Miracle Legion Guitarist Mr. Ray Says ‘The Future Is Unwritten’ for the Band: Exclusive Interview
Miracle Legion isn't necessarily mentioned in the same breath as other '80s college rock luminaries, but it should be. The Connecticut band spent the early part of its career shaking off a "next R.E.M." tag—a comparison earned due to jangly guitars and somewhat-mysterious lyrics—but quickly found its own groove. 1989's Me and Mr. Ray, recorded at Paisley Park, is full of lovely, melancholy folk-rock; 1992's John Porter-produced Drenched is a polished, British rock-inspired gem; and 1997's Portrait of a Damaged Family—which was reissued on vinyl last year—is a an eclectic grab bag of sounds and styles.
The group disbanded around the time of the latter record's release, but ended up reuniting for shows in 2016. The initial impetus for this wasn't the fact the band is beloved by Radiohead's Thom Yorke, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, the National, and others, but the positive reaction given to a reunion of Polaris—a side project featuring frontman Mark Mulcahy, bassist Dave McCaffrey and drummer Scott Boutier that doubled as the house band on the cult Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete.
Miracle Legion has a few shows left on its 2017 docket, starting with an April 20 gig in Philadelphia. For those who can't make these gigs, which are being billed as the final concerts by the group, Miracle Legion just released a live record, Annulment, recorded at last year's gigs in New York and in Maquoketa, Iowa, at Codfish Hollow, "which is an amazing barn that you can play in," guitarist Mr. Ray tells Diffuser. "They're the greatest, in the middle of a cornfield." Mulcahy is also releasing a solo record, The Possum in the Driveway, on April 28 (with a limited vinyl issue also available on Record Store Day).
Mr. Ray, who now lives in Scotland but was in Connecticut and gearing up for rehearsal for the band's shows, allows that there's no anxiety this time around. However, he was "blown away" by fans' dedication to the band—and the distances they traveled to see the group last year. "We were at the New York show, and a guy had just flown in from Los Angeles," he recalls. "And then when we played in Glasgow and Scotland, two guys from Iceland showed up!" He laughs. "So it puts on the pressure! You’ve gotta rock."
How did it end up that Miracle Legion reunited? I know that the Polaris reunion put the bug in Mark's ear.
Yeah, I think I got an email from somebody. And it was kind of a shock. I never really thought we would, you know. I always wanted to, but I never thought it would come together. I really think for Mark, and the whole business side of it—you know, with parentheses or whatever, business with the [air quotes]—it was the fact that the Polaris thing actually worked. That there was an audience. But that being a little different thing, it’s more of a nostalgia, you know, Comic-Con kind of a thing, in a way. So still we weren't sure, but we thought we'd give it a try. And people were interested; people wanted to book us. It came about like that, [with] the Polaris thing kicking it off.
Which is crazy, because Polaris is basically a pseudo-real band.
I know. It might say something about our times. But I don’t know. [Laughs.] We’ll leave it at that.
You know what though? I mean, I watched Pete & Pete as a kid, and that was probably my introduction to Mark and Miracle Legion. I’m sure I’m not alone in that either.
No, you’re not at all. And I think that’s one of the things I was afraid of on the tour last year [is] that it would be a bunch of middle-aged bald men in the audience. But the audience is much more diverse, I think, because you can either come to us through Miracle Legion, through Pete & Pete, through Mark’s solo things, or….I don’t know, we seem to have become historically important, so people read about us on the internet and whatever. So it was a much younger audience than I was fearing there would be. [Laughs.] Nothing wrong with guys my age, but, you know.
I’m super-pleased that there’s people of all ages and genders coming to our shows. That’s a relief. If it turned into a nostalgia, old guys thing, I wouldn’t have been wanting to do it.
Musically, what were the biggest differences now revisiting the material, as opposed to back then?
I hadn’t really listened to the records in any real thorough way. When we first made the records, I could never listen to them. Because all I could hear was what I didn’t do, or what I could have done better if I was more talented. But listening to the stuff recently—I mean, I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but I think it’s really great. I’m like, "Wow, we really did really good stuff." So I was really pleased with that.
And then when we started to play again, I realized I felt that thing that I used to feel—which still exists, which is amazing—in that, we’re a really powerful unit when we’re together, even after all of these years. It’s made me feel kind of really proud, to look back on old stuff and say, “Yeah, we did do a good job.” Because I had kept thinking that I just sucked. [Laughs.] Or not sucked, but...I think I could probably associate our lack of success with the fact that we weren’t any good or something where really, it’s just the music business, as far as getting to be rock stars. Not that that was ever really our goal, but to look back on it and go, “Wow, we did stuff that was right up there with anybody else" was a good feeling.
And I think the internet sort of facilitates that. The one thing that I’ve always really appreciated is that you can find the fans of bands, no matter how obscure the bands are, and you can kind of help buoy them back up, in a sense.
It’s interesting for me, because the last time that I did music professionally, there weren’t even cell phones. So the touring thing is completely different, and the whole media thing is completely different. The fact that I’m talking to you on Skype—our lives used to be based around doing phone interviews. If you’re on tour, you’d be like, “At 2:30, we have to be at a payphone.” All of that stuff is gone, which has made it a lot easier.
As you guys were kind of doing the shows, were there any loose ends that you realized you were able to tie up? Any lingering things?
Well, I don’t know anything that was really as obvious in my mind as that. When you have a bunch of young guys in a van for two months, it can get weird and nasty at times, probably, you know? But I just feel like we’re all older, which has actually made it a lot easier. I don’t think there’s as much ego concerns as there might have been in the past, where you’re just worried all of the time about how you’re perceived. I wouldn’t worry about that, at least. None of that is there anymore.
But I certainly haven’t had a heart-to-heart with anyone in the band and said, “You know, Mark? Remember that time?” [Laughs.] But it’s just been really good. And to get together, I mean, I hadn’t seen Scott and Dave in quite a long time. It was so oddly natural to get back together. It was almost like we did some kind of time shift and we’re just all back 20 years ago. If there was anything bad, I've forgotten about it.
See, that’s good. That’s perfect. That’s the rose-colored glasses talking.
What exactly would be the point of yelling about the time someone stole my doughnut? [Laughs.] "You ate the last doughnut."
You guys reissued Portrait of a Damaged Family last year on vinyl. I was listening to it this morning and it struck me what a diverse record it is. I think that album really extended what people thought of you guys, or what you could be, I guess.
Interesting. I mean, I think I agree. I’ve been asked over the last year, "What’s your favorite album of the albums?" I think it would probably be between Me and Mr. Ray and Portrait, because I think Portrait combined, at least for me, all of the things I’ve learned about making a record.
The one before that, Drenched, had been heavily produced, and people seem to argue over if it was too produced or not. But it put me in a situation with a producer of acclaim, kind of, to really learn how to record guitars and things. So for me, Portrait was kind of like going back to the basic thing. We didn’t have a producer; we didn’t have a record label. Nothing. But [we were] bringing in the stuff that we learned. I think you’re right about its varied qualities, because I think we were ready to do that.
And that does come with age and experience. You finally realized, because you guys had kind of been through the business wringer, so it’s like, "Well, you know what? Let’s just do it." At a certain point, the pressure and the business stuff sort of just falls away. All you have left is the music.
The business then—I don’t know what the business is now—but it was like a creeping plague that moved in. You didn’t even realize. Because definitely, Mark and I did not start writing songs because we thought we were going to be rock stars. But it does creep in, and before you know it, you’re making decisions based on record companies. Or they’re making decisions for you, and it’s just horrible. [Laughs.] You lose your way. For all of your best intentions.
When you’re just a tight band unit, that’s one thing, and then the more layers that go around you, absolutely. It’s a story as old as time.
I don’t actually know how young bands operate, really. But maybe they can stay away from that a lot more now. Because you don’t really necessarily need to go the route of signing your life away like you used to.
There was a story that ran on NPR recently about how you can't find a lot of Bob Seger records. A ton of his stuff is out of print. There’s so many older bands or veteran bands that their legacies, younger kids don’t know about them, because they can’t find them or they can’t buy them.
The business history of all of us is so confusing and murky, and who owns what. I think they should have some sort of moratorium, like, all master tapes revert to their creators. I guess that wouldn’t be very good for whoever owns Dark Side of the Moon, because they’re probably still making a few bucks off of that one.
But, yeah, at a certain point, there are some bands that you’re just like, you know, their stuff is just sitting in the vaults. Labels aren’t doing anything with them. It’s like, give them to the bands!
We were on Morgan Creek for the Drenched record and we were about to make the next one, which I guess was Portrait, kind of. They said no, but it was two years where they wouldn’t allow us to do anything. And I just said, "Why? Drop us, please!" And that was kind of what led to me throwing in the towel, you know. It was like, "These guys in Hollywood are just, for no reason, destroying my life." [Laughs.]
You guys recorded Me and Mr. Ray at Paisley Park, so I have to ask if you have a Prince story.
Well, I did walk past him—or he walked past me. And he was even shorter than I imagined he would be. He was a very tiny man. The coolest thing was that he was actually on tour while we were recording. And then the word came that he was going to come in and record. And when he records, he records for like 48 hours straight, you know, just locks himself in the room. So we had to move from Studio A to B.
He flew in and then you know, I briefly saw him, and he was recording. I don’t know how we knew, but we realized the next morning, we’re like, “Wait, he’s playing in Hartford tonight. He’s playing right down the street from where we live and wait, he’s here.” So it was kind of crazy how he would just fly in, record for a while and then just fly out to a show.
But I did get some picks of his, heart-shaped, afterwards. The studio was decorated for him, so it had all of that...I don’t know, when I was in high school, you would buy one of these dolls for your girlfriend. They were kind of sort of mime-looking dolls. The whole room was decorated like that. It was definitely like a 1975 teenage girl’s bedroom. Lots of silky things hanging on the lights. But, you know, he had been in there, so that was pretty cool.
And the other thing was, the Scorpions arrived to take a tour of the studio and they drank all of my Cokes. So I always bring that up in case they find out, they owe me a 12-pack.
Put it out. I’m hoping that someday a 12-pack is going to show up with “Guttentag” on it or something. And it will be like, “Sorry, from all of those years ago.” So yeah, that’s my Prince story.
What else do you like about Me and Mr. Ray? You said that’s your favorite. Why does that stand out for you? I mean, obviously, besides the fact that your name is in the title.
[Laughs.] Yeah, well that’s mainly it. I don’t know, I suppose because it was a two-piece record, it was more immediate. And I think “You’re the One Lee” is one of our crowning achievements. I always look at that song and when I listen to it, I go, “Yeah, we really nailed it on that one.”
Overall, I really like Drenched, because it’s got five million guitars on it. [Laughs] But I don’t know that that qualifies as being my favorite. But if I were to ever be forced to listen to one of our records, it would be Me and Mr. Ray or Portrait.
Yeah, I was talking about [the Smiths'] “How Soon Is Now?" with him. At one point, he was like, "Oh, Johnny [Marr]’s in L.A., let’s have him drop by.” And I’m like [makes nervous sound]. He didn’t, but.
Oh man, that’s a missed opportunity.
Yeah, but he had every rock star story, you know. Ian McLagan from the Small Faces came and played some keyboards. But it was just normal for him, he’d say, “Oh, I’ll have Ian come by.” John’s an old-school British guy. He knows everybody. So that part of that was great. He was great for me. I was stealing every trick he had.
These shows are being billed as the final shows then. So why did you guys decide, "All right, we’re going to do this last round," and then that’s it?
Well, there was interest from California and there was a promoter in Los Angeles who I think had really wanted us to play the last time around, but it just wasn’t going to fit. You know, the whole thing is different now about touring, too. Because there’s people in the group that have other responsibilities. Mark has a solo record about to come out, so everyone’s a bit busy. But we really wanted to go to California.
So the whole thing was based around the California dates in a way. Just the fact that they could exist. So the New England dates are because we’re here and we want to play more. But the real motivation was California and then, you know, I don’t know beyond that. I know Mark’s going to be lost in solo record land for a while, so we’ll see what happens. But yeah, the future? Who knows? The future is unwritten. Isn’t that a Joe Strummer quote or something?
Yeah, yeah. Totally. You never know. That’s the whole thing.
No, you never know. I mean, I would have never imagined in a million years we would have done last summer’s shows and that they would have been so good and that I would feel so blessed that I got to do it all again. So who knows what’s going to happen? I mean, I’m even thinking about the Mr. Ray solo record, you know? Who knows? We’ll see. [Laughs.]
Really? Do you have any ideas?
Just guitars. A million guitars. [Laughs.]
You’re going to be like Yngwie Malmsteen.
Yeah, except I’m going to have to do it one note at a time, because I can’t play all of those notes at once like he can. So overdubbing is going to be key for me.
You live in Scotland. What else are you up to?
A lot of the last few years have been—I won’t get into it—but a struggle from a family, personal point of view. Lots of love and death going on. So I’m kind of at a crossroads. I have kids there, and I love living there, but I think—especially playing the dates last summer and it coinciding with my life and my greater family’s life coming back together—I’ve started to reach out in Scotland for musicians. So I’m looking to play music.
And Scotland, you know, well, certainly there’s lots of music there. And there’s a huge group of guys like my age, because there was that whole Scottish kind of [movement with] Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, that era. Those guys are all still around, which is great. So maybe I can do something with some of them. A supergroup. [Laughs.]
Call Roddy Frame!
I know! I know. You know, it’s a small country. That’s one of the things I love about living here. It’s so different from the United States. You kind of can know everybody—or know someone who knows everybody. I do know people who know Roddy Frame. [Laughs.] So I could maybe get him to join in, you know?
That would be fun, and because they come from such a different set of influences and experiences, as a musician, that would be really interesting.
I think my big goal is to work with Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice. You know, he survived a stroke and everything. He has a beautiful studio up in Scotland, in the highlands. So if I could figure out some way to record there... [Laughs]
I feel like he used to be really active on Twitter. Reach out!
Last year in Britain, we got to do The Andrew Marr Show, which is this really big news show. It would be like being on Meet the Press or something, you know, one of these big American shows. I discovered that by looking at a Twitter from a guy who was talking about how excited he was about Miracle Legion getting back together. And then underneath it, it said that he was the editor and producer of The Andrew Marr Show or something. And I was like, “Oh!” [Laughs.] So I passed that name along. And they have music, which is really interesting too.
It’s like Meet The Press, but they have a band at the end, which is kind of a weird twist. We got to do it, which was crazy. [Andrew Marr is] a great guy and they treated us great. I had my own car that drove me to the BBC. It had my name on the window. It was pretty good.
You were just like, this is how the other half lives!
Exactly! For a brief [moment]. And they give you breakfast—free breakfast. I said, “I could get used to this!”
In a parallel universe…
Yeah, yeah! Me and [Mick] Jagger, hanging out. You know.
How 50 Alternative Bands Got Their Names