By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Between the Devil and Middle C
It's not easy to make love to a piano. Sure, it may not seem like a big deal: Unlike a guitar, a piano really does just lie there. But in order to convert a bar crowded with nonbelievers into a house full of fans, you need to transform your instrument into a partner. When your better half is a guitar, held close to your body and pressed against your hips, you've got it easy. But how much charisma does it take to animate a keyboard?
Mark Mallman will find out the answer, even if it kills him.
If it was going to kill him, though, it probably wouldn't be now, on the eve of his latest release, Between the Devil and Middle C (Badman Recording Company). More likely occasions for Mallman's demise include: that one time he played a show for an entire day, that other time he played a show for an entire weekend, or that time when his path collided with a passenger's shooting aboard an Amsterdam train. (Who knew they have gun crimes in the Netherlands?) Mallman is a piano-playing daredevil, but not in a rock-virtuoso/Jerry Lee Lewis way; Elton John's sunglasses could probably give him lessons in technique. He pounds out heartfelt pop-rock from behind an over-the-top persona that can seem at odds with the naked sincerity of his lyrics. Jumping up and down behind the keyboard, bringing his whole weight down on every sweaty chord, Mallman has about as much self-conscious reserve as Meatloaf on methamphetamine. His last album cover may have announced, "Mr. Serious," but his live performances seem to call for a more bombastic title—perhaps "Lord Viscount Von Mallman, the Seventh Marquis de Serious?"
Between the Devil and Middle C is a nonstop variety show where Pac-Man synthesizer effects rub elbows with acoustic campfire chords. The record combines working-class underdog optimism (Mallman was raised in Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee) with an art-school student's insistence on using high culture to deconstruct pop culture (he later graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design). The first track, "Death Wish," is a late-night highway ride through percussive poems, and it delivers a satisfying smack with rhymes like "heart attacks/tight slacks/glass bags/eight tracks." The guitars are relegated to background duty, ramping up tension as the piano and synthesizer do the heavy lifting in support of Mallman's primitive melodic emoting. His singing has the energetic masculinity of Karate Kid-era arena rock, and the song makes me wonder, "Would Asia have sounded like this if they'd been more experimental—or less talented?"
Mallman is in his early 30s, but he seems untouched by the era of grunge, with its amateurish attempts to spin authenticity out of detachment and flannel. He believes rock stars should be showmen, and respects the power of costume no less than Gene Simmons does. In fact, to hell with mere cosmetics: Mallman occasionally performs wearing a wolf mask. When I meet up with him one afternoon at the Stone Arch Bridge to talk about his record and the upcoming tour, he's already dressed in the tight-fitting gray pants and cropped, red, muscle T-shirt he'll wear while performing at the Hexagon Bar that night. "People don't say, 'I went to hear [local band] Vicious Vicious,' they say, 'I went to see Vicious Vicious.' People paid money, let's have some fun—it's fun to wear costumes onstage," he explains, his eyes shaded by sunglasses and the curly, limp bangs that frame his pale face.
If the mythological symbols of Mr. Serious were to be stored in one sacred space, it would be a seventh-grade boy's locker, circa the Reagan administration, filled with the following: doodles of lightning bolts and pentagrams, a boombox, a picture of an older brother's car, a cool jean jacket, and the occasional robot. Also, the locker would be haunted by cartoon-scary werewolves. Mallman seems drawn to dark, would-be gothic imagery that, in his hands, ends up defanged and refashioned into a joke. "I had a tarantula. Its name was Joe Jackson," Mallman informs me. "It ate live crickets. Nature is cruel, but I guess what I learned from having the tarantula is that sometimes you have to pounce and kill, and that's okay." When I ask him if he still has the pet, he exclaims, "The thing offered me no return! I was like, 'Joe Jackson, you give me no love, you give me nothing back, I'm afraid to have you walk on me'—so I just put it in a box, walked into a pet store, put it on the counter, and walked out. I reverse-shoplifted it."
Meeting the demands of stagecraft can require sacrifices, which might explain the odd bedfellows of Between the Devil and Middle C: The album contains the lunatic piano-metal tunes that fuel Mallman's theatrical live-show persona, but it's also home to relatively restrained pop songs that may never make it into his live repertoire. "Persuasion," a jaunty put-down directed at a former lover, is as catchy and bouncy as a beach ball tossed your way during a sing-along. But the sunny melody brings a crummy memory for Mallman: "It's a mean-spirited song that I don't really enjoy listening to, because it's so mean, and it makes me think of the person I wrote it about. 'Boots' is probably my favorite song, but it's acoustic guitar, so I'll never play it live." The bare-bones ballad at issue is the lament of a traveling salesman: "I felt her flesh on me/There was innocence missing/There was pressure and friction/There wasn't much kissing." These are finely crafted verses from the more literary side of the artist better known for heartily belting out, "I just wanna play piano!"
"After the Hangover" begins with a strange synthetic bugle call—an eerie, compressed series of tones that sounds like Gabriel's trumpet coming out of a space-time wormhole. "I was trying to write a biblical song that doesn't get a big head, that maintains a grounded, stupid-guy mentality, but talking about these very heavy things: a Christian Apocalypse on the verge."
Mallman, it should be known, is the latest in a patrilineal succession of stamina-stretching athletes. His grandfather, he tells me, boxed professionally; and his father (known as the Kingfish—alter-egos must run in the family) is a longtime marathon runner. He wears their legacy proudly, and one hopes it will protect him while on tour. After all, his fearlessness and intensity aside, Mallman is hitting the road without the standard rockstar armor of ironic detachment or youthful ignorance. It's already been two years since the sleepless Labor Day weekend when he set up residence at the Turf Club, where he sang one epic song for 52 straight hours. But he remains optimistic: "It's very cool to start an insane project like some postponed adolescent vision of being a rock guy, and then have it come to fruition after all the sacrifices you made. And then see something good come out of it. That's what I see when I go to these other cities."