A high school connection with Man Man
In a fake European-Darth-Vader accent, Ryan Kattner said, “Good morning, Peter,” as he greeted me over the phone.
I guess he was trying to spice up the interview, or else just to mess with me. That wouldn’t be surprising, since Kattner, whose stage name is Honus Honus, tends to mess with the sensibilities of people who come unprepared to hear the band he leads, Man Man – a name as flat as its music is full-force.
He dropped the dark-stranger act as I told him we had gone to the same high school in Montgomery, Ala. He and my younger brother Tim had been classmates.
Wowed by that, he immediately recalled that his younger brother and my youngest brother had been classmates in elementary school – and that his brother had knocked my brother out with a baseball bat while trying to break a pinata blindfolded in class. Kattner had been in my mom’s high school French class when she was called out to take her youngest son to the emergency room.
We were talking last week because Man Man will perform Monday night at the Waterhole in Saranac Lake. Their current tour ranges from small venues like this one to top-tier rock clubs: the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, 9:30 Club in Washington and Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
On one hand, Man Man is a fairly big national act: They’re critical darlings, they’ve played the Bonneroo festival, and they’ve toured with Modest Mouse. Yet on the other, Man Man is too weird to be huge. They’ve worked hard to make their art disturbing and their live shows wild. As Kattner has said in past interviews, they have a lot of stuff to work out.
“There’s something unhinged about Man Man,” is how National Public Radio’s music website put it in 2011. “The Philadelphia band careens and stomps through songs at once bizarre, run-down and decadent.”
Beneath that surface, though, their songwriting is not the rantings of a madman. Kattner’s lyrics are direct, quotable, confessional, humble and sometimes insightful.
“The reason I start fires is that’s what lost men do,” he sings on “Zebra,” from Man Man’s first album in 2004.
Kattner seems a little less desperate now. Man Man’s new single, “Head On,” goes down remarkably smoothly, and he told me the band’s fifth and next album, “On Oni Pond” (pronounced OH-nee), is “not overpowered by any sort of dark subject matter.” He made a conscious decision to avoid the environment that bled into Man Man’s last album, “Life Fantastic” (2011). He loves that record, “but it was a pretty tumultuous time in my life.
“So even if some of those same emotions were simmering, I don’t want to be bogged down by them,” he said.
“On Oni Pond” officially goes on sale Tuesday, the day after Man Man’s Waterhole gig.
Kattner said he barely knew how to play music before he formed Man Man. He had messed around a tiny bit with bass and guitar in high school and college, and his parents had made him take piano lessons for about half a year in middle school.
“I didn’t have the patience, and I didn’t have the coordination,” he said of piano. “I only stuck with it as long as I did because I got to walk to lessons after school with a pretty, popular girl who otherwise wouldn’t have talked to me, and then when she stopped taking lessons, so did I.”
After graduating from high school, Kattner went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and studied screenwriting. After finishing, he planned to write screenplays in Los Angeles but got sidetracked when he bought an old Rhodes keyboard and started Man Man.
“Believe it or not, I needed some kind of creative outlet aside from trying to write scripts and working (lousy) jobs, waiting tables and working in coffee shops, so on the side, just to kind of vent, I started playing music,” he said. “The biggest thing I could see happening with it was playing, like, at a rock club in Philly. I didn’t really think it would be anything more. And I thought it’d be, ‘Oh, that time that I had a record.'”
As a child, he said, the music that jumped out at him was rhythm and blues and doo-wop. (A side-project band he was recently in, called Mister Heavenly, called its sound “doom-wop.”) In high school, what he listened to was “nothing that really would seem to inform what I do now. Blind Melon, Led Zeppelin, high school stuff. I think the most interesting thing that I listened to was probably like the Meters and the Dead Milkmen, but I didn’t really get into punk rock. I mean, you know, growing up in Alabama there was no independent music scene. I seemed like, growing up, you either just listened to whatever, classic rock, or you went the way of Dave Matthews and Widespread. I didn’t want to go that way. That stuff never really appealed to me.”
What he calls an “awakening moment” happened in a college film class, watching “Stranger Than Paradise” and hearing its heavy use of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” That 1956 R&B song made him feel strange, and thrilled.
“I think at that point it just kind of entered into my DNA,” Kattner said. “You don’t have to have a terribly complicated song for it to be complex, and for it to evoke an emotion.”
Other influences around that time included German experimental band Can and American alternative band Pavement.
Before his band called itself Man Man, he said it had a “really terrible” name. “Thankfully,” he said, another band had the name, too, so their new record label asked them to change it.
What was the name?
“Foghat,” he said. There was a long pause. “No, I’m kidding,” he added.
While riding the bus to New York to meet with their new label, Kattner and one of his bandmates “made a big stack of index cards of band names that we obviously would never choose, but we wanted to scare the label. And ironically, Man Man wasn’t in those index cards. We had come across that one day in practice, and it was just like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s pretty stupid, pretty blah. That should work.’
“Cause I think ultimately band names are pretty bad. They’re pretty stupid, and it’s so hard to find one that’s just not offensive to the sensibilities. And so Man Man seemed pretty slick.”
Speaking of names, what’s “On Oni Pond” about? Kattner said he wrote about half of it early last year in western Massachusetts, where he and his girlfriend had retreated from city life.
“Aside from her, which was awesome, I just kind of went nuts out there,” he said. “I guess in my adult life I’ve never really lived anywhere bucolic and pastoral until, once I’m out there, it’s beautiful, but I hear my ears ringing. My ears are ringing from playing loud, weird rock music for all these years. You’re in the city, and you’re filled with noise, and your senses are constantly bombarded, and you don’t hear the ringing in your ears.
“But then there were a lot of band issues and stuff that I’d left behind that I’d tried to get out of, and you know, I like the concept of going someplace beautiful, but it’s overrun by demons. Onis are little Japanese demons.
“You can change your environment, but you can’t change what’s in your head.”