I quit smoking five years ago, but when I first heard Mac DeMarco’s “Ode to Viceroy”— an exquisite song about the budget Canadian cigarette manufacturer — I was so stricken by its charms that I started to feel the itch again. DeMarco is just that good.
Hailing from western Canada and now living in Brooklyn, the gap-toothed, 23-year-old plays ridiculous cover medleys at his live shows and once inserted some drumsticks into his anus onstage. He also makes easy-going, mildly warped guitar pop with supple licks and surprising depth. That’s really what counts.
After spending the past couple years touring in support of his excellent 2012 album, 2, DeMarco is now preparing to release its follow up, Salad Days, which comes out via Captured Tracks on April Fool’s Day. Recently I called him at his Brooklyn abode. We talked about Viceroy cigarettes, elusive baseball caps, the intimate direction of his new album, and more. — Peter Holslin
Have you heard from the Viceroy cigarette company yet about “Ode to Viceroy”?
No. I think the thing about it is that they’re like a subsidiary of a large tobacco company in Canada. Viceroy used to be an American cigarette. It was sponsored by Steve McQueen in maybe the ’60s and early ’70s. It’s a pretty popular cigarette, one of the first cigarettes that was filtered in the States. You know, kind of a classy cigarette back in the day. But it’s long gone in the States, they haven’t had it for a long time. But in Canada… They just bought the copyright to the name, the licensing for the brand, and slapped it on the shittiest stuff. They’re just kind of like, “This is for working-class, sketchy people to smoke.”
So the Viceroy name has really been spoiled, then?
Sort of, yeah. Now it’s just like a budget brand in Canada, budget brand in Eastern Europe, budget brand in Asia.
Has anybody told you that they smoke Viceroys now?
Yeah, definitely. I have an ashtray in front of me. Some kid gave it to me—a Viceroy ashtray. Some kid gave me an old Viceroy hat. A lot of kids even go as far as ordering them online, which I think is ridiculously expensive from Canada, with the import fees on tobacco or whatever. I don’t know why they do that. I think a lot of people assume that it’s a really nice cigarette, but it’s really just the shittiest one you can buy in Canada, pretty much.
What’s your ideal setting for writing music?
I just like to be alone and have nobody around. It’s kind of funny doing this last album, because I live in a big warehouse-style spot with, like, 10 people, so I’m sure they could hear me doing my vocal takes. It was probably a little bit weird for them.
Do you have anything you like to snack on while you’re writing music? Anything that lubricates the creative juices?
When I started doing Salad Days, it was very tight timing. I had exactly a month or something. So I went out one day and got everything I would need. I got a little coffee maker for my room. I got a rug, so I could sit on the floor. I got a bunch of bowls of kimchi noodles, so I could use the hot water from the coffee just to eat in here. And a bunch of packs of smokes. And yeah, just kinda shacked up. I think it’s mostly coffee. I drink maybe like 15 or 16 cups of coffee a day when I’m recording.
Jesus Christ, are you serious?
I guess that’s pretty much it. Just shitty food and a lot of coffee and a lot of cigarettes.
So you really had to buckle down to make the album?
Yeah. I get everything going as quick as possible and finish it as quick as possible. Because if I leave a song for a while, I usually come back to it and I’m like, “I fucking hate this.” It’s better to get it down and put it out.
If it’s coming really hard for you, does it feel like it’s not even worth it?
I usually give up on something if it’s pissing me off. I’m just kind of like, “Whatever.” I can’t imagine being one of those bands that goes in the studio and works on one song for, like, two weeks. If it takes longer than a day for me, usually it’s like, “Fuck this thing.” I just don’t have the attention span. If it’s not working, I feel like it’s not working.
How do you feel about the new album?
I’m kinda terrified by it, to tell you the truth. This album’s got a lot more personal stuff in it. It was weird recording it, because I would listen back to the songs, and usually when I’m recording and listening back, I’m very excited. “Oh, man, that’s great!” But this time, I was writing about very specific things that have happened to me in the last year, so it’s kind of more like, “Ooh, this kind of makes me feel uneasy.” Or like, “Ooh, why did I write this new song to show all these people?”
Plus, everybody’s waiting for the next Mac album. It’s like a big step or something in my career. That’s how everybody I work with is treating it. They’re putting all this pressure on it and shit. And it’s just kind of like, I don’t really give a fuck, you know? I’m happy with the album, with the music itself. But just the whole machine it goes through before people actually hear it, it’s just fucking driving me crazy. Last time, with 2, no one even gave a shit. I was able to talk about it a lot more a lot earlier before it was coming out. I didn’t have to worry about, like, “When is it getting announced?” It was just kind of like, “Oh, I’ve got this album coming out.” “Oh, that’s cool.” But this time, it’s like, “Yo, man, pressure’s on.”
Is it just that you’re bigger now, and you have more of a public profile?
Something like that. I don’t know, it’s ridiculous. I just miss the days when I could record five songs and just throw them on the internet, and be like, “Hey guys, you can download this for free!” But that doesn’t happen anymore.
It’s interesting what you said about the songs being more personal. Was there ever a point while writing the album where you were like, “Oh, god, I don’t know if I can show this to anybody”?
Yeah, pretty much all the songs. My girlfriend lives in the same tiny, tiny room as I do. We were in a loft bed or whatever, and she’s sleeping up there for the most part. And I’m recording and doing vocal takes and stuff, and I didn’t even want to show her. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to come off that way to most people. But for her and me, and people I’m close to, it’s like, “Ooh, this is strange.” But sometimes you gotta put it out to get it out, you know?
That always seems to be the more powerful music anyway. The stuff you’re terrified of.
Yeah, it could be.
A lot of your songs have this effortless feel to them. But whenever I listen to music like that, I assume of a ton of work went into it. Are there songs on this album you’ve really pained over?
The only thing I ever really pain over is writing lyrics. That’s where I get stuck sometimes. Other times, it’s totally fine. A lot of songs on my albums are, like, that’s the demo version. That’s the first take. But I do it all myself. Essentially, I did a lot of work because I have to do the guitar, do the drums, do the bass, do the vocals, do keyboard, do whatever else, and then I mix and master it too. So it’s like a process.
I love the guitar tone on 2. It has this lush, laid-back feel to it. What’s your secret?
The secret is an Alesis MicroVerb 4 rack mount, setting number 37, all the way wet. And I just run it through a little vibrator chain. I got this weird rack mount from my friend Jasper, he sold it to me for 50 bucks a couple years ago. I never really used board effects. I hated chorus—I was like, [in dismissive voice] “chorus, it sounds like Nirvana, grunge-y, whatever!” But then I heard a couple bands that were using a lot of chorus, and I was like, “Ooh.”
Pretty much every picture I see of you, you’re wearing a baseball cap. How many baseball caps do you own?
I only have one, really. I don’t know, it’s kind of a labor of love, finding those hats. You find a really good one, you know, and then it gets lost. I’ve had tons over the course of our touring of the last couple years. They always get either lost somewhere, or, like, I’ll go crowd-surfing and it’s gone, and then I’ll see it on Instagram the next day—“Oh, fuck, they stole my hat.”
What kind of cap do you have right now?
I have an Edmonton hat, from my hometown. Kind of like an embroidered script, just lettering of Edmonton. And it’s nice. It’s kind of a deeper baseball hat. God bless it. I’ve got a bit of a Patrick Swayze mullet going on right now, so I look like a bit of a redneck when I wear it. But it’s all good.