Mister Heavenly (Honus Honus) :: the YANP Interview
August 15th, 2011 by Matt
Photographs taken by me at Bonnaroo.
One of my favorite albums of the year is the blessed collaboration between Man Man’s Honus Honus (or Ryan Kattner, if you prefer) and Islands/The Unicorns’s Nick Thorburn: Mister Heavenly. To celebrate the album’s release this week I’ve got a two-part interview with each half of the group. Today is Honus Honus, tomorrow will be Nick. Both guys have things brewing with their other groups, so expect a lot of ground to be covered.
Honus Honus of Mister Heavenly and Man Man :: the YANP Interview
YANP: How’s it going?
MM: How you doin’ buddy?
YANP: Doing alright. I was all ready to wake up at 8 o’clock this morning and wound up sleeping in til 10 so…
MM: All is forgiven.
YANP: Ha! Good. Well, yeah, how’s it going? Where are you?
MM: I am currently in Philadelphia. It’s harrowing because I had to fly… Well, I’ll get to that. It goes like this: I was shooting a Man Man video for the past three days in like the desert in California. So I had to fly a red-eye at 11:30 on Sunday night to get in for Man Man practice at 10 in the morning yesterday.
MM: Yeah. So I’m back in Philly for a couple days.
YANP: How did the video shoot go?
MM: It was awesome. I’m really excited, the footage is amazing. It’s another story video, so none of the band is in it.
YANP: Nice. So obviously we’re gonna talk about both Man Man and Mister Heavenly, but I’d like to do the Man Man stuff first because all of my questions are pretty light. I was listening to the album again yesterday and really focusing on the lyrics. I know you’re a guy who likes to get a lot of stuff out through songs and writing, and it seems like you had a lot of stuff to get out when you were writing this one.
MM: Like I’ve had a lot of stuff happen?
YANP: Yeah, like you had a lot of emotional stuff to get out. You know, catharsis.
MM: Oh, yeah. I mean, all our records are confessional in a way. The confessions are varied amongst other things, like abstract things, references. I really just felt really burned out, life-wise. It took me a while to find footing again, because a lot of things happened right around the same time. I had a 3-year relationship end, and that was right around the same time two really close friends died, one was when their band van flipped, and the other it was… self imposed. And these were two people that were instrumental, in some ways, to me playing music. One was an avid supporter and the other was one of the reasons why I even play music, so it was really heavy and kind of hard to deal with. It also coincided with me not living anywhere, so there was a lot of drifting around and for the first time, I didn’t really know where to write from. It wasn’t a case of writers block so much as it was a case of, “Do I really wanna do this anymore?” ‘Cause it used to bring a form of therapy to my life, but it was only making me crazier.
MM: Yeah. It wasn’t doing for me what it used to. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t wanna write from a place… where I had to go to the well. I don’t necessarily think that misery breeds creativity. And I didn’t want to have to rely on that as a crutch. I’m not a fan of ‘woe is me’… I don’t really like that genre.
Continue reading after the break
YANP: You really got my ear up when you said that it’s making you more miserable. Do you mean the band life and everything that goes with it?
MM: I think I mean just the hustle of it. Four albums in and I feel like we’re still just chipping away at people knowing who we are. I still feel like, “Oh I’ve kind of heard of them…” and you know, we bring it every night with our live show, and I feel like our albums are very special things. We still somehow can’t seem to get out there. It’s a little frustrating for us because we tour a lot and play shows and make records. And I know when this record came out, the criticism was, “Oh, it sounds like a Man Man record.” Who the hell else are we supposed to sound like? Are we supposed to jump on a trend? No, we’re just doing our own thing. But anyway, it was just a matter of trying to find some place to write from. All the stuff coincided with the release of Rabbit Habits, so there was a structured momentum moving forward. You know, where we played shows. And playing shows has always been great but you know, in a way, I was able to personally put myself in cold storage. And then it was a matter of thawing that person out and reconnecting and playing music. And there was ‘Dark Arts’, which actually helped me reconnect.
YANP: That’s definitely one of the more lyrical and… not really schizophrenic, but really just all over the map emotional songs on there.
MM: That song is what was in my head and then once it got out I realized, “Okay, this is why I play music.” All the songs started to take shape and make more sense. They were written all over the place. The first song that was written was ‘Steak Knives’. That one took the longest to write; it’s the simplest song but it was the first one that came out of that batch of songs. I wrote that when I was down in Texas… and then some songs, like ‘Oh, La Brea’, at least the first half of it, were written while I was living out in L.A. for a little bit.
YANP: You did some non-tour traveling for a while right?
MM: Yeah it seemed like there was a lot of bad mojo hanging around the east coast, so I had to leave for a little bit. You know it seems like a temporary solution to place stuff in storage and deal with it later, it has kind of expanded into a four-year odyssey. I’m still not living anywhere. The contrast of this too is the fact that, you know, the band has to put up with this, and they’re not faced with the same issues obviously. I feel like that’s what’s always been an interesting contrast with this band. You have these doubts and ambitions that have to deal with… all the bullshit.
YANP: I think that’s all bands.
MM: Yeah it’s all bands. Like their perception is way different. They don’t have to… It’s not the same obviously. They write interesting, awesome parts for songs, you know. But some songs came out of… like ‘Haute Tropique’ for example. The music was brought to the table and then I kind of had to find a place in it.
YANP: Oh, okay. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
MM: That’s something that we hadn’t really done before.
YANP: Well actually that’s a good segue into something I was going to ask a little later: This album, and I already said it was a very lyrical album, to me that’s the point especially. And I’m not a huge Frank Zappa guy, but I hope people on my blog don’t rip me a new one for this but…
MM: I’m not either, I know you may find that kind of hard to believe.
YANP: Haha, alright, well maybe we’ll both get some flak then. It seems like this album is sort of like the Frank Zappa thing, where it’s like “These guys make insane sounds and mistreat their instruments on stage, but they can only do it because they’re good musicians.” On this one, there’s a lot of you really playing piano, like ‘Oh, La Brea’, is you actually playing piano. And ‘Shameless’, and ‘Haute Tropique’, makes me say, “Oh shit, these guys can only be crazy because they’re really good musicians like that.”
MM: It’s funny, because I feel like it’s Mogis’ production too. Like as far as scaling back the chaos. We went to Omaha with all of the songs tabbed. It was just Mogis’ ear on where to place everything. Like on hot topic.. Haut tropic… ‘Haute Tropique’… Haha, hot topic. We jokingly were going to… Well, not jokingly. I seriously made a push for our last record to be called ‘Hot Topic’. But obviously it became Rabbit Habits. So, ‘Haute Tropique’, that’s Jamie playing the piano. He’s really an amazing piano player. So that’s his rollicking piano line. I think there’s a misconception about our band, which I can’t say is frustrating, but it is a little disconcerting. I feel like people tend to overlook the fact that we are writing songs. Sure, there’s a crazy element to everything, but it’s structured. It’s there for a reason, it’s not on a whim. That’s one of the things that I think maybe certain people noticed on this record. On the surface, it is more polished than our other albums but I really think it is… sneakier. It really is more deceptive in the way that it’s put together. It’s sort of taken by a studio sheen… I hate to say the word “sheen”, like a studio Charlie Sheen…
MM: But really, I think the songs can be very insidiously catchy. It’s more of a grower. I mean, I don’t think it is but I feel like, I dare anyone to listen to ‘Piranha’s Club’ on repeat at least a dozen times and not find themselves singing that song later.
YANP: That’s the one that caught me first, as far as melody and everything goes.
MM: I feel like our catchiest songs were left off the record.
MM: ‘Mayan Nights’, especially, and ‘Trunk Eyes’. They didn’t fit. I felt like they had siblings on the record… They would have been overrepresented. It was like, do you do ‘Knuckle Down’ or do you do ‘Trunk Eyes’? Do you do ‘Mayan Nights’, or ‘Piranha’s Club’? You can’t really do both.
YANP: So I can assume that those aren’t in the waste basket then?
MM: No, they’re b-sides. I think they were thrown into a deluxe edition. We still have some b-sides left to move around. I felt like it was real important to thematically organize it and stay true and not drift too much. That’s what I like about the album: it’s put together like an album. It doesn’t end where it starts.
YANP: And you save a lot of punch for middle and last half. It’s not front-loaded.
MM: Did I answer that question? I think I might have deviated…
YANP: Yeah, I think you got it. So that pretty much covers my Man Man stuff except for one last question, so that I can at least transfer slightly well over to Mister Heavenly goofy stuff. Could you finish this sentence for what you and the band hear most often in regard to Man Man, either from fans or whoever? “You guys should really…”
MM: Not stop making music.
YANP: Well that is a way better answer than what it could have been. That’s awesome.
MM: I feel like with a band like ours, we just have to keep doing it. That was one of the things with the record. I felt like, you know, we’re not going anywhere, we’re not quitting, we’re just gonna keep doing our thing.
YANP: Now, when you hear people say things like, “You should not stop making music,” is your instinct to take that as support? Or as like, “Well man, you know… Let us decide.”
MM: I think it’s definitely supportive. It’s interesting: we started out, and we didn’t really have any peers. It feels like the same situation. Which, it’s good on one hand because we’re doing our thing regardless of whatever is going on right now in music. I mean, when we started all of the bands just sounded like wannabe Raptures or wannabe Radioheads. Now it’s mutated into the “chiller wave-est” bands.
YANP: Hahaha. Oh man… yeah.
YANP: So, you and Nick, Mister Heavenly… So, Nick was in The Unicorns back in the day, and they have some interesting fans. One of their fans wrote a male-on-male pornographic fan fiction about Nick and Alden. Did Nick warn you that that was a possibility, when you said “Yes, let’s be in a band together,”?
MM: I had heard about this. I think he told me about this. I’m not really too concerned about it, I think it’s clear that I would be a top.
YANP: Hahaha. There you go, that’ll be the headline.
MM: No! No way! I’ve gotta go on tour with Nick, I don’t want to have this debate every day in the van.
YANP: Oh man, alright. I’ve been trying not to brag about this accidental scoop too much, but in 2006 you mentioned that you wanted to work with Nick, and then later I saw that you guys had been talking about it, really early on. So at that point, had you guys broached the topic? Or when did you guys first start discussing that you might work together?
MM: I like that you have it on record in 2006.
YANP: Oh, yeah. You’re pinned down.
MM: We really were talking about it back then. It’s just a matter of… Nick is very prolific, and I’m not. I mean, the only other band that I’d been in was Man Man. So it was a matter of timing, because I’d never found myself in a situation where I had time or the freedom to write some songs. And you know, after hearing the ‘Life Fantastic’ album, I needed some sort of other outlet, you know? We were living in close proximity, and I didn’t even know if we could collaborate together. That’s why the whole idea of just doing 7”s came to be. But yeah, we’ve been talking about it for years and years, it was just a matter of actually doing it. I don’t function well via email. I mean, I actually have to be in a room with someone to collaborate with them.
YANP: So, no sending each other tracks online?
MM: I mean, once the ball started rolling and we started actually playing together. I drove up to New York from Philly and I was like, “Here’s what I’ve got.” We played a couple of songs together, they were not fully formed. We just kind of jammed on them and demoed them on our phones.
MM: We just set up garage band and turned on the microphone, and went home with these pieces. They kind of mutated into songs. The thing that made it easier was knowing that there wasn’t any pressure. We didn’t know what we’d do with it. Best case scenario, we would manage to come up with two songs without strangling each other. Best case scenario, we’d put out a 7”. It was those guidelines of: for a 7” the songs can only be so long. Keep the songs short and simple, and don’t over-complicate them. Because, you know, with both of our bands things tend to get dense.
YANP: You guys have called what you do “doom-wop”, and for sure I can see it in both of your previous work- especially all of the R&B kind of soul-singer Man Man songs that you do. I hate to make this the “Was it organic or was it planned?” question but, what do you credit with driving your combined sound in that direction?
MM: I think it was really just trying to set in place a structure that would keep us focused. You know from past Man Man records that there’s always a doo-woppy song. Even on the first record, there was Werewolf. And what I like about doo-wop songs, and like early R&B… if you trace back James Brown to just his ‘Please, Please, Please’ era, which that’s like one of the greatest songs ever, and the lyrics are basically just “please, please, please”… There’s a simplicity which doesn’t compromise the integrity. I think if you can take a song that’s only one or two chords and sell that song and just pour everything you’re about into it I feel like for me at least that’s what I want to hear and it has a deeper impact than a song that has six parts and is seven minutes long, and is sprawling. If you can do that sprawling in two and a half minutes, kudos. But you know, I always thought that our voices would be an interesting contrast and compliment. They occupy different spectrums. That was our only real guideline. Which… you know, Nick, in true Nick fashion coined “doom-wop”. Which was more of a sensibility than anything else. Because you know, we didn’t know what we were getting into. It’s easy if it’s only two songs on a 7”, but like anything else, it just kind of mutated organically into what it is. Which is kind of a mash-up of how Nick and I tend to write.
YANP: Yeah, it’s sort of the… overlap.
MM: Yeah. We were kind of pleasantly surprised that it turned into this other thing. We didn’t view it as a side project, it kind of melded into becoming its own band… without sounding like our other bands. I feel like it has its own identity.
YANP: You talked about your voices melding well together. I didn’t really think that you would have I guess… multi-narrator songs. ‘Pineapple Girl’, and I think ‘Bronx Sniper’ is the same. ‘Pineapple Girl’ I think was the first one I heard. I thought that was just a fantastic, bordering on genius decision.
MM: The story of that song as well.
YANP: Oh yeah, that’s the who… who was it, Mandela? No… not Mandela…
MM: Hah, “Not Mandela…”
YANP: Hahaha. The opposite of Mandela.
MM: That’s another one we’ve gotta write now. “Be My South African Girl”. Noriega. Noriega and Sara York. It’s based loosely on that story.
YANP: Which I didn’t know, until I did some Wikapedia’ing. But yeah, I love that idea. When did it crop up?
MM: Initially, the organ line that I wrote… and let me preface this by saying: I’m probably the worst musician when it comes to trying to mimic a style just because I’m self-taught. I’ll play something and in my head I’ll be like, “That’s supposed to sound like a Cambodia Rocks organ line,” Which I’ll then play it for someone else and they’ll say, “You’re out of your mind, that sounds nothing like what you think it does…” So in my head, I thought I’d written this killer Cambodian rock part. It was kind of birthed out of that organ line, and things got edited down so that it would fit a structure better. That was the last one we wrote for the record actually. We wrote it in a couple days when we were in Portland, rehearsing before we went to go record. We had 11 songs, and we wanted to round it out with a dozen. So that song was birthed out of that. Also I was telling Nick a story… my Dad was in the Air Force, and one of the big things he worked on was strategizing on how they would remove Noriega from power. He was part of the group that actually got him out of Panama and into prison. Part of the behind-the-scenes… and that’s a lot of people, he was just part of the general group. And I just remember hearing the This American Life about that story, about he and his pen-pal. A bittersweet story, but it also fit into the concept of our “doom-wop”: doomed love stories or doomed relationships. And so we thought that we would just do back and forth, as if writing letters to each other. It seemed perfect if Nick was the dictator and I was the little girl.
YANP: It does, yeah.
MM: It adds that element too of, “Oh, Ryan’s writing from the perspective of an evil 10 year old little girl.” In the original story, she was fascinated by his hat, which is really sweet. In our version, I have that character be fascinated by his evil.
YANP: Yeah, “I don’t aspire to be a clueless creature.” I love that part, that’s fantastic.
MM: It’s under two and a half minutes. It’s like the perfect song length.
YANP: Yeah. What was the most collaborative song as far as song writing? It seems like you guys sort of whittled everything down together.
MM: ‘Hold My Hand’ was pretty much all Nick. That was one of the songs that he brought to the table initially. So he brought ‘Hold My Hand’ and I brought ‘Wise Man’. It was interesting because ‘Wise Man’ was one of those songs where it just wouldn’t have made sense on the Life Fantastic album. It just doesn’t sound like that record. And I very rarely have any extra songs, I’m just not very prolific because it takes me forever to write songs. This is the first time that I got to write with a song-writer. It was really refreshing because if I hit a wall, or he hit a wall, we could just hand the song off. And I trust Nick’s direction of where he’s gonna go with a song. I mean, more often than not it’d be like, “I’ve got the verse, Ryan, you’ve got the chorus.” And I’m like, “Fuuuck maaan, I don’t want to write the chorus!” But that’s kind of how it worked, you know?
MM: They were all pretty collaborative. ‘Doom Wop’ was a mixed song.
YANP: Oh, sorry, I meant to ask this earlier but exploding in the middle of an interview with a question is good too. Mister Heavenly, I saw you guys were kicking that back and forth on Twitter, and then… how did it become the band name?
MM: I feel like I might have told you this before but there’s a venue in Toronto called Lee’s Palace, and for some reason I was always fascinated by that. I wondered who Mr. Lee was. And then you have a character like Stagger Lee or even there’s doo-wop song called “Mr.Lee.” Initially, when I went to pitch and we were throwing names around I was like, “How about Mr. and Mrs. Lee? If you feel uncomfortable, Nick, I’ll be Mrs. Lee.” Mister Heavenly was the compromise. We thought it was fitting, and also you know… neither one of us are Mister Heavenly. It’s like with any other band name, this name more so than Man Man, I’ve had to say it a lot before it started to feel comfortable to me.
YANP: When did it start to feel comfortable?
MM: … Not yet.
MM: Soon! It’s one of those things… band names, inherently, are bad. I think once you establish your sound, or your identity, then band names become less important.
YANP: You’re talking to a guy who runs a site called “You Ain’t No Picasso”. I definitely feel you.
MM: Pavement is one of my favorite bands ever, and I hated that name until I liked the band, and then I wasn’t worried about the name anymore.