When it came time to make a new record, Mac DeMarco stayed out of the studio.
Instead, he hit the road, traveling solo from California to Canada to Chicago to Queens, New York. Along the way, she gave up nicotine and made a stop at a huge cabin in Utah, where she was “probably the only person for about 50 miles.” He was “terrifying,” he says, leaving after one night.
During this spontaneous adventure, DeMarco met up with friends, fans, and family, and returned home with “Five Easy Hot Dogs,” a collection of 14 instrumental songs named after the cities in which they were recorded.
Before its release, the “Prince of Indie Rock” spoke with Variety about the joys and horrors of touring, the problem with TikTok, and why he’s okay with being a “legacy act.”
For this record, you went on a road trip and said you weren’t coming home until you had an album. What was the process like in each city in terms of finding inspiration and then going out and recording the tracks?
The only thing I really thought about was what I would need to go out there and do this for a long time. So I had a team with me and other things in life. I didn’t really have a plan. We played in San Francisco and started driving. I told many of my friends about it and they said: [mocking voice] “Okay man…okay!” Especially in the Pacific Northwest and the west side of Canada, I have a lot of history there. So I would just drive until I felt tired and stop somewhere. It was pretty impromptu. I didn’t even think about how it would sound, I just hit record.
In effect, you were going on tour without giving concerts.
Yes, I have never gone on vacation at any point in my life, not even as a child with my family. Maybe once or twice. But every time I’m on tour, I have some way to record with me, even if I don’t end up using it. I can’t take a day off. I can’t go on vacation. So this is an extension of that.
You mentioned in the “Five Easy Hot Dogs” press release that you had a horrible experience in Utah, isolated in this huge cabin. What happened there?
I had been in New York for a month and got too into the rut of being in New York. New York is very good at tricking you into thinking you did a lot of things in one day because you walk around and spend money, that’s all you can really do. It was a lot of fun, but I was like, “I haven’t done any recording. I have to get out of here and drive to Utah. When I left New York, I also thought, “I’m going to quit nicotine.” What is it… I smoked a batch. It turned into two or three weeks of giddy, sweaty withdrawal. I was driving alone across the country, losing control. I ended up in Monroe, Utah. I booked a cabin at this place called Panguitch, which is probably quite nice in the summer. But I was in the middle of nowhere, and I was probably the only person for about 50 miles. You could have slept 20 people in this house… there were taxidermy animals. It was like “The Shining.” Frightening. It’s not fun. So I spent less than one night there, packed up my things, and headed straight for Coachella.
You are known for releasing demos and B-sides. Do you plan to do that with “Five Easy Hot Dogs”?
There aren’t any, really. The reason I record the demos is because on a lot of my records, I fall in love with the demos. They call it demo-itis. It’s hard to re-record something and make it feel the way it initially did. So I’m trying to simplify the way everything is captured. I don’t want to record anything anymore, I just want it to be what it is. Even with this record, I had my friend Rory [McCarthy] mix it up, and he handed it back to me and I was like, “I need the mixes to be the mixes I did along the way because those are what I was used to.” He felt the most organic.”
What did you listen to while you were on the road? Music, audiobooks?
I listened to a couple of audiobooks. It’s funny that the place in Utah felt like “The Shining” because I watched “The Shining” to fall asleep like every night on this trip, which is a weird thing to do. I really enjoy old video game music from when I was a kid, like “Final Fantasy.” Soundtracks are still very interesting harmonically and musically today. While driving to Utah, I came across this song called “How to Fall in Love” by the Moody Blues. Great song. I’ve heard it probably 600 times. Sometimes I listen to a bit of Frank Sinatra. I also listened to the recordings that I was making on the way. I would record something in a city to make it feel like that city, but listening to it on the road, the road also bleeds into the memory of that song.
Other than Utah, have you had any notably uncomfortable experiences?
I was trying to get to Chicago, but there was a really twisted winter storm and I got stuck in Fargo for a while. I’ve driven through many really horrible blackouts, but that was one of the worst ever. It was just me in the middle of nowhere in a really sketchy snowstorm. Semi trucks on the side of the road everywhere, overturned. It was terrifying. I always complain that California doesn’t have seasons, and then it’s like, “Well, here’s winter. Enjoy.”
You said in the press release that sometimes you would walk through a city until someone recognized you and you left there. What did that typically lead to?
There were only a couple of instances of meeting kids and going, “Yeah, sure, come on.” I met this guy Owen on the street. This guy, Connor, showed me around. I’m lucky because the kind of people I’d like to spend an afternoon with become apparent. People who just want to Snapchat with you, or a… what’s the name of the one with the front and back?
Be real. Yeah, they’ll take a BeReal and then get mad.
Much of your recent work has been collaborations with other artists. Do you get a certain thrill out of co-writing that you can’t get out of solo music?
I’m still looking for that thrill of collaborating with people. I’ll tell you the truth, I really don’t enjoy doing it. I’ve had some bad experiences doing it. Due to the way the Internet works, there are many metrics. And I have quite a few good metrics. Sometimes that comes into play more than the musical part, which usually comes later. That’s a bit disappointing. I really don’t like doing those kinds of situations when it feels like a play date. There have been a few instances with friends where it’s been great. I never think beyond “Come to my studio and let’s record.” I don’t even think it’s going to come out because there are tons of things that haven’t. But as much as I do those things, there are four or five times as much of my stuff, stored on hard drives.
Looking at the current state of music and music discovery, are you glad you got here before the TikTok era, where labels push artists to have social media-friendly hooks and short, playable songs?
It’s very depressing. I think that’s the problem: artists have slipped into this role of, “Well, I need those things.” You don’t… but if you want to make money, I guess so. I’ve always been the do-whatever-you-want-to-do kind of thing, and if the money comes later, it’s a bonus. A lot of my songs do pretty well on TikTok, but I never had to think about, [mocking voice] “Well this should sound pretty good sped up!” At the same time… what do people say? Get that bag, or whatever? Live your life how you want to live your life, I don’t give a fuck. But the kids don’t seem to like going on tour any more either. Going on tour was the greatest gift of life for me. You take a van with your friends and drive, party every night, share your music, see the weirdest parts of each city and meet other weird people. It’s like, “Would you like your life to become an adventure? Here you go.” And now people are like, “I’m so tired…” I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old guy, but it’s weird!
That’s why making this record felt pretty natural to me. It has its own weird little musical identity, and it doesn’t “slap,” it doesn’t have “bangers.” It just is what it is. I love music. I love recording music. I love listening to music. And I don’t need extra baggage to come with it. It is a very simple pleasure to be alive. Maybe I’m getting a little too poetic…
It’s been about a decade since “2” and “Salad Days” came out. Looking back, do you ever consider your legacy and impact on the sound of indie music?
I don’t know… I guess. It’s really cool that people still listen to those records, and some of the songs still do pretty well on the internet. It’s funny, like when kids treat me like Don Corleone or something. it’s strange. What about all these contemporaries that were around me that I was trying to be like? [People credit me for popularizing] Red Vans and folding your jeans. I did not invent to do these things. Are you fucking crazy?
I am comfortable now in my life and I have money and my health is good. I’m not really trying to climb any stairs. I am in a position where I can help my family if they need it. I can take care of things. That allows me to do the art that I want to do, and if the art does this or that, great. But if it’s not, then whatever, at least I enjoyed doing it.
Does it feel weird that that era is already considered “nostalgic” music?
Someone needs to cool down the engine of the nostalgia machine. Isn’t that enough time for people to feel nostalgic? We never stop touring and playing “Salad Days” songs. But it’s okay. If I’m a legacy act, like the old reunion tour rockers, that’s fine by me.
Are you thinking about a tour or a festival this coming season?
We don’t have anything on the books, but I’d like to do some shows for “Five Easy Hot Dogs.” It wouldn’t make sense to take him on tour, but maybe a handful of shows. Looking at the nature of touring, I really don’t want to do it the way we did before COVID, which was “keep going, keep pumping.” I was still drinking and smoking at the time, and I was starting to disintegrate. It was not good. When the pandemic happened, I told myself that when we come back, it has to be different. But then I said yes to a lot of things that would make it pretty much the same as it was before, and I ended up pulling some programs offline. But I love playing shows and meeting people. Like we’ve talked about, the internet and social media has changed music and fandom and a lot of other things, but no matter how big the show is: standing outside afterward and having a kid say, “That was awesome! “…it’s just amazing.
What else is going on in the world of Mac DeMarco?
I have fallen quite a bit in love with motorcycles in the last six to eight months. The last tour we did in August was through these coastal cities, but I did it all on this BMW sports bike. “Five Easy Hot Dogs” is kind of a proof of concept, so now I think I’ll scale down the recording equipment a bit to fit on a bike. Next time it won’t be North America, but keep your eyes peeled. Maybe you’ll see me in a BMW GS with someone from all over the world.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Kids, brush your teeth.
This interview has been edited and condensed.