ME & MR. MULCAHY Mark Mulcahy & Miracle Legion (Pt. 2)

The songwriter holds
forth on the college rock era, major label disasters, Prince, Pete & Pete,
and plenty more.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Ed. note: yesterday we
presented the story of Mark Mulcahy (recently feted via tribute album Ciao My
Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy) and his ‘80s/’90s band Miracle Legion.
We continue with my full, unexpurgated Mulcahy interview, originally conducted
in the fall of 2003. Go here for Part 1.

 

 

FRED MILLS: 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.

 

 

[Contact Mark Mulcahy
via the Mezzotint label at www.mezzotint.com.
The site also has for sale Rough Trade-era Miracle Legion albums on vinyl and
cassette, along with Mulcahy’s solo recordings. Don’t forget to sample the
limited edition honey.
]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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