Springfield-based singer-songwriter Mark Mulcahy has had an impressively varied career. He fronted the influential jangle-rock outfit Miracle Legion, a staple of college radio in the 80’s and early 90’s, and has since put out a handful of solo records. Children of the 90’s know him from Polaris, the house band that created the whimsical soundtrack for Nickelodeon’s surreal TV show, The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Over the past decade, he has scored several operas. No matter the iteration or medium, his sound remains distinctly his: uniquely versatile vocals, imaginative lyrics, and jangly guitars driven by a precise pop sensibility.
Mulcahy is also a musician deeply respected by fellow musicians: in 2009, dozens of notable artists came together to record a tribute album for Mulcahy, including Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, Vic Chesnutt, and Dinosaur Jr. Last year, he put out Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, his first album in eight years. I spoke with Mulcahy about the new album, the Northampton music scene, and how one goes about writing an opera. Catch Mark Mulcahy at Great Scott on March 13th.
What has the last six months been like since the album came out?
Well, it’s been pretty busy. I haven’t been very busy with any of it for a few years, so I was slightly overwhelmed for a little bit, but now I’m more in the swing. Just finding the time you need to practice and everything that comes along with it. It was surprising too, because the record caught on more than I would have expected. I hadn’t put out a record in such a long time; I just didn’t have any clue what I was doing. I ended up getting a lot more gigs than I was planning on. It’s been nice to not do anything for a couple months. The next few months are back to busy again. I like being busy, but I also like doing nothing.
How is touring now different than when you toured with Miracle Legion?
Back in the Miracle Legion days, we played every place. Every town along the way. And now, I don’t know if that’s what I would do. It’s funny to look at the map and see all of the towns I’ve played a lot. It’s different that way; otherwise, it feels the same. It’s all the same routine. You get there and set up, hang out and play, hang out a lot more. Since I went solo years ago, I’ve played a lot of shows. I had some bands for a little bit, but this has been a pretty steady band for this year. We’ve rehearsed a lot. I have a two-piece thing and a three-piece thing, and they’re both well-rehearsed. And that was kind of the work ethic of Miracle Legion. We rehearsed…we over-rehearsed. But that really makes you confident. There’s a great level confidence now with what I’m doing. It’s a return to what I was doing.
How did you initially start collaborating with local musicians Ken Maiuri and Henning Ohlenbusch?
I live near Northampton, which is the music scene I’m part of. There are a million bands and great musicians and just a million great people. I met Ken through a friend maybe ten years ago. I do this other thing sometimes with this guy Ben Katchor; we do operas. So for the first one we did, I was looking for someone to help me translate the music to the musicians, because I’m not so good at that. So I met Ken, and since then, we’ve been peas in a pod, really. I love playing with him; I think he loves playing with me. He can do anything and more than one thing at once. If you’ve seen him play, he’s playing keyboard and singing and playing drums all at the same time. It’s really helpful to have him in the band; it sounds like a lot more than it is. And Henning is awesome. Henning’s the guy I did the record with. I’ve just been in that scene for such a long time. I know a lot of people, and everyday on the record was a different band. There are just so many people in Northampton who are eager to play and who are so good at contributing to recordings or gigs.
What are some of your favorite local bands?
There’s a band called Fancy Trash that is a criminally underrated band. The Fawns is very good; Henning is in that band as well. Ken is in a great band called the Super 8 Players; they do TV and movie themes. Winterpills and Spanish for Hitchhiking are two others. There are probably a lot I’m leaving out. It’s like an Austin or a Seattle– all of those towns that have a music scene the rest of the country knows about. Northampton is less known, but it has a ton of clubs and a ton of bands.
Many of the songs on this album are narratives with seemingly imagined characters. Where do you draw your inspiration for the completely fictional?
Everything on this record is either fictional or not about me. Some of it is made up, or– I said this kind of stupidly somewhere else– trying to be clever. It was an alternative to writing from my own perspective about me. I took a break from myself. For this particular record, I had a whole plan in my head about what I wanted to do, and the great surprise was that a lot of it worked out somewhat. We recorded one song a day. A lot of the structure and planning seemed to be a good way to do it, and at the end of the day, it all turned out as I wished it would, and that almost never happens.
I’ve read that after beginning your solo career, you used to be reluctant to play Miracle Legion songs live. When I saw you play in Northampton this past summer, your set was peppered with Miracle Legion tunes. How did you come to embrace playing those songs live again?
Some of it was inevitable, but the watershed moment was when I played at the Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA. One of the guys in Wilco, Pat Sansone, is a guy I’ve known for a really long time. He used to come to a lot of Miracle Legion gigs, when he lived in– I don’t know what town, but in Alabama– I always say Tuscaloosa but I know that’s not right. He was there, and one of the things they do is a pop-up concert where you can just go into one of the galleries and do a show without any PA or fanfare. He and I concocted that we would do some Miracle Legion songs. He printed out a bunch of lyrics because I hadn’t done them in a long time. Pat, Ken, and I set up and pretty soon there were a couple hundred people standing there watching this thing that didn’t have a stage or any real boundary to it. We just started playing the songs, and I gotta say, I got a little emotional about it. And I looked at Pat, and we were both getting kind of misty-eyed about the whole thing. These are songs that are locked away in a box somewhere. It’s not their fault that the music business is what it is and wrecked the vehicle that was using them. So, I thought differently about the whole thing. I’m up for playing any of those songs– I can’t play most of them on guitar; they’re just a little bit too complicated for me. But anyway, that helped to get me thinking differently about those songs.
My introduction to your music was a little backward. I first heard your music on Pete & Pete. It made quite an impression on me then, and I later found the Polaris album and eventually discovered the rest of your catalogue. Many of my peers have a similar relationship with your music. When did you realize that Polaris had garnered a considerable following of its own?
I did start to realize at one point that a lot of people knew who I was because of something that I didn’t ever really do much with or take very seriously outside of composing the music. I wish we had done more with the band itself, maybe played more shows. We only played one show. It was at this crazy Pete & Pete reunion thing in LA. I played a gig at Mercury Lounge and I looked around and thought, this crowd is just completely mixed. I go to England and Ireland with some regularity, and it’s a little bit of an older crowd, because they don’t have Pete & Pete there. It’s nice to play to different audiences. One of the things about show business though is that you can’t just have an audience, and say, OK, this will always be my audience. You have to keep getting a new audience, because people tend to fade away somehow. So for me, it was just a very lucky thing that I got that job, and it was lucky that it was such a good show. I didn’t know what the show was when I met those guys. I thought it was a cartoon. I didn’t even know it was real people until I was way into it. It’s one of the great shows in the history of TV, I think. So I got really lucky that that guy asked me to do it. He asked it to be Miracle Legion, but we were dysfunctional at the time, so I just raised my hand and asked if he would let me do it by myself. Because I had never really done that before. So I gave them the theme song, and they loved it. It all just tumbled together. My opinion of why it was such a good show is that nobody at Nickelodeon or Viacom ever paid any attention to it. So they were just allowed to do anything they thought was good. It shows you that if they leave you alone, you’ll make something great.
You mentioned that you have collaborated with writer/illustrator Ben Katchor on several operas. How do you approach writing a few hours of music with a cohesive storyline?
My templates for operas are probably Tommy and Quadrophenia and Jesus Christ Superstar— and that’s what I know about opera. I look at them, and they have different scenes for different characters. I approach it that way. You have to vary it a little bit, but it’s the same idea of the song you already have. The trick for those things– the thing that takes the longest– is busting out the lyrical shoehorn, and making words that are not ever in songs be in a pop song. We’re not avant-garde or eclectic in terms of the music; it’s just pop music for the most part. I’m not allowed to change much; sometimes I can change something if it rhymes a little better, but Ben doesn’t miss much. So if something comes around to Ben that he didn’t write, he’ll say it isn’t right. I always defer to him, because he understands it better it than anyone. His thing with me is that I can set anything to music. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but that’s where we start. I’m the guy who can set his stuff to music, but once I’ve done that, it’s mostly his direction of how it’s going to go. We try to play the thing deadly serious, and then if we get laughs, that’s great, but we never try to get laughs. The funny thing about a lot of what he writes about is its truth. He finds a lot of truth that makes no sense. It’s like the true version of The Onion. You would never think it’s true, but this thing he is referencing is a fact or did happen.
Any plans to put out more records?
Do you make records with your band?
I am in a band, but we haven’t recorded yet.
Do you plan to?
We do plan to.
Everyone’s always planning to. The last record I made, we did one song a day; that was the plan we had. And it still took a year. It took eleven days to record, but those eleven days took a year to happen. I wish I had made a lot more records in my life. I have one that I’ve been making for a really long time, but that one’s not done. I hope I somehow put out a record by the end of this year. The plan is to put out something in the fall, but I have no idea. I’ve given up promising anything.