Mac DeMarco On… Billy Joel’s Boldness, Kids in the Hall, and Keeping Music Weird

August 12, 2015 Interviews, ST024

The following Skype interview is taken from the summer issue of our free iPad magazine. Download it on the App Store—complete with streaming music on every spread!—and check out a complete archive of uncut features here.


Photography AARON RICHTER
Interview ANDREW PARKS

What’s that image on your Skype profile?
It’s Andy Summers from The Police.

Any reason you picked him?
There was a Police book at my label’s (Captured Tracks) store so I held it in front of my face like some people do with records.

Your career has grown a lot over the past couple years. Do you feel like you’re finally found a balance between your music and personal life?
Yeah. We’ve kinda got the hang of it now. I don’t feel like shit all the time on tour anymore.

What percentage of the time do you feel like shit now then? Did it go from 90-percent to about 20?
Well I was having a good time before, but you grow up after a couple years and realize, “I can’t get drunk like this every night.” Things change. We used to sleep on kids’ couches, and we still do a lot of the time, but it used to be like, “Hey guys, we’ll give you a free record if you let us crash at your house. But now it’s a little different. I don’t know. I don’t want to call it a job but you learn how to do it better.

How do you like living out in Rockaway?
I’ve been there since last October. It was kinda funny because everyone was like, “You’re moving in for the winter?” And I was like, “Yeah.” It was very depressing the first five or six months we lived there. Now it’s heating up and you see more young people come out of the woodwork. It’s pretty good now. The thing is, when I lived in Brooklyn before, we’d be like, “Let’s go to the beach.” And now I can just walk there every day. It’s nice to live by the water. I really enjoy it.

Was that the main reason you moved out there—to live out by the beach?
Well I lived in Montreal before I moved here, and for me, the West Coast is more about renting a house with a couple of your friends instead of a really small, shitty, stinky apartment. I just got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t do the apartment thing anymore. You can’t record music there really. So I went on Craigslist and looked up a full house—for lease by owner, because I hate the broker shit that goes on in New York. And the house I live in now is the only one that came up on Craigslist. I was kinda lucky.

Literally the only one out of all the boroughs?
Yeah.

So ending up there wasn’t really your plan?
I’d played with the idea of moving out there but I didn’t really know what was up out there. I know some people live in Rockaway Park, but Far Rockaway is a totally other kettle of fish. It’s kinda a dangerous, sketchy neighborhood. But yeah, I told people I was going to move out here and they said, “You’re crazy; you’re going to get mugged out there.” But I have a couple friends who lived out in Queens their whole life and they were like, “Fuck yeah, let’s move out there.” It worked out.

Are you living there with a few other people then?
I live with three other dudes. It’s two of the guys who help out with Juan Wauters, who’s on Captured Tracks as well—Matt, the guy who does his artwork and show design, and this guy Tall Juan, who has his own music and also plays guitar with Juan Wauters. Then there’s this other guy Nick who does this band Speculator and Cool Angels. We’re all just beach bums now.

It’s like the Captured Tracks house then?
In a way, yeah.

Is it a bit like when you used to live with Pierce and Joe (from Walter TV) in Montreal?
Sort of, except I was in a stinky, shitty apartment. But yeah. I like to be surrounded by people making stuff. It makes me want to make stuff more.

Mac DeMarco

What do you miss most about living with those two guys?
I miss hanging out with them. There was always something going on, like Pierce making a video for Walter TV or whatever.

You’ve known both of them for a while now. Tell us something about each of them that they wouldn’t want us to know.
Joe took a shower in my friend Eddie’s room once at my old house in Brooklyn, and he found a penny in his foreskin. He had no idea how it had gotten there or how long it had been there. So he had a penny riding around a while in his genitals; that was interesting.

I’ll give you a similar story for Pierce. Me and Pierce share the bed on tour a lot, and I’ve lost count of how many times he’s pissed the bed while sleeping beside me. That’s Pierce’s trick there. Lately he’s been pissing his pants onstage though.

This is intentional or involuntary?
Sometimes intentional, sometimes involuntary. We have to play more than an hour now, and he’s got a weak bladder. Sometimes he’ll just let it rip.

Let’s shift topics. What’s on your mind right now?
Billy Joel.

What about Billy Joel?
When I moved to New York, CBS 101.1 played Billy Joel all the time, so I’ve gotten pretty familiar with his music. But over the last couple days, I’ve tried to download his albums and give them a really good listen. I’m infatuated with them right now; I don’t know what it is. He’s kinda an asshole, but I like it. He’s very New York but he’s also a pimp. The thing that really gets me is if you look hit-to-hit with that guy, he’ll be like “Oh, I tried to rip off Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on that one.” He’s writing his own songs, but he takes other people’s music and just makes it about New York. And New York fucking idolizes him. It’s insane. And he hasn’t done an album for like 20 years, but he sells out Madison Square Garden every month? I love this guy. It’s driving me crazy, you know what I mean?

What’s one example of a Billy Joel hit that ripped another record off?
“Uptown Girl.” He’s singing exactly like Frankie Valli, and he says it in interviews. I thought it was a Frankie Valli song, but it’s a great Billy Joel song about New York. All of the songs are about New York and Long Island. It’s incredible.


Any songs of his surprise you? Maybe one that’s not a major single?
One song that’s kinda Cat Stevens-y, or maybe a little Paul McCartney-ish, is “Don’t Ask Me Why.” That song is incredible—so good. The same thing happened with me and Elton John about a year ago. I thought I knew Elton John, but then it was like, “Woah, Elton’s a pimp! He’s really amazing.” And since Billy and Elton are homies, I’m finally getting it—the two piano boys.

An average Brooklyn kid is gonna assume Billy Joel is lame, but he’s really an asshole huh?
Well your average hipster/Bushwick kid is gonna be like, “Billy Joel? Whatever.” But if you ask a real normal New York person, they probably love Billy Joel. It’s kinda like how people in Jersey love Bruce Springsteen so much. It’s crazy to me, too, because I could never imagine devoting such a huge portion of my music to a certain place. I never feel at home anywhere because I’m always moving around. But there guys are repping their shit, repping their state, repping their town. That’s incredible. I think it’s cool.

I can’t think of any time you’ve referenced Canada or New York directly.
I don’t like to do it. I like to keep it more open-ended so people can take what they need from it. Some kid from Thailand could be like, “This sounds like where I’m from.”

Do you think people even realize you’re Canadian anymore or do they just associate you with Brooklyn?
I don’t know, because it’s always a focal point: “Mac DeMarco; he’s from Canada!” They know that much, but most people don’t know where I’m from in Canada. They don’t know what my hometown is called or where it is. The funny thing is, now that I have a Wikipedia page, it says I grew up in Duncan. It’s where I was born, and I lived there for three months, but I grew up in Edmonton. So I’ll go to the West Coast of Canada now, and all these kids will be like, “Dude, Duncan represent! I’m from Duncan!” And I’ll be like, “Dude, I don’t even remember being there.” I feel like the place where I live has never had much to do with my identity.

It’s funny moving city to city, especially when you’re coming up in music, when you move away from a scene, they’re like, “He betrayed us!” And it’s like, “Go fuck yourself. What are you talking about? I’ll come back and play a show. Relax.”

Did you feel like that when you left Montreal since it’s such a small, tight-knit scene?
No, I never liked living in Montreal. And I don’t really like the music scene there. It was never my cup of tea, and I never felt like I ever fit in. Vancouver, I felt bad leaving. I really had a good time there. It’s a little less publicized, I think. Because bands move to Montreal and all of a sudden they’re like super famous. Like, “Hey, I’m Grimes!”

I don’t know. Montreal grosses me out. But that’s the thing; when I moved away from Vancouver, people were like, “How could you?” And I was like, “Fuck you.” And they were like, “You know what? Yeah, you’re right.” Edmonton is the worst though—my hometown. Because it’s got the middle of Canada stigma. All of those cities—Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg—have okay music scenes but when bands do well, they always leave and move to the coasts. They’re left with the lifers who are always like, “Man, I remember back in the day…” So I didn’t feel bad leaving but that’s the worst of the stuff.

Most Americans know a little bit about cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, but not much about the rest of Canada. It’s like it doesn’t even exist. Tell me a little bit about Edmonton. Is it a little bit like Calgary, with all its oil money and that?
Calgary thinks it’s a real hot commodity. They have a big city mentality even though they’re the same size as [Edmonton]. I like Calgary, though; it’s fun. Nowadays, there’s a lot of people who straight out of high school, or even before they’ve done high school, they start working on the rigs up there [in Edmonton]. It breeds a strange, not really my style of person. I guess you’d call them hicks, but they make a shit load of money and they all get these weird, cookie cutter houses out in the suburbs and everyone drives a huge truck. And they’ll kick your ass for no reason, which is kinda weird.

The funny thing is, these people are making a whack load of money now, and it’s destroying the polar ice caps. Most of the people working up there don’t have much thought about it. And in a couple of years, when they tap it dry, there’s going to be these giant, evil-looking oil infrastructure cities that are abandoned. And the economy of Edmonton, Alberta, and probably a lot of Canada, is going to get all screwed up. A lot of people say the same thing that happened to Detroit could happen there. It’s not a good vibe. We’ll see what happens.

Isn’t Alberta like Texas in a lot of ways, what with all the oil money and the love of rodeos and…
It’s weird. It’s very, “[Talking in hick voice] I don’t give a goddamn if the ice caps are melting. We’re getting a new hockey stadium downtown next year!” Okay buddy, enjoy your life. It’s a little fucked up. I’m glad I’m out of there, I’ll tell you that much. That’s the worst of the worst though. Edmonton still has a good arts community and some good bands. But the way I am is because of growing up there, so it can’t be that bad. I think I turned out okay.

Do you feel like your sense of humor came from being Canadian partly?
Yeah. I don’t know what it is; you’re just isolated up there. It’s hard to nail it down to the whole country having this sense of humor, but a lot of my crew is like that. For some reason, there’s a lot of funny people up there. The Kids In the Hall—amazing.

Who was your favorite actor on it?
I don’t remember his name but he looks like this guy who used to play drums in this band from Edmonton called Secret Fires.

Yeah, I’m not sure who that is.
Exactly. I don’t know who the guy is.

Well do you remember some of the skits he was in?
He has kinda a swoopy haircut, like a little comb over. And kinda beady eyes and protruding lips. Fuck it; I don’t fucking know.

Going back to Billy Joel, it sounds like you dive into artists really deeply. Have you always been like that—not just listening to the records, but reading the old interviews and watching the old videos?
Yeah. The music has to be good for me to be into it, but it’s about the personality as well. It comes from buying records when you were a kid and getting excited reading the booklet inside. It’s all about the bonus stuff. What I’ve come to realize—especially doing it myself and getting to tour around the world—is that a lot of people connect with the personality side. That’s a huge part of what we do. We’re not gonna sound perfect. We’re gonna fuck up. We’re gonna play songs for a long time. The band isn’t perfect, but I let them say what they want onstage and play their own parts. It’s a personality thing—part of the deal, like weird videos and merch items. Hopefully it keeps kids interested.

I can see why Rock and Roll Nightclub ended up the way it did—with all of the skits and stuff that made it sound like this fully formed thing.
Yeah. I take making music seriously, but you have to have a sense of humor about yourself. I invite people into my life. That’s how I do it.

That’s something that was missing in guitar-based music for a while: real personalities.
Well yeah. That’s the other thing too. Especially when I was coming up a couple years ago, when the shoegaze thing was coming back in a big way. It was all about looking at your feet, crossing your arms, and being too cool for school. I enjoy a lot of that music, but at the same time, I was always more into stuff like Jonathan Richman. “Jon was having a good time; I’d like to do that too.” So it’s partly me doing what I want to do, and partly and me not wanting to be one of those cool indie dickheads. Fuck that shit; it’s not for me.

Plus everyone sold their guitars for synths in recent years, just like that LCD Soundsystem song “Losing My Edge.”
Exactly.

And while there’s some keyboards on your new record, it’s not like there’s suddenly big beats on there.
For me, I’m not going to flip the switch on how I do things like a lot of bands do. And I do get labeled as a guitar band, but the only reason is that’s the instrument I know how to play. The guitar is serving the song I’m writing. But I’m learning how to play keyboard better now so that’ll start serving the song as well; it’ll be another flavor. I’m not going to switch it up with big, fat drum machine beats and real swoopy synths, but yeah….

If you could play electronic music well, would you?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. The songs that I’m able to write are the songs I’m able to write, whatever they may be. The path I’ve cut for myself is pop music—love-y pop music. That’s what I enjoy doing. And I don’t think I’m going to get sick of it anytime soon. You can bend the boundaries with that format. I love playing guitar, though; six things, god bless it.

Mac DeMarco

You also have a signature guitar sound now, so it’d be weird to take it out completely.
I’ll always tweak it, but it’s cool to have a guitar sound where it’s like, “Oh, that sounds like Mac.” That’s what keeps it interesting for me—trying weird sounds. You know that guy Connan Mockasin?

Yep. I love that guy.
Well I never, ever used guitar pedals; I had this big twin reverb amp and would just crank it all the way up. That had a very distinct sound too, but I never used effects pedals until I heard Connan’s album. I was like, “Woah, chorus guitar doesn’t have to sound like Nirvana. Man, this is insane, so strange.” Connan screwed me; I got addicted to it now.

He must feel like a long-lost brother or something.
Oh, I love that guy. I love him to pieces. I was kinda scared to meet him actually, because I had been listening to him for five years or something and he was a weird anomaly. “Why doesn’t this guy tour the states? Why isn’t his new album coming out? Where is he?” But then once I met him, he was just the nicest person on earth. He feels like a brother now, yeah.

How did you discover him in the first place?
Through videos. I saw that one for “It’s Choade My Dear,” where he has lemons on his eyes. And I don’t know; the few people I’d met who’d heard him would say, “Connan is incredible.” But then you find out he’s pretty big in Europe and plays with Charlotte Gainsbourg…

Going back to your love of pop music, when’s the first time a record resonated with you on a deeper level?
That album by John Lennon—the one with the Plastic Ono Band. I love the Beatles to death, but it can get humorous at times, and John can too even on that album, but some of the songs on Plastic Ono Band…. I remember getting that on vinyl and listening to it in my room, thinking, “Holy fuck.” That shit’s pretty heavy. He’s talking about his spirituality but he’s pissed, all “this is what I’ve gotta say.” And he’s screaming. That album freaks me out in a good way. I always go back to it. I was trying to make a real dry album like that on 2. It was a mixture between maybe Plastic Ono Band and Harvest by Neil Young. But yeah, I love that album. It’s like a statement the whole way through. It’s just real. Real recognizes real. It hits you.


Any song in particular that hits you?
That song “Mother.” That part at the end, it gets me every time.

When it comes to the Beatles, do you have a preference between John and Paul?
I mean, I love it all. John is really raw in a way, so I enjoy that aspect of it. He’s maybe not as musical as Paul, but then when you go to Paul—especially his solo work—his songs may be about bubblegum and gum drops, but the music side…. Any instrument he plays, you know it’s Paul playing it. But also George—I love All Things Must Pass. It’s one of my favorite albums. It’s crazy that three guys who can do it so well ended up in the same band. Ringo’s a great drummer too. I love his beats.


Not to go back to “the kids” again, but even with the Beatles, your average 18 year old may have not even heard their records. What’s a not-so-obvious song or record by them that would blow their minds—one that’s way weirder than anything you’d hear from someone in Brooklyn?
If you just played the medley at the end of Abbey Road, like, that’s insane. That’s gonna always be insane. Nobody does shit like that now. And for that to be the most popular, widely selling music of its time, yet be that strange and out there…. Now we have all these cock rock bands like Nickelback; I don’t know what the fuck happened. Maybe what Ariel Pink does now is as close as we get to the Beatles, but Ariel is by no means a huge, worldwide top-selling artist. He does well but…. maybe the world’s gone crazy. Or maybe I’m crazy, living in the past. I have no idea.

You mean how there’s no one who’s mainstream and weird now?
Yeah. I mean, Lady Gaga is trying to be a freak or whatever but that quality of being very meaningly and heartfelt, but also having a sense of humor about it, bands don’t do that anymore. Lady Gaga’s songs are cheesy. The Beatles weren’t cheesy. That’s the hardest thing with music: to not be cheesy, but also be meaningful. That’s the goal, I think.

Is trying to find that balance the hardest thing for you?
If I feel like I’m going too far in one direction, I just can it. It’s a weird thing. Some of my songs might be cheesy; I try and keep it light. It’s hard to explain.

Are you especially proud of any song in particular on this new record, maybe one that points towards what you’ll be working on next?
Um, I don’t really know. I don’t know what I’m working towards, because I haven’t started on anything yet. I’m not really sure. I really like this new LP, especially compared to Salad Days. I was really grumpy on that record. But with this one, I was just happy making music because I hadn’t done it in a while. It just felt good. It’s more about the songs on this one than anything else. For example, there’s songs that have no guitar on them; I’m trying to write a song on the piano or whatever. The idea of the song is what I’m going for. The title track on the album, I like that one. It’s a nice little nugget; you can just put it on a shelf and it’ll sit there like a nice nugget. And everything will be okay.

What’s the story behind that one?
I wrote all of the songs in a week. I’d gotten off tour and had a really bad ear infection, so I was out of commission for a couple weeks. After that, I figured I’d try and do a song or two a day. I don’t know; the whole album is love songs. And not just, “I love you, I love you.” It’s the whole spectrum of love. And they’re not necessarily about anyone or anything. They’re just fun. I just felt like writing some love songs.

Is it harder or easier for you to write love songs now that you’ve been in a relationship for a long time and some people know about your personal life now?
Well I say these things aren’t about anything but they are personal songs to me. The difference is with Salad Days this song was about this or that song was about that. This time, the songs mean something to me or link back to my life in some way, but it doesn’t matter to people who go out and buy the album. People can take them and reflect on their own life. For me to be like this is about this, it makes it harder for them to take it and run with it. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure album.

Is that exciting for you—having a platform now that you have a bigger audience?
It’s cool because once it comes out, these songs aren’t mine. They’re everybody’s. So there you go.

Since you’ve been in one yourself, what advice would you give someone in a long-term relationship to make it work?
Patience is important, and also, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. But if you do, do. That’s a general rule in how I live my life.

Listening to yourself rather than silencing the voice in your head?
Yeah, I mean, just make sure you’re happy. That’s the best advice you can give someone, I think.

I noticed some Simpsons sheets in the photos we did with you. Do you have any favorite episodes or characters?
There’s some episodes I’ve seen so many times I don’t want to see them anymore. With the new stuff, I give it an honest try but it’s pretty hard to watch. I usually try to stick with season four through seven. I don’t know; that’s the great thing about The Simpsons. I’m a fan but I’m not one of those guys who can do trivia. I’m terrible at that shit. The thing for me, is being able to jump in anywhere and enjoy myself. Its perspective on popular culture never gets old. There’s good value with that show. It’s consistent.