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As often befalls the frontmen of great defunct bands, Mark Mulcahy’s name was prefaced for the better part of two decades with the words “ex-singer of Miracle Legion.” This was hardly an albatross around the neck, mind you. From the ocean of 1980s jangle-pop bands that emerged in R.E.M.’s wake, few inspired more devotion than Mulcahy’s Connecticut-based outfit. When Miracle Legion eventually fell victim to an epic label dispute in the early ‘90s, however, Mark soldiered on admirably—writing and recording original music for the cult classic Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, then attracting a whole new audience with three intimate and engaging folk-pop solo albums—1997’s Fathering, 2001’s Smilesunset, and 2005’s In Pursuit of Your Happiness. It wasn’t really until 2009, though—in the midst of a long hiatus—that Mulcahy’s full body of work started earning its proper due. Sadly, it took a personal tragedy to bring it about.
When Mulcahy’s wife Melissa passed away suddenly in 2008, he was left to raise their young twin daughters alone. His career as a recording artist, consequently, was left in limbo. In response, more than 40 musicians—including famous Mulcahy admirers Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, Frank Black, and The National—joined forces to record and release a tribute album to raise money for their friend. The album, titled Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy, featured a wide range of covers spanning Mulcahy’s entire career. As a sort of indie-rock equivalent to the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, the criminally underappreciated man finally saw just how appreciated he truly was—and a lot of new fans took notice, as well.
On June 18, Mulcahy will release Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You—his first album in eight years, and a gratifyingly energized one, at that. Rather than dwelling in the darkness, Mulcahy instead shows a playfulness and foot stomping attitude not seen since his Miracle Legion days. The Big Takeover caught up with Mark to discuss the new record, the impact of the tribute album, and the enduring Pete & Pete phenomenon.
ANDREW CLAYMAN: For starters, the obvious question. It’s been eight years since In Pursuit of Your Happiness. What finally made this the right time to get back in the studio, and what was the process like this time around?
MARK MULCAHY: Well I’ve been doing things—other things. I’d recorded a bunch of stuff, but I hadn’t been able to focus on making a record, per se. So, I was just hanging around with some local musicians, and one of them—Henning [Ohlenbusch], the producer-- has his own studio. So we just kind of concocted a plan to make a record. It ended up taking a little while—probably close to a year to do it. But we approached it with this plan of just working on one song per day. That way we thought we wouldn’t get too bogged down. So yeah, it turned out to be a really nice way to make a record, I think. Sometimes making a record you wind up with this sort of laundry list of things to do and you lose focus. But this was a different group of people, for the most part, each time we recorded. And it just kind of made it quick and interesting.
AC: Is there a set line-up you’re playing with live right now, or is it a similar sort of rotating arrangement?
MM: The record is definitely that way, but I’ve been playing live with two other guys pretty steadily. That being said, I live near a place called Northampton [MA], and there’s just a huge amount of really good musicians up there. So you can just take your pick really.
AC: How would you describe the gestation period for most of these new songs? Have they been slowly developed over the past decade or was there more of a recent, concentrated effort to work on them?
MM: In the same idea of recording one song a day, once we set whatever the date was going to be, I’d write a song for that day. It wasn’t for any specific reason. I just wanted to make a record because I hadn’t made one in such a long time and I have all these recordings that are all over the place for different reasons. I just wanted to make something that was focused on the here and now.
AC: I think that kind of comes through in the recordings, where there is an immediacy and an up-tempo, almost Miracle Legion sort of energy to them more so than maybe any of your previous solo albums. Was there a desire to “rock out” a bit more this time around or am I completely off base there?
MM: [laughs] No, you're not. Sometimes when I listen to the solo records I’ve made, a lot of them are based on the skill level I have on guitar, because I’m really not a great guitar player. So the speed of a song might have just been based on how fast I could play it. I just didn’t really notice that as much in the past. Then recently I put on a Miracle Legion record, which I hadn’t done in a while, and it was pretty… well, pretty rocked out [laughs]. I was kind of surprised. So, I don’t know, I just wanted to make a little more of a rock record because I knew I was going to be playing it out. I mean, I like it either way. But maybe just because of the combination of people and the approach, it came out a little more on the rock side. If I’d done it myself, it probably wouldn’t have worked out the same way. It would have sounded more like Fathering probably.
AC: What is the current touring band? Do you think it’s going to be the same guys throughout the summer?
MM: I think so, yeah. The first thing we did was go over to England and play four or five shows. It was pretty good. Our drummer is Ken Maiuri [formerly of Pedro the Lion]. He’s from around here and he’s a magician really. He can play keyboards and drums at the same time, so it has a sort of four-piece feel to it at times. There’s a lot of fluidity or mobility to it. The other guy then is the previously mentioned Henning Ohlenbusch on bass. I’ll try to spell that the best I can for you. It’s not easy [laughs]. He’s had a band for a long time called School for the Dead. So both of those guys are great musicians.
AC: Switching gears a bit, I did want to ask about a few specific, positive events that took place during your hiatus and see how they might have affected you heading into this record. The first is the Ciao My Shining Star tribute album from 2009. What did that project mean to you and how has it impacted you both personally and professionally since it came out?
MM: Oh, wow. Well, I really didn’t have anything to do with that, which is it’s own kind of strangeness. But I don’t know, I was somewhat taken by how some people maybe did a better job recording the song than I did. That was sort of an eye opening moment. And you know, it was just the start of a great feeling, in terms of knowing that people were rooting for me in some ways. The sort of pretense of the thing was so that I could continue to make music and not have to go work at UPS or something [laughs]. And it was a big help in a lot of ways, because most of the time I’ve been staying at home lot. So yeah, it was a super great help in a lot of ways—practically and mentally. And it was a huge surprise to me that that would happen.
AC: Obviously there were a lot of major stars on that record, but there were plenty of up-and-coming artists who were clearly inspired by you, as well. Did you know most of the artists on there or was it kind of a reverse educational experience?
MM: Yeah, it definitely was. Some of them I knew maybe one guy in the band or nobody at all. I still don’t really know why anyone was on it-- what the criteria was or anything. The famous people are always a surprise, but the other people I didn’t know, some of them are just really great recordings. Cuz, you know, a song is a song. You can record it any way you like. So it’s always cool when someone does it a different way.
AC: Another pretty special event from the past couple years was the once unthinkable appearance by Polaris [the “imaginary” band from the Pete & Pete TV show, consisting of former Miracle Legion members Mulcahy, Scott Boutier, and Dave McCaffrey] as part of the Pete & Pete reunion in Los Angeles last year. How did that come together, and what has the devotion of the Pete & Pete fanatics meant to you over the years? Or can you even quite grasp it?
MM: Well I grasped it at that show, certainly. That was a pretty big place [The Orpheum]. And to just play the opening chord of a song and hear people clap—or swoon, even—was definitely a surprising experience [laughs], especially for a band that was basically playing its first gig. We had sort of fiddled around before, but we’d never played an actual gig as Polaris. We never even practiced most of those songs as Polaris. So that gig itself was very interesting. But since I hadn’t done anything in a long while and I’m trying to get a record promoted and all these things, I just started thinking a little while ago that I’m always like the “ex-singer of Miracle Legion”—that’s what I’ve been for a long time. And I don’t necessarily want to be billed that way, even though I don’t mind it. But now I almost think that I’m sort of the ex-singer of Polaris in a lot of ways, because probably a lot more people know about Polaris than Miracle Legion. Maybe people have found Miracle Legion through knowing about Polaris, through research. But yeah, it’s funny. I remember this guy telling me this story that he heard these two kids talking in a record store. And one said, “Paul McCartney, who’s that?” And the other says, “oh, he used to be in Wings.” [laughs] So it’s something along those lines. We did a lot more things in Miracle Legion than Polaris has ever done. So it’s just funny how it works out. Just being on television is an amazing thing.
AC: Sort of along those lines, when you look at the three phases of your career—Miracle Legion, Polaris, and your solo work—it seems like they have all sort of independently garnered a similar sort of cult devotion. Is that something you can take some pride in—succeeding in three separate arenas?
MM: Well any devotion is always a surprise. I keep those projects pretty separate in my head, but I think it’s great when they connect. It’s always a surprise when they do. Because, even though they’re all similar—it’s not like one is jazz and one is metal—I do see them very separately. Whenever I get a letter or something from someone saying they knew about Polaris first and then went back and found my other work, I think that’s great. I think it’s great that people look into to things and try to figure out who somebody is and try to get into all of the things they do. I’m lucky that’s happened to me.
AC: Personally, even though I am a Pete & Pete fan, I’ve always felt that those Polaris songs really stand alone without the need for that context—they're just great songs that maybe get overlooked because of that commercial tie-in . From your own perspective-- falling in the years between Miracle Legion and your solo work-- how do you personally look at those Polaris tunes in retrospect? Are they mostly just connected to the TV show for you, or do they have a special significance outside of that?
MM: The biggest difference in that record is that I worked a lot with [Pete & Pete co-creators] Will McRobb and probably Chris [Viscardi] to some extent, to achieve what they wanted. I would submit songs to them and they would either like or dislike them, and they would suggest things they wanted on different songs. So it was a strange collaboration. And it was also strange to record music that was really not intended for a record. Up to that point, I had never really recorded anything that wasn’t either a demo or something to release. And then it kind of took a long time to actually put it out as a record. The show was way done, and I kept saying, ‘hey isn’t there some way to make a record out of this?’ And they didn’t really have any ideas about that. There was some chance of it coming out on Rhino when the show was happening, but it never did [the Polaris songs were eventually released on Mulcahy’s Mezzotint label in 1999 as Songs from the Adventures of Pete & Pete]. So yeah, it’s always been sort of a strange one-off kind of a project. And we weren’t even supposed to be a band. I was just writing the music. And the whole idea of Polaris even existing was just a random idea. I think it was me just saying, ‘why don’t we make up a fake band?’ And they said, ‘okay, that sounds good.’ So it was all very simple really how it came into existence. …But we never did anything with it beyond that. I kind of have a minor regret that we didn’t do more and make that group into more of a thing. Playing with Scott and Dave—the two guys from Miracle Legion—when we got together to play that L.A. show, it was great, you know? And we all really wanted to do more. But it just doesn’t seem… I don’t know. It’s kind of a band that has something going for it, but at the same time, nobody really knows what it is. So it’s a little difficult to book.
AC: Well probably in some ways that mystique was always part of the appeal of Polaris. Are they a real band? What’s that mystery line in “Hey Sandy”? Etc, etc.
MM: Yeah, and we were on a cereal box [laughs]. [A tape of several Polaris songs was briefly included with boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats back in 1995]
AC: Getting back to the idea of positive influences on this new album. How has fatherhood and raising your daughters affected not just how you work, but your outlook on your work?
MM: Hmm, well I work at night [laughs]. But, I don’t know, there’s probably a higher level of responsibility maybe. This is super obvious, but it’s not just about me doing whatever I want to do anymore. I have to base it around other people now. So that’s kind of a big change. But it hasn’t changed me too much I don’t think.
AC: Do the girls seem to enjoy hearing you play? Are they old enough to get it yet?
MM: I don’t know if they enjoy it. But they hear me. They tell me they can hear me. But I don’t know. They’ve never actually told me they enjoy it. [laughs] They’ve been to a couple practices, but they’ve never been to a show since I don’t play many shows.
AC: I am sure they'll come to appreciate this later, but to me, one of the best aspects of your songwriting is that you’ve always had a knack for writing songs that feel very intimate and personal without ever being overtly confessional or obviously about your own life—and that holds true on the new album, as well. Why is that dynamic important to you, and how difficult it is to maintain that balance, particularly when you’re going through difficult times in your own life?
MM: Well one thing I found out early on is that people will ask you what something’s about, and if you find out, it’s generally a let down. So usually, whether it’s about me or someone else or about nothing, I would never tell, because I think you get more out of something by imagining it. I mean, sometimes you want to say it’s about Abraham Lincoln or something, which it isn’t-- because maybe you want to tell some kind of amusing story. But in general, it’s an old cliché, but you want people to make up their own minds rather than tell them. Even though I never intended the line in “Hey Sandy” to be a secret, it’s a great secret to have, because nobody knows what it is, and that’s great for me, because it makes people wonder.
AC: Since we’ve brought up that famous third line from “Hey Sandy”—fans have been trying to decipher that for 20 years. If someone actually guessed correctly tomorrow, would you admit it or would you just keep the mystery going?
MM: Um, I don’t know. Once we were talking about auctioning off the knowledge of that line and then whispering it to someone and letting them decide what to do with it. [laughs] We didn’t do that, sadly. But it could have put the pressure on someone else to know it. But in truth, nobody else knows it. I’ve never actually told one person. It goes with me. Wherever I go, it goes. But it’s a great example of just causing people to think or wonder about something you did instead of it being clear and all completed for them. And that’s not necessarily the case with every single thing, because sometimes you want to say something. I’m sure there’s been times at gigs where I’ve said “this is a song about something or other.” And it’s funny, when you’re singing certain songs, it can seem so obvious what it’s about, but it isn’t.
AC: I was watching a Miracle Legion documentary this week in which a young Mark Mulcahy says “I like everything about music except the music business.” Would you still stand by that statement, or has the Mezzotint experience [Mulcahy has operated his own label since 1992] changed your perspective on how the business side can work?
MM: Well there was a pretty long period in Miracle Legion—which probably ended up breaking the whole thing up-- where we couldn’t do anything because of the label we were signed to [Morgan Creek]. That interview might have been around that time, based on that. You know, it’s not the greatest business in the world, but it does the job if it’s working. Fortunately, there are a lot of alternatives to the music business now. You know, I spent a lot of time trying to be on a label-- sending out tapes and trying to get involved with it. If I were smarter or if it was a different world back then, I wish I would have just started this label myself from the get-go and always had it. Because it’s just been really great to just release any record I want, any time I want, in any way I want. The music business—the labels—they always have their own ideas. And that’s good. That’s the bonus—there’s someone else thinking about what would be good. But it’s not always completely in tune with what you want to do. Right now I’m on Mezzotint in America and I’m on a different label in the rest of the world. And that’s great, because I can do a lot in America with Mezzotint but I could never do the same in Japan or elsewhere. So right now I’m kind of in the catbird seat I suppose.
AC: Along those lines, since this is Miracle Legion’s 30th anniversary this year, any chance of some reissues of those records emerging some day?
MM: Well there’s one record that is pretty much ready to come back again and that’s Portrait of a Damaged Family . That’s been out of print for a while. The other ones—they’re legally kind of mixed up in different ways. So I don’t know. I’d like that, though.
AC: Are those legal battles still being fought right now, or is it all basically on the back burner?
MM: It’s a battle I could never win. Probably if I had a lot of money and could buy the masters back in some way, that might be a possibility. But yeah, I don’t really have any way to do it. I don’t think anyone is going to just grant me the rights to put those records back out. Even though the people that own them probably don’t even know they exist. They just have them in a crate somewhere. But I don’t know, man.
AC: That is really depressing.
MM: It’s hard. That’s the thing. You make a record that you don’t own. That’s another thing about having my own record label is that I own my records. When you make records for record labels—you know, somebody still owns the Eagles records, even though they’ve made back the money $100 million plus. It’s still owned by whatever label it’s on. You don’t pay it back, even if you pay it back [laughs]. You don’t own it. It’s a weird thing.
AC: To end on a brighter note, I know you’ve already lined up some festival gigs and some regular tour stops, as well, for this summer. What are you most looking forward to about being on the road again in 2013 and what are your hopes or dreams for this record?
MM: Ha, wow. I’m looking forward to—for example—I’m coming to Chicago to play a gig. When I was in Miracle Legion, we toured a lot, and so I’d be in all these different towns maybe once or twice a year. And it was just a nice thing just to go to the town, gigs aside. So it’s nice to think about going to Chicago or New York or Philadelphia. It’s just a weird trip down memory lane. Like when we knew we were going to L.A. for the Polaris show, that was a place we’d spent a lot of time making one of our records years ago. So I started talking to Scott and Dave about going to certain restaurants we used to go to. And so all we ended up doing is going to restaurants. But you know, that’s the associations you have with a place. So just the travel part of it is what I am looking forward to. I hadn’t been to a London in a long time either, and that trip to England was great. I went to four different, very distinctly different cities and loved all of them. So it’s weirdly like a vacation that also has this kind of bonus of playing music. And I’ve really been enjoying playing with the two guys I’ve been playing with. Playing the record I have—it’s really a great record to play for me. And playing songs I hadn’t thought about in years. It’s just been a great memory jog. I have some great gigs lined up and I couldn’t be looking forward to anything more.
The new album, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, arrives on June 18.
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