The erstwhile Miracle Legion vocalist crafts a fresh solo masterpiece. Meanwhile, Blurt presents a Mulcahy interview from the deep archives.
BY FRED MILLS
With the recent release of Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You (Mezzotint), it seems appropriate to revisit the titular subject, a solo artist of no small repute and also known to many as frontman for the late, great Miracle Legion. Mulcahy, of course, has been on the American music scene since the early ‘80s when his former band initially took up operations in New Haven, going on to release a string of eclectic-tilting but never less than fascinating records under his own name after Miracle Legion’s demise in ’96. (Elsewhere on the Blurt site you will find our tribute to Mulcahy via a series of video and audio clips.)
The new DMJMILY, his first album since 2005’s In Pursuit of Your Happiness, ranks among Mulcahy’s best work, and it’s worth noting that the artist had originally cut a speedy followup to Happiness in 2006 with The Butterflies Of Love’s Scott Amore but, upon being unhappy with the results, shelved the project. A lengthy recording hiatus ensued, but I can happily report that Mulcahy’s eventual return to the studio yielded a set
full of his trademark lyrical quirks and detours and brimming with the unique melodicism and rhythmic complexity that has endeared him to fellow musicians over the years. There are also fresh flavors of countryish-tilting rock and even the occasional baroque pop flourish (listen for the flute, musos).
From the thumping “Everybody Hustles Leo” (which has an irresistible beat straight out of Gary Glitter “Rock and Roll” territory) and the luscious, strummy “She Makes the World Turn Backwards” through mid-album, pedal steel guitar-lined ballad/respite “My Rose Colored Friend” to jangly waltz “Badly Madly” and the dreamy, gospellish “The Rabbit,” the album packs a lot of emotional and sonic potency into its relatively brief (35 mins.) running time. Though it has a certain sleeper quality—it takes several listens for its subtleties to bubble to the surface—it does in fact turn “keeper” for the patient fan, and I’d reckon this will turn up on loads of year-end best-of lists for 2013. It’s certainly headed towards mine. (Below: watch an unusual performance of “She Makes the World Turn Backwards” featuring Mulcahy and the Young@Heart Chorus.)
Backtracking a few years, 2009 saw the arrival of Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Shout! Factory), one of those rare tribute records that, for the most part, got things right by highlighting an oftentimes under-the-radar artist’s oeuvre via an engaging cast of characters — in this instance, folks like Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, the National, Unbelievable Truth, Pere Ubu, Mercury Rev, the Autumn Defense and others — while delivering the genuine, truth-in-titling, songwriting goods. (Raise your hand if you remember all those early Imaginary Records tributes; the Mulcahy trib met that high standard.) And whether or not you might’ve ben drawn to the project via fond memories of Mulcahy’s Miracle Legion tenure or an appreciation for his post-ML career (which, it should be noted, included his work under the name Polaris, scoring music for the Adventures of Pete & Pete kid’s TV show), or simply as a fan of one or more of the musicians contributing to Ciao, you’ll find plenty of goodies nestled among the tracklisting. The Yorke tune, a riveting electro-tinged take on ML’s “All For the Best,” got the lion’s share of attention, not the least of which was for the provocative David Lynch-styled video created for it by director Melinda Tupling (view it, below). And there was an additional reason to pick up the record: it was a benefit for Mulcahy’s twin daughters, as his wife died suddenly in the fall of ’08, leaving Mulcahy to raise them on his own.
I was fortunate enough to meet Mulcahy over 20 years ago, not long after the release of the first Miracle Legion album. Each time thereafter, when the band came to town, I’d hang out with Mark and guitarist Ray Neal, and I always found each of them to be just the right blend of muso eccentric and down to earth rocker. Many years later, in the fall of 2003, I wound up revisiting my Miracle Legion memories in a retrospective I wrote for Magnet (issue #61) about college rock bands. The musician’s observations and anecdotes were rich in detail, not only about his band and his career but also about the pre-alternative rock milieu that spawned ML. I expanded that ’03 interview for BLURT in 2009 to mark Ciao My Shining Star and hereby present it for you again. Enjoy this flash from the journalistic past.
Rewind to 2003… The story of Miracle Legion is both typical of and at times strikingly different from that of other college rock bands who operated as peers during the mid/late ‘80s and early ‘90s. For one thing, when they signed a significant label deal in 1992, most of their contemporaries had already fallen by the wayside and Morgan Creek Records (a wannabe “major label” indie funded by the Morgan Creek Productions film and media company) was intent on marketing the band in such a way as to capitalize on the burgeoning “alternative rock” explosion.
Well, everyone knows what came next; instead of bands like Miracle Legion becoming the next wave, it would be your Candleboxes and your Matchbox 20s. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now, aren’t we?
Going all the way back, let’s dispense from the outset one lingering myth about Miracle Legion: that the New Haven, Conn., quartet, extant from 1983-96, was just another jangly R.E.M. clone.
Admittedly, a cursory scan of the group’s early trajectory might bear the assertion out. Both 1984’s The Backyard EP and 1987’s Surprise Surprise Surprise LP did at times tilt in a folk-rock, Murmurish direction; critics and coeds alike tended to ruminate at length upon the band’s soft-focus, enigmatic lyrics; and vocalist Mark Mulcahy’s eccentric stage personal definitely compared to that of Michael Stipe.
But this is no children of the kudzu tale. Let the record show, based on the recorded evidence, that Miracle Legion’s sound was wide ranging indeed: chiming/jangly pop, sure, but also Velvets-style punk/drone raveups, dark, British-flecked psychedelia, even left-field forays into dub, funk and alt-country. (And a Miracle Legion concert was the only place you’d get back-to-back covers of Mission Of Burma’s “Academy Fight Song” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” too.) And as you’ll read below, Mulcahy points out that, “We may have ended up being like R.E.M.’s ‘little brother,’ but we really more influenced by the Gun Club, Mission Of Burma, Husker Du, even The Clean.”
Miracle Legion’s initial stirrings were as a two-piece – drummer-turned-singer Mulcahy plus guitarist/keyboardist Ray Neal – on the thriving New Haven scene which boasted numerous clubs as well as a readymade college audience thanks to the presence of several major universities. The two had already shared quality time in various short-lived combos, additionally working together as local club promoters and picking up a firsthand education in Indie Touring 101 that would prove invaluable to their fledgling combo.
After rounding up a rhythm section and recording the six-song The Backyard, issued on the local Incas label, Mulcahy and Neal were pleasantly surprised to learn Miracle Legion was an immediate critical and college radio fave. Several pressings of the EP sold out; a sharp-witted manager landed Miracle Legion a licensing deal with Britain’s Making Waves label, which brought them over for a UK tour; they signed (in the States) with the well-connected Venture Booking company; and MTV unexpectedly placed the video for “The Backyard” into regular rotation.
According to Christopher Arnott, a long-time Miracle Legion fan and a staffer at the New Haven Advocate weekly, “In terms of influence, they weren’t the most commercial band but they were clearly part of a bigger regional-national thing, more so than anyone else in town. It was the kind of success story that everybody could relate to. Mark had also been booking the best club in town, The Grotto, and he’d been active in bringing a lot of good bands to New Haven. Also, when a band like, for example, R.E.M. would be in town at the coliseum, he’d book Miracle Legion and someone like Peter Buck would drop in after the show. So Mark was friends with a lot of bands, either from having toured with them or from bringing them to town.”
As the band commenced recording Surprise Surprise Surprise a number of labels, including several majors, began showing interest. Ultimately, Miracle Legion signed with Rough Trade, whose owner, Geoff Travis, had attended a show in New York at CBGBs to see them
“I went along to CBGBs specifically to see Miracle Legion and loved them,” says Travis now. “I always feel like a fan when I see something special, and I’m always on the lookout for soul and originality. The Backyard EP had found its way into the Rough Trade record shop [in London], and I just loved the tone of Mark’s voice, its pleading and moving quality without a hint of being contrived. That plus Ray’s ‘illogical’ guitar swirls that wrapped the whole thing up in an unusual way – a blustery, lovely wind blowing along the highway, looking back from whence it came. I’m always on the lookout for soul and originality, and never really know where anything will end up. I just try to concentrate on helping a band do something decent, in terms of the work. Even though they were so far away from us [in England] and it was hard to spend much time with them, we had some good times and we had fun on the road for awhile, I remember.”
After Surprise hit the stores in the fall of ’87, a national tour, both as club headliners and as openers for Aztec Camera and Pere Ubu, was undertaken by Miracle Legion. Audiences were awed as much by the music – equal parts yearning pop and hellbent rock – as by the striking Mulcahy-Neal visual contrast, the former a long-haired, tartan jumpsuit-clad shaman with a piercing stare, the latter a brush-cropped fretboard virtuoso pinwheeling about like a dervish. As the Advocate’s Arnott recalls of the band’s compelling performances (which included as elaborate a stage lighting setup as an indie budget would allow), “Mark always did work those theatrical elements out. Not necessarily very carefully, but a lot of shows I went to he thought of different things to do for each one. Like, at one show he brought on a poet that they had wandering around in the crowd. There was this performance artist in town and Mark had him passing out poems in the audience at one show. So stuff like that would happen. Or they’d have an interesting stage set-up – always some element of the unexpected at their shows.”
Next came a spring ’88 tour opening for the Sugarcubes, Mulcahy and Neal doing it as a two-piece following the abrupt departure of their bassist and drummer. Enjoying the artistic challenge of working once again as a duo, the two decided to record their next album that way. Me & Mr. Ray, recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios and released by Rough Trade in ’89, broke significantly from earlier patterns, adopting an acoustic-flavored and less-enigmatic/more light-hearted tone. To this day Mulcahy claims it’s his favorite Miracle Legion album.
Ready to resume touring as a full band, Mulcahy and Neal enlisted a new rhythm section, Scott “Spot” Boutier on drums and Dave McCaffrey on bass, both from Rhode Island band What Now. The ’91 collapse of Rough Trade’s American operations practically put the band back at square one, however, and tied up all the recordings in bankruptcy court as physical assets. This also led, a year or so later, to the painfully ludicrous scenario of Mulcahy and Neal arriving at the Rough Trade auction to find their new label, Morgan Creek, bidding against them for ownership of their master tapes.
As suggested above, Morgan Creek was essentially a vanity project of the then-flush film company Morgan Creek Productions. Despite the label throwing oodles of money at the wall to see if any of its bands (including Mary’s Danish and Eleven) would stick, though, it failed miserably. Arnott observes that while “Miracle Legion was their big deal, their top priority, it was a real horror story in the end. There may have been a lot of sour grapes at the time about how Morgan Creek had done nothing to promote the record, but I don’t think that was true. You could see really good ads in big publications, like in Rolling Stone you’d see a nice color ad. So somebody was working on a big campaign. There was a video and it got on 120 Minutes. Somebody was working on it so it wasn’t like somebody dropped the ball. It was just bad timing, really; things were changing by then. With Nirvana making Sub Pop into a player and then everyone wanting to have an indie label with street credibility, that’s what Morgan Creek was – someone trying to invent, with a lot of money, something ‘indie’ that acted like a major label in all the worst, horrible, band-destroying ways.”
Drenched, produced by John Porter of Smiths/Roxy Music fame, was released in ’92 but failed to register at radio or retail, and with their hitless record label itself gradually finding itself being downsized by its parent company, Miracle Legion saw the writing on the wall and asked to be released from their contract. A year-and-half of legal limbo ensued, the band continuing to tour on its own and even starting to record its next album, the prophetically-titled Portrait Of A Damaged Family, eventually to be released on the Mezzotint Label, which Mulcahy established himself.
Mulcahy doesn’t dwell on negative recollections regarding the Morgan Creek affair, pointing out that the label clearly elevated the band’s profile at the time. He does, however, express lingering regrets regarding Drenched, suggesting that demos cut with Paul Q. Kolderie at Fort Apache studios in Boston were far stronger than the Porter-produced material. And he still smarts from the knowledge that the Rough Trade masters are to this day squirreled away in some Hollywood vault, with someone at Morgan Creek Productions holding the key. All of the pre-Drenched records are long out of print, although Drenched itself can be easily found at eBay on the cheap.
Mulcahy also scoffs at common wisdom which holds that Seattle and Grunge blew his and other pop bands of the era out of the water, suggesting that’s as much a myth as the R.E.M. clone theory. By that point the members of the band, having taken a severe morale hit, had shifting priorities and new interests. Neal, for his part, had gotten married and simply wasn’t that keen on touring anymore. (After working on a low-key basis with New Haven’s Jellyshirts and New York’s Lucas Shine, he moved his family to Scotland; attempts to reach him for this article failed.) Boutier and McCaffery, during downtime, had taken second job as Frank Black’s rhythm section; to this day they remain devout, dedicated Catholics.
And Mulcahy, who’d moved from New Haven to Springfield, Mass., in the early ‘90s, having found rewarding work scoring the music for the critically-acclaimed 1993-95 Nickelodeon series The Adventures Of Pete And Pete (Mulcahy, Boutier and McCaffery portrayed the band “Polaris” in the opening credits), was ready to embark upon a solo career. His Mezzotint imprint issued the Fathering CD in ’97 – the album became a surprise hit in England – as well as 2001’s Smilesunset. Now in 2003 he’s currently working on a third solo record as well as a surreal rock musical, The Slugbearers Of Kayrol Island, a collaboration with artist Ben Katchor.
Talking to Mulcahy for the better portion of two hours, it’s clear he’s proud of his legacy even while he’s eager to continue moving forward with his solo career. You’ll get all that and more from the interview that follows, but it’s worth relating here a brief anecdote from Mulcahy that helps put a nice positive spin on matters.
“I did Miracle Legion for such a long time and it was the only thing I really knew, but then I got sort of got a second chance,” Mulcahy summarized, adding, “Dave and Scott have a really good job now, and I think Ray, having started a family, is happy doing that, too.” At that he paused, then recalled the last time he saw his old friend and songwriting partner (while on a solo tour of the UK), a hint of nostalgia creeping into his voice.
“It was early last year in Edinburgh – Ray lives there now. We sorta practiced a little bit in the dressing room. I did my set first, then I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do some songs with my old buddy.’ I was actually gonna play guitar too, but then I said to myself, ‘Man, I’m just gonna soak this dude up for this five or six songs!’ Because I’d watched him on some level [in the past] but had never really watched him, you know? And it was just so entertaining to watch Ray fall right back into it after all this time! Honest to God.”
BLURT: Let’s do this from the very start. How did you and Ray Neal meet? What kind of musical common ground brought you together?
MARK MULCAHY: Well, our musical common ground was that I was the drummer in a band and Ray’s father had a big truck. As soon as we saw his truck we hired him as a roadie so we could use the truck! [laughs] Until we wrecked his truck… but by that time we’d become good friends. It’s a real Blues Brothers rock ‘n’ roll story. So we became friends and he and I were in a couple of bands together where I was the drummer and he was sort of the guitar-keyboard player.
Why a drummer? That would surprise people who don’t know the backstory and only know you from your singing. The transition to frontman: every musician has an ego somewhere that needs to be burped, so did that appeal to you more than being back behind the drum kit?
MM: I always played drums. High school band, all the way, drumming drumming drumming! But I didn’t have a big desire to be a frontman – or even particularly to write songs. I was happy playing drums, and I still play them as much as I want to. I’ve played on a couple of records the last few years. So it wasn’t anything of wanting to be out front or thinking I could do better. The whole thing really happened by accident. Not to compare myself to him, but you know Robert Wyatt was a drummer and then he couldn’t drum anymore and started singing. Well, it’s the same theme: it’s hard to be a drummer — for anybody, if you’re not writing the songs, it’s real hard to control your own life, when you want to do it as a lifetime pursuit. You’d have to be an amazing drummer – which I’m not – to get the really good jobs.
So you and Ray had decided to head off on your own and do your own songs?
MM: Right. Ray and I were in a band together with Kirk Swan, who’d go on to do Dumptruck. He decided to disband that group, and by that time we’d been in so many groups, as the kind of two guys in the background, that’s what made us start a band. And even though didn’t really have any big desire to start a band, because every band we were in broke up, we just said that’s it, we’ll try our own band. We started as a two-piece Miracle Legion. Then Kirk and Seth [Tiven] started Dumptruck; I ended up being the drummer in that, and on the first album. I was in both groups for awhile, and I really didn’t know which one to commit myself to. They were living in Boston and I was gonna have to move to Boston, but I kind of kept hedging so finally they got a drummer.
I read that you were walking past a sign that read, “Until she talks.” And that’s what inspired you to write your first song?
MM: It was just something somebody had scrawled on a post in New Haven, and I never found out what it meant. But that was our first song and we called it “Until She Talks.” It became a UK B-side. It was almost a Gun Club-like sounding song, like that first song on the first Gun Club album. For whatever reason, and I don’t know why, at that time, that was the band we were kind of imitating. We may have ended up being like R.E.M.’s little brother, but we really started out trying to be like Gun Club, more influenced by the Gun Club, Mission of Burma, Husker Du and the Clean. Ray and I were always big Clean fans too. That was probably the most, biggest common denominator in our music we had. Because they were so – they were the kind of band that could play any kind of song.
What was Ray’s musical background? He’s a phenomenal guitarist, super versatile.
MM: He really was like a guy that took some guitar lessons, and I don’t know if he played a lot, or if he was particularly playing that much when he was our roadie, but he was a big fan of music and he just got into the music scene itself. He wasn’t really thinking of doing much either! So it was just one of these things when two guys come together and made a whole. To be really dead honest, we didn’t expect to do much more than – I mean, we started out as a two-piece, maybe using a drum machine, and I certainly didn’t have any anticipation that we’d continue for very long.
Were you both promoting shows in New Haven at this point?
MM: I suppose in the band I was the mouthpiece of it all, but we both spent an equal amount of time on booking, and we both lost the same amount of money!
Steve Wynn told me he had a theory that it’s not as special now like it was when a band would come to town, you maybe had a record by them, and you’d go out on based on that curiosity and desire to see something you’d never seen before. Nowadays, people would just as soon stay in and watch videos.
MM: Maybe. A few years ago I did a tour with Frank Black – of course two of his guys were in Miracle Legion — and it was me, Frank Black and Mike Watt. I’d talk to Watt in the dressing room and he laid out the history in touring in a way. According to him he invented it, on some level! [laughs] Not like he was bragging about it… The Minutemen as one of the first groups to be in a van and drive all over the place, and in terms of chronology maybe they were one of the first. Touring was invented in the West so by the time we were doing it, some people had gotten hip to it and had found some venues, you know. You could even go further back and talk about bands like Blondie, who were touring as well. So yeah, by the time we got out there we had some places to play. We were also booked by Frank Riley [Venture Booking] who was kind of the main man in a sense. He had all the clubs and all the college gigs and everything — when we were touring Surprise Surprise Surprise we played almost every night on an eight week tour. Maybe one or two days off in there. That’s amazing, to go across the country and play, like, 3 gigs in Alabama, 3 or 4 in Texas – places that are way out there.
Did you try to target college towns with college radio specifically?
MM: I guess so. That was also when we were on Rough Trade. It was definitely like an amazing kind of “miniature-land” kind of record label-booking agent-places to play thing all way below the radar of, say, Bruce Springsteen and stuff. But I was just happy to be driving around. I wouldn’t say I came back with money in my pocket, but you know, that’s all we did. Nobody had a particularly great job – or even a job!
Backtracking for a moment, what was the local Incas label all about? Did you just give them your demo tape and ask them to put it out as The Backyard EP?
MM: No, it was even a lot less than that. There was a band called Lost Generation, a punk band, and they put out a single on Incas, started the label. We said, hey, rather than start our own label too, how about we just put “Incas” on our record too. They said sure. So we did, and a few other bands did too. It was just this weird kind of Good Housekeeping, “I’m-from-Connecticut” seal of approval. Nobody really ran it. There was no office. It was all do your own, and if you look at the records, you’ll see that each Incas release has a different address on it, for each band. If you were good enough to be on Incas, well, that was basically you just call up and ask if you could be on it.
We did The Backyard, which was [funded] by a guy who ended up being our manager, called Brad Morrison. He was a businessman. He found a label for us in England, Making Waves, and various other opportunities for us. The guys at Making Waves were super. They did the Georgia Satellites too. And because of being in England, then we really looked like we had something cooking. Going over there we did some touring and it was amazing – playing to maybe two or three hundred people in Manchester or something.
Still, that whole thing was supposed to turn into a big label deal thing, but it didn’t. So we came back and went back to our normal things and didn’t go back to England for awhile. We started making Surprise. Then we had some other label interest because we’d had a video for “The Backyard” that got on MTV. It was actually on regular MTV and not just “120 Minutes.” We made it with a friend of ours, just a homespun, simple video. We brought it to MTV and asked if they wanted to play it. They said, “Well, we’ll let you know.” And then right away it was on! During the day, at night too. Not like a million times a day, but it was on. You wouldn’t be surprised to see it on at any point.
A lot of sort of organic things were happening that weren’t from anybody’s particular efforts: somebody knew somebody, and somebody liked us, that sort of thing. The problem, though, was that we didn’t know how to make the records available to anyone. We had this great thing going that everybody dug but we didn’t have that end – how to get it to people – down. When that video was on MTV we didn’t have any records left to sell!
Anyway, we went on were making Surprise, and we had some labels that were digging us, including majors, principally this guy at Elektra. We were making this record and he kept saying, “Maybe, maybe…” And then one day we had driven back from Raleigh to New York, for a gig at CBGBs that night. We were fried from driving all night, got into town at 7am and went to this guy’s office at 10am. “What, are you signing us or not?” Really pissed off! He said, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” “Well, fuck you then!” We were pissed off, and we went to this gig, and that night we were really at the end of our rope in a way. And the guy from Rough Trade was there, Geoff Travis. He saw us and said, “I want to sign you guys.” We were like, “Yeah, fuck you too!” [laughs] And he showed up at our hotel the next day. I think he probably liked all the “fuck yous!” He hung in there and went on tour with us for a couple of days, and I think we were just treating him really badly. Maybe we didn’t even realize we were doing that. But I think he thought that was good.
So we got in with him and we did three records with them [Rough Trade]. If I’d know then what I know now… [sighs] That was just the best circumstances. Even though we had all kinds of wars with them, it was like, “You want to make a record? Here’s the money, go make a record.” We’d make it, turn it in, they’d go “Thanks a lot, we’ll put it out and do the best we can!” Just like that, and to me that is just perfect: a record-to-record contract, no having to sign a long-term deal, just the best. If you needed a drum set or an amp or something, a little bit of money to get teeshirts made upfront, things like that. Not like big things. We would mount full tours with a couple of roadies, some production, a soundman, and we went as far as we could go doing it.
I recall your ’87 show in Charlotte, with this elaborate lighting set up, lights strung looped over and around the stage for this very unusual look.
MM: We were totally into doing as much as we could, as cheaply as we could figure out. But that stuff wears you down, setting all that up every night, taking it down afterwards. A lot of extra work!
You were known for mixing up your setlists every night too. Did you feel a need to entertain yourselves as well as the crowd?
MM: I did. Ray always hated that though! [laughs] He wanted to get into, you know, a groove. Almost like stadium rock, where you knew what was gonna happen and you really could concentrate on what you were gonna do in the show because the music was almost rote – “okay, here comes the next song…” And there’s nothing wrong with that, although I don’t particularly like it. I remember seeing some bands and being bummed out because I saw them do the same thing twice in a row.
But I always loved playing the gigs. Despite all the stuff that goes wrong. I know that Frank Black once said, “It’s a long day for one hour – so it better be a good hour!” That just about sums it up, because the rest of it, man, you’re having a hard time driving around, getting along with everybody, the van breaking down, etc. Stuff that, when you’re on a budget, goes wrong, so if once you get out there and play and that sucks, man…
Was that why Steve and Jeff left? [Steven West and Jeff Wiederschall, the bassist and drummer]. They quit on the eve of the Sugarcubes tour, right?
MM: Yeah, I think it was like I was saying earlier, if you’re not writing the songs you get a little less out of it maybe. I dunno, I mean, those guys, Steve was never really a bass player; he started out a guitar player, and I think maybe it sounded like a good idea in the beginning to him, but… or maybe he just wanted to get on with his own life. He had his own thing going on. And you don’t really make a living at it, so maybe after awhile… Plus, the overview of it all was that we really had a lot of ebbs and flows, like everybody. We had a lot of success, but then we’d have a year and a half where nothing would happen: no record label, no record… Then it would look real great and something else would happen and it would be grim again. The first things we did were all kind of, we didn’t know what was gonna happen, so it was all a surprise and that was great. And then we didn’t have anything going for awhile, then we got on Rough Trade and that was great. And then they went bankrupt and we were out for awhile, and it took a long time to get a deal, then we got the deal with Morgan Creek, and that was great! An amazing, high level thing – it just wasn’t very good in the end. So there would be all this down time, and eventually, like with the Morgan Creek deal there was some serious downtime, so everyone found other things to do.
The downtime has killed many a band over the years. I wonder if that’s key to understanding why Miracle Legion ran its course.
MM: You can spend a whole lot of time getting a deal. Then if you get a deal, you’re back to zero again. So next you spend all this time making a record. Then you make a record and you’re back to zero. So you spend all this time trying to get the record out. Then you get it out and you’re back again… you see? It’s like this continual up-the-ladder, down-the-ladder thing.
The Sugarcubes tour and the You’re the One Lee EP you recorded with them, that all must have been a big deal.
MM: Yeah, and it’s funny how that propelled us into being a two-piece again. We started out as a two-piece of course. The Sugarcubes liked us doing it that way because they wouldn’t have to deal with any stage setups and stuff. And it was the greatest, really, one of the greatest tours I’ve ever been on! We were just kinda drunk all the time. And they really drank too. I don’t know that Bjork was like that; she was kind of “a step above” the whole thing. But the rest of ‘em, man, well, saying they’re a big drinking band doesn’t mean they can hold their liquor! No Johnny Cashes in that band.
So now I picture you and Ray after the tour, looking at each other and saying, “Well, what next?” “Let’s do a record.” How did you wind up recording at Paisley Park of all places?
MM: Because we had that tricky manager. He had good ideas and was very focused on getting things done. Me & Mr. Ray was a really good record because we had a plan. We approached that record as a two-piece thing and insisted that no one else play on it. We played everything except for this one guy who played a little slide guitar part. We knew the songs we were gonna do. We always had a box full of songs, and it was almost like we didn’t use our best ones! “These songs over here are pretty good. We don’t know about these others over here.” Basically, we took all these songs we didn’t know what to do with, and said let’s do them as a two-piece and see how they turn out.
The contrast between that album and your earlier ones was quite striking. A lot more acoustic stuff, for example, compared to Surprise, which had a lot of unusual sonic textures, even venturing into dub territory.
MM: Surprise, well, I know people love it and I’m not going to say anything bad about it. But it just has a funny “feel” to it, maybe the production, a purely technical thing. With Mr. Ray, we didn’t know when we were doing something different. But we knew exactly what we were doing. I don’t know if we actually pulled off what we said we were gonna do. But Paisley Park was pretty interesting, and we ended up finishing it with Paul Kolderie at Fort Apache, and he was great too, a real pro.
Didn’t see Prince himself darting down the corridors at Paisley Park, did you?
MM: Actually we did! I said hello to him once. He looked at me, we were walking next to each other, so I said, “Hey!” One night he came downstairs dressed up fully Princed-out and he hopped in this T-bird, the one that was in the “Alphabet City” video, and just took off. He came back in 10 minutes – the studio is not in Minneapolis, but more like 25 minutes outside of it – and I’m saying to myself, “Where did he go?!?” Also, I was talking one night to my friend in Connecticut, and he told me he was going to see Prince that night in Hartford. I said, “He’s right here, man!” He was still there, and it was kinda late in the day… He’s a mystery, even if you’re looking at him.
He probably would just shoot off to the 7-11 and get a Slurpee like the rest of us. Every afternoon, all dressed up, down to get his drink: “Here he comes again, for his daily Slurpee…” Okay, so you do this record for Rough Trade. At what point did Dave McCaffery and Scott “Spot” Boutier come into the picture?
MM: We did Mr. Ray and we’d kind of had our fill of being a two-piece. Ray never liked doing it because he didn’t want to handle all the musical chores, and I wasn’t sure if we were making a real impact on people as a two-piece. So we finished the record and wanted to get a group together. We got them with the line that we were going to do a tour with Pere Ubu in Europe. We [Mark and Ray] actually did Europe, but then they did England with us, then it was back to America and we toured all over.
And I saw you in Charlotte in December of 1990. That was a really powerful lineup.
MM: It was great. It was a different kind of band. Those guys came from a kind of Husker Du background. From Providence, Rhode Island, a band called What Now, also an Incas band. We did a lot of touring with them. Of course, that’s when Rough Trade went bankrupt and we weren’t too clear of what to do.
How does that affect a band? What are the conversations you have when you first get the word that you might not have a record label any longer?
MM: Well, the first part was we were getting a hint of it, so we wanted to get our records back. The crew in England for Rough Trade was amazing, just real hard workers over there at the English office, really dedicated. But they got a whole bunch of people at the American office who didn’t have the same kind of work ethic. Plus, being an indie record label was like a suicide mission anyway: if you didn’t work to death, if you weren’t working really hard, it could be tough, you know?
So the first thing that happened was we tried to get our records back. The guy told us, “Oh, those are all rumors…” This and that. Then they went out of business a couple of days later. And that was the first painful reality, that our records weren’t going to be in print and tied up in bankruptcy court as assets.
Was it demoralizing, not having any kind of immediate future you could see? This kind of thing has happened from time to time to other bands of course.
MM: Well, Miracle Legion is a real survival story. I’ve said this a million times before, that there was a million gigs where I said to myself, “This is it. It’s gotta be our last gig. It can’t go on like this. It’s so shitty.” You know? Then something good would happen and boom, you’d be back on the horse again. So yeah, that was one of the times when… we were sending out little packages of demos to anybody and everybody. We did some real great demos for Drenched, but just kind of floundered around. Just through luck, we’d sent a tape out to some label, and the guy who was the designated “tape goalie” [laughs] ended up becoming the A&R guy for Morgan Creek. We were the first band he signed.
I understand that after you’d signed with Morgan Creek, you showed up at the Rough Trade auction to try and buy your master tapes back and…
MM: … and they became an asset that Morgan Creek ended up buying. Morgan Creek bid against us! We were trying to buy back the rights to our records. Those records they bought at the auction – just like you’re auctioning off a chair! We did buy the actual vinyl and cassettes, however. But now they [master tapes] are who knows where? Just lost in a room somewhere, waiting for someone to put ‘em out.
And Morgan Creek was a kind of vanity thing for the Morgan Creek film company too, at least that’s always been the “common wisdom.” You know, “Let’s have our own little major label thing here”…
MM: Beyond vanity! They had first put out that Robin Hood soundtrack record – the Bryan Adams song that became the biggest selling record of all that year. So that was a pretty good start for the label! They had a bunch of people they’d hired from the old music game, from this label, that label, the guy who broke Bob Seger, the guy who’d worked on this and that. I mean, when they opened the doors they had about a hundred gold records on their walls! From all these guys that had been in the music biz so long.
Yet they didn’t understand some of the indie bands they were signing, perhaps?
MM: They probably had some kind of take on what was happening in music at that time. “We gotta have this kind of band, that kind of band…” To fill in different slots. When they put our record Drenched out they took out a big ad in Billboard and said they weren’t going to bother doing anything at college radio, and they just had this weird, this wrong attitude. They thought we were just going to break right onto commercial radio. We did the Letterman show. But I dunno what happened. The whole thing didn’t pan out the way they wanted it to.
However, by 1991-92, there was a very real feeling in the air that this so-called college rock, this alternative rock, was suddenly commercially viable. And of course after Nirvana that became reality. Steve Wynn said that it seemed like all of a sudden there was light at the end of the tunnel for bands.
MM: I don’t know if I saw it that way. Because when our record was coming out, U2 was the alternative band. U2, The Cure and R.E.M. was the alternative scene. There was “120 Minutes,” for example, and so we made a video at that time for our record – and it got played one time! Once, on “120 Minutes.” It wasn’t like, “Okay, we’re looking for things to fill up the alternative spot.” Because by then MTV had plenty of the super-duper groups. The next kind of round was when U2 became a Rolling Stones-level band. Nirvana, I suppose, was the next thing after that.
Wynn pointed that out too, about how very slowly reality hit: most of the smaller bands were not going to get their shots after all.
MM: It could make a funny kind of sitcom: Old time music guys get together with a millionaire movie producer: Who Gets Screwed? But I hate doing an interview when I sound like – I mean, I don’t have any sour grapes or anything. Living in it, man, it was suicidal. But you know, there’s a lot worse things than wishing you could make another record. And how it all ended up, which is where I am now and everybody else is now, I think everybody is perfectly fine. I don’t want to think that my whole life revolved around some place in Beverly Hills. And also, Morgan Creek did a lot for us. They spent a ton of money and really elevated our whole profile. We didn’t become a household name, but we got more in that direction – we became something that people knew about on a higher level.
The biggest regret I have: I didn’t know Hollywood, free dinners and staying at fancy hotels, but the one thing I should have known was how to make a good record. And I wish that record Drenched had been better. I tried to stick up for it a few times but I didn’t even know how to stick up for it. John Porter, when we got him, he was “the guy who’d done the first Smiths record.” I mean, if somebody offered that to me today, I’d say yes. I love that record. But he’s into the blues, and into the guitar, and he’s not into the vocals. Also, there’s a certain kind of producer out there who’s a company man, and they’re really working more for the record label than for you. That’s somebody really to watch out for. You’re making art with a guy that’s kind of keeping track on things to make sure the record label is happy.
Years later a band says to itself, “What were we thinking?”
MM: Yeah. The only thing that makes that thing real tangible is that we made the record with Paul Kolderie. He was really great and doesn’t give a shit about what the record label wants; that’s what you have to make sure of when you get a producer, that it’s you and him, and not you and the guy who’s reporting to the label. The demos for Drenched we did with him, I’m hoping to some day put out to prove that could have been a good record. And knowing what I know now, I’d just put those out as the record; there’s a lot of great feel to it, just perfect. But the label was, “No, no – we have to redo it, we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars because that’s the only way to make a record. We have to go to a big studio and use that and make sure they get whatever they get.”
Nowadays the White Stripes have proven you can do a record for $5000 and labels will listen to you.
MM: At the time I don’t think anybody had made a record that had actually succeeded that wasn’t very expensive. If you didn’t spend a lot, they didn’t seem to know what they were doing!
Morgan Creek, since it doesn’t exist as a label now, that means the earlier records will never see the light of day?
MM: I have no idea. The Backyard, they don’t own that. We could do that. But as much as you dig it and other people dig it, I just don’t know. I was gonna try to do all that stuff when I started this label. If I could put out those Drenched demos, I would, because nobody’s ever heard ‘em. And there’s a whole bunch of plans to put out a video compilation, the videos we made and this documentary a guy made – it’s kind of a grim thing, about when we were not getting off Morgan Creek and when we were making the Portrait Of A Damaged Family record. There’s a lot of stuff people have never seen or heard, but I dunno how many people would actually buy a Miracle Legion CD.
Portrait: was that done while were still on Morgan Creek but kinda in limbo? You’d asked to get released from your deal. You’ve got a pretty funny/tragic account of that period up on the Mezzotint site.
MM: It was done during some of the legal limbo time. We decided just to get on with things and that way if we ever got out of limbo we’d have a record ready to put out. The “musician never learns” part of this thing is, even after Portrait, we still were sending that around, trying to get on another label. Starting a record label is something I just wish I’d done a long time ago. It makes the whole thing so – much more in control. People always say, “Well, you don’t sell as many records.” But it’s more like you don’t have an opportunity to sell as many records. Just because you’re on a major label and in stores doesn’t mean you’re gonna sell it.
So anyway, we finished Portrait but couldn’t get a deal for it, so I just said I’d try putting out the record myself. That’s why I started Mezzotint.
Do you think at that point the band had about run its course anyway? The protracted legal thing taking its toll and all that. If you’d gotten Portrait onto another label, would the band have continued?
MM: Well, Dave and Scott were already in Frank Black by that time too, and that’s been really great, a good job, for them. He’s a good fellow. Not some crazy rock star. Ray started a family, and I think he’s happy doing that. I just, I dunno… to be dead honest, when we were first touring Drenched, it wasn’t super well attended. The second tour we did, which we did more on our own, the way we normally did things, that was much better. But even still, as much as people may go, “Oh, where is Miracle Legion now? What happened to them?” it seemed like there were less people coming to shows by some point in time.
There was a musical climate change too. Both Steve Wynn and Mitch Easter commented on that to me. Mitch indicated that by the early ‘90s anyone coming out carrying a Rickenbacker was looking to get his ass kicked. By the time of Drenched, had the audience for well-crafted pop-rock with lyrics and hooks and choruses simply dried up?
MM: Eventually, but not when we were still playing. That happened when Korn and that kind of crap on MTV was constant. Like turning a microphone on in a metal factory. I mean, I remember when we played a gig with Soundgarden, around their first or second record, and I thought they were horrible at the time – I later liked them – because just seeing them live, the guy screaming his head off, and that heavy metal lead guitarist, and everybody just pounding their heads. And that was “alternative.”
And “alternative” had become meaningless as a distinguishing point. It was now a mainstream marketing label.
MM: And, you know, there’s something to be said for, as David Thomas once put it, “Man, there’s too many records. Too many bands. Too much to keep up with.” Pretty soon people who were trying to keep up with music just go, “I can’t keep up, I’m out of touch, I don’t know what’s what.” Ray said a great thing in that documentary. Something like, “You used to know each band. A band would put a record out and you knew it.” You’d know that the dB’s put a record out, or you knew that Glass Eye put a record out – or probably half the bands in this MAGNET article. Now, it’s just like a wildfire, the number of people who think they should be in a band. David Thomas called for a moratorium: no new bands, no new records, and it would give you time to catch up. But I guess that way you’d miss some good new bands, like the Music Tapes and bands on E6, for example. Good music happens, and people do figure it out. They found Elliott Smith and Vic Chesnutt. There’s a lot of good things happening.
Yet it does seem that the music industry succeeded in turning music from being the soundtrack of your life to just another lifestyle choice. Might as well be a video game.
MM: Meaning it’s not as important as it maybe was to you or me. And maybe it doesn’t even matter anymore. There’s plenty of ways to look around for bands. I do think that MTV has been the death – the irony of them being called Music TV is not lost on people. It killed people going to check out music since they could turn the TV on and see music all the time. I just don’t think that’s been very good.
By the way, I just don’t want this to be like some interviews I’ve done where it ends up sounding like, “This guy slugged his way out of some fucking horror story, and even though the music business was out to squelch everybody’s world… he made it even though he’s been fucked left and right!” Well, I haven’t been. With everything that went wrong, many things went right, and I’m happy because I got into it to make music, and I’m still making music. So at the end of the day, I win. I’m real lucky, and I’ve done other things too. I did the TV show for awhile, for example.
Tell me a bit about that, how you got involved with The Adventures Of Pete and Pete. It’s currently being rerun on Nickelodeon’s offshoot channel, Noggin. I get to see you, Dave and Scott every night on TV, as the band “Polaris,” during the opening credits.
MM: The people behind that show said they wanted Miracle Legion to do the music for it. But at the time, things were pretty fuzzy about Morgan Creek, and everything was kinda grim. I said to Ray, “Hey man, we got offered this thing, do you want to do it?” And he said, “You know, I really don’t want to do it.” So I said, “Well, I’m going to try doing it myself.” He said, “Go ahead.” I recorded the first season just me and the drummer, Scott. Then the next year and the final year was Dave too. It was writing songs to order: “Can you write a song about a crush? One that’s upbeat and about good times at the beach?” That kind of thing. But it was coming from a guy who was a huge fan of music, and I guess Miracle Legion as well, not some Hollywood type person who goes [in fey voice], “No, no, it needs to be more ‘bouncey’, you know?” So I was lucky that it was a guy we worked super-great together. I felt like I was writing music that I liked, and most of them would have been songs I would have written anyway.
So anyhow, I told that to Ray, and he said, “Look, I have a trip planned with my wife, we’re going on a two-month cross-country trip, and I really don’t want to postpone it.” Whereas in Miracle Legion days it would be, “Okay, I’ll do it, I’ll postpone everything to do that.” So that was kind of the beginning of everybody doing their own thing. It was really the first time I tried to write music by myself, in fact. It was a little scary.
There was one episode on the TV show, however, where Ray does show up in the garage with you guys, however. I noticed you have that clip up on the Mezzotint website.
MM: Yeah. [laughs] Even though Polaris was this three-piece TV band, when we did that I just thought, “Let’s all get out there with our mystery guest…”
You know, I consider the three things to each be their own distinct thing. Miracle Legion is its own thing; Polaris is its own thing; me, my own thing. It’s interesting to see how some people who are into Polaris come to it all. Because that’s a completely different music fan, they came to the music through this TV show so they have a certain idea of what it is and how the music relates to their childhood and all these different things. So they find either me or Miracle Legion and become big Miracle Legion fans through Polaris. Just a strange route to take, I think.
So you did Pete and Pete. [Note: In 1999 Mezzotint released a CD by “Polaris” titled Music from the Adventures of Pete and Pete, featuring re-recordings of the music that Mulcahy composed for the TV show.] Miracle Legion comes back together to record Portrait Of A Damaged Family while waiting around on the Morgan Creek thing, then breaks up after it comes out. You record your first solo album Fathering, and a year or so later after it’s out, in 1998 it becomes an unexpected hit in England.
MM: Yeah, and I hadn’t gone to England in five years, since Miracle Legion had done Drenched. So I went over there because of the band Unbelievable Truth, and those guys sort of hunted me down – Andy Yorke was a big fan, and Thom [Yorke] had been a fan of Surprise so as an older brother he’d probably turned Andy on to it — and asked me if I wanted to go on tour with them. “Yeah! Sure!” They were doing pretty well then, and all of a sudden I was doing solo gigs in front of 300-400 people, which was amazing because I didn’t have anything like that going for myself on my own. I was just making it as best as I could. The last gig I played was at this club in London, and it was like history repeats itself: this guy from the label Loose came up and said, “I’ll put your record out.”
The next record, SmileSunset [on Mezzotint in the US, Loose in the UK] did fine too. I did my own tour on that record and it was a pretty well-attended tour. So the next record is moving ahead slowly. Maybe surely.
I’ve been working on this opera, too, with Ben Katchor, The Slugbearers Of Kayrol Island. It’s really more like a musical. I did the music and it has projections of his drawings as the setting. Ben Katchor did that comic strip “Julius Knippel, Real Estate Photographer” in the Village Voice.
Do you ever feel like you’re in competition with your old band?
MM: When I was first doing my solo stuff, yeah. And I would really ignore Miracle Legion. I refused to play any Miracle Legion songs. I think that’s what people do sometimes. I wouldn’t say that was a mistake, but I know people came to shows wanting – I know if I went to a show for somebody, I’d be hoping they’d play some of my favorite songs. That might have turned some people off from coming, thinking it’s not going to be the good ol’ days. That’s too bad, I think. And I don’t feel like that anymore. I’ve done these things since then.
I feel like it this way: I did this Miracle Legion thing for such a long time, and it was the only thing that I really knew. And then that just fell apart on its own organic – or nonorganic! – way. And I got a sort of second chance to start the whole thing again. I always look at that like, not a “blessing,” but, I got a second start doing the same thing that I really like to do. And that’s great for me. Dave and Scott have a really good job now, and I think Ray, having started a family, is happy doing that, too.
You hooked up with him last year  when you were on tour in the UK. How was that? Bittersweet, or…?
MM: It was early last year in Edinburgh – Ray lives there now. We sorta practiced a little bit in the dressing room. I did my set first, then I said, “Okay, I’m gonna do some songs with my old buddy.” Maybe a few people there knew what was going on. I was actually gonna play guitar too, but then I said to myself, “Man, I’m just gonna soak this dude up for this five or six songs!” Because I’d watched him on some level [in the past] but had never really watched him, you know? And it was just so entertaining to watch Ray fall right back into it after all this time! Honest to God. He plays somewhat by himself, and he was in a couple of bands here and there, but he’s not really what I would call pursuing it now, not like I am.
Going all the way back to the ‘80s for just one last time: at that point in time, since you got compared to REM a lot early on, did you guys view R.E.M. as a sort of template for what you as a band might try to accomplish? “They got in the van and did it, so can we?” That sort of thing?
MM: Well actually, because we went to a lot of shows — I saw every show, anywhere and ever — and because we promoted a lot of shows, we learned a lot. Ray and I saw a lot. Even this little band I was in before Miracle Legion, we did a little touring so I saw a little bit of that. And then when we promoted we saw all the bands on tour, on all levels, so I wouldn’t say anybody was particularly an inspiration for trying to go out and tour. I knew that you had to do it; it was what had to be done. It wasn’t like you’d put out a record, play in New Haven and then go home again. You had to go to Ohio or something if you wanted to do anything.
So no, from doing all the things we’d already done, from seeing a lot of bands or working shows, bands like Wall Of Voodoo, or Mission of Burma, we put their shows on a couple of times, and I knew what was going on. I could see what was happening, and I kind of plugged my own aspirations into what I saw other bands doing at the time.
Below: the sleeve art for Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You.