When it was time to make a new record, Mac DeMarco stayed away from the studio.
Instead, he hit the road, traveling solo from California to Canada to Chicago to Queens, New York. Along the way, he quit nicotine and made a stop at an enormous cabin in Utah, where he was “probably the only person for like 50 miles.” It was “terrifying,” he says, and he left after one night.
While on this spontaneous adventure, DeMarco met up with friends, fans and family, and came back home with “Five Easy Hot Dogs,” a collection of 14 instrumentals named after the cities in which they were recorded.
Ahead of 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 wouldn’t return 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 in order to go out and do this for a long time. So I had gear with me and other life crap. I didn’t really have a plan. We played San Francisco and just started driving. I told a lot of my friends and they were like, [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 I’d stop somewhere. It was pretty spur-of-the-moment. I didn’t even think about what it would sound like, I just hit record.
You were effectively going on tour without playing shows.
Yeah, I never went on vacation at any point in life, even as a kid with my family. Maybe once or twice. But any time I’m on tour, I have some way of recording with me, even if I don’t end up using it. I can’t do a day off. I can’t do vacation. So this is an extension of that.
You mentioned in the press release for “Five Easy Hot Dogs” that you had an awful experience in Utah, isolated in this huge cabin. What happened there?
I had been in New York for like a month, and I got too much into the routine of being in New York. New York is very good at tricking you into thinking that you did a whole bunch of stuff in a day because you walk around and spend money — that’s all you can really do. It was really fun, but I was like, “I haven’t done any recording. I need to get out of here and drive to Utah.” When I left New York, I was also like, “I’m gonna quit nicotine.” Which is… I smoked a lot. It turned into two or three weeks of dizzy, sweaty withdrawals. I was driving across the country alone, straight up losing it. I wound up in Monroe, Utah. I booked a cabin in this place called Panguitch, which is probably pretty nice in the summer. But I was in the middle of nowhere, and I was probably the only person for like 50 miles. You could have slept 20 people in this house… there were taxidermy animals. It was like “The Shining.” Terrifying. Not fun. So I spent less than one night there and packed my stuff up and went straight to Coachella.
You’re known to release demos and B-sides. Are you planning to do that with “Five Easy Hot Dogs”?
There aren’t any, really. The reason I record the demos is because across 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 did initially. So I’m trying to streamline the way everything is captured. I don’t want to re-record anything anymore, I just want it to be what it is. Even with this record, I had my friend Rory [McCarthy] mix it, and he sent it back and I was like, “I need the mixes to be the mixes I did on the road because those are the ones I was used to. It felt the most organic.”
What did you listen to while 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 “The Shining” to fall asleep like every night of this trip, which is kind of a weird thing to do. I really enjoy old video game music from when I was a kid, like “Final Fantasy.” The soundtracks even today are harmonicallly and musically very interesting. While driving to Utah, I found this song called “How to Fall in Love” by the Moody Blues. Great song. I listened to it probably 600 times. Sometimes I listen to a little Frank Sinatra. I also would listen to the recordings I was making along the way. I’d record something in one city so it feels like that city, but listening to it on the road, the highway also kind of bleeds into the memory of that song.
Besides Utah, did you have any notably uncomfortable experiences?
I was trying to get to Chicago but there was a really gnarly winter storm and I got stuck in Fargo for a little while. I’ve driven through a lot of really horrible whiteouts, but that was one of the worst ones ever. It was just me in the middle of nowhere in a really sketchy blizzard. Semi-trucks on the side of the road everywhere, flipped over. It was terrifying. I always complain about how California has no seasons, and then it’s like, “Well, here’s winter. Enjoy.”
You said in the press release that sometimes you would walk around a city until somebody recognized you and sort of go from there. What did that typically lead to?
There were only a couple instances of meeting kids and being like, “Yeah, sure, let’s go.” I met this kid Owen on the street. This kid Connor showed me around. I’m lucky because the kinds of people that I would want to spend an afternoon with make themselves apparent. The people who just want to get a Snapchat with you, or a… what’s the one called with the front and the back?
BeReal. Yeah, they’ll take a BeReal and then piss off.
A lot of your recent work has been collaborations with other artists. Do you get a certain thrill from co-writing that you can’t get from putting out solo music?
I am still looking for that thrill from collaborating with people. I’m gonna tell you truth, I don’t really enjoy doing it. I’ve had some bad experiences doing it. Because of the way the internet works, there’s a lot of metrics. And I have quite good metrics. Sometimes that comes more into play than the music part, which usually comes afterwards. That’s a bit of a disappointment. I really don’t like doing those kinds of situations when it feels like a play date. There’s been some instances with friends where it’s been cool. I never think past “Come over to my studio and let’s record.” I never even think it’s going to come out because there’s tons of stuff that hasn’t. But as much as I do that stuff, there’s four or five times more of my own stuff, sitting on hard drives.
Looking at the current state of music and music discovery, are you glad you came up before the era of TikTok, where labels are pushing artists to have social media-friendly hooks and short, replayable songs?
It’s very depressing. I think that that’s the problem is artists have slipped into this role of like, “Well, I do need those things.” You don’t… but if you want to make money I guess you do. I was always of the ilk of make what you want to make, and if money comes afterward, it’s a bonus. A lot of my songs actually do quite 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 however you want to live your life, I don’t give a fuck. But kids don’t seem to like going on tour anymore, either. Going on tour was the greatest gift of life for me. You get a van with your friends and drive around, party every night, share your music, see the weirdest parts of every 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 uncle, but it’s strange!
That’s why making this record felt quite natural for 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’s a very simple pleasure of being alive. Maybe I’m waxing 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 kind of treat me like Don Corleone or something. It’s bizarre. What about all these contemporaries that were around me whom I was trying to be like? [People credit me for popularizing] red Vans and cuffing your jeans. I didn’t invent doing these things. Are you out of your fucking mind?
I’m comfortable now in my life and I have money and my health is good. I’m not really trying to climb up any ladder. I’m in a position where I can help my family if they need it. I can take care of things. That allows me to just make art that I want to make, and if the art does this or that, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, then whatever – at least I enjoyed making it.
Does it feel weird for that era to already be considered “nostalgic” music?
Somebody needs to cool down the engine on the nostalgia machine. Isn’t that enough time for people to be nostalgic? We never stopped touring and playing songs off “Salad Days.” But it’s fine. If I’m a legacy act, like old reunion tour rockers, that’s fine with me.
Are you eyeing a tour or any festivals this coming season?
We don’t have anything on the books, but I would like to do some shows for “Five Easy Hot Dogs.” It wouldn’t make sense to take it on tour, but maybe a handful of shows. Looking at the nature of touring, I don’t really want to do it the way we were doing it before COVID, which was “keep on going, keep on pumping.” I was still drinking and smoking back then, and I was starting to disintegrate. It was not good. I told myself when the pandemic happened that when we came back, it needed to be different. But then I said yes to a lot of stuff that was going to make it pretty much identical to the way it was before, and I ended up pulling the plug on some shows. But I love to play shows and meet people. Like we’ve talked about, the internet and social media has changed music and fandom and a lot of other things, but it doesn’t matter how big the show is — standing outside afterward and having some kid go, “That was awesome!” … it’s just amazing.
What else is going on in the world of Mac DeMarco?
I have become quite enamored with motorcycles over the past six to eight months. The last tour we did in August was along these coastal cities, but I did it all on this BMW sportbike. “Five Easy Hot Dogs” is kind of a proof of concept, so now I think I will shrink the recording rig quite a bit smaller so it fits on a bike. It won’t be North America next time, but keep your eyes peeled. Maybe you’ll see me on a BMW GS someone around the world.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Kids, brush your teeth.
This interview has been edited and condensed.