Everybody has their dark days. This was apparently one for Man Man frontman Ryan Kattner (aka Honus Honus). While the Philadelphia art-rock weirdos have attracted some attention for their grab-bag eclecticism, wild-eyed, kitchen-sink arrangements and carnival sideshow performances, there's a wide gulf between buzz band and paying the bills. It's enough to wonder if you've made a terrible vocational mistake.
“I got into music because I had too much going on in my head, and I needed to get it out. I didn't think the band would be anything beyond a fun little detour for a year or two,” says Kattner, who confesses his current home is his duffel bag. “It's like getting off at the rest stop on a long drive, but when you return, your car's stolen. You're stuck in the rest stop and forced to forage.”
Adding insult to injury, after several years of couch-surfing and saving up for a place of his own, Kattner found himself audited by the IRS. They took everything he'd saved for three years.
“It was Kafka-esque. ‘I'm being audited?' All my stuff's been in storage for three years. I don't have a permanent address. It was surreal. It boiled down to a clerical error by a not-very-good accountant. And it sucked,” he says. “It was the last [straw] after friends passing, parents divorcing and relationships ending. ‘Oh, really? Is this going to happen?'”
These experiences inform last year's Life Fantastic. The title is less sarcastic than benumbed acceptance, “sort of, ‘What can you do?'” Singing with something of a gritty growl that owes a debt to Tom Waits, Kattner exercises his animus on the bouncing '50s pop swing of “Piranhas Club,” in which he advises, “The world's a shitshow … and if you gotta smash some plates to relax? Do it!” While steeped in their trademark reeling idiosyncrasy and quirk, it's also absurdly catchy.
Some credit has to go to producer Mike Mogis, who plays in Bright Eyes and is one of record label Saddle Creek's in-house producers. He did a masterful job of pruning back Man Man's bushy mess of ideas in what was the group's first time handing complete control over to someone else. The result is a crisper, more digestible effort.
“It wasn't a matter that the songwriting changed so much as the placement of everything. Things weren't mixed a million parts all together, even though some of the songs had as many parts as any old Man Man song. A lot of that has to do with Mike's ears. He has very acute ears,” Kattner says. “While the earlier records have their charms and their own stories, it made me wish some of those songs could've been recorded by Mike back in the day.”
Kattner – who spent some of last year touring in Mister Heavenly (Islands' Nick Thorburn and the Shins/Modest Mouse's Joe Plummer) – has already turned his attention to the next album. Expect Man Man to slip one or two new songs into their set list. He doesn't know how long the band will continue, but he's holding onto the hope that he'll one day pen that unexpected hit, like the Butthole Surfers' “Pepper.”
“That's my little match girl dream, lighting up all my creative inspiration on the sidewalk in the cold night while freezing to death. I just have to write one ‘Pepper,'” he cracks. “We're lucky we have an awesome fanbase, and the shows are cool. We really crush it live. And I'm really proud of our album content. I just have to stay the course, I guess – he told himself as he lit another match.”
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