Man Man‘s May 16th show at Neumos consisted of insanely energetic, dark, upbeat crashrock: high-pitched wailing, piano thunder, warpaint, crowdsurfing, headbanging singalongs. The music came out as theatrical black comedy as the five-piece band cycled through flute trumpet, bicycle spokes, guitar, bass, drums, and whatever else they found in their garage. Lyrics sailed through lost love, headless St. Bernards, and conversations with the devil. The drummer threw his middle finger in the air after songs. Frontman Honus Honus assaulted the piano and wailed like a demon; the next moment he was wearing a sequined teal smock and shooting a confetti gun over the crowd.
Before the show, I met with Honus Honus, aka Ryan Kattner, at the Unicorn bar on Capitol Hill to talk about his newly released fourth album Life Fantastic. He ordered fireball-flavored whiskey. We made small talk about his detailed plans for his own funeral. (“Everyone will smash a piñata of me. I want ‘I Put a Spell On You’ by Screamin Jay Hawkins to play at my wake.”) Kattner’s intensity and fierce wit is inseparable from Man Man’s sound. Whenever the music veers close to the cliff of nihilism, a bizarre humor rescues it from falling into angry noise. This is the brilliance of their new album. The original line up quit after the first album, Kattner explained, and the new ensemble has evolved Man’s Man’s sound from disorienting carnival noise to a tighter, punchier trip through extreme depression and absurdity.
Man Man’s whimsy isn’t exactly optimism. Life Fantastic is a kind of Nietzschean affirmation of life and the daily madness without answers. Maybe that’s why their music is so danceable. As you’re hit with heavy, unexplainable shit, the choice is be crushed by it or dance it off.
After our interview, we went backstage at Neumos to take some photos before the show. Kattner wasn’t interested in posing. He jumped on the couches, threw ice around the greenroom, and picked me up and threw me in the air. I kept thinking about Chuck Klosterman’s profile on Val Kilmer titled, “Crazy Things Seem Normal…Normal Things Seem Crazy.” This is what I took away from the Man Man show. The love songs gave me nightmares and the songs about death made me want to rock out.
City Arts: What would you be doing if you weren’t playing music?
Honus Honus: I’d be at the bottom of the river somewhere. In a pillowcase with kittens. It’d be the cutest, most tragic demise.
What do your parents think about your music?
My dad’s always been supportive, but he got freaked out when I sent him the demo for Dark Arts. He called me up to make sure my head was in a good space. He’s a painter so he gets it. He’s doing sculptures with light right now. It took my mom a long time to understand it. She’s great, but she can be out of her mind. I think I get it from her.
The producer for Life Fantastic seems like an odd choice: Mike Mogis, who also produces for Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk. He’s known for working with quieter, more stripped down musicians.
His magic was being an outsider. It seemed like an unusual pairing on paper, but he got us. In the past, the cacophony of noises had buried the songs and lyricism. And it’s important for Man Man to evolve and grow. I can’t write the same fucking songs I did when I was 22. If I tried to, I’d just be lying.
Did your visions align throughout the production process, or was it a struggle?
We were on the same page. The thing that throws people off about this record is what I love about it. It’s deceptive in the sense that when you first hear it and know our back catalogue you’d say, this is more polished… But the layers are all there. It’s a lot sneakier. It’s like being the crazy person that got a suit and snuck into the ball. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to rob the place blind, but we know we’re not going to get in there looking like a ruffian. The record reveals itself if you give it a chance.
The song “Piranhas Club” is one of the most lighthearted, upbeat tracks you’ve put out. It sounded like a radio jingle, but you’re singing about the world being a shitshow and punching your dad in the face.
“Piranhas Club” sounds light, but it came right in the thick of when I got audited. The event was so Kafka-esque and surreal, I don’t even want to talk about it. At that point I thought well, I’ve already had to deal with two close friends dying and a long relationship ending. All this crap. So I guess this makes sense in the grand scheme of shit. And my dad told me to write a tax song like the Beatles. I said fuck you dad, fuck the Beatles. This was my tax song. I didn’t know what else to do. I guess I either go crazy or tell people to drive cars into lakes. The world is a shitshow. What can you do.
So you were going through a really shitty time and then wrote a strangely whimsical, upbeat song about it.
It’s boring to me if something is one-dimensional, like “Woe is me, the world sucks.” It’s more interesting when you get the sweet treat of a song and you take a bite out of it and it tastes sour, like a rotten fish. It’s a sugar song with a dark, evil center.
The creature on the album cover for Life Fantastic looks like a lost Muppet who smoked too many cigarettes and wasn’t okay for commercialized television. How does that image tie into the album?
I did a lot of roaming while working on Life Fantastic. I’m still not living anywhere. I’m still drifting, but it’s a more centered drifting. I was down in Texas visiting my dad and we went to the contemporary art museum. We saw a Weird America exhibit, the only thing that grabbed my eye were these paintings by this artist Brad Kahlhamer. I connected with them because they were chaotic, violent, and beautiful… The three sculptures in the album artwork are by him…They embody birth, life, and death. The guy on the cover is birth, it represent the playful side of the album.
The track “Spooky Jookie” stood out to me, about a girl who doesn’t realize what she’s becoming. What scares you about that?
It’s inspired by a friend of mine. I was losing her. She was slipping into drugs and becoming a ghostly version of herself. I felt like the older I got, my friends were slipping away. They were dying or having kids or settling and getting sucked into dark stuff. That song is about her. She got out of it…
What do you find spooky? What keeps you up at night?
Conservatives. I think Birthers scare me…Well, and I chose a bad career path. That scares the hell out of me. My marketable skills are slipping away. Just being a band like this is scary. There’s no safety net.
What do you hope people remember from your live shows?
That we gave it all we had… I love the extremes of beauty and ugliness and chaos and control in our music. I don’t care if we divide our audience. I want people to love us or to hate us. There are a million fucking bands out there in the middle ground, and you can have ‘em.