Mark Mulcahy: Return of the great unknown
Mark Mulcahy’s fanbase may be stellar but it is painfully small. Undaunted, the cult hero is back for another shot at fame. Plus, a who’s who of ‘who?’ – our top five cult acts
Nick Hornby devoted a chapter of his book 31 Songs to Mark Mulcahy’s track, Hey Self Defeater. Prince once gave him his Paisley Park studio for three months in the hope a new album would emerge
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Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence: Tom Waits is a big fan
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The Shaggs: championed by Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain
Mark Mulcahy is a complete and utter cult. He’s the cult musician other cult musicians call “The Boss”. He is indie pop’s version of the masonic handshake. Devotees seek each other out and exchange stories, thoughts, discographies and personal “best ofs”. Passions run high with Mulcahy; there is both sadness and relief that he will never be popular.
When Mulcahy fell on hard times four years ago, after his wife suddenly died in an accident and he had twin three-year-old daughters to bring up, his following mobilised itself. Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, The National, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Frank Black and more convened to record a tribute album of his songs to raise funds.
It was an acknowledgement by these stellar names that Mulcahy’s music had touched them, inspired them, helped make them who they are. It’s often been said that Mulcahy is the singer Michael Stipe wanted to be when he first formed REM. Thom Yorke has said that it was Mulcahy’s voice that made him want to make music. Nick Hornby devoted a chapter of his book 31 Songs to Mulcahy’s track, Hey Self Defeater. Prince once gave him his Paisley Park studio for three months in the hope a new album would emerge.
Yet for all these endorsements, Mulcahy doesn’t sell many records, has virtually no mainstream profile, and his cult following now seems static. Now, though, he has released his first album in more than eight years, Dear Mark J Mulcahy, I Love You, and the Sisyphean task begins over again.
Just as there could be only one winner in the U2 vs Simple Minds battle for enormodome, multi-platinum status, so Mulcahy’s first band, Miracle Legion, lost out to REM when, at the end of the 1980s, a vacancy emerged for a cross-over jangly indie-pop band. There is no doubt that Mulcahy has a superior singing voice to Michael Stipe but when the musical dice rolled, it was REM who got the slot.
“We had nine lives,” Mulcahy said once about the REM duel. “We’d build up momentum and then the tide would go out. There’d be a good period of nothing and then we’d get momentum again. It’s a crazy set of circumstances that allow you to succeed. We didn’t have someone like Jefferson Holt [REM’s savvy first manager] telling us, ‘Okay boys, let’s do this now’. Most people don’t have that guy, someone with a good grip on the rest of it, someone who can make things work.”
From Connecticut, Miracle Legion were first signed by the Rough Trade label. But it was their later contract with Morgan Creek records that left them in a legal limbo for a crucial few years. With no releases forthcoming, and their original fans looking elsewhere, the wheels fell off, and despite numerous attempts to kick-start the project, Mulcahy settled for fronting the house band for a children’s television series on US TV.
A series of later solo albums, though, saw him hit – and sometimes eclipse – the magnificent musical heights of his Miracle Legion work, but by then Mulcahy was chained to cult status.
Surprise and disbelief
Ex-Something Happens frontman Tom Dunne is a major fan of Mulcahy’s work. He recalls his surprise and disbelief when, on a US tour, the band pitched up to do a headline show at the 9.30 club in Washington only to discover that the support band were to be Miracle Legion.