There are lots of reasons to like Man Man that have nothing to do with Waits, Zappa, or Beefheart. If you’ve had the surreal pleasure of seeing the Philadelphia quintet live, you’d have to draw a more complex picture. The band’s manic pop makes as much dramatic sense as comedic sense — drawing a straight line from your heart to your crotch. All worthy comparisons to rock’s forbearers aside, when Ryan Kattner (a.k.a. Honus Honus) moans that “It’s all right to wear your heart on the outside of your sleeve,” the intention and the effect are pure. The point is to get your heart beating and your legs moving; any historical similarities are beside the point.
A history lesson was certainly the last thing on people’s minds when they showed up to catch a free Man Man show at Philadelphia’s AKA Records on a balmy Sunday afternoon in March. The five of them, resplendent in their white Ts and tufts of proud facial hair, set up a shop on the vacant and precariously supported second floor. It was there that the musical circus began. And it was there that I caught up with Man Man’s gravel-throated, mustached, and oh-so-sweaty lead singer Honus Honus after the clowns had hit the showers. We talked about the new record, the Philadelphia scene and reviewers’ tainted impressions of his band’s music.
I know there’s been some lineup changes since the last record [2004’s The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face]. Exactly how many of the guys you’re playing with now are new to the band?
Man Man: These are all new cats. Yeah, these guys all played on the new record.
So was your approach to Six Demon Bag noticeably different than on the last one?
Man Man: We approached it in a helter skelter kinda way. I thought it was going to be a lot easier — but it wasn’t. When you have half the band leave right before you go into the studio, it makes things a little stressful.
Why did the band leave before you guys went into the studio?
Man Man: They had things to do. I mean, Steven [Dufala], from the first crew, he actually played on the new record, but then he went off to do his own thing. … He’s a visual artist, so he’s got a lot of openings and stuff to go to.
To my ears, the new record sounds more somber. It’s got more emotional weight.
Man Man: Thank god you noticed that.
I actually like it better than the first one.
Man Man: Yeah, so do I.
Was giving the record a heavier tone a conscious decision or was that just way things turned out?
Man Man: Yeah, there were some dark days. Not to say that the first record wasn’t an arduous task, but there were definitely some dark days between the first and the second record, especially coupled with the lineup changes that we had. We’re in the studio doing the record with all new guys and at the same time trying to figure out how to do this stuff live. Both things are kind of running side by side. We knew we had to start playing shows as soon as we handed in the record.
The press throws around Frank Zappa and Tom Waits a lot when they’re describing you guys. Does Man Man have any non-musical influences?
Man Man: I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again, but never having any money would probably be our main non-musical influence … just constantly being broke and on the hustle. When you don’t know how the hell you’re going to pay rent and you’re on the road, and then even when you get back and you’re kinda suffering from touring [burn out], it tends to wear down on you. I would say that more than anything contributed to people having to go their separate ways. It’s tough. For the most part, anyone who plays music who’s doing it D.I.Y. and doesn’t have a trust fund [is going to be in rough shape].
You guys definitely have a distinct onstage persona. How much of that is a reflection of who you are day to day? Is there a place where you draw the line between Honus Honus and Ryan Kattner?
Man Man: One makes money and one doesn’t, I suppose. I mean, I’m obviously not carting around a Rhodes all the time, but I do channel a lot of the stuff that I otherwise wouldn’t. Actually, I don’t think there’s really much of a distinction. I definitely sweat more when I’m playing.
[Laughs] You wear white when you’re playing.
Man Man: Yeah, I wear white when I’m playing. It’s funny how that came about, too. That was just a matter of trying to make people focus on what we’re doing as apposed to what we’re wearing … although if I’d have known that I’d sweat so much on stage I probably would have worn black.
Have pit stains become a problem?
Man Man: Nah. Once you reach the half-way point of a tour, you’re not wearing white anymore. I think we’re more like in our beige period. Filthy. But I like that. I like the fact that we’re dirty.
The first time I saw Man Man was about a year and a half ago when you opened for Don Caballero. I had never heard of you guys and …
Man Man: Those guys are really tall. They’re really tall and all their fans are really tall.
Yeah, they’re all football players and their drummer is a complete asshole.
Man Man: Yeah, that’s pretty much their M.O.
Anyway, there seems to be a really stark contrast between you guys and a band like that. Has anyone ever approached you and said, “Is this a joke? Are you putting me on?”
Man Man: I don’t get that. No, not really. I mean, we do get write-ups — and that’s why I appreciate the fact that you noticed the somber undertones — where people have just written us off as a joke band. That kinda sucks. But people are gonna write you off no matter what. I mean, I think the clear thing is that we have a sense of humor. We’re serious, but we’re not too serious. We’re obviously doing this because we want to do this. We’re not writing songs about eating yellow snow.
Has your singularity ever made you feel alienated or isolated from other bands in Philly?
Man Man: Oh, hell yeah. We spent three years being an opening band, so that’s why our format of playing [our set] straight through really helps because you only get thirty-five or forty minutes to make an impact and really offend people or really charm ’em. You know, we just do it [and then] we get off. It’s a little tougher when we’re headlining some shows now.
So you guys really embrace the underdog status?
Man Man: Yeah, it’s rad. People go see a rock show, and we either totally knock their socks off or we don’t — it’s just a matter of how long. And then people come up to us afterward and say [in the Honus Honus stage voice], “Are you a fucking joke?”
Are all the new guys from Philadelphia?
Man Man: Cougar [Alejandro Borg] lives in the Poconos and [Les] Mizzle pretty much lives in New York.
Do you have any sense of identification with the Philadelphia music scene? Does that matter to you guys?
Man Man: I love Philadelphia. It’s small. It’s a great place if you’re a band. I’m not sure how much longer, though, ’cause I know there’s a lot of bands migrating here from New York.
Yeah, the sixth borough …
Man Man: Yeah, right. I don’t how much longer it’s going to be cool, but it’s cool right now. As far as identifying with the Philadelphia scene, I know back when we started we didn’t want to just be indie rock like the scene. You’ve gotta play outside the city. I got no interest to be a big fish in a small pond. … In fact, we’re still not. I prefer playing outside of Philly, but when we do get to play Philly, it’s great when we can play free shows ’cause it’s our hometown.
Has your perspective shifted since you’ve been able to play more shows across the country? Do you feel prouder of your home town?
Man Man: I mean, I’ve always loved Philly. I just don’t really think we adhere to any scene in Philly.
Yeah, I’ve been here two years, but I can’t really pinpoint any particular Philly sound either.
Man Man: Philly, like most cities, is a rock city. You’re gonna have rock bands and just variations on that same theme. We’re not a rock band. We’re more rocking now than we were before, but we’re not a rock band. We bring the fire, but …
It’s funny. In your press packet, Ace Fu Records lists Man Man’s genre as “indie rock.” You guys are definitely “indie,” but you’re not really “rock.” To me there’s a distinction.
Man Man: Yeah, it’s a weird thing. That’s why they kinda shelved us into the holy triad of Waits, Zappa and Beefheart.
Do you feel like Man Man is a “collective”? Some of the press has described you that way. Does that ring true to you at all?
Man Man: I guess. I mean, it’s an easier way of saying that times have changed and recognizing that [people have come and gone] … It was all kind of accidental. When we started I didn’t really see us playing outside of Philly. Then once we started playing more shows, all I wanted to do was play outside of Philly.
What’s you’re take on people who write us off as a joke band? I think it’s a little short-sighted.
Yeah, I think it’s short-sighted. I think people are just responding to their gut reaction. They just hear the waltz time and see the crazy antics on stage and just go, “Huh?” I just think you have to give your music more time. I think the lyrics on the new record especially add a level of depth that people have to sit with.
Man Man: There’s a lot of sadness on the first record, too. It’s just the way it was recorded — the lyrics kinda got obscured by the chaos. I really feel that the records are a nice complement to each other.
How important do you think instinct is in your music?
Man Man: I think it’s really important. None of us are trained musicians — we’re just grappling with each other. I mean, I know I am. Some of the brothers here have mastered their craft. Cougar and Pow Pow and those people. Actually, everyone but me has mastered their craft.
You’re the outsider in a group of outsiders.
Man Man: Yeah, yeah. I mean, none of us went to music school. Not to put down music school, but I feel like it gives us a really nice perspective on things, ’cause we’re just making music. If there was any sort of calculation, it was that I didn’t want to just make ’70s rock music or ’80s rock music or music from any particular period. It’s organic. I mean, we’ll see. The most important thing about this band is that we all come from very diverse backgrounds. It’s our personalities that make this music what it is. I hope the next record won’t sound anything like the previous two.
I’ve heard you guys are planning on releasing an EP this year through Absolutely Kosher Records. Is that still on the way?
Man Man: It’s kind of hit a snag right now. We just don’t have time now to record ’cause we’re on the road all the time. The focus right now is pushing on toward the next record. That’s why we gave away that Etta James song [“I’d Rather Go Blind“]. That was going to be one of the focal points on the EP, but we were just like, Fuck it, let’s make it free.
Alright, last question: What do you guys do for fun?
Man Man: For fun? As far as playing for fun, we’re starting to loosen it up a little bit. So it’s really just a matter of trying to fuck with each other.
Is that what makes a good show, when you test each other’s boundaries?
Man Man: Yeah, for us. We have a pretty structured set. It changes up a little bit, like we’ll throw some songs in there just to vary it up for us and also for people who are crazy enough to see us a couple of times — unhealthy enough to see us a couple times in a row. We had a couple that saw us is Portland, Maine, Providence, [Rhode Island], and then last night in Brooklyn. It’s like, “Oh, god. That’s not healthy.” … Jesus. We’re gonna leave a whole bunch of failed relationships [behind us].
You guys are gonna have blood on your hands.
Man Man: Yeah, blood on our pants. But, yeah, it’s fun now because every night we play a show it’s really a matter of, Can we do this without messing up. It really is a challenge to do it all the way through. But on top of that, now we can kinda play around. Can we play with each other and make them mess up? That’s a lot of fun. It gets kinda playful like that. Like you saw Pow Pow trying to mess us up today … or like when I go over there and pretend to fellate Russell, it’s just to try and mess him up.
[Russell [Coyote] happens to walk.]
Russell: And you did.
And I did. And it was pretty sweet for me, especially today.
I’m sure he enjoyed it.
Man Man: [Laughs] So what’s your impression of the record?
Well, I’ve only had it a week, but I definitely like it better than the first one. I think it’s more focused. It’s lyrically more interesting …
Man Man: Now it’s all downhill from here.
Yeah, it’s groovy in a way that the first one wasn’t. There’s just a lower, heavier end to the sound.
Man Man: Just wait, man. Mizzle’s gonna add some sleazy grooves on the next record. He’ll make ya feel dirty. I mean, when I see him playing bass, I feel dirty … He just makes ya feel really dirty, and that’s good because that’s what we’re going for.
The one thing I appreciate the most is that I am noticing kids coming out and just being totally uninhibited, which is just great. Even for Philadelphia. Not so much this show because it was pretty confined, but when we played a free show at a warehouse last month and four hundred kids came out and they just bugged-out real hard. It was in Kensington [the worst Philadelphia ghetto].
Oh, wow. That’s real North Philly.
Man Man: Yeah, it wasn’t even Fishtown — it was Kensington, and it was awesome. And you saw a couple kids here today wearing gorilla suits or something. Pretty bizarre, but awesome.
I think some people may not know quite how to react to you guys.
Man Man: I feel like some of these reviewers who get this album in the mail and don’t know what to expect and just Google it and look up other reviewers — I feel like they kinda hit it with a tainted ear. I wish people could hit it and just not know what to expect. I feel like that’s the best way to get it.
Man Man on Ace Fu’s Web site