Mac DeMarco arrives 10 minutes early for our karaoke date, smoking and frowning. He’s just returned to New York from the opening leg of his tour in support of his third record, Salad Days, and he leaves again for New Orleans in two days. His belly is full of hot, hastily-consumed fries eaten en route to this — an official appointment to drink beer and sing karaoke with a writer. It is broad daylight, and as I stand awkwardly next to him, outside of Planet Rose on the Lower East Side, I flash forward to what I hope will be the end of the evening: All of us, arms linked, singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Right now, we form an uneasy triangle — me, DeMarco and our trusty blogger and photographer Andrew Parks — feeling the obligation, imposed by me, to have a good time.
Then, Kiera McNally walks up, and DeMarco relaxes. We all relax. McNally is DeMarco’s girlfriend, and she attends almost all of his press events. Later in the evening, when three hours of karaoke and five rounds of beers have done their job, DeMarco will confide in me: “It makes me less lonely to have Kiera around. Honestly, it’s just kind of nice to have someone to take the train with.”
With McNally rounding out our circle, conversation flows more easily. DeMarco tells me he recently played the wedding of Katie Garcia, the manager of his label Captured Tracks. He learned a number of new covers for the occasion: Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend,” Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” They were straight, sincere renditions, worlds apart from the jokey medley of covers — AC/DC, Rammstein’s “Du Hast Mich,” Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” — that DeMarco and his band trotted out at every stop of their last tour. “We have enough new songs now to play that we don’t need to fill the set out with that crap,” he says. “That was our scapegoat if we felt the set was going poorly: ‘Let’s just freak ‘em out with a bunch of AC/DC covers!’”
Together, we head into Planet Rose. It is still happy hour, and the scene is accordingly grim: There is one other couple here, at the bar. The girl is singing — shrieking — “Shy” from “Once Upon a Mattress.” The bartender, standing in the blast radius of this performance, is texting. We look around, suddenly aware of the pressing need to lubricate this situation with drinks.
Settling into the venue’s zebra-printed couches, we pass around songbooks in silence. DeMarco’s head pops up first, and he jots down the five-digit code for to the song he wants on a post-it with a golf pencil and hands it to the bartender. Because we are alone, it comes up instantly: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” This is not an easy song to sing, riddled with tricky key changes, but DeMarco digs into it with gusto, wandering around the empty bar, his hair sticking out greasily behind his duckbill cap. He stretches up to his tiptoes to snag the high notes — which he hits, effortlessly. “That’s my favorite Elton John song, I think,” he remarks upon sitting down. The couple at the bar claps and whoops.
Now it is my turn. I have chosen the Smiths’ “This Charming Man.” Seeing the song title come up on the screen, DeMarco turns to me, eyeing me keenly. “Do you have a good Morrissey?” he inquires, his eyebrows disappearing into his duck bill. I can tell the answer matters, marking the only time in the evening when I am acutely aware that Mac is sizing me up.
Do I have a good Morrissey? I have been told by friends that I have a good Morrissey. In the course of listening to audio playback of your own karaoke performances, you learn many things about yourself, but my chief takeaway from hearing myself sing “This Charming Man” is that it was my friends telling me that. My Morrissey, as it turns out, trembles at the edge between croon and bleat, with a catch of protest in my throat that’s a little bit Sandpeople. I am committed, however, to my Morrissey, and in karaoke, commitment counts for a lot. When I finish, Mac nods at me approvingly. “You have a good Morrissey.”
The twin gravitational pulls of karaoke camaraderie and early-drinker camaraderie are strong, which is how the girl from the bar ends up lounging on the zebra couches with us. Her name is Corey, and she has been here since 5 p.m., possibly earlier. The guy, it turns out, is actually her brother. When I tactfully compliment her on the ambitiousness of her song selection, she hides her face. “Oh my god, I fucked it up super bad, because we’ve been drinking here for hours and we haven’t had a lot of food,” she says. She adds, unprompted, “Carol Burnett originated that role, and she is a goddamn genius.” She shakes McNally’s hand and screams, “Oh my god! You’re so cold!” and calls back over her shoulder, “Somebody get this bitch a hot toddy!” She totters away to slur through a very throaty “You’re So Vain.” Corey, it is agreed by all, is awesome.
McNally turns to me. “Who is this piece for?” she asks. I open my mouth to answer and am drowned out by the explosively hilarious sound of our new friend Corey’s brother nailing the “PEACHES COME FROM A CAN” line from the Presidents of the United States of America’s “Peaches.” As a result, I don’t manage to clarify, for either DeMarco or McNally, who exactly they’re hanging out with, or why, until we catch up on the phone the next day. We hang out for five hours.
DeMarco’s karaoke selections, throughout the evening, tend unsurprisingly toward yacht rock and ’70s AM radio. (He’ll do Nickelback, he allows, “in the right situation.”) He sings “Just the Way You Are” to McNally and his phrasing is, honestly, beautiful. DeMarco is a skilled musician, which is something people don’t talk about often: His songs, recorded on duct-taped, cigarette-fogged equipment, glimmer with sophisticated chord progressions and band interplay, which is all the more impressive when you remember that on the records, it’s all Mac.
“Anybody who writes complex songs without feeling complex: Those are people I learn from,” DeMarco says. “John Lennon or Harry Nilsson or Ray Davies write really complex songs but they aren’t, like, jazz demigod fusion players. I think the crux of what those guys were trying to do was similar.” DeMarco’s Kinks debt is particularly clear on Salad Days: The melody to the title track lifts directly from “Picture Book,” which he says “just sort of seeped in.” The fragile, off-the-cuff tone of the songs also comes from those golden-era albums. “I listened to Village Green all the time, but I also just listened to ‘Days’ over and over again. There’s something about the recording fidelity of that song that got to me.”
There was actually a single video clip I watched over and over again,” he continues. “Ray Davies sings at Glastonbury in 2010, and it was the same summer Pete Quaife has died. Usually I get really bummed watching old guys do their old songs, but this was just an insanely powerful performance. When I watched that video, I was like, ‘Holy, fuck.’ I couldn’t get over it.”
This guy — thoughtful, smart, interested in everything — is often overshadowed by the goofy, gap-toothed character DeMarco amiably plays in interviews. The dirty clothes, the Stripes-era Bill Murray schtick, the commitment to toilet jokes: This has become what a large portion of his audience has grown to revere him for, as much as his unassuming, lovely songs. This guy, the one who talked about penises with Marnie Stern and announced, “I’ve got a fresh tampon in my pussy, and I’m ready to fuckin’ rock out to the Swans!” on Internet TV shows? He’s sort of real. The closest I get to seeing him during our night together is when he sings Ryan Paris’s campy Italian disco song “Dolce Vita,” doing a silly little dance that is equal parts Ghostbusters and “Wild and Crazy Guys.” By the end, we have devolved into shouting nonsensical quasi-Italian non-sequiturs: “Life is beautiful! Olive oil! Scooters!”
Being a full-time goofball seems like it would be kind of exhausting, but DeMarco denies it takes much out of him. “People have a lot of assumptions about me nowadays, I guess,” he concedes, but he doesn’t sound the least bit perturbed or annoyed. Mac DeMarco is, without question, the most genuinely easygoing human being I’ve ever encountered, and I can tell he’s only talking about this because I asked him, and he wants to be helpful. “It’s kind of strange, because I try to be as sincere and true to myself with my music as I possibly can, so that there isn’t really a divide in between my music and me. But journalists take things you say and blow them up and rearrange them, and that creates a persona for you that you figure out how to deal with.”
DeMarco is dealing it, for the most part, how he seems to deal with everything: By good-naturedly playing along. There was a time, he admits, during the dog days of the tour for his second record, when he was less equable. “We definitely got to that bad point as a band, where you’re like, ‘Fuck, another show,’ and then you bring a bad attitude on stage and you start ridiculing the audience and fucking with them,” he says. “But, you know, you can’t do that. What I realized from playing with [fellow Captured Tracks artist] Juan [Wauters] is that it’s not really worth my effort to make people feel like that, when you should just be doing the opposite.” He brings the same philosophy to his press events: “The only ones I feel wiped out from are the ones where they’re like… ‘Hey man, we’re gonna do a photo shoot. Smoke a hundred cigarettes.’ That just makes me feel uncomfortable, and I’m only going to be funny if I feel comfortable.”
Tonight, DeMarco seems comfortable. McNally sings “Heart of Glass” after I secretly key it in for her. We all laugh at the lyrics (“Mucho mistrust?” Is that really what she says?) and DeMarco films the whole thing. I ask him to pick a song for me (the rule being that I must know at least most of the chorus) and, grinning, he makes a beeline for Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” “If you need help, I know the verses,” he offers. And so it is that I find myself doubled over in what feels like a million-year-long, duodenum-puckering Scott Stapp impersonation.
Toward the end of the evening, McNally picks a surprise song for DeMarco, and he keeps asking her about it. “Do I know the verses?” he asks, looking genuinely worried. McNally laughs, reassuring him, “You’ll be able to do it.” He doesn’t seem reassured. After my rendition of “For the Longest Time” (I am spontaneously joined in harmony by a stranger by the bar), the song comes up, and it turns out to be Michael McDonald’s “What a Fool Believes.”
DeMarco’s Michael McDonald impression, it will surprise no one to learn, is uproarious, a series of alarming grunts and man-rock noises that, six Stellas in, is simply the funniest thing any of us have ever heard. But then his voice hits falsetto on the chorus, and the bartender, who later in the evening will absolutely murder Hedwig’s “Wig in a Box,” is touched, muttering to his friend “Every time I hear this song I just die.” DeMarco can really sing, and he’s feeling the song, so we are too. McNally beams at him. I sing along, loudly. (“I feel like you go to karaoke a lot,” McNally offers.) Six Stellas in, I am convinced it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.