Salad Days refers to the time in one’s life when they have reached the peak of their abilities — Their heyday. Shakespeare used it in Antony and Cleopatra: “My salad days / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood.” And as I sit here and write this on my 36th birthday, a contemplative sigh washes over me. Listening to lines on Mac DeMarco’s latest offering, Salad Days, it’s impossible to not feel reflective. Hearing lyrics such as “Acting like my life’s already over” sung by an incredibly successful 23-year-old, I can’t help being a little introspective. Recalling hanging out with Mac on Third Beach back when he lived in Vancouver, I think about my own salad days. Have they passed me by? Sending questions for him to answer in Amsterdam or Paris, I ‘m reminded of the Smiths song, “We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful.” I’m not jealous that he’s famous or an amazing musician and frontman or whatever. I’m jealous that he’s got it so figured out.
But then he whispers in my ear, “Calm down sweetheart, grow up” and “Let it go now brother.” I feel a little better, after all it’s no use worrying. The chip up on my shoulder slides gently to my lap as the laconic guitar lulls me to complacency. I light some lavender incense as my media copy of Salad Days hits “Goodbye Weekend.”
“Don’t go telling me how this boy should be leading his own life / sometimes rough but generally speaking I’m fine.”
A remarkable insight for someone thrust into the spotlight under the suspicious banner of “weird.” How does he do it? How does he sustain it?
“I don’t think I’m particularly weird, but I think compared to the way the people tuning into my music are, I probably look very weird. So I can just be me, I guess.”
But in this age of commercials berating millennials with clichés, telling them to ‘be unique’ or ‘chart your own course,’ that is easier said than done. Letting your freak-flag fly might as well be a tagline for a Sailor Jerry’s ad. And yet, Mac bottles his personality for us to consume so effortlessly. Indeed the press release for Salad Days uses that same word — “Effortless.” I asked him about it.
“(It) wasn’t effortless. I was super stressed out and worried that I wouldn’t have enough time, but I got it together in time in the end. I guess I’ve been writing these guitar pop songs for a while though so I’m maybe getting a little better at it, not sure.”
Ah yes, pop. He understands it well. On the sardonic “Macumentary” Pepperoni Playboy he dissects an ’80s pop gem by Ryan Paris called “Dolce Vita.”
“Longing. Sadness. He’s all alone in the ‘Dolce Vita.’ He’s pleading… which he’s leaving it a little open ended… Why? So I can feel his emotions. I can paste this song onto my own life… And I feel his pain. And that’s what good pop music is made of. Pure, human, feeling.”
Despite his cheekiness, it’s a perfectly apt description of his own record. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the track “Let Her Go,” a deceptively upbeat pop tune that belies a sorrowful recompense reminiscent of Orbison or even Elvis — Hawaiian Elvis that is.
You actually get a lot of Blue Hawaii on this record. That nostalgic mix of forlorn crooning and laid back golden sunshine vibes. It’s like if the Beatles skipped India and went to Hawaii instead. Or if the Kinks played a Tiki-themed wedding. Or Kurt Vile playing a Ukulele wearing a puka shell necklace. Ironically, “Puka Shell Necklace” is also a song by Walter TV which features members of Mac’s backing band; ex-Vancouverites Joe McMurray and Pierce McGarry. I wondered what role they played in the making of Salad Days.
“They don’t come up when people are talking about my music that much. I think most people know I record alone, but they’re definitely a huge part of the live show and personality of our band.”
And what huge personality it is, as evident in Pepperoni Playboy. From sharing a ridiculous meal of lobster tails, sweetbreads, and bubbly; to cliff jumping in Australia, one gets a sense the band keeps Mac’s spirits high and his ego in check.
This brings me to “Passing Out Pieces,” the first single on the album. It’s a song that reconciles this so-called kooky personality with the realities of being an adult, and being alone versus the massive expectations put upon him
“Watching my life, passing right in front of my eyes/ Hell of a story, or is it boring?/ Can’t claim to care, never been reluctant to share/ Passing out pieces of me, don’t you know nothing comes free?”
And in one fell swoop he codifies the dichotomy that exists within all art and artists. It’s like Rainier Maria Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet set to an Alesis microverb four multi effects rack.
It recalls Elliot Smith’s “Pictures of Me,” if Conan Mockasin did a sleazy cover of it. It is pop, and it is perfect. “Longing. Sadness. He’s all alone in the Dolce Vita’” Again, I must quote the documentary (you really must watch it): “What kind of fucking normal person locks themselves in a little box, in a shoebox fucking room, to make music man?” Isolation. Alone in a crowded room. Lost in a hall of mirrors. Locked in “Chamber of Reflection,” recalling its lonely lyrics echoing like a cave. “Alone again/ Alone again/ Alone again/ Alone.”
But what is a pop album without girls? “Let Her Go,” “Treat Her Better,” “Let My Baby Stay,” and “Go Easy” (“So when you’re feeling rough, I’ll be right behind you/ To pick you up until you come around”) are all slotted in between the contemplative angst of Salad Days. We’ve all seen that video where Mac brings his girlfriend on stage, right? Who is this mystery muse?
“I write love songs a lot, so even if they aren’t about her, or anything for that matter, people assume they are. It’s fun to do things like that at shows sometimes, but it can also complicate a relationship.”
Once more, he deftly encapsulates the tensions inherent in the life of a musician. Where is he happiest?
“I’m happy at home, for a while, then I wanna get out and tour again, until I get tired of that too. It’s a weird cycle,” says Mac, completely aware of the bizarre paradox life has placed him in. “Honey that’s the way that life goes.”
Where does he find relief? “Lately in the shows. Everything else in my life’s been stressing me out lately, but when we’re on stage and it’s going well I feel relaxed.” “Honey that’s the way that life goes.” Hell of a story. Definitely not boring.
It’s clear that Mac’s salad days are an exercise in self-awareness. He’s in the eye of the storm and he is having a blast. From Edmonton (“Hi Jon, hi Catlin.”) to Vancouver (“I still love Vancouver a lot. I miss living there, maybe I will again someday.”) to Montreal (“Montreal on the other hand, fuck Montreal.”) to his current base in Brooklyn, it’s been quite the Odyssey.
“I like to think of this album as a self check for myself. It’s easy to get grumpy or jaded, so this is my way of going ‘snap out of it you brat.’ Y’know?”
Yeah man. I know. Thanks for that.
Catch former Vancouverite Mac DeMarco as he headlines Park Theatre (Winnipeg) on June 24, at the Starlite Room (Edmonton) on June 27 and at Republik (Calgary) on June 28 and the Vogue Theatre (Vancouver) on Canada Day, July 1.
By Sean Orr
Photos: Jackie Roman