Man Man's Ryan Kattner on the raucous live show: "Well, we go full tilt. You only live once"
Since its inception in 2003, Man Man (due Monday, February 17, at the Fox Theatre) has made music that defied easy categorization; if anything, it suggests that the bandmembers have listened to a whole lot of Captain Beefheart. The act's album titles, often seemingly surrealistic, make interesting and creative cultural references. The title of Man Man's 2004 debut, The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face, for instance, is a nod to Nostradamus's description of the modern-day Antichrist, while 2006's Six Demon Bag is an allusion to the film Big Trouble In Little China and its focus on Chinese mythology.
Man Man's shows are full-tilt, theatrical, sometimes confrontational performances. During the course of its eleven years of existence, the band has released five full-length albums, including its most adventurous and polished offering yet, 2013's On Oni Pond. We spoke with the endearingly self-effacing Honus Honus (aka Ryan Kattner) about how any attention the outfit garners is something that still surprises him and that while taking risks in the live setting is part of the plan, he and the group still aspire to write songs that will be remembered long after the project has ended.
Westword: You've said that you kind of got into playing music by accident. How so?
Ryan Kattner: It was something I did after college. I needed a creative outlet, and I just started playing and never intended it to become a career. I don't have a musical background, and didn't go to school for music. I got a keyboard and started writing music. I still don't know what I'm doing.
What did you go to school for?
For dramatic writing. There's jobs out there, but when you're a young kid from Alabama, I wish I had thought through my undergraduate decisions a little bit more. Do I regret it? No. I wouldn't be in a cold van talking to you right now, though.
Yeah, that's one of the unglamorous sides of touring, that's for sure.
There's a lot of digging deep within yourself and trying to summon the spirit to continue.
When you got going in Philadelphia, did you play a lot of shows locally or did you have to travel a bit to do that?
There were modest ambitions in the beginning. I figured if I played the local rock club maybe once, that could be the end of my music career. I never really envisioned a career. When we started playing shows, we would play in Philly maybe a show a month, or a show every couple of months, to keep it special and still guarantee our friends would come out to see us.
We would just play New York whenever we could. Most bands starting out, you never make any money. It's a thing that I rationalized to myself that this is just a phase or a chapter of my bigger story, and I might as well get this out of the way while I can still sleep on floors and sit in cold vans. Thirty years later, little would I know!
Do you feel as though you connected with like-minded musicians early on or did that come along more later?
I think I frustrated musicians. I think I still do. Because I'm not a musician's musician. I write songs. And I stumbled across my method of writing songs. I've been fortunate to surround myself with brilliant musicians. I've been really lucky to have really wonderful players play with me, and there's been quite a few since I started. Chris, aka Pow Pow, jumped on board around the second record, and he's been sticking around with me ever since.
You've had some injuries over the last handful of years including splitting your lip and gluing it back together with super glue. Obviously that's a consequence of a spirited performance. Why did that now perhaps discourage you at this point?
Well, we go full tilt. You only live once. You kind of have to pilot the train for as long as it stays on the track. A lot of trains get decommissioned. You might as well put the miles on it. I mean, I feel like it's a disservice to anyone that's coming out to see us if we don't. Because the way that we see it, at least the way that I see it, is that I don't take any of this for granted. I never expected anyone to gravitate toward something that I would create, so it's been kind of a wonderful gift.
If we're playing shows, we want to play shows as though the entire crowd is new and they don't give a fuck about us. We want to earn you. That's just kind of been the mission statement from the get-go. There's plenty of middling bands out there and we just don't have any desire to join their ranks. Damned if we do, damned if we don't, we want to make an impression. And hopefully it's a good one and you'll come back and we have repeat offenders. Especially with this new record, we're getting a lot of fresh faces, and it's cool.
You said to The Dallas Observer that Man Man kind of fits in with the soul music category. Why would you say that's true?
When I write and when we perform, it's like you gotta sing it how you feel it. And even if it's coming from a very weird place, it's got to be genuine. With that being said, do I think we're a soul band? No. I think in a lot of ways we're a very American band in that we're a melting pot of influences, and it's just trying to get out there and reach more ears and we've got to grind it out. That's what we do.
You've cited Stephen Malkmus as an influence on your own lyrics. Is there a particular era of his music that you prefer?
Obviously the Pavement stuff. It's the great catalog. I like The Jicks, as well. Actually we've been criss-crossing the country with them. It happens when you go on tour. You find a band or two where you're in the same town the day before or the day after, and it happens to be Malkmus and the Jicks for this tour. We're both touring in the tundra, the conditions that are affecting our nation at the moment. If he can do it, I need to suck it up and do it as well. Actually, I like touring. But when you're touring this time of the year, it can really wear on the soul. Fortunately I don't have a soul.
Your band has a great Tumblr site in which you post snippets of your adventure on the road. Who maintains that?
That's primarily me. Sometimes Chris does stuff. I just link my other social networks, like Instagram, to Tumblr. I used to keep up a lot more but now I have to pick and choose my battles.
Is there anything you've found consistently amusing or interesting in your travels around America, like those strange products and businesses you would never see anywhere else.
Really it's got to be something that sticks out. Not to sound like a road dog or anything, but by about the two dozenth time you've seen an odd product, you're kind of desensitized to it. Oh, turkey slices in a squeezable tube! Cool!
The title of On Oni Pond resonates with the title of Six Demon Bag in referencing malevolent, mythological creatures. Was that entirely accidental?
It was. But there a similarity with how the records were put together. With Six Demon Bag, I had the entire band defecting on me. Then with On Oni Pond pretty much only Chris wanted to write the record with me. So I think in a way that kind of crept in. It was already after the fact, and I was like, "Oh, damnit! I named a record after a demon?" I guess these are the demons I try to outrun but they keep catching up to me. Like wolves and werewolves. It's just in my DNA. It's in my MDMA.
What got you interested in working with Mike Mogis on this new record?
It didn't seem to make any sense. We like that challenge. With every record, we're just trying to do something different. With Life Fantastic, we had to make that leap because we just couldn't keep making wild, raucous records. We could, but it just wouldn't have been honest to where our heads were -- at least where mine was. We weren't certain we were going to work with him again, and then we sent him demos for On Oni Pond, and he was thrilled with how different it sounded.
So we cut through the bullshit of getting to know each other because we knew our work habits and we could focus on making a great record together. Life Fantastic, through circumstances, took nearly three months of recording and mixing. With On Oni Pond, we didn't have that luxury; we only had three weeks. So there had to be a laser focus.
When you initially worked with him was he suggested to you, or did you seek him out?
We had a mutual friend introduce us. We had never worked with a producer before. We went into the process with all the songs. We don't have the finances or the luxury to write songs in the studio. I'd like to do a record like that someday, but we just have to have someone extremely successful cover one of our songs. So then creating the awareness of our presence on a bigger scale, and then we could hemorrhage money in the studio doing that. But until that day happens we have to have all of our songs written beforehand, basically.
Do you feel Mike brings anything particular to your recording and mixing process?
Oh, Mike's great. Initially with Life Fantastic, we needed an outside person to just step in there with a chainsaw and cut away excessive parts, so they wouldn't detract from the song. On On Oni Pond there was a conscious decision to create more space so things wouldn't be as sonically bogged down and it was great working with him in that regard. Then he totally shreds on a couple of songs on the record. I play a little bit of guitar but it's not up to snuff [compared to] Mike [who is] shredding on a mountain top with eagles flying around.
Beyond that, he just has really good ears and from day one, even from Life Fantastic we're on the same page of the parts don't matter, the sounds don't matter as much as is there a song? Because ultimately, when all the dust settles and our ashes become part of the ether, I want to be known as a band that wrote great songs and not just as a band that was a good live band because more people will hear our recordings after us than will probably see us live.