Oral History offers the most comprehensive retelling of a pop culture artifact.
This feature originally ran in April 2016 and is being re-published in anticipation of their show this Friday at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall.
In early January, I spent nearly 90 minutes speaking with Mark Mulcahy, frontman of the recently reunited New Haven, Connecticut, band Miracle Legion. For the first 80 minutes, we reminisced, traded jokes, and genially delved into more than three decades of band history. It wasn’t until I finally asked about a possible reunion that Mulcahy’s relaxed tone shifted to one of genuine concern. “I just don’t know, man. I know you like us, and somebody else likes us,” he told me, already grasping for words and audibly wrestling with the idea. “But I don’t know that it’s something that’s gonna be … I don’t know. I just can’t … I can’t really imagine doing it … I just don’t think there’s enough people that are interested – that’s all.”
At the time, Mulcahy didn’t know that I was privy to the fact that the first Miracle Legion tour dates in nearly 20 years — one of which Consequence of Sound is sponsoring on July 22nd in Chicago — were already being booked. But it wasn’t false modesty in his voice that morning or even an attempt to not divulge his band’s plans. Clearly, he was still experiencing serious doubts about a reunion whose reception could potentially prove disappointing. Despite a reputation for being a dynamic live act and having inspired artists like Thom Yorke and Ryan Adams, there are no guaranteed legions waiting for a Miracle Legion reunion two decades after their dissolution. They may have once shared a label and producer with The Smiths, but they aren’t The Smiths. And as I listened to Mulcahy try to relate his doubts, I began to understand. Why risk reviving something you deeply care about only to find out that nobody else cares?
And if there’s one thing I learned for certain from my conversations with Mulcahy and guitarist Mr. Ray Neal, whom I spoke to earlier that same morning, it’s that they still love Miracle Legion and all the sweat, passion, and sincerity they associate with that band and time in their lives. Their cadences in conversation couldn’t be more different — Mulcahy seemingly shrugging off questions while his thoughts assemble and finally arrive in enthusiastic spurts and Neal volleying back precise details and stories with a quickness that belies the fact that I was asking about things that happened decades ago — but neither can hide their joy when talking about being in that band. Neal likens the best Miracle Legion concerts to “religious experiences,” and Mulcahy sounds animated enough to climb through the telephone, like a cartoon character, to explain in person just how much he loved being in that band.
Three months ago, Mulcahy told me, “I’m going to be the most surprised guy if at some point I step up to the microphone and behind me is Scott, Dave, and Ray.” He now has more than a dozen of these surprises confirmed in America and the UK. Whether legions of fans or thinner ranks mobilize remains to be seen, but one thing feels certain: If Mulcahy and Neal really loved playing in Miracle Legion as much as they indicate, they definitely owe it to themselves to “get in the van” at least one more time.
As they prepare to write the next chapter of their band’s story later this summer, Mulcahy and Neal took some time to reflect on all that’s happened since they met in New Haven decades ago. This is Miracle Legion’s story, as told by Me and Mr. Ray themselves.
They Came from New Haven
Miracle Legion’s story begins within the New Haven, Connecticut, music scene in the late 1970s.
Mark Mulcahy: I got into music just by being around records and people who played records. It’s kind of a weird thing to think about: Why do I like music? It came from being exposed to it through an older brother and the radio. My brother gave me his turntable not too long ago, and I was thinking about him bringing home Fragile or some early Yes records. He had a pretty wide variety then. I didn’t even know what type of music that was. There were probably records before that, but I clearly remember him putting on Fragile – pretty complicated, involved pop music.
Mr. Ray Neal: I came to music pretty late. I wasn’t one of those eight-year-olds who loved music and played guitar. It was in high school that I really first got struck by music and became obsessive. It was the mid-‘70s, and one of my first concerts was Foghat. I loved Led Zeppelin and ended up loving some of the progressive bands, like Yes and Genesis and that whole thing. I really became a music geek.
I started hearing what was going on in Britain, and I hadn’t been hip to what was going on in America, unfortunately. The Ramones and all that, I had heard of them, but I was pretty green. I remember seeing Patti Smith on the Mike Douglas Show, and I was just blown away. So there was that whole scene. I got really into The Clash. I always seemed to grasp on to one group that I’d get really, really obsessed about – and it was The Clash at that time.
Mulcahy: I drummed in school. I was in the school band. At some point, I got a drum set, and I couldn’t do too much with it. There really wasn’t a big opportunity to start a band where I lived. So I moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and lived there for a really long time. There I met a couple of guys who had notions of trying to do something, and I answered a drummer ad. It was probably pretty ballsy of me because I really wasn’t good … but it was okay because the band wasn’t particularly great. I talked about Yes and Fragile before, and that was not the sort of thing we were playing. They had the band already cooking and thought I’d be okay as the drummer. That went on for a little while, and once you do it, the mystery goes away a little bit. So once I did drumming in the band and got into other bands by drumming, I just figured that’s what I could do. And here I am.
Neal: I played guitar in high school – lessons. That was a time when you had to be Jimmy Page or somebody. I was like, “I can’t do this,” so I gave up. A bit later, I was working in a record store and really into the whole punk/new wave thing and began to think, I can probably play guitar. So I played in a few groups, and it eventually led to Mark and I playing together.
Mark was a drummer in The Saucers. When I discovered the punk rock (for lack of a better word) scene in New Haven, they were one of the main bands. Also, the bass player was Craig Bell, who was in Rocket from the Tombs back in the day and came out of that whole Dead Boys/Pere Ubu thing in Cleveland. This was a guy who had done it already and was written up in magazines and stuff, so The Saucers were really cool. So I would go down and see them play, and eventually I became their roadie – working my way in. And that’s how I met Mark. And over time, we began spending time together and became a duo out in the world.
Mulcahy: I don’t know if I remember first meeting Ray so much as I remember him as a fan of the scene at the time. When we lived in New Haven, there was a really good, connected scene of people. So, I knew him from around the scene, and the band I was playing drums in [The Saucers] – he became the roadie. We had like 10 roadies, and he became the main roadie. We kinda modeled ourselves after The Clash a little bit. We had spokesmen and a lot of things that were ridiculous. He looked real slick, had nice clothes, and good hair, so he elevated to the top of the roadie list, I think. But that’s how I met him. And that band kinda disappeared. And we just kinda stayed friends from that.
Neal: We immediately realized that we worked really well together – even before we were going to make music together. We were really good at things like scamming to get into shows for free. We complemented each other and had fun. We just went out and had adventures – like weird reggae clubs until two in the morning where we were the only two white guys. The Basement Reggae Club in New Haven was very interesting. Third-World George in his basement with serious Rasta dudes. He eventually had to close it down because I think someone got shot. Those were heady times for a middle-class suburban kid who didn’t know anything. And then all of a sudden I was experiencing this other world with Mark.
From about ’78 to mid-’80, there was an incredibly strong scene in New Haven. There was a place called Ron’s Place. It was really great for a suburban kid, because it was a complete prostitute, heroin kind of bar. It was really scary, but I loved it because bands played there.
Mulcahy: I was the guy in New Haven who, if a band needed a drummer, I would get the call. Which was great. I wish I was still a drummer in a band. I only got out of drumming because … I’m not sure how I got out of it. I think I started singing. Ray and I were in a band or two together eventually, and we were both kind of the sidemen. I was the drummer, and he was the keyboard and guitar player. If you don’t write the songs, you don’t have much control over the destiny of the band or yourself. So we figured that out as time passed. And we figured if maybe we wrote the right songs, maybe we could control what happens.
Neal: The first band I was in, The Obvious, was definitely punky, a sort of Clash kind of group. And Mark played drums with us because we couldn’t find a drummer. And then we had a band called Stray Divides, which was Mark on drums, Kirk Swan who went on to Dumptruck, and Spike Priggen who’s played with a lot of people. And from Stray Divides, Mark and I decided that it sucks when the guy who writes the songs leaves. We decided to make our own group, so we couldn’t be dumped.
Mulcahy: Because one day you’re in a band, and the other guys quits, and now you’re not in a band. So, we just tried to write some songs, and really I didn’t even imagine myself, particularly, as the singer. But Ray was the guitar player. You know, I don’t even really know how I became a singer, but I did. It was definitely more of a necessary thing, rather than a need to express myself more. The whole thing is a case of really nothing starting how it ended up, which I hope is a good thing in most ways. We weren’t out to become anything other than musicians who could play when we wanted to.
Neal: So, we decided that we’d try to write songs. And we were like, “Well, who’s gonna sing?” Mark had sung a bit. So I said, “Well, you sing because I can’t.” We just did it with no intention of ever putting out a record. Mark lived in a loft space, so we had a place we could play, and we had access to a four-track reel-to-reel, and we just started writing songs without any expectations.
Mulcahy: It turned into something completely different than we expected. We were really surprised. We went on to make some different recordings, and people really liked them, and we were just completely shocked. Shocked.
American Legion + The Miracles = Miracle Legion
Tired of their previous bands leaving them in the lurch, Mark and Ray form Miracle Legion and begin composing together as a drummer-guitarist songwriting team.
Mulcahy: When we first started, we were called American Legion. I forget if we were told we had to change it, or we thought we had to change it. Obviously, that name’s been taken. So, we decided that we would just change it a little bit.
Neal: We actually played one show as American Legion before we got the band together. I remember Mark saying, “I think we should be called The Miracles.” But I said, “No, there’s already a Miracles. Smokey Robinson got that one.” So it just fell together that we became Miracle Legion.
Mulcahy: I never thought that was the greatest name. But it worked out eventually. If your name is Aloisius, by the time you turn 20, it really makes sense to you. But what if your name wasn’t Aloisius? Miracle Legion kind of fits now. When I listen back, we were a lot faster than I remember us being and sometimes a lot more grindy or hard than we get thought of as. But I like that kind of music. I grew up on a lot harder music than “jangle pop” or whatever that is. I didn’t grow up on “jangle pop.”
Most of our songwriting was based on what we knew: me playing drums and Ray playing guitar. So he would pretty much start with guitar – some idea of what the guitar part of the song was going to be. And I would sort of drum to it, and we’d figure the song out that way. I either had lyrics or would write lyrics to it and sing over it. So, those songs weren’t written in a way where someone brought in a whole song. We’d figure it out together. Eventually, we had a band so that we’d have a reasonably fleshed-out song, everything but the bass line. Instead of coming in written, it was written in parts. It was a three-headed monster.
Neal: The songs came together in all ways, but the general way would be I’d come up with some guitar part that strung together what I thought was a song. And Mark always wrote words on his own. So he had notebooks full of things. And we’d get together and quite often the best way we wrote was I’d start playing guitar and Mark would play drums, and we’d just kind of jam around the parts. And he’d go, “Oh, that sounds good, that sounds good.” And at some point, he’d get off the drums and go get his notebooks out. So I might play the guitar parts not really knowing if it was a fast song or a slow song, and by playing with Mark, we came up with a groove, and that would make him think up or think of some words he had. Then we would fine tune it and bring it to the rest of the guys. Some songs were just made up jamming in rehearsal. And again, Mark would just pull out his notebook. And that’s how it’d go.
Mulcahy: I’d have a notebook with lyrics, and once the band – we wrote most of our songs once we had a band – had figured the parts out, they would just play it a lot. And I would go look through this book and try to find something that fit the way it went somehow – the cadence or something. I don’t know exactly what would be the determination of whether something fit or not. Somehow, that just seems to be how it works for me. Sometimes things just seem to fit a piece of music. I still don’t quite know why. I think a lot of people write songs based on melody, and I’ve never really been very good at that. That tends to be the part that comes later. It doesn’t sound too official, but we had our own little approach or factory way for writing songs. For the most part, that was the layout.
Neal: Writing with guitars and drums worked for us. Years later, we were messing around with a drum machine on the song on Drenched called “Waiting Room”. It has an odd drum part, and that came out of just not knowing how to use a drum machine. But it changed the song from whatever I was strumming. It can be hard when you’re playing alone to come up with a massive rock song. You need someone else.
It’s strange because we wrote a handful of those early songs, and we had a friend play bass. Eventually, we decided that we’d put out a set. We never played a gig or anything. So we put out this cassette called A Simple Thing, which I occasionally see floating around still. And it’s the strangest thing. We had about 100 made, and somehow the cassette got reviewed in Sounds in Britain and got a decent review. So we were, all of a sudden, a little more serious.
The Backyard: The World Was So Big
Drummer Jeff Wiederschall and bassist Joel Potocsky round the band into a four-piece, and Miracle Legion’s debut EP, The Backyard (1984), becomes a college radio hit, gaining them attention on both sides of the Atlantic.
Neal: At that point, we decided we’d get a band together, so we got a drummer (Jeff Wiederschall) and a bass player (Joel Potocsky). And then, Brad Morrison, who had been a DJ at the University of Bridgeport and was into cutting-edge, alternative kinds of music, he approached us and said, “Why don’t we make a record together?” He made us a deal where he would pay for some, and we would pay for the rest. And we went into a local studio – Presence in East Haven, Connecticut – where we would record our first two records. So, Brad became our manager, and we made The Backyard.
Mulcahy: The Backyard came about like every album — you want to make an album. I’m not sure why we made an EP, though. Maybe that’s all we could afford to record. There’s some good idea about making a short first record, which maybe makes it easier for people to digest what you’re trying to do. A lot of things come down to timing, and maybe there was just something right about that record for the minute. If it had come out two years later, would it have made any difference? Nobody was more surprised than us that anybody liked that record. We got a lot of phone calls from people about it. A lot of people seem to like that record. I know I like it. There was something lucky in the timing.
Neal: It must have been a good time to put out a record like that because we got noticed in Britain and were even in light rotation on MTV – because people weren’t making videos yet. I remember being at my parents’ house and hearing Martha Quinn say, “Next up, a band from New Haven, Connecticut.” That stopped when Bruce Springsteen started making videos. For a while there, you could get on the real MTV.
Mulcahy: There’s also something about that record that seems to push the nostalgia button in people. “The Backyard” is very nostalgic, but probably the rest of those songs aren’t.
Neal: I remember “The Backyard” was actually written just days before we were going to go record – in about five minutes. I had the chords, which are pretty basic, and Mark started singing the words he had, which is sort of how we wrote together, and we worked up the arrangement really quick. We went in to record three days later and said, “Well, we’ll do that one, too.” And that actually became the title track and a really important song for us.
Mulcahy: “The Backyard” is a memoir, I suppose. It’s just about being a little kid and growing up. I assume a lot of people had a backyard, so it’s easy to relate to on that level. I’ve felt two different ways about discussing the meanings of my songs. I’ve found it easy to disappoint someone when I tell them what it’s actually about. Rather than look at their disappointment, I’d rather not tell them. And then, the other way — I don’t mind people knowing. To tell or not to tell? I don’t know.
Neal: We also had our first variance with the real press [when The Backyard came out]. NME sent a writer over to America to interview us and watch us play. So, we didn’t know any better and let him completely into our lives. He hung with us, stayed at my parents’ house. We just did all the things you learn you’re not supposed to do. So we all went to London when The Backyard was coming out. And people were like, “Hey, the NME came out. This is great. Photos and two pages.” And they’re all pumped, and we’re reading it, and it’s all about our relationships with our girlfriends. And mine wasn’t too bad, but the bass player, Joel, was like, “I got to get to a phone right now.” So you learn. I guess it was very rock and roll, though.
Mulcahy: Because of The Backyard, we could tour, so that was a great bonus. I hadn’t really toured before. We went to Europe a little and had a record deal over there for a bit, so a lot of things happened that were a surprise to us. It was a great thing to open a lot of doors for us. We were doing pretty well at the time. We didn’t really know how to capitalize on doing well, but we did well enough.
Neal: All of a sudden, it seemed like we were going to be a real band in some way. Even though it was a time where very few groups broke through to the big time – like B-52’s, R.E.M. – it was a good time if you were a small band because there was a circuit developing, and you could play all over the place. And you could always find a floor to sleep on. So I think we just kinda dove into this really small but thriving scene in America. And college radio was a big force. And when you came to Britain, they had all these newspapers that all had to write stuff, so you quickly learned it didn’t mean much if you got a two-page spread in NME, but it certainly seemed cool back home. “Look at me. I’m on the cover of…” But you soon learn it’s only because they have to write about something new every week. But over there we were treated a little more like rock stars, people getting us hotel rooms and things.
But I guess it was a change. It did completely change the direction of my life. I hadn’t actually thought about being a professional musician before. And we became road dogs. I’d say we were out half the year at least in the van. So, your world changes then because you don’t have a home life anymore, and you’re experiencing an odd side of the world.
Road Dogs: Get in the Van
With a successful EP, the band begins touring and establishing themselves as a dynamic live act.
Neal: [The moniker] Mr. Ray didn’t come until much later while touring. Myles Mangino was doing road managing and sound with us one tour, and one night Mark was like, “Myles, come up and play a guitar with us,” and Myles said, “It would be an honor to play with Mr. Ray.” And that was the first time anyone had ever said it, and it stuck after that. I wasn’t that in the beginning. But the Mr. Ray thing was just kinda fun. All of a sudden I had a stage name, a persona.
Mulcahy: For me, not to sound corny, [playing live] was like an artistic expression in a lot of ways. I was in my own head mainly, so I wouldn’t say much. I would just be in my own world. And I wanted to show myself to people in my own world, or something like that. It’s far more dramatic than I would imagine myself doing now. At the time, we were very much like the bands that we admired. We were out to make something happen on the night of. We didn’t have a script or a plan as much as the idea: whatever the place was, we were going to do our best in that place that evening to make something happen that hadn’t happened there. All kinds of grand ideas like that. But I think it’s still a real valid way of thinking of things. We didn’t have a laminated setlist or anything. It was all wide open every evening. Touring could be like when you start the tour, you turn over the hourglass and the sand is running out, and as you go everything is mutating, and everything is different. The further you go, the differenter it gets.
Neal: I always felt we didn’t get enough credit for our live shows, which were much more aggressive than our records. We got this reputation as “mopey” or “jangly,” but I still felt like a punk – just doing what I could do. That’s how I ended up playing guitar.
There were tender points. Nobody can sing and bring someone to tears like Mark can. But we could also become very frantic. There was an edge of danger – I mean, you think of The Stooges as being dangerous, but things got chaotic. Things would get carried away, and we’d get crazy. I can’t play guitar and stand still. Even on a slow song, I can’t sit down and play very well. So things could get out of hand, and there were definitely times when someone would be lost in their own part of that experience and amps would fall over. It was edgy in a weird way. We weren’t Lemmy or something, but we were edgy in a way because we were always trying. And sometimes that works. I loved it.
Mulcahy: It was very much like everyone was in the show. It wasn’t like you were watching. It was more like you were at something. And I think people felt, or I hoped at the time that people would come to the show and connect to it somehow. And I don’t have any explanation other than we were always trying very hard. It was always Ray and I, but there were others, and everybody was always great. We were just a good band, I think. That’s me talking from a slanted view, but we just tried to be as good as the bands that we liked. We wanted to be as good as Echo & the Bunnymen or R.E.M. – bands that were doing great things. We wanted to do great things, so we tried.
Neal: I think we were just really honest. Our music was always just what it was. I know personally that I couldn’t accept not doing the best I could. All these people would come to see you. We’d always joke, and it’s a common musician thing, but you go through 22 hours of hell for two hours of greatness. And those nights when it really came together – and I don’t want to sound too much like a dork – were like religious experiences. When a whole room full of people are giving you as much as you’re giving them, and it goes back and forth, and your head spins. That was always my goal, and it was really, really important to us. Without taking the fun out of it. It was also a laugh. And rock and roll can be important and a laugh at the same time, which is what’s so good about it. It was our life. We had decided that’s what we did. And that’s all we did for 10 years.
Surprise Surprise Surprise: You’re on Rough Trade
After several years of touring and now with Steven West on bass, Miracle Legion finally find themselves on a record label and set to release their debut full-length, Surprise Surprise Surprise (1987).
Neal: We were playing a lot, and I guess we just didn’t know what to do. I think it probably all came as a bit of a surprise that we were doing this and that The Backyard had done well. I’m not exactly sure how we filled our time. Maybe it was just that desire to say, “We don’t know what to do, but we can always get in the van.” What’s that Rollins book? Get in the Van. I can relate to that perfectly.
We were trying to get a label. It was frustrating. It really wasn’t working out. People were coming to see us. “Seymour Stein is definitely coming to see you tonight.” I’m not sure how many times I heard that. He obviously never came. Eventually, we decided to make another record on our own, so we started Surprise. It was in spurts because we didn’t have the money, so we went back on tour again, and I remember it being just really frustrating. We were getting to the point where we were realizing that we couldn’t just go play anymore.
Mulcahy: At that point, I think we thought it was going to be as easy as it was. Up until that point, it had been kind of easy. And then it turned out to be not quite as easy as that. So, maybe we waited around for something to happen that wasn’t going to happen. I mean, we had no idea how to do anything. That was too bad. I think we could have done more given what had already happened to us, but nobody really knew how to do that. Also, we were happy with what we were doing: playing, touring, and all that stuff. But we made that first record, and by lucky chance, we got signed to Rough Trade from that record.
Neal: I remember we got to New York and were playing CBGBs, which was always a favorite place for us. We were all really fed up and played a ferocious set. We were probably a hardcore band for the night. And afterwards, this guy came up to us and said, “Hi, I’m Geoff Travis from Rough Trade, and I want to sign you.”
He asked if we were in town, and we told him we were staying at this hotel. So, the next morning, he came by and had a copy of Strange Ways Here We Come, which hadn’t come out yet. He said this way he could prove he was Geoff Travis. We were like, “Wow, we’re going to be on the same label as the fucking Smiths.” So, he paid for the rest of it, and Surprise came out on Rough Trade UK, which was wild.
Mulcahy: Geoff is the kind of guy who just kinda makes it happen. It wasn’t like there were a lot of dinners with the record label or people coming to see you play. He knows what he wants. It didn’t seem to take too much work. And it wasn’t some big 50-page contract. It was just really record by record with him, which I think is good. That was easy, and for a few years, everything was good. That was a whole other world of doing more and more things.
Neal: I think once or twice at least, Mark and I got flown over [to the UK] to do press. And they were just such a cool label. Mark and I actually signed a record for Morrissey because he heard the record in the office. I don’t know if he got it or cared about it. I was really hard into The Smiths at the time, too. I stood next to Morrissey once but didn’t have the nerve to say anything. He’s kind of frightening – even though I was a vegetarian at that point.
Recording Surprise Surprise Surprise was about the same with Rough Trade. We were at the same place. It just got done. In London, they had a whole professional team there. So to be there and just be able to have a taxi pick you up. That was all new to us. That wasn’t happening in our musical world. All of that seemed pretty good. And we went out and played a lot more. And at some point, there was talk about releasing “Mr. Mingo” as a single, so we started recording a lot of B-sides. And those turned out to be Glad (1988), without “Mr. Mingo” on it.
Mulcahy: I know that we were in a pretty nice studio. I’m still not sure we knew what we were doing. All the songs on Surprise are like five minutes long. When I look at it now, that’s not how I would’ve made that record exactly. I like those songs a lot, and it’s a very thick record. There’s a lot of solidness to it that I think is really great.
Looking back, “All for the Best” is a strange song because it’s the same thing with a stop and then the same thing with a stop. At the time, I didn’t think of it — that it’s just two or three chords with a stop and then you play the two or three chords again. That’s pretty simple, and I think I like that. It just works really well. I like that that song has the title at the end of verses, too. There’s a lot I like about it, and I think people can kinda dig it.
Neal: “All for the Best” is an early one – really early. From a lyrical point of view, I never ask Mark what a song is about. I think it’s way better and has a longer life for the listener if you don’t know. You can put your own life into it. So, we never wrote a song like, “Okay, we’re going to write a song about Animal Rights … or whatever.”
Mulcahy: Some years later, on my own, I had a song called “Hey Self Defeater”, which to me is in the same boat [as “All for the Best”]. You just hear the lines a bit, and you understand it for yourself and quickly. Maybe that’s what I like about that song. You don’t have to work too hard to say, “I’m in that same boat, or I was in that same boat.” You quickly understand what it is. There’s not a hidden anything. You don’t have to know every word to understand what’s happening in a song. Those are great songs.
Neal: But I do remember that Mark had hurt his hand somehow and had a cast. So we’re writing songs again, and remember that he’s on the drums, and all he could do was play the most basic beat. So, if you listen to “All for the Best”, nothing changes. It’s the same all the way through. And then in the breaks, it’s just kick drum and then nothing. And that’s because Mark had to actually stick one of the drum sticks in his cast and use it to hit the snare drum or hi-hat, depending on which arm it was. So, that’s how it became musically the song that it is.
When we were looking to get a rhythm section after Me and Mr. Ray came out, we had auditioned hundreds of drummers. They were all told to listen to “All for the Best” on Surprise, and we thought it would be a good test because it’s really simple. And not one drummer until Scott [Boutier], the last one, played the part without playing a drum fill. Not one of them could control themselves.
Mulcahy: We were feeling pretty good. We had an agent, a manager, a band, all the things you need to have. We were going on tour to England and Ireland and France. It was all great. We did maybe a little more touring than we should’ve done, and that kinda made the group fizzle out and two guys quit and we became a two-piece. But we made Me and Mr. Ray as a two-piece, which I think is a great record, too.
Neal: I think we really kinda thought that we had it going. Probably the first of many ups and downs. That first up, where you’re still gullible. You’re thinking, Yeah, man. We’re doing it. We’re going to be rock stars. We’re going to have a hit single. And then you keep going and nothing much happens. We were doing okay. We did okay in the college rock world, and over here [the UK] we’d be on the indie rock chart. But you’re like, “Oh, wow. We’re not rock stars yet.” There’s kind of a roller coaster that you ride.
Me and Mr. Ray and Nobody Else (Except Maybe Prince)
Back to a two-piece, Mark and Ray open for The Sugarcubes and release their second LP, Me and Mr. Ray (1989).
Mulcahy: Going back to just me and Ray was some sort of a challenge because we had done so much. We had originally been a two-piece, but we barely ever played as a two-piece. We did a little, but not much. Most of the life of the band was as a four-piece band. When we ended up as a two-piece, I don’t think Ray was too happy. Singing is the same for me. I don’t have to worry. But Ray was now playing all the music, and that was a pretty big responsibility. We got offered a tour to play with The Sugarcubes, and that lasted a pretty long time, and we did that as a duo. We got okay at it, but I don’t think we ever got really good at it. That’s a hard thing to do.
Neal: It was kind of trial by fire because I remember Jeff and Steve had left, and we were at one of these big events in New York – sort of like a South by Southwest – and we were meeting up with our manager, Brad, and he told us, “You can go on tour with The Sugarcubes next week as a two-piece.” And they were like the darlings of the college alt world at that point. Okay, sure. We hardly rehearsed, and I think we first got on stage opening for them at the 9:30 Club. And I remember walking on stage and thinking, I’m not exactly sure what we’re doing. But we did a whole tour with them, which was fantastic. They were all great, and we had a great time and recorded a few things with them just for fun. Eventually, we would come up and play on one of their songs, and they would get up and play on one of our songs. We had a great relationship with those guys.
But we did that whole thing. And we felt that we had kinda fine-tuned this two-piece thing, so we thought that maybe we should do a record like that. So it was kind of the rule that nobody else played on the record, so that’s what we did, just Mark and I.
Mulcahy: We told Rough Trade that we wanted to make a two-piece record. They said that that was fine. But we decided that we would only make a two-piece record and wouldn’t have anyone play on it but us. And so there’s that grammatically incorrect title, Me and Mr. Ray. So that was a good challenge and also a great chance to do something with songs we weren’t going to actually do anything with. So we took them to see what they would sound like if we did them very simply. Up until that point, there was drum and bass and everything. So we just kinda erased everything that was there and started again. It was also great to think of doing a record in a way I had never thought of before – doing a certain approach. And that’s kinda stuck in my head that that’s a good idea – to have some idea of what you’re doing in your head before you do it.
Neal: The tracking was done at Paisley Park, Prince’s studio. It was very odd, too, because Prince was on tour, and we were in Studio 1 – the best one – and then we get word that we gotta move because Prince is coming in to record for a couple days. And I did see him, and he’s even shorter than you could imagine. He’s a really tiny, little man. And then you’d see his costumes going by on racks. The Scorpions were also there to look at the studio, and they took my whole 12-pack of Coca-Cola that was in the kitchen. They still owe me.
Mulcahy: Again, there’s not much there [on “You’re the One Lee”]. It’s very sparse, but again has something you can understand very quickly. I’m not sure I’m the right guy to ask about the title [pronounced “Only”]. Maybe Ray knows better. I think in my notebook of lyrics, I probably was sitting there not knowing what to do, so I just wrote it out like that. I’m sure it was some accident that I thought was a great idea. My mother was an English teacher, so there were a lot of problems with her and my grammar. I would ask her if it was okay to misspell things, and she would say, “If you have to.” I asked her very specifically about the title Me and Mr. Ray. And she granted me permission to do it.
Neal: The title “You’re the One Lee” is a Mark joke. It was again another one of those songs where I brought in some parts, and Mark and I worked on it together. And I do remember recording it. I was just learning what to do with over-dubbed guitars and things because we’d never had a producer. And I started thinking, Oh, wow, what if I do this? And there’s actually quite a few guitars on there. It just started sounding very lush and beautiful. Always, to me, too, whenever I hear that song, I think: Oh, that sounds like a real song. It’s hard sometimes when you make music to think it’s the equal of things you hear on the radio, but when I hear that song, it sounds like a real record. It just came together.
The footage from the music video is the two-piece era. That’s a CBGBs show. Whenever I see that footage, it’s nostalgic for me. It captures the energy. Now that I’m thinking about that video, maybe it’s not that we were aggressive. We were physical, but we weren’t The Dead Boys or something. Maybe we were more joyous than anything.
Drenched: Up Morgan Creek Without a Paddle
Rough Trade goes bankrupt, drummer Scott Boutier and bassist Dave McCaffrey join the band, and Miracle Legion find themselves on a troubled major record label recording Drenched (1992).
Neal: This is the lesson to be learned. Surprise had come out on Rough Trade UK, and around that time Rough Trade decided they were going to have a US entity. Glad came out on Rough Trade US, and so did Me and Mr. Ray. It was a totally different market. In the UK, you had to call maybe five guys to get a song on the radio. In the US, you have to call – how many college DJs were there? – thousands. I don’t think they understood the business. They put their headquarters in San Francisco, which is a lovely city, but isn’t really the place to run a music business from. It just didn’t work, and Rough Trade started to fall apart, and eventually it all went bankrupt, even in the UK. They lost The Smiths. But Geoff is a great guy, loves music, and has a great ear. I’ve always said if I were to pick anyone out of all the hundreds of people I’ve met in the music industry who I truly admire, it would be Geoff Travis. But that all turned into a disaster.
Mulcahy: Once Rough Trade went bankrupt, we didn’t really have any other plans. That’s not a good thing – to be on a label when it goes bankrupt.
Neal: So we started to try to get on another label. And now you’re getting to the point where you’ve been through the mill a bit, and people aren’t paying as much attention to you. In the beginning, we got lots of attention. Nobody necessarily signed us, but there would be A&R people in the crowd. So we had been trying our luck here and there and eventually heard from Morgan Creek.
Mulcahy: I’m pretty sure it was the same accident that happened with Rough Trade. We sent a lot of demos out to a lot of people. And somehow the demo we sent for Drenched ended up in the hands of an A&R guy at Morgan Creek. Again, we were signed there really quickly. We went to have dinner with someone in LA, but that was it.
Neal: Morgan Creek was a film company that had started a label because they had done Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I don’t know if they released the single that Bryan Adams did or if that was the impulse to get a label going. But they’re like, “There’s a lot of money in music.” So they signed a bunch of bands and had tons of money. And we thought, Wow, okay. Sure. Young A&R guy. This kid’s into us. Soon we discovered that besides this one kid — because they had money and didn’t know anything about cool — they hired these retired big names from the music business. Guys from Capitol Records who could talk about being with Paul McCartney, but they had no clue about what was going on now. I remember the head of radio said that he had broken the Bob Seger band and that that was the greatest music band ever or that there ever would be. I mean, it was like, “’Turn the Page’ was okay.” But that was what we were up against.
Mulcahy: We recorded Drenched in Los Angeles. That was different than anything we had done. It was like a job. Every day you’d go in and record all day. It was really amazing. To be in Hollywood every day, I could really get into that lifestyle. Just being with a producer [John Porter] in a really nice studio was a real experience. Unfortunately, it was with a real weird scenario of being on Morgan Creek. But things were really good for a while there.
Neal: For me, as the guitar player, it was great fun. John Porter was a master. I discovered how The Smiths records were made. The downside would be that he is very focused on guitars. I worked from like noon to midnight for seven weeks. We had one weekend off. And that was really hard, but really great for me. He’s not as much a vocals man. With The Smiths thing, it was Morrissey who got rid of John Porter. But he was an amazing guy, and you could name anyone in the history of music, and he probably knew them. “Um, The Beatles. Oh, yeah. I wrote for them.” One day Mark answered the phone in the recording studio, and someone asks, “Is John there?” Mark asks who it is, and the guys says, “Ginger Baker.” Mark goes, “The Ginger Baker?” And he goes, “Yeah, I suppose so.”
Drenched was a different kind of record for us, and I like records like this. Some people thought it was too worked on. Too produced. But I like it. I think there are some really good songs on it.
Mulcahy: We were also back to a band again from just me and Ray. Those guys [drummer Scott Boutier and bassist Dave McCaffrey] were already connected. They had been in the same band for a long time, so it was easier. It was easier bringing in a two-headed rhythm section who already knew each other. They were good people to hang around and also good at creating the rhythm for us. I really wasn’t doing the drum parts during the writing anymore. We spent a long time trying to find them. You only play music for an hour and a half, and there’s 22 and a half other hours, so it matters to get along at least somewhere in the same world. And we always got along real well. You could be away from home for six weeks with them.
Neal: So we made a record and went to California. They spent money. We got John Porter, and I learned a lot from him recording-wise. And we spent two months in Los Angeles making the record. When that was done, we went out on the road and realized that nobody knew we were out there or that our record was out. We continued that for a while. [Neal’s cat, Bosley, whines … “I know, Bos. It’s a sad story.”]
And then it got to the point where we were going to make another record. And we went away. Our friend had a cottage in Rhode Island, and we spent maybe a month there getting songs together and thinking, We’re going to really have this together. And we were about a week away from going to Daniel Lanois’ studio in New Orleans, and about a week before we were going, Morgan Creek says, “Oh, you’re not going. We’re not making a second record.” So we said, “Okay, you’re dropping us,” and they said, “No, we’re not dropping you.” And that went on for years, which was the final straw for me. Also, at that point, I had gotten married and was thinking of kids, and our career was legally on hold. We still don’t know why they did that, and it took a few years before we finally got out of our deal and could make a record.
Mulcahy: All I could really think was that they weren’t really interested in having a record label. Either they tried it and didn’t like it or … I couldn’t even begin to guess why, and nobody ever explained it to us. The guy who owned it was the biggest Subaru importer in America, so he already had a pretty big business before he started another corporation and then another corporation. I don’t know how to understand somebody like that. Unfortunately for us, we were kinda just stuck in nothingness for a while. And by the time that got sorted, everybody was kinda in a different place, which was probably a good thing.
Neal: I don’t know if we could’ve gotten out of it if we had more legal representation. You’re talking about Morgan Creek, who had the funding of the film company that does giant movies and are very Hollywood, tough, and cutthroat. And essentially, they were just like, “No. Screw you.” And I think they did that to everyone because I remember hearing they had a pop-metal band from Australia and had them all move to Los Angeles and then dropped them. These guys had left their country only to have that happen to them. Eventually we got out of it and did the Portrait record.
Polaris: The Band That Lives in Your Television
After legal issues with Morgan Creek worsen, Mark, along with Scott and Dave, turns to children’s television as a new creative outlet.
Mulcahy: Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi came to us and asked if Miracle Legion would do it [write music for a Nickelodeon show in development called The Adventures of Pete & Pete]. They didn’t just ask me. So I asked Ray. Ray and I would be doing the main songwriting. And Ray didn’t want to do anything, so I asked Will if he would give me a chance to do it by myself. So, for me, it was a chance to sort of learn how to write without a partner.
Neal: I was fed up with the whole thing. Actually, I remember my wife, who is from Scotland, and I were driving around America for two months. And I remember checking in with Mark, from the Grand Canyon, and him telling me about this thing. And he says, “So, are you in? I think we’re going to have to do it next week.” So I told him that I was at the Grand Canyon with my lovey Scottish wife and that I wasn’t coming back.
I do remember playing guitar on a couple of songs, maybe on the second season. I remember going to a studio that Mark was working in. I have no recollection of what songs those were. But I am in an episode in a cameo appearance. But that was entirely Mark’s thing, and I think it’s amazing to be able to write songs like that. That’s a real pro thing to do. And they’re great songs.
Mulcahy: It was another place I could go. I wanted to do anything I could. At that point, all we could do for a couple years was maybe tour a little bit. We recorded an album, Portrait of a Damaged Family. So we did do some things, but none of the things we’d normally be doing. So after that long period of doing nothing, I was really eager to do anything. I didn’t really have any thoughts about not doing something, so that was a chance to do something. I worked really hard, figuring out how to play guitar. I didn’t really know how to play guitar very well or how to record. I don’t think it was overwhelming, but it was definitely a challenge. All I could see was doing something rather than not doing something. If somebody said, “Would you like to write a symphony?” I probably would’ve said, “I would love to give it a try.” I just wanted to make music in any way I could.
Neal: Polaris probably stayed within the realm of what we did. I think any of those songs could’ve been Miracle Legion songs. But they didn’t have my unique guitar playing on them. It was its own thing, but Mark does work within a certain range. It wasn’t ska or anything.
Mulcahy: In my mind, I split everything up, so that’s a different thing than Miracle Legion. Miracle Legion has more nuance than anything I do on my own. So Miracle Legion’s its own sort of high-end trickiness. And Polaris is more of a collaboration between me and Will and Chris, because those guys have expectations and wanted something that maybe I wouldn’t have done without being told. And when I’m on my own, I can do whatever I want. I have the three things in three categories, even though I know they all sound the same in a lot of ways. To me they don’t.
Portrait of a Damaged Family
Free from Morgan Creek’s legal clutches, Miracle Legion records their last (for now) LP, Portrait of a Damaged Family (1996), and quietly steps away as a band.
Neal: We did still play together some. After the Drenched tour, which was horrible, we were in some town and walking down the street when a guy comes up to us and goes, “Whoa, you’re Miracle Legion. I’m the Program Director of the college radio station. Are you guys playing in town?” We had played the night before, and nobody had told them. It was that kind of thing.
We then did a tour on our own – after we knew we weren’t making a second record. And I remember all of us thinking, Wow, this is so much fun, because we weren’t caught up in some music business thing where we’re being forced down people’s throats, like the classic in-store scene in Spinal Tap where nobody shows up. We didn’t have to do that anymore. And that part was good. Then we started working on a new record. I’m assuming when we started Portrait, it was legal for us to do so.
Mulcahy: In my head, I picture the vibe [of recording Portrait of a Damaged Family] as being sorta black. We weren’t in a great studio or scenario. It was pleasant writing the album. We wrote it together and fleshed it out in a space. Those were good times, but a while had passed until we recorded it. It was sort of like we were doing a thing because we had started a thing, and we had these songs that we all really liked and weren’t ever gonna record. So my idea was to make an album and eventually get out of this rut we were in and be ready to go.
That was probably a little naïve of my cheerleader self: thinking that things could go back to the way they were. But it didn’t really work out that way. At the time, it was hard to give up on something. But it probably was the smart outcome. Scott and Dave were with Frank Black for a long time. Ray had kids. I ended up doing the Polaris thing. A lot of good things came out of it. Miracle Legion had some good periods and some dark periods. Recording that record I’d consider one of our dark periods.
Neal: The vibe was good but not great. It was more along the lines of just having been beaten down. I’d given 10 years non-stop, and it was just getting hard. But I did enjoy making the record, and I’m glad it’s coming out again. It was a really nice combination of what I learned from making Drenched with John Porter and, say, what Me and Mr. Ray was. And if you put those together, from a production point of view, for me, that’s what that record is like. I’ve listened to it recently, and I think it sounds really good.
Mulcahy: We’re putting the record out on vinyl for Record Store Day, so I’ve been listening to it a lot. We cut it down and remastered it. And a lot of people played on that record. There are a lot of really great parts. It’s really a fleshed-out record. I was happy to hear it again, even though it was rough to record. Nobody hated each other, and it wasn’t like some big Let It Be or anything. But it was probably like Let It Be where some parts were good and some parts were bad. There just wasn’t a lot of optimism.
Neal: Maybe I’ve blocked it out a bit. I guess a lot of it had to do with me. I think that Mark was ready to move on. He was ready to keep going, and he did. There was never a moment when we ended the group. We didn’t say, “We’re done.” We just stopped doing anything. There was no press release that said we’d broken up over musical differences.
Life After Miracle Legion
Mark and Ray go on to other projects but never entirely leave Miracle Legion behind.
Mulcahy: Playing as part of a band and playing solo are two very different things. I’m always happy to play music or make a record. On my own, that’s the easiest way. I can just go. And because I have my own label, I make the record and put it out with no mystery. I don’t have to ask anybody or try to get anything. Generally, I prefer being on my own just because there’s nobody to ask for things. But the guys I’ve been playing with, Scott and Dave or Ray or anybody else – it’s never about not wanting to play with them. It’s always been about the freedom. The freewheeling me. That’s what I am, which I’m not.
Neal: When I was still living in America, I played with a band called the Jellyshirts in New Haven, with this guy Brett Logan, who should be known. Then I played with a guy named Peter Hutchison on his album. There was a New York band called Boy Genius, and we ended up recording a whole bunch of stuff, and it all kinda fell apart for various reasons. I also made a record with Vic Chesnutt. He was a real hero of mine. I counted him as a good friend. I saw him just a month before he died. That’s pretty much it. I also did a couple things on my own. I attempted to sing, but that hasn’t been too successful. And the last few years there have been other things in my world that have taken me away from playing a lot … But I’m back.
Mulcahy: When Ray’s involved, it’s going to be a different … he has a very specific take on music. And he has a lot of influences that I don’t have. He has a much different musical IQ than me. If he’s going to be writing the music, it’s going to be much different than anything that I would make up. And also, most of the Miracle Legion songs that we wrote – I can’t really play them. And that should tell you that I don’t really know what he’s doing exactly. And I don’t think anyone can play them like Ray. I’ve covered them with plenty of other people playing, and it just doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to sound to me. Someone else listening probably doesn’t think that. Even when that guitarist is great. Ray just has a very unique take on that rock god thing.
Neal: It was different making music without Mark. But it also seemed really nice to have less pressure, like it wasn’t my thing. There’s something really great about just being the guitar player. Because being in a band and being one of the people in charge is such an all-encompassing thing. And maybe your ego is even more on the line. All artists, whenever they’re doing something, want to do well or be liked. Just standing on the side being the guitar player is a lot easier than being out there like, “This is Mark’s and my thing, and this is our vision for you guys.”
Mulcahy: I spent an eon with that guy, so it’s always going to feel like he’s my brother – like hanging out with your brother or a cousin that you spent a lot of time with. It doesn’t ever feel bad. It’s always going to feel right, especially when we start playing those Miracle Legion songs. I used to say that I love them all – this grand “I love them all,” like they’re my little children, like I’m Stevie Nicks or something, but I do like them and love hearing them. And I played them so many times that if we do actually get the chance to play – which I kinda have my doubts about – I’m assuming that it’s going to be joyous. Whatever is a good word, it’s going to be great because I’d like to hear those songs played as they should be.
There’s something to that. I think if we play the songs, we’ll be great. And I hope the essence of what we did when we first did them is still in there somewhere. But it will be difficult too. And after you do it for a long time, you know too much to operate on that same early level. So I’m hoping whatever I know and whatever I used to know comes together.
Neal: I think I’ve missed this ever since Miracle Legion ended – the ultimate feeling of being alive, like a peak moment. I’ve had more peak moments in Miracle Legion than I’ve had in any other way. It sounds really dumb, but I thought it was really magical at times like, “I can’t believe this is happening and that I feel this way.” Plus, tons of other things like adventure, just incredible. I wouldn’t be here in Scotland. Lots of experiences. I can still bore my kids with road stories.
Mulcahy: What did I love most about being in Miracle Legion? That’s a difficult question because so many things happened: travel and meeting people and expressing myself. All of those things are just one big thing to me — how I was able to find the thing I love to do. It was the thing that showed me that you can do something you want to do instead of working at the magazine shop I was working at at the time. I was just happy to not work there or any other place that I was working. It’s not that there isn’t work involved in being in a band. Old-timers always give you advice to find something you like to do, and it’ll never be work. That’s the thing about Miracle Legion. It’s the first time I was ever in a group that had that kind of window that said I could do this. I like being in a band, man. The real answer is I just love being in a band and playing music. It was just great. Being in that band, particularly, we just had some really great nights, and some amazing things happened. People getting electrocuted. All of it. Car crashes. Speeding tickets. It’s all there.
Neal: It’s incredible to hear you’ve influenced someone [like Thom Yorke or Ryan Adams]. It can be hard. I’m ready to put myself down. And though I know that we used to get lots of letters and talk to people who we helped, there is something, at least when it’s in print, that’s pretty amazing. Or to see Thom Yorke do “All for the Best”. I do think of us as one of these bands — it is like the Velvet Underground thing. And it’s wonderful.
Mulcahy: It’s some sort of weird validation to have someone that you like like you. Like Thom Yorke – I don’t know him well – but I was pretty surprised that he was so well acquainted with “All for the Best”. That was just a surprise. It feels good to be in with your contemporaries.
Neal: I wish … I don’t know to this day what we could have done, not to become famous, but our goal was always just to keep doing it. As you go along, you can’t do it on nothing. Literally, there’s no money. My dad – very much a product of the Depression, a workingman kind of guy – when we went off on the early shows would ask, “How much you making tonight?” I’d say, “$200.” And he’d say, “Each?” And I’d say, “No, that’s between all of us and the roadie and gasoline.” So after a while, I don’t know how you break through that ceiling until you get to the area where you can do it for real. I don’t have to be rich or famous or anything, but I wanted to be able to do it and do it well. If I knew that secret, I guess I’d be managing bands. I have no regrets, though. I’m so proud of what we did.
Mulcahy: I have the same regret that someone like Orson Welles had where he always said, “I spent all my life trying to get money to make a movie.” We spent a lot of our time trying to find someone to help us make a record when we should have just made a record. I didn’t get that advice for a long time. Just start your own label, and you can make your own record. I find that a lot better than asking people for a half-million dollars every year. I have the small regret that we could’ve made a few more records than we did, but I’m out to avenge that mistake every day.