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"A Mystery's Going On Inside Our Heads": A Mark Mulcahy Interview

by dave heaton

"Do you know a mystery's going on inside our heads?"
--"Wake Up Whispering," Mark Mulcahy

With Miracle Legion, Mark Mulcahy helped create some of the most memorable pop-rock music of the 90s, on albums filled with songs that were melodic, heartfelt and intriguing. He's doing the same now on his own. His two solo albums--the stripped-down Fathering and last year's more musically elaborate follow-up Smilesunset--are both fantastic, with a power that's hard to describe but also hard to deny. Both released on Mezzotint, the independent label which he helps run, they showcase both Mulcahy's songwriting abilities and his unique singing voice, something I've always found to have a certain mystery within it that's hard to pin down. Something about his vocal delivery makes the feelings in his songs all the more piercing. His songs, pop-rock stories about people, moods and feelings, offer a sense of the world's complexity while tapping into our innate feelings of wide-eyed wonder at the more unexplainable aspects of life. That they leave that impression on me I am sure; how they do so is another mystery. When interviewing someone who has been making music for a while, there's never shortage of subjects to talk about. Recently Mark Mulcahy kindly spoke to me over the phone about a variety of topics, ranging from specific projects that he's been involved with (for example, the music he did for the classic, much-missed television series The Adventures of Pete and Pete) to his feelings about more general topics like the way his music has been categorized or the disconnect there is between the music business and the people who create music.

First I was just wondering what you've been up to these days, as far as music goes. Do you have any recordings that you're working on?

Um, yeah, I started doing a new record. I've just kind of generally been recording anywhere, any time. I haven't done anything towards anything specific but all of it's sort of aiming towards making a new record, which at first I thought I would have out this year but now it doesn't look like it.

So you don't know for sure when it's going to come out, you're just kind of doing it?

Yeah, I think it'll come out the first part of next year. The actual sort of window when you can release records is, realistically the first two months of the year are no good and the last two months of the year are no good. There's really only three-quarters of the year when it makes some sense to release a record.

Yeah, it seems like those times there isn't nearly as much going on as far as tours too or whatever. I don't know if it's just an unwritten rule that people don't do as much then or something.

Yeah, and also I learned last time that the more time you take to sort of arrange it for release…oh I don't know, I'm trying to pretend that I'm in the music business when I'm not, really…

OK, so I have some questions about your last album, which I liked a lot. Smilesunset had a more varied sound than your first solo album, Fathering It just seemed like it had more instruments on it and all of that…I was wondering to what extent that was a purposeful decision to try to expand the sound or if it just turned out that way?

Yeah, there was some of that type of conscious-decision-making, that sort of planning. Probably a few reasons why it ended up sounding the way it did was…one of them would be that I had played a lot more, I toured a lot after the last record, Fathering, came out. I did a fair amount of touring in America and in Europe--it came out a year later there--so I kind of got a little better, or not better, really, but just more confident or something, just because I could play…when I made the first record I really hadn't had a lot of experience playing all of the instruments. Also, the guy that I did it with, I did the other record sort of working with different people. This time I used Adam Lasus as producer. We both had been listening to a lot of Beach Boys, Brian Wilson records, and Brian Wilson also had been playing live around that time. We sort of patterned it after Brian Wilson, not in terms of music but as far as the recording. We tried to do as much as we could.

So how did you end up working with Adam as a producer? He's worked with a lot of bands that I like {Versus, Helium, Space Needle, etc.}.

I've known him for quite a long time…his cousin used to be the drummer in Miracle Legion a long time ago. He's really just a terrific producer. I've just done different things with him over a long, long period of time. That's really the reason. More people should work with him, too. I never can figure out why he doesn't get just overloaded with work. He gets kind of steady work, but he's such a great person to work with.

How would you describe what effect he has on how the album comes out sounding? I'm just always curious, not being a musician myself, what effect the producer has exactly.

How it sounds. I'm sure everybody's different, but in my case, I don't really have any aptitude for the sound. The connected tracks and everything don't make any sense to me until it's done. In fact, I nod along a lot in agreement. You know, to me it doesn't sound great or not great. It sounds like something to me, but until it's actually all mixed and done, I'm a little lost in the in-between spots. It works great between he and I because he's super-great at keeping track of all that stuff and having an overall view of what's going on. I was with this guy Mike Deming, do you know him?

I don't think so.

He's done a lot of records, I can't tell you which ones. He works with the Butterflies of Love, which is a band that I'm connected to. We were down in his studio last night, and he's another one…he just has a grip on the overview of the whole thing. A great producer can really keep an eye on what's happening, what's coming, what you need to do next, and then the next step I think is they get you to do it somehow, whether it's tough love or words of encouragement. Just kind of saying the right thing. And with Adam, since we know each other, he kind of knows the right thing to say. I'd say there's a lot of different moods going in the studio, good and bad. It's good to have someone who sees the situation and knows how to get something out of it. Also, time is money.

To try to get the most done in the amount of time that you have?

Yeah, most people that I know don't make records where it's just endless, until we're done. It has to be done at some point. It's a good feature to have somebody who can get it done.

Ok, the next question I have is at the opposite end of things, going pretty far back. What first got you into writing songs, how long have you been writing songs?

Well, I started as a drummer, for quite a long time. I always drummed in bands. First well, you know Ray, from Miracle Legion?


Well we were in a band together. He was the sort of multi-instrumentalist and I was the drummer. And when the guy who was sort of the main guy in that band quit, it was really the third time in a row in a short period that it had happened. We really just decided to just start our own thing. So we just started our own band, just started hacking away writing songs. It was just the only option we had. It was in no desire to write songs, really, more from just the practical matter of wanting to be in a band that would stay with it. And from there, actually we thought we'd just stay as a two-piece and figure out how to do that, but you know, everything just keeps rolling along, you don't plan out what you're doing.

So was drums the first instrument that you played? You started that at a young age?

Yeah, I was in high school band.

I had a question about your singing voice. Something about your singing always reminds me of jazz singers more than rock singers, I don't know if that's just me intellectualizing it too much, but I was wondering if you're were influenced by jazz at all, or what types of singers you emulated when you first started singing?

Uh, I don't know too much about jazz, so I would never say that. But I did, we had all types of music in my house. My family was also, my aunts and uncles were musicians. It's hard to say one thing, but certainly there was all kinds of music around, with brothers--I have older brothers and they had all kinds of stuff, you know. I heard a lot of Frank Sinatra, so there was a lot of singing there, but I suppose I just heard a ton of different things. And things I hear now like Mary Margaret O' Hara and Bjork, something like that, that gives you a certain courage or something to put that into the music you're doing on your own, where you don't feel like you're copying a style or something.

Just because they have more of a unique, sort of their own, type of singing?

Yeah, they don't have the type of singing where…do you know Mary Margaret?


They're the type of people that a lot of people would just think were weird or something, and wouldn't really give a second look because it doesn't fit a pattern. So I suppose, knowing the things I know from growing up and then hearing the people that I hear now, I just find a way to do my thing somewhere in between that. And plus, I'm still kind of stumbling along a little bit in all that because I didn't really explore singing so much when I was in the band, I don't know why actually, but I didn't, so I'm doing it alone. I think on a practical level, a lot of what I'm doing, or the better part of what I'm doing…the best thing I'm doing usually is singing so I tend to put a lot or emphasis on that, and not try to be a great guitar player or something, which I'm not.

I was wondering about, you mentioned touring before…It doesn't seem like you tour very much, or at least not in this part of the country, in the Midwest, I think maybe you tour on the East Coast more…

Where are you?

I'm in Kansas City, Missouri, but I know you've toured more on the East Coast…

I don't even, really, I don't. I really want to, I've really got a serious bug to go on tour, but I don't have a booking agent at the moment. I have one in England, but I don't have one here and I haven't had a real great amount of luck getting one. As much as I wouldn't mind booking my own gigs, and a lot of times I do, but I don't really look forward to it. That's the worst part, the worst part of all of it is trying to get shows in places where they don't know who you are and you've never played there before. I'm hoping to, though.

So do you play more in England because you have a booking agent over there?

(Laughs) Yeah. It's so simple and different, like I'm going in May for a three-week tour, with shows every night. Everything's great. All I have to do is show up and play. I sort of run my own record company with a couple of other people, so going on tour here, there'd be all of that stuff to do, which is fine too. I don't mind doing any of it really, if it wasn't so difficult, I'd do it. But the booking part of it, actually getting the show, that's a whole real tough game. I did a lot of the booking for Miracle Legion, off and on. Off and on we'd have an agent and then we wouldn't have an agent. But we had some many relationships with people that it was really simple. You'd just call up and say "hey, it's me," and do something like that. But I don't seem to have the same thing. So I don't know when I'm going to get to Kansas City, Missouri. I think I've been there before, though, I feel like I have.

Oh yeah? I haven't been here that long, I've only been here a couple years.

There's Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, right?

Yeah but it's almost the same thing, there's just this state line running through the middle of the city.

What's the name of the club in Kansas City, Missouri?

I guess the Hurricane would be…

Yeah, for example that guy has always been a huge Miracle Legion fan. Probably if I wanted to come there on my own he probably would have me. But he was a perfect example of being able to book yourself, you'd call up--I don't know if it's the same guy, but--you'd say "hey, how about it?" He'd say sure, what day? So, I just haven't really kept up with that.

I have a question on a similar thing--do you ever miss being in a band? I was just wondering about the advantages or disadvantages of working by yourself as opposed to being in a band.

Um, I don't miss the…I like doing it by myself, I prefer being my own act, by myself. But having said that, I didn't really realize when we were playing what a sort of good system we had. We had a fantastic system. We all got along really pretty well. We didn't have any band-type problems, you know like Behind the Music. We were able to make records and pretty much tour whenever we wanted. We had vehicles and roadies. And to me that was just completely, that was how it should be. On my own, I'm not able to pull all that off, or I haven't yet. I'm trying to now. I usually play alone, but I'm going to probably stop doing that. By the time I have another record, I don't think I'll go touring by myself anymore. Anyway, I miss the comfort and ease of it but I prefer to be a solo artist, I guess just did a band for such a long time. It feels just more satisfying, not to take away from what I did.


I think I didn't say anything just then. I gave a political answer that meant nothing. I mean, I did love doing it, but I don't miss not doing it, I guess would be the truth. That's why I would love to play with people. Sometimes around here, I know people around here that can play locally. So I do. I've had 5 piece bands and 2 piece bands, all kinds of sized bands. Most of them can't go anywhere. I probably would go out on tour, come to Kansas City Kansas, or Kansas City Missouri, if I had a band. It think it'd be easy for me, and it'd be fun, just to travel and play a bunch of gigs. I did it a few times on my own, and it's tricky after a while, you're alone all the time, and it gets difficult. It's not for me.

Well, here's something I was wondering about--I was wondering how you ended up doing the music for The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and whether you wrote those songs specifically for the show or if there were songs you already had?

Nope, I wrote them all for that. I got it because the writers who created it are big Miracle Legion fans. They asked us to do it, and because to our circumstances at the time nobody wanted to do it. So I said I'd do it, and that became my first time doing anything by myself…writing by myself, playing by myself, and I had no idea what I was going to do or what it was or what the show as like, or anything. It was great. It was super-great. It was an interesting type of thing. I thought it was going to be really unsatisfying, since I wasn't making a record. That's like the obsession, to make a record anytime you can. So I kept doing this music and recording it just like making a record, but then you just kind of turn this tape into the TV show, and that's it. It just kind of goes on in little dribs and drabs, and there'll be, you know, 30 seconds of airtime. So it was pretty unnerving for the first year, then the second year I was used to it, then the third year, and I kept trying to talk them into putting it out as a record. But they just don't see it.

Yeah, that didn't happen until pretty far into it…

Yeah, way too late. I finally got the permission, the agreement from everybody that it was OK if I put it out as a record. They wouldn't put it out, but then I wasn't really able to put it out. For about a year, a record was just sitting there, 12 songs. Because the first song it was only a 4 song record, the second year it was only an 8 song record, but the third year it was a 12 song record, and that's a real record to me. Also, I think it would have done a lot better earlier, it would have been a more popular record. It came out after the show was over. But that's still the record that most people buy if they order something. It's almost always that. Because you know millions of people knew about that show, more people than know about me. So there's people that watch that show that order it because they must have just run across it or something. …And also, that band never toured either.

I was wondering about that, was Polaris an actual band that you put together for those recordings? I couldn't remember who was in that band.

It was me, Scott and Dave from Miracle Legion. That was really the core. But there was a lot of other people who played on it. We've never really done a gig, actually. We did a little bit of playing here and there. You know they're in Frank Black's band now. They've been playing with him for a while now.

Oh, really?

Yeah, they're the Catholics.

Oh. Ok, well I've got a few questions that one of my other writers who is a big fan of your music, Erin Hucke, wrote, about a few different specific things. The first one is how did you get involved with the film Spring Forward?

The director of that, Tom Gilroy, he's a real good friend of mine. He just asked me to do it. Have you seen it?

I haven't seen it. She's seen it, and loved it, but I haven't seen it

Oh yeah, she loved it?


Great. It really didn't get enough of what it should have got.

It didn't even…I think it came out here for a week way after it had been in other parts of the country and I just missed it, but I guess that's what happens with a lot of movies.

From my sort of brief contact with that whole thing, yeah, it's just very tricky. There's not a lot of records that get put out, but there's a lot less movies that get put out compared to the ones that could be, or the ones that are made. It's a very hard-boiled kind of thing, you know.

Her second question is how did you come to work with Unbelievable Truth? Which is one of her favorite bands…and I like them a lot too.

Oh yeah? Very well. They just…I forget how we got in touch with each other. They emailed somebody and somebody emailed somebody else and I did a tour with them. They were doing a three or four week tour…so just, out of the blue, I didn't know them at all, they said "do you want to go on this tour?" That's really the whole reason I'm even able to have my records coming out in England. I played with them, and then I played a few small gigs in London, and the guy--I'm on Luce in the UK--Tom from Luce came up to me when I was there, just like that. So I really thank them a lot just for getting me there. That's kind of an unusual thing, it's something I really wish would happen here, that I would have the opportunity to tour with somebody here in America. It would be great for me. Actually, I play with Nigel, their drummer, and sometimes Jason the bass player. Andy, the singer, as far as I can tell doesn't seem to be doing music anymore. They had kind of a record label thing, like everybody does. I don't know, I think that they actually are split up.

Yeah, I think they are.

They're not really together as a band anymore.

Ok, here's the last of the questions from Erin. It's this: I heard a story about how you were asked to write for a new children's show similar to Sesame Street, I song which I think turned out to be "The Moonbeam Song," the hidden song on Smilesunset. What show was it and why didn't they want the song?

Well, first things first…"The Moonbeam Song" is a Harry Nilsson song. The song (that I wrote for the show) is actually on the record, it's "Wake Up Whispering." I don't know if the thing ever actually came to be a show. I don't know. They thought that song was too creepy. There's two of them, there's another which…I don't think I ever did anything with that…both of them they thought were too weird for children. That song isn't, I don't think creepy at all.

Yeah, I don't know.

They'll always shock you, you know what I mean? They'll always come back with something they don't mean personally, really, and I don't take it personally. It's such a weird thing, like with Polaris, they did the free tape with a box of cereal.

Oh yeah?

Yeah, it came with a box of Kellogg's cereal. You know, Kellogg's and Nickelodeon, on that corporate level, it's amazing the stuff they'll say. They're not artistically tuned in any way, they don't really talk that way. So it's just weird. You just have to have thick skin about everything when you're talking to people like that. You just go, "OK whatever, however you like it." They have a whole opposite reason why they want music. That's why Pete and Pete…those guys, Will and Chris, the writers and creators…they're just so cool to work with because they love music and they know music. They know what they want and they know what they're talking about. You walk out of that room and go into the lawyers' room and you're in this Bizarro World where they don't make sense. That's why everybody has a lawyer, you need a lawyer, everybody needs a lawyer…the lawyers can talk to each other, they all make sense. And everybody human can talk to each other and that makes sense. There's two levels in life.

Ok, I just have a couple more questions. This is kind of an odd one, sort of in the same territory. I was flipping channels the other week and was struck by hearing a Miracle Legion song that made me backtrack a few channels, and it was that movie The Crush, where Alicia Silverstone has a crush on her neighbor or whatever it is. I was just wondering if your songs are in a lot of movies, how that one in particular happened, or just how music ends up in movies like that?

Well, I know how that one happened. That was made by Morgan Creek, which was the label we were on. So for them that was free, basically. I don't think we're in too many.

I know of that one and A Matter of Degrees.

Yeah, not too many. And how it happens I don't know. I'm in Tom's movie because I know Tom, so I imagine you just get people who know music. There's a real cool guy called Randal Poster who actually did A Matter of Degrees. He does all the cool movies…so if you're in with someone like him, he might choose your music. He does all the Wes Anderson movies. The good ones seem to be about someone who knows somebody. Like Aimee Mann and all that, the Magnolia cast, they all seemed to be friends.

Here's another Miracle Legion question. Basically, I got into the band after they were pretty much over with, and whenever I was backtracking and looking at articles or reviews it seemed like all of them, or most of them, mentioned R.E.M. as a touchpoint for how you sounded, and that seemed unusual to me. I was wondering if that comparison was as prevalent as it seems like to me, and if it made any sense to you, and what the deal was with it.

Well, it's totally prevalent, it was always the way. It'd always be the same. I think that was just what linked up at the time. You know, everything in its time is different than everything in its history. It makes some sense, but it makes a lot less sense know, because you can see both bands in a different way, with their progressions and whatever. So that was the type of music that was around at that time, the grouping we were under. We weren't Depeche Mode, we were R.E.M. They were the famous group that fit. Everybody gets put in a slot.

Right, so it's just a matter of people grouping you with whatever bigger band is kind of the closest to what you sound like?

Yeah, as opposed to know, where it's just one big schmiel of you know, blaagh! You know what I mean? The big bands now, I don't know what group anybody's in, because it all just has a similar wash of something. Where back in that day, R.E.M. was a category, Depeche Mode was a category. But yeah, certainly it gets tiring to be always…we were always somebody's, we were always their "ugly cousin," or "didn't make it to the dance"-type band. It would always be like, "gosh, don't you wish you could be successful," and we were like, no, we're successful on a lot of levels. We're not sitting around wishing we were doing something else. You know, when you're in a band you know all the other bands who are doing nothing, so you always know if you're doing something, you know you're doing better than somebody else. It was just really something to always be not quite doing something when we were doing plenty, you know, we were sick of doing all the stuff we were doing.

Ok, I have one more question, that I ask everyone I interview. If there recently was an album, live performance or movie that really blew you way, please tell us about it.

{All's the part where I come clean and admit that at this point in the interview the tape that I was recording on hit the end of its side and stopped, without me noticing. I lost Mr. Mulcahy's answer to this final question. These things happen I guess. I suppose I could have tried to hide my mistake by reconstructing his answer from memory, but that wouldn't have been fair to him, plus my memory is terrible. So I'll just quickly note that he first talked in detail about how much he loved the music of Harry Nilsson (bringing it up in part because of my lack of recognition of "The Moonbeam Song" as a Nilsson song), and also mentioned how much he enjoyed the movie The Royal Tenenbaums.}

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Photos courtesy of Mezzotint.