Around this time last year, Mac DeMarco started off on what can properly be called a Great Big Adventure. As a mainstay of the music scene since 2012, he’s already spent a lot of time on the road touring his easy-going indie rock tunes like “My Kind of Woman” and “For the First Time.” But after two years cooped up at his home in Los Angeles during the pandemic, he had a backed-up well of wanderlust. So after finishing a show in San Francisco, he sawed a kick drum in half in Golden Gate Park, packed it up with a portable recording rig in the back of his Land Cruiser, and hit the road. “I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t know where I was gonna go, and I didn’t know when I was gonna come back,” DeMarco told me.
In the next four months, he drove across North America twice, crashing at friend’s houses and roadside motels. He ate at gas stations and grocery stores and some weird steakhouse in Fargo. He drove through a blizzard, slept in his car, and fled a creepy cabin in the woods. More importantly, he recorded his first instrumental album, out this Friday on his own label. But the hardest part wasn’t the hours on the road or making music in creepy houses. The hardest part was quitting smoking. “It was a pretty strange ride,” he said. “There were a lot of emotions.”
For some Mac fans, the news that DeMarco quit will come as a shock. In the public imagination and plenty of interviews, he appears with a Marlboro in hand. One of the more famous photos of him is called “Cigarette Heaven.” A laidback bop about a cheap cigarette brand, “Ode to Viceroy,” remains a crowd favorite. Is a tobacco-free Mac a new Mac? Maybe just a healthier one. He quit nicotine for good on a straight shot drive from New York to Salt Lake City. The story of how he did it is also the story of his road trip and the story of his new record.
The new album, titled Five Easy Hot Dogs, offers a loose map of his route across the US and Canada. Each song is named for where it was recorded and ordered chronologically. “I would just pull up,” he said. “I wanted to surprise people.” He started out in scenic Gualala then hit Crescent City, home to the infamous Pelican Bay State Prison. By the time he got to Portland, he realized he would have to put in work for social interaction. “I spent two days, maybe three, and I literally saw no one. I just ate at weird restaurants—alone—went thrifting, made a couple recordings, and left. But I like that hidden-in-plain-sight vibe.”
A challenge with traveling incognito: if you don’t tell anyone you’re coming, there’s a chance they won’t be there when you arrive. A lot of times he would pull into a new city and realize all his friends were out of town. Fortunately DeMarco has a good sense of where to find his fans. He hung around coffee shops and record stores and strolled around the hipper neighborhoods of whatever city was in, hoping to be recognized. If someone did, they’d chat, maybe hang out for an afternoon.
After swinging through his home country of Canada and making some new friends, he headed from Edmonton to Chicago. On that leg of the trip, he slept in his truck. “I ended up doing that in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota when it was minus 40. And it was pretty fucked!” He was prepared, though. “I had gotten some kind of Arctic sleeping bag from REI, and I thought it was time to put it to the test. The bag worked good, but I was incredibly cold in the morning. If I hadn’t had the right supplies, I probably could have…” He pauses, as if a thought has just occurred to him. “You know, it’s easy to die in cold weather like that.”
From Chicago he went to New York, where he stayed with his friend Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail and listened to Coney Island Baby a lot (“you gotta listen to Lou Reed in New York”). In a neat turn, DeMarco recorded the final track for Five Easy Hot Dogs in the Rockaways, the chilled-out beach neighborhood in Queens where he used to live (he famously shared his address with listeners on his fourth album Another One). He didn’t plan to stop recording in New York, but the city has a way of distracting people. For the first time since he started driving, he got in a studio with other people. “I did some work with Lil Yachty for his album while I was there, and I was recording with Danger Mouse for a while in Connecticut. I did some stuff with Akiko Yano, one of my hero musicians from Japan. It was great to do all these things, but it started pushing me further away from the hot dogs.”
To get back to the hot dogs, DeMarco had to get back on the road. “I was like, I need to get out of here and go to a smaller town where there’s nothing exciting happening so I can actually work,” he said. “The craziest thing to me, though, was that I decided to quit smoking as I was driving from New York City to Salt Lake City. That’s a pretty long fucking drive. And I was very addicted to nicotine.”
The decision to quit while driving west was partly inspired by the drive east. By then, he was mostly smoking a Juul instead of cigarettes. “I thought, “Look at me, I quit smoking. But if you’re pulling the nicotine out, you didn’t quit shit. It’s the same thing,” he said.
“I went to Canada, and the kids were like, “Wow, is that a real Juul pod?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And they were like, “We can’t buy them up here any more!”’ he said. That reaction sparked some consideration. “To have my daily mental health dictated by a fucked up little stick that looks like it’s out of Blade Runner and filled with some gross-ass tobacco flavored glycerine nicotine? That’s insane.”
So leaving New York, he decided to quit, just like that. DeMarco quit drinking a few years back with relative ease and expected a similar go of it. “I thought, ‘It’ll be easy, like three or four hours of discomfort and then I’ll be a free man.’ But it was more like 3 weeks of sweats and confusion,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep, I was dizzy, confused. I would have all these really insane mood swings all the time, calling my girlfriend and just screaming for no reason.”
“It was strange. The hardest thing for me was communicating with other humans,” he remembered. “I stopped in Lincoln, NE and wanted to get some Italian food at an upscale Olive Garden or something. I couldn’t put sentences together properly.”
A 32 hour, 2,173 mile drive cross-country, literally white-knuckling it? If you’ve ever quit smoking (or if you just think about it), you might think this isn’t the way to do it. Different strokes, though. Some opt for Nicorette and others hypnosis. For DeMarco, it was all long hours behind the wheel, Vicks Vaporub sticks, and “Had to Fall in Love” by the Moody Blues. “From when I put the Juul down to when I got back to LA, I only listened to that song. I probably listened to it like 600 times,” he said. “By most metrics, it’s not a ‘good song.’ But it’s the best song. You understand?”
When he pulled into Salt Lake City, DeMarco said he was “still kind of losing my mind.” The plan had been to hole up in the area for a month before a festival gig and finish Five Easy Hot Dogs, but after an annoying business call, one night in a particularly gnarly Motel 6, and general post-nicotine crankiness, he decided it was time to head home. After an ill-fated detour to hot springs (or at least a nice cabin), he rolled back into LA.
The resulting record is different from anything DeMarco has made before, but still sounds and feels decidedly Mac. He didn’t set out to make an instrumental album. But if the record doesn’t have much of his voice, his fingerprints are all over it, from the slow and soothing “Crescent City” to the bouncier, more playful tracks like “Vancouver” and “Chicago.” It feels like a Sunday morning record, something to put on while you make eggs or do your homework, then play again, and again.
The record is a success in more important ways for DeMarco, too. “Now I have proof of concept. Now I know this psycho travel shit works, so I think this’ll just be what I do,” DeMarco said. “Fuck recording studios, even the one at my house. Burn all that gear. I need to make it smaller. I need to make it motorcycle-sized. That’s the ultimate.” He has recently gotten very into motorcycles.
Back to the original question—is this, in some way, a new side of Mac DeMarco? A clean-living, motorcycle-riding instrumental road warrior? DeMarco certainly doesn’t think so. “I’m pretty much the same. Maybe a little more even-keeled.” He may get recognized all over North America these days, but he’s still the kind of guy who’ll sleep in his car, no problem.
And yet, “I’m still kind on this tip,” DeMarco said. “I haven’t drank in years. I don’t do caffeine either. It’s almost like I want to see how free I can become.”