Man Man ditches the forks to find pop success

Monday, Feb. 17 at the Fox Theatre

Josh Gross | Boulder Weekly

One of Philadelphia’s finest touring acts, Man Man, will play the Fox Theatre on Monday, Feb. 17. But be warned: Trying to describe it to anyone you’d like to convince to accompany you to the show is nearly impossible.

Man Man’s style runs the gamut from classic rock ’n’ roll or doo wop with strings, oohs, aahs and shoobie-doobies to balls-out chaos with singer Honus Honus (real name: Ryan Kattner) headbutting his piano and screaming like he’s being murdered as xylophones plink away in the background. And that can all happen in the space of a single chorus.

For a while, the band’s onstage percussion included a large metal salad bowl that Kattner would hurl silverware into from across the stage, producing bright metal pings in perfect time, something he says had as much to do with the band’s instruments being frequently stolen as it did with the sound.

“This way, they just stole silverware,” he says. “But then I became the creepy guy hanging out in thrift stores buying forks.”

Strangely enough though, Kattner says that while Man Man’s lineup has rotated extensively through the years, it wasn’t much of a struggle to find people willing to play instruments like the fire extinguisher.

“I think people with idiosyncratic brains and deep-seated issues gravitate towards me,” he says. “And then they wise up and gravitate as far away as possible.”

Kattner was referencing the time the entire band quit after its first national tour in 2005. Since then, the only two permanent members have been Kattner and drummer Christopher “Pow-Pow” Powell.

“It’s hard to keep people on a train like this,” Kattner says. “It’s a big dream for people to be away from their family and experience the dirty public bathrooms and rest stops of the world for very little money.”

It’s not quite as bad as Kattner jokes.

Yes, band members have been in flux. Yes, Kattner spent nearly a year couchsurfing and being audited by the IRS. But Man Man’s bookings have gone steadily upwards over the years, and it has done tours opening for indie-megastars like Modest Mouse and played no shortage of festival dates. And then there’s the fact that its current album, On Oni Pond, is a major step forward sonically that has tossed the band into the shark tank of radio rotations nationwide.

Man Man’s earlier material was rooted in a sort of gypsy-stomp, coming off a bit like a cross between Gogol Bordello and a Danny Elfman film score, with vocals by Screaming Jay Hawkins. A large component of the sound was that Kattner didn’t have a lot of experience when he started Man Man, having largely abandoned the piano as a kid and coming back to it only when he started the band. He surrounded himself with top-notch players and directed his efforts toward serving as the roots, not the garnish. And it worked. But even now, with a charting album and major concert bookings, Kattner still undersells his musicianship.

“I’m still learning how to play music,” he says. “I ingest very slowly. I could have a musical wizard come over and show me a dozen chords, and I’d probably absorb half of one of them.”

That’s a big part of why Kattner says his early approach was straight from the Billy Idol playbook: more, more, more.

“In the old days, when I would listen back, I just thought it sounded too thin,” he says. “[I’d think] it sounds empty. It needs a blood-curdling scream.”

So he added them. A lot. The song “Engwish Bwudd” from Man Man’s second album, Six Demon Bag, has lyrics that are a dialog between an abusive father and the victim of his rage, complete with Kattner falsettoing “no daddy daddy, no daddy daddy,” then growling, “get the fuck out of my house” in response.

But he says the quest was always the perfect pop song, for example, something like Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” “I’m always trying to get a song stuck in your head,” he says. “I know people don’t want to do that. But I don’t understand that. I think that’s difficult to do. Don’t you want to strive to make that happen?”

And that quest paid off when Man Man sat down to record On Oni Pond, its fifth album.

Man Man had previously been a band that appealed largely to musicians or creatives who appreciated the chaotic and unhinged experimentation of seeing members bounce among the dozens of bizarre and homemade instruments the group toted around on tour. But for On Oni Pond, producer Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes helped prune the sound into more streamlined tunes with broader appeal. The first single, “Head On,” even broke into the Top 40 Billboard Alternative Songs, something Kattner thought was pretty surreal when he heard it come on the radio at a bowling alley.

“I felt like the only way that song could ever get heard is if someone covered it,” he says.

On Oni Pond maintains much of the manic songwriting style that Man Man began with. But instead of a shotgun blast of sounds, it’s a headshot from a sniper that lets the individual instrumental lines shine through, along with the rawness of Kattner’s voice. His vocals had always had a sort of Tom Waits growl to them, but unburying them from their many layers revealed a new soulfulness. Track seven, “Deep Cover,” is a ukulele-centric ballad that makes the world’s most cheerful instrument into a mournful cry into the darkness, even when the major-key horns come in.

“The heart is a motherfucker, I’m positive of that,” Kattner sings.

The big single, “Head On,” is downright touching, with Kattner crooning, “Hold on to your heart, even when your body is bitter / Don’t let nobody ever take it over from you,” as strings purr in the background.

But as immediately likable as the band’s new material is, where it truly shines is on stage. A Man Man concert is a 60-minute blitzkrieg of weird performance art crossed with a church revival.

Kattner apes the bombastic style of Southern preachers and the dead-eyed intensity of a goth act. Sometimes, he wears a tunic covered with pictures of CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer’s face and tosses sparkles into the crowd as he sings like James Brown on PCP. He and his drummer execute synchronized jumps.

“Most of that came from being not that cool,” Kattner says. “I couldn’t play the songs and be aloof and cool. I had to be myself.”

But being himself also means being someone that came to music by way of being a failed screenwriter, and therefore being someone who grasps the importance of imagery.

“Jodorowsky, The Holy Mountain, that was a big thing in the beginning,” he says, referring to the 1973 Mexican sci-fi film. “That was mostly the concept of finding really hideous, ugly, awful imagery. But in the same breath, I’m just as influenced by Teen Wolf.”

Kattner says both his songwriting and stage presence are attempts to create compelling characters that allow show-goers to get lost in the performance.

On songwriting: “Lyrically, it’s about creating visuals, but also weighing them down with an emotional connection,” he says.

On stage: “I think it’s important to try to sell your songs,” he says. “I think it’s important to put on a good show.”

That’s also why he offers nothing in the way of banter on stage.

“Nothing pulls you out of that creating an aura more than bantering,” he says.

“If you go dance your ass off to a DJ set, the DJ doesn’t talk in between the songs.”

That said…

“Some people are good at it. Leonard Cohen. I could just watch a set of him bantering,” Kattner says.

Man Man still has some time left in the promotional touring phase for On Oni Pond. But the progress it represents for the band has Kattner excited for whatever comes next.

“I’ve been trying from the beginning to write the perfect pop song and missed the mark over and over and over again,” he says. “We’re going to start working on the new record when we’re done with this tour, and I have no idea what it’s going to sound like.”

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