Mark Mallman is famous enough

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

It's the final night of his most recent tour, and Mark Mallman, dressed in a white blazer and skin-tight, tie-dyed jeans, is standing precariously atop his battered old keyboard, arms spread in a hang-10 as a crowd of Green Bay barflies looks on in disbelief.

Strands of his unruly shoulder-length hair curl and plaster themselves onto his sweaty, furrowed brow as he leaps back to the floor and punches his fists into the plastic keys. A young Wisconsinite stands a mere foot away from his keyboard and clutches her Bud Light to her chest, staring in awe as Mallman's hands become a blur of sound in motion. Her jaw is hanging agape as he hammers out a flurry of cascading octaves and then lifts up the entire keyboard from one end, pretending to fire it at the crowd like a machine gun.

Roughly 40 or 50 people have gathered in the small bar, and gradually everyone abandons their conversations at the back of the room to get a better view of the spectacle. The set list has been all but abandoned, and Mallman is shouting out song titles to his bass player and drummer with barely any warning, snapping his fingers as one pop song bleeds into the next. Each song seems to get a little faster, a little raunchier, until everyone on the floor is jumping up and down in unison and screaming for more.

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)
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."

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"More cowbell!" an innocent-looking young woman shouts out between songs.

"I know what you need more of," Mallman says suggestively, leering at her and her friends.

Mallman has never played Green Bay, but after tonight's show the barely legal ladies in attendance and the wide-eyed booking manager will be begging him to come back for another gig. It's the kind of show every touring band daydreams about as they while away hours on the road: a spot-on performance, receptive new fans, a pleased bar manager, decent pay, free food and drinks. One would think, after watching Mallman win over a room in just 60 minutes, that his popularity is destined to grow exponentially, that if he were to tour regularly with this much intensity the stars would be forced to align and he would surely, absolutely, become famous.

But for Mallman, tonight's show is just another stop on his seemingly endless tour of the United States, which began over a decade ago. And while he has had his share of successes over the years—a star on the side of First Avenue, Pitchfork reviews, major-label offers, die-hard fans—it seems he has perfected the art of flying within millimeters of the radar, of rubbing up against superstardom but never quite hitting the big time.

In fact, Mark Mallman might be the most famous non-celebrity in Minneapolis.

   

OVER THE YEARS, Mallman has become something of an institution in the Twin Cities music scene. His hometown shows are renowned for their manic energy and for often including some sort of major stunt, most famously his nonstop marathon shows that have lasted as long as two days. At 36, Mallman has the look of a weathered scenester, a rock star who has played more shows that he can remember but who still knows how to be the life of the party; when his wavy, dark-brown hair hasn't been dyed, hints of gray poke out from under the curls. He dresses in vibrant, retro-inspired rock gear—tight pants, motorcycle boots, button-up shirts with the sleeves cut off—but when his shirt hugs his frame, the faintest outline of a beer belly takes shape above his studded belt buckle.

All antics aside, Mallman has established himself as a talented and prolific songwriter, favoring '70s piano rock and glam. Though he is a self-proclaimed pop songsmith, his tunes rarely border on saccharine; rather, he seems to have a knack for pairing bright, major-key piano chords with stormy, sometimes disturbing lyrics, creating an enduring complexity that is evident across all seven of his studio albums. At times, his songs are irreverent, as if they are making fun of themselves; at other times he can be devastatingly sincere. Mallman will celebrate the release of his most recent effort, Invincible Criminal, this Saturday with a CD-release show at First Avenue.

In addition to being a fixture in both the club circuit and the social circles of the local music community, Mallman also tours relentlessly. He's already completed three tours this year, spanning from a few weeks to a month-long stint, and will complete one more full tour of the U.S. before the end of 2009. On his latest tour, Mallman graciously invited me to join his band for the last three days of their trip, to get a firsthand look at his never-ending quest to bring his music to the masses.

   

AS WE HEAD OUT on the road from Chicago to his Green Bay gig, Mallman is behind the wheel of his minivan explaining the rules of the road. A pair of wire-rimmed spectacles is perched on his nose, and he is repeatedly checking the dashboard, being careful to mind the speed limit.

"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.

"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.

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."

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."

   

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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