Polaris is a band whose music is as enduringly enjoyable as its story is unique. After the dissolution of the Connecticut college rock band Miracle Legion, frontman Mark Mulcahy was looking for a new creative outlet. It came in the form of a TV show for Nickelodeon. Will McRobb and Chris Biscardi’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete is the sort of show you should make your kids watch if you want them to grow up cool. Michael Stipe has a cameo as an ice cream man, Iggy Pop shows up too and the whole enterprise has a “David Lynch minus the sex and scariness” vibe that’s never really been duplicated. It also has one of the best original soundtracks of any television show thanks to Mulcahy and his bandmates, David McCaffrey and Scott Boutier.
That soundtrack, Music from The Adventures of Pete & Pete, is getting released on vinyl for the first time on Record Store Day this year. Moreover, the band is reunited and playing these songs for the first time on a tour this spring. If they’re coming to your city and you somehow miss them (which you shouldn’t), they’re releasing their first-ever live album, Polaris Live at Lincoln Hall this April too. We caught up with Mark Mulcahy to talk about what it was like getting commissioned to write these songs in the ‘90s and playing them for the first time now.
Paste: When you were first talking with Will McRobb and Chris Biscardi, did you guys have any musical commonalities? Did you share any favorite bands or anything to help you understand what they may want for the show?
Mark Mulcahy: Not really, to be honest. I used to be in a band called Miracle Legion and that’s the band Will was a fan of. He actually wanted that band to do the music but, at the time, we were sort of in some crazy limbo where we weren’t really together. I was really just trying to figure out how to do it. I’d never been asked to do something like that before so I was thinking less of what we had in common musically and more about how to do it without a band. I’d never really done anything by myself, and I’d never really done a TV show. When it came to the music, the main question of that was: can you write a theme song? That was at the top of the list of things I’d never done before. [Laughs] That really had me pretty nervous.
Paste: Polaris features you and two other members from Miracle Legion. One thing I’ve noticed about Polaris is that it sounds pretty similar to your former band but a little more spacey. There are more echo effects on the guitars, voiceovers that sound like they could be from NASA. Was there any reason you went for that aesthetic for the show?
Mulcahy: What came first was getting the job and writing the music. The band was just an invention. The reason we’re the band we are is because I didn’t really know anybody else. I got the job, they said “write the music and we’ll see if it’s what we want” and it was. I’d never really written by myself. The whole thing was a weird departure and turning point in my life. I’d always written with Ray, who was my writing partner in Miracle Legion. When I went to record, I didn’t know anyone else to do it with besides those guys. The first season it was just me and Scott, who’s the drummer. After I did those four songs for season one, I turned them in, everyone was happy and they told us they decided to film the open with us as the band on the front lawn. So we just invented the band for that reason and came up with a name. It was all very organic and nothing was specifically plotted out. That makes what’s happening now even more surprising and unlikely. It was just this invented thing we never really had any serious aspirations or goals with. Once we were the band on the front lawn, we became the band that played all the music over the next two seasons. It all came across, as they say, ass backwards. Pardon my language. [Laughs]
Paste: You’ve said this is surprising and unlikely. But now that you’ve already done some reunion gigs that were well-received and are about to tour with the band, why do you think Polaris and the show developed this cult following?
Mulcahy: I would give most of the credit to Will and Chris for inventing something that is very solid and timeless. It’s like Twin Peaks or Mr. Show or something where you’ll always be happy to see it. Some things are just great. Thank God for reruns and YouTube so you can watch it forever. They had a great sense of what to write about, a great sense of music, of who to hire to be the actors. I think they were pretty much left alone by the corporation, no one was keeping an eye on them. They just had a lucky recipe. When somebody does something and they do it well, it’s just a lucky thing for everybody.
Paste: Did you feel pretty left alone by the network too? I always thought it was funny that the song “Summerbaby” is the one that catches Little Pete’s ear and there’s a line in there about “every drop of sex.”
Mulcahy: Oh, we recorded that for the episode. We said “every time I guess.” There was another episode where one of the kids drinks a slushie too fast and gets a brain freeze, then it’s all hazy and druggy. They got into a little trouble for that one. On a personal note, they did a promotion with Kellogg’s where you could get a tape if you bought cereal. They wanted three Polaris songs for the tape so I gave them three and one of them had the word “devil” in it. That got rejected immediately. Another had the line “looks like daddy’s taking off his belt” and that’s no good either. [Laughs] But that was from Kellogg’s mainly.
Paste: Looking back, do you have a favorite one of these songs?
Mulcahy: I’m pretty happy with how they all came out. It was an unusual approach because Will was involved and I was told what instruments to use. When I listen to it, I’m pleased it still sounds like me and he kept me how I would sound while also satisfying whichever specific thing they were looking for. They never asked me to write lyrics they wanted, they’d just tell me to write about something like a breakup or to make it sad. I really learned a lot about what I could do and I wish I could do more of it because it was really interesting and enjoyable. Playing it has been great.
Paste: For these live shows, are you just playing the whole record start to finish?
Mulcahy: Not in order, but we play the whole thing. Before we started playing, we put [out] a cassingle of two new songs, so there’s 14 Polaris songs and we play a few Miracle Legion songs since it’s the same three guys. We’ll do a couple covers if we can fit them in there. We actually made a live record of a gig we did in Chicago and it ended up a double CD. It’s a pretty long show, a hundred and something minutes. We play a lot longer than I thought we did.
Paste: Are you thinking of writing more stuff with Polaris or continuing with your solo work? What’s the next move for you?
Mulcahy: When we first started doing this particular thing and recorded two songs for the cassingle, it was pretty effortless in its own weird way. We were saying we should make another album, but I just don’t know if that’s a good idea. Once we get done with these dates, I don’t know how many more we can do because we’ve kind of played everywhere we could play, for the most part. I love doing it so maybe we can do it again in a year or two and maybe by then we would have something else out.
Paste: Has the response at the gigs you’ve played so far been pretty lively and positive, in your opinion?
Mulcahy: Yeah, that’s one of the great things about it. People have been waiting to hear somebody to play this music for a really long time, so they’re pretty happy. I’m just as happy because I haven’t played it either. It’s not like I’ve been grinding away playing this stuff for 10 years. There’s a lot of things about it which are interesting and curious which prevents it from being some nostalgia trip for us. We don’t feel like Herman’s Hermits. It’s fresher than that.