On the surface, the music of Man Man appears wild and unreserved; frantic drumbeats and fire-cracker guitar work square off against the grizzly, deep huff of vocalist Ryan Kattner, aka Honus Honus, in an unabashed display of musical abandon. Though after look deeper through the sifting layers, what at first appears to be the result of reckless abandon and mad scientist creativity becomes shockingly clear and perceptive. The headspinning musicianship and obtuse confessions of the lyrical imagery suggest a band well-aware of the direction they’re headed on their fourth album, Life Fantastic, even though their audience may feel as if they’re being cast to the four winds.
Renowned for an exceptionally frantic live show, Man Man’s latest album hums with dark, brooding emotion, though the group still hasn’t lost their penchant for wildhearted rhythms and out-of-their-mind complexty. Likewise, Kattner’s lyrical direction tends to focus on the more untapped, unexplored, and deeply depressing areas of the human psyche, decorating each song with images of drugs, death and alienation.
Kattner recently took a few moments to speak with The Aquarian Weekly about the making of the album and the vast physical and emotional journey he had to undertake in order to get his feelings out of the heart and on tape this time around.
So I was going through your new bio and in the beginning it says at one point a few years ago, you pondered giving up music. What made you decide to stick with it in the end?
Well, I don’t know what the hell else I’m qualified to do. I guess it’s a “maniacal optimism”—that’s how my friend describes it. I had to refind the therapeutic aspect to music. Playing music is something I stumbled into and just ended up doing and sticking out. Why did I stick with it? I’m a fool.
I think a lot of people would disagree with you there. Anyway, the bio goes on to discuss your travels throughout the United States. Did those have any impact on the headspace you were in when you started writing the album?
Definitely. I just wasn’t feeling very creative or inspired at all. I had all these things that were happening which I should have been able to use, but I didn’t really want to fall back on it or retread the same territory… I don’t know what the hell I was doing. All this stuff happened around the time we started touring for Rabbit Habits. In a weird way I was able to shut off part of myself and just go through the motions.
Once touring was done I was left thinking, “Well, now what do I do?” I went into drifing mode. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to write songs and it just wasn’t happening. It wasn’t really writer’s block, either. It was just not really wanting to do it anymore. Initially music was a therapeutic thing and then eventually it started driving me crazy and making me unhappy.
A lot of the record was written when I was living in Austin with my dad. Then I was all over the West Coast visiting friends or whoever would put up with me. I had to go back east to write the record with the rest of the band. I like the symbolism of recording the record in Omaha, right in the middle.
In terms of writing and recording, I’ve read that you guys are very particular when it comes to songwriting—almost perfectionist—and I imagine having such a multi-talented group of musicians must certainly add to that.
What’s great about the players in this band is we all come from very different, idiosynchratic backgrounds. We’re bringing all sorts of different things to the table. Conceptually, I bring my baggage and air it out abstractly or confessionally or both in the same sentence. When they approach it, they don’t have that kind of personal garbage to sift through. They just think, “How can I write a kickass part that fits the mood of this song?”
We got stuck in demo hell for a while. Billy [Dufala], aka Chang Wang, he’ s a crazy visual artist and the he’ll take a whole toolbox of ideas and throw them at the wall. Some things will stick and some won’t. He’d have a million great ideas and anyone would work, but then it was just a matter of trying to tune up stuff. That’s where [producer Mike] Mogis came in handy. He was able to go through some of these ideas and kind of sharpen the focus to see what benefitted the song.
Do you apply the same thought process to your songwriting?
When I write, I always have to write the music and the songs together. I can’t write them separately. In order for that to happen, I really will sing the same verse three or 400 times until I find the right cadence for what I’m trying to get across.
Does it ever feel strange for you to look back at your lyrics a few years into the future?
It definitely does. There are songs that I wrote when I was 22, and here I was thinking I was being really clever and objective. Definitely not even remotely confessional. I hear those songs now and think to myself, “Oh man, that’s actually more direct than I thought it was when I wrote it.”
That’s what makes the experience of being in this band different for me than it does for people who have to put up with me in this band. The songs, even if they seem kind of ridiculous and out there, they are grounded in something real. There’s something real for me. The context of it is rooted in an experience that I went through.
Have you ever written anything you consider too confessional?
Yeah, I have. It kind of gets tucked in the mix of everything else that’s going on. An important thing, which I always tell myself, is that these are songs and they have to be objective. They have to allow room for someone else to affix their own meaning and their own feelings.
A song for me which could be about dealing with bad finances, for someone else that song could mean something completely different. That’s the great transformative power of music.
Catharsis and musical healing has been a running theme so far in this conversation. Is performing live a cathartic experience for you as well?
Oh yeah, man. We have a blast playing. That’s where we can really exorcise all of our demons. It’s great because we create an energy that people seeing us can feed off of and then throw their energy back. It’s a much different feeling. Live we’re playful and we have fun. We’re goofy and we’re silly and we’re just enjoying the moment of playing. I think maybe that presentation could give people the impression that we don’t actually work on our songs or we’re not serious people. It’s all part of the same bag. You can be serious and you can also have fun. At the end of the day you just gotta grin and bear it. You can be a gloomy dude or you can have a little sense of humor and just roll with the punches.
This album seems like a very personal affair. How do you hope to look back on this and what might it be able to tell you about yourself at this point in time?
When I look back on this record, even now, there could have been a different record written, given where my heart as at. I think it’s amazing that a record came out of that period at all and as a group we were able to muscle through it. It seemed like for a while there it was going to get swallowed up. Once I was able to get “Dark Arts” out of my system and it turned into a song, that was the starting point for seeing the light and figuring out that, “Okay, now we can do a record.”
Looking back on this record, maybe I don’t have a the healthiest of brains. But that’s okay. Who does?
Man Man will be performing at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 31 and June 1. Life Fantastic is available now. For more information, visit manmanbandband.com.