“I’m not a woe-is-me person, and this band isn’t a pity party for me –it’s a celebration of an accidental career,” says Ryan Kattner, aka “Honus Honus,” frontman of the long-running Philadelphia junkyard-carnival rock orchestra Man Man.
From a tour stop in Cleveland — it’s the band’s first run of U.S. dates since last June, and a chance to road-test new songs from their as-yet-untitled fifth album, due later this year — Kattner’s thinking back to the reception Man Man’s last album, 2011’s sardonically titled Life Fantastic, earned from critics and fans. Specifically, the fact that it was universally seen as the band’s darkest album, and it probably was. Lyrically more autobiographical than anything Kattner previously committed to tape, Life Fantastic was crafted slowly and painfully over a three-year period that included the disintegration of a troubled long-term relationship, the deaths of close friends, intra-band turmoil, and the grim depression that naturally accompanies such trauma.
Kattner talked about at least some of that in interviews surrounding the release of Life Fantastic, and, he says, “it is a dark record, I’m not gonna lie, but I think that being more forthcoming about it is probably why it got tagged the way that it did. All those elements that went into it are very important and that’s the story of the record, but that same story, to some extent, exists in the margins of all the other albums.”
“I wasn’t as vocal about it then, and, you know, will I be vocal about it again? No,” he continues. “But there’s always so much going on behind the scenes, with this record, too. Every record is personal. But there’s also no shame in hiding behind some abstraction. If every song was 100% about me, I wouldn’t have lived past the first record, you know?”
At least part of the turbulence from the Life Fantastic period has been eased with the influx of new blood. Man Man’s lineup has always fluctuated across its 10-year existence, with Kattner and Chris Powell (aka “Pow Pow”) the only constants, and now they’ve got two new multi-instrumentalists in tow, who Kattner will only identify by their stage names: “Brown Sugar” and “Shono.”
“These names are earned. It’s a rite of passage,” says Kattner. “Like, they’re woken up in the middle of the night and kicked out of the hotel naked with just a knife, dropped in a field and they gotta get back.” (Actually, Kattner allows, Shono’s last name is Murphy, “so, Shono Murphy, you know? That works.”)
“These guys are total badasses,” Kattner continues. “This band’s a hard commitment to ask of people, and you have to find the right personalities. As much as it’s about musicianship, it’s about whether or not the player has character. You don’t necessarily want people who can just read sheet music of all our stuff. From over the years of playing with a lot of musicians, the hardest things to find really can’t be taught. It’s just intuitive. Like, someone who knows when not to play. A sense of space. That’s really important.”
Alluding to past band problems by saying only that the Life Fantastic sessions in Omaha with producer/engineer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, etc.) were “exhausting” and hampered by “too many cooks in the kitchen,” Kattner says that it was just he and Powell who wrote everything for the upcoming album last summer. They tracked it by themselves over three weeks last November in Omaha, again with Mogis (“he’s a very talented man with beautiful little ears,” says Kattner), who’s currently mixing the songs.
“It’s been hyper-focused, and it was very refreshing to be able to work on the record with just one other person,” says Kattner. “We’re listening to everything and taking notes and trying to do a song a day, basically.”
The record, he adds, is an evolution but not a complete departure from Man Man’s gruff, kaleidoscopic, hobo-Zappa sound. “There’s definitely new things that we haven’t explored yet but maybe have hinted at. It’s not a rap-rock record.”
“I think we’ve tried not to get bogged down by superfluous hooks. Two or three great parts are definitely a lot stronger than eight good parts happening in a song at the same time,” he says. “I don’t feel like the brain can process that much information. I mean, it can if your brain is attached to a head that’s attached to a ponytail that’s attached to a 55-year-old body. Nothing against this scenario, but, you know, that’s not necessarily what we’re trying to go for here. We’re trying to write songs that can have a universal appeal while still speaking the language we’re trying to weave.”
The band and its label, Anti-, haven’t yet nailed down a release date for the album — mixing, sequencing, artwork, all that stuff still has to be finished — but the revamped Man Man lineup’s playing lots of the new material on this jaunt.
“I’m feeling really good and I’m really proud of this record,” says Kattner. “Hopefully I’ll live to see it come out. I’ve been thinking, ‘Man, this record is prettttttty awesome,’ so I’m looking over my shoulder for an asteroid to hit me. I’m not tempting fate, I’m not walking outside in a lightning storm with a metal suit or anything, but I dunno, I’m really, really excited about this album.”
Man Man plays Music Hall of Williamsburg with Murder By Death on Thursday night [8:30 p.m./$20]