From The Screen To The Stage: Polaris Is Back
Words by Keith Hadad
If you were a kid in the 90’s, you just might remember a surreal TV show called The Adventures of Pete and Pete. The program was about the strange suburban lives of two brothers named Pete and their idiosyncratic friends, family and enemies (and personal super hero). The show’s peculiar and humorous take on adolescence alongside a roster of guest stars that included of Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi and even Patty Hearst helped launch the show into cult status.
One element of Pete & Pete that still stands out today was its phenomenal soundtrack. The opening theme and core selection of songs were by Polaris, a side project of legendary New Haven rock group, Miracle Legion. Polaris is Mark Mulcahy on guitar and vocals, Scott Boutier on percussion and Dave McCaffrey on bass (who were credited on the show under pseudonyms Muggy, Harris and Jersey, respectively). The soundtrack, which was eventually released after the show’s end, was built out of well written, fun pop-rock songs with catchy hooks that are so damn good, one doesn’t have to know anything about Pete & Pete to enjoy them.
Flash-forward to 2012 — Polaris played to a very receptive audience at their first-ever live show at a Pete & Pete reunion panel at Cinefamily’s Everything Is Festival II. By 2014, they released a new single and set out on their first tour, playing to sold-out crowds on the East Coast. By April 16 of this year, they’ll be kicking off their West Coast tour with a show at Boston’s Brighton Music Hall. Two days after that, the soundtrack album will see its first ever vinyl release for Record Store Day and a double live CD of last year’s show at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall will also make its debut.
I spoke with each member of Polaris separately over the phone about the vinyl reissue, live album and new tour.
The Waster: To begin with, what was the decision behind taking Polaris on the road in 2014-15?
Mark Mulcahy: The decision was that we were sitting doing nothing, expecting nothing and all of a sudden we get this gig with Comic Con [which actually never happened] — so this guy from Comic Con organized this really elaborate gig and we had only played up to one gig at that point. So that seemed like something worth doing. When we did that first gig we thought that maybe we could get more, but we didn’t get any at all. For whatever reason, no one had any interest at all. So when this gig happened, we said, “Well, we’ll see now if anyone wants to book some gigs” and quite a few people did.
Dave McCaffrey: When we first talked about doing a few shows together, at first it was just going to be in and around the New York and/or New England area. It just sort of grew from there and it’s been fun and going well.
Scott Boutier: Given our history together, it’s kind of like rather than having poker night at one of our houses, playing a show is like our poker night. It’s just very easy since we’ve known each other for a very long time and it certainly makes it even easier given the amount of time that’s involved in doing something like this. I mean, the playing is great, it’s fun and the fact that the reaction has been good makes it a little bit easier to do as well.
TW: So how does it feel to be performing under the banner of Polaris? Is it in any way a creative challenge, or perhaps more freeing for you guys as musicians?
MM: Well…the first gig we played… I didn’t know how to be in a band that was playing to a big crowd that hadn’t played any gigs before and didn’t have any real identity. Then once we were doing it, it sort of brought back this feeling of playing music that I really enjoyed. So there was that, and then there’s this certain responsibility with Polaris because we are only playing a certain batch of songs and then sprinkling in a few other things that seem to make some sense…When I play my own shows, I struggle over my set list every night — it’s always a challenge. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a while.
SB: No, it’s never a challenge. It’s funny, I was probably the only one that never differentiated between if it was Miracle Legion stuff, was it Mark’s stuff or was it Polaris. It was still just the same people. I guess when it came time to record, it was the only time where it really felt like it was different…
DM: The last string of shows we averaged around 300 to 500 people a night, which was great. They were a nice crowd and they knew all of the songs — it made it real easy. Preaching to the converted, you know? They know the songs and they’re singing the words, so I guess it made it that much more enjoyable — or “freeing” I guess is the word you said.
TW: How involved were you in the remastering and reissuing of the soundtrack on vinyl? And what made you want to re-release the album in this format?
MM: The Polaris record was recorded onto tape, so I’ve wanted to do it and I always have suspected that a lot of people would want it. We wanted to do it and just because it’s Record Store Day and they’re really a great help towards making it more financially feasible.
TW: So at these shows, you guys have been known to play Miracle Legion and Mark’s solo tracks as well as covers of songs by other artists from Pete & Pete, Ernie from Sesame Street and The Misfits. What has been the process for selecting the non-Polaris songs for the live shows?
MM: I don’t think there are that many people in the audience who know Miracle Legion. There is some percentage that does, so if we play a Miracle Legion song and they know it, it’s worked out pretty well. The ones that people don’t know, they seem to like them just as much. The covers, like the Sesame Street song [“I Don’t Want to Live on The Moon”] we were doing mainly space-themed covers, so many of them have ‘the moon’ in the title.
SB: It’s pretty much what feels right. I mean The Misfits song [“Halloween”] was nothing we even planned, it just came up at sound check. It was kind of like, “Oh, this is a Halloween themed show, we should do a Halloween song.” Then it was a matter of which ones do we know and which ones can we pull off without it being a train wreck.
TW: Do you have any favorite moments or highlights from the live album?
MM: There’s a Miracle Legion song called “Closer to The Wall,” which I really love. I really liked “Man on The Moon” that night, which was really good. The interplays with the crowd, they were making a lot of comments and Dave/Jersey was making a lot of comments. There was a lot of it that was really good. It was a great night in a lot of ways. There are some mistakes on it but we left everything in just to illustrate this night with Polaris in Chicago.
DM: I’ve got to be completely honest with you, I haven’t even heard it [laughs]…somebody did send me a video of our show at The Knitting Factory. I’ve been listening to that and watching it because it makes it easier to relearn what we were playing and it sounds great, so I can imagine that the Chicago show sounds quite similar.
TW: The audiences at the Polaris shows are probably largely built out of people who grew up watching Pete & Pete. What’s it like for you to encounter these specific fans?
MM: I’d say for the most part, it’s mostly sweet. I think it’s a pretty unique blend of circumstances that take a band from a long time ago that hasn’t done anything and put them together with an audience from a long time ago, that has grown up, and everybody’s doing the whole thing for the first time. It’s really pleasant.
DM: It’s interesting. When we did the show in LA, it was a bigger theater, so I didn’t have a great feel for who was at the show. Then these shows in New England, we played the first one in Providence, Rhode Island and when we walked down to the stage to play and looked out at the crowd, I was surprised. To me, everyone looked to be in their 20s or early 30s. It was interesting to play to a younger demographic.
SB: I’ve never thought about it before. Everybody goes to a show for their own reasons. I guess at this moment, I’m just grateful that there are this many people that exist that enable us to keep doing it. I guess when we played that first gig a few years ago, I really never connected our very small part in that show to the larger web of what the show meant to so many people…
TW: Are there any upcoming gigs on the new tour that you are most looking forward to?
SB: I am really basing this next trip on the meals that I’m looking forward to eating in places that I haven’t been to in a while. The playing is always great, so that’s a given, but apart from that it’s like “I’m going to be here, and outside of the playing, what’s the icing on that already good cake?”
DM: It’ll be nice to see my friends out in L.A. and San Francisco.
MM: We’ve never played much in Seattle, Portland and Spokane. I’ve only ever played there once. I just totally look forward to all of it. Plus we’ve never done a week of touring. We’ve done two or three days here and two or three days there, so this’ll be a solid week in a van, which will be nice.
TW: Many of the Polaris fans were kids when Pete & Pete came out, so hearing the songs now probably take them back to fond memories of this strange, funny TV series and where they were and what they were doing while watching it. So when you play and hear the Polaris songs today, where do they take you back?
DM: For me, writing and recording them because when Pete & Pete was on, Miracle Legion was sort of ending or we weren’t doing much, so in a way it was nice for every year, three years in a row, they [Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, the creators of Pete & Pete] needed a batch of songs for each upcoming season. So Mark would write whatever, four or five songs that we would spend a while rehearsing and working out all of the parts and then we’d go record the batch of songs. There’s a lot of people who’d play on each track, we did the basics and all that stuff and then we’d have friends come in and lay down the slide guitar or an organ part or whatever it may be, so I guess for me, the songs bring back to me the time when we first recorded them.
SB: They’re taking me to the moment that I’m in. I guess to go back to a specific moment, maybe if I listen to the original recordings, which I don’t often do, mainly because I can’t just listen to it without either hearing a mistake or hearing something I wish we had done differently. When we’re playing it, I am in that moment at that time.
MM: Well, a lot of it is the process of writing it because I wrote a lot of it while collaborating with McRobb. So doing the music, I worked with him a lot on it and so some of the songs are more on the personal side of what I would write. A lot of times I’m thinking about the nostalgia of it in a way, the idea of it…
Catch Polaris at the Highline Ballroom in New York City this May 15th…
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