Critic’s Notebook: Polaris rising: Mark Mulcahy’s ‘Pete and Pete’ band comes to town
The band Polaris, which performs Saturday night at the Echoplex in Echo Park, will need no introduction to fans of “The Adventures of Pete and Pete,” the greatest show in the history of television (I am always ready to say, even if it is not a verifiable proposition). Quite possibly they will need an introduction to nearly everyone else.
“Pete and Pete,” for those who need to start there, was a brilliant kids’ show, created by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, that ran in various forms on Nickelodeon from 1993 to 1996, first as a series of 60-second brand-building spots, then as a series of specials, and for three seasons as a full-blown series. Polaris provided its bright suburban-jangle-rock theme, “Hey, Sandy,” along with other songs and musical snippets that helped define the show’s aesthetic and philosophy, a celebration of the epic in the ordinary, the luxuriousness of longing and the indelible fleetingness of everything. As McRobb describes it, “It’s almost like a show about kids who are nostalgic about being kids, when they’re kids.”
For most of its career, to use perhaps too strong a term, Polaris -- which was essentially Mark Mulcahy, sometimes accompanied by Miracle Legion bandmates Dave McCaffrey, bass, and Scott Boutier, drums -- only existed within the confines of “Pete and Pete.” Even then they were unseen but for the opening credits (which means, of course, that they were also in every episode) and in the first season episode “A Hard Day’s Pete,” where (with Miracle Legion fourth Ray Neal, they play a garage band whose song gets into the head of Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli). The band’s first actual performance was not until 2012, in Los Angeles, at a “Pete and Pete” public reunion at the Orpheum Theater.
Although the new old band was inspired to play more shows, it wasn’t until last fall that things finally fell into place, with the “Waiting for October” tour, named for a much-loved Polaris song. They also released a “cassingle” of new music, “Great Big Happy Green Moonface” b/w “Baby Tae Kwon Do”; a Record Store Day vinyl reissue of “Music from the Adventures of Pete and Pete”; and a new double-live album, “Polaris Live at Lincoln Hall,” recorded last year in Chicago. This month the band finally gets (back) to the West Coast.
I spoke individually with Mulcahy and McRobb about the band and the show they lived in. (Their responses are mixed together below.) “I don’t think there’s been a precedent for the Polaris phenomenon,” said McRobb, “the imaginary band that’s now 20 years later playing in your town. But I think Mark is embracing what’s kind of cosmic about it.”
Mark Mulcahy: I don’t know what the adjective for our career is, but it’s been pretty much 15 years of rest, and then one day, then two years of rest. I’m not sure what happened, because after we played that first gig in L.A., we tried to get more, and couldn’t get one. And then someone got us a gig at Comic-Con [in New York in 2014], and somehow post that gig we were able to be a normal band. Pretty much the only way we get a gig is the agent calls the booker and he says, “Yes, I loved that show, I grew up on that show, yes, I’m dying to book this band,” or the other reaction is, “I don’t know what it is, no.”
How did it begin?
Will McRobb: When we got the pickup to do the show, we knew we needed a theme song, and felt that whoever we got to do the theme song we should get to do the series. And in my mind, it was always going to be Miracle Legion. A lot of it has to do with their song, “The Backyard”; the whole song’s about being a kid in the summer and being on your own -- it’s such a nostalgic song to me. I was listening to “The Backyard” before we ever did the series; I think that song made the whole idea of “Pete and “Pete” possible. They were an inspiration before I even knew I would need a band.
So cut to four years later when we finally got the chance to do the series, it seemed like a natural to get them. I happened to have a contact who knew Mark; we had a very nervous, awkward meeting. I was a big fan boy so I was super-nervous. We were in New York in this coffee shop, and I was going a million miles an hour, and he was just staring at me.
Mulcahy: I met Will in a restaurant, and he started talking about having Miracle Legion do it. And I said I can ask everybody, but we’re sort of in a weird funk, limbo-y kind of thing; we couldn’t get off our label and had all these legal things. Scott and Dave were in Frank Black’s band, and Ray, who was my partner in Miracle Legion, had just got married and was going to go on a cross-country trip and said, “I don’t want to do anything.” and. So I said to Will, “I’d like to try doing it alone if you wouldn’t mind.” And Will said, “Well, the first order is the theme song” and that they wanted a theme song for “Pete and “Pete” that didn’t say “Pete and Pete.” And I had that song already written, “Hey Sandy.”
McRobb: I think I said to him write a theme song, and I think he thought that was going to be really hacky, like it was going to be “The Monkees” or something. I said, “Just make sure there’s nothing in the song about the show, it should feel like the show.” Sometimes I talk about how envious I am of the guy I was back then where I didn’t really know anything but I had all these ideas and they all made sense to me -- “just make the song, don’t make it be about the show.” If I came up with any decision that profound today, I’d probably agonize over it for a month, but back then it just seemed like, “Don’t be so obvious.” It’s just the feel, and that’s good enough.
Why do you think they wanted Miracle Legion?
Mulcahy: I think that somewhere at the very core of it is something to do with our music being maybe inspiration for the nostalgic-ness of that show. I’m not taking any credit, but I think that’s the connection, we in some way represented what they were thinking of.
McRobb: I probably said to him something embarrassing like “The whole show is based on this one song you did,” but I was just talking about “The Backyard” and how it was so evocative. A lot of Mark’s songs are very evocative -- they seem to speak to summers and seasons changing. I think he’s very much wired the same way as the show. I saw one interview where he said he didn’t really know what it was going to be, he thought it was just a dumb cartoon. I think he was in denial; I think he was just trying to keep his distance from it; eventually he embraced it.
Did they show you anything or tell you much about the show beforehand?
Mulcahy: No, I’m sure Will explained it to me, but I don’t know that I was really paying attention. I really wanted the job, and I would have said anything to do it. I was definitely in a place where I wasn’t completely clear what was going to happen because of this legal mess, where we couldn’t do anything for a long time, and so I was just looking to figure out how to keep going.
What did you think when you finally saw it?
Mulcahy: I was really happy. I had thought for a while it was going to be animated, so that was great -- there were people in it. The first time I saw it really was with my mom, ‘cause my mom was so happy that I was going to be on TV, and the whole thing was such a pleasant half-hour, to be sitting there in the house I grew up in watching myself on TV with my mother.
McRobb: We asked for four songs a year."We want a slow one, a sad one, a fast one, and, like, a bittersweet one.” And then we would just do a million variations, and everything got used. I would say that three-quarters of the music in the show is just variation on those songs.
Mulcahy: They paid me a fee to write four songs a year that they could use any way they wanted to without having to go to a publisher and negotiate every usage and minute. And from those four songs I would give them a mix of the song with lyrics, a mix without and then tons and tons of mixes of just the harmonica, the drumbeat, the bass line -- I would give them different mixes of just minutes and moments, so they just had this huge library just from me of little things to put when someone would go in the store, or walk down the street or go to bed. So we’re always in it some way.
Did you conceive of these songs as something different from what you’d done with Miracle Legion?
Mulcahy: I hadn’t written that many songs on my own; there are probably some little handful of songs in the Miracle Legion catalog that I did maybe write most of, but I was with Ray, and we were a partnership where he would write the music and I would write the lyrics. The challenge from Will was more to write a certain kind of song, and really he became my partner inasmuch as he was a great help, but he was also my boss I was trying to satisfy. The whole setup was different from anything I’d done
McRobb: A big part of the show was Ellen (Alison Fanelli) and [Big] Pete (Mike Maronna) and their relationship. I think every year we’d say, “Give us something that captures the longing -- they long for each other, but they can’t really be with each other.” A song like “Staggering” or “Everywhere,” those lyrics could be right on the money, that could be Pete singing that song -- those are real bona fide love songs. They’re almost tailor-made for the moment, like he sat down and said, “OK, Ellen, Pete -- let’s make the magic happen.”
Mulcahy: We made an album [“Music From the Adventures of Pete and Pete”] because there were 12 songs at the end of the day, but it wasn’t like we made an album the way you normally do. So at the Orpheum show, I thought, “Well, people aren’t going to know these songs, because they’ve just heard these bits and bobs.” There are barely any times when they played a whole song on the show. But every song we played, every time we hit the first chord, they were like, “Oh, yeah!” Like it was the Beatles. I couldn’t tell you how my mind was freaking out listening to that reaction.
Also, I hadn’t played a gig in three or four years and to come on and play the first one in that arena was weird. The first night of this tour, I had a peculiar kind of identity crisis, because all the different things I’ve done, which is Miracle Legion and myself, I have them broken up in my head, and I didn’t know who I was doing that. I tried to be whatever I thought it was, and gradually it just kind of morphed back to what I normally just am. And the hybrid of it, playing with two guys from Miracle Legion has its own sort bonus to us.
McRobb: At the Orpheum when they first played, I think they really didn’t know how to be onstage, an imaginary band playing in front of a couple of thousand people, to whom these songs are so sacred. I think at that time he didn’t really know what he was supposed to be like, but I think now they really own it, from what Mark’s been telling and from the clips I’ve seen. Mark said to me after they did their show in the tour last fall, “Too much love, man, they’re giving me too much love. I don’t deserve it.” And now I think he feels he does deserve it, and he’s having more fun.
Mulcahy: We play it as we play it; the rock band plays the songs, and they’re really great songs to play. But once you’re in the club with the crowd it becomes this kind of celebration of the show in its own way, because that’s why they’re there, pretty much. We’re still the band in the show, and we’re presenting some part of what “Pete and Pete” is. Sometimes Danny will be there; on the live record he sings one of the songs. It’s real sweet because the audience knows every word -- it’s almost like arena rock. It’s like nothing I’ve had in my career. Just because of the benefits of television, really.
When not deciphering the lyrics to “Hey Sandy,” Robert Lloyd tweets @LATimesLloyd
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.