Man Man

"I found that playing music was actually making me more crazy than more healthy and I definitely didn’t want to fall back on old tricks."

Illustration by Peter Komierowski
Illustration by Peter Komierowski

Top Drawer

Philadelphia-based idiosyncratic visionaries Man Man are bound to turn heads with their fourth album, Life Fantastic––an emotional saga set to an infusion of fluid dreaminess, layered explosiveness and terminal wanderlust. Though known for their crazed stage antics, intricate and oddball lyrics and use of almost every instrument under the sun (melodicas, saxophones, kazoos), the band’s latest finds bandmates Honus Honus, Chang Wang, Pow Pow, Jefferson and Turkey Moth extending beyond the scope of Frank Zappa and Tom Waits comparisons and into a realm of controlled musicality and sincere honesty. Differing from their previous album Rabbit Habits’ chaotic mentality and spastic execution, Life Fantastic sees Man Man refocus and recollect, creating a range of emotionality, from the IRS-audit-inspired “Piranhas Club” to “Steak Knives,” which laments tortured relationships and untimely deaths. Teetering between pop and experimental music, Life Fantastic finds Man Man growing not only as a band, but as people outside of their onstage personae. Speaking with Discorder, frontman Honus Honus, born Ryan Kattner, delves into the complexities of the album as well as some misconceptions about Man Man.

Discorder: Three years is considered a long time between albums in the music industry––did the band feel pressure to get this album out?

Ryan Kattner: We did. The longer you take to put out a record, the more bands fill the void and push you to the wayside. Life wasn’t going to let me get this record done any sooner than it did and it’s more important for us to release a good album rather than rush one out. We have never been a band that fits snugly into a category other than our own, so we weren’t too concerned about getting lost in a wave of whatever rehash was occurring. My favourite thing about this record is that it still doesn’t sound like anyone else. I mean, it sounds like us.

D: Really? I found this album diverged quite a bit from previous Man Man albums––chaotic dissonance doesn’t seem to reign, but rather a more controlled sound does.

RK: [Laughs] I was just testing you. That’s the one thing––it would be a great misfortune for us if people didn’t actually listen to the record. We sort of get compartmentalized into “just another Man Man record,” and it comes hand-in-hand with our reputation as a live band. As a live band we’re having fun and trying to share what we do, so it does present a different picture of us.

D: Have you developed a negative reaction towards your live shows because they are so easily trademarked?

RK: No, no. The only negativity is I think our playfulness gets misconstrued as goofy or silly, and there’s a fine line there. It can get people thinking that we’re not serious about our craft. If our whole thing was just banging on pots and pans, why would we waste our time writing songs and having shitty personal lives? When we play, we want to earn you and don’t want to take for granted that you’re there. We still feel like we need to prove ourselves because you need to stay hungry and on your toes.

D: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that there is an absence of structure on this album, but even with more “typical” Man Man songs like “Dark Arts” and “Knuckles Down,” there’s still structure. Was that in reference to the songs, themes, or yourself?

RK: Thematically, there is definitely an absence of structure in my life, and that’s what I like about this record and, in a greater scope, about music: the transformative quality. Lyrically, the songs were a real labour of love to pull together and muscle through some really tough personal times. And it was stuff all people go through, but I was able to air it out through the songs. But for the transformative quality, for someone else, they won’t hear any of that and they’ll just enjoy the songs as what they are because at the end of the day, the songs just need to be open enough that people can affix their own meanings.

D: The ability to storytell is ripe in both the lyrics and instruments on this album, specifically with “Haute Tropique.” Are these stories your stories or Honus Honus’ stories?

RK: Specifically, those songs were two experiments that [the band] wanted to provide music and have me provide context and content to tie in. That’s really difficult for me, because typically most songs start with a skeleton structure––just words and piano or guitar––and I just don’t really know how to separate the two. I feel like that [lends to] the album’s idea of lack of structure and I wanted to do a song about human nature, so that’s kind of what that song’s about.

D: Does the lack of structure tie into the chant-like section of “Bangkok Necktie?” It sounds like an infusion of influences, from an old mariner’s song to prose from a tall tale.

RK: None of us have any musical training, we’re all self-taught. So when we have these kinds of ideas, there aren’t any boundaries. For [“Bangkok Necktie”], I really like doing chain-gang style sounds because I went to high school in Alabama where they reinstated the chain-gang, so you would be driving the highway and see people chained to each other. That’s insane! They stopped it because they found it inhumane, but [the sounds] kind of stuck. Parts of that song were also kind of inspired by the [David] Carradine death [a speculated auto-erotic asphyxiation] and the extent to which people will go for love or personal gratification. I don’t want to contextualize the song too much, but that was definitely floating around. It’s dark, you know, “get a rope, get a room.”

D: There does seem to be this battle of dark versus light on the album.

RK: It really is a battle [between] those two things. I know most of life is like a second act, but it’s the highs and lows that fascinate me. When all that stuff was going on, I felt myself falling back into bad habits and allowing myself to get swallowed up. And it’s a song like “Dark Arts” that helped me get a lot of that stuff out of my head and that’s when I could finally see the light on [Life Fantastic]. It took a good deal of time for me to even want to write songs because, initially, this band just kind of happened out of therapeutic reasons and needing some form of something to get it out––a staged exorcism. Or just a stage. And as years went by, and one bad decision turned into three albums, I found that playing music was actually making me more crazy than more healthy and I definitely didn’t want to fall back on old tricks. Lyrically, I just didn’t feel anything, but I was able to refocus and go back to why I started playing music in the first place.

D: How so?

RK: I just had to ride out the storm a little bit. I would have never guessed that getting audited would be something that would re-clarify my vision. I would never pray for that to happen to anyone, but that lends itself to the transformative quality of music. I got audited, which was a nightmare. Especially when you’re someone who’s got all your stuff in storage. It was so surreal and Kafka-esque, I was like “what are they going to get from me? I have nothing.” I was losing my mind, and my dad was like “Why don’t you write a tax song?” and I was like “Fuck you, dad.” At that point, things couldn’t get any worse––I had friends dying, and no place to live–– and it was like “I’m barely getting by, and now I’m getting audited?”

D: Well, now that line about punching your dad in the face in “Piranhas Club” makes sense.

RK: I love my dad [laughs]. For me it’s a tax song, but it’s basically about telling people to do what they want. But it’s different for everyone. It’s also a little ridiculous…vdriving a car into a lake because it’s going to make you feel better. I think everyone is damaged to a certain extent, so you might as well embrace that rather than trying to keep hiding it and running away.

D: Specifically between songs like “Steak Knives” and “Piranha’s Club,” you can hear your emotional process and, at points, recovery.

RK: [“Steak Knives”] kills me. That was probably the hardest song to write, and it was the first song [written for Life Fantastic]. I had two very close friends pass away, and relationships ending, and all my stuff in storage. I didn’t know what to do and I started writing that song. It took almost a year for that song to get written. It is the most bare bones song. I think it’s a gorgeous song, but it’s a hard one for me to listen to though… I’m hesitant to say that it’s a very personal record, because they’re all very personal, but there was a directness on this one that I maybe stayed away from in the past. Personally, it was written during this period when I was drifting. My head and my heart were in different places all the time and it was just a matter of trying to connect them and get them back in the same place. I can’t say where they both are now, but they’re both closer.

Man Man plays the Rickshaw, May 17.