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November 18, 2019

Action Boy

Mac DeMarco is living the high-octane life of an indie rock star, but that’s not much different than his childhood.

Action Boy

Mac DeMarco is living the high-octane life of an indie rock star, but that’s not much different than his childhood.

 

illustration by Josh Holinaty

For the first time since he moved away from Edmonton, Mac DeMarco is considering planting roots – at least for a little while. “I’ve been looking to buy a house in upstate New York,” he says as he lights a cigarette a few hours before his first hometown show in over 18 months.

“It’s a bit strange for me because, up until now, I’ve always been the guy who gets a place and a lease for a year, and then, once the lease is up, gets the fuck out of there.” 

It’s no overstatement. DeMarco adopted a nomadic lifestyle straight out of Strathcona High School in 2008, when the singer-songwriter left Edmonton for Vancouver, followed by moves to Montreal and, most recently, New York City – first Brooklyn, then Queens. He has resided there since 2014 with his longtime girlfriend, Kiera McNally, also an Edmonton expat. 

New York has been good to the gap-toothed troubadour. There, he has recorded and released two critically acclaimed albums: 2014’s Salad Days – which was subsequently shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize alongside albums from Canadian heavyweights like Drake and Arcade Fire – and last year’s mini-album, Another One.

But even if the 25-year-old – born Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV before his mother changed his name to McBriare Samuel Lanyon DeMarco a few years later – decides to take the plunge into home ownership, it likely won’t be long before the urge to relocate returns.

“We were in Vancouver a couple of days ago, and I thought to myself, ‘I really liked living here. Why did I stop?'” says DeMarco. The coastal city was, after all, where he found his first taste of success with the shaggy slop-pop of his former band, Makeout Videotape, which included fellow former Edmontonian Alex Calder.

“I think it might just be in my nature to keep moving from place to place.” 

DeMarco tours relentlessly and always seems to be working on a new project, or at least a new way of connecting with fans, like earlier this summer when he hosted a backyard barbecue where he played some instrumental demos off Another One and gathered donations for a local food bank. This restlessness is somewhat at odds with his chilled-out persona, but it has helped him amass the kind of dedicated fanbase that prompted the Los Angeles Times to proclaim him “a people’s rock star” last August. It’s a title that makes DeMarco chuckle, but it’s this down-to-earth approachability that separates him from his peers. 

DeMarco has made a career of being the kind of artist with whom you can imagine grabbing a beer. He’s the laid-back everyman who just happens to write infectious slacker-rock ditties and deceptively simple music as equally suited to summer barbecues as it is to festival settings, filled by tens of thousands of people.

At the end of “My House by the Water,” the final track on Another One, DeMarco recites the address to his home in New York and invites listeners for a cup of coffee. Since the mini-album’s release in August, more than 400 people have made the trek to his house to take him up on his offer.  

It would be easy to consider the coffee invitation as a brilliant marketing stunt – and it is – but after speaking with Mac’s mother, Agnes, it’s clear that this everyone-is-a-friend mentality is not a calculated attempt at brand development, but simply a character trait passed down through the DeMarco family. Case in point: After I had reached out to Agnes, she immediately invited me over for dinner at the home in which Mac grew up to answer any and all questions I had for her about her son. (She made salmon, and it was delicious.) 

It was in this cozy central Edmonton home, full of welcoming Tuscan flourishes, where Mac first discovered his passion for music, explains Agnes. Music is basically encoded into the DeMarco DNA: Mac’s grandfather, a saxophonist, was a staple at the Hotel Macdonald for years, and his aunt Eva sang in a band called Hot City Brass. His brother Hank is a dancer with the Nevada Ballet Theatre. And it was Mac’s grandmother, Sherrill – an opera singer who spent time in New York before she returned to Edmonton to teach at the Alberta College Conservatory of Music – who paid for his first guitar lessons in junior high.

“Mac just had this natural talent,” says Agnes.

“Once he picked up a guitar, he essentially never put it down. He’d go for dinner at his grandparents’ house and take his guitar with him.”

DeMarco’s affable persona has helped earn him a reputation as indie rock’s class-clown – and not unfairly. Anything can happen at a Mac DeMarco concert. Nudity abounds, drumsticks are often put in places they probably shouldn’t go, and band members are sometimes tongue-kissed.

Agnes, who will be the president of Mac’s still-to-be-formed fan club, sighs and shrugs her shoulders when Mac’s infamous concert behaviour is mentioned.

“I hear about them whether I want to or not because his fans will email me things like, ‘Here’s a picture of me just before I jumped on Mac when he was crowd-surfing,'” she says. “And I’m like, ‘That’s great, but is Mac alive? What happened after that? I need the rest of the story!'”

For Mac, his stage antics are simply a tried-and-true icebreaker. “I think that us being idiots out there makes people who come to the show less inhibited and more comfortable.”

“It’s kind of like, ‘Look, we’re kind of chubby morons, so don’t worry. Just relax and have fun.'”

These days, DeMarco’s shows aren’t quite as wild. That’s partly because you can only pull the same stunts so many times before they become stale, and partly because his last two releases have been more subdued, if not serious, affairs, full of thoughtful love songs streaked with melancholy. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that poop jokes no longer make DeMarco laugh. He is living proof that you can find jokes about bodily functions hilarious and write sensitive songs about love.

“I think it’s funny with me, especially, because everyone is like, ‘The goofball has to grow up someday.’ But I am grown up. I can have a mature conversation when I need to, but I don’t need to all the time.”

Grown up or not, his shtick is a success. DeMarco routinely sells out the 1,500-capacity Grand Ballroom at New York’s illustrious Webster Hall and is a mainstay at music festivals around the world. 

But even as the audiences continue to grow, Mac is still the same “high-energy kid who was interested in everything,” according to Agnes – now there’s just more people in the crowd at his shows. “He was always Action Boy, and he still is Action Boy.”

While 2015 has been his most successful year yet, a humbled DeMarco admits that, lately, he has been making a point of counting his blessings as his career trends upwards. And for all the infamous shenanigans that occur at his shows, DeMarco’s radiant positivity is hard to resist; he’s like the cooler older brother who imparts wisdom to his younger sibling without ever coming off as pedantic.

“We’ve been touring for years and now the shows are bigger,” he says as his second cigarette nears its end. “You get used to certain perks and sometimes you’ll find yourself in a bad mood where you’re like, ‘Yo, fuck this.’ And then you snap out of it and go, ‘Wait a minute, I was working at a grocery store before I was doing this! What the fuck is wrong with me?’ 

“It’s a matter of appreciating things, like the kids who line up three hours before shows.

Sometimes I’m not really sure what they’re connecting to, but they’ve found something in the music, and that’s good enough for me to respect them and try to put on a fun show and meet as many people as I can. It’s a crazy life, but I’m glad it’s happening.”

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