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Mac DeMarco announced his return to the UK by stripping down to his underwear, adopting a bodybuilder’s pose and screaming into a mobile phone camera. Uploaded via his Mac’s Record Label Instagram account, the clip came complete with a Union Jack emoji over his middle and the caption ‘Back in ol’ Blighty’.

While none of that is at all surprising, everything else about Mac’s return is about the shock of the new. He’s here to play three shows in support of two records he’s released so far this year: January’s 14-track instrumental set ‘Five Easy Hot Dogs’, which he recorded while driving up the Pacific North West coast in his 1990 Toyota Land Cruiser, and April’s ‘One Wayne G’, a mammoth 199-song opus named in honour of his fellow Canadian, ice-hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

For the most part, both records are wandering, immersive and gentle, stripping Mac’s signature sound to its bare bones, with the odd jolt of weirdness for good measure. They arrived without fanfare and Mac has done little press to promote them. The sense is that he’s been perfectly happy to sit in his yard – which now houses a sauna and growing motorcycle collection as he indulges his new twin passions – in LA and let his new jams percolate.

Until now, that is. We meet on the second of three nights at the Hackney Empire in East London, a residency that wraps up Mac’s four-city tour after similar stints in LA, New York and Paris.

“It’s weird,” he begins, aptly. “I think people come and they’re ready to rock, so maybe they’re a little louder than the show needs them to be on the first night. But then the second night, it’s like word has got around town ‘Mac is doing this quiet weird thing where he plays for a really long time.’ It’s been an experiment, I’m happy to be back.”

Keyboard player and childhood friend Alec Meen is the only surviving member of Mac’s band from his last visit in 2019, with bassist Pedro Martins and drummer Daryl Johns accompanying what is a brilliant, poignant set with musicality at the core. ‘Five Easy Hot Dogs’ gets played in full first (on the last night, frankfurters hang behind the drum kit, Johns snipping them off at the end of each song), before a mix of oldies and ‘One Wayne G’ cuts. In between, Mac jokes about the Royal Family, gleefully mentions an upcoming visit to Ashby-De-La-Zouch, Leicestershire and tells stories, real and made up, about his past.

If this is a window into Mac’s new life, then what we see is a 33-year-old at peace and in search of freedom. He’s sober now, and off the cigarettes too. And anyone expecting any of the antics he once indulged in will leave disappointed. That energy is in the room, emanating from the crowd, but the new songs take it somewhere totally different.

Where once you could rely on crowd surfing, stage diving, drinking, smoking and possible nudity, now Mac is almost mysterious. He has somehow conjured unpredictability and intrigue, all of which made for a wonderfully weird conversation about where he’s at…

The vibe of this tour calls to mind MTV Unplugged shows. Is there any reason you decided to do it like this?

“‘Five Easy Hot Dogs’ is weird, then there’s ‘One Wayne G’, so it’s a lot of songs that wouldn’t really fit into a ‘festival set’. So I knew that we were going to do something a bit strange, or just different. But it’s been really nice, and luckily most of the venues have been suited to it. Nothing bigger than 1,500-capacity was the rule, keep it special, a little intimate, and hopefully people come and are cool with the way that we’re rolling. It’s funny, these are probably the only 12 shows we’ll do this year, which is a little different to a couple of years ago.”

How are people responding to this new era of Mac DeMarco?

“The way I see it is, ‘Five Easy Hot Dogs’ is part of ‘One Wayne G’. But ‘One Wayne G’ is just me, you know, it’s me over the past five years, take it or leave it. I put out ‘Five Easy Hot Dogs ‘and then I thought maybe I’ll clear the rest of my plate too. Because why not? It’s funny the different narratives that the kids have come up with, because I don’t really talk about it that much. It’s like, ‘This is his middle finger to the music industry.’ I don’t know what the hell people are talking about. But why not?

So it’s not a middle finger to the industry?

“I don’t like giving the middle finger to anybody. I’m not a mean guy like that. But I think that there are things about the music industry, and the way that music is released now that I find funny, and it was fun to play around with it.

“I never used Spotify, I used YouTube until, like, two years ago, when I got a new truck and I wanted to be able to use Siri to play the music, and the only way to do that was get Spotify. And when come from a world of not having that before it’s kind of like, ‘Why don’t we just chuck it all on there?’” It’s great, it’s like an archive for me but I didn’t have to do the archiving. They can do it instead, the streamers.”

I think you’ve been going in this more mellow direction for a while, but did you have any nerves about the way people would react?

“I mean, with these last couple of releases I’ve probably freed myself in most regards. I almost feel like there was a long time where I was pretending to be something that I wasn’t and trying to do things musically that maybe… I feel like all the records I’ve put out are very much me, but in regards to the more ambient or of video gamey-sounding stuff, I love it. I’m a nerd. I like anime, always have, for years. I pretended not to because it wasn’t cool. Now, it’s cool. So I’m just gonna be me even more than I was before.

“There are stipulations I have now for making my music where it needs to feel natural. I don’t want to force anything. I like leaving things the way they are. Something comes out, that’s the way it came out. That’s the way it is.”

Are you protecting the purity of what you’re doing?

“Maybe finally I’m growing up. I look at the world and the music industry and maybe I just want to be more of an artist, or pretend to be. Because I mean, there are plenty out there, but I think there’s another side of the music industry where it is like sport. But I like seeing all the crap. The human part is the most important part to me in any kind of art. I guess I’m just trying to remain human.”

Do you think that purity is under threat at all? 

“I don’t know. Is AI ever going to be able to make me go, Wow? Maybe. What we were using AI is to get it to write you a pretty good tight-five comedy set. We’ll have a bonfire at the crib and all do a comedy set about being an Italian Centaur or something. But other than that, I don’t need it, I’m not tech enough for it.”

It feels as if the way you made ‘Five Easy Hot Dogs’ is almost anti-tech…

“Because the songs were made in a certain spot fairly quickly and then the mixes were done quickly so I could listen to them in my car, that purity thing is very strong. I hadn’t put a record out in quite a while and then to put that out, everyone was like, ‘What the fuck?’ But that doesn’t really bother me. The album checks those boxes for me, big time. And the shows too, just the 12 then that’s it, we’re never going to do it again. It’s nice and tidy.”

The road trip was also significant because you quit smoking after many years. How did that work out?

“I decided to quit smoking while I was driving to Utah, Salt Lake City, from New York. I thought it would be fine, but little did I know… I’d never tried to quit smoking before. It’s fucked up. It’s horrible. I had really wicked withdrawals for three weeks and kind of went loopy, wound up in this little A frame cabin up near Zion National Park by myself and kind of felt like I was in The Shining. Once I got to Utah, I thought about giving some lyrics for the album a go. But nope, I was just unable to sleep and having cold sweats instead. Whoops.’ But now I don’t need ‘em at all, fuck ‘em. It feels good.”

Wasn’t there a lot going on in your family at the time too? 

“Yeah, my dad had died not long before I took off on the trip. That was pretty insane. I would be recording, then I would go to see my uncle or my aunt or my mom and my other aunts in Edmonton… My grandmother had died too. It was crazy when family members died during COVD because it’s kind of like, ‘Is there gonna be a funeral? Maybe in a couple years when we can hang out again?’ It’s double raw. But it was an important time in my life and it’s nice to… I’ve always had it with music, but the transportational effect, you know. It’s almost like I wanted to go and make these little anthems so I had them to remind me of that period. And now we’re [touring] here in London or wherever else so it’s a blend. They transform, they change, I like it. It’s cool. For me, it works.”

It sounds like an intense time to put yourself through quitting cigarettes on top of everything else?

“It was nuts, completely insane. I’ve been sober for a couple years too, off booze and other substances pretty much since the top of COVID. I think it’s part of the ‘Five Easy Hot Dogs’ thing, I have this thirst for freedom. You know what I mean? Being free from booze, being free from whatever, I can go, I can do this, I can do that.”

How is it working out? Do you feel far removed from the antics some people associated you with before?

“I think I’m still that guy for the most part. I don’t know. The caricature or the cartoon character element, I’m not saying I’m… Even as a sober guy, I still go to the bar until last call, I’ll be at the party until the end of the night. I try to operate in the same way. Obviously now, I go and do things that I did before and I’m like, ‘Man, I used to really hang out for a long time.’ And it was fun because I was drunk. But now I’m able to clock in a lot quicker now and be like, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna go home. This is ridiculous.’”

Touring must feel pretty different…

“It’s interesting to me, especially doing shows like this, because it’s a challenge. Back in the day, it was like, ‘Oh, shit, we’re losing the crowd, where’s the Jameson? Ba-boom, and everyone’s like, ‘Fuck yeah!’”

Did you really have those moments?

“Every night! But it was easy, it was part of the thing, which is a bad way to roll. But that or even even crowd surfing, I would crowd surf so that everybody would walk out of the show being like, ‘That was the craziest shit, he jumped off a balcony, that’s insane!’ And it is, but I would prefer now to be challenged more where it’s, ‘I hope the sound was good, I hope we played all right, I hope my voice sounded okay.’ If I can keep them just with the music – which I don’t even know if I’m able to do, you’ll see tonight, I think it’s going okay… Maybe I wasn’t able to do it before or I wasn’t at that point… You’ve been coming to see us play for a long time, when we first started coming over we had no idea what the hell we were doing.”

How do you reflect on that time now?

“It was fun. I mean, I think that there were points where, you know, necking Jameson every night, is good for anybody. But it’s like, I did that, now I don’t have to do it anymore! [Laughs]. It is what it is. Maybe COVID was useful in a way where it’s kind of like, ‘Well, I’m just gonna cool it. See what I want to do. Think about what I want to do, scale things back a little bit, change the way things sound and hopefully go out and enjoy touring.’ And I have been enjoying it, it’s been cool.”

Looking to the future, is it true that you’re planning to make your next record on a motorcycle trip?

“I would love to… I think this is a plan. The gear part I think I can get no problem, but it’s hard to get guitars much smaller than they are. But I’ve seen online there are some people that make these hard shell cases, so I’m gonna figure it out. It’s gonna look insane but I’m gonna figure it out.”

Can you give us any inkling of what the album might be like?

“I’m going to sing, I like singing. And now that I don’t smoke, it feels good. It doesn’t disappear, it doesn’t hurt. The notes are there. [Laughs]. I’m not really sure, I have an idea for a record, I won’t give it totally away yet. I have an idea, I have a title and I have the place to do it in. Will it end up getting done there? I’m not sure yet, that’s why I won’t give it away yet. But the driving around in North America thing? I’ve been doing it since I was 15, you can plop me anywhere, but Mexico is a different story. Maybe I should do it in Mexico? Either Mexico, South America, Europe or somewhere I’m a little further away from my comfort zone. I think I need to be shocked a little bit more. Put in some situations that are maybe not the easiest to navigate.”

Mac DeMarco’s ‘Five East Hotdogs’ and ‘One Wayne G’ is out now on Mac’s Record Label