Chambers of Reflection: Mac Demarco, Vaporwave, and Resurgent Nostalgia
Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Written by Jono Harrison
Illustration by Phoebe Nichols
There’s something strangely alluring about Mac Demarco’s dusty, unkempt aesthetic. With an affinity for public nudity, unabashed drunkenness, and lewd performative acts, his behavior is an unexpected complement to the wistful, deeply introspective nature of his music. In the past several years, Demarco has stumbled into the spotlight of popular music, performing sets at big-name festivals such as Coachella and Governor’s Ball. Amidst a lineup typically dominated by hip-hop and EDM acts, Demarco’s folk-inspired, “slacker rock” sound makes him a unique headliner at these events.
With over 43,000,000 plays on Spotify, “Chamber of Reflection” is one of Demarco’s most defining works. An honest rendition of the title, the synth-driven melody reverberates around the fringes of the song, delivering an echoing effect. The repetition of the vocals “alone again” in Demarco’s pensive drawl further amplifies this audible circuity, the two words orbiting around each other until the order of the phrasing becomes jumbled and ambiguous. Despite being a widely recognized signature of his musical style, the synth hook is a noticeable divergence from Demarco’s usual signature acoustic guitar. In fact, the melody is a re-recorded rendition of “ザ・ワードⅡ / セキトウ・シゲオ,” a 1975 song originally written by the Japanese electronic jazz artist Shigeo Sekito.
In contrast to “Chambers of Reflection,” Sekito’s original version evokes atmospheric tones in a more sedate context. The tempo moves at a slower pace, and lacks any intentionality or urgency in its direction. Sekito’s signature instrument, the Yamaha electric organ, known as the electone, elicits a more clean and crisp sound. His jazzy solo riffs that intercut the melody feel reminiscent of old Nintendo game theme songs, and would fit well in the universe of Zelda or Mario. If Demarco’s interpretation propels us into some faraway location in space, then Sekito’s original sits upon a distant planet where time operates under different constraints. Biographical information about the Japanese electro-jazz artist is surprisingly elusive, and not much internet mention of him exists beyond his affinity for Yamaha electronic instruments and the infusion of classical jazz into new electronic synth sounds. The enigma enshrouding Sekito and his career provides for an intriguing sample, and leads us to wonder what motivated DeMarco to pull this song from such realms of obscurity.
Combined with the sluggish, nostalgic connotations of the song, the usage of a dated and vague sample characterizes “Chambers of Reflection” on the periphery of the vaporwave movement. A genre that arose from meme culture colliding with electronic music, vaporwave usually features slowed-down, chopped-and-screwed mixes of 1980’s era elevator jazz. Often associated with a sardonic critique on consumer capitalism, the genre blends satire and nostalgia to elicit a complex, oxymoronic sense of sentimental apathy. This emotional oscillation fits well with DeMarco’s persona, who once jokingly labeled his entire style of music as “jizz jazz.”
Sekito’s sample has arisen in a variety of other songs, including a feature on Travis Scott and Quavo’s most recent collaborative project, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho. The lyrics to the album’s “How U Feel” are fairly unremarkable, detailing generic commentary about lavish lifestyle and heavy drug usage. Is this an intentional evocation? Is the vaporwave-aesthetic transplanted as a commentary on consumeristic superficiality in the sphere of hip-hop? This is a difficult question to answer, but it is indisputable that Sekito’s melody appears to hold significance across a broad spectrum of genres. It is sampled across a variety of lo-fi beats, including the song “Viola” by Eevee. Wiz Khalifa’s “Smoke Chambers” uses a direct sample of Demarco’s version with the vocals included. The hook appears as a motif across these genres, infusing the resurgent internal mechanics of the wispy, dreamy electronic synth into new contexts. The “vaporwave” aesthetic of the sample brings distant memories to the forefront, weaving a thread of lonely nostalgia that spans from Demarco’s slacker rock to niche underground lo-fi beats to new age trap.