By Jake Rossen
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With The Tourist, Mallman quickly made his mark on the local scene, most notably by putting on ridiculous, over-the-top stage shows that played on the cliché of '70s rock-star bravado. His keyboard became part instrument, part prop, as he would jump on top of it to hump it between piano solos. Microphones were for fellating as much as they were for singing into. Ironing boards were purchased and brought onstage just to be smashed. And that was just the beginning. Over the past decade, Mallman's stage show has developed into an all-out exhibition of creativity and improvisation.
"Mallman operates in his own universe, and when you work with him you are stepping into his world," says guitarist Ryan Smith, who has played on and off with Mallman for the past 10 years. "His shows are often more 'free-spirited' than most other artists'. You never know exactly what is going to happen or what detours you might take with Mallman."
Smith met his wife, bass player Kat Hixon, through Mallman, and the two still regularly join him onstage in addition to playing in their own band, the Melismatics. Local music fans might recognize Hixon by her stage name, "Pony," a nickname Mallman gave her when she used to come to rehearsals sporting a pony backpack.
"I remember his first long-term U.S. tour," Hixon says. "It was only the two of us, and we were green. I was playing drums to pre-recorded tracks because he really couldn't afford to do it any other way. It was hard, but the turnouts and the crowd responses were so incredible. Fans kept saying that they were really inspired by him on many levels, and I think that is what keeps him going."
Before long, Mallman (or "Mallkill," as he became known to some) seemed to tire of playing "normal" shows at clubs and started pulling massive stunts, many of which involved playing continuously over long stretches of time. His first stunt, Marathon 1, involved a performance of one 26.2-hour song at the Turf Club in St. Paul, and it was only the beginning of a long string of unusual (and attention-grabbing) Mallman shows that bordered on performance art.
But despite the stunts, Mallman's songwriting has remained his focus, and he has been incredibly prolific over the years. Since 1998, he has released six full-length studio albums, a live album, and an EP under his own name, in addition to albums with Vermont, Ruby Isle, and the Odd. His latest, Invincible Criminal, is another in a long string of consistent, high-quality recordings.
"I've been, in my mind, making albums since I was 11 or 12," says Mallman. "I wrote a lot of shit. But it wasn't until around the time of [his third album] The Red Bedroom when I realized that it's all kind of the same song."
In truth, Mallman's overall sound has remained much the same over the years, drawing on '70s piano-rock influences and striving for memorable, perfectly constructed pop songs. Which isn't to say that he hasn't improved from disc to disc—his melodies have become catchier, his songwriting tighter, his lyrics more profound, his voice more developed and controlled. But the same spirit embodies all of his recorded work, reaching all the way back to the tape he recorded when he was 15. A listen through his catalog suggests that Mallman is adhering to some sort of master plan, an existential exploration of lightness and darkness that might never fully be revealed.
"Mallman has a unique sense of humor that always informs his work," says Craig Finn, lead singer of the Hold Steady, who appears on Mallman's most recent single, "You're Never Alone in New York." "Even when he is singing about death or heartbreak, there always seems to be a tiny smirk there, which I really appreciate."
"Nothing is in black and white," Mallman explains, "and it makes for a much more interesting song to create a duality. One of my favorite scenes in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—I say one of my favorite scenes, because I have many—is that end scene where it's the middle of the day, and he's waving the chainsaw in the air, and it's so much cooler than in the middle of the night. It's chilling. It's more sophisticated, in a weird way. So I like to put a negative lyric over a positive chord, or vice versa."
MARK MALLMAN has an alter ego—well, two if you count the "Mallwolf" that occasionally takes the stage in his stead, clad in a woolly old wolf mask—who spends his days scoring film trailers for major motion pictures. Some might call this work Mallman's "day job," but he views it as an extension of the work he is already doing as a rock 'n' roll musician.
"I met a guy in an ad house when I was 22, and he said, 'Whatever you do, don't ever write music for your job, because it'll ruin it.' Which is like, whatever. The more music I can fucking write every day, the less time I spend working another job, the better. It just makes me more efficient, more strong, more aware, more cognizant of styles of music."