Mallman's muse cruise: Retracing the route to his deeply personal magnum opus

The Dodge Caravan is gassed up, and Mark Mallman is ready to rock ’n’ roll.

The Dodge Caravan is gassed up, and Mark Mallman is ready to rock ’n’ roll.

2605 Nicollet Ave S.

Glam Doll Donuts is too loud. When Mark Mallman walks in, he's immediately disoriented by the vintage grunge blasting inside the kitschy Whittier doughnut shop. His serenity is newfound and still tender. He musses his brow and calls an audible. We slip out and into the black Dodge Caravan that doubles as the Mallman tour bus.

Mallman's new album, The End Is Not the End — which he'll release Friday at Icehouse and you can stream here — is staggeringly personal. It's bright and theatrical and layered with sublime nonsense, but it's a deeply literal excursion through despair and psychological reclamation. It's the album Mallman was born to write — and one he had to confront death to complete.

"This record is my Guernica, it's my master work," he says. "It's a work about a terrible, sad thing that happened, where people were hurt, but [Picasso] felt compelled to paint it. He didn't have a choice... I had to make this album."

As such, it's too tumultuous for an idle chat over a cold-brew and a bear claw. He starts the van, and we take a drive back to the record's genesis.

Second Street & Second Avenue North

"I don't remember my first breath, but I remember that flavor / Just like a cigarette pushed through a Lifesaver." That's the first lyric to The End Is Not the End opener "Hologram Jesus." It's the closest thing to a thesis the album has, and it barely frames the impetus.

"This is an epic tale, sort of a Ulysses-ian record, so I wanted the first line to be birth," Mallman says. "The whole idea is to grow and to keep growing and to becoming closer to achieving nirvana, so we have to let go of our past selves and embrace a new self."

It's a shitty time to be driving downtown, and even with some clever traffic maneuvers it still takes 15 minutes to get to Harmony Lofts in the North Loop. Once an artists' haven in Minneapolis' former red-light district, the building has been bought and the musicians squeezed out. It sits among a collection of strip clubs and sex shops that'll soon be scrubbed away in favor of boutiques and condos.

Mallman raises a finger to the window of the Caravan, pointing out the third-floor apartment where he lived when his mother died suddenly in 2013. Nightmares, the demented dream journal that'd eventually be re-titled and reworked into The End Is Not the End, was written in that apartment while Mallman staved off the terror of his waking life.

"I used to look out that window and write," he says. "I wouldn't really go out much that winter. I'd just go to Transmission, and sometimes people would come back here, and I'd DJ until 5 a.m. The next day, I'd still have that goth, new-wave feeling that Jake Rudh does in my head, and I just wanted to write stuff they'd play at Transmission."

Five songs on The End Is Not the End — including "Terrified," an anxious manifestation gone glam, and "Parasite Eyes," a Cronenbergian vision done in the spirit of the Talking Heads — are recycled nightmares from that period of postponed grief. When the North Loopers ousted him and the other artists from the Harmony in late 2014, he retreated to a quiet duplex in south Minneapolis, where he had a philosophical realignment.

"My whole life was writing about existential crisis and living it at the same time," Mallman says. "The last thing my mom said to me about my music, the very last thing, was, 'I think it's gotten too dark.' I was trying to fight the darkness with more darkness, and you can't do that."

I-94 near Exit 13

After wrestling traffic on the on ramp, we pass two drivers pulled over to the shoulder. They’re exchanging insurance information with their hazard lights on.

“Life does this. Life interrupts life,” Mallman says. “It’s doing it to these people right now. You’re living your life, and then you get into a car accident, and that’s the bigger life. [The End Is Not the End] is about reassessing your ideals when those ideals become magnified.”

Somewhere near Lake Nokomis

Mallman's duplex is decorated with the sort of benign, encouraging platitudes your aunt might send you in a heavily CC'ed email. "Think positive, & positive things will happen" it says on the wall of the kitchen. "Do what makes you happy," reads a sign in his bathroom hung below a portrait of a wheaten terrier.

"Positive design creates positive psychology," Mallman says, unlocking the door to his basement. "There's no negativity in here. It's just little shit from, like, Target, but it gets in your head. You can't avoid it."

We take the stairs down to the basement, where Mallman produced and mastered The End Is Not the End. It's an austere getup decorated with Instagrams of friends and more uber-posi slogans strewn on the desk and floor. It's where, in a Van Gogh-like sprint of bliss, Mallman overcame the dark forces and created an album about acceptance. Mallman calls the final result "a breakup album with life."

"It's a wakeup call to my psyche," he says. "All this existential shit that I adored like Sartre or Hesse, this Camus philosophy, it's an idealized concept. You lay down your beliefs when you're young, then you test life with your beliefs, and then life shoots back at you. I realized that I had to change my ethos because some of the rules I'd set up were impractical. I realized that I wanted to have a positive message with my music."

Perhaps it was the words of his mother lingering in his mind, but Mallman's karmic realignment allowed him to balance the nightmares with songs he calls "resurrections." "Let It Shine" is perhaps the best example of these — a huge, glorious anthem that marches out from behind philosophical shadows. For every nightmare, there is a resurrection, a big, Bowie-inspired flourish that, without negating the despair, gives the album its stunning humanity.

26th Street & Harriet Avenue South

By the time Mallman pulls up to my apartment back in Whittier, we've traced nearly a dozen ideologies ranging from Nietzsche to beatnik Buddhism to samsara, and all but dismissed existentialism as a phenomenon of youth. But we're not close to any sort of finality.

"This sculpture professor I had at MCAD once told me that the universe is not made of atoms, it's made of stories," he says. "It's kind of hard to accept, but it's good."

Mallman believes that love is the plasma that lives between particles. He believes that you can force your dendrites to secrete happiness using Bob Marley and old Elvis movies and that hearing a Billy Joel song in a grocery store can be a galvanizing moment if you recognize it as such. Those things are probably related, but he stays away from quantum theory.

That's the most attractive feature of Mallman's wandering philosophy: the inexactness. The End Is Not the End isn't some grand, epistemological conclusion. There is no defensible argument on the afterlife, but that doesn't mean there isn't a sense of destiny behind the album.

"I'm not sure if I'll write another record," he says. "I don't know if I can write anything better than this record. I don't know if I want to, even."

Mark Mallman
With: The Rope (Fri.); Murder Shoes (Sat.)
When: 11 p.m. Fri. & Sat., March 25-26
Where: Icehouse.
Tickets: $10; more info here