Mark Mallman is famous enough

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

He started out scoring video games in 2002 and has since transitioned into scores for trailers of films like Wall-E, 10,000 B.C., and Vacancy. This summer, he scored his first full film for an independent director and was able to quit his day job as a video editor at a local news station to focus on scoring full-time.

Mallman says that working on music for movies has helped him to put his own songs into context with the music that's being made around him. "When I started doing movie stuff, I started being more aware of how trend fits in—and I don't mean that in a bad way. From Elvis to the Bee Gees to MGMT, there's always been a sound, a movement—you can be artistic about it and call it a movement; you can be a business person about it and call it a trend. But it's the same thing.

"I wish that what I did was part of a movement," he says. "I just do what I do. I just make the record that I hear in my head. And if it happens to be trendy, then that's awesome."

Mark Mallman
Nick Vlcek
Mark Mallman
Mallman performing at the Red Stag Block Party last month, with Ryan Smith (right), Sean Hoffman (lower left), and a man dressed as a giant rat (center)
Mike Minehart
Mallman performing at the Red Stag Block Party last month, with Ryan Smith (right), Sean Hoffman (lower left), and a man dressed as a giant rat (center)

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MALLMAN MAINTAINS a relatively happy-go-lucky attitude about his rock 'n' roll career, which is evident when I first meet up with him in Chicago. Mallman is booked to play the Metro, an 1,100-seat concert hall. But by show time, only 120 people have shown up. After 11 years of releasing records and seven years of heavy touring, Mallman could have been disappointed, but he seems pleased with the turnout.

Mallman, LeMay, and Johnson take the stage and assume their positions while an aging hippie with a huge gray beard asks if he can read a poem. The poet is Thax Douglas, a familiar face at Chicago rock clubs, and he is clearly a fan. He reads a short poem about Mallman's music, with lines like "the smiling owner shows off his irony toe as if they were keys on Jehovah's piano, whipping up storms on demand," and smiles fondly at Mallman between verses.

Mallman grins proudly as Douglas reads, and then launches into his first song with reckless abandon. Despite the fact that there is only a smattering of people on the main floor of the big, booming room, the band plays with a blazing energy, Mallman jumping off of his keyboard and prowling back and forth across the stage like a maniac.

"People! I shed my heart for you tonight," Mallman yells between songs. "And I don't know if you care, but I dare."

Everyone in the audience, whether familiar with Mallman or not, eventually presses her way into the space in front of the stage. Like a flame attracting moths, Mallman's antics seem to demand the attention of everyone in the room. The fact that some shows have lower turnouts than others doesn't seem to matter in the long run—when he's onstage, Mallman plays the part of rock star with a fierce sincerity, whether it's for a thousand people at a hometown show or five people at a bar in Louisville.

"It's like lifting weights," he says afterward. "As a performer, and as a musician, it makes you stronger to play for hardly anybody. It's very easy to play for 1,000 people. Because there's more clapping, there's more energy coming at you. It's easier. But what makes you good is playing for hardly any people. Playing for a tough crowd. It's harder. And that's how life is. When things are hard, you're getting better."

And Mallman has endured his share of difficulties. At 36, he's still sleeping on floors, playing for gas money, schlepping his own gear. But, he says, "I'm famous enough."

"I remember when I was going to First Avenue every night when I was young, and I was like, someday I will play First Avenue," he says. "And I did, and it was awesome, and it was a lot of work, and now I have a star on First Avenue. And now I've played the Roxy, and I've played some cool clubs, and I've got fans, it's still the same. Fame, whether you have a little bit or a lot, I don't think it changes who you are.

"When I was 18, I wanted to be signed to a major label and be in Rolling Stone. And I know that if that would have happened, I would be a tremendous asshole right now." He pauses, laughing at himself. "As opposed to just a regular asshole."

MARK MALLMAN will play a CD-release show with Black Blondie and Lookbook on SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.177

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