MARK MULCAHY: LOSING IS WINNING
I heard Mark Mulcahy’s music when I saw the TV show the Adventures of Pete and Pete, where he was in the mostly-fictional band Polaris and wrote the kind of songs that could carry the story by themselves. Maybe you heard him there, too, or in his band Miracle Legion or on his solo albums or even just in a song that comes out of nowhere and catches you late at night never lets go. And maybe you’ll go see him tonight at the Echo then, too. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
I was one of the people who actually had the Polaris tape that came with the box of Wheaties—what’s it feel like to join the Archies and the Banana Splits as one of the very few bands to get their records into the supermarket?
I have to tell you, when they first asked me to do that, I said no. I just thought of myself differently. I was not that kind of commercial person. But I told a friend of mine, and he thought it was so awesome—like when are you ever gonna be on a cereal box again? And that completely flipped my head around, like, ‘It IS awesome!’ So yeah, I’m happy to be with the Archies. All that stuff is good stuff.
Did you ever go down to the store and strut around the cereal aisle like a rock star?
I wish I knew then—that would have been such a good idea. I finally could have made some friends in the cereal aisle in those days. But I didn’t realize how powerful it was.
How did writing the music for Pete and Pete change where the rest of your career went? That seems like such a rare out-of-nowhere opportunity.
The time when I got that job was a time when I was completely foundering. I was on a label I couldn’t get off, the band at the time … everything was a disaster. So I got that offer, and it was really the first time I wrote music by myself. I’d always had a partner. The whole thing was a big sea change—for good, and for the way of doing things in my musical career. The funny thing is when that show was on it wasn’t such a big deal, but it’s lasted. And a lot of people—probably even more people—found out about it when it was over with. It’s just lasted for such a long time that I think it’s helped me a lot to have certainly a bigger audience and in some ways maybe a younger audience. I don’t know what I would have been doing without it—I wasn’t doing anything else. It wasn’t a left turn, it was a restart. I spent two years stuck on this label where I couldn’t make a record, couldn’t do anything … it was one of those nightmares you hear about.
Would you have quit if you hadn’t got Pete and Pete? ‘I’m not meant for this kind of world!’
I’m not sure I’m meant for this kinda world anyway—but I don’t know how to do anything else! Stupidity is what drives me. Stupidity and ignorance is my bedrock.
That’s practically our founding statement.
Plus I like doing it! I don’t dislike anything about making music. The rest of it is too complicated. Especially here. Los Angeles is so tough.
It makes no sense to me sometimes how much crap musicians have to put up with just to make a record.
Why are you cheering me up so much?
No one told you I’m relentlessly negative?
That’s why the people who’ve been in it the longest are just pretty tough, first of all—you can be pretty specific about what you want. Cuz if people don’t understand why you are so committed to one thing … it’s cuz you’ve seen the divergent ways you can end up. If you don’t lay out what you want, you’ll end up somewhere you don’t wanna be. It makes you tough and hard, but you just gotta avoid being bitter. That’s the raffle. I don’t feel bitter at all. Especially since I took such a long time off and I’m just so happy to be doing it again. I always say this and it’s boring, but I’m one of the happier guys in the music business at this point.
How do you balance all this and keep from being bitter? Do you have a rescue dog?
I don’t have any advice except that I know that for a million reasons this is not for everybody. I just think you have to really … LIKE it. Or you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. I’ve pretty much always wanted to do something like this. I just dreamed of it, and even though I went to college to become a journalist … and I still wish I was a journalist in some ways—
There’s plenty of reasons to hate it. But I remember reading Peter Buck saying he was a lifer, and that’s the thing, man—you’re either a lifer or you ain’t. I know plenty of people who’ve given it up, and I’m sure they’re happier. I think.
Here’s a lifer question, especially since you had such a long time between albums. What’s it like to sit down and write when you don’t have to do it for work? When it’s just for you? Does it still feel like work, or does it become something else?
In the scope of being in the music business, quote-unquote—that’s the thing you can control the most. Writing songs is the part where you can set down standards and goals and your own satisfactions, and that’s the thing that becomes more … that’s the place to hide. That’s the thing I’d rather do, that I look forward to, and for me, it’s a thing where I don’t do it all the time. And then sometimes I feel this is the right time and I can have a good run of writing. I should probably work harder at it, but I let it just find its own place to happen. Another thing I’ve done in the last ten years, maybe more, is write operas with this guy Ben Katchor. That’s a lot of language I don’t normally use. It’s a little job-like cuz it always has a deadline, and that’s a little different. Finishing a song is such a great feeling, writing it and listening to it—I listen to them over and over again.
I know a lot of people who can’t do that—they can’t listen to themselves.
Once it’s recorded and done and a record, I don’t listen to that much. But maybe a few years or months later, someone puts it on and it’s such a surprise—it’s like it’s not even me.
What do you think when you listen to young Mark’s music? Does anything reveal itself?
I’m surprised it holds up to me. Or I listen and I think, ‘God, why did I … or how did I make that choice?’ Mostly lyrically. Why would I think that was the right thing to say when I probably wouldn’t ever say that now? There’s always a lot of room for growth in writing and the choices you make. Like Leonard Cohen will spend forty years writing a song and choosing just the right words, and I don’t know if that’s good—or what’s the right way anyway? You could always spend a little more time and maybe it would be a little better, but its always a time capsule and it is what it is when the moment happened. I’m never like regretful. Maybe a little sometimes.
If you could go back and give your young self music lessons, what would you teach yourself?
I saw this documentary about Springsteen and he said something like, ‘When I started, all I had was artistic inspiration, and now I have artistic knowledge.’ So you wanna have that foundation of stuff you wrote just completely out of a crazy desrire to write whatever—about yourself or things you saw. And I don’t know that you wanna be any different than you were. You can grow. I’m a lot different now writing than I would have been. I remember being really happy to just write one song, and now—like right now I feel like I could sit down and write a song if I had to! I don’t know if there’s any way to knww anything more than where you start. So no—I couldn’t teach myself anything. I had a couple chances that didn’t come true to teach people to write songs, but when it was a possibility I tried to figure out what I would do. And I don’t really know
There’s a craft to it and there’s an art to it, and they’re tangled into each other.
The type of stuff I like or I do in some way is about yourself—not every song is about yourself, but it’s you expressing yourself. But there’s a whole other way where you’re just writing country songs or pop songs that are built for people to like. That’s an incredible skill. Maybe you could teach that? Like to be in a certain mold—like if you wanna write a Britney Spears song, there’s a certain thing you’re doing that I probably don’t know. I think some of my songs could be done that way. But you’d have to find someone with some imagination to hear it. I have a couple songs … I told this story a few times, but I sent songs to the Backstreet Boys a couple years ago cuz I thought they’d do a great job! And I got somewhere with somebody and she was like, ‘I just don’t get it. I don’t think this would work at all.’ But maybe someone else would have heard it and been like, ‘We can change it to the way we do this, and just use the basic idea of this guy’s song.’ It didn’t happen but it could if I found the right guy—if the right guy hears things in good way … Artists and Repertoire, some people are really good at it. Even for me, I try to pick covers for myself and it’s really hard. I think I like a song a lot but I don’t know if it suits me. Like I try and do it and it’s a flop.
The Minutemen did that with ‘Political Song for Michael Jackson To Sing.’ They actually sent a tape of it to Michael Jackson’s management. They thought it’d be a great song for him.
I was really trying to convince her. I was totally serious—my thing with the Backstreet Boys is they always used same lyrics. And I had songs with repeatable parts … I wish she had better ear. The song I really thought would be great was called ‘Hurry Please Hurry,’ on my first record I think—it goes, ‘HURRY PLEASE HURRY, HURRY PLEASE HURRY.’ They could have really done that up! I didn’t know at the time, but I think what you’re supposed to do is send a version that’s their version—like you gotta send it like, ‘Here’s exactly what to do with this song!’ And they go, ‘Oh yeah!’ I never tried that, but maybe I should.
I can almost see their dance moves.
It’s probably stupid, but you know—
What interests you most about writing now? What do you still want to explore?
The same thing. I wanna express myself some way and I don’t know how to write a book or a movie and I have a lot of thoughts in my head—and mostly I get them out of my head through a song. I’d love to write other things. But you have to come up with so much more. Songs are so much easier to write cuz there’s so much less! Guys who write books, all they know how to do is sit around and write for hours and hours and hours—they’re driven, I guess. With me, it’s just … I’m thinking, so then I’m writing it.
You told Salon that you felt it’s better to start off slow and always have something new to learn, as opposed to being a guy like Paul McCartney who’s just at the top and can’t ever get past that—like there’s life and opportunity even when you don’t pursue perfection.
I don’t know if I figured that out exactly. But there’s nothing pigeonholing me. I guess it’s lack of success that gives you a place where you don’t have to worry. You’re not trying to reach anyting. Paul McCartney, I hope I wasn’t thinking of him cuz I think he’s amazing—he probably does still write great stuff, but he’s written these things that are just epic monuments to music and he walks in a room and you can’t see past the crown he’s wearing of every great song he ever wrote. So the new songs … I guess that’s great but you’ll never be able have any success again. I think he’s still great probably!
That’s hilarious—you can’t win. You knock it out of the park, and people demand you do that over and over. Or maybe you can’t get a hit, but then everyone’s rooting for you. It’s like it can’t ever all be good. I can’t tell if that’s inspiring or depressing.
I guess so—losing is winning!
MARK MULCAHY WITH MOTHER FALCON ON WED., FEB. 26, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 7:30 PM / $12-$14 / 18+. THEECHO.COM. GET TICKETS HERE! MARK MULCAHY’S DEAR MARK J. MULCAHY, I LOVE YOU IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM MEZZOTINT. VISIT MARK MULCAHY AT MEZZOTINT.COM.