Mark Mallman: Marathon Man
The Minneapolis singer/songwriter is in it for the long haul.
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
The first time I saw singer/songwriter Mark Mallman was at a pizza place that no longer exists.
October 2005. The sign outside Sammy Sortino’s on So. 72nd St. said, “Welcome Piano Man Mark Mallman.” As I stepped inside I was overcome by a waft of sour pepperoni and an ocean of nomming families pushing mozzarella-covered glop into their drooling maws. The guy at the door told me Mark Mallberg was in the next room. You mean Mallman, right? “It’s Mallberg,” he said rather annoyed, never looking away from an overhead TV blaring a Yankee’s post-season game.
Maybe two other people were the in the room adjacent to the main dining hall that occasionally burst into cheers whenever something bad happened to the Yankees. On the makeshift stage, playing behind a pair of shoebox-sized amps on tripods, was crazy-haired Mallman, doing what he’d done all the years leading up to that moment — pouring his heart out onto his keyboard, singing his songs as best he could, as if he were playing to a smoky, crowded First Avenue crowd in his hometown instead of rows of empty tables in a poorly lit “party room.”
Mallberg, er, Mallman remembered that night clearly. He even remembered the lousy pizza that they paid him with. “I had an agent at the time that was just trying to make shit work,” he said from his Minnesota home on a day off. “When you go to a movie and only one person is in the theater, the movie’s still the same. right? It’s part of my thing to work the crowd no matter what. Respect the stage.”
He showed that respect earlier this month performing a 78-hour-long song called “Marathon 3,” at St. Paul’s Turf Club. He ran nine miles every other day and changed his diet to prepare for the endurance test that some viewed as a gimmick, but that Mallman describes as more of an art piece or happening.
“I’m not comparing myself to Warhol, but at the beginning I’m sure people wondered why he was making an 8-hour film of a building in New York,” Mallman said, referencing Warhol’s 1964 film Empire. “Anything that’s new or different is overlooked or categorized, but it still becomes part of history. We forget that (David) Bowie was considered a flash-in-the-pan gay cross-dressing shock artist, and now you look back and say, ‘What a great album.’ I don’t concern myself if a writer or fan thinks it’s just shock. They don’t see the future and the past. I’m the only one that knows the real story, so it’s up to me to deliver it.”
And deliver it he has over eight albums since 1998, hitting a stride with 2002’s The Red Bedroom, an album that caught the ear of major labels with its gorgeous piano-driven pop songs, like the yearning rock anthems “Love Look at You,” and “Who’s Gonna Save You Now?” The labels thought Mallman could be their next David Gray.
“It was a point in my career in the early 2000s when I had a great management team,” Mallman said. “I had developed a huge fan base in the Twin Cities and I was talking to the managers at the biggest labels. Going the major-label route is taking a risk. But I don’t think you’re risking anything by following exactly what you hear in your head. You can look back and say, ‘Well, they didn’t get it and I’m eating Taco Bell tonight,’ but it’s better than telling people, ‘You don’t want to listen to that record, I was rapping on it.'”
To be clear, Mallman said he didn’t say “no” to a major label deal. “My dad would have kicked my ass,” he said. “When it came time to do a showcase for them, I gave them the show that was in my heart, which was wild and drew from Jim Morrison and Johnny Lydon, but not David Gray or Elton John.”
Instead of a major, Mallman signed with respected indie label Badman Records, whose roster includes Mark Kozelek, My Morning Jacket, and Rebecca Gates. Badman has released Mallman’s last three albums, including 2009’s Invincible Criminal. “Now you can go online and download my discography and you’ve got my whole story, and it isn’t tainted,” he said.
But if MTV’s Cribs decides to do a piece on Mallman’s lifestyle, they’ll find him living in a rented basement in a converted church. “Maybe if I lived a bit more extravagantly I would have to worry about the fucked-up music industry, but I’ve never been rich and famous,” he said. “I could totally live in a house and have a wife and a family and whatever; I could have all that stuff and continue being a musician, but I don’t want a yard to take care of. Instead of spending money on a mortgage, I would rather spend it on food and drinks and travelling and recording.”
And maybe because he has nothing to lose, Mallman sees the Internet as the music industry’s great liberator rather than its destroyer. “It’s worth all the sacrifice,” he said. “In the ’90s with the major labels, everyone was afraid to take a risk. Even the indies were following the formula. It was like a state of Martial Law. It was the biggest SS regime of music industry people force-feeding the world. When people talk about grunge and Nirvana, that was the worst. Now bands do whatever they want, from Gogol Bordello to Animal Collective. Without the Internet, you wouldn’t have this crazy music that’s coming out now.”
But what about all the bands that are giving up because they think they can’t make a living playing music? “I tell them to pack it up,” Mallman said. “You should quit because it’s less competition and more people for me. Some bands were in it because they wanted the golden lottery ticket. We’re weeding out the people that were in it for the wrong reason.”
One thing’s for sure: Mallman will never give up. Next on his plate is putting together the Marathon 3 documentary and live album. His other band, Ruby Isle, just released a full-length reinvention of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction on Kindercore Records.
“Marathon 3 opened me to the idea that the music industry, the music landscape, that music itself is changing rapidly and it makes me interested in abandoning traditional ideas and looking for a new way to do things that are sometimes cheeky and bathed in sugar-coated irony.”
Mark Mallman plays with the Whipkey Three Sunday, Nov. 28, at the Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $8. For more information, call 402.884.5353 or visit waitingroomlounge.com.
* * *
It’s kind of like a Friday night tonight since none of us (well, almost none of us) have to go to work tomorrow. Let the hangovers begin.
Top of the list is The Benningtons tonight at the brand new Side Door Lounge. The band has been around for a little while; they’ve played a few shows. And according to their website recently entered the studio to work on a debut album. The band is fronted by guitarist/vocalist Tony Bonacci (ex-Hyannis) and includes Michah Renner, bass; Ben Brich, drums; Matt Tilwick, guitar; Hannah Emsick, keys, vocals; and Catherine Carne, vocals. Check out the sweet track “Leaving” on their Facebook page. Show starts at 9:30, is free, 21+, at The Side Door Lounge, 35th Ave. and Leavenworth St. (across the street (east) of Family Dollar).
Also tonight, there’s a benefit for the Omaha Food Bank at The Barley Street Tavern featuring a slew of Benson regulars doing it “in the round,” including Korey Anderson, Sarah Benck, Cass Brostad, Nick Carl, Matt Cox, Alex Diimig, Kyle Harvey, Brad Hoshaw, Justin Lamoureux. Rebecca Lowry, Ben Seiff and Matt Whipkey. Admission is free, but bring a can of food or some foldable money to drop into the collection jar. Starts at 9.
Meanwhile, up the street at The Waiting Room, kick-off the holidays with The Song Remains the Same and Pixies’ tribute band Surfer Rosa. $7, 9 p.m.
* * *
Look for an update at Lazy-i tomorrow before you head off for your family thing…
* * *
Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.