When I unleashed my own bloated sheep-chasing list in late December on this here space, I worried that it was too conservative. Much to my surprise, many of my favourites didn't actually materialise on others' lists, and I, for one, don't give a rat's ass about The Hold Steady, The Knife or Jenny Lewis. And I thought that Neko Case album was her weakest--obviously I'm in the clear minority there.
When asked to rank my Top 10 numerically, I always put Man Man's Six Demon Bag at the top of my list. Not just because I knew that it wasn't going to be the most popular critics' choice and that therefore I had to vote strategically. Not just because their live show was perhaps the best I saw last year. Perhaps because the gruff melodic hooks they extract from such cacophony seemed like a bizarre audio metaphor of the twists and turns of my personal life last year. Man Man acted like primal scream therapy, assuring me that beauty could emerge from such confusion. This album hit me in the gut like nothing else. And yet I only saw it surface once in a year in review: #20 on Pitchfork's list.
Portions of this interview appeared in this article for Eye. Here's my review from Exclaim, in the March 06 issue:
Man Man are mustachioed men in white who hail from Philadelphia, but the image conjured up on their second full-length is that of a lycanthropic madman leading a band of gypsies from Bulgaria to hijack Berlin’s Kit Kat cabaret. Carnivalesque melodies sung by rowdy group vocals compete with instrumental twists that sound like Deerhoof reinvented as a klezmer dance band. What should be an impossible formula works miraculously well, even more so here than on their brilliant yet occasionally bludgeoning debut album, 2004’s The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face. The intensity is taken down a notch, allowing more subtleties to shine through and making it an ultimately more rewarding listen. With an overhauled line-up of men men behind him, including drummer Christopher “Pow Pow” Powell on loan from Need New Body (a band now on permanent hiatus), the vision of neophyte bandleader Honus Honus has resulted in one of the most delectable and wildly unpredictable American bands in recent memory. (Ace Fu)
Man Man are heading into the studio this month in Chicago to start work on their third album. As good as Six Demon Bag is, I don't have any doubt that they'll take it up another notch this time out--seeing as how they're now a real band, as opposed to the uncertain future they faced last time out.
Ryan “Honus Honus” Kattner
February 12, 2006
Locale: phoner from his house in Philadelphia
I want to start by saying that I’m a huge fan…
Oh, that’s unfortunate for you.
I’ve only seen the band once, at CMJ last year. The audience was a good combination of people who knew what they were getting into and people who were totally stunned.
That’s usually what it is. That was our first show in four months, and the first one with a new group of dudes. [long tangential talk turns to Frog Eyes and Wolf Parade, for some reason. He’s a huge fan of both]
Tell me about your new dudes. What kind of a revolving door was it?
I want to clarify something. It’s not because I can’t hold together a band. If anything, it’s because none of us expected to be in a band. They all left on relatively good terms. They’re all amazing artists in their own right. Steven [Dufala] is an amazing video artist, and that’s first and foremost what he does. He thought, ‘Well, I have all these gallery shows I could be doing, or I could be touring and making no money and sleeping on floors every night and losing girlfriends because of that. Do I want to keep roughing it or just make art?’
The first album had a core trio. Are either of those guys on the new record?
Steven is on a good part of the record. The visual art side just won out over playing in an uncool underground band. He wanted to do the record, but I knew he couldn’t tour. He played a lot of horn and guitar. It was nerve wracking because I was in the studio recording and knowing that I had to have a new band together to take on the road. Where the fuck am I going to find someone who can do all the crazy stuff Steven does that also has their own idiosyncratic vision? I lucked out. I found someone, I knew them before, and they had time to do it. It’s my friend Russell, who is also in Coyote.
The new drummer came from Need New Body, correct?
Pow Pow. He’s awesome. I needed to find someone I could write with who also had their own confidence and style and idiosyncratic take on things, and Pow Pow is the top dog. I lucked out. He did the record and eventually signed on. Need New Body is on permanent hiatus right now.
I found an old quote of yours where you talked about how none of you were music school guys, and that this was your first band. Yet listening to the complexity of the arrangements, I find that somewhat hard to believe. What is your musical background?
Pow Pow is a drum wizard, the rest of us are self-taught. We’re trying not to be a straight-up rock band set-up. That’s boring. Unfortunately, these other things get foisted on Sergei, which is great because he’s very creative. I think we’re just creative people. I just started playing music for this band. It was a way of dealing with my undealable life. I’m not even exaggerating. I had a lot of bullshit, and thought it would be funny if I started a pop band. I never saw it going beyond playing some local shows. I thought it would be great to do a record, and then there was such a response to it. People responded to it in a way that one can only wish they would.
You didn’t play piano before?
When I was very shorter, my mother tried to make me play the piano. I think that lasted six months. Then she realised that there was a passive aggressive reason why I’d start practising at 11 o’clock at night on my little Casio.
When did the band start then?
Probably around 2000. I did play a bit of guitar before that, but nothing really. I play guitar on a couple of songs on the record, but I’m by no means a guitar player in the same way that I’m by no means a keyboard player. The trick I’ve learned is that if you surround yourself with people who are way more talented than you’ll ever be, everything flows a lot better.
One of the things I really like about the band is the downplaying of the guitar, which makes it sound much less like a conventional rock band.
I’m so tired of going to see guitar rock bands. Also, I don’t look that good playing guitar, so it boils down to that.
You can hammer a keyboard much more effectively.
It’s hard to play guitar very well with your face and your elbows. Some people play with their teeth, but I can’t.
When you were conceiving what the band would sound like, what did you have in mind? I hear Eastern European music, I hear klezmer, I hear New Orleans, I hear a bit of musical theatre...
Oh god, I’m wincing when you say musical theatre. I knew what I didn’t want to do. I feel really lucky because I’m playing music, even though I’m still hestitant to call myself a musician. I play the music that I always wanted to play, even before I was thinking about playing music, and I have really supportive musicians helping me do it. It’s organic… in a ‘granola bar with razor blades in it’ kind of way. When I’m ego surfing the web reading my reviews, some people write us off as overly knowledgable music kids. I mean, we’re music lovers, but we don’t sit down and say, ‘This song will sound like this genre of music, or this one will sound like Naked City.’ I don’t see why any band’s songs would all sound the same. There’s such a short attention span these days.
I think that speaks much more to the way a music critic might start a band and get crushed for being overly conscious about it: ‘here’s our Phil Spector moment, here’s our Beefheart breakdown,’ etc.
It would be interesting to have that kind of resource, but I feel like the more I learn, the worse it’s going to become.
Your first record opened with a children’s choir, and the second song on this album has a nursery rhyme built into it. Do young kids get into your music?
You know what a nightmare that would be, with release forms?
No, I don’t mean join your band, I mean listen to it!
Oh yeah, that’d be great. But if we ever played something where we could reach an insanely retarded amount of people, it wouldn’t hurt to get a children’s choir on one song. It’s all a matter of economics at this point. When the band started, I wanted it to be raw. I don’t want it to not seem genuine. We have a sense of humour, but we’re not a silly band. That’s something that a lot of people miss. They write us off as a goofy, jokey band. So be it. Those might be the same people who go to Starbucks instead of their local coffee shop. I don’t want them. We put a lot into this, because we like making music. By no means are we paying the bills doing this.
The first record was done guerilla style. Did you have any more resources this time?
The main difference was that I didn’t have most of the band in the studio for the first record. We actually had less money to work with this time.
Yeah, who knows, man? Because when some people depart a band they take the marimbas with them. I had to reconfigure things a bit. If I told you how much we paid [producer, now member] Mizzle to make this record, it’s laughable. We did it in his warehouse space. We had an extra month and a half to make this record. At least with the first situation we had air conditioning. You can only imagine what Philadelphia’s Chinatown smells like in the summer.
Probably not unlike Toronto’s Chinatown.
I like Toronto. Toronto reminds me of Philly, with less violence. The kind of kids there, and the fact that we both have equally successful sports teams.
Toronto is quite violent these days, though. There’s been a lot of gang shootings in the last few months.
A friend of mine, a nice looking little white girl, got punched in the face the other day by a dude just on the street. She and another friend of mine and a couple of guys were walking through this neighbourhood that used to be cool but is now yuppie bullshit. There were a couple of bullshit yuppies there having some kind of intramural snowball fight, which escalated into some guido dudes punching this girl in the face and actually knocking her out. These aren’t even thugs, just trashy dudes knocking out girls. But, uh, back to your question.
Speaking of bludgeoning, your first record really grabbed me by the collar and shook me around. This one still has that at times, but it’s brought down a few levels.
Were you disappointed?
No, I like it more.
You might not understand everything I’m saying, but you can hear what I’m singing, for the most part. I think that got lost on the first record because of the way it was recorded. There’s some sad stuff on the first record. But I don’t want to be a total downer. I’ll wrap those sad songs up in some kind of raunching barroom art star thing.
I enjoyed watching people react to you for the first time. How does that change as more people come out to see you?
Now we can play shows and kids don’t necessarily want us to immediately get the fuck off the stage. We just played a show here in Philly and it’s always special for us because we’re from here, so we can usually play wherever we want to. We did this show in the straight-up ghetto. I’m not talking artist gentrified, I’m talking ghetto. We were expcting maybe 50 kids. It was a fundraiser, $5 a kid, and 450 kids came out. It was awesome. It was a warehouse space, all-ages. There were 14-year old kids crowd surfing. Bizarre.
I don’t know how things are in your wonderful part of the world, but Philly kids do not move. They can be loving a show, but they will not move. But since the addition of Powell to the band, he has some kind of mojo in him that sparks something, and kids are now moving and responding and it seems geniuine. When we’re up there playing and sweating – and probably not looking that good when we’re sweating—we’re not thinking about how we look. That’s why we’re wearing all white, we’re playing a show. It’s great to see kids not be concerned about looking like an asshole, and just dancing and letting their bodies freak out. We’re seeing more of that and it’s very rewarding.
But they’re also coming to see you, as opposed to you being the opening band for the Arcade Fire, for example [which they did in New York City and Philly just as AF was taking off].
That was interesting. We got some hate mail after these shows, let me tell you.
I know the band themselves really liked those shows.
They’re great kids and the way I feel about it is if that kind of immediate thing is going to happen to anyone, they’re the perfect people because of their personalities. It’s great that it happened to them and not to some postured douchebags. Those were great shows, but the audience was not that receptive. Some of them were, but the rest were just “GET THE FUCK OFF THE STAGE!” To our credit, the first half of our set was probably more abrasive than it needed to be. We definitely probably could have played a chiller set, but we figured we’d play the same set that we’d play for kids who came out to see us in a club with 50 people in it.
There’s something to be said for a band that gets such a love/hate reaction.
Any other band could probably have used those shows as a major jumping off point. (laughs) We just weren’t thinking like that. We thought, wow, these are great shows with a band that we like, and we’re going to shit out these gigs. I got an email from one kid who said, ‘I wasn’t into your stuff and no one around me was. But let me tell you that I think that you guys will do okay in a couple of years if you just stick at it—if you had any talent, which you don’t. You suck.’ Which was so weird, because the guy was like, ‘I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I’ll probably check you out again if you’re in New York.’ What is that?
He covered all his bases!
Yeah, and came back around. So I wrote him back, because the tone of his email was really awful. I said, ‘Thank you for your perspective. It’s good to know that there’s people like you out there, and we’re going to win this war in Iraq.’ Thanks, kid.
Do you have a lot of touring planned?
That was the thing with the first line-up. We didn’t expect to have to tour. We didn’t expect anyone to like it, let alone hear it. And it was really roughing it, on tour. When the new guys came in—and they’re by no means hired guns. I have the fortunate position to pick the people I wanted in my band, who I wanted to spend time with on a daily basis. So we’re going to hit the road.
I was impressed how well you were able to reproduce the record, even though the record has all kinds of crazy instruments on it. Having so many multi-instrumentalists on stage helps.
We’re not concerned about sounding like the record. But you gotta bring the marimbas and everything on stage, because we certainly aren’t bringing big guitar amps. Everything we have is broken. All the players are broken! I would like it to be much different, obviously. It would be nice to tour with more horn players or a violinist.
Are there strings on the record?
There’s violin on “Skin Tension” and “Van Helsing’s Boombox.” That’s the thing. We know that on one song, Sergei is going to have to play a bongo, as awful as it looks to carry a bongo around. I, for one, am not going to carry the fucking bongo!
Is there any direct Eastern European or klezmer influence for you?
Well, I love that music. In some ways it’s kind of ingrained in my head from a lot of movies, like Underground. I feel like that stuff is a lot more honest. I like the gypsy stuff in Eastern European music. You can really taste the music, if you know what I mean. It’s really raw, which I appreciate. I also like playing waltzes, which are easy for a primitive piano caveman like myself. It’s easier to disassociate my hands from my throat on those songs.
[solicits my personal opinion of the record in depth, which was mostly musical, as I only had an advance of the record for a few days before the interview]
I went through some personally traumatic experiences, that I won’t ever really go into depth about. A lot of songs were written as a coping mechanism. A song like Van Helsing, I had crashed and burned out and was going through a very tough period when I wrote that song. Then a song like “Push the Eagle’s Stomach,” there’s a choral break that goes “We start shrinking when we hit that grill/ you know we will.” We got that from a Wendy’s training video from the 80s. We’ve never seen the video, but we borrowed a van from a band once that came with that song on a cassette tape. So yeah, cut to two months later when Man Man gets sued out of the water by Wendy’s… although I guess it’s parody, because we didn’t sample it, we played it. You know, I discovered my inner girl on this record.
A lot of the female backing vocals I did myself on this record. I can’t do them live, though. I can’t do the falsetto because I sound like a gravel pit. And I did get some girls on the record to make it work.
But you were just feeling feminine.
Yeah, it was kind of disgusting. There were times when Mizzle had to leave the studio, because he was strangely drawn to me. Nothing to do with the Man Man name at all.