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.
"I still can't understand how anyone thought it was a good idea to have Miracle Legion as a support band for anyone," says Dunne. "The venue emptied when they finished their set, which was painful for us. They were promoting the Drenched (1992) album at the time and to this day I still listen to songs such as So Good from that album and almost weep . . . So good, so brilliant, so utterly unknown."
Mulcahy, who is of Irish heritage, is one of the true cult figures left in the music world. Technology has almost rendered the condition obsolete. You can’t be a cult and have your entire back catalogue available at the click of a mouse – it’s against the rules.
To qualify as a cult figure your output must be notoriously difficult to find, there need to be a few intriguing myths about you (and these days they must be Google-proof), and it really helps your case if you carry some of the DNA of the “freaks, aliens and mad prophets” musical family.
Winning any form of award or daring to sell more than a handful of records worldwide means instant and irrevocable expulsion from the Cult Club. Going so far as to have your own web page is frowned upon and perceived as being unnecessarily “careerist”.
And the first rule of being a cult musician is you should never be referred to as a cult musician – as then you’re in danger of bandwagon-jobbers hopping on board and making you vaguely popular.
Perpetual obscurity, a debilitating drink or drug habit, a fragile mental state, an utter unwillingness to play the game, and living in a van are the lot of the cult musician. And you’ve hit the jackpot when no one even knows if you’re alive or dead.
Dear Mark J Mulcahy, I Love You is out now. Firerecords.com
Panel: Total Cults
1 Vashti Bunyan: In the late 1960s this British folkie travelled around the Scottish highlands on a horse and cart and later recorded the songs she wrote on the one year journey. The album - Just Another Diamond Day - sank without trace on its release in 1969. But word of mouth kept her beautiful, pastoral songs alive and there was a re-release in 2000 that sold relatively well. One of the better cult name-drops - even if a mobile phone operator have used one her songs in an ad.
2. The Replacements: “They often performed under the influence of alcohol” is the phrase one reads most about this brilliant Minneapolis post-punk band. A perfect, exhilarating mix of The Ramones and The Beatles, they released a series of still classic albums before throwing/drinking it all away. Their best ever song “Alex Chilton” was written as a tribute to another cult musician - the Big Star frontman.
3. Skip Spence: Spence played with both Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape but was overly fond of LSD. After a delusional breakdown, he travelled to Nashville to record the solo “Oar” album - routinely described as “one of the most harrowing documents of pain and confusion ever made”. Tom Waits thinks it’s one of the best albums ever released.
4. Vic Godard: The only real punk rock cult. Godard formed Subway Sect in the mid-1970’s but refused to compromise the band’s literate approach in favour of generic punk posturing. Disillusioned, he went off to work as a postman for a number of years before returning with a series of fine solo albums.
5. The Shags: Art brut or a horrible, voyeuristic joke? The jury's still out on the four sisters from New Hampshire. Their deluded parents - thinking they were the Next Big Thing - put the musically naïve and clueless young girls into a studio and the resultant 1969 album - "Philosophy Of The World" - was horrifically awful. But over the years artists such as Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain - attracted by the album's notoriety - re-evaluated it as being a work of art such was the beauty of its tuneless innocence. It's utterly compelling - but for what reason?
Total cults: A who’s who of ‘who?’
1 VASHTI BUNYAN
In the late 1960s this British folkie travelled around the Scottish highlands on a horse and cart and later recorded the songs she wrote on the one-year journey. The album, Just Another Diamond Day, sank without trace on its release in 1969. But word of mouth kept her beautiful, pastoral songs alive and there was a re-release in 2000 that sold relatively well. One of the better cult name-drops – even if a mobile 'phone operator has used one her songs in an ad.
2 THE REPLACEMENTS
"They often performed under the influence of alcohol" is the phrase one reads most about this brilliant Minneapolis post-punk band. A perfect, exhilarating mix of The Ramones and The Beatles, they released a series of still classic albums before throwing/drinking it all away. Their best song, Alex Chilton, was written as a tribute to another cult musician – the Big Star frontman.
3 ALEXANDER 'SKIP' SPENCE
Spence played with both Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape but was overly fond of LSD. After a delusional breakdown, he travelled to Nashville to record the solo Oar album – routinely described as "one of the most harrowing documents of pain and confusion ever made". Tom Waits thinks it's one of the best albums ever released.
4 VIC GODARD
Godard formed Subway Sect in the mid-1970s but refused to compromise the band's literate approach in favour of generic punk posturing. Disillusioned, he went off to work as a postman for a number of years before returning with a series of fine solo albums.
5 THE SHAGGS
Art brut or a horrible, voyeuristic joke? The jury's still out on the four sisters from New Hampshire. Their deluded parents, thinking they were the next big thing, put the musically naive and clueless young girls into a studio, and the resultant 1969 album, Philosophy Of The World, was horrifically awful.
However, over the years artists such as Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain – attracted by the album’s notoriety – re-evaluated it as being a work of art, such was the beauty of its tuneless innocence.
It’s utterly compelling – but for what reason?