by Nathan Hall
Bleary-eyed local piano madman Mark Mallman, covered in sweat and swaddled in an American flag, is basking in the adulation and applause that appropriately befits someone who has just performed for 52 and a half hours straight. A banner drops from the ceiling of St. Paul’s Turf Club, proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” The spectacle has been grim, sadistic and yet strangely exhilarating to witness in person.
Download Mark Malman's song Hardcore Romantic.
has just finished performing his latest epic, “Marathon 2, Or How I Will
Rebuild What Once Never Existed.” The suits at Guinness have thus far disavowed
it as a world record for longest original pop performance, perhaps because it
includes slight elements of Metallica’s “Master Of Puppets, Blondie’s
“Call Me,” “Away In The Manger,” and Duke Ellington’s
“I Was Made To Love You.”
Unbelievably, Mallman now demands he give himself an encore. The last lines, delivered
in a hoarse inhuman croak, are, “I just want to play piano.”
The snickering press corps badgers him as he hobbles out the door of the nightclub:
“What’s next, are you going to go to Disneyland?” Mallman mumbles
something about “Clockwork Orange,” a hot shower and sleep as he disappears
into the night.
Weeks later, I answer my madly vibrating cell phone. “This is the Mall Man”
is his standard greeting now. It sounds slightly pretentious but over the years,
Mark Mallman has evolved into the type of mythical rock star enigma that can only
be summed up with a short and succinct one-word answer: Madonna, Prince, Mallman.
It’s not even appropriate anymore to compare him to other musicians, except
for maybe Elton John if he still did acid, Keith Moon if he slowed down on the
booze or a straight man’s Freddie Mercury. His CDs are what I imagine might
happen when Meat Loaf, David Bowie, Hedwig’s Angry Inch and Paul Schaffer
all take a night class together. In truth, the closest point of comparison to
sitting down with Mark Mallman would be kicking back with Jeff “The Dude”
Lebowski (as portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the 1998 Cohen brothers cult classic
“The Big Lebowski.”) It’s Mallman’s world now, we’re
just living in it.
The Mallman still looks rather exhausted as he makes final preparations for the
upcoming tour promoting his new album, Mr. Serious, his first release for prestigious
national indie label Badman Recording Company. Per usual, the disc boasts a who’s
who of the local indie rock community backing up Mallman, including Ed Ackerson
of Polara fame on bass duties this time around. Right now he’s really excited
about his latest status symbol purchase—a minivan.
“I used to travel in a full-size van because that’s the rock standard,”
explains Mallman. “But this baby only needs half as much gas. It’s
actually great that it’s not sexy (and fairly anonymous) because when we’re
on the road, we sometimes stay in pretty bad neighborhoods. In those places, you
don’t want everybody to know you have gear—plus there’s less
chance of getting pulled over.”
The dozen tracks that constitute the ‘80s retro valentine Mr. Serious were
selected from more than 70 original works, one of which told the story of an old
nickel from the perspective of said nickel.
“I listened to a lot of Warren Zevon, John Hyatt and Bruce Cockburn while
I made it, so if I ever made my ‘80s record, then this is it,” admits
Mallman. “If Red Bedroom was my feeble attempt at recreating ‘Yellow
Brick Road’ then this is my equally feeble attempt of re-recording ‘Excitable
My favorite track off Mr. Serious is an unapologetic ‘80s rock anthem called
“Anesthesia,” the optimism of its opening lines perfectly encapsulating
the “me” decade, “I was alive in ‘85 / the world was so
mysterious / the light, the music & the girls / I took it very serious.”
The burning question, of course, is what powers inspired Mallman’s trip
down ‘80s lane? There are rumors that Satan himself may have been in on
the titling of Mr. Serious.
“Ryan Olcott from my Future Wives project (and 12 Rods) is really into what’s
called circuit bending,” explains Mallman, “this hardcore music nerd
thing where you take old Casio keyboards and cross the circuits with wires and
add switches to them to mutate them. Ryan remade this Speak ‘N Spell and
called it ‘Speak & Kill’ because he changed the speech patterns
so it sounds like Satan. So I wanted to record something, I hit the button and
the first thing it says is ‘serious.’”
Originally from Waukesha, Wisc., the self-taught pianist got his start in forgettable
punk bands like Uncle Smooth and the Lost Mayans with future Promise Ring/Maritime
front man Davey VonBohlen. Originally studying to be an architect, Mallman got
his musical start here in the late ‘90s with the short-lived sleazy ‘70s
revival outfit The Odd.
After the Odd’s much-lamented demise, his soulful solo debut, The Tourist
appeared in 1998. A bizarre and creepy amalgam of Casio solos and poetry slams,
Mallman managed to finance the recording through a stint working as an art gallery
security guard, his mother’s Las Vegas gambling winnings and a willingness
to live out of his car.
On Sept. 11, 1999, Mallman completed his first Marathon song cycle for 26 hours
with an oft-repeated poignant refrain: “Moving ahead to a single end, singing
a song called Marathon.” As one writer for this newspaper put it at the
time, “this was a war of attrition.”
2001 saw the release of the tongue-in-cheek memoir How I Lost My Life and Lived
to Tell about It, featuring guest spot cameos from the likes of Kat Bjelland from
Babes in Toyland. This was also the year Mallman played for 10 hours in a refrigerator
box as part of an in-store performance in Dinkytown.
By 2002, Mallman returned with The Red Bedroom, an intimate, introspective and
rather emotionally draining mope fest. A goofy live album, complete with a Moby
cover and recorded at his beloved First Avenue, came out roughly one year later.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, Mallman also raised $5,000 to shoot a
no-frills Mini-DV movie entitled “Hell Devils from Hell.” Thirty-two
hours of tape were shot and CGI monsters have been seriously discussed but, to
date, it has never been screened by anyone. Legend persists that his mysterious
still-unfinished novel about a group of homosexual dolphins will eventually be
commercially published as well.
Today, he works freelance as a video editor for local news stations and occasional
random clients like video game companies and diving enthusiasts. He still occasionally
pens a poem with titles like “Oldies Stations Go to die...In Wisconsin,”
“The Exploding Billboard of Bus Route 16A” and “The Maltese
Ultimately, Mallman said he dismisses the notion that his cheeky numerous publicity
stunts might prevent the rock industry establishment from, well, taking his song
“Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke—that should be the
title of the album,” says Mallman. “After all this stuff, there’s
this hard duality to my personality so Mr. Serious is both ironic and straightforward
at the same time. In the end, I think it’s all going to end up with something.
I don’t fight that question anymore. I just think after all the albums and
shows I’ve done, it’s all going to add up.”
The Mallman abides. The Mallman abides.
Mark Mallman plays the
CD release show for Mr. Serious on Sat., Oct. 9, at First Avenue with Friends
Like These and Le Cirque Rouge Burlesque Cabaret. 5 p.m. 21+. $7 adv/ $8 door.
701 First Ave. N., Mpls. 612-338-8388. Download Mark Malman's song Hardcore Romantic.
Check out Mark Mallman on his official