Mark Mallman proves he’s not just a serious songwriter

by Jahna Peloquin

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises?” Henry David Thoreau ponders in Walden. In his seminal 1854 novel, Thoreau retreats to the forest to find freedom from the pressures of modern life.

Responding to Thoreau nearly a century and a half later, local musician Mark Mallman closed himself off last Friday in a refrigerator box in the bay window of Dinkytown’s CD Warehouse, where he performed for ten hours with the samplers, amplifiers and guitar he carried in with him.

With this concept, based on the premise of cutting oneself off from society in order to find a greater truth, he literally recreated himself as Walden‘s “human insect,” concealing himself from man’s sight within a layer of cardboard and yellow police tape.

The sounds seeping through the barriers were much unlike what we’re used to hearing from Mallman. Looped in cycles that alternated every few hours, the music went from sounding like the moaning of ancient spirits to transmissions from outer space. Sparse keyboard notes were layered atop muffled, deep vibrations that, if you dared to place your hand on the box, were enough to rattle your chest.

This stunt, coupled with his recent 26-hour live performance “Marathon,” would leave many thinking of Mallman as crazy, weird and pretentious. However, when I got a chance to sit down with him after a late night of Art Bell and Super Mario Brothers, he revealed to me that “a lot of this stuff starts off as a joke. Then I get trapped in the joke, and am forced to live it.” In fact, he claims his sense of humor is a “burden” on him and that he doesn’t like “funny music.”

“The last thing I want to do is be some pompous asshole whose music is seen as overrated,” Mallman said. Ultimately, the experience of being in the box was more boring than freeing for him, and the freedom Thoreau sought at Walden Pond was not Mallman’s aim.

Despite his misgivings on being perceived as crazy, weird and pretentious, Mallman felt the need to take up the experiment as a reaction to what he sees as a relatively serious music scene.

“Part of me feels like it’s my responsibility to do this crazy shit,” Mallman said. “I don’t want to be the crazy guy, but no one else is doing it.” Mallman explained further, “the less of a reason to do something, the more it intrigues me.” In the end, reasons don’t matter as much as the act itself.

With his performance of How I Recycle In The Modern Age: Where’s Walden? Mallman’s modern-day Pop Art sensibility is expressed by his nearly absurd connection of something prevalent in earlier mainstream society to the present. Walden is Mallman’s muse as Marilyn Monroe was Andy Warhol’s. It’s not surprising that he’s a big fan of Warhol and Lichtenstein.

Taking life too seriously can prove to be dangerous-not just artistically, but mentally as well. Since last year, Mallman’s music has shifted from being depressing and “really violent” to being “elated” and “fun.” Mallman explained, “The older I get, the more I realize it’s not worth it [to be negative]. Being negative sucks you dry.”

Mallman said the songs he’s currently working on for his upcoming album next year are much more positive than his critically acclaimed 2000 album, How I Lost My Life And Lived To Tell About It.

Simply because the “human insect” concept began as a joke doesn’t mean it was meant to be taken with a grain of salt. It pondered the interconnectedness of human life, questioning the viewer (“Do you wonder if I am really in the refrigerator box?”), while Mallman himself was unable to see or hear his audience. People’s reactions were akin to those they might exhibit at a sociological experiment, ranging from dumbfounded to amused. Mallman’s hope is that “people would be intelligent enough to think of it as something more complex and not just funny.”

Mark Mallman plays Friday at First Avenue (701 First Ave. N., Mpls. 612-338-8388). Fog and Valet open. 6 p.m. $6/$8. 21+