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Like a great character actor, Mark Mallman says he feels like someone else when he's on stage

Where there's smoke, there's fire with Mark Mallman.
Darin Spring

Mark Mallman is a completely different person on stage and off.

"I always say there's two of me," he explains. "There's him and there's me."

The "him" Mallman is referring to is an on-stage character that he's been developing for the past fifteen years. As those who've seen him perform can tell you, the Minneapolis-based musician can be a madman on stage, reckless and destructive at times, riding and humping his keyboard.

"A friend of mine who's a doctor asked, 'How did you get that huge cut on your leg?'" he recalls. "And I was like, 'Well, I did it on stage.' She said, 'Why would you do that on stage?' and I said, 'That's not me, that's him.' I kind of created this character that's the embodiment of my songs, so every time I perform on stage, that character takes over, almost like character acting — so I'm not really responsible for that."

Before he started developing his on-stage persona, Mallman played in a punk band in high school, learning to perform from watching Germs frontman Darby Crash and Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten. Around that same time, he began writing his own Elton John-esque pop songs. And by the time he was playing in bars, he was in a band inspired by the New York Dolls.

"We were dressing in drag and drinking on stage, fucking smashing our equipment," he recounts. "I just kind of naturally learned to behave on stage by being wild. And now I've kind of reined it in and combine it with exercise, and I feel real confident."

While that confidence is obvious during his shows, Mallman says he feels like somebody else when he's performing live.

"I've being doing it 150 times a year for ten or twelve years, so I'm very in touch," Mallman points out. "Fifteen years I've been in this character. It's definitely like the embodiment of my vision. It's like a psychic thing, like character acting, like a De Niro kind of thing, where you just kind of submit to the beast. I get on stage and I flip it on. It's like jumping in a swimming pool; I change. Everybody who knows me personally knows that there's a huge disconnect between those two people.

"What's good about it," he goes on, "is that, in a sense, you have more freedom to communicate the truth when you're pretending, because you're more in touch with what is real and what is not real. It's really important when you're trying to tell a story. And the story is always just a message or a metaphor. I think sometimes if you go into a Ziggy Stardust place in your head or a Marilyn Manson place in your head, you end up being more truthful because your ego doesn't get in the way. Your ego is constantly trying to fool you. When you're pretending you're from outer space, you can say anything you want. You end up telling more of the truth. It's weird."

While the truth can sometimes be a scary place for Mallman, he has one rule about songwriting: He doesn't write music when he's mad, sad or depressed.

"I might write songs that are about depression and about being angry," he explains, "but I write those when I'm in a good mood, because if I have to tour five months a year and I have to play 130 shows a year, and I have to play songs that are off my record, the last thing I want to do is relive something I wrote when I was sad every fucking night. It's like a perpetuating nightmare. I always say that's why Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis killed themselves — because they were lost in their own depression every night. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Mallman has experience with depression. He dealt with being depressed when he was younger, and he says he's now balanced it out pretty well with the smallest amount of medication he can take. On top of that, he exercises a lot, eats well and keeps positive.

"For me," he says, "I have to do all of these things or I'll be dead. I've already got to that point where it's like, 'Okay, medication, you can't depend on it; you have to make yourself strong.' Especially when I'm out there on the road and I have a band that depends on me, and I've got people who depend on me to pay their rent, I can't afford to be depressed.

"So, how do you that?" he continues. "Over the last ten years, I've learned about meditation and kind of hippie shit that I really kind of abhor, but I've learned to use it to my own advantage so I can write music every day. It's like this preconceived notion of the suffering artist, whether it's Kurt Cobain or Vincent Van Gogh. It's a really nice myth, and it makes a good movie. It makes a great biography, but, I mean, I wouldn't want to live it. So it's kind of like I really have to say, 'Would I rather be dead at 23, or at 55, when I have 36 movies under my belt?' I think it's like people, musicians especially, can let their ego say, 'Oh, woe is me.' In the end, you're the loser and not the winner. It's hippie shit, but it works."

Whether it's scoring films or commercials, or writing his own rock songs, like the ones that appear on his latest effort, the excellent Invincible Criminal, Mallman has made music his job. "My responsibility is to give a good show and to make sure my band gets their rent paid," he says flatly. "It's like I can't risk having an emotional breakdown.

"A lot of my songs," he reveals, "I have to secret-code things. Like, if I'm going to talk about a dead person, I might write what seems to be about a dead person, but it's actually about how I couldn't afford dinner or vice versa, because I'm protecting myself. I'm protecting my emotions so I can keep my distance. If I want to be cathartic, then I'll go running or exercise or play pool, and I'll just take that energy and get it out. But I have to keep it away from my job. The road can be difficult, and you can't afford to be bummed out out there. The hardest part about touring is the emotional disconnect that happens from your personal life. You're gone for two months, and you come back and everything's different."

When he's not on the road, Mallman says he's constantly working on his new album and is wrapping a children's album for a TV show. After performing a 26-hour song/performance with 312 pages of lyrics in 1999, followed by a 52-hour song with 600 pages of lyrics in 2004, Mallman is gearing up for another marathon session in October: a 78-hour song with 900 pages of lyrics that rhyme.

Why would Mallman want to put himself through such a grueling challenge again?

"It's something that I do," he says. "It's something that I've done throughout my career — a constant in my existence. It's like taking things and turning them on their side. There's nothing negative that comes out of it besides some physical wear and tear. I guess my reasoning when people ask 'Why?' — there's no reason why not. People should be doing this kind of stuff all the time. I would be doing it all the time if it weren't so physically destructive.

"It'll be intense and vigorous. Nothing as hard as giving birth to a baby or anything," he concludes, "but it's just music. It's just rock and roll."

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