It's hard to tell whether Mark Mallman is kidding.
After our interview, I'm pretty sure he and his Billy Joel/Elton John-like piano-based tunes (most of which are about booze) are for real. That's Mallman, according to his press photos: longish hair, a leather jacket, a tiger superimposed over his upright, pentagrams in music notes all over his site.
In spite of all that cheese, or maybe because of it, he's actually pretty interesting, and so is the fifth release he's touring to support, Between the Devil and Middle C. The songs sound like they're transmitting from another planet, maybe a ’70s revivalist one, to ears long-accustomed to what's coming out today. Call me an Earth girl. "It's so weird. I've heard that," Mallman says when I mention the disparity. "I want to look back in five years and not be embarrassed because it sounds trendy."
It sounds retro, he says, like a thrift store. He's got his markets that he kicks ass in, he adds, and he attracts a really diverse audience. Last time he was out West he opened for Linda Ronstadt and Guided By Voices on the same tour. "Those are pretty different audiences, but it worked, because my music draws on rock history. It draws on rock archetypes. It refers to things from your childhood."
He keeps his stage show small, just the piano man on keys and a drummer, with guitar and bass coming off a laptop. The set up has a full sound but gives him room "to run around and jump off the piano and make a general ass out of myself." He travels with a keyboard, which is perfect for playing clubs. "The digital pianos nowadays sound great." He calls it his abused child, since he regularly bangs on it, straddles it and plays it over his head.
Mallman holds the world record for the longest pop song ever played, a 52-hour performance in St. Paul, Minn., that required the band to change every hour. "It was pretty goofy," he says. "We're going to try again in a couple of years. We're going to try for 78 hours." It's not a priority, he adds, it's a passion. "My publicist likes it when the writers don't mention it, because I'm a serious songwriter," he laughs. No matter the activity, he says, you have to experiment, and it's something rock ’n' roll doesn't allow enough of. "Even in jazz and classical music, even though it's uptight and snotty, it's not as strict. The regiments are not as strict as rock."