It’s odd to hear Mac DeMarco speak with candour and contemplation. You may have happened across him before – maybe covered in Vaseline, teaching you ‘Advanced Studio Recording Techniques’ or grinning and head-bopping to his old demos, which he lovingly calls “garbage,” in a viral clip.
The Canadian artist is adored for his goofy antics, surreal sketches and laid-back persona; we catch glimpses of such traits when he tells us about his approach to creating his 2023 albums Five Easy Hot Dogs and One Wayne G. But mostly, (mostly,) DeMarco is surprisingly serious when talking about making music.
“I’m not much of a songwriter and I’m not much of a musician,” he says. We can’t help but crack a smile – it was only four months ago he released an album of 199 songs in One Wayne G. DeMarco shrugs off any labels we put forward for him, like producer, beatmaker or singer-songwriter. Instead, he sees his career as an appreciation of sound.
“I like to respect the way that recordings come to be,” he says.
As a result, much of his work involves setting up a recording rig, wherever it may be, and capturing the stream of creativity he has at that moment. To preserve its authenticity, DeMarco avoids lengthy mixdown sessions and endlessly tweaking a project. That explains the stripped-back nature of One Wayne G and Five Easy Hot Dogs.
“It’s like this form of ‘demo-itis’,” says DeMarco, “where I don’t want to change something because I feel like if I change it, then I’ll take away something of its purity, or something like that.”
If you take the nine hours to listen to One Wayne G and the 35 minutes of instrumentals on Five Easy Hot Dogs, you’ll hear how the stripped-back tracks almost put you in the room with DeMarco. They ooze the Mac DeMarco sound but are both starkly different records to the likes of 2014’s jangly Salad Days. And, although Five Easy Hot Dogs might not win over casual fans with its lack of vocal hooks, DeMarco claims it’s his most concise album yet.
“It just like, perfectly encapsulated. Wherever I was, you know, I didn’t go to some mixing studio or whatever. It’s just recorded the way it was.”
You can attribute the album’s sound to the unique way DeMarco recorded it. He went on a solo road trip around North America to create it, producing and recording in hotel rooms along the way and keeping a low profile around cities. Naturally, he needed a pretty portable setup – thankfully, he’s used to keeping things lightweight and DIY. It did mean he had to saw a kick drum in half in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, though.
“It’s interesting. [Along with] most of the people that I grew up with, it was just learning to record and learning to do everything yourself”, he explains. “We didn’t have any money. The idea of going to a real studio or something was never that appealing. It just wasn’t really an option. But it’s come to a point, I think where you get a certain outcome doing everything on your own; I get a certain satisfaction doing everything on my own. I mean, if I went to a studio, I’ve got most of the same gear, they would have been the nicest studios now anyway, so it’s kind of like…yeah, I don’t know, it’s just DIY. I’m just DIY.”
For the recording of Five Easy, DeMarco says he took a rig that included “a Lynx Aurora interface, eight API 312 preamps, and I took like a couple dynamic mics. I also took an old Neumann U47, my acoustic guitar, electric guitar, a P bass, a little drum set…I had a Minimoog with me and I had this, like, tabletop Yamaha DX7 – it’s a TX7. And I had two really tiny Genelec monitors.
“The Minimoog was the lead singer of the record. I’m so glad I took him along.”
It’s not exactly a bohemian setup; most bedroom producers would dream of access to gear like this, let alone have it to take on the road. We’re talking about a setup fetching around $20,000, at least. So the recordings DeMarco conjured with this mobile studio sound delightfully mixed and recorded – yet they still feel intriguingly barebones. Much of his process now involves experimenting with mic placements to capture such a sound.
“I put the drums up with just four mics – snare, snare top, kick and an overhead – and I would just go to town, and then everything else would go through the U47 and that was it. I used the direct inputs on the API 312 pres and it gave a good sound. You know, it was a good little rig.”
DeMarco is practically spoiled with a collection of supremely sought-after recording gear – so how does he even know where to look if he needs a new piece?
“I don’t really buy gear any more,” he says dismissively. “I’ve got pretty much every super famous old preamp now, a couple consoles, every really old fancy mic you could ever want – I have a lot of nice shit; nice tape machines and synthesizers, nice guitars, you know. But I think that less is more for me at this point.
“I didn’t use a computer to record until probably like 2016 or 17. And, at first, I was like, ‘Okay, here we go – we’ll put this effect on here, we’ll do this, we’ll do this…’ And pretty quickly, I realised I should just really limit myself. I don’t know, I like getting the sound at the microphone…Instead of buying more gear, I’d rather just move the mic around or record in a different room. That’s what is more interesting to me now.”
The multi-instrumentalist has a few new recording rules, too. His latest revelation is that it’s time to axe guitar pedals from his setup.
“Honestly, before I talked to you, I was just talking to my sound guy. I was sitting around the table outside and I was telling him how much I hate guitar pedals,” he says as we share a chuckle.
Why? “They’re stupid. They’re cheap pieces of shit with crappy electronics. It’s just crap in the path. I don’t like crap. I don’t care if it makes you sound like Jimi Hendrix or whatever. I don’t want it. I don’t want it! It just stresses me out thinking about it. And the cables that people use in between them. Oh, man. And then the power – crappy. Everything’s crappy. It’s just crappy. And I don’t want them crapping up my shit. No crap.”
All that said, he admits that he does have a small pedalboard for the Five Easy Hot Dogs tour that he’s embarked on, but that it comprises only a tuner, a vibrato pedal and an impulse response effect for his acoustic guitar. However, he reiterates his position on other ‘sound-goodizer’ pedals:
“Yeah, no more pedals. All the pedals should be put in a big pile and we should light ‘em on fire.”
So, instead of blatant effects, DeMarco reveals that he enjoys knowing there are more subtle forces at play within his music. For example, the way he records his acoustic guitar with his Neumann mic – “Maybe some people don’t really hear those little intricacies that I put in there, but I do.”
To that end, the artist behind cult classic tracks such as Chamber Of Reflection and Heart To Heart, (his ode to close friend and hip-hop artist Mac Miller), says that Five Easy and One Wayne G were the records that he made for himself.
“A lot of the Five Easy stuff was recorded on tour, you know, wherever, just years ago,” he says. “It has a transportational effect to it, I guess. But it’s interesting for me too, because I think that a lot of people know me for the bigger songs that I have, or that I have like a specific sound or whatever.
“But I think that One Wayne G is a broader scope of that. I think it all still sounds like me, you can tell that it’s me, but it’s way wider. And I think it goes to places that make people go ‘What? I didn’t know, he did stuff like this.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I never showed it to anybody and now I am so you know, you can have it!’”
Alongside expressing himself further than his previous albums have permitted him to, DeMarco says that these albums allowed him to explore more esoteric ideas.
“There are a lot of things I like about the whole One Wayne G concept. It’s [processed] in high resolution, you know, purposefully, and just the sheer amount of songs; the way that people have to digest it. The way that you can kind of choose your own way with it. I don’t give a fuck if people listened to it or not. It didn’t matter if it came out. It just did. I just think it’s cool. And I just want to do things that I think are cool. And you know, I’ve been able to do quite a few of them this year. So it’s great. It feels great. I think people seemed to receive it pretty well. So I’m stoked about it.”
DeMarco has assured that One Wayne G is far from a “middle finger” to the music industry, as some fans have previously speculated. At 199 songs, though, we can’t help but feel it’s a response to Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s claim that artists can no longer afford to “record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.” As it happens, DeMarco’s relationship with Spotify and other streaming platforms is a little complicated.
“I wasn’t trying to be spicy to anybody,” he says, earnestly. “But, honestly, I’ll tell you this: It has something to do with streaming. I never used streaming until like two years ago. I’d just listen to YouTube and what was on my computer. And I got Spotify after being like” – he makes a grumbling noise as if he’s raising his fist to the sky – “and I was like, ‘oh my god, this is so amazing, it’s so easy to listen to music, I can’t believe this.’ It showed me that… I dunno, I just feel that’s the main way people ingest music now, is on these DSPs or streamers or whatever.
“But I just wanted to archive all of that music. Share it, sure, but also archive it – it’s easier for me to not have to carry a fucking hard drive around and be like, ‘Oh, I have this weird song.’ It’s like, I can just put it on Spotify and it’s there – anybody can do it now.”
As a tool for music discovery, he finds it invaluable. In the past year, new fans have found DeMarco’s music through another discovery tool: TikTok. His music has been used as backing tracks for countless viral clips, how-to videos, and mini-vlogs on the platform. Chamber Of Reflection has been used in over 138,000 videos at the time of writing. No doubt DeMarco has found that fruitful.
“I think it’s weird, that whole thing where songs go viral on there. I want to believe that it’s like, ‘the people have taken back [the music], they’re the ones who decide what is popular or not.’ But I don’t think it’s fully that; I think it’s some like viral shit where it’s like, ‘oh, you had somebody make a dance to your thing and now it’s huge and like you’re the artist or whatever’ which is fine.
“I mean, I’ve had a couple songs go pretty crazy on there and you know the revenue off of those has been you know, quite helpful so… Yeah, I’m fine with TikTok, I don’t give a shit. I’m not on it. I probably never will be. I don’t know. It is what it is – people can have fun with whatever they want.”
Such an ethos has been present throughout DeMarco’s career – whether it’s encouraging people to have fun at his shows while he goofs around in his underwear, inviting a fan onstage, or having fun watching as he collaborates with his peers.
Though he admits he prefers to create music in private, he’s “opened up artistically” with the likes of Benny Sings, Myd, Eyedress and Kenny Beats. We ask how he found his time collaborating with Kenny Beats on an episode of his famous The Cave sessions.
“I love Kenny he’s one of my good friends, I absolutely love this man.”
“Kenny and I knew each other a little bit before [The Cave episode]. We’d hang every once in a while. But he wanted me to come to an episode and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure I’ll do it.’ The Cave is one thing, but I’ve worked on other stuff with Kenny, he’s coming over here a lot.”
DeMarco featured most recently on Kenny’s album, Louie, which picked up MusicTech’s Album Of The Year in 2022. Interestingly, DeMarco is credited as a producer and engineer on the record – two titles that he’d usually not give himself. But it seems like the artist was keen to get involved with Kenny’s debut in a natural, unforced way. He laments the way collaboration is often framed in modern music.
“The whole feature culture that we’re living in nowadays is kind of gross to me,” he explains. “It’s like people put out records that are just all features. I don’t know; I’m happy to record with my friends, but for me to actually artistically write that kind of material can be tough. Especially in the scenario that collaboration usually comes about now, it’s like ‘yo pull up on the studio, let’s work!” I’m like, “What the fuck?”
“I think the collaboration works in some worlds, like in the beatmaking world and in other different of music, and it’s great. This is the way that I am but then I’ll be in a studio and a rapper will come through and just be able to, like, fucking unload onto the microphone I’m like, ‘How the fuck do you do that?’ It’s crazy.”
Lucky for him, DeMarco’s relationship with Kenny isn’t as intimidating or serious. Instead, he appreciates the process with the revered producer.
“I have a nice collaborative experience with Kenny actually – he’s deeply interesting to me. The ground that he covers, musically…Like, he’s always interested in something new, and the genre doesn’t really matter to him, he’s down for whatever. He’s an interesting guy. I’m glad that he’s in my zone.”
For DeMarco, whether he’s collaborating or not, the crucial aspect of creating is to enjoy the process. His advice to fellow artists and budding producers rings the same.
“What I’ve always said is you should enjoy what you’re doing. Because if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, you’re happy with making art, that’s the most important thing.”
Check out more of Mac DeMarco on his website.
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