Hometown: Philadelphia, Pa.
Members: Ryan Kattner (Honus Honus), Chris Powell (Pow Pow), Billy Dufala (Chang Wang), Jamey Robinson (T. Moth), Russell Higbee (Critter Crat)
Album: Life Fantastic
For Fans Of: Akron/Family, Gogol Bordello, Islands, Tom Waits
When you look at the album title of Man Man’s fourth record Life Fantastic, it seems like a declaration of someone thoroughly enjoying their own existence. That name seems to make even more sense considering the oddball eccentricities associated with the Philadelphia group’s freewheeling, exuberant and vaudeville-infused style of experimental rock. But for frontman Ryan Kattner (née Honus Honus), that initial snapshot couldn’t be farther from the truth of his experience in creating this record.
Writing songs usually comes easy for Kattner—it’s his way of making sense of his world. But after a series of unfortunate life circumstances—including the deaths of several close friends, a period of vagrancy, tax audits and a motorcycle accident—he fell into a depressed-enough state that he found himself temporary unable to even channel himself via musical catharsis. But after being down and out for a couple years, the Man Man mastermind found his way again, returning with a series a songs richer in complexity than anything he’d previously written.
The eclectic tendencies that long defined Man Man still remain intact on Life Fantastic; however, they are now coupled with Kattner’s dark, unadorned recollection of his hazy past few years. Paste recently sat down with the lead singer before the group’s recent Atlanta show to discuss Man Man’s musical progression, Life Fantastic and their experience working with producer Mike Mogis.
Paste: I don’t know how else to ask this but… what happened to you?
Honus Honus: You mean how I lost my mind? [laughs].
Paste: Well the record indicates something that’s celebratory, but that’s not at all what’s behind Life Fantastic.
Honus Honus: I think that’s what is great. It reads upbeat, and it speaks volumes to the transformative quality of music… how something that came from a pretty upsetting place for me can turn into something different for the listener. I was really glad because when we came back from Omaha [where the band recorded the new album]… at that point the album was 16 songs long and I thought to myself, “Fuck. Did we just make a heavy record?” We were able to cut it down and now I think it just reads a lot better. But I felt that to not talk about what went into the record, what a labor of love it was, would be a disservice to the album.
Paste: How far back did this darker period go for you?
Honus Honus: It was a while. It was very frustrating because it wasn’t writer’s block per se, as much as it was not really getting out of music what I used to. The reason I started was to get the craziness out of my head. Instead, it was just putting more in. It just seemed like a vicious cycle. It took a while to reconnect to that—a long while actually.
The events that happened in my life are things that happen to everybody. But it was comedic in a way because it was so much stuff. It got very surreal. I think it was getting in touch with that and why I started to play music to begin with… to not get swallowed up by all this stuff.
Paste: This record is a lot more restrained than much of Man Man’s previous works. Is that a reflection arising from everything you went through over the past few years or a natural progression of the band as a whole? What are some of the differences for you on this record compared to the last ones?
Honus Honus: Growth is important. I like that there’s a buried narrative in every record that we make. I like that you can track the growth of our band, the changes. I couldn’t expect to write the same album that I wrote when I was 23. I wouldn’t even know how to.
In the early days, even before we recorded the first record, I was just filling a role until we could find someone. I got stuck in that role, so I’ve just been learning how to do that over the years.
Paste: It seems to have worked out.
Honus Honus: We’re sorting it out. There’s a real ebb and flow to everything. Not an even flow.
Paste: On this record, you recruited the help of Mike Mogis (member of Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk) to produce the record. How was that experience?
Honus Honus: We were ready to go to the dance. [Mike] Mogis helped us get ready.
Paste: Did Man Man seek him out initially?
Honus Honus: We sought him out (we had a mutual friend). He was the only person we talked to. After talking with him on the phone for a while, we just decided to go for it.
Paste: You guys have never worked with a producer before, why now? It doesn’t really seem like the perfect match between band and producer.
Honus Honus: I like how it doesn’t make sense on paper… We liked the fact that it seemed like a left-field thing for both of us, but it made perfect sense. We were up for the challenge of stepping outside our comfort zones. Mogis had never really worked with a band like ours, and we had never worked with a producer before. We figured if we were going to jump into that, we might as well with both feet.
It was great having another person help guide the layering of the songs and help get us the sounds we needed. Also to help mix the album. There’s a lot of crazy things happening on the records, but it’s the placement of where everything is… Sonically it’s just a beast, you know.
Paste: What in particular drew you to his past production work?
Honus Honus: For me, he did a Lightspeed Champion song that I really loved. It was really ornate and had strings—beautiful, yet stripped down at the same time. I felt like [with] some of these songs—they really needed someone who knew how to bring the beauty out of what we were doing. The band has always been a balance of the extremes. It’s like controlled chaos of the ugly and the beautiful. I just knew that he had the right tools to do that. Narratively, I got a kick out of the fact that lyrically, the album was written when I was down south, [while living] on the West and East coast. Geographically, I thought it made sense to record right in the middle of America.
Paste: I have no idea what to think of the album art. Care to enlighten me on what that’s all about?
Honus Honus: When you look at the full album, it’s actually a triptych. During this whole period, I was down in Texas visiting my dad. We went to go see a concert in Houston (he lives in Austin) and had time to kill. So we went to the contemporary art museum. It had a Weird America exhibit, and Brad Kahlhamer…is this New York artist who’s been doing this for a really long time. I connected to it because I thought they were really beautiful, dark images. I was turned onto his totems, which there are hundreds of…I picked three that are kind of like birth, living and death. It translates when you see the whole thing—we wanted to have a stark, simple image.
Paste: Man Man is a band known largely for your live show. As you continue to tour in support of Life Fantastic, how would you describe your live show to someone seeing you for the first time?
Honus Honus: I view it as a musical exorcism. We all bring our own lives and personalities to the band. We all use it for different reasons…It’s a celebration of all that. We have fun with our live show and we put on a show that can get fun, silly and kind of goofy at times. But it’s all part of this stew, you know. I like the fact that we have songs that seem upbeat and joyous, but at the same time there’s this dark, cold center. It’s a lot sneakier, like a piñata filled with broken glass.
It’s more complicated, rather than just being doom and gloom, or just being happy-go-lucky. I know, because I’m an awful mixture of both those things. The live show… it’s a separate beast from our albums. It is controlled… there’s moments in there when we have spontaneous outbursts. But for the most part it’s a controlled monster.