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Genius or novelty act? 

Minneapolis pop provocateur Mark Mallman is most likely both

As performance art goes, it's not quite as impressive as Chris Burden nailing himself to his car, but more so than David Arquette spending two eight-hour shifts in a Plexiglas box on top of a Madison Square Garden marquee in order to promote Snickers' new "Bar Hunger" campaign.

Mark Mallman's first marathon performance took place in 1999 at a hometown bar called the Turf Club, where the Minneapolis musician played a single song for 26 hours. Five years later, he went back to play another song, this time for 52 hours.

"It's like everything else in my life: It started as a joke and then spiraled out of control," says Mallman. "I want to do 78 hours in September, if my doctor says it's all right."

Heralded by some as the savior of glam rock — "I was compared to [Bowie's] Hunky Dory record for, like, my first three albums, even though I hadn't listened to Hunky Dory until '05" — Mallman is actually much more talented than his novelty stunts might lead you to believe. Still, he admits that people are most interested in his marathons' "David Blaine element," a reference to the endurance artist who spent 44 days in his own Plexiglas box and, unlike Arquette, managed to do so without eating.

"I expected to have wild hallucinations or some other-wordly vision of the Lizard King," Mallman says, "but what really happened is that, by switching musicians every hour, I got in touch with what I'm looking for."

Mallman also managed to do so without sleeping, although he still indulged in life's other necessities: take-out food delivered to the stage, the occasional bathroom break during a guitar solo.

"I'm not gonna die for my art," he promises. "I'm probably gonna die from my art ..."

Bearing witness

A composer for film and video game trailers by day, Mallman took piano lessons from age 3, studied jazz at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and subsequently transformed himself into an arena rock musician minus the arena.

Along the way, there was also a brief lapse into singer-songwriterly sensitivity, which was mostly cured by witnessing the birth of emo.

"I was raised by a machinist and my grandfather was a boxer, so if I want to get sensitive, it's not going to be in that way," says Mallman. "I mean, I grew up with the Promise Ring, who were like the purveyors of emo. I saw a concert in a house with those guys in like 1994, when they were still high school kids. And then they went outside after the show and they were crying! I'm like, 'Why are those dudes crying?' And my friend says, 'You know, it's just really hard for them to play these songs.'"

In other words, Mallman will not be growing a beard and strumming an acoustic guitar anytime soon.

"Part of me would like to say I'd rather die, and that's true. But you know, I'm not gonna knock anybody who's out there, because it's really hard to make music when nobody's buying records. And, you know, it's very difficult for those guys with their beards to play acoustic guitar in a club while everyone's talking and shit."

Blue-collar glam

While Mallman has no trouble paying tribute to influences that continue to serve him well — who else would dare play a medley of Big Star's "Kangaroo" and Joy Division's "Atmosphere"? — he's still mystified when critics liken him to '70s icons like Queen and the New York Dolls. He's no less thrilled to be asked whether he'd prefer being compared to Mott the Hoople or Meatloaf.

"You know, the classic rock part is from growing up in Milwaukee and being raised in a blue-collar environment and going to art school. And that combination ended up leading to a glam rock kind of sound. It was one of the times when rock songwriting reached its apex, and I'm constantly trying to refine my technique.

"So, I don't know, I guess I would have to choose Mott the Hoople, 'cos it's sexier."

Mallman's new album, Invincible Criminal, is set for August release and features contributions from Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn and Cloud Cult's Shannon Frid. And for those who aren't yet up to speed, a 10-year retrospective called Loneliness in America is currently available as a free download at markmallman.wordpress.com. Its opening track, "Do You Feel Like Breaking Up?" is arguably one of the best adrenaline-pop singles in recent years, while "Butcher's Ballad" finds him turning considerably bleaker: "At 7:30 this morning / I saw a rabbit get run over by a sedan / And he shaked and he shaked and he shivered / Until he got run over again."

Mallman actually sounds sincere when he says that one of the reasons he started taking antidepressants was running over a squirrel and then feeling nothing. But even he admits to feeling discomforted by some of his newest songs.

"I think Nick Cave can write these songs that are really evil and bitter because you know it's a character and he's a storyteller. Whereas sometimes in my new tunes, I listen to them and I feel more like Charles Manson listening to his own first record. And that just disturbs me."

bill@csindy.com

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