Music: The Invincible Mark Mallman

New album. Movie trailers. Graphic novel. Rats for sidekicks. The guy just keeps on ticking.

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Mark Mallman performed at the Reg Stag Block Party.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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You're nobody till everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard. -- Elvis Costello, "This Town"

Looking up from under his stringy, black-dyed hair, Mark Mallman quoted Costello to illustrate how he feels about his ubiquitous reputation within the Twin Cities -- somewhere between adored, hated, adulated and tolerated.

"Because what I do has comic elements -- and because I'm around all the time -- there is this attitude in the Cities like, 'Oh, it's just Mallman being crazy again,'" he said.

"It doesn't matter, though. I still get excited every time I perform in town."

Say what you want about Mallman. He's too showy. He's a goofball. He's a publicity whore. He's a novelty act. He's not to be taken seriously -- especially since he sometimes calls himself Mr. Serious.

One thing you can't say, though, is that he has ever faded from the scene. Since his first album in 1998, the town's most volatile showman and well-known piano man has hovered over and crawled through the Twin Cities music community like a patron saint or a cockroach, depending on your opinion of him. He is omnipresent, even while playing 50 to 100 shows on the road most years.

After all this time, though -- after countless shows, seven albums and that one weekend in 2004 when he seemingly bared his very last nerve at the 52.4-hour "Marathon 2" concert -- there's still a lot this town doesn't know about Mallman, who's touting his eighth disc, "Invincible Criminal," Saturday at First Avenue.

Things like: The 36-year-old native of Waukesha, Wis., now lives in the basement of a former church near downtown Minneapolis, which is purportedly haunted. He's filled it with vintage stand-up video games, flexible light strips and a bar, looking suspiciously like a nightclub. In his bedroom, he sleeps just a couple feet from his keyboards, computers and recording equipment. Not that he sleeps very often.

"People think I go out every night, but I'm really a person who works about 90 hours a week," he said, mentioning a movie treatment he worked on until 4 a.m. the night before.

Another surprising Mallman tidbit: He has steadily landed work recording music for movie trailers, including "Adventureland," "Wall•E" and several horror flicks. He does a lot of the work on spec.

"I was doing something for the new 'Alvin & the Chipmunks' movie that I didn't get," he griped. "Those 'Chipmunks' people are [expletive] demanding."

And here's a doozy of a semi-secret, one that finally might help you understand his music and performance style a little better: He says he was clinically diagnosed for a chronic mood disorder long ago and struggles off and on with mental illness.

"I have a lot of emotional, personal stuff I don't like to make public," he said matter-of-factly. "Sometimes my life gets pretty weird, though."

He only talked about the "weird" stuff when asked to explain his wild stage persona. The climbing on his keyboard. The stunts on the motorcycle and scooter. The wolfman mask. The 52.4-hour performance.

Headlining the Red Stag Block Party two weekends ago, he opened with a shrieking version of "My Favorite Things" and then spent the entire set in front of two guys performing in rat costumes blowing up giant beach balls.

"When I go up on stage, I go up there to have a good time and completely bury whatever else is going on in my life," he said, "as opposed to people who revel in their personal confusion or turmoil. That can get pretty lame."

• • •

I came into this world as a puzzled panther waiting to be caged / But something stood in the way / I was never quite tamed. -- The Germs, "Manimal"

Mallman quoted the Los Angeles punk band to explain how its late singer, Darby Crash, made him what he is on stage -- along with the obvious Iggy Pop.

"Punk totally influenced me when I was a kid," he said. "I would leave the stage and throw up, have blood down my face. I dislocated my shoulder way back when."

After moving to town in 1995, Mallman started hosting open-mike nights in addition to his schoolwork at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. His first real gigs were playing keyboards in the Stonesy band the Odd with future Ol' Yeller leader Rich Mattson, who allegedly threatened to kick him out if he continued acting so wild on stage.

Soon thereafter, Mallman started his own band. And he actually started out playing guitar, until Travis Ramin of the Short Fuses intervened.

"Travis said, 'Why are you playing guitar?'" Mallman recalled. "I said, 'This is a guitar town: Paul Westerberg. Hüsker Dü.' He said, 'Yeah, that's why you should play keyboards.'"

Mallman played piano throughout his childhood and even studied it at the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music. He said, "I've never really been awesome on piano, but I've always been able to play it."

Being a keyboardist became instrumental in shaping his stage show. For one thing, he said, "I probably wouldn't jump around so much playing guitar." He also overcompensates for the keyboard's less rock-starry visual appeal.

"I always wonder if I had stuck with guitar, if people would take me more seriously here," he said.

Mallman knows his problem with being taken seriously isn't because he plunks the ivories, though. It's because he acts like a nut. He even guesses the antics that made him the talk of the town might also explain why he hasn't screamed his way to a bigger national record deal.

"We were so close," he said, pinching his fingers together. "Literally this close."

He recalled a showcase for prospective label execs back when artist signings were more commonplace.

"I thought I was Jim Morrison," he said. "What I came off as was a drunk, unprofessional weird guy. I look back at that and think, 'I had everything on a platter right before me, and I blew it.' I was thinking too much like a music fan."

• • •

Entertainers used to enter through the kitchen. -- Conan O'Brien

"I think we're going back to that era," Mallman said after quoting O'Brien. He was talking about the hustler-like tactics he has used to make a living as a performer without a big record deal.

One of those stunts was offering a best-of album, "Loneliness in America," as a free download on his website last year (it's still available, too). The idea was to drum up a little publicity for his past albums, which worked.

Meanwhile, he continually finds other income streams beyond gigs and album sales. The movie trailers, for instance. Another new commercial venture is a graphic serial novel he created with artist Stephen Somers (his cousin), titled "The Incredible Myth of the Invincible Criminal." It will be on sale at shows, and portions are being posted daily on Magnet magazine's website.

"Mark is constantly looking for ways to maximize the little things we can accomplish with a little indie label," said Dylan Magierek, whose Oregon-based Badman Recordings issued his latest three albums.

"He's one of these guys who gets so obsessed with whatever he's doing, it's all he can think about -- whether it's writing 50 songs for his new album, doing music for a movie trailer, writing a movie treatment, or whatever. He's a completely obsessive guy, and I love it."

The story of the album "Invincible Criminal" is much more personal than it is commercial. Mallman broke up with a longtime girlfriend and endured trips to the hospital visiting his family during the making of the album. He shelved several tracks that he said were "not songs I could relive singing every day on the road," and he rewrote the lyrics to a few other songs.

"I wrote [2002's] 'Red Bedroom' wanting all the songs to be about prostitution -- not that I had any experience outside of prostituting myself out," he said. "I started writing this one to be all about crime. So there are crime references all over it. In 'White Leather,' I sing, 'Love is a bank you rob,' or 'Light the Dynamite and Run' references robbing banks."

"As I started looking back," he interjected, "I realized the songs were actually all about getting old, and facing it."

The invincible criminal, in other words, is time. It comes up most prominently in "If Only We Kept Getting Young" and "Before the Music's Over," two songs that could make anyone rethink the notion of Mallman not being a serious songwriter. In the latter, he sings: "Dance with a stranger when you're young and fearless / Have some fun before the music's over."

It sounds exactly like a mantra for an aging rock 'n' roller.

Even the track that's getting the most attention, "You're Never Alone in New York" -- a duet with Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, who was an early supporter of Mallman -- has an element of Mr. Serious seriously contemplating his place in time, and in the music business.

"It's the perfect song to have Craig sing on," he said. "We're both singing about a city that one of them lives in and one of them doesn't, and we both shared the same stages many times in the late '90s. You have one guy from Minneapolis who got pretty famous. And one guy from Minneapolis who didn't get famous. "

Mallman hardly wants anyone to feel sorry for him, though. In fact, he says fame "probably would have [messed] me up too much." It also might have kept him from doing the many diverse, weird, showy, goofball things he's done -- most of it proudly.

"In the Twin Cities, I can do what I couldn't do if I had the whole world," he said.

"A musician in their hometown can always follow through on their own vision. I can do a show here in town with dancing rats or motorcycles on stage, or just a small show focused on songwriting -- whatever I want. You don't make a lot of money doing it here, but you can at least see your creative vision through.

"I keep getting ideas, and I can do them," he boasted. "That helps me sleep at night."

Say what you want about Mark Mallman, but don't say he's anything less than a success story.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

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  • Mark Mallman

  • MARK MALLMAN

    With: Black Blondie, Lookbook.

    When: 7 p.m. Sat.

    Where: First Avenue, 701 1st Av. N., Mpls.

    Tickets: $8. 18 and older. 612-332-1775.

    SEE HIS NEW VIDEO AND HEAR SAMPLES FROM MALLMAN'S CD AT startribune.com/music

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