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.
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.
According to your press, your latest album is your first studio release since 2005’s In Pursuit of Your Happiness. Where does Love’s the Only Thing That Shuts Me Up fit in?
That was before, right? Before In Pursuit, I think. I was going on a tour in the UK, and we wanted to have something to sell that we didn’t have, that wasn’t out anywhere. There’s one for you. That was recorded in pretty much one day and then mixed the next day. That was a very interesting thing. It was just me and Kenny. Ken Maiuri, the guy I play with a lot. We went to Frank’s. That was actually at Frank Padellaro’s again; we went to his place. Those are not what I would call full-bodied songs. It’s almost like a little collection, a mini opera of songs that don’t have anything to do with each other but sort of go together how they were written. To be honest, I don’t remember what year that was, but I think it was before In Pursuit, but it might have been after. I don’t know.
Regarding songwriting, when you were with Miracle Legion, you said at one point that you and Ray Neal would write songs on drums and guitar, respectively. When you began your solo work, you commented once about being a bit uncomfortable with the guitar. Did you have to re-evaluate your songwriting methods when you went solo?
I would just say that I’ve started all over again a few times. I’ve been kind of lucky in that way. I did it with Ray for such a long time, in a certain way. And then I did the music for The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which was a completely different way. It was really the first time I wrote by myself; mostly I had written with Ray. There was also another force in that they wanted certain types of songs for that show. They would kind of give you almost an order of this type of song, that type of song. That was one way, and then after I did that I kind of went and made some solo records, and then I started doing the operas with Benny.
Photo by Cap Blackard
I just say I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of different chances at how to write songs. Now I’m kind of doing it in some different way from that even. It keeps it interesting. It always feels like it’s going forward instead of stuck in some certain way. Not to even say anything other than I love Miracle Legion, and that was just great, but maybe, in some ways, we had done everything. We fell apart in a way that was inglorious. [Laughs.] But maybe it had its own reasons for happening because maybe we had written all the songs we could write. I’m not sure.
Have you kept in touch with any of the members, apart from Scott [Boutier] and Dave [McCaffrey], in particular Ray?
I haven’t seen Ray in quite awhile; we don’t live that close together. I don’t even see Scott and Dave that much, but we did play a Polaris gig this summer, and that was pretty great. It was really great playing with them. That was actually, I think, the first time Polaris ever played a gig.
I was going to ask if that was truly the first time you all played together. That’s crazy.
Pretty much, yeah. We added one guy, well, actually, two guys, but it was nice to play with Scott and Dave. It’s been awhile. I don’t think they play that much. After Miracle Legion, they were in Frank Black’s band for a long time. But since then, I don’t think they’ve been really playing – on the road anyway.
My editor would kill me if I didn’t ask about Pete & Pete. Was your involvement simply from the show’s creators being fans?
Yes, the guys, Will and Chris, were big Miracle Legion fans. They asked if Miracle Legion wanted to do it, and, at the time, we were in terrible flux, and Ray was, I think, getting married, and he said, “I don’t want to do it.” That’s when I volunteered. I said I would do it and like to do it myself, and they said, “Well, we didn’t think of that.” So, I wrote a couple songs, and they were, “Oh! Good, great!” So, I got the job on my own, which was a strange thing. It just turned into this whole other thing that nobody had… I certainly didn’t even know what it was. When I started doing it, I didn’t know anything about it (and neither does anyone else, I guess), but it really turned into kind of a meaningful thing. A lot of people seem to… if playing that gig in L.A. was any kind of indication of what that show is…
It’s got a gravitational pull to it.
Yeah. There’s a lot of people… It’s one of these things – it got cancelled because not enough people watched it. But I think a lot of people have seen it since it’s been off the air. I think as many people have seen it off the air as when it was on the air.
I loved that show, but I was a little bit older than the demographic for it, being in my mid-late 20s at the time. But I thought it was a real smart and advanced show.
It was. It was the classic formula, the good formula, where it’s a show that a kid can watch and a grown-up can watch and all kind of dig it. Which is what’s great about a lot of children’s books, comics, and cartoons – they appeal to everyone; they’re not just dumb just for a kid.
I’m getting ready to have my first kid, so I’m glad that they have “smart” children stuff out there, so I don’t go insane.
Oh, you are? That’s good. Yeah. There’s a lot of great stuff. There’s a lot of bad stuff, too, that’s like driving a nail into your ear. But there is a lot of great things; you just have to try and find them, I guess.
The group was called Polaris, and I understand that that came from a fan, but the collection of songs was dedicated to Ham and Laika, the US and Soviet animal astronauts, and a bonus track on the album features sound clips from the Apollo 11 mission. What’s with the space theme?
[Laughs.] Well, Polaris, that’s a rocket or a bomb, I think. It was just a completely made up, fictitious band that never existed and obviously never played. We always used to say that we’re the band that only exists in your TV. It’s all just fantasy, which is what they kind of wanted. In the beginning, it was kind of my idea that we were actually a band; they didn’t really think of us being a band. And they asked if we wanted to be in the opening credits, which we are. I’m pretty sure that it was my idea to say, “Why don’t we invent this band and have that be some character on the show?” They were, “Sure, whatever.” It was a complete afterthought, and it was just funny how the whole thing turned out be, I don’t know what it is, a legend. The legend of Pete & Pete.
Do you have any particular interest in writing more music for television?
I have a great interest. I would love to do it.
Any kind of programming in particular?
I really don’t know if it matters. I don’t have any way to say that because I don’t have a choice. If someone asked me to do something, I’d have to say, “I guess.” If it was a show about something awful, I don’t know if I’d say, “No,” but… That’s just a nice, great way for people to hear you. I’ve been heard by a lot of people just from doing that TV show — probably more people than anything else in a lot of ways. Things on TV tend to get noticed a lot more, I think. Like, if you watch HBO, almost every show ends with some awesome song, and you always want to know and go look up who it is. It’s good, movies too. All that stuff is really good, I think.
Your label, Mezzotint, started in the wake of label troubles, seems to be a pretty personal project – the entire roster is just you, your operas, a little bit of Miracle Legion, and Polaris. When asked in 2001 about other acts, you mentioned almost releasing The Butterflies of Love album. Have you given any more consideration to expanding the label’s roster? Maybe do something along the lines of Jack White’s Third Man 7” series, where it’s nothing too big, but it’s still getting stuff out?
I haven’t, just because there just isn’t really enough staff and money. But depending on how it goes, depending how things go, I have a lot of things I want to release that are mostly based around me. I would like to do it. I guess I did say that once about the Butterflies of Love. But that would have been hard to do because I don’t have that much to offer, and they weren’t going to be a band that went out and toured, so I couldn’t see how it was going to work, in terms of anyone actually buying the record. It’s mainly a thing that allows me to do whatever I want. And after being on the opposite end of that spectrum, I’m glad I have it. I wish I had done it a long time ago and never cared about being on labels, even though I was happy with some of the labels I had been on. I’m on Fire in the rest of the world, Fire Records. That’s nice because Mezzotint at best can do anything in America, so it’s nice to have someone covering anywhere else, in Germany or Japan, anywhere else that it might catch on.
At one point, the majority of the Miracle Legion catalog was tied up with legal issues. Has any resolution come to that, and could you possibly reissue that material?
Not at the moment, no. I don’t know how that’s going to… I don’t know. I have one record, the first record that Mezzotint put out, called Portrait of a Damaged Family. I am going to put that out pretty soon; it’s been out of print for a while. Probably put that on Bandcamp and maybe on vinyl if that made any sense. All that legal stuff, it’s always the same story you hear from a million other people. There’s a lot of lawyers that are involved.
Admittedly, I am not very familiar with opera. Porgy & Bess is the only American opera I can think of. You’ve written five. What is the allure of opera?
The main allure is I like working with Ben. He’s a great friend and a great person to be around. He’s really a special, kind of interesting, man. But it’s also writing just music. He writes all the words, so it’s different. The upside is that it’s a completely different thing, which causes me, or causes one, to think differently about what you’re doing, and I’m sure a lot of it rubs off on whatever else I’m doing. It’s a different way to write. It’s just a whole other world. Opera has its own cache as a word, but it’s only opera to us because there’s no talking. It’s like a singing comic book because we play the music in front of projected cartoons. So, even though we usually end up in some sort of a highbrow venue, it’s not that highbrow. [Laughs.] It’s regular grown-up kids watching cartoons while somebody sings the story.
The unsatisfying part is that you don’t tend to release it. We have never released any of them as a recording that you could own. That to me, that part of it, has never made sense, because obviously, every time I record something, I think about how I’m going to release it. It’s kind of a strange world, where it only exists when you are doing it live. Same as any play or anything that is on Broadway. They only exist while it’s happening; otherwise they’re just in a book. It’s a strange world that I’m not completely used to. I would think that if you went to it, you would not be confused or overwhelmed by anything that you’re not used to. It’s just like rock music, like a rock opera. Did you ever listen to Tommy?
It’s just like that. The operas I know are Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, which is another great one, Quadrophenia. I think of those when I’m working on mine.
Considering you once wished you were Danny Kaye, how do you feel about writing traditional musicals?
That was brief. That passed. [Laughs.] I didn’t wish that for too long. I think I wished that for that one afternoon. I’m pretty sure we wrote that song because we wanted to have a new song at this gig we were doing.
That’s a good song, though. It’s really catchy.
Yeah. I like it.
In 2009, friends and musicians gathered to record your songs for Ciao My Shining Star, an album dedicated to you and your wife. How did that album get so far into production before you ever knew about it?
Probably because I was unaware of much anyway, other than what I was actually doing. They just kind of kept it as a secret in a way. I’m not totally sure why. It was this guy from down there, this guy Nathaniel Smalley. He’s from down in Virginia somewhere. I can’t think of what school it is, but he just hooked it up and started calling people, and it became this thing. I don’t know, I guess you could not know about something.
What led you to decide to record Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On” as your contribution to the Guilt By Association compilation?
I think me and a lot of the people on that record all had the songs they liked that year that in a way you’re not supposed to like. That’s one of mine. I used to cover “[I Am] Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. Some of those songs are great, and I like that song. Sometimes I listen to that recording; I really like it.
What other guilty pleasure can you think of right now?
Oh, man, if I told you I liked the Backstreet Boys, you’d probably crumple up the whole interview, but something like that I like.
I have to admit “I Want It That Way” was a song I really dug when it was on the radio.
Yeah. You can’t decide. There’s so many bad ones, right. Ninety percent of the music that’s going to be on the station that’s playing those songs is not going to be something that you like. I always hope that there’s going to be one that I like because you’re going to hear it a lot. Like when you hear “Call Me, Maybe”, I don’t really want to hear that that much. I know it’s got its place. I’m not against it. I think it’s fine, but it’s nice when it’s a song that’s in that sort of genre, and I also like it. Shania Twain, she’s fine.