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Mark MulcahyAt Mark Mulcahy's suggestion we arrange to meet at a restaurant called The Kiev, an East Village institution. It's a bitter November afternoon and, when we arrive, the whitewashed windows and crooked 'for rent' sign spell out the fact that we're going to have to find another setting for the interview.
by Martin Williams
"I haven't lived here for quite a while," Mulcahy explains as we settle into the relative warmth of a nearby bar.
"I live in Massachusetts now. I was living in both places but I wasn't really coming to New York, that's why I didn't know The Kiev had shut. I finished the record and I just didn't come back."
The record he's talking about is SmileSunset, his sophomore solo album, released on his own Mezzotint label (through the auspices of Loose in the UK.) Recorded with Adam Lasus in Brooklyn over the course of a year (exactly a year in fact: the record was begun on 30th June 1999 and finished on 30th June 2000) SmileSunset sees Mulcahy again taking centre stage as an adroit multi-instrumentalist, complemented this time by an expanded cast of supporting players who add shade and texture to the elemental core of Mark's guitar and celebrated, emotive vocal. From the angelic harmonies that open the first song Micon the Icon, with it's fragmented acoustic strums and twisting cello lines, it's clear that - with his confidence buoyed after the warm reception offered to his solo debut - Mulcahy has struck a richer musical nerve, which, though alive with instrumentation, is never cluttered or heavy-handed, leaving ample room for his extraordinary voice to coast the register from ardent murmur to soulful, sonorous rasp.
"There's only so much of me that I can take, never mind anybody else," he says by way of an admission of SmileSunset's progression.
"I think it's good to get other things in, and to be honest it's really lonely to do it all yourself. The biggest difference in the whole record really is that there's bass on every track and Fathering had hardly any bass. It makes the whole record feel different to me, even though the songs are the same kind of songs, y'know, that's the kind of songs I write, just having bass makes all the difference."
A warmer, acoustic grain to SmileSunset sees Mark further familiarising himself with subtle blues and jazz tendencies, still leaving space for the dizzy Weimar reel of Until I Say So. But even a clear notion that he wanted more ensemble playing on the record couldn't force him to be a dogmatic studio presence.
"It's not fair to say, 'come in and be an artist but do exactly what I want.' It doesn't seem right to force someone into a hole that they weren't going to be in. I'd rather let people do what they want. So the things where other people came in to play, like especially cello, on which I have no ability, they come in and start playing and you just work together until you find something that's good."
In the background as we talk, a television charts the continuing farce of the US Presidential squabble.
"I was really into Nader," Mulcahy offers.
"I went to see him speak a lot, and one of his big ideas is that they just have everybody hopping to their tune - the corporations or whoever - everybody's running on their track, whatever they say, y'know, how much money you need, how many products you need. And I really believe that. Nobody's really got control over their own time any more."
It'll take Bush and Gore and the state of Florida another month to bring the curtain down on the slapstick legal circus. With his ex-band Miracle Legion folding in on itself amid a mess of record company inertia and legal bickering, Mulcahy has had enough contact with lawyers to last him a lifetime.
"Even without the legal part of it we [Miracle Legion] made kind of a mistake," he confesses.
"By waiting too much for labels to put out our records." It was in this seemingly endless period of waiting, with material recorded and gathering dust on the record company shelf, that the seeds for the Mezzotint label were sown.
"We had the whole legal mess, but in the meantime at least we had enough brains to record an album, so while we were doing nothing we made an album that was ready to come out as soon as we got the legal part over. Then I just started to get the Mezzotint idea together."
And if being head of his own label shoehorns him abruptly into a business suit, it's not a role that he's comfortable to push to the forefront.
"In the paper up where I live this guy wrote this whole article about how a lot of bands are too self-conscious or shy or whatever to say that they're selling their records at the shows, a lot of rock bands. And even if they do, they tend to sell them too cheaply, they undersell themselves. It's funny, because that's exactly how it is, you never want to say, 'I'm selling my record, blah, blah, blah.' I was supposed to say it last night. I said I have a record but I certainly didn't say that I was selling it, because it just kind of ruins the moment of the music."
It a refreshing take on the head-to-head between salesmanship and musical integrity in this era of sponsored tours and cross-marketing, when even the smallest bands are able to mutate into cottage e-business entrepreneurs.
"I'm looking to get into a spot in my head where it's all..." He pauses, before latching onto a fitting metaphor.
"It's like sex, you really want to start somewhere and finish somewhere. And when you start talking about selling things it's the phone ringing and someone's on your answering machine going, 'hey man, I think you left your jacket.' So I don't want to break it up, for my own sake. The first few songs I really don't know what's happening, whether the crowd is right or if I'm getting anywhere. Finally some song will happen where everything just kind of breaks open and it's going to go how its going to go, either really badly or really well. So I don't really want to ever tamper with that. And I should really be better at saying things about having records available, principally because in America they're not really that available, not anywhere near as available as they could be. I also think people want to buy stuff, they want to buy t-shirts and they want to buy records and this might be the only chance they get if they live in Iowa City."
The previous evening's show at the Fez - part of a small tour Mulcahy undertook to promote his I Just Shot Myself in the Foot Again single, featuring his own version of Shipbuilding - was punctuated by regular requests from the audience for Mark to play some of the old Miracle Legion favourites. While never hostile to these calls to revisit his past, he did bare some ambivalence with his half-joking response to one request: "I've made some records since then, so I'm going to play something from them."
"When I started playing alone I would absolutely refuse, and there's no point in that. Last night I played So Good, which I've never played before and I love that song, I've been practicing it like crazy for the past couple of weeks."
Was that in anticipation of audience requests?
"Yeah, because there's about six that I play off and on, and I wanted to do a different one. And it's always The Backyard. 'How about playing The Backyard?' Okay, I'll play it sometimes, but I'm not going to play it every time, because it seems like it cheapens it to be always like a chimpanzee, playing the requests. I've got nothing against any of the [Miracle Legion] songs, I think they're all great. Some people are like, 'fuck you! I'm not playing any of that stuff.' And I really hate that. I went to see Todd Rundgren and he comes out and goes, 'anybody who's come here to hear this song or that song might as well leave now. I'm not playing any of that.' At least you could have let us hang for the set and wonder if you're going to play the stuff. I mean, I didn't care, but I know there were people in the audience who were completely deflated by that. That's wrong, and it's wrong to get out there and play the oldies all the time. I couldn't do that. You're cheating the audience if you're playing things that you're not sincere about or if you're just doing it for whatever wrong reason. You should only play something that you want to play, even if it's all new stuff or it's noise or whatever. I would want the audience to want to know what I want to play, rather than to be there to fill in the blanks or connect the dots, I think that's empty for everybody. If you're up there faking it or playing something you don't have any interest in playing it's a dead end. Even though they're going to be glad they heard the good old song, it's not going to do them any good, they're not going to be nourished by any kind of music that's half-hearted."
It's here that I tell him I noticed the absence of Fathering's Hey Self Defeater from last night's set and that if I hadn't been quite so retiring - or sober - I might have hollered a request myself.
"You play a certain amount of songs and then you leave some off that would want to make somebody come the next time and want to see a different set. Some people have laminated set lists, the same one every night, I don't know what that's all about."
It comes as a surprise when Mulcahy admits that he had never played guitar very much before the release of Fathering. Not that his crisp and languid playing is in danger of casting him in any cracked axe hero mould, but the fluid sensuality of his guitar, angular and warm by turns, is a perfect guileless counterpart to his solo voice.
"I started playing anywhere, open mics, anything," he says of the period before Fathering.
"Because I really didn't have the courage or the skills or the knowledge of how to do it. It's really a struggle for me, that's why I play so quietly, it's the key to my being able to sing the way I like, to not be so obsessed with playing the guitar."
With releases by Miracle Legion and Polaris (Mark's 'house band' from Nickelodeon's Adventures of Pete and Pete) in addition to his solo material, Mezzotint now has a burgeoning back catalogue. Has he thought of taking on an A&R role?
"I almost released the Butterflies of Love (whose album Mulcahy co-produced). I'd like to do something that I'm not on. I've had some ideas about something interesting, not a current musical thing. Do you know that guy Damien Jurado? Somebody told me he put a record out of tapes that he found. Something like that I think is really great."
In essence though, Mezzotint was founded for one purpose, with a raison d'être clearly defined. It exists to release the music of Mark Mulcahy.
"I love it because I can make records and put them out whenever I want, " he says before we head back out into the cold again.
"Nothing would make me want to be prevented from putting out records. That's the hell of all hells."
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001