Man Man’s Mad Art: an interview with Honus Honus

My first exposure to Man Man’s Rabbit Habits came last November in Newport, Kentucky. I saw lead Man Man Ryan Kattner (aka Honus Honus) looking bored near the merch section, so I reintroduced myself — it’d been nearly a year and a half since we’d done an interview, after all. We chatted about the band for a bit and eventually ran out of small talk. But rather than politely excusing himself to the band area, Ryan’s eyes betrayed his excitement as he asked me if I wanted to go hear the new album.

At the time I just figured that Ryan was bored, in a good mood or in need of some buzz for his then label-less band (likely, likely and possible). But now, almost a year and a half later, I think I realize why he was willing to let someone he barely knew listen to the demos for the band’s make-or-break third record: it’s the kind of great record that makes you find people to listen to it.

Shivering in the cold, clutching Ryan’s iPod shuffle while he fielded phone calls, I was particularly struck by a song that I now recognize as an early form of “Doo Right,” an R&B-styled standout on the new record. Though the kind of tenderness and honesty that serves as the basis for that song might seem jarring with the band’s wild and energetic stage presence, it’s a key part of the creature they call Man Man.

MP3: Man Man – Hurly/Burly

When a band puts out albums as unpredictable and strange as Man Man’s last three, it’s easy to dismiss their songs as vehicles for bizarre choruses (“Spider Cider”), funny voices (“Engwish Bwudd”) or admittedly beautiful faux-R&B backing vocals (“Ice Dogs”). However, it’s hard to see on first glance that as much of Ryan Kattner winds up in his songs as does any other songwriter. Amid dog-on-fire imagery, stories of cross-dressing fugitive women and death’s black Cadillac, Ryan sprinkles in parts of himself. And if you weren’t aware of it when listening to it, it’s ok — he wasn’t aware he was doing it as he wrote it.

“It’s just funny when you revisit an album,” Kattner said. “You think the songs were written objectively with not much emotional attachment, but you revisit these songs and realize that without knowing it, you captured a period of this life. I think that’s true of most art — and I feel weird saying art, but you know what I mean.”

“It’s funny. You don’t think you’re writing about what’s going on in your head, but you actually are,” Ryan continued. “I hear some of these songs now and I can definitely retouch upon what I was going through personally. I feel like this record has more of a semblance of being upbeat, but i don’t think it’s an upbeat record.”

But Lord knows even the most diehard of Man Man fanatics need help deciphering a few of their songs. Rabbit Habits‘s “Hurly/Burly” even pokes fun at critics and even fan’s past misinterpretations of their songs with the helpful lyrics “this ain’t no love song” to guide us along. When questioned about the impenetrable nature of their songs, Ryan’s answer was of little help to anyone hoping to crack the deeper meanings behind their songs. But what did you expect from a band who names an eight second recording of fireworks “Mysteries Of The Universe Unraveled?”

“I feel like someone’s interpretation of the song is probably better than what I wrote,” Ryan explained. “You kind of form your own connections to what you feel the song is about and when someone explains to you what it’s really about, it can kind of ruin the mystique. It’s why we don’t publish our lyrics now.”

MP3: Man Man – Top Drawer

When backed into a corner to provide a description of Man Man, I usually mumble a bit and finally tell them that it’s how I imagine the band from Where the Wild Things Are sounding if Tom Waits fell into their land during a whiskey-soaked dream. Also something in that situation has to be on fire. Why? Because they’re just really, really weird. The great part, though, is that the band are completely aware that they’re pretty far out there. The best part, though, is how little they care.

“If people totally hate this record,” Ryan said, “then we’ll make another one that they can also hate. I’m going to keep my pessimistic options open.”

There is, however, an undeniable mass appeal beneath Man Man’s layers of craziness. For every yelp, shriek and crash, there’s a catchy melody, beautiful harmony or touching lyric. I’m sure it was for just those reasons that one day, when playing Man Man’s new record over the speakers at the record store I work at, I was approached by two soccer moms who wanted to know if that weird album was available for purchase (a third later asked if Tom Waits had a new album she didn’t know about).

“That’s what I like about the record,” Ryan explained. “It’s a grab-bag for everybody. For every sweet, somber, melancholy song, there’s an abrasive, blast in your ear song.”

I doubt anyone would argue that Man Man draw a tremendous amount of strength from their wild, abrasive nature both on record and during their concerts. But unlike many of their contemporaries, Honus, Pow Pow and the rest of their crew have managed turned madness into an art. Even though the background noises on their new record sound at times like a middle school music classroom exploding, it’s not without a purpose.

Ryan shared a bit of insight into how the band fill out their songs. Rather than approach his bandmates with instructions as to what notes to play and when, he presents them with an overall vibe that he’d like the song to pursue. Take “Mister Jung Stuffed,” the first track on the record, for example.

“When we were putting that song together, we were just trying to have an idea of noises that should be in the song,” Ryan explained. “I was just joking around about an ATM and it getting tired of being used, disconnecting from its reality and walking away from it.”

The band then used that idea to create the ticking, whirring noises that back up one of the more frantic songs on the album. Ryan is quick to note, however, that the song couldn’t have less to do with an ATM. Trying to get a “feel” for a song is just how the band operates.

“It’s a way to try to convey an idea,” Ryan said. “I’m not a trained musician, so I usually have very convoluted ways of trying to convey ideas to the band. A lot of times it doesn’t really work and they look at me like ‘you’re an idiot.'”

MP3: Man Man – Little Boxes (Malvina Reynolds cover)

But for all my talking, I don’t think I can sum up Man Man any better than the last exchange Ryan and I had during our interview.

Me: Do you agree that there’s some part of you in everything you create?

Ryan: Yeah. I mean, [we’ve done] three records and there’s an aesthetic line through all of them.

Me: What connections do you see between all three records?

Ryan: … A fucked up head.

More Q&A below….

Here are some assorted quotes and questions that didn’t find their way into the interview, but I wanted to share anyway.

“I’ve been couch-surfing on the west coast for a couple weeks. It’s kind of funny. Circumstatially I’ve been homeless for like six or seven months. ”

Favorite weird stuff that’s happened on tour

“We got hit by a drunk driver on the way to south by southwest and we had a nice crowd-surfing experience, Teen Wolf style.”

Are people still showing up in costume to your shows? Do you have any favorites?

“There were a couple of weird Oompa Lumpas at our shows. I’m definitely not endorsing that, but it was definitely weird and cool. We haven’t exceeded the Rocky Horror Picture Show yet. ”

So no Rocky Horror audience callbacks yet?

“Well that we hope! A song like “Hurly/Burly,” there’s a rollercoaster screaming breakdown. We hope that people will start to do that so that we don’t have to. Print that in boldface in all caps: “MAN MAN WANT YOU TO DO THE SCREAMING BREAKDOWN IN “HURLY/BURLY”

What bands are you listening to right now?

“I’m really into a couple New York bands. Meet the Devil. These Are Powers. Dirty Projectors.”

You seem to delve into more slow R&B styled songs on this record.

I wanted there to be a nice balance of crazy, chaotic and stuff that has a lot more room to breathe. That’s why “Rabbit Habits” and “Whalebones” are there. It’s nice to be able to have some space in there — you don’t have to have stuff going on all the time.

“It’s funny flying in a plane today because I jumped out of one yesterday. It was strange looking out of a window and knowing that I’d jumped out of one yesterday.”

Do you give thought to how songs will work in live setting when you’re writing and recording them?

“Those are two separate things. There are songs which probably won’t see the light of touring until we have it figured out. “Poor Jackie” is one of them. It just requires way more than we have at the moment.”

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