POLARIS: NOTE ME AS SUBVERSIVE
The Adventures of Pete and Pete was a television show like no other—who else would put guest stars like Iggy Pop and David Johansen in the middle of what was a nominally a weekend kid’s show?—and naturally it gave birth to a band like no other, which brings us to Polaris. Started solely to write for the show by Mark Mulcahy while his band Miracle Legion was indisposed, Polaris has slowly (thanks to a rabid fandom and Mulcahy’s by-now-well-known songwriting powers) turned into … well, a real band, currently touring a record of original songs. Put it this way: imagine if one of the most notable indie bands of the 90s had released television scenes instead of 7″ singles, but the music and the lyrics and the complete concept were just as artful and honest, because that’s pretty much what happened with Polaris. (And did we mention that their first physical release was a mailorder tape that came from the back of a box of Frosted Mini-Wheats?) After a wildly beloved set of reunion shows, Polaris and Mulcahy are touring on a Record Store Day reissue of all the music written for Pete and Pete, and Mulcahy talks now about overcoming cereal company censorshop and reveals the subversive truth behind the penultimate Pete and Pete secret—something even more mysterious than that single never-to-be-revealed lyric in ‘Hey Sandy.’ He’ll perform with Polaris on Sat., Apr. 25, at the Echoplex. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
When the first actual Polaris release came out on the cereal box, did you make a special trip to breakfast aisle to bask in your newfound fame?
I did cuz they made such a big deal put of the picture. I didn’t really wanna do it, actually! It was all some version of promotion and corporate tie-in, two corporate giants tying something together—and I just thought, ‘I’m too artistic for that!’ or something. ‘That feels cheap.’
You didn’t wanna sell out to a major cereal label?
I said no, and a couple of my friends said kinda what you said in a different way: ‘When is that gonna happen to you again?’ And I thought, ‘It’s probably never gonna happen again.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ Also we were sort of endorsed by Gibson on some level, and then they got involved. Then it became a thing with Gibson and would we hold the guitars and all this stuff? It just took forever! And then if you look at the box with our picture, you can’t see anything! There’s this little postage stamp! They did a photo shoot and then were gonna redo the photo shoot and … then the lyrics had to be approved by the corporation—
Wait—does some suit at the cereal company know the mystery line from ‘Hey Sandy’?
No—they rejected the word ‘devil’ and the line ‘Daddy’s taking off his belt.’ ‘These are unacceptable!’
Not that I’m particularly controversial or racy, but there is no song that doesn’t have something they couldn’t have found an objection to. So when I went to give them the songs, I sat next to a guy at Nickelodeon and typed the lyrics and I’d say, ‘What do you think about this?’ And he goes, ‘Well, you know … it could be “orange juice.”’ We changed the written words. I could’ve been singing anything—‘Everybody’s gonna die!’ And just changed it to ‘Everybody’s so happy!’ They just read it—didn’t listen to it. A real strange thing. And the last thing I remember about it, I called up Kellogg’s and said, ‘Hey, man, I was wondering if I could get a couple of empty boxes?’ And they were completely unprepared for anyone calling them in any way. It was like some weird trick on them. So I went and bought it. I think I have it upstairs. I probably should’ve taken the cereal out of it.
Now it’s even more collectible.
It’s probably still fine!
Do you think Wayne Gretzky had to buy his own Wheaties box?
Probably not. They probably sent him a whole case! You can get an attitude if you want in this business—‘Why am I not Wayne Gretzky? What’s he doing that I’m not doing?’
I’m sure that thought haunted Lou Reed til the day he died. So you ultimately got your lyrics through with a slightly camouflaged print-out?
We changed a couple words. I went with one of the guys from Nickelodeon. ‘Hey man, do you think it should be “Satan” … or maybe “satin”?’ ‘I think “satin” sounds better.” Cuz he wants to get it over with too! It was ludicrous. It’s funny. This was a pretty long time ago. I’d see that now being the case, maybe, but Clinton was president then—things were a little groovier. But even then, ‘devil’ was out and ‘Daddy’s taking off his belt’ was completely out. The funny thing was thinking about the guy who was actually reading the lyrics, like, ‘Lemme just check on the lyrics of this guy—alright, what? What are we doing? We’re in trouble!’
What do you think is the historic precedent for Polaris? Because it’s such a strange story in a way—a made-up band doing real songs for a kid’s TV show, and now the band has records out and is touring. Were you confused about how to handle yourself?
I just chalked it up to that even though it was being done with and through a corporation, they never really seemed to be too worried. They just wanted to have shows. They just needed shows to fill up the time. I don’t know how new Nickelodeon was then, but they were somewhat new—I had an experience with MTV early on when I was in Miracle Legion. We made a video for really our first song. Our friend made it—pretty high quality—and we said, ‘Let’s take it down to MTV and see what they wanna do?’ And we went–‘Oh hey, come on in!’ We just went to the desk and said, ‘Hey, we have a video.’ ‘Great! Come on in! Let’s put this on!’ They were just trying to fill the time, and it was good enough. Within a day, we were in rotation. In the beginning of things, [Pete and Pete co-creator] Will [McRobb] and those guys were just working under the radar a little and were able to do what they wanted. It was that, I think. It wasn’t that there was no template and nobody had ever done it before. They were just doing the thing they wanted to do, and nobody said, ‘No, we need more of this and more products and more that.’
That happens whenever anything is new—the rules aren’t locked in. I think Pete and Pete and Pee Wee’s Playhouse were the very beginning of this wave of kid’s shows adults could watch.
Pee Wee was probably in the same boat. And there were probably other things being made at the same time that just weren’t as good, but luckily they found Pee Wee and they found Will and Chris, who had a real solid idea of something great. That’s jus the syncronicity or whatever—things come together. There’s a ton of money to do it, nobody cares what you do and you’re gonna do something awesome. That’s a great combo that probably doesn’t happen, as a rule.
Did you feel like Pete and Pete and Polaris were special at the time? ‘History will vindicate us’?
I dunno that I did. It was pretty low level, man. It wasn’t a big smash and it wasn’t like everybody was talking about Pete and Pete, cuz I’m pretty sure they did actually get canceled—it only went three years. It must’ve had a bigger life in re-runs, maybe. I dunno—I’m really out of school talking about this, but I don’t remember anyone being like, ‘Oh, you’re doing Pete and Pete? Wow!’ Maybe if it was out now, it’d be Portlandia. But it didn’t have an Internet to fuel every week. Now, it’d be like, ‘Oh my God, Iggy Pop’s on the show! Michael Stipe’s on the show! Patty Hearst!’ Those would be things people could really milk, but there wasn’t such a thing at the time. And also I was just at home doing it—I wasn’t really on the set or in the swing of what was going on. I’d just do my music and turn it in and I was kinda done. And I’d go to the wrap party. I was at the beginning and the end, actually. In fact, I told a story of going to the set and this guy animated it. I mainly just had a shitty time! Going in and getting in trouble. I got in trouble for riding a bike, and I touched one of the props and the prop guy got crazy mad. Have you ever been to a movie set or a TV show? It’s really no fun. Don’t make any sound, don’t be in the picture. They’re all so freaked out about their own little world. It’s not a fun place, it’s a work place. I was on one show—the one time I was there all day. But I don’t think there were any celebrity guests that day. Speaking just for myself, I’m not much of an actor. I didn’t have to do much, but even what I had to do was difficult. That was another ‘I dunno if I’m gonna do that…’ Katherine Dieckmann was the director and she tried really hard to make sure it’d go well. There was no talking—I don’t think I say anything.
Don’t you give a knowing wink to little Pete?
The wink was the thing—but I don’t think they wanted me to just wink. But I was like, ‘That’s about all I got.’ As an acknowledging-type gesture. ‘We don’t want you to do a wink.’ ‘Well, now you gotta come up with something else cuz I don’t have any training in this.’
‘No nods, no waves—wink or nothing.’
When you’re not used to having a bunch of people staring at you while you do something like that, it’s weird. I’m sure you could get used to it and relax, but … all the actors I know, they’re just able to be relaxed. The acting skill is something, but it’s mainly that the camera is great for them—‘Oh, a camera? Great, I wanna be in front of that!’ Most people are horrified when they get in front of a camera. I marvel at Brad Pitt. He always looks so cool. ‘Take my picture, I’m fine.’ Singing in front of people is a lot different than talking. If someone said, ‘Get up and start talking,’ I’d find it difficult. I’d like to find a better way to speak in front of people. I’ve been best man at a wedding and totally blown it.