The science behind what makes Mac DeMarco’s music so addictive

It seems as if DeMarco, as of late, has caused his own cultural revolution; one filled with mismatched fashion, uncut guitar strings, and a whole lot of viceroys, but that’s the side effect of what the real intrigue is to me. I used to be opposed to anything related to Mac’s sound, his style, and even whatever the heck is going on with his band. I didn’t get it, and I’m sure that a lot of people who have a grasp on today’s music scene can echo my sentiments. The timbre and effects on his guitar didn’t really do anything for me, and I was at a loss every time I watched him fling his persona and character all about the stage.

I finally decided to give in when DeMarco released his mini-LP, “Another One”, back in August 2015. Everyone around the internet was extremely excited at the prospect of new Mac DeMarco music that I thought I was feeling left out not divulging myself into his discography, so I started with “2”, his full length debut, and it finally clicked. What I have come to love about Mac DeMarco’s music are things that seem fairly simple, yet when executed effectively, can lead to dangerously addictive results, so here we go.

Categorized as jangle pop, lo-fi, and at times psychedelic by his critics, Mac’s genre really fluctuates from time to time, but he has self-proclaimed his style of music as “jizz jazz”, gracefully enough. You can definitely hear the Steely Dan and Dire Straights influences straight out of the 70s, but also aspects of classic 80s pop. In one song, “Chamber of Reflection”, the melody is sampled from an electronic jazz song from 1975, by Japanese artist Shigeo Sekito, and the name? Taken from an old freemason tradition. Even the title of his second LP, “Salad Days”, comes from a Shakespearean term describing the ills of youth. Behind the lovable slacker persona, there’s a more methodical artist working hard to master his craft. Mac definitely knows his shit and he’s not afraid to let you know.

The meat of Mac’s sound, though, comes into play with the compositional techniques he uses, be it with his noodly guitar fed through presets of reverb and chorus pick ups on his earlier work, or with the warm synthesizers and Rhodes 54 keyboard he has smuggled into his later records. He records on analog tape, which is a reel to reel system that allows for a much higher fidelity than other techniques, mirroring the sound of the 80s that this practice was popular in. In an extensive interview with Pitchfork, the distorted guitar sounds on “Salad Days” actually come from excess smoke that warped his tapes over time. As it would go, he liked the sound and stuck with it for the release.

At first listen, most of the songs seem to follow the same pattern as any pop song would, but instead of employing the usual aspects of a hit song, Mac sticks to the basics, and it works. A good verse and chorus couple doesn’t seem to need much else to make a bang, and he seems to know his craft and how it will work. It’s apparent on the laid back “Ode to Viceroy” or lush “Passing Out Pieces” that a smooth transition from one section of a song to the other is much more sonically pleasing than playing “pimp my track” and adding a pre chorus, bridge, or even key change.

Digging deeper, there is a tension and release factor than really makes a Mac DeMarco song tick, and the magic is within his affinity to create complex chords progressions not usually seen in the music industry. Looking at the composition of, “Another One”, DeMarco stacks the album with a motif of 6th chords throughout. The 6th provides the chilled out, lo-fi feel that most of Mac’s music emanates, as it isn’t as harsh as a straight 7th chord. In addition to this, he has been liberal in the about of major and minor 7th chord use in his work, which has lead to a softer, somewhat ethereal tone overall. It makes the whole experience of listening to one of his albums like its own little trip through a dense layer of fog, but I digress. That’s enough music theory for right now.

I think what really gets people is how much they can relate to Mac as a person. He isn’t a guarded figure that “leaves it all on the stage”. He’s relatable and he has his own life besides for being a rock star (which he fully embodies while assuming the role, don’t get me wrong). His sets are always fun, and it seems like he is truly enjoying what he does on stage. It has been noted that he likes to say whatever first comes to mind in the microphone, and really doesn’t take anything too seriously-except for music that is. “I take making music seriously,” he says. “But you have to have a sense of humor about yourself. I invite people into my life. That’s how I do it.”

Ultimately, Mac DeMarco is just being himself. He’s also making damn good music at the same time, and to be honest, there really isn’t any science there.

 

 

 

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Pimping the Butterfly: The jazz influences behind Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed 2015 release

There is nowhere a music listener can go without at least seeing the album art of Kendrick Lamar’s third studio effort, To Pimp a Butterfly, which was released earlier this year. The album, with not even a year’s worth of exposure, is already being hailed by critics as one of hip-hop’s greatest records, and Kendrick’s own personal magnum opus. The critics aren’t wrong, and as the Grammys for 2015 were announced, To Pimp a Butterfly has been nominated for Album of the Year, Best Rap Album, Song of the Year, Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance (“Alright”), and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (“These Walls”). President Barack Obama has named “How Much a Dollar Cost” his favorite song of 2015.

With an increasingly apparent jazz influence, Kendrick speaks out on major socioeconomic and political issues such as tax evasion, the obsession to be rich, ingrained African American stereotypes, and even calls out President Obama on “Hood Politics”. Since Jazz is such an integral and important part of African American culture in America, the musically styling only helps to accentuate the topics he raps on. Just like renowned jazz bassist Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” before him, Kendrick boldly tackles societal problems and hopes to form change from the music created and inspired by the music that helped to spur the civil rights movement 50 years prior. To achieve such a lush, layered, and authentic sound, Kendrick brought in some up and coming names in jazz to head the task of creating the environment that sustains To Pimp a Butterfly all the way through.

The principle bass player featured on the album is Stephen Bruner, better known by his stage name of Thundercat. Bruner, a native of Los Angeles, has been all over the R&B world, collaborating on an amazingly high number of projects, most notably with producer and artist Flying Lotus on his albums Until the Quiet Comes and You’re Dead! in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Kendrick brought Thundercat in shortly after the release of 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and had an immediate impression, opening him up to the wonders of Miles Davis’ work which prompted the hiring of Taz Arnold to produce “Momma”, “u”, and “For Sale (Interlude)”, according to the Rolling Stone interview that took place back in April. Cited as being “at the creative epicenter” of the recording process, it is clear how much influence Thundercat’s presence had on the album’s final sound. In addition to session work and collaboration, Thundercat has three solo albums, 2011’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse, 2013’s Apocalypse, and his latest in 2015, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam. His solo work alone, complete with dark and warm experimental R&B, is enough to catapult his status as a figure in the music world, but his presence as a producer and collaborator make him that much more of a rising star.

Another center point for Kendrick is tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, currently hailed as the second coming of jazz great John Coltrane. Throughout the album, Kamasi gives To Pimp a Butterfly extra weight by arranging and conducting the string section, as well as provide his virtuosity on sax. At 13 years old, Kamasi picked up saxophone and eventualy formed the Young Jazz Giants quartet, which included fellow student Stephen Bruner. His involvement stretches across the musical spectrum, appearing on records by the Broken Bells and Harvey Manson, although his most focused work came on Flying Lotus’ label, Brainfeeder, home to both him and Thundercat. In 2015, Kamasi released his first solo album, the 3 LP The Epic., which spans a journey through the jazz, fusion, soul, and even choral worlds. His compositions are complex, intricate, and ultimately, give the listener substance to create entire storylines mentally. Washington has already proven to the Jazz world he means business, and his collaborations with Kendrick are just the beginning.

In addition, Snarky Puppy drummer Robert “Sput” Searight was brought in to drum on tracks “For Free”, and “Hood Politics”. Searight’s masterful drumming and use of linear patterns brings a gospel-like approach to the rhythms of the album, where he got his formative skills. His experience with multi-genre styles and arrangements can be heard in his ability to complement the intricacies of Kendrick’s voice and pattern, using jazz comping to enhance the cohesiveness of the music altogether.

To Pimp a Butterfly might be a rap album, but the jazz influences of all ages is clearly demonstrated in both the soundscape of the record and in the personnel brought in to achieve such a feat. In an interview with The Guardian, Kamasi Washington expresses his awe of Kendrick, and how he let them, “put that much of their selves in there. I was happy to be a part of it, but I was really proud of them to have created something that beautiful”. By surrounding himself with budding jazz figures, Kendrick was able to grow as a musician with his latest work, reaching back in time to capture the essence of his commentary at its peak, and it’s this that makes the album so powerful and effective.

(image courtesy of The Guardian)

Why Kevin Parker will be this generation’s most influential music figure

2015 has seen a crazy amount of high quality, sustainable releases from so many high profile artists. With release dates being more or less regulated to Fridays, there appears to be a higher awareness of the influx of music we received, and thus, consumed over the course of the year. So many artists and individuals have come to light, released breakthrough albums, or even released a magnum opus.

We are approaching a sort of modern belle époque of music, in which the art of this generation seems to be innovating at alarmingly successful rates. Along with this era of high creativity and cultivated culture come the figures that make such a time period gain legacy, and that is no different that what I am attempting to explain now. There’s something stirring quietly in the music world, something and someone that has been hiding in shadows for quite a while now, conveniently thrust into the spotlight at exactly the right time.

One of the figures finding himself leading this exciting era under the newly furnished spotlight is Perth, Australia’s Kevin Parker, front man and creative mind behind Grammy nominated and ARIA winning group, Tame Impala. Now, just from a distance, those accomplishments hold some weight already, but the manner in which this recognition was achieved is even more impressive. Tame Impala, essentially, is a one-man project. On his first two records, “Innerspeaker” and “Lonerism”, Parker wrote, recorded, and assisted in producing every aspect of each album respectively. By the time of his third effort, “Currents”, Parker added mixing and mastering to his job title as well, completely the album alone in his home studio in Perth.

What sets Parker apart from other artists currently is the presence of his ability to create self-aware music, and ultimately fully express himself sonically through what he releases. The 2015 release, “Currents”, has one of the most visceral storylines of any album since the start of the decade. Looking inward, Parker examines the duality of a person changing, and battles with the philosophy of how changes are natural, impending, and overall, something to look forward to. His commentary on such internal conflict provides a rare and unique peak inside the mind of a tattered perfectionist, who after critical acclaim still believes the album to be “unlistenable”.

Besides his work in Tame Impala, Parker is starting to gain a reputation as a producer for other musical projects that have gained a significant amount of success under his wing. In Mark Ronson’s Grammy nominated “Uptown Special”, well known for its mega-hit, “Uptown Funk”, Parker is both featured on and produces 3 of the 11 songs, including “Summer Breaking”, “Daffodils”, and “Leaving Los Feliz”. His work is echoed in the French psychedelic scene, where he both produced and recorded drum set for the up and coming group, Melody’s Echo Chamber, who’s success on their eponymous debut can be attributed to Parker’s direction. Back in Perth, he sustained success in producing Pond’s 2015 release, “Man It Feels Like Space Again”, garnering ARIA nomination, and hip-hop group Koi Child, in which he produced their lead single, “Black Panda”.

What I am excited for is not what he has already done, (though I could talk about that for a while…) but what he will do moving forward. Already, Parker has gone beyond the definition of musician, leaving an effect on everything he touches, even catapulting artists into success. Before, Parker hid behind a full band moniker, but is slowly but surely ditching the shell for a much more desirable position of ownership of his work. Now with a permanent recording studio, I can see Parker starting his own record label, with bands wanting to get their album produced by him, a la the likes of Steve Albini and Rick Reuben. Parker is not just one of the best musicians to grace the stage in 2015, but one of the best creative minds. Mark my words and take this as a warning, this guy’s doing some pretty hip stuff.

(image courtesy of Vice)