Formed in 1983 by songwriting principals singer Mark Mulcahy and guitarist Ray Neal, New Haven’s Miracle Legion crafted a finely tuned blend of jangly pop-rock, folk intricacies, and Van Morrison-esque soulfulness that by all rights should have grabbed the as of yet unrecognized alternative masses by the ears. Indeed, though they couldn’t get a record review without at least a mention of REM, they never caught the breaks that that band did. After several records on the ultimately doomed Rough Trade label, the band ended up in a legal limbo after Morgan Creek Records, the film studio spinoff label that released the band’s Drenched album in 1992, opted out of releasing a follow-up without releasing the band from its contract.
Miracle Legion regrouped in 1996, putting out the CD-only Portrait of a Damaged Family on Mulcahy’s self-run Mezzotint label. Though the band played a flurry of shows in the Northeast following the album’s release, they ultimately decided to call it a day. Mulcahy and the Miracle Legion rhythm section, drummer Scott Boutier and bassist Dave McCaffrey, formed the fictional band Polaris to create music for hip kids show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, while Neal played with such bands as the Jellyshirts and Boy Genius before moving abroad to Scotland.
Following on the heels of a 2014 Polaris reunion tour, Miracle Legion recently announced they would be getting back together in tandem with a 20th anniversary vinyl edition of Portrait for Record Store Day, as well as the rest of the entire catalog being released digitally. That tour kicks off proper in July, but tonight Mulcahy and Neal will be playing as just a two-piece in New York. I got in touch with Neal to get his thoughts on all things past and present.
I’m assuming that the Polaris tour from a few years ago had something to do with the Miracle Legion reunion. Is that true?
Ray Neal: Possibly. I wasn’t in Polaris so I wasn’t involved with that. I can’t speak for Mark, but it probably got him thinking. That there was any interest probably surprised him. Because you don’t know. When we decided late last year that we were going to do something, we had no clue if anyone in the world would care. Amazingly, there seems to be people who care and we’ve gotten a lot of good press. So I would guess without asking Mark that it probably gave him the idea that it would be possible.
Do you feel like the Ciao My Morning Star album raised the profile of the band?
RN: I think it probably did. I know that Thom Yorke’s “All For the Best” got a lot of plays. I think it helped, but it’s hard to tell. I’m just figuring it out as we go along. I’m re-evaluating what we did and what effect we had because I really haven’t thought about it all that much. It seems like we’re one of those groups that as time goes on we’ve become more important. Not to use the old Velvets thing about only 3,000 people buying the first album and every one of them starting a band, but there seems to be quite a few people—and I’m humbled by it—who seem to have gotten started partially by enjoying what we did. And there are probably more of them than we thought in the past.
I remember when Portrait came out, it seemed like that was kind of a reunion for you.
RN: Yeah, it kind of was because we had that period after Drenched, when Morgan Creek wouldn’t let us make a record. There was a whole period where we couldn’t do anything, and Portrait was us saying, “Okay, we’re going to do it again on our own terms, without a record company.” I remember it being quite a good time. We played some shows and it was back to the way it used to be. The Morgan Creek years were our taste of Hollywood, and it was really terrible.
I don’t recall ever seeing another record come out on that label.
RN: They did have a few. There was a group of bands that they signed with us. There was a band called Eleven that had Jack Irons, the original Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer. They had a band from Australia that was like a glam-metal band, and there might have been another one. I remember feeling for the Australian band because they all moved to Los Angeles. They all uprooted their lives just to be thrown away. No one at Morgan Creek had a clue what they were doing.
Were they completely clueless or just out to make a quick buck?
RN: They were a film company and did a ton of films. They had just done Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the Bryan Adams song from the movie was the biggest single in the world. So they thought they could make a lot money in the music business. They started the label, sank a lot of money into it, and hired a bunch of really old record company executives. I remember the head of radio saying—and remember this was 1992—that he hated college radio, and it was like, “I guess that’s it for us.” So it was that kind of thinking. They took out a full-page ad in Billboard when our record came out that someone told me cost about $10,000, which was money that could have been better spent. That was something you might have done later if we had broken through to the next level, but the people that were going to play our record were not reading Billboard Magazine. So it was stuff like that, one thing after another, of just not having a clue and pumping money in. We recorded the album in LA and it was great fun, but it didn’t make a lot of sense. And I think they probably did that with all the bands then realized they hadn’t made their money back.
Prior to that, there were a lot of pieces that were like, “Miracle Legion, the band that should be big.” Did you feel like that, like you were always on the precipice of greater success?
RN: We never started the band thinking we were going to be rock stars. We were just having fun. The frustration for Mark and I was that we just wanted to keep doing it and be able to do it well and have the money to put on a good show. It seemed like we just couldn’t get over that hump where we’d have a bit more money around. I don’t remember thinking, “We’re going to make it to the top!” But it seems like there’s a level where you can play gigs at theaters instead of clubs and have good equipment. But our thing was 13 years in a van.
Prior to Portrait coming out, was there a point when you thought the band was done?
RN: Yeah. When the Morgan Creek thing collapsed, we were a week away from going to record another album. We had a studio booked in New Orleans, we had a producer, and were ready to go. Then Mark gets off the phone one day and says, “They’re not going to do a second record.” Oh, you mean we’re dropped? “No, they’re not going to do anything.” So that was 12 years in and I personally was worn out. By the time Portrait came around… it was good to do and it was a way to do it ourselves, but the wind was out of my sails. Then the Polaris thing came along. I was at the Grand Canyon with my wife, talking to Mark on a pay phone and I could have gone back and done the Polaris things or continue on my two-month drive around America. I was like, “Why don’t you do the Polaris thing?” One of the things about driving around the country for a decade is that you see signs for things, but you never get to see them. I thought it was great for Mark because it pushed him to create a bunch of songs. But yeah, I was worn out.
When Portrait came out, you played around New York a lot, but did you tour at all and did you feel like anyone outside of the tri-state area knew about it?
RN: It’s hard for me to remember, but I don’t think a lot of people knew. There was no one doing any press for it. What I remember is that we played some of our old haunts. I feel like that record never came out in any real way and that’s one of the motivations for having it come out again so people actually know.
You said the wind was out of your sails, but was that the sentiment throughout the band?
RN: I don’t really know. I didn’t see a strong desire to keep it going, but I don’t know exactly how they felt. But then the Polaris thing came along and that involved a lot of writing on demand, which is a very pro songwriter kind of thing. And then Scott and Dave joined Frank Black in the Catholics for 10 years.
I haven’t gotten my hands on the new edition of Portrait, but something I read said that it has less songs. Is that right?
RN: It has a new song, “Depot,” and it’s missing “La Muerte di Gardenier” and “Please.” The album needed to be shorter.
Is “Depot” brand new or from that period?
RN: It’s from that period. I know there are some covers lying around from that time too so maybe we’ll put out a covers EP sometime. I like the idea of it being shorter. I think there are many downsides to CDs, but one thing is that it allowed bands to make 20-song albums, which is a really bad thing to me. I know I’m an old man, but 30 or 40 minutes is perfect.
And you are planning on releasing the rest of the catalog digitally?
RN: Yeah, the rest is coming out a couple days after Record Store Day in digital formats, which I don’t even know what means. Is it going to be on everything? But it’s all coming out and we’re playing gigs.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard how you came up with the name Miracle Legion.
RN: It’s not too exciting. The whole thing about Miracle Legion is that Mark and I never intended to start a band. We had both been in other bands, both together and separately. Mark was originally a drummer and I played guitar. We were like, “The guy that writes the songs always leaves, so let’s just write a few songs.” So we did and we made a tape. We weren’t really going to do anything, but it snowballed a bit. We had a couple friends playing bass and drums, and the first time we ever played, we called ourselves the American Legion. Afterwards, we thought perhaps the American Legion isn’t going to be too happy about it. So one day Mark suggested that we call ourselves the Miracles, but I pointed out that there already was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. So then we combined the two.
When the original rhythm section left, what made you decide to make Me and Mr. Ray as just a two-piece instead of getting replacements right away?
RN: Right after those guys left, within a week, we were at New Music Seminar or CMJ—one of those big things that happened in New York—and our manager said that we could go on tour with The Sugarcubes starting the next week if we could do it as a two-piece. So we did that and had a great time playing with them and even recorded some stuff together. When the tour was done, we just felt like we should capture that. We had been playing as a two-piece for two months so let’s just go make a record. After that, though, we realized we couldn’t keep going as a two-piece. It’s not as much fun and you can’t do a lot of the songs justice.
You made that record at Paisley Park. Why go all the way there to make a record as a two-piece?
RN: The guy that produced it had some connection there and might have been from out that way. But it was way cool.
Did you have any spottings of the great purple one?
RN: I did, I walked past him once. He’s shorter than you can even imagine. There were studios A, B, and C, and we were in studio A, but we got word that we had to move to B because Prince was coming in to record. He was on tour, but he’d fly in and record for literally 24 hours a day for two days straight. We could move back into A when he left, and that day he was still there, but he was playing in Hartford, right near our hometown, that night. It was crazy. You’d see racks of clothing go by and the whole place looked like something out of Miami Vice. When we went back into the main studio after he left, there was gauze over all the lights and those weird Harlequin clowns hanging on the walls. I grabbed up all the guitar picks, which were heart-shaped.
Looking back now with some perspective, have your feelings about the band changed from when you were in the trenches, so to speak?
RN: For me, the last few months have been great. I’ve never been someone to be overly confident about what I’m doing, so I never could listen to the albums after we made them because I’d always be thinking about how I could have done something differently and tormenting myself. But now that I look back on it all, I can say without hesitation that I think we did some incredible stuff. Listening to things on headphones trying to relearn them, I’m like, “Wow, I really like this!” I was always proud of what we did, but I’m more proud now.
Is there a possibility for a new record or continuing past the reunion shows?
RN: I think there’s certainly a possibility, but we have to see how this goes. I think Mark and I are ready to write songs and all for it, but we should see how this tour goes and if anybody cares. But I do think we’ll do more.