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Man Man: Life's Fantastic!

22 May 2011

Over the past decade, Philadelphia’s Man Man has transformed itself from being tribal psych-rock noisemakers to a premier pop band, and one of the more colorful and energetic live bands of the past decade. Their performance melds with their joyous, oddly positive music, creating an ebullient experience. It’s no surprise that their audiences show up in costumes, dressed extravagantly and brightly, and know every word to every song.

Looks, however, can be deceiving. In between the band’s most recent album, Life Fantastic, and 2008’s Rabbit Habits, lead singer Honus Honus (aka Ryan Kattner) faced some hardships, and a crisis of confidence. These trying times led him to question himself, and question his role as a music maker. All people go through dark nights of the soul; it is how one reacts to it that defines them. For Man Man, the end result, is Life Fantastic, a record that has a definite personal edge, a certain melancholy, but with a positive message that doesn’t reveal itself directly. Honus Honus, in spite of these hassles, sounds positively joyous; excited to talk about the record and get back on the road, and it shows. Life Fantastic is the sound of a man falling back in love with his muse, and the result is a record that uplifts and heals as it entertains.

BT: This wasn’t an easy record for you, was it?

HONUS HONUS: It was a hard one, to find the right place to write from for this record. A lot of stuff happened in my life. I mean, it’s stuff that happens to all of us, so it’s not unique to me. It was the first time I had to deal with some “adult situations.” I had a really good friend die, and had some friendships that ended—I mean, it’s not an unusual thing for a musician to have friendships drift away or end because of their art. But losing a friend forever, man, that’s hard, no matter who you are.

BT: I was driving around listening to it and the first question that came to mind?
“Was
Life Fantastic a cathartic record for you?”

HH: Oh, it was, definitely. It was a strange experience, with all of these things happening around me. In the past, I would just be upset or bummed out or angry, and would try to find a way to express myself through some form of artistic endeavor. But I felt this weird emptiness, a deep inexplicable void I had never felt before. I’m not one to precipitate events in order to fuel creativity; it always just sort of goes hand-in-hand for me. I don’t want to feel miserable in order to create. I mean, who wants to feel miserable anyway? It just seems like such a cop-out. It’s like saying you have to take drugs to fuel creativity. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to the well again and fall back on the same tricks that I had scuffled across over the years. And I really struggled with this, because I feared it might come across as…less than genuine. I mean, a listener can tell when something’s a put-on; even in stuff that’s really abstract or experimental, a listener can smell a rat. At points I wasn’t real sure of myself. The last thing I wanted to do was to feel like I was dialing in another Man Man record.

BT: As you were saying that you felt that these songs were different, more personal and introspective than what you had previously done, does this mean there is a definite ethos to Man Man you did not want to go against?

HH: It’s funny, there’s always been this weird personal side on all of our previous records. It wasn’t obvious but our records have this mix—like a gumbo. Some sides are fun, some are a bit weird, but then there are other moments where it’s something real—whether it happened to me, one of the guys in the band, our friends, whatever—it’s stuff inspired from things around me. I think that on Life Fantastic, there is a bit more of a directness I have shied away from. You know..(Long pause) at points I didn’t really think I wanted to keep playing music. I honestly wasn’t sure I would ever do another record.

BT: When I was listening to it I noticed some songs were heavy, direct but on the other hand some were straight narratives that made me think, Okay, he’s not writing about himself here.

HH: Yeah, and I think that’s important. I’m still trying to craft the perfect pop song, in the rusty nails in the birthday cake kind of way. I’m still trying to figure out the formula, because writing that perfect pop song is harder than it looks! I mean, if you write something that’s “oh, woe is me, feel sorry for me,” that stuff is boring, man. (Laughs) It will get old really fast. That realization was on my radar—I didn’t want to write that kind of music. It’s boring.

BT: One song that really stuck with me is “Piranha’s Club” And listening to the record it feels like the album’s Rosetta stone. Things are going to go bad, things aren’t going to go your way, but that’s okay, yet life will go on and get better.

HH: Yeah, it was a way for me to vocalize how I was persevering through a stressful time. (Laughs) That song, it’s a funny one, because at the time I wrote it, I was getting audited. It was absolutely surreal and Kafkaesque, especially because I didn’t really have anything to be taxed! But I was still getting audited. My dad was like, “Why don’t you write a tax song, like the Beatles?” I was like, “Well, dad, why don’t you go screw yourself!” (Laughs) In a weird way that was my tax song, because I didn’t know what the hell to do! I’m no role model; I’m just gonna write a song that lets it all out, and it comes out with crazy intense things going on because that’s how I felt! It felt good to write, too.

BT: You know, I would have had no clue that that song was about the IRS!

HH: (Laughs) No one ever does! I felt like it was the best assessment of how crazy my life was at that time. It’s funny, that was my reaction, that was my breaking point—I’ve got my friends dying, I’ve got health issues, I’m getting audited, what could I possibly lose by going just totally wacky and nuts in a song? (Laughs) I got nothing to lose, so hey, go for it! (Laughing)

BT: What role did your new band, Mister Heavenly, play in your rejuvenation and healing?

HH: Life Fantastic took an insane amount of my time to make—more so than previous Man Man records. I basically had a summer stolen from me, dealing with those issues I was just talking about. So I lost a whole summer working on the record. Id been talking with Nick Diamonds (frontman of label mates Islands) for a long time, and we had talked about collaborating for some time. I’d like the idea of how our voices would sound together-like oil and vinegar. But it took a long time for something to happen, for a number of reasons. One, Man Man is my first band, the first band I have ever been in.I’m not the most prolific writer; I have to live in my songs before they come together You’ve heard our songs, it’s not the healthiest place to live in. (laughs) It’s like A Guide to Losing Your Mind, by Ryan Kattner. So its not always the easiest way to work! With Nick, the songs were written for the Man Man record, but there were several bits and pieces that just simply did not fit or make sense anywhere else. I made up at list,I was in Philly and Nick was in new york. and we said, let’s just do a song or two together, put them out as a seven inch or on bandcamp or something—let’s just have fun doing this, not over-thinking it. With my music, there has always been elements of Doo-Wop music; I like the bare-bones structure that makes you really have to be convincing. In that minimal approach, you REALLY have to sell the song. We met up, and it was interesting how it came together. I really had never worked with another lyricist.songwriter. We really trust each other and it came about that we really bonded. If one of us hit a snag, we could pass it to the other and rather easily come up with something to complete it. Why don’t we just keep this simple? Let’s keep them simple, let’s keep them short, but lets keep them upbeat. If it works, it will be great; if it falls flat, I can simply blame Nick! (Laughs) I could pass off the responsibility on him.

BT: Someone posted your first show on Youtube.

HH: That was really surreal.

BT: And you got some really positive feedback! I thought it was wild; I went into it thinking, “Well, this is a new band, they’ve never played live, and probably haven’t only played except together in their garage or rehearsal space.” It’s easy to be skeptical, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good the songs were, even though they were all new. Have you set a date yet?

HH: We’ve got a late summer/early fall release. But, Joseph, I gotta say, I find it very refreshing. My role in Man Man, I’m the front-man; the role came to me by default, it was a role that I had to grow into and get used to. When we first started out, our very first drummer wasn’t really a drummer, but we would keep him until we could find a real drummer who would want to play with us. For me, I was singing only until we could find a really cool, good girl singer to take my place. But after time passed, I stayed on, and it all clicked. But being in a band with I get to work half as hard now. (laughs) Nick is a great frontman as well, and when we got Joe Plummer into the drummer role, it really clicked for us. We first thought that it was going to be a studio band, but its really turned into a great live machine.

BT: Is Michael Cera still a part of the band, or was it just a summer vacation for him?

HH: (Laughs) He’s a great friend to all of us, he came on those tours, but he’s gone back to acting. We weren’t thinking that his participation would lead to anything big, but when it came out that he was in, it took it to another level of apeshit! (Laughs)

BT: Well, my concern was that it could be perceived as “Michael Cera’s rock band,” which would do a major disservice for the band.

HH: Yeah, at first we thought it was funny. He is a great bass player, and a buddy of ours. We wanted to do something casual. We’ve got our bands, and Joe Plummer in The Shins now.

BT: One of the comparisons you get is to Tom Waits. Being on Anti-, have you had any contact with him, or has he had any contact with you?

HH: (Sighs, almost disappointingly) No, no, that hasn’t happened yet. But I have gotten to see him a number of times. But the best thing about being on Anti with them, it’s like a big family, and I can go see him or Nick Cave whenever they come to town, because of that association. I don’t have to wait and overpay for a ticket. I would love to see him on his tours. I want to meet both him and his significant other. That’s a cosmic pairing, those two.

BT: I’m sure being on a label with those guys is great.

HH: It’s a dream, actually. As a longtime fan of those guys, it’s amazing. But…I have to say I feel sorry for Mr. Waits. I’m sorry that every time people talk about Man Man, they drag his name into the comparisons. (Laughs) “Hey, I’m getting compared to these scrappy Philly kids, what gives?” (Laughs loudly)

BT: That reminds me of something David Lee Roth said, when someone asked him about his knock-offs: “Don’t blame me for the actions of my bastard children!”

HH: There’s something funny about Tom Waits, though, now that I think about it. I was a military brat, moved around a whole lot as a kid. We lived all over the place, and it’s kind of ironic that my lifestyle now is so wanderlust-y. I remember my dad taking me to school one morning, and he had a cassette that a friend of a friend of his had had a hand in making, this crazy, insane music, and when he played it…it scared the absolute BEJESUS out of me. But I couldn’t stop listening to it, even though the thing freaked the hell out of me. I even would listen to it on my little brother’s toy cassette player, until he’d start crying. I found out later that it was Rain Dogs. It was something so scary and sinister, but I had to go back to it, it captivated me, like a train wreck. When we went to Omaha to track the record with Mike Mogis, we had his little daughter, Stella, sing on the record. One song, “Hot Tropic,” and when Mogis would drive her to school she wouldn’t want to hear that song, because it freaked her out, yet she couldn’t not want to hear it, because it intrigued her. So after we left Omaha, I got to thinking about that. I guess we were successful, passing on the terrified children drive!