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Man Man's Search for Meaning

Eccentric Philly band doesn’t know the rules, so it just keeps breaking them

By Jason Gargano · February 20th, 2013 · Music
music1_manman_mikepersicoMan Man decided to keep working on an all-new album (due this year) after its 2011 LP failed to nab much attention. - Photo: Mike Persico
Man Man is a band from Philadelphia led by a guy who calls himself Honus Honus. Known for its irreverent songs and unpredictable, gloriously ramshackle live shows, Man Man defies convention at nearly every turn, thus comparisons to such like-mindedly adventurous artists as Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Tom Waits are as accurate as they are a little too confining.

The band has dropped four albums since 2004, the most recent being 2011’s Life Fantastic, a slightly less schizophrenic affair that remains anchored by Honus Honus’ impassioned vocals and a tribal rhythmic thrust that teeters on the edge of organized chaos when witnessed in a live setting.

CityBeat recently connected with Honus Honus (aka Ryan Kattner), who was speaking via phone before a gig in Baton Rouge, La., to discuss his songwriting process — from his biggest influences to his goal of working the word “uterus” into the band’s next album.

CityBeat: I’ve heard rumors that a new album is in the works. If true, when will it come out?

HH: If we don’t blow all of our deadlines, sometime this year. I’m very proud of the last record, but we felt like it was released in a vacuum. No one really knew we put out a record and we were like, “Well, we might as well keep working.” So (drummer) Chris (Powell) and I wrote the record last summer and we recorded it last fall. We’re mixing it right now. It’s (with noted producer Mike) Mogis again. 

CB: So I guess you liked working with Mogis on Life Fantastic? 

HH: We’d never worked with a producer before. It was good to do that for the first time. We had such a good experience we wanted to do it again. Last time we worked with him for about three months. This time it was only about three weeks, but it helped that we could speak in shorthand and understand the riddles of each other’s personalities. It helped, too, in that the material we had for this record is not Life Fantastic Part 2.

It’s a different vibe, so that was a challenge for both of us. 

CB: I read that you like to use movie references when you’re trying to convey to the guys in the band what kind of vibe you want for a given song. My favorite example was when you told them, “I want a ‘Bob coming out from behind the couch in Twin Peaks’ vibe for this one.”

HH: I don’t have musical training, so that’s how I try to relate ideas. It can be frustrating for band members, so sometimes it can just cut through all the bullshit. Like I’ll tell them, “I want you to sing this song like you’re Chairry from Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Or “You need to play this guitar part like you’re Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.” And they’re like, “Oh, OK, I got that.”

CB: Do you think your lack of any musical training has helped to distinguish your songwriting? 

HH: Yeah, I don’t know any of the rules, so I don’t have to worry about breaking them. I’m just going to write what feels right and natural. That’s just how I do it and if it doesn’t really prescribe to how someone’s taught or how normal songwriting skills apply, then I don’t care. I want to write songs that I like, because I’m the one who’s going to have to play and sing them. It’s probably made things complicated over the years as far as keeping a core group of guys to pursue this vision with, but fresh blood influx is healthy. 

CB: You’ve talked about Life Fantastic being relatively more straightforward and concise in terms of your songwriting approach. Was that also the case with the new record?

HH: I can go to every single song and tell you where the line came from and what inspired it. There is a line on this new record,  “From the utter to the mouth/We’re all biding our time/From the uterus to the ground.” That was inspired by running into a whole group of fake Mennonites at a Man Man show last year in Nashville. They professed to have brought freshly-milked milk for one of the band members to drink and they were like, “Yo, it’s from the utter to the mouth.” I liked that. I was like, “How can I work that into a chorus, because it’s so not a chorus? And how can I make that sentiment even harsher?” Oh, yeah, how about, “From the uterus to the ground.” One of my goals was to use “uterus” on this record.

CB: As a lyricist, you have the unique ability to be detailed and evocative without being too literal. 

HH: It’s just a matter of trying to concoct this lyrical gumbo of abstractions, recollections, stories about friends, stories about myself and then, within that stew, baring straight-up personal confessions mixed with straight-up personal confessional lies. The end goal being, selfishly, to help deal with your own personal demons, but at the same time the end goal being that you’re trying to write a song that other people can relate to. So it can’t be too “woe is me,” otherwise you’re just Emo, which is boring. The new album is just a further extension of that. I’m still learning how to write songs. I’m still trying to figure out how to get to the core of a sentiment without being schmaltzy or cliché or falling into someone else’s rhythms. 

CB: You once said that being broke and being in and out of relationships were your two biggest influences. Is that still the case?

HH: I wish it wasn’t. It’d be nice to not still be broke. But what can you do? I get to make music. I’m lucky. I never thought when we first started that anyone would want to hear this stuff, so I’m fortunate enough to be able to play music and for there to be an outlet for it. ©

MAN MAN plays The Southgate House Revival Thursday, Feb. 22 with Murder By Death.



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