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.