If you’re a fan of 80s jangle pop/rock you’ve probably heard Mark Mulcahy’s music. If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete, then you definitely have. Mulcahy began his career as lead singer and co-founding member of New Haven, CT’s Miracle Legion. Mulcahy and guitarist Ray Neal, with whom he formed the core of the group, quickly developed a solidly unique and interesting sound, writing some of the most personal and passionate music in early alternative rock. Unfortunately, not many people outside of critics, college radio aficionados and a handful of musicians ever got to hear it.
After Miracle Legion was left in a state of limbo due to label troubles, the group was approached by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, creators of the television show The Adventures of Pete & Pete. As fans of Miracle Legion, the two hoped to get the group to re-form and write the music for the show. Still sour from the group’s legal troubles, Neal declined to participate, so Mulcahy re-grouped with Miracle Legion’s drummer Scott Boutier and bassist Dave McCaffrey under the moniker Polaris to become the show’s house band. Though the show left the air in 1996, the mention of the group’s name to any fans still brings a smile.
Though much of Mulcahy’s career has been in groups and it was through his first group that brought him the praises of vocalists such as Pere Ubu’s David Thomas or Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, it’s in Mulcahy’s solo material where the artist is his most revealing. Mulcahy released three solo albums before leaving music when tragedy struck his family with the death of his wife. For the better part of a decade Mulcahy stepped away from music to care for his daughters, only appearing sporadically on compilations or soundtracks. Now Mulcahy has returned full-on with a collection of deeply moving songs and his first new album in eight years, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You.
Consequence of Sound caught up with Mr. Mulcahy to welcome him back and talk about the new album, playing with Polaris for the first time ever at a Pete & Pete reunion in 2012, and the joys of being a father.
Warning: It’s a long one.
Are you a Chicago reader? On Thursday, July 25th, Mulcahy will headline an intimate concert at The Hideout, presented by Consequence of Sound. It’s his first such performance in the city in nearly a decade. Tickets available here.
You stepped away from music in 2008 to take care of your family. In the time since, you have made a couple of guest appearances and recorded a couple singles. Last December you did a series of performances in the UK. With the release of Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, is it fair to say that you are stepping back in full-on?
Yeah, I think so. I hope so. That’s what I want to do.
Was there anything that said now’s the time to do it, or did it just feel right?
Yeah, why now? I have to work to live [laughs] if nothing else. I sort of got encouraged to start making a record by the guys I made it with. I just think the logic of my mind is that if you make a record, you should do something with it. I think it happened in an organic way. I didn’t really say, “Okay, I’m going to start doing stuff again.” But then I started doing stuff again, so then I said, “I’m going to start doing stuff again.” You know what I mean? A riddle within a riddle.
It was almost like baby steps. You stepped away, then you did a couple guest appearances, one a year, then a contribution to a compilation, a double single last winter, and then you played a live thing. Now you’re doing the album. It’s almost like you’re slowly climbing back up, ready to leap off.
It’s been good. I also write these albums with this guy, Ben Katchor. I think we did one opera in the last couple of years. You write them and then perform them, so there was a little bit of that, too. I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not making music. It’s been great to be playing music again.
Is there a story behind the album’s title?
Only that it’s a note somebody gave me, and it just kind of seemed to be the right sort of sentiment at the moment. I extrapolated it out to mean the way I felt about a lot of people. A lot of people were helping me and being great to me, and I just kind of took it to be that a lot of people feel that way about me. [Laughs.] Everybody that made this record with me was just a great, awesome help.
I want to ask you about that. Your first two albums were pretty much all you. Then you said, with In Pursuit of Your Happiness, you wanted a more democratically created album. How did you approach this album, and who is playing with you or at least the flute on “He’s a Magnet”? That was nice.
Oh, that’s a guy named Dave Trenholm. He’s a very, very, very gifted musician. Well, what happened was that we (Henning Ohlenbusch is the guy that produced it with me)… just so we wouldn’t get too bogged down in the usual method of making a record, which can be laborious, we decided to try to (which is the way I always want to do it) just record one song in a day. Finish the song in that day and focus on that. And the next time you came back, focus on a different song, so that you’re in the same place all the time. Instead of going back and recording a bunch of stuff and then coming back and fixing up each song as you want to.
So, anyways, the way it worked was that we were going to record the song completely in the day, not mix it, but record it all. When we picked the day that we were going to record on, a couple of weeks before that I’d write a song to do and pick a few people from town (or ask a few people who could play) and then send them the demos. And then we’d all come in with some idea of a demo of the song and record somewhat of what the demo was, pretty much as it went, not exactly, whatever the drummer thought or whatever the bass player thought, as a trio mostly. And then do the rest.
Someone would say, “How about this, or how about that?” Maybe somebody would say, “What should we put here? How about some keyboards at the end?” Whatever, you know. And then do the vocals, and then everybody would listen to it and say, “It sounds pretty good” [laughs] and step back a bit and look at it and go, “That’s good.” So, pretty much every song was recorded in one day. There might have been a tweak or two here where somebody didn’t like what their flute sounded like or something. But we pretty tried to stick to the plan of one song a day. That’s how it went.
In 2009, when talking to The Guardian, you mentioned how you were aiming to get back to work on the new record “that’s been sitting there blinking at [you] for nine months with nothing done on it.” Has this album really been in the works for that long?
No. This isn’t that album. There’s another album [laughs], this album that I started a really long time ago, with this guy Scott Amour, who is also a great producer. We worked on it a lot and then didn’t and then did. And then went to another studio and worked on it. And then went to a different studio. It was this endless… it’s like a Fleetwood Mac album, or something, that just took a hundred years. So, no, this album, this Mark J. Mulcahy record, is meant to be an album that was made right now, right in the moment that we’re all in. And that one, I think it’s a great record; obviously that’s me talking. I think it’s great; it just has to have a little bit more done to it. I hope that would be the next record I would put out. In a way, it’s nice to sort of have a record in the wings. In that sense (I didn’t even think of it), hopefully I’ll have another record out soon, instead of seven years from now.
The single you released, “Low Birthweight Child / The Cottage That We Rented Had a Name”, did that have anything to do with the Mark J. Mulcahy album, or was that completely independent?
No, that was actually another record that I was working on. There’s this other guy, Frank Padellaro, who used to be in New Radiant Storm King for a while. He has a studio that’s really far from here, so I started going up there and working on a record with him. It will be a slow record to make. So we recorded four songs for that record. And then I couldn’t see myself actually getting up to his studio any time soon, and this label in England said, “Would you like to do a single?” Those two songs seemed like a really good single.
That’s just a whole other thing. I have a lot of segmented moments [laughs], but I think it’s good to record an album with some idea of what you’re doing, who it’s with, and pick an approach and things like that. It doesn’t almost ever work out, although this one kind of did, where we did one song a day. I like to keep things, everything separate if I can, so that it’s not all one big thing. At least in my head it’s separate, but probably to people listening, they don’t hear it in that way. But I do.
Over the last 12 years or so you’ve contributed to a number of compilations. When you’re doing those songs, they all seem to be totally original songs for the compilation. Do you approach it to try and create something special for them?
The first record I made, I did play everything on it, which was unusual, especially since I wasn’t much of anything at that point.
Don’t be so hard on yourself.
I just feel like I’m a lot better now than I was then. Playing songs that you wrote, that’s certainly a possible thing to do. But most of the recordings end up being a group effort. Where I live is near this town called North Hampton in Massachusetts. It’s just incredible, man. There are just so many great musicians there that you have a Rolodex of people to call that are just willing and great. Most of the recordings, I don’t think about how I’m going to be in on it; I just think about what we’re doing when we’re doing it.
I was just on a compilation. There’s this band called The Reducers, and the bass player died recently. He got cancer. It was really sad; he was a great guy. So, they did a compilation of Reducer songs, and so I did a song for that. It was just really crazy. Me and this other guy, Chris Hartford, we were doing the song together, and so he recorded a bunch of stuff on a porch in Princeton and sent it to another guy, and he sent it to me, and I put some vocals on it, and we sent it to this other guy. [Laughs.] Nobody really had any particular overview of it all, but it turned out great. It’s all in the magic of whoever’s involved.