There's a song on Mac DeMarco's new album, This Old Dog, that sounds like it belongs on Apple Music's I Miss Yacht Rock playlist. With its smooth, jazz-inflected electric piano and steadied, mid-tempo rhythm, On the Level would work nicely as a mellow breather in between heavyweights such as Player's Baby Come Back and the Doobie Brothers' Takin' It to the Streets. But the DeMarco tune will likely never get added to the already extensive playlist because he was born 40 years too late.
The singer-songwriter, originally from Duncan, B.C., is one of the most adored indie-rock acts of the millennial generation.
On top of his famous gap-toothed grin, his bum-chic slacker style and his goofy, every-dude persona, DeMarco – who turns 27 on Sunday – has created a laid-back sound (he calls it "jizz-jazz") that has been informed by decades-old music largely deemed outmoded and uncool.
On his third full-length album, he has delved even deeper into that influence.
"I've been listening to a lot of seventies stuff by James Taylor and Paul Simon, so I was thinking, 'Yeah cool, I'm an acoustic songwriter,' though I can't even come close to those guys," DeMarco says over the phone from his Los Angeles home.
He describes This Old Dog as the product of working with "a different palette."
Instead of using his precious 1992 Squier Stratocaster, he chose to record with an acoustic guitar, a cheap synthesizer and a drum machine.
That might not sound like the kind of setup James Taylor might record with, but rest assured, this is an album Sweet Baby James lovers could appreciate.
"For some reason that juxtaposition of acoustic guitar and synth seems weirder than the electric guitar and synth together," DeMarco admits. "I somehow made it work and it just feels natural. I think most fans will think, 'What?' But hopefully they'll be stoked."
DeMarco has acknowledged that he is "essentially doing dad rock" (though he's equally as popular with moms), which is a wide range of earnest, sexless guitar-based rock music written and performed largely by white dudes and the most technically proficient session musicians in the seventies. No, we're not talking about the forever cool dad-rockers such as Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. We're talking about Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, even Paul McCartney's solo albums; the kind of music that clogs up used-vinyl dollar bins. Having made Steely Dan's classic Reelin' in the Years a regular cover in his set lists, it's hard not to hear DeMarco taking inspiration from those bands in the noodling solo that closes This Old Dog's A Wolf Who Wears Sheep's Clothes.
"Musicianship has become more important," DeMarco says. "You listen to Steely Dan and you're like, 'Oh yeah, listen to that guy play the drums!' So it's gone down that path quite a bit. What drew me to a lot of those records is the technical stuff, like the production is dry and it's very precise and to the point, but when I think in that regard of that sound, even Harvest by Neil Young is very much in there, and a lot of Todd Rundgren stuff, there is a magic to it. A lot of trash came out in the seventies, but there were a lot of great records too."
DeMarco is not alone in his love for dad rock. Call it a second coming if you like, but there is a host of indie acts whose music has fallen under its spell: Father John Misty (see early Elton John), the War on Drugs (see Bruce Hornsby), the Lemon Twigs (see Rundgren) and Tame Impala (see Electric Light Orchestra) are but a few. In harking back to that era, they've attracted fans of all ages through a variety of outlets such as social media, music press, satellite radio, themed streaming playlists and music festivals.
Los Angeles duo Foxygen are perhaps the best example of a contemporary band channelling seventies rock in a multitude of directions. Their 2014 album, … And Star Power, was so ambitious in running the gamut of glam, punk, prog, soft rock and folk that it became a double LP, a format that ruled supreme in the seventies yet has proven to be far too gluttonous by today's standards. The band's recent album, January's Hang, is far more concise in its scope, a throwback to when the seventies was the golden age of grandiose rock music.
"Growing up my parents listened to Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and Steve Winwood. That was the stuff I remember being around," Foxygen's Jonathan Rado says. "Some people have a negative connotation to [their parents' taste], but not me. I've always liked all those bands and thought they were really cool. I pretty much grew up on seventies AM pop radio."
For Rado, who in May will release a solo album that covers the entirety of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, part of the allure was the theatricality behind the music, in both the presentation and the performance. He and his bandmate Sam France studied theatre in high school together (where they also recorded a 30-track space opera) and cite that experience as a major influence on their electrifying gigs.
"We've always believed that if someone is gonna pay good money to see a show, you've gotta put on a good show," Rado explains. "The thing about the seventies was that there was an excess of money so that you could take a year to make a record or Meatloaf could ride a motorcycle on stage if he wanted. It'd be impossible to pull that off nowadays, but I love that."
Rado is also spreading that love as a producer for other bands. He oversaw two of 2016's best debut albums: Whitney's Light Upon the Lake and the Lemon Twigs' Do Hollywood.
Both albums exuded their own distinct fondness for particular seventies sounds – Whitney leaned toward sun-kissed, AM country rock, while the Lemon Twigs opted for an elaborate mix of chamber, glam and power pop. Rado feels those two bands, in particular, have managed to win over both their own generation and the generation that made them.
"I do know that Whitney and the Lemon Twigs have a lot of older dudes that like their bands," Rado says. "I've thought a lot about why this happens with certain bands and I think it has a lot to do with NPR. They do these First Listen features and they're super-hip to what is coming out. I feel like it also appeals to older people who listen to NPR in the morning. They hear Whitney and say, 'Oh, this is a good song.' They do a great job of bringing new bands into a world that is outside of indie rock."
Whitney frontman Julien Ehrlich can attest to charming the older crowds. "We've totally found that our stuff spans generations. It's pretty cool," he says en route to play Coachella. "Last night we played at a winery in Sonoma and I'd say the average age there was 40 or 50. There were about 350 people there. It was awesome."
That crossover into the world of a greyer-haired audience has earned Whitney a highly coveted gig at their dream venue and dad-rock institution. "We're actually going to play Levon Helm's old barn studio in upstate New York soon," Ehrlich says. "They occasionally do shows there. I think they saw that we're huge fans of the Band."
The worlds of dad rock and indie rock have collided and there is no better evidence than the mutual admiration between DeMarco and dad-rock legend Michael McDonald. A few months back, the two musicians went for lunch. It was the former Doobie Brother who reached out after learning of DeMarco's music through his teenage children. For DeMarco, it was a dream come true and possibly even the start of a collaborative friendship.
"He's a hero of mine and an incredible musician, a legend," DeMarco says enthusiastically. "He's your classic collaborator; he's worked with everyone, and maybe at some point we'll end up doing something together. But he just wanted to meet up and talk. It was amazing! We went to this dingy pho restaurant in Chinatown in L.A. It was like, 'What the hell am I doing here?' It was insane. I have a weird life now."