Mark Mallman: Mr. Serious

// A conversation with Mark Mallman about his new album, ‘Invincible Criminal,’ his creative process and the rock-n-roll lifestyle //

Mark Mallman has been playing piano since the age of 3 and writing pop songs since 13.

Known for his amazing energy and stamina, the 36-year-old has just released a new album, “Invincible Criminal.” He’s about to hit the road again. In the past 10 years, he’s toured the country 23 times, opening for a variety of musicians, including Of Montreal, Guided by Voices and Donovan.

He lives in Bryn Mawr in the basement of a building that used to be a church in the 1950s. When he’s not on the road, he’s often working on music 17 hours a day — writing compositions for film and TV. He’s turned down a lot of job offers so he can continue touring as a musician. He also enjoys living in Minneapolis.

“I’m just grateful that the town accepts me. Because I’m just an outsider,” he said. “I’m not really part of any style. I’m not like super hip. I’m not aggressive and I’m not part of this folk scene, or hip-hop scene. I’m just the weirdo, but for some reason I feel like there’s a community of peers here in town that I enjoy.”

He recently spoke with the Southwest Journal about his new record, approach to songwriting and life on the road.

SWJ: Can you talk about the theme of your new album?

I was going to make an album about criminals and crime — that’s kind of rock-n-roll. My last record was supposedly about drinking, but really it was about existential crisis, and now this record is about time. That’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot. There are a lot of rock-n-roll songs about time. There’s not many about existential crisis.

… I’m at a very advanced stage of songwriting. I’m not saying that in terms of quality — in terms of experience. I’ve been doing it for a long time. Now I’m at this point where songs take over a year to write, and those aren’t the lyrics at all. So when I’m rewriting the lyrics, I grab into the word pool file on my computer. I have this song on the record, “If We Only Kept Getting Young,” which is about being in the hospital with someone who is on their deathbed. I thought I really need to write a song about that. But I was like, what if I wrote that and also made it about stealing cars. There are all these references to stealing cars. It was a very difficult song for me to write — not emotionally, but technically for me the challenge I set up. The theme is kind of crime, but really the underlying product of the theme was, ‘Oh sh**, I’m afraid of getting old, but it happens.’ Almost every single song was about that. I didn’t even realize it.

Have you had any other experiences lately that evoke the idea that time is running out?

I do a lot of composing for film and TV, but I started playing in this cover act just for extra money. You play three-hour sets and I really like to play a long time and we do it out of town always. Most of the time we do it up around the Canadian border, and I started becoming part of people’s lives in a different way. It’s not like we’re going to go see Mark Mallman, the crazy songwriter whose albums we own. It’s like a different quadrant of society. We’re going to go out on a Friday night and have fun, and all of a sudden I’m a part of the memories they cherish.

Because when you get older and you look back at life, you don’t look back at the test questions, you don’t look back at your job and your stresses at work, you look back at Friday and Saturday nights. It’s very deceptive, because you think this is just a frivolous moment of my life, but the frivolous moments are really very crucial in your memory and in your reasons to exist.

So I learned that [there], playing the covers because they’re not there to see me, they are there to dance to songs they know. So I wrote this song, “Before The Music’s Over,” specifically as an advice song to people in college who go out to bars, and the song is like ‘f*** party.’ Just dance and party. It’s crucial advice. Party — you’re young and you’re beautiful. You’re in college. Just do it, man.

… That song is written specifically for the Rocks Tavern in St. Cloud. I sing about the mirrors on the wall. I don’t reveal the bar. It’s just like this moment when you’re on stage and you’ve been singing the same song over and over. You’re kind of on autopilot in a certain way — like a person on Broadway doing a show every night. So you think about other things — especially when you’re 36. You think about things you didn’t think about when you were 22 playing music.

Can you talk about your creative process? What is your approach to writing?

I was never conflicted about what I wanted to do with my life. I’m very lucky for that because some people struggle with that and they don’t discover what they want to do until later on in life. I was lucky enough to really get my creative process down. I’ve always been very serious about it — being serious about being not serious. It’s a weird concept.

From experience, the easiest way to write songs is to constantly do it. Anything I think — whether you’re a painter or poet — you constantly do it and when life happens, it comes out in your painting. As opposed to if you just wait for that thing to happen, you’re not in the flow.

I just try to be in touch with what’s happening in my life. I tend to write in metaphors.  All the personal moments in my songs are very secret. … When I’m on stage, I don’t want to relive death or a breakup. … Pretty quickly on after I started playing my songs out live, I realized that I should pick different moments to focus on. When I’m on stage that’s my time. That’s my time to be an entertainer. Either I don’t play personal songs live, or when I’m writing I’m aware of what it’s going to be. If there is something I really want to talk about, I’ll sneak it in. You would never know, “If We Only Kept Getting Young,” was literally written for someone who is in intensive care and I’m sitting on their bed trying to figure out how I’m going to write that.

What is life like on the road?

When I was 17 or 18 there still was the concept of a major labor record deal where a major label comes and gives you a ton of money and lets you make a huge record and promotes the sh** out of it. I wanted that so bad. Looking back, that could have been the worst thing for me because I think I would have turned out to be an asshole. I’m not saying I’m not an asshole now. I would have been the wrong kind of asshole.

What do you mean by that?

People say if it came too easy it wouldn’t be worth the time that it took — that cliché. When we go out and meet some of these bands that have everything handed to them, they’re handicapped because there is so many little things you have to know to determine success. A lot of music business is 10 steps forward, nine steps back. When you have a tremendous amount of success early on you don’t recognize that you might be taking 10 steps forward and you might be taking nine steps back, but you’re only taking nine steps and you’re moving forward, but it’s a hell of a lot of work. So they turn down opportunities. … When you go the hard way, I always liken it to a CEO who starts his kid in the mailroom. Because he knows that’s how the kid is going to know the ins and outs of the business. In the movies, where the kid starts at the top, he always fails.

… I didn’t start touring America as a whole unit until I was old enough to have who I am engrained in me so I had a lot more power to resist some of things that are out there. Because you’re around alcohol every single night.

The country is awesome. It’s just such a huge adventure four months a year. It’s not the kind of adventure where you’re on tour buses or anything. It’s this haphazard adventure where you’re in a van. I remember one tour, one night we slept on the couch in this ghetto in Portland, and the next day we slept on a couch in San Francisco in an at least $10 million mansion up in the hills. I woke up on this leather couch and I’m like, ‘I’m still on a couch.’ Every night you just don’t know what’s going to happen when you’re small time like me.

… I’m very happy with the amount of adventure that’s been sent to me. I recommend it to everyone. Join a rock band. Because rock-n-roll has taken me everywhere in America. Everywhere from the St. Louis Arch to the Statue of Library to Niagara Falls to White Sands National Monument to the Columbia River Gorge to the Grand Canyon.

… I’m in a band. We play in bars. We sleep on floors.

I sell a minimal amount of records a year. Some towns I’m popular. Some towns I’m not. But from that I can have a serious debate on the East Coast about are Pat’s or Jim’s steaks more authentic. That’s what’s so cool about it.

You’re known for your amazing energy. How do you keep your energy up?

It’s really hippy dippy how I stay on the road. I have two rules. First, if something is not going wrong, you’re not paying attention. So it means for me I’m on the road in a rock band in a van. It’s like you signed up for a tour of duty. Crazy sh** is going to happen, and don’t freak out when that happens. It’s supposed to happen. You signed up for this. Everything is going according to plan — like there’s a one-armed guy chasing the van. He was really nice now that I think about it. Once I accept that sh** is supposed to go wrong and I’m supposed to constantly fix it, then all of a sudden I’m at peace with it. … Then you just laugh. Every night is something different.

And the other thing is to constantly look for something positive or fun, and that never gets old. I always have energy. Once I start complaining or get negative, the crowd can tell it. I just constantly try to have fun, whether I’m waking up in the morning or getting on stage. It’s important for the show and it’s important for my songs. It took me a while to realize that life isn’t like a book where it’s really tedious and then the last page is awesome. Like Hemingway says ‘it’s great every single word.’ That is what the road has taught me. Every single second has to be fun — don’t worry about the end of the story.