Music Feature: Man Man (NY Press)
Philly’s Man Man resists the mental ward with its circus-punk pop
By Chris Ruen
“This is not just false modesty,” Ryan Kattner (aka Honus Honus) assures me. “I’m such a pessimist about people actually showing up. I’m always really surprised when people come out to our shows.”
Kattner, Man Man’s lead singer and main songwriter, is pleasantly shocked twice over this week: The band’s two headlining concerts in the city, in support of their new Rabbit Habits, have quickly sold out. If quantifiable success is a sign of things to come for this genre-spiting rock band from Philadelphia, it will be well earned after years of scarcity. As Kattner states flatly in the band’s latest press release: “I would say being broke is one of my biggest influences.”
The last time I encountered Kattner, Man Man had played a frenetic set in front of a nearly empty Knitting Factory main room in 2006. After the show, while I conducted a punchy interview with him in the back of their tour van, I sensed his frustration. The path ahead for the band didn’t appear easy.
In the weeks preceding our night at the Knitting Factory, Man Man’s second LP, Six Demon Bag, had garnered critical acclaim from Pitchfork, but the hype didn’t immediately translate to either album or concert sales. Perhaps because simply trying to describe their music invites awkwardness, their name and gimmick of wearing war paint and assuming strange monikers didn’t catch on as some expected.
Undeterred, Man Man began working on material for a new album. There was just one problem: They had no record label. Their two-album contract with NYC’s Ace Fu Records had expired.
“It was an amicable split,” says Kattner. But it left the Philadelphians homeless and lacking resources. This complex indie-circus-soul-jazz-punk band was—to put it simply—penniless.
“We recorded Rabbit Habits on our own time, with our own money. While we were recording we kept running out of money and had to go back on tour. So what should have been about a two-month recording process went on over a 10-month period.”
Though all the touring wasn’t by choice, gradually the name Man Man became better known. After all, five guys in war paint flipping out in manic delight for an hour and a half onstage tends to make an impression. Along the way, Man Man attracted the attention of the ANTI- record label.
“I honestly don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t found ANTI-,” says Kattner. “All I have to say is—in capital letters—PHEW.”
Comparing the band’s situation now to what I observed that night in the Knitting Factory, some transformation seems to have occurred.
“When we’re in the middle of everthing, I have no idea of what’s changed. I’m just dealing with, ‘Fuck, I have to pay rent. Fuck, my girfriend’s mad ‘cause I’m not around ever. Fuck, my girlfriend’s breaking up with me ‘cause I’m not around ever.’”
But on a recent tour of smaller cities, Kattner says he noticed something. “The kids just seemed to be coming out more than ever before. It was freezing in Ann Arbor and there was this line to get into the show stretching all the way down the block.”
Still, life isn’t suddenly perfect for Man Man. Kattner, for one, is still lacking in funds. “That hasn’t changed,” he laughs.
But he seems to enjoy a bit of clarity on why he got himself into this mess of a band—the mess of laboring to make exactly the kind of music he wishes to create.
“You don’t get into music because you want to make money,” he says. “I’m doing this to stay out of the nut house, basically.”