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Miracle Legion - Interview

  by Anthony Strutt

published: 8 / 11 / 2016

Miracle Legion - Interview


Anthony Strutt speaks to Ray Neal, the guitarist with critically acclaimed American alternative rock act Miracle Legion, about his band's history and their reformation after a break of almost two decades

Miracle Legion are an alternative rock act from New Haven, Connecticut. They were originally together between 1983 and 1997, but recently reformed for a tour that lasted just under three months from June to August of this year and in which they played gigs in the United States and the United Kingdom. The group consists of Mark Mulcahy on vocals and Mr. Ray Neal on guitar. Their earlier line-up also included Joel Potocsky on bass while Jeff Wiederschall drummed. Their latter line-up and also for the recent tour featured Dave McCaffrey on bass duties and Scott Boutier on drums. This rhythm section of the latter line-up also played for Frank Black's post Pixies band, Frank Black and the Catholics. Miracle Legion grew out of the American college radio circuit, and released their six-track debut mini- album, 'The Backyard', in 1985. After a gig in New York at CBGB's, Miracle Legion, who were fans of the Smiths signed to that band’s label , Rough Trade. While they were on Rough Trade, they released their 1987 first full-length album, ‘Surprise, Surprise, Surprise’, and in 1988 another mini- album, ‘Glad’, of which one side consisted of live material and the other of studio recordings. ‘Me and Mr. Ray’, their 1989 final album for Geoff Travis's label, saw Mulcahy and Neal recording as a two-piece. They also released in the same year a twelve inch single, ‘You're the One, Lee’, the B-side of which had an alternative version of the title track featuring their touring buddies, the Sugarcubes. In the early 1990s Miracle Legion, whose music was compared in its jangling sound to R.E.M. , signed to a film company, Morgan Creek, and, working once more as a four-piece with the latter rhythm section, released their third full-length album, ‘Drenched’, which was produced by John Porter, who had also produced the Smiths’ eponymous 1984 debut album. After a difficult time with their then new label, they managed to leave Morgan Creek, and Mulcahy set up his own label, Mezzotint, which released the band's final offering, 'Portrait of a Damaged Family', in 1997. Soon afterwards, however, the band split and went their own separate ways. Neal moved to Scotland while Mulcahy released four very successful solo albums. Pennyblackmusic caught up with Ray Neal at the final gig of the tour at Oslo in London and spoke to him about the history of the band. PB: Miracle Legion formed in New Haven in '83. Is that correct? RN: I think it was then. 1983 sounds good, and it was definitely in New Haven. Both Mark and I had been in bands before. PB: Were they anyone that we may have heard of? RN: I was in the Stray Divides, who went onto become Dumptruck. Mark was playing drums in a band called the Saucers when I met him. When I first came onto the punk rock scene in New Haven, it was the Saucers that I was drawn too, as Craig Bell, who was the bass player in Rocket From the Tombs, which was David Thomas’ band before Pere Ubu, was their founder. So, there was that connection and that is how I met Mark. Not too many bands from New Haven went on to get out of New Haven. PB: Miracle Legion was part of the college radio circuit. Was that a chain of university and college campus radio stations? RN: Not really. Radio was very influential back then and in those days completely wide open. From what I understand now, radio is all about making money. Now they run a lot of formatted fake radio station but then on the college circuit there was this really strong scene all around America of radio stations, mainly in colleges and universities that would bring the bands together. There wasn't a lot of university or college gigs as such. We would usually play at a club in town, although the scene largely generated from college and university radio and so that way you could make your way all the way across America. PB: Were there bands that bonded both you and Mark together? RN: I think the one band that both Mark and I totally loved was Queen. Their first album right up until ‘A Day at the Races’ are still for me just amazing records. We always wanted to be not like them, but were inspired by them as we wanted also to be a band that also didn't just have one sound. The Gun Club was another starting point for Miracle Legion. Although we didn't end up sounding like them at all, we wanted at first to be the Gun Club. PB: ‘The Backyard’ was your official debut single in 1984 but there was a cassette demo before then, wasn’t there? RN: Yes, which I don't think I have. It was called 'A Simple Thing'. Mark had a loft space where he lived and where we practised and a friend of ours had a four track, and I think we recorded about five songs for it. I can't remember everything that's on it, but some of them went on to be redone. 'All for the Best' was on it. There were about a hundred of these cassettes. We didn't have any intention of going out and playing gigs at that stage, but somehow one of those cassettes got reviewed in 'Sounds' without us knowing, so Mark and I said “Perhaps we should actually do something” , and we got a band together, and then released ‘The Backyard’. PB: ‘The Backyard’ came out via Making Waves over here. From that you then went on to sign to Rough Trade. Is that right/ RN: Yes, originally it came out on a local label called Incas, which was licensed to Making Waves and then it was released on Rough Trade UK and then Rough Trade US PB: What attracted you to Rough Trade? Was it its history and groups like the Smiths? RN: I already knew who they were, but we played a gig in New York at CBGB's and it was at the end of a horrific tour. We had done ‘The Backyard’ and things had gone well, but we didn't know what to do with that initial success, so we just kept on playing gigs . America is so exhausting. We played gig after gig for month. We just kept on playing gigs. It's so big that you have to fucking carry on playing, and so we were playing this gig, and we were going like crazy with all this pent-up energy. I think it was the last night of the tour, and afterwards this guy came up to us, and said, “Hi, I'm Geoff Travis from Rough Trade and I want to sign you.” And I turned to jelly. Then he said, “Are you staying in town?” I said, “Yes, at such and such a hotel,” and so the next morning, he turned up with a cassette of 'Strangeways, Here We Come' before it was released. So, we listened to it before anyone else, and that was it. PB: After the ‘Surprise, Surprise, Surprise’ album and ‘Glad’ 12”, you returned to being a two piece. Did the rhythm section get fired or were they fed up? RN: They were fed up. I think we played Washington DC, and they decided to tell us what they thought of us, just as we left Washington, heading to New Haven, which is like a good four to five hours in a van, so, after they told us, it was a very long drive. I'm not going into that, but living in a band is a different way of life. PB: Was it easier returning to being a two-piece? RN: It was but we just had to approach things differently. What happened was we got home from this dreadful drive home, with these two guys who hated our guts, and a few days later we got the chance to open for the Sugarcubes, who were in America, and they were keen for us to do it because there were now only two of us and they wouldn't have to move any gear. So, we went out and did a month or so in America, and instantly, had to become a two-piece, and when we were done it was like, “Let's do something with this. Let's capture this moment,” which was fine but different. PB: The Sugarcubes were huge instantly. How did you get on with The Sugarcubes and the pre-fame Bjork? RN: It was a different big. They were amazing. Bjork wasn't unfriendly, but she was in her own thing. She also had her son with her, who was about four. But everyone else in the band was great, and that was the most rock and roll tour we ever did. At that point, the Sugarcubes were about as high as you could go in the alternative punk thing in America. So they were being treated really nice and they just swept us up in it. After every gig, there would be an after show party. It was the only real tour where I drank a lot. They were Icelandic so they drunk like fish from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, and they were getting it all for free. I now live in Scotland, and I know the further North you go and darker it gets the more you drink. I think that's the excuse. PB: The next album was 'Drenched' and you went back to being a full band. Did you come to the UK again? RN: We opened for Green on Red on a tour. We were on a new label that was a film company, Morgan Creek, and they just had released ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ and that song by Bryan Adams, ‘(‘Everything I Do) I Do it for You’) that became the biggest single in American history. So they thought, “We will get into this, man. This will be great.” hired a lot of acts and there was this guy from Capitol saying that we were going to hang out with Paul McCartney and the Stones. The head of radio, however, hated college radio which is what we were. Mark and I were looking at each other saying, “What have we got ourselves into here?” It was rough PB: And then you got yourself a new rhythm section? RN: There was a hellish audition period with no one getting what we were doing. We got someone, saying I have two kids and they can tour at the weekend. No one understood that we were a professional thing. It was dire, and our manager said, “You know Scott and Dave,” and we knew them from a band in Rhode Island called What Now. And they were the last two guys, and we were like, “They are going to suck…” They parked their truck outside the audition room and it was full of junk food wrappers, which was the first good sign. That meant that they they were living in the truck (Laughs). And they got it. They totally got the whole thing. Most people didn't understand us at all. PB: How well did you get on with John Porter who produced ‘Drenched’? RN: Really well. His way of recording guitars was fascinating for me as a Smiths fan. It panned out in a way as it did too with the Smiths. He is not really a singer-producer. He is a guitarist. So, it was great for me, but not so much for Mark as the singer. He was great for stories. He knew everyone. Steve Marriott died while we were recording it, and even he was shocked. There was a pub in L.A. where all the older British rockers drunk, and we went in with him, and the whole pub was devastated because they all knew him. Some people say that album was over produced, but when I listen to it now I still think it's great. PB: After this Mark formed his own label, Mezzotint. Is it his or the band's? RN: No, it's his. PB: And then you released 'Portrait of a Damaged Family' which was re- released this year for Record Store Day, which on its first release I have to admit I didn't know about. RN: No one did. PB: Was it easier to record after all the hassle of some of the previous recordings? RN: Yes, in a way. We found a little recording studio in a warehouse and we moved in, and they were like, “Whatever, man.” We brought in our own engineer, rewired the whole place. It was great. But we were getting near the end of our tether. I was in particular. PB: Did you split up before it was released? RN: It came out and we did a few shows but nothing was happening. Mark had started the label but I didn't know what to do with myself. There was no promotion or anything. I was really worn out. My wife at the time wouldn't let me watch MTV because I would shout at it. It was a bad time for me. PB: Mark started his solo career on Loose Records. What you did next? RN: I remained involved for a while in music but the only major thing I did was I played on the second Vic Chesnutt record, ‘West of Rome’. And then I did some low-key stuff. My wife, who was Scottish, had health issues and we had kids and then all of a sudden it’s like twenty years later. PB: ‘Portrait of a Damaged Family’ was released for this year's Record Store Day. Were you aware of Record Store Day before then? RN: I was aware of it, but I was pretty much removed from the music world by that stage. Mark and I hadn't spoken much over the last few years, and then we started to talk again and Rich, our manager, started talking about doing these reunion dates. And then the next question was would anyone care? Or would we be any good? I live in Edinburgh now. I'm just the guy that goes to the store. But it started to flow together a little bit, and we realised that, wow, people would write about us and come to see us. I know that we had an effect to some degree and I was proud of it, but it snowballed beyond what I had expected. PB: Off the back of the Record Store Day re-release you have now toured both the USA and the UK. Were the American shows bigger in size than the ones you played before? RN: We did better there than we have done before. We weren’t playing giant places, but it's been consistent near sell outs throughout this tour. In the UK at the moment, back catalogue outsells new releases and it has always been great here. We knew that things would go well here, but the American audiences were really good. It has been very emotional. People haven't seen us for a long time or have never seen us, or have just discovered us. The most amazing thing is there have been young people at the shows. If it had been a total nostalgia trip, if it had been a bunch of guys my age, that would have been nice but it wouldn't have felt as magic or as intense as it has done. America is so big and so hard to bust, and we always had good times here. I would say though that both countries attract the same amount of audience now. PB: Now we live in the internet age, would you say that has helped? RN: I don't think so. But I have been forced into getting more involved with social media. It's like you got to tweet this, you have got to tweet that. Rich is constantly tweeting something. It's good and bad. I prefer to go to the record store and see what's there. PB: There was a Mark Mulcahy/Miracle Legion tribute covers album, ‘Ciao: My Shining Star’, in 2009 on behalf of Mark’s wife Melissa who had died the year before. Were you surprised by the calibre of artistes, such as Thom Yorke from Radiohead, who were involved? RN: Yes, definitely. It was amazing. On top of it all I thought everybody that was on it did a great job. I think doing a cover is hard because most of the time you are either going to lose the plot or sound exactly the same but I think with Thom Yorke it sounded like 'All for the Best' but it certainly sounded like him as well. That was the start for me of thinking that we did some really good work. It took me that long to realise it because back then when we listened to our records it was painful. All I would think is I should have done this or that instead. But now I have had to re-listen to them and to re-learn them I am thinking there are really great and I'm not ashamed of them. PB: Michael Stipe appeared on it too with ‘Everything’s Come Undone’. Do you know him? RN: I used to hang out with him a bit. We did the Vic Chesnutt record together. He was the producer, and my wife at the time and I spent some time with him in New Orleans. I haven't seen him in years but we are Instagram friends. He is now in the art world, I believe. PB: There is a rumour that this is the last show ever or at least the last show for now? RN: I have no idea. It is certainly the last one for now. There's no more booked. I would love to do more with Mark. Again I realise now what we did with our work and I think it's really special. Being back and playing music with him is different to playing with anyone else, so we will see. PB: Have you written any new songs for the set? RN: There's nothing new but I have a whole batch of music that I'm ready to go with. We live in different countries now, but we have the internet now and I'm sure it will work out. PB: Other than playing guitar, do you have a day job? RN: No, I don't. I'm very lucky in that I own a little bit of property in America, which keeps me going. I should have but I don't. My wife died of cancer. We were not married at the time, but we were divorced, and we got back together and I spent the last three years with her in Edinburgh and our two sons, so now I want to stay in Edinburgh and to work in Britain. The immigration thing is a hassle. It’s been a struggle but I'm getting there. Now I'm doing music again it's really good. So, if anyone is listening, I’m back. I felt a piece of me was missing. There was all kind of crazy shit, illnesses and divorces, but now it’s time to move on. PB: Thank you.

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