Mark Mallman is famous enough

Hard-working, hard-touring musician has never quite made the big time —and that's fine with him

"Don't drink and drive," he says. "Don't have anything illegal inside of the van, like a gun or some open containers of alcohol. Because that kind of stuff, if you get pulled over, could stop the tour."

Though he appears downright bombastic onstage, Mallman spends the other 23 hours of each day on the road making sure that everyone around him is happy. As with most tours, he is accompanied by drummer Aaron LeMay (who also drums in Mallman's dance-pop collaboration Ruby Isle as well as International Espionage! and various local punk bands), and for this three-week span they have invited bass player Matt Johnson along for the ride. As we drive, Mallman's main concern is the well-being of his bandmates, and he continuously asks if everyone is comfortable, well-fed, well-rested, and content.

Before we get to Green Bay, Mallman announces that we will be making a pit stop at his parents' home outside of Milwaukee, and both of his bandmates sigh with relief.

A man of many identities, from Mallwolf to Mallkill to the Mall Man
Wilson Webb
A man of many identities, from Mallwolf to Mallkill to the Mall Man
"He has a unique sense of humor that always informs his work," says Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. "Even when he is singing about death or heartbreak, there always seems to be a tiny smirk there, which I really appreciate."
Nick Vlcek
"He has a unique sense of humor that always informs his work," says Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. "Even when he is singing about death or heartbreak, there always seems to be a tiny smirk there, which I really appreciate."

"I've been to Mallman's parents' house probably 60 times by now," says LeMay, who has been touring with Mallman for three years. "It's like a second home."

Mallman was born and raised in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and his parents still live in his childhood home. As we exit the highway and wind our way past expansive housing developments, Mallman explains that he's not the only rock 'n' roll musician to come out of his hometown. Electric guitar pioneer Les Paul was known as the "Wizard of Waukesha," late St. Paul singer-songwriter Jeff Hanson went to his high school, and Davey von Bohlen of the Promise Ring and Ed Rodriguez of Deerhoof were two of his closest friends growing up.

I ask Mallman what he was like in high school. "Nerdy. Confused. Busy writing music," he says. "I didn't care about school. I graduated with a 1.8 GPA. It might have been lower than that."

The Mallman family home is a modest rambler with a sprawling yard, complete with a giant oak tree in the backyard. As soon as we're inside the house, Mallman's dad, John, throws on a pot of coffee and starts serving up generous bowls of cake and ice cream, eager to tell me stories about his son.

"He was always playing when he was little," John says, gesturing toward the grand piano in the next room. "He would sit at the piano and watch for the school bus out the window, and he would play until the moment the bus pulled up." He shakes his head and groans. "There was always noise."

"What did you think about that?" Mark asks his father. "This kid that you raised, jumping around like a weirdo?"

"Well, what are you going to do?" he says, shrugging. Like Mark's, his face remains mostly deadpan when he speaks, save for a playful glint in his eye. "I remember what I was like when I was young, and I figured, well, you can't expect more than that. The gene pool wasn't that big."

Mallman's dad points to a plastic frame on the fridge with his son's fourth-grade school photo tucked inside. The boy in the picture has messy blond hair and giant, brown, thick-rimmed glasses. "That's my favorite picture," he says. "See if Mark will let you scan that in for the paper." (I asked. He won't.)

While his bandmates take a load off and crack open cans of MGD, Mallman takes me down the hall to his old room. Most of the bedroom has been converted into office space, save for the vibrant, primary-colored '80s wallpaper, but the closet is still full of Mark's old belongings. He pulls out armfuls of old zines and a shoebox filled with cassette tapes. "My goal was always an album a year," he says, pulling out the first tape he made when he was 15 years old, dated 1988.

"We should listen to this," he says, grinning devilishly.

Back in the kitchen, Mark plugs in an old tape player and fast-forwards to a track titled "Cloud 9." Many of the elements of Mallman's current music are present on the old song: Piano chords plunk out a beat, while moody lyrics are paired with a cheery, major-key melody. But Mallman's voice is young, crackling, and sometimes off-key, and the innocence and his grating voice put everyone in the room in stitches, Mark included. At one point, Mallman's drummer is laughing so hard he has to remove his glasses and wipe tears from his eyes. Mark covers his face and howls. His bass player starts singing the melody of the song and doesn't stop until we've left the city limits.

Starting with that crackling old cassette tape, Mallman has been recording albums for 21 years. Thankfully, his work has shown significant improvement since "Cloud 9," but much of his overarching vision has remained the same.

   

MINNEAPOLIS NEVER SAW it coming. Though Mallman lived here for most of the early '90s when he was attending the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he landed on most people's radar in 1998 when he and longtime scene staple Rich Mattson (currently of the Tisdales) formed a glam-rock parody band called the Odd. The band didn't last long—they broke up shortly after being nominated in the City Pages Picked to Click poll so that the members could focus on other projects—but soon afterward Mallman released his own album of solo material.

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