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Mac DeMarco photo credit Kiera McNally LEAD IMAGE

Mac DeMarco: ‘I’d like to feel some kind of peace’

As his addictive new album Five Easy Hot Dogs is released, the artist opens up to Emma Garland about the emotional – and real-life – journeys he’s been on lately, his monk-like existence and the worst thing he ate on the road...

There is a version of Mac DeMarco frozen in time and place. The 32-year-old – whose music is baked so deeply into the landscape of modern guitar pop it feels like he ought to be older – shot to prominence in the early-2010s and almost instantly came to define them. His warm, softly psychedelic music – blue wave, jizz jazz, whatever you want to call it – goes hand in hand with what we might now think of as the last hurrah before social media redefined the cultural landscape. Stick on “Freaking Out the Neighbourhood” or “Salad Days” and a slide show will begin with or without your permission. Second-hand plaid shirts, Vans Authentics, Wayfarers. Portlandia, the Valencia filter, free mixtapes. An iPhone 4 with a shattered screen. Every indie band seemed to be on an endless, lawless tour, surrounded by beer bottles and Lomography film. Grimes in ballet gear pissing everyone off by dropping “All I Want For Christmas” in a still unreleased Boiler Room set. And then there was Mac DeMarco, who continues to exist in the zeitgeist as a caricature of the ultimate millennial slacker. A bard of good times and cheap thrills, with riffs coming out of his arse and a lit cigarette stuffed in every face hole.

That’s not quite the Mac I get on the phone one morning in January. Calling from his place in LA, the Mac of 2023 is contemplative. He speaks slowly and kindly, like Bob Ross. He hasn’t smoked in over a year, hasn’t drunk in three, and spends a lot of time talking about the question that tends to beleaguer most people who are extremely good at partying – namely the one of peace and happiness, and where to find it. This mood shift was reflected in 2019’s Here Comes The Cowboy, an album of melancholic porch songs that bade farewell to his usual tie-dyed garage rock sound and embraced a kind of meditative minimalism. Those hoping for a return to Viceroy might be disappointed to learn that he’s taken this a step further on his new album Five Easy Hot Dogs, but in doing so comes out with something oddly disruptive.

An instrumental project written during a four-month road trip that took him from LA to Utah via Canada, Five Easy Hot Dogs resists the machinery of contemporary anything. It’s untethered from the internet, untethered from the circus of a traditional release cycle, untethered from speech. Mac piled everything he’d need to record into his 1990s Toyota Land Cruiser and drove, aimlessly and alone, showing up to places familiar and new without telling anyone. It’s a trip he felt the need to take following the pandemic and the death of his father, but the album isn’t about either of those things. There’s no narrative besides “I was in it while I was in it, and this is what came out of it, just the way it was.” There are no singles, no quietly devastating slice-of-life observations entwined with rock-kicking guitar licks, no generational hooks (“Missing hippie Jon, salad days are gone…”). There is just sound – both ambient and sharp, like the feeling of staying up too late with your feelings – and space, which isn’t to say it’s sparse. Every note, beat and pause is understated but exact, creating an emotional document more akin to a video game soundtrack than anything else.

He ate at truck stops outside of Fargo, “lost his marbles” in Salt Lake, and listened to “Had To Fall In Love” by The Moody Blues (opening lyric: “What mattered to me was the right to be free / Like I’ll be someday / I’m waiting for my heart to lead the way”) at least 600 times. And all those influences are tucked into the album in some shape or form, but if Five Easy Hot Dogs is about anything at all it’s the act of living. As Mac put it himself: “This record sounds like what rolling around like that feels like”. It’s a hard sell in an era of impatience, nostalgia and opinion, and he’s not really bothered if people don’t listen to it, which only grounds it further in the realm of simple pleasures (or “touching grass”, if you want to be online about it). It’s by no means a career-defining release – at least not in the traditional sense, though it perhaps marks the start of something else – but it’s also not trying to be. Either way, it’s an incredibly addictive album that contains more weight than its surface would suggest.

How are you finding having a home base after spending an extended time wandering?

Mac DeMarco: I’ve been here a little longer than I expected, but I like being in LA. I feel like I’ve lived here for quite a few years and I still don’t understand a lot of things about it, so I’m trying to make an effort to. I’ve been out of town a couple of times since then, but I would just like to fuck off to Asia or Europe or… something.

What about LA don’t you get?

Mac DeMarco: LA has a very specific character or personality. There’s the one that’s upfront – the way it’s shown in movies or TV or whatever, which is this caricature of it, but I don’t know if that’s the true heartbeat. It’s the same as any transplant city in the United States, where young hipsters move here and live in certain neighbourhoods – and I understand those neighbourhoods, because that’s what I am. I did the same thing in New York and it was like why doesn’t anyone hang out in Jamaica, Queens? What’s up with Sheepshead Bay? Let’s go to Long Island! I like to really get to know a place, and LA is interesting. It's very strange… a very, very strange city.

What do you think you learned about yourself on your four-month road trip?

Mac DeMarco: Spending that amount of time alone, having to sit with your thoughts for as long as you do, is strange. It’s a good exercise, [but] I’m not very good at it. I’m travelling all the time on tour, but everything’s taken care of. You have somewhere to be, someone’s making sure [you’re there], you have a tour manager. But with this it was like, I don’t know where I’m going, I have no destination in the GPS. Those skills were a bit rusty. Like, ‘OK, time to book a hotel... What am I gonna eat today… Jesus Christ’. I feel like I took care of a lot of things in my personal life, or emotionally, on this trip. There was a lot of family stuff that I had to do. I looked at all of that but I didn’t really look at myself that much… Well, I don’t know. This is turning into therapy. But it was good. It’s good to do that kind of thing. Adventure!

“That’s what I’d like out of life: new experiences. Everybody wants old shit right now. Everybody wants things to sound old. There’s a lot of nostalgia. And I like nostalgia just as much as the next guy, but I want new things that make me feel alive” – Mac DeMarco

From the founding premise to the way it was recorded to how it sounds, Five Easy Hot Dogs is basically as far away from life as dictated by the internet as you can get. Pulling up to a new area unannounced, writing these meditative instrumentals with whatever you had to hand… It’s literally the opposite of being at home and having an opinion on the internet, which is what so much of pop culture revolves around now. Did you feel liberated by that process?

Mac DeMarco: 100 per cent. I don’t like the way that everything, including the music industry, works that way. I don’t like that everything has to have this narrative and everybody’s picking everything apart. I don’t know. Humans are complicated, and I have my ups and downs. I’d just like to find some kind of peace, and feel some kind of happy. And I think that this record is about me trying to figure that out, and it helped me in a big way. That’s the reason why it sat on the shelf for a year. I didn’t think I was going to show anybody because [laughs] who cares? I remember sending it to my label and they were like [affects goofy music industry guy voice] ‘W-what’s this??’ I haven’t put out a record in a long time, you know, so I think they were hoping, like, ‘Can’t you make another record about a family member dying or something?’

I think the album is a bit hard to ingest. There are no singles. Even this – you’re the only person in the UK that I’m talking to for press. I don’t really want to do press. People can just take the music as they want to, and that’s that.

I guess one interpretation of the album is that it’s an accurate reflection of drifting from one place to another, but life is so busy that often travelling is the only time you get to experience the joy of doing nothing – especially driving, since you can’t look at your phone or whatever. Do you see travelling as a kind of creativity in that way?

Mac DeMarco: Kind of. I’m really bad at vacation, but I really do love it. For me, it’s more like being thrust into situations where I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m a little out of my element and I have to figure it out. I like the adventure – especially after COVID. Just travelling and seeing things was interesting. It was new. I think that’s what I’d like out of life: new experiences. Everybody wants old shit right now. Everybody wants things to sound old. There’s a lot of nostalgia. And I like nostalgia just as much as the next guy, but I want new things that make me feel alive.

In the press release you mention that when you first got home you felt as though you’d given up on the idea and failed to finish what you set out to do. Could you say a bit more about what you mean by that?

Mac DeMarco: I have a lot of people in my life that are like [affects goofy music industry voice again] ‘so pal, when’s that next record coming out?’ And I set out to make ‘that next record’, which would be an album with songs and singles. But when I came back after I’d kind of lost my marbles in Utah, and was feeling kind of fucked up, I realised that I hadn’t made ‘that next record’. But listening back to the stuff I was like, this feels like an album. For me, this record sounds the most like me that I’ve ever been able to put across. It’s the real essence of the music that I grew up with, or what really resonates inside. It just kind of oozed out. I like the purity of it.

Speaking of purity, you’re raw-dogging life now too – no drinking, no caffeine, no smoking. How’s that going?

Mac DeMarco: Yeah, I’m a bit of a monk. I haven’t vaped or smoked a cigarette in almost a year now, so that’s coming along. I haven’t drunk in like three years, and that one wasn’t so tough. Quitting smoking was pretty fucking difficult. The caffeine thing is interesting. I’m pretty wired up even without caffeine. If I have a coffee or I accidentally have a green tea or something I feel like a crackhead. But I think I’m just obsessed with this feeling of being released from things. It’s interesting, the control you can have over your own life. It’s interesting to see what I can subtract and how it feels. I think it all comes from stopping drinking, because I don’t know if I was ever chemically addicted to alcohol but I was like an Olympian drinker. It was bad. I was a mess. I was killing myself in front of a crowd every night and it was horrible. I think maybe my quitting style, or my averting substance style, is a little manic.

“For me, this record sounds the most like me that I’ve ever been able to put across. It’s the real essence of the music that I grew up with, or what really resonates inside. It just kind of oozed out. I like the purity of it”

Could you tell me more about what happened in Utah? You mentioned you’d ‘lost your marbles.’

Mac DeMarco: So I quit smoking in Pennsylvania. I left New York and I was like ‘OK, I’m going to go to Utah, live there for a month, and become Salt Lake guy. Meet some people, rent a house, record.’ But I quit smoking and fucking lost it. It was a three-day drive to Utah from New York and I was sleeping in the car, so there was very little human interaction for the first week of quitting smoking. It’s funny, because quitting nicotine makes it very hard for me to interact with people, and I went to this tiny restaurant in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. Even ordering I was like ‘yeah uh-I uh-I’ll-uh I’ll have-uh chick-uh-chicken parm-parmigiana’. Anyway, I was in the car for a couple of days, got to Salt Lake, and I don’t know anything about Salt Lake.

What ended up happening was that I couldn’t find a long-term rental, so I had a bit of a freakout and booked this ski lodge place in Panguitch, Utah, which is up near Zion National Park. It was in a lake town, in the middle of nowhere in winter. Nobody else is around for maybe 100 miles. It was huge, there was taxidermy everywhere. There were a couple of doors that were like ‘DO NOT ENTER. YOU WILL BE REPRIMANDED FOR ENTERING’. It was like The Shining. I lasted one night and was like, I gotta get the fuck out of here. So I went back to LA and pretty much went straight to Coachella.

I think more than 24 hours in a place like that would make me lose my mind.

Mac DeMarco: For years I’ve been ragging on people for being like ‘yeah we went out to the woods to make this record’. That was my one time trying it. Turns out, I don’t like it. I like recording in the city. I’ll record in a hotel room in New York or something and that’s great, because you can bust out into the street and have human interaction. I like the hidden-in-plain-sight kind of vibe.

Can you think of a particular day or moment of the trip that affected you most?

Mac DeMarco: There was a day when I was in Victoria and I went up to see my uncle Ted, who I don’t know very well and I hadn’t seen in years. His brother, my dad, had passed away a couple of months before I left on this trip. Where he lives was where I was born, and I hadn’t been there for a very long time. I think a lot of people are going to take this record as this chill thing of me driving around doing nothing, and I am, but I’m also taking care of stuff that’s pretty near and dear to me that I don’t necessarily want to splash about. I think that period of [the trip] was kind of like turning over stones that hadn’t been turned over in a long time. It’s cathartic, or important, for me. Did anything really end up getting done with any of it? I’m not really sure. But it’s a strange sensation.

You set yourself the goal of going out on the road and not coming home until this record was finished. How did that feel compared to your usual process?

Mac DeMarco: I’ve never used studios so I’ve never had the clock hanging over me, but it’s great. I keep saying it’s like en plein air painting, you know when people take an easel out to the mountains and set it up and paint whatever’s in front of them in nature? You can just take a guitar out and go to the beach and write a song – and this album is kind of the recording studio version of that. Sitting in a musty recording studio or bedroom or garage all day can feel very stagnant, it’s not very enjoyable. It’s funny, the concept of this whole record is trying to make recording fun – and now I know that it works. When you record in the same place all the time, the acoustics of a space and the way that certain instruments sound in it are going to be relatively the same, at least before manipulation. With this, I’d pull up to a spot and be like, ‘well, I wonder what the drums are going to sound like in here…’ And sometimes they weren’t good, sometimes they were, but having that variable is cool.

Finally, what was the worst thing you ate on the road?

Mac DeMarco: It was on the way to Chicago. I’d just left Fargo and I stopped at a truck stop somewhere. It was a cute truck stop. Old timey, nice-looking place. I ordered a breakfast and it was the greasiest, double deep-fried, side-of-the-highway insanity. And I’ve had shitty breakfasts before, but something about eating that and getting back the car… I was like, I feel like shit, I smell like shit, this is brutal. It’s a very fine ecosystem when you’re in your car that much. You don’t wanna fuck your flow up. So that was pretty bad. I had a miniature deep-dish pizza at the Chicago Bulls game as well. That was delicious, but in the same way it made me feel… quite insane.

Five Easy Hot Dogs is out now