It is a spring afternoon in Eagle Rock, a quiet neighborhood in East Los Angeles, and Mac DeMarco is trying to find a polite way to explain his recent reclusiveness -- that is, why he’s less like the wacky, rabble-rousing entertainer fans have come to know and love, and more like a lone wolf. He takes a few drags of his cigarette and shrugs. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy all of this anymore,” he says, “but the amount of -- I don’t want to say ‘celebrity,’ because I’m not famous -- but the amount of notoriety, especially with the internet nowadays, I’m already uncomfortable with where I’m at. Playing to as many people as possible, that’s a beautiful thing, but it taxes your soul.”
The question of stardom arises during a conversation about the thriving DIY music market, which DeMarco has, intentionally or otherwise, played a key role in helping amplify and expand. It has made him a sort of indie icon -- proof that one doesn’t need deep pockets or corporate backing to make it big.
It has been eight years since the Canadian singer-songwriter, beloved for his sly humor and slacker-rock disinterest in the major-label machine, first stumbled into the spotlight in 2012, with his solo debut, the Rock and Roll Night Club EP, released on Captured Tracks. He has put out three full-length studio albums on the Brooklyn-based independent label since -- all reached the top 30 of the Billboard 200, and two peaked at No. 1 on the Independent Albums chart -- all the while inspiring a new wave of bedroom singer-songwriters like Clairo, Rex Orange County and Cuco (the lattermost only recently changed course and signed a seven-figure deal with Interscope).
Captured Tracks, which is run by Blank Dogs’ Mike Sniper, ultimately inspired DeMarco, now 29, to start his own imprint. His fourth album, Here Comes the Cowboy, due May 10, will be the first release on his newly formed Mac’s Record Label, a partnership with independent distributor Caroline. The label isn’t an attempt to sign indie music’s promising up-and-comers, he says, but is instead a practical step toward one key personal objective: “own everything.”
As DeMarco’s success grows, it seems increasingly at odds with his personality. He might rather tour small-town venues with a skeleton crew of friends, but he’s popular enough to play Coachella and sell out presale tickets in a handful of cities at 2,500- to 6,000-seat venues. His upcoming tour starts in Sonoma, Calif., on May 7, and he will likely travel by tour bus and bring a sound technician -- “extras” that he had never cared to splurge on.
“Now, those things are a little more important,” he says. “The venues are a lot bigger than I ever thought we’d be playing. I’m older, and I’m not old, but I’m not as interested in just getting blackout drunk onstage. I want things to sound nice.”
Despite his influence on the indie scene, DeMarco floats outside of its current incarnation; the low-key singer doesn’t crank out viral content or wrestle for brand endorsement deals. He isn’t even on social media. The distance seems to be by design. Like some of indie’s other trailblazers, DeMarco finds that he lacks a kinship with indie’s new generation, largely because of perceived philosophical differences over what DIY success should look like, where it should come from and how quickly it should arrive.
“It all comes down to your motivation,” he says. “That’s the difference I see now. I toured for four years playing to, like, four people in somebody’s basement, but I didn’t care because I got to play shows. Nowadays, young bands blow up online and their first show is at an 800-person venue. And then if they have to play a small place, they’re like, ‘What the fuck?’ ”
DeMarco was always skeptical of the fast-tracking, overpromising, 360-degree contracts peddled by major labels. Having grown up poor in Edmonton, Alberta, he says, he didn’t want to owe anyone or be forced to split revenue with strangers. “The one thing I always hear [indie artists] complaining about is not making any money, which is like...obviously we’re not making as much money as a fucking gigantic radio band, but I live very comfortably. I own a house, my girlfriend doesn’t have to work, I can take care of my mom. Maybe it’s because we’ve kept it so cheap -- I split everything equally with everybody, it’s not complicated -- but I don’t understand that complaint. I don’t know what big artists get, probably a lot, but this already is more than I need.”
As DeMarco wrestles with where to go from here, he is presenting his most introspective and refined work to date. Here Comes the Cowboy builds off the laid-back wistfulness of his 2017 release, This Old Dog, but is delivered with more tension, as if he’s scanning the room for the exit signs but feels destined to stay. The title drew attention from fans on Twitter for its similarity to that of Mitski’s critically acclaimed 2018 album, Be the Cowboy. Both artists agree it was a coincidence, likely drawing upon the same romantic trope: the strong, silent, lonely cowboy as the iconic American masculine ideal.
It manifests most on dreamy ballads like “Finally Alone” and “Choo Choo,” in which DeMarco fantasizes about fleeing the city for “somewhere mundane” where he can tend cattle in solitude. “This is my out-to-pasture album,” he says, making the chk chk sound of a pistol cocking. “I don’t really give a shit about anything anymore.” Coming from him, that sounds like a bluff.
DIY Merch Tip
“Put this in the interview: Do not sign a 360 deal. I don’t care how much money they’re offering you, don’t [take it]. It’s an awful, awful idea. It’s a long time, a really long time. And they own your image. They take money from your merch on tour -- nobody should touch that. I didn’t know that some bands don’t own their merch, which to me is like -- straight up, you’re being robbed. You can make money selling merch at shows, so it’s good if you own it. Thumbs up, bonus for you. Do not give anybody that merch money, or your show money. They’re not on the stage, and they’re probably not even in the city [you’re playing]. Forget about it.”