ART school was fun in the mid-2000s.
Weirdo indie rock was at a defining pinnacle. It seemed anyone who was in some semblance of a band on campus was smearing their faces in war paint and punching away at MacBooks, and everybody’s iPods were stocked with obscure pop scattered in dissonant synths, bristling lead vocals, and lyrics that would come out of a game of Mad Libs played by Bukowski and an Adderall-deprived eleven-year-old.
I interned in New York for a summer, spending the weekends exploring with college friends. Even the old-school jukeboxes in the Williamsburg bars were up-to-the-minute cool, stocked full of cuts by Wolf Parade, MGMT, and above all, Man Man.
It was hard to not fall in love, the way their single “Van Helsing Boombox” started off so toe-tappingly melodic and lurched into a sweet, slightly sloppy gallop.
Vocalist Ryan Kattner’s timbre is often likened to Tom Waits’—and while “he sounds like Tom Waits” can be a lazy way folks describe a man with a tremoring, salty bellow of a singing voice, it’s an apt comparison in Kattner’s case. You know those moments when Waits’ acerbic front transforms into a kind of brutally honest, piercing tenderness? It’ll get you when you least expect it. That’s what Kattner evokes, with complete candor and conviction. Underneath that big voice was a saloon-style piano that sounded like it was reeling around on square wheels, pulled through some kind of riotous parade.
Those lyrics, pounding in the haze of the post-collegiate panic and ennui: “only time will tell if I’ll allow the scenery around me to eat me alive.”
Anyone with their indie cred in check had a copy of Six Demon Bag and Rabbit Habits, but it wasn’t just the underpinnings of mallet percussion, demented elfin gang vocals, or the twisted court jester vibe that won folks over—no one talked about a live show with rapt awe the way they talked about Man Man.
More of a spectacle than a concert, anything could and did happen there: Kattner would bang his head on the piano as the band blew kazoos in unison and trumpets roared.
Finally, Savannah gets a taste.
Kattner (stage name Honus Honus) is wittily wry, self-deprecating, and appreciative when recapping life since he started writing songs on a whim post-college.
“By no means is any of this supposed to sound pessimistic,” he says at the end of our conversation. “I’m just trying to be a realist.”
That honesty, however bleak, is a trait that’s always made Kattner the fascinating “character” he is. His accepting a career path in the crapshoot of the music industry comes with a complicated mix of fatigue and resilience. Kattner would play a gig every night of the year if he could, but he also half-jokes about spending his time in his new home of Los Angeles “trying to hustle and find my post-music career.”
The founding member of Man Man is certainly branching out, with a dizzying array of projects on deck: Man Man’s follow-up to 2013’s On Oni Pond, his first solo album, a film script, a theatrical score, and a collaborative kids’ record, to be released under the moniker Booger Bubbles.
“I’m totally faking everything I’m doing,” Kattner laughs. “I had to dig deep to write. In a weird way, if you had told me ten years ago I’d be scoring a play, I’d think you’re out of your mind.”
Same goes for Booger Bubbles, something Kattner got into when he felt burned out and wanted to create without overthinking.
But let’s wind back. Kid Kattner’s taking piano lessons alongside one of the prettiest, most popular girls in school. Once she quits—and he realizes that key mastery required 15-30 minutes of practice each night—his interest significantly declines.
“Really, it was a way to scam my parents into buying me a Casio to make fart noises and synthesizer helicopters flying overhead,” he remarks dryly.
And though Kattner downplays that early experimentation (“It’s funny,” he says, “you read biographies of famous actors, like, when they were in third grade: oh, they were writing, producing and starring in their own plays! Yeah—that’s called fucking make believe”), it’s hard to entirely discredit the influence it may have had on Man Man’s boisterously innovative catalog.
He went off to college to study film and playwriting, returning to music in his early 20s in a moment of post-art school exploration.
The culmination of “poor life decisions” and “general restlessness” evolved into a way of life that Kattner never saw coming: years later, he’s making a living off playing in the first band he ever formed.
“It was something novel,” Kattner recalls. “It’s like, ‘I don’t know how to write songs, let’s try to write some songs.’ It was supposed to be a one-off loop, and it turned into an accidental career. I know it sounds like it’s not humility, but it’s the truth: I really stumbled into it.”
Today, Kattner is the only remaining original member of Man Man, alongside multi-instrumentalists Adam Schatz (Brown Sugar), Bryan Murphy (Shono), and drummer Christopher Powell (Pow Pow). Powell’s been around the longest: after Kattner’s first drummer amicably parted ways with the band, Powell, Kattner’s “favorite drummer in Philly,” played on Man Man’s 2006 album Six Demon Bag.
“Our budget was so meager, I gave him half of it,” Kattner laughs. “I think we put out that record for 1,200 bucks, as opposed to the 500 from when we recorded our first record.”
It was an odd time in Philadelphia; vibrant and close-knit, for sure, but Kattner says Man Man was always an outlier on the scene. Powell still lives in Philly, while Kattner has relocated to Los Angeles; it’s a completely different world than the one Man Man came up in, but the vibe has provided plenty of fodder for new writing and music.
“It’s where dreams go to die,” Kattner says admiringly of his new home. “That right there is a cesspool of ideas.”
The new Man Man record has a “very L.A.-centric, cross-continental vibe” inspired by the move, and Kattner hints at a new turn musically.
“Much to the chagrin of people who liked our first record, who wish we kept making the same record over and over, that’s a concept that doesn’t appeal to me,” he states. “We’re human beings—we’re supposed to grow and evolve and have new ideas. And that’s why all the records are different; I’m personally in a different place every go-round. I don’t want to write the same record. That’s boring to me.”
As a band defined by their live show, Kattner says he intends for the record to have a different feel than a live experience.
“I think it’s just something I’ve always wanted when I go see a show: I want it to be visceral. I don’t want it to have the same effect as putting out a record, unless it’s music that’s absolutely stunning and breathtaking, I want there to be a human connection. Like when I see a band, and they don’t sound perfect, there’s that rawness that you can’t replicate on a recording.”
The band plans on testing out some of the new cuts in Savannah, so keep your ears peeled for the unfamiliar. As far as a release date goes, Kattner says the new record will see the light of day “hopefully before the apocalypse”—in other words, they’re taking their sweet time.
“The last two years have been very brutal, having any semblance of a personal life,” Kattner says. “Chris is married now—you want to have a family, so we’re taking our time with this next record. We may lose our fans and come back and lament that, but life is a very long endeavor. You don’t want to ever look back and realize you spent my entire life looking out the windows of a tour van.”
He still muses on the day that Man Man scores a life-altering “breakout hit,” though admits it’s hard to comprehend what that even means anymore in the current state of the record industry.
“You can hold your breath until you go blue in the face,” says Kattner. “Or, you can focus on making music that is true to yourself, and hope that people catch up some day. Or some band of 19-year-olds from the UK steals your sound and rides to the bank. That seems more plausible.”
Kattner admits he would happily tour forever (“thought that’s cruel and unusual punishment for a band of our cultish size,” he says); with fans still packing the rooms, home is onstage.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” he says. “And that’s one thing that I feel very fortunate about: people that have liked our music and supported us and come out to our show, it’s amazing every time. There’s a radiance. There’s real give and take.”
Man Man, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat
Where: The Jinx
When: Thursday, June 25, 10 p.m.
Cost: $15 via ticketfly.com