BY JONATHAN VALANIA It’s not easy being the Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart/Bonzo Dog Band/Butthole Surfers of your generation. Just ask Man Man mainman Ryan Kattner, aka Honus Honus. Five albums into an accidental career as the ringmaster of the weird beard three ring psychosexual psychedelic circus that is Man Man, he sounded a little down-in-the-mouth when he called last week from the back of a stinky rental van parked behind the club Man Man played later that night in glamorous and exotic Buffalo. “It smells like sweat socks and rotting food that somebody tucked under a seat and forgot about,” he says. “Isn’t it supposed to get easier by the fifth album?”
Ah yes, the fifth album, that would be the new and shockingly tuneful On Oni Pond. After a year of road work in support of On Oni Pond, Man Man are closing out The 40th Street Summer Series with a free show at 6 pm tonight at 40th & Walnut. A homecoming of sorts. Though Kattner currently splits his time between Los Angeles and Fishtown, the band was born here — literally on 9/11, which is when the first Man Man song was written — and they remain a Philly band. Probably our strangest, most beloved export since Larry Fine. Ambassadors of the weird from the city that booed Santa Claus doing us proud. Early on the sound was like cabaret music from Neptune played by wine-mad sex-pygmies. Somehow it stayed on the right side of kooky. Over the course of five albums, and a constantly revolving line-up, the songs, the sonics that surrounds them and, crucially, Kattner’s singing have all become deeper, more dextrous, more soulful. In short, the new Man Man album is a many splendored thing and Kattner is the mustachioed Fishtown Hurdy Gurdy Man who, as it was foretold long ago, comes singing songs of love. DISCUSSED: Losing his mind, his band, powning Wolf Blitzer & Anderson Cooper and making the best album of his career.
PHAWKER: Let’s go back to the very beginning and assume that people reading this won’t be that familiar with your back-story. Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
RYAN KATTNER: I was conceived and birthed in Texas. My dad was in the air force so I moved around a lot. I went to [University of the Arts] in Philly then I made the mistake of starting a band after college.
PHAWKER: [laughs] The mistake of starting a band after college? What do you think you should have done otherwise?
RYAN KATTNER: Well you know, I feel like life offers you a lot of options and I chose the wrong one at a young age. I didn’t go to school for music, I just started playing after college and it was just something to do, a creative outlet. Then it became an all-consuming beast that devoured my youth. And here I am now, in the back of a filthy van in Buffalo, New York. [laughs]
PHAWKER: Is it a cargo van or does it have seats?
RYAN KATTNER: Oh no it has like bucket seats.
PHAWKER: Bucket seats! Jesus! What are you whining about? That’s a fucking palace compared to the van my band toured around in back in the day!
RYAN KATTNER: It’s a rental and filled with about five weeks of van filth.
PHAWKER: [laughs] Mmmmm, man flavor.
RYAN KATTNER: It has a very distinct shoe smell. Shoe and then some food that got tucked under a seat during week one that we haven’t been able to find.
PHAWKER: So tell me, how do you become musical? When do you actually start making music, and what sort of prompted that?
RYAN KATTNER: Man Man is my first band. So I went to UARTS and I did that out of school.
PHAWKER: Where did the band name come from? Why Man Man?
RYAN KATTNER: It seemed like the most inoffensive and innocuous name. But I think it came out of a practice. Like I had this place in South Philly, in Bella Vista, in this filthy basement. It was just during the practice that this came up, and Man Man just seemed like the most pathetic superhero, you know? A man with the abilities of a man.
PHAWKER: So let’s talk about the early sound of the band and how the band emerged with that sound. Where did it come from? Was it just a bunch of you and your buds sitting around getting high and banging on things and eventually the sound slowly morphed into songs?
RYAN KATTNER: No, unfortunately, that’s not how it is. I wish it was, that seems more fairytale. No, but I bought a keyboard – and I’ve never really played piano – I’m a pretty lousy guitar player. I didn’t really know how to write songs until I figured, “you know, this is something. Maybe I’ll put together enough songs to play out, to play the Khyber back in the day.” I never really thought it was going to be more than the high point, which was playing the Khyber. “It would be something fun to do!” Then we had a record and it just kind of took over. When the first record happened, I thought it would be a one and done deal and I would just get on with the rest of my life.
PHAWKER: But what happened?
RYAN KATTNER: What happened? Our first line-up bailed on me before the second record, so I had that “I’ll show them!” mentality and then I got locked in. Going into this band, I wasn’t intending to be the singer. Our first drummer, Tom, was a badass drummer. He wasn’t planning on being the drummer. He got stuck being the drummer because we couldn’t find someone live, well I got stuck being the singer because we couldn’t find someone to sing. So I became an accidental front person.
PHAWKER: Tell me about where the name Honus Honus came about.
RYAN KATTNER: It was just a play on stage names. It’s kind of funny, and this isn’t a criticism at all, but for the past ten years and five records, I always get asked about my stage names and it really came out of taking the piss out of people who have stage names. Also it was a way of hiding the fact that I was in the band to fool the haters. “Oh that’s Ryan Kattner’s band? Fuck that dude I don’t want to see that band play.” So it was a little of that, too.
PHAWKER: One more cliché Man Man question and then we’ll move forward: where did the wearing all white thing come from and why?
RYAN KATTNER: Well there’s always been a dress code of sorts, and in the early days it was all white. It was a combination of we should be focusing on the music playing and not focusing on our outfits. So the white was a way of unifying a canvas, so to speak. Because there’s too much going on to begin with, why should we overload your sensors with something as superficial as clothing. Also, it was fun to wear white clothes on tour because they would become disgusting. You would be wearing your tour basically.
PHAWKER: What about the title of the new record, On Oni Pond? Where does that come from?
RYAN KATTNER: I was living out in Western Mass. I guess my entire adulthood I have lived in the city and I needed a kind of change of pace. It wasn’t a kind of Walden thing; it was just that I needed to get out of that environment for a while. So I moved out to Western Mass with my lady. I thought it would be good for my head to clear things up because there was a lot of stuff going on in our personal lives and the record just kind of released in a vacuum, and it was just kind of a bummer. I was going to try and work on some new songs and it’s really pretty out there, but…I lost my mind. I had all this band stuff I wish I wasn’t dealing with and I was having trouble writing songs and my ears were ringing from years of playing loud rock music. And here I am somewhere quiet and beautiful, and I can’t really enjoy it because my ears are ringing. So I liked that idea of going someplace to relax, but you can’t really escape all the things that are inside your own head. But you have to find a way to make peace with them and coexist because now you’re in that situation. So it was this concept of merging the ideas of On Golden Pond On Oni Pond. Onis are like little Japanese demons.
PHAWKER: Where are you living now?
RYAN KATTNER: Now I am subletting a room in Los Angeles. The room has a couch in it to keep it real. I’ve been living out of a duffle bag for seven years now and it’s been kind of a wild seven years. But, I feel if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the band going.
PHAWKER: How long ago did you leave Philly?
PHAWKER: In the liner notes the only band members listed is you and Pow Pow. What happened to everyone else?
RYAN KATTNER: Between every record there’s a constant infusion of new blood. We have people leaving because it’s difficult to keep people on board when you’ve been flying under the radar for so long. You have to do it because you love it — and you have to be able to put up with me. This record was different because I left Western Mass and returned to Philly with maybe like four or five songs and the only person who wanted to write with me was Chris [Powell, aka Pow Pow]. So he and I had a summer to hash out the rest of a record. It was really invigorating because Chris is an amazing musician and amazing drummer and he’s been diving into a lot of loops and electronics over the past couple of years and he as able to bring some musical ideas to the table. Plus, he can put up with my way of creating. Not a lot of people want to sit in a room with me and play the same verse on a keyboard five hundred times to come up with my melodies and my lyrics.
PHAWKER: Can we go through the album track by track? And you can just throw out an anecdote about writing it or recording it. Or if you want to talk about what it’s about or what inspired it. Basically play free association. Are you cool with that?
RYAN KATTNER: Yeah sure.
PHAWKER: Let’s start with the first song, “Oni Swan.”
RYAN KATTNER: That was a song that one of the guys in the band, Adam Schatz (Brown Sugar), he came up with that as an intro to “Pink Wonton. It sounded to me like a Ken Burns, PBS baseball documentary soundtrack. I thought it would be a nice opening to the album, because it’s so serene. So by track number two we can totally shatter.
PHAWKER: And that is “Pink Wonton.” What is a pink wonton?
RYAN KATTNER: A pink wonton? That came to me in a fever dream. I had a very X-rated erotic dream. I was not a member of this dream; I was watching this from the perspective of a camera and that term was tossed around; it the description of something. I woke up in the middle of the night, I wrote it down, and I thought, “ah this is something!” I fell back asleep and the next morning I woke up. When I stay in Philly a buddy of mine lets me crash on a mattress in his spare attic room. It’s a spare attic room but there’s really nothing in there but storage stuff and I’m laying on this mattress on the floor and I look over right next to me and crude, in the darkness, scrawled, the words “pink wonton.” Like what the hell? Then when I realized what it meant I was like, “uh, that’s disgusting! Now to name a song after that!”
PHAWKER: You said something a few paragraphs ago that you should use in a song at some point: “I was not a member of this dream.” That’s a good line, you should write that down.
RYAN KATTNER: Yeah I’m glad you caught the double entendre.
PHAWKER: Actually I didn’t until now. I don’t think you need the double meaning. The line stands on it’s own. “End Boss”?
RYAN KATTNER: “End Boss.” That was a song that I try not to have deep meanings too much. Or even have words for the most part. And for some reason I keep fucking up when it comes to wolves. On that song, on the very base level, it has a narrative of a baby eating wolf. I was really fascinated by this concept of a wolf terrorizing this town by sneaking into houses and eating babies and then he unwinds by going into the bar and drinking vodka and shooting pool and listening to dance music. I don’t know if you saw the CNN thing that came out of that, but it’s pretty mind-boggling.
PHAWKER: The CNN thing that came out of that? What are you talking about?
RYAN KATTNER: Oh my god! You’re going to get your mind blown. For our live show I was going to have a friend of mine make a triple XL hip-hop shirt with Wolf Blitzer’s face on it printed in pattern. But this girl Niomi designed this tunic for me with Wolf Blitzer’s face as the pattern all over the tunic; it’s like dress for me. So I wear it when I perform that song. Because you know, most kids at our show aren’t going to know who the hell Wolf Blitzer is, but it was an hommage. Anderson Cooper caught wind of this and he dedicated an entire Ridiculist — all three and a half minutes — to it.
PHAWKER: Oh really? When was this?
RYAN KATTNER: This was maybe three weeks ago. It’s epic in so many ways. There are three things that happen in that. If only one of those things happened it would be the most amazing thing ever, and three happen. So a week after that happened, Wolf Blitzer commandeers The Ridiculist, and for three and a half minutes talked about how much he loved the song and how much his song is better than anything written for Anderson Cooper. It is the most surreal abstract piece of mainstream headline news art. So good!
PHAWKER: Well that is very cool. “Head on.”
RYAN KATTNER: I feel really lucky to have written that song. I was constantly fighting with myself over that, with not going too far in one direction or another. It’s a song that I wrote myself. It was after Life Fantastic, I didn’t have a band that wanted to write another album with me anymore. It was just really frustrating. It seemed like, ‘We’re four records in! isn’t it supposed to get easier at some point?’ In a lot of ways it was me telling myself to pull it together. It’s not uncommon, and it’s not self-loathing. I think everyone has doubts about their abilities and for many years it wasn’t uncommon to wake up every day and just think, “Why am I doing this? This isn’t fame. What am I doing in a band like this? Why don’t I just quit?” and I think that song came out of that.
PHAWKER: Why didn’t the band want to write another album with you? Was it that they were burned out on being in Man Man? Or had interpersonal relationships just soured to the point where people didn’t want to be in the same band?
RYAN KATTNER: It’s like all of the above. Being in a band is a big sacrifice. You’re sacrificing your personal life and oftentimes relationships. You’re out on the road all of the time not making a lot of money. There’s a perception that just because you read about a band a lot, or a band touring a lot or they’re doing this that they must be doing fabulous. But it’s like any other grind. Fortunately the grind – I feel really lucky to have stumbled across an actual career like this. I could be talking to nobody about this right now, so I don’t take it for granted, but it’s tough on people.
PHAWKER: I understand, I used to play in bands, I know what it’s like. Trying to keep five or six egos focused on one objective. For years on end. Not a lot of money. Plus people get older and expect things out of life, and there’s pressure from home, or from girlfriends/wives, pulling everyone into different directions. It’s amazing that any band stays together for longer than an album or so.
RYAN KATTNER: Yeah, I mean most bands that we started out with at the same time as either got huge or broke up.
PHAWKER: What bands are you referring to?
RYAN KATTNER: Well when we first started there was Arcade Fire, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio, The Strokes.
PHAWKER: “King Shiv.”
RYAN KATTNER: Manu Chao. He’s the South American musician, Manu Chao. He’s got an amazing song called “King of the Bongo.” I get addicted to songs. I’ll fall in love with a song and that’ll be all I listen to for months. Just one song; it’s really unhealthy. But I kind of got hung up on the song, “King of the Bongo” and I wanted to write a song that reminded me of that. Now, having said that, you won’t hear any connection between “King of the Bongo” and “King Shiv.” But in my brain there is. Also, like lyrically, I always have a couple of challenges of things I want to try. The line, “put the lotion in the basket” is a line I’ve been trying to work into a song forever.
PHAWKER: Amazed that you pulled that one off.
PHAWKER: I think they’ll take it as a compliment. I totally see what you’re getting at with you setting to make a Manu Chao thing and it just totally became something else. Isn’t that rock ‘n’ roll? The creative act is that you aspired to sound like somebody else, you kind of get it wrong or you don’t quite hit the mark, and then in the process you actually create something new?
RYAN KATTNER: Totally.
PHAWKER: “Loot My Body.”
RYAN KATTNER: I think that was the song where Chris and I were having a goof on how frustrating and surreal and stressful everything was at the time. It just came down to he and I collaborating. It was kind of, “how much more can I give here?” To play music and do what I do and just throwing it all out there. So there’s that concept of, “feel free to loot my body.”
PHAWKER: “Deep Cover.”
RYAN KATTNER: This is going to sound very Ryan Adams of me, and I really apologize for that, but I wrote that song on tour in a hotel room.
PHAWKER: Deep cover, like going undercover?
RYAN KATTNER: Like Serpico. I know a girl – and I won’t say her name or anything – but she wasn’t the brightest girl but she was a very pretty girl and she thought that by pretending to be crazy would make her more interesting. But then over time she lost the plot and just made herself crazy. I think it’s just that notion of getting in too deep in a way of life or of dealing with life that you kind of get lost.
RYAN KATTNER: I hope I’m not ruining these songs for someone who likes them, that’s the problem with talking about them.
PHAWKER: No I think you’re alright.
RYAN KATTNER: I’m not going too deep with them.
PHAWKER: Yeah there’s still plenty of mystique to them.
RYAN KATTNER: “Pyramids.” That’s a weird one, man. I have this interesting marimba sound on my keyboard that I turn into this strange little – in my brain downtown, New York early ‘80s Mud Club, Contortions vibe. I was like, “I wonder what it’ll be like if you have this sort of African sound with a gross nightclub sound.” [Producer Mike Mogis] plays the searing guitar solo in it, but I can’t really speak in musical terms so I have to describe what I wanted in cinematic terms. I was like, “Alright, Mike, so in this part of the song, we need like a thirty second guitar solo and I want it to sound like a Cinemax movie from the’90s, but on the surface of Mars, during a space battle. One ship is piloted by Dolph Lundgren, the other is piloted by Ice Cube and and you’re playing this on top of a Martian mountain. Go for it.”
PHAWKER: He just said, “OK, got it?”
RYAN KATTNER: Yeah because we’ve worked together before and he could interpret my stupid descriptions and he went for it and it sounded great.
PHAWKER: Awesome. “Sparks.”
RYAN KATTNER: “Sparks,” that was a song I wrote for a children’s film that never got made. A buddy of mine was adapting a graphic novel by this writer, Tony Millionaire, I don’t know if you know him, he does like Drinky Crow? Anyway, he wanted to adapt one of his children’s stories into a film and he’s like, “I really like your songs,” so he gave me a couple of pages of scene and I wrote that. I started to work on the idea a couple of years ago but I worked it up for this album.
RYAN KATTNER: “Fangs.” It’s was a song I wrote for someone. We don’t talk anymore but I think she’d like this song.
PHAWKER: “Paul’s Grotesque.”
RYAN KATTNER: “Paul’s Grotesque.” That’s my “Tom’s Diner.”
RYAN KATTNER: “Curtains.” That was a song that I agonized over the entire summer trying to turn it into a longer song and we got to Omaha and I was like, “You know what? Fuck it, this song wants to be this long.” I think it gets the point across, it’s going to be this long. I’m going to stop fighting with this song.” I think it turned out really pretty.
PHAWKER: And is that ‘curtains’ in the film noir sense. Like ‘It’s curtains for you?’ Like it’s over?
RYAN KATTNER: Yeah, initially the vibe in the band was so harsh post-Life Fantastic that I jokingly said I wanted to name the fifth record Curtains. As in this is the end.
PHAWKER: “Born Tight.”
RYAN KATTNER: “Born Tight.” There’s a lot of things going on in that song. There’s that little Cyndi Lauper reference at the end of the song, that girls just want to have fun. Adam had played horns on most of the record and I told him, “alright put in a sax solo here, and I want you to play it like the guy in Lost boys on the beach. Shirt off, greased up, ripping that fat solo. That was my reference point for him. I want you to rip it like you’re that guy on a Bruce Springsteen Cadillac.
PHAWKER: That’s the whole album. Thanks for taking the time to do this. Anything else you want to add?
RYAN KATTNER: I’ve been reading your stuff for years, stuff in MAGNET stuff in Philly, you’re a great writer. I don’t think we ever talked. Five records in it’s about time, right?
PHAWKER: Absolutely. That’s very flattering coming from you. It’s always nice to know somebody out there is reading this crap, somebody with brain. Sorry I had to cancel twice. I must have had something better to do. I probably had to go hang out with Moby or Wayne Coyne. You know how it is.
RYAN KATTNER: I was joking with Anti that “I don’t want to talk to Jonathan Valania, fuck that dude for cancelling twice!” Because when you are on tour you have to choose your hour to get your head space to walk away.
RYAN KATTNER: Actually what I said was “If he cancels a third time..I guess I’ll just have to wait for the fourth time.” Thanks so much, brother. Thanks for talking to me this long.
PHAWKER: Keep on rockin’ in the free world, my friend.
Photo by MEREDITH KLEIBER