Mark Mallman drops to his knees, clinging to his electric piano from its underside like a choirboy hungry to hump the altar. As he crooks his neck to reach the microphone, his nasal voice quavers. "To anyone who wants to die," he sings, doing his best Freddy Mercury impression, "keep praying for salvation."
It's not inconceivable that Mallman has logged plenty of late nights doing just that. After all, the 25-year-old Minneapolis singer-songwriter conceived this year's solo debut, The Tourist, as a "pro-suicide album," originally titled Love Your Killer as Yourself. He stocked an early version with such songs as "Poison is an Easy Friend." But the synth-flavored, Meat Loaf-sized drama-pop Mallman musters for his growing local audience has an ironic kick.
Like fellow Minneapolitans All the Pretty Horses (and Semisonic, for that matter) he's drunk on big '70s rock. But by setting his lowest emotional moments to a Rocky Horror soundtrack, Mallman pushes the music--and his personal pathos--to hilarious extremes. Check such lyrics as these, from "To Speak of an Animal," Mallman's low-rent "Hungry Like the Wolf": "If only my heart would be some kind of fake/Then I wouldn't be serving it up like a steak." This stuff can obviously be taken as tongue-in-cheek, a handy escape hatch for a performer who throws himself so nakedly into his songs.
Then again, Mallman is best known within local music circles as the manic keyboardist in the glam-rock parody, the Odd, themselves a wholly entertaining exercise in '70s rock histrionics. Admittedly, the band was taken by surprise when their in-joke exploded and they topped our "City Pages Best New Band Poll" five months ago. Both Mallman and bassist Rich Mattson (of the rootsy Glenrustles) were uneasy about getting acclaim for what is essentially a pomo spoof on gloppy cock rock, and they broke up the band days after the poll appeared. But the roar of the faithful refused to subside, and they've since reunited to release a swell mishmash of a new album, co-written and co-produced by Mallman, titled Oh My God--It's the Odd.
Mallman's solo disc is far superior, though, with enough sonic non sequiturs (hair-band guitar meets hairy electronica meets harried Leonard Cohen) to keep you interested until the hooks take. Yet his singular contribution to piano-rock history is his knack for performance. With the Odd, Mallman balances his keyboard precariously on an ironing board--that is, when he's not playing it in the air or on his lap. Mallman's solo performances, which generally skirt chaos, are no less intense. Mallman tickles the plastics from a dozen angles, and he often busts out classically chintzy Paul Shaffer moves--like pointing in the air or signaling his backup band, the Heat--to advance the onstage shtick. When he dislocated his shoulder during the Odd's recent Bastille Day gig, it was an ironic reminder of his punk days in Milwaukee, Wis., where the singer had the same accident while fronting his high-school band, Uncle Smooth and the Lost Mayans. According to Mallman, he finished that set while holding his out-of-socket arm for 25 minutes. This time a stage manager reset the limb.
Mallman--a.k.a. "Mall Man," as friends know him, or "Mall Kill," as Mark wants to people to address him--has only been visible in the local club scene for the past few years, but the lanky blond has chased his muse through song, poetry, and fiction for more than a decade. In his "funk shui"-arranged Seward apartment, he shows me boxes full of tapes (many self-released albums), before leading me through a practice room full of spare keyboards. One wall in the room is covered with tacked-up notes bearing song ideas, including one called "Insaning of the Shrew," which he's preparing for his next solo album. When I jokingly ask him if he decorates the wall for show, he says, "No, I don't have people over here very often. I go to work, come home, and write songs."
Mallman grew up in Waukesha, Wis., where his father still works for General Electric, and the musician says his blue-collar upbringing was a big influence on his entertainment ethic. "I'd love to make a Top-40 record," he says. "And I always play a show for people that just happen to be in the bar. My dad works at GE, sometimes 60 hours a week. Friday and Saturday nights can be really important to people."
After years of dodging piano lessons and playing in punk bands, Mallman gained a surprising appetite for music scholarship and enrolled in Milwaukee's Conservatory of Music. But the young fan of new wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and shock novelist Kathy Acker wanted to branch out into art and film. So after two years of jazz theory, he decided to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Former students still remember the mid-'90s open-mic nights he organized around campus, events that gave him a performance outlet at a time when, the singer says, he rarely went out.
After graduation, Mallman became ill with acute tonsillitis and moved back to Waukesha, where he worked in his aunt's leather shop until he was laid off. To make a new start, Mallman moved with his girlfriend to Seattle in 1996, and began writing the songs that would appear on The Tourist. That title should be a clue that things didn't go so well. Mallman wrote "Kissing the Knife" in his bedroom while putting off getting a job, and it reads like a thumbnail sketch of impotence and depression. "I went to a city and I came back wild," he sings. "Left as an old man and I returned a child/I became blinded by a beautiful light/And I grew to love darkness as I regained my sight."