The eclectic Philadelphia-based band Man Man released its fourth full-length, Life Fantastic, earlier this year on ANTI- Records. CP spoke with songwriter and frontman Honus Honus (a.k.a. Ryan Kattner), who also does double duty with the supergroup Mister Heavenly, along with Nicholas Thornburn of Islands, Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse and sometimes actor Michael Cera.
What, to you, is different about Life Fantastic in comparison with your earlier albums?
I think this record is probably our most deceptive album. It's the first time we ever worked with a producer, Michael Mogis. I think it's a really beautiful album, but I think that's maybe what throws people off. The production quality is a little better; you can finally kind of understand what I'm saying, but I think it's also probably our darkest album.
There's a lot of different stuff going on in terms of songwriting and instrumentation -- what's the thread that ties it all together as a Man Man album?
I feel like it still embodies the balance of chaos and beautiful orchestration. We're not afraid to take left turns when we should take right ones, and vice versa.
Some people will use the term "experimental" to describe your music -- is that a term you'd use?
No … I just think that we're making songs. I wouldn't call us a rock band, either. I guess if I have to go in one direction, I'd go "experimental," but for the most part I don't think it's that crazy. That term puts people off a little bit, because not too much experimental music has hooks. And that's very important to us -- to write catchy songs. But I think it's interesting when you can embody some of these experimental aspects [and] put it into a conventional structure.
If someone who's not as well versed in music asks you what kind of music you play, what do you tell them?
I ask them who their favorite musician is, then I tell them it sounds like that person. In a car. Going over a cliff.
A lot of people look at your live show as the most notable part of your band -- you're exciting, energetic. But recorded, especially on this album, your music is really complex in terms of instrumentation and dynamics. What's that project like, translating complex songs to a wild live show?
When we record albums, things aren't there just willy-nilly. It's all arranged. And even live, you can't necessarily do all the things you do on an album -- like, I wish we could tour with strings, but that's economically implausible. But, at the same time, I think it's important to retain the dynamic sensibility. That's what I like about our live show and our albums: They're two different beings, yet they can still coexist; live, we're representing the album, and vice versa. But neither one relies on the other. It's a nice, symbiotic relationship. I've seen bands live that sound just like the record and it bores the hell out of me -- I'll just go home and play your record. I think when people come to our shows, it's not just that we're a band playing our songs. It's an attempt to create … I hesitate to say "community"; it's more of a … like a … cult meeting. No, that's a bad one, too. OK, I'll go with my fallback: It's a group exorcism.
Mister Heavenly got a lot of attention really quickly because it's a band of guys who are in other well-known bands. How are you balancing the two?
It's cool because I can do double duty, and for every Mister Heavenly show or interview or something, I can still talk about the Man Man record, which I'm really proud of.
And that's still your primary vehicle.
Yeah, it's my baby. My lumbering baby. My war-painted baby. But yeah, it's been cool. On paper, touring this much was like, "Ah, no problem!" But it can make someone go a little nuts if you're already nuts to begin with. But hell, there's harder ways to make a living.
Do you get writing done while you're on the road?
There's no writing on the road. I'm sure it works for some people, but not me. In movies, people are always sitting around, playing guitar, writing songs -- sure, that'd be cool, I guess. I can't fathom how that works. Mostly, touring, down time is just ingesting and digesting the world around me and trying to find any sort of link that'll tie me into, maybe, a song.
Then does it spill out when you get home?
Well … the hardest part is not having a home. So, yeah, I'm looking forward to this winter when all the touring is done; then I'm gonna disappear for a couple months and try working on some songs.
MAN MAN with GRANDCHILDREN, EXPENSIVE SHIT. 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 15. William Pitt Union Ballroom, University of Pittsburgh, 3959 Fifth Ave., Oakland. $8-10. 412-648-7814 or www.wpts.pitt.edu