of the family home by his mum when Mac was just five). For the record’s title, DeMarco wanted a “simple, loving sentiment” to tie this bundle of conflicting emotions together.
“A lot of this music is not necessarily like, ‘I love you, I hate you’ or anything like that,” says DeMarco, blinking through the sleepy-dust. “It’s more me trying to understand what a relationship like that is supposed to look like. It’s just strange for me because I don’t know this man, but at the same time it’s your blood and, well, it’s not that he owes something – I mean, he does owe something – but it’s just, understanding a relationship like that is very, very strange, you know?”
‘Strange’, ‘weird’, ‘nuts’ – the words ripple through Mac’s conversation like refrains from a song whose particulars he can’t quite recall. This Old Dog is similarly freighted with a sense of the uncanny: on “Moonlight on the River”, he wrestles with the idea of losing a father who is nonetheless a virtual stranger (“it ain’t like I ain’t used to going on without you”). And on “My Old Man”, he sings about looking in the mirror and seeing a familiar face that’s not quite your own.
“A lot of this music is not necessarily like, ‘I love you, I hate you’ or anything like that. It’s more me trying to understand what a relationship (with my father) is supposed to look like” – Mac DeMarco
Does DeMarco worry about the traits he shares in common with his father? “Well, yeah – smoking, drinking, partying, that kind of shit,” he says, trailing off into a yawn. “Mmm, I’m so yawny! Just excess, all of that stuff. But at the same time anyone can be like, ‘Damn, I am looking like my dad these days.’”
One of DeMarco’s signatures as a songwriter is what we might call his ‘advice songs’. “Treat her better”, “act your age”, “calm down, sweetheart, grow up” – Mac’s back catalogue is littered with life-hacks like these, but what if all this advice is really just DeMarco trying to ward off his father’s mistakes by leaving himself these little reminders? “They’re written to myself, I think,” says DeMarco. “But I don’t know if I’m really a good person to be giving advice. It’s more like, ‘Oh jackass, what are you doing?’”
There are plenty more words to the wise on This Old Dog, but somehow the advice feels kinder, more forgiving, as if by thinking more deeply about his dad DeMarco was able to finally start owning his mistakes: “Carrying a name / Fall until my final day / Now who’s there left to blame?” he sings on brooding synth jam “On the Level”, begging the question – when his dad is gone, who will be left to hang his shortcomings on?
For the record’s sound, DeMarco wanted a pared-back feel to match the songs’ introspection. “All the stuff on the album for the most part is first take – maybe I fixed the drums and bass or whatever, but I just kinda let it be, I was trying not to fuck around with it too much,” he says. “I wanted to make something that felt real to me. Something I could sit with. And I think I can sit with this record.”
In any case, says DeMarco, simplicity is a virtue he’s increasingly drawn to in his songwriting these days: “I keep taking building blocks out. It’s like, ‘Ahh, I don’t really like writing choruses any more,’ or, ‘Ehh, I don’t really like writing bridges any more.’ I just like to simplify things as much as possible. The less tracks on a song I can get away with, the more stoked I am. But I wouldn’t even consider myself a songwriter really, I’m just like a bedroom musician.”
“Maybe making the record is the conversation, I have no idea. I’ll probably get some weird phone calls from my family but, hey, maybe those phone calls weren’t gonna come unless I made it” – Mac DeMarco
Still, you don’t play back-to-back shows in London to 10,000 fans (as DeMarco will this month) without some serious songwriting smarts. He might fight shy of making grand claims for his art, but there’s a master-craftsman’s touch evident in songs like “A Wolf That Wears Sheeps Clothes”, with its graceful, sighing harmonica and Paul Simon-ish melody, and “My Old Man”, which magically wrings a verse, bridge and chorus from a single, undulating three-chord sequence. DeMarco must know he’s selling himself short?
“I don’t know, I just like making songs in my house,” he shrugs. “Maybe I’m getting better. I’m sure a lot of people will tell you I’m getting worse... But I’m just enjoying myself, that’s it.”
On This Old Dog’s last song, “Watching Him Fade Away”, DeMarco agonises over a phone call he never made to his dad: “Haven’t got the guts to call him up / walk around as if you never cared in the first place / but if you never call you’ll end up stuck / without another chance to tell him off right to his face.” We’ve all had thoughts like these, where we imagine calling out someone who has done us wrong at great length and with devastating eloquence. But death has a funny way of putting that stuff in perspective. Is this a conversation he’d rehearsed many times in his head?
“There was definitely a period where I was like, ‘Damn, I should probably do this,’” says DeMarco. “But you go from that to being like, ‘Why the fuck should I?’ So it gets confusing again. But, who knows, maybe making the record is the conversation, I have no idea. I’ll probably get some weird phone calls from my family but, hey, maybe those phone calls weren’t gonna come unless I made it. We’ll find out.”
This Old Dog is out now on Captured Tracks