Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mac DeMarco on gameplay, stance, and all the other reasons he loves pinball

Illustration for article titled Mac DeMarco on gameplay, stance, and all the other reasons he loves pinball

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

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The fan: Slacker rock mastermind Mac DeMarco has made a career of releasing laid-back pop songs. Tracks like “Ode To Viceroy” and “Passing Out The Pieces” highlight the Canadian artist’s vibe-soaked commitment to not only cigarettes, but to the artistic lifestyle that he’s chosen. More than anything, DeMarco is about not selling out, staying who he is, and, as The A.V. Club found out, playing awesome pinball.

DeMarco’s latest record is Salad Days, and it’s out now on Captured Tracks.

The A.V Club: Why do you love pinball?

Mac DeMarco: Actually, it took me a long time to love it. I used to hate it with a passion.

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I used to live in Vancouver years and years ago. I would go back to visit every once in a while to see all my old friends, and I’d be like, “Oh, let’s go hang out, get a six-pack, go the beach,” whatever. All they would want to do was to go this one bar called [The] Cobalt. They’d be like, “Let’s go play pinball.” It’s not really a thing that registered to me as something to go do. I was like, “You want to go waste money on these like arcade games?”

It was mainly my friend Scott, because he was amazing right of the bat. He’d put 50 cents in the machine, and play for two hours or so. That was the initial eye-opener. Then at some point I moved down to New York and I really didn’t know anybody here except for people that I worked with in music. I found myself going to Laundromats to play pinball with my girlfriend a lot. Eventually it led to me buying the machine for an absurd amount of money.

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AVC: What machine do you own?

MD: I own the 1994 Williams Bally The Shadow.

AVC: Why that one?

MD: The mid-’90s pinballs are, in my opinion, the best pinballs. They’re very sturdy, they’ve got good rule sets, and a lot of the scenes are cool.

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A lot of people don’t like the one that I have. Who would really want big Alec Baldwin in their living room? But I don’t mind it. It’s a great table.

It’s weird buying one as well, because you go out and give $3,000 to some old Lithuanian dude on Long Island, and then you bring it home and you’re kind of like, “Why did I spend that much money on this fucking thing?” I love it, though.

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AVC: Do you know how to fix the machine?

MD: I was actually fixing it the other day. I live in a place with 10 dudes and they all play.

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The whole idea of a pinball machine is there’s a steel ball rolling around hitting stuff really hard, so it’s kind of built to break, but they also make it built to fix up. It’s user-friendly. It’s kind of like fixing a tape machine or a mixer or something. It’s a little less complicated than that, because it’s all kinetic, with very simple switches and stuff.

AVC: You said you like the mid-’90s games. Do you also like new games? Or much older games?

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MD: I like new games, too. Some of the new stuff is really crappy, though, because all of the old pinball companies are gone now. There’s one company that has a lot of the old programmers and designers called Stern. There’s another one called Jersey Jack. I think there might be an Australian company, too, but I’m not really sure. There’s an AC/DC table that they put out maybe two years ago. That’s a good new table. It’s kind of annoying to listen to AC/DC for hours and hours, but it’s okay.

I think the reason that I like the mid-’90s ones is because it was still an era where pinball didn’t have to license something to make people play with the machine; people just wanted to play pinball. Mine isn’t a good example, but there are tables where they invented some weird story and made a machine around it, where it’s not necessarily linked to a movie or something. Nowadays the only way they can get money to build a machine, because the industry’s kind of dying, is to license Spider-Man or Batman or something like that. It’s just different. The new tables are fine, too. Just different.

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AVC: What makes a good machine to you?

MD: There’s a number of different things. I’m not super concerned with the aesthetic. It’s kind of important—like, it’s cool to have a really cool looking table—but it’s mostly just how it plays, how it flows, if it’s fun or not. Every table’s very different. Some tables, they will pull similarities from classic tables.

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Personally I like a deep table. You don’t just play it and go for the same thing over and over. You have a couple options. You don’t have to just shoot for the multiball. Maybe you want to stack some balls then go for something else good, get your multiplier going. I just like the tables that are full of surprises and aren’t necessarily extremely straightforward.

AVC: Do you have secret moves?

MD: The reason that I’m enthusiastic about pinball—and I’m trying to tell people all the time,  is that people don’t realize that it’s not just put a quarter in and hit both flippers over and over and over like at the same time. There’s a lot of skill to it. You have to—especially in ball-to-ball play—be able to control several balls. You can do a little bit of post passing, you can do drop catching, you could bend back, you can do tons and tons of stuff. Cradle separation. When people are very skilled at pinball, watching them play is mystifying. It’s crazy.

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AVC: How did you learn all these terms? Do you read pinball blogs?

MD: Mostly my friends. The one friend Scott I was telling you about, he’s really good. He had a pinball in his apartment for a while. He got my friend Lion into it. And my friend who’s also on Captured Tracks with me, Alex Calder, he’s very good at pinball. It’s all these people that’s I’ve just known for years and years. They all got extremely good at it very fast.

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When I go up to Montreal or back to Edmonton, it’s kind of like, “No, no, no, check this out. Do this, do that,” and they’ll teach me a new move.

Every once in a while I’ll go on the PAPA website and watch the tournament play. Some of my friends go to the tournaments, but I’ve never thought of doing that.

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You can get really into the culture if you know where to look. I didn’t even really think there was anything like PAPA, but there are tons and tons of middle-aged men that wear sweatpants all day and write computer codes that love to pin.

AVC: Besides your own game, what other tables do you like?

MD: I do love The Shadow. Great table, a very hard table, but I’m glad I bought it. I have it set up really hard so I can play, and then when I go out, I can whip everybody’s ass, because I’ve been playing the hardest table in my living room.

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I love playing Theatre Of Magic. That’s a great table. It came out around the same time of my table. I love FunHouse, which is a little bit older. It’s before the dot matrix came out, so it has the alphanumeric display box. I love playing White Water Rafting, I love a little bit of Fish Tales. I like playing World Cup Soccer. A lot of places have Addams Family or Medieval Madness or Twilight Zone, because they were extremely popular in the ’90s, but they’re still some of the best tables money can buy. They’re extremely expensive now, but not bad. I think Theatre Of Magic is probably my favorite pinball out there.

AVC: What’s that one like?

MD: It’s magician themed, so you’re doing a kind of theatrical magic show. They have the illusion box, and in each mode in the game you have to complete a magical feat, like escape from the underwater something, yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s plays really well. I really enjoy that table.

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AVC: Where do you play on tour?

MD: I never really know if there’s a pinball. Sometimes we call ahead and ask, “Do you guys have a machine in there?” And sometimes I have to keep myself away from the pinball machines before we play. I feel like when I get into the mode of trying to play pinball, I get really zoned into it, and then I try to get onstage and I’m like, “Oh shit, I have to like interact with all these people.” It fucks me up sometimes. I try to ease off a bit, but sometimes you just can’t help it.

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We played this place in Grand Rapids, The Pyramid Scheme, and they have like 30 tables in there. A lot of bars we play have one. We played someplace called the Replay Lounge somewhere in Kansas, but they had a bunch of pinballs. It’s lucky we play shitty bars a lot because that’s where they have pinballs.

One of the best places to play is all those rest stops, the Flying Js or whatever. They have showers and they’ll have a little TV room and a lot of the time they have an arcade. Very often they’ll have one or two really sketchy, beat-up pinball machines, but it’s great. Get a little gas, play a little pinball. There’s a Fish Tales in the Flying J just outside of Jersey that I’ve hit up quite a few times.

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AVC: Are there any tables that you just can’t master?

MD: There are tons. I probably made myself seem like I’m really good at pinball, but the truth of the matter is I’m not incredible. I can play, but compared to pro pinballers and a lot of my friends I’m still a little bitch. That’s half the fun of it.

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The one table I do hate playing is Austin Powers. That’s such a fucking piece of shit. It’s just incredibly fucked to play. The AC/DC table is great, but listening to “Highway To Hell” 50 times in an hour is kind of like, “Oh, man, I think I’m going to fucking shoot myself.” That’s a little crazy.

For the most part, if I see a table I’m not familiar with, I’ll definitely give it a chance. You never know. It might be fun, might be not. The new pinball tables with the dot matrix and alpha-numeric, there’s a lot of stuff to do. I tend not to play the older tables where it’s just the number in the back—they’re called the classic tables, and they’re very slow moving. There’s not much to do. No lamps, no multi-balls, no nothing. I understand why people have them, because they’re cool. And I appreciate them. But it’s not the vibe I’m going for as far as the whole thing goes.

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AVC: Do you have machine that you want to play that you haven’t ?

MD: I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to play the original Simpsons table. They have the new Simpsons Pinball Party, which is a really fun table, and I’ve heard the original one isn’t even very good. It’s kind of a piece of shit, but it just looks cool. I’d like to see it in the flesh someday.

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All the great tables are readily available. I’ve played most of them quite frequently.

AVC: Do you have a pinball face?

MD: There’s also the stance. It’s all about the stance. The exceptional players all have a very specific stance. They all do strange things. I have a little one. My ass juts out a little bit, and maybe I’ll put my foot on the other foot or something. My girlfriend, Kira, has quite the crazy pose. She gets way down close to the playing field and really pops the ass out. It’s great.

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AVC: It seems like pinball has been getting more and more popular over the past few years. Do you have a sense of why?

MD: It’s getting a little more popularized now, but compared to the way it was, I think it’s still struggling. All the companies shut down. Very few machines are made.

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As far as why it’s popular, maybe if you compare it to all they new video game systems, people are just getting bored of sitting in front of the TV with controller. There’s definitely something appealing when you know you have to push the machine, that it’s physics. There’s a little world under the glass. It’s more real.

I hope it gets more popularized now. Because then there will be more machines, more interest, and more places will have them. But it’s still struggling very much. Little indie rockers like me just have to fucking do their parts, talk about pinball, and then a lot of people will pick it up.

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AVC: Do you travel around with rolls of quarters? Do you have quarters on your rider?

MD: I never put quarters on the rider, but I have on the updated rider—for the States, at least—if they could please advance what kind of pinball machines they have there, if any. Or, if not, if there are any within walking distance. It’s just nice to know.

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AVC: If Stern came to you and was like, “We want make a Mac DeMarco pinball game,” what features would you want included?

MD: Ooh. Ooh! I would like an under playfield, where you shoot the ball in one hole and it comes up somewhere else. There are a couple—maybe two pinballs, maybe three—that have these little animatronic heads and their eyes open and close. You can shoot it in their mouths and stuff. I would like one of those. Good ramps. Nice big plastic ramps, maybe like White Water Rafting. I don’t know. That would be so amazing.

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AVC: Hopefully they’ll reach out to you.

MD: I’ll do a little shout out. Steve Ritchie or George Gomez, if you read this, God bless you. I love you boys. If you’re looking for a theme, I can’t really supply the dough, but maybe we can work something out. God bless.

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