The main thing about Man Man has always been its live show: A 30-minute unbroken onslaught of unstoppable energy, song fragments spliced together in a junk shop medley, members switching furiously from instrument to instrument, the whole thing moving like a crazy train until, quite unexpectedly, it ends. It’s an apocalyptic free-for-all, meticulously planned and executed, uncorking that primal chaotic energy that makes the world run, yet also containing cracked declarations of love and melancholic reflections on loneliness.
The band’s first full-length album, 2004’s The Man in the Blue Turban with a Face, hinted at the mayhem that is Man Man, but because of rough recording and hard-to-hear lyrics, it didn’t really capture the band’s desolate poetry. Six Demon Bag, out this February on Ace Fu, is a much clearer statement. It’s full of mad percussion breaks, falsetto-sung nonsense words, and honky-tonk piano like its predecessor, but this time, you can hear the words.
“On the first record, because of the quality of the recording, a lot of the content got buried,” said Honus Honus (real name Ryan Kattner), who sings and plays keyboards in the band. “People just heard stuff like ‘gorilla suit,’ but the songs, they came from a pretty heart-felt place. I think that was kind of the subversive thing about it, that you have these heart-felt pop songs buried in these kind of crazy arrangements. If you want the song to bum you out, it can, but it doesn’t have to.”
Like The Man in the Blue Turban with a Face, Six Demon Bag will undoubtedly draw its share of seldom-used genre categories—circus music and gypsy music, to name two—and obscure “x crossed with y” comparisons. While a thesaurus full of adjectives can’t really do justice to what makes Man Man different, the band has always insisted that what it plays is pop music.
“Pop music has something catchy about it, whether it’s a vocal or a rhythm or a keyboard line, whatever it is,” said Pow Pow (real name Christopher Powell). “We’re playing a music that goes back and forth from being pop music to stuff that’s like somewhat avant. We do listen to weird music, but at the same time, we listen to a lot of really shitty, fun pop songs. The mixture of all that is really wonderful.”
New band member Les Mizzle assisted in the recording process this time, as the band holed up in a studio without air-conditioning in New York’s Chinatown last summer to make the record. The band had been in turmoil right up until the tape started rolling with key members, including Tom Keville, leaving and others joining Man Man at the same time. The current iteration of Man Man includes new members Powell on drums, and Les Mizzle and Sergei Sogay on various instruments, as well as Kattner, Blanco and Alejandro “Cougar” Borg from the previous line-up.
Powell joined the band from Need New Body, another Philadelphia-based band that was foundering. “We kind of hit a wall with writing tunes together. We could continue to tour with the old stuff, but we were trying to move on and do other things,” said Powell. “Man Man turned up right at the same time we decided to call it off with Need New Body.”
Need New Body’s sound was different from Man Man’s, relying heavily on electronic instruments and quite often drawing comparisons to video game music. Still, both Powell and Kattner say that they see a great deal of commonality. “The music’s similar in the sense that it’s really fiery and creative,” said Powell. “It’s definitely an ‘anything goes’ type of thing. The instrumentation is totally different. The aesthetic is very different. The only thing the bands share is the open creativity, and both the bands are really fiery.”
“In both live shows, Need New Body and Man Man, it’s like, you could see the same kind of excitement in kids watching the show,” said Kattner. “They just want to freak out and have us control their bodies.”
So with three new members, a batch of new songs, and, as on the first album, extremely limited resources, the band headed into the studio in the heat of summer. Man Man’s significantly cleaner sound was definitely not the result of money getting thrown around, said Kattner. “The one difference in the two records, as far as recording, on this one Mizzle was in the band with us, and recorded us, basically for nothing, at all,” he recalled. “There were times when he and I were in the studio every day, just figuring out how we can do this.”
He added that many of the songs needed to be adapted, given the change in members. “It was initially kind of unsettling, because members left right before we went into the studio,” Kattner recalled. “So Pow and I had to sit down and kind of refigure some of these songs. It was a matter of having to rework and rearrange stuff with Pow. So half the stuff that we’d been playing live for a while, Pow had to reimagine as his own. The other half of stuff, we wrote together.”
Six Demon Bag is considerably clearer-sounding than its predecessor, but still far from Steely Dan-type perfectionism—and that’s intentional, said Kattner. “As far as recording, I really like having it seem kind of organic. I like it when you can hear the drummer’s chair squeak. I like when you can hear the dog in the other room,” he explained, adding the careful listeners may notice a short bark embedded in the opening to “Skin Tension”. “I just like on those early Can records and the Faust records, how you got a sense that you were in the room while this band was recording the album. I always liked that feeling,” he added.
But recording quality aside, Kattner said he feels that Man Man’s second album is a real step up from the first. “I think the second record is more focused. It’s not like the first record wasn’t focused, but I definitely feel like the attack has been honed. We know now, sure we’re going to come straight at you, but we’re also going to stab you in the side and from behind. It’s sort of like… we sharpened our skills a little bit.”
The lyrics of Six Demon Bag are, in places, fairly desolate, with song fragments suggesting characters who are not exactly pleased with the way that things have turned out. “I feel like the second record is a little bit darker than the first record,” said Kattner. “The first record was about falling apart… and the second record was, again, about falling apart. There were definitely some dark days.”
Even “Van Helsing Boombox”, the cut off the album drawing the most attention, has a bleak line or two incorporated into its barroom piano swagger. “When everything that’s anything becomes nothing / that’s everything / and nothing is the only thing you seem to have” is as stark an observation as you’ll find on most pop records, even when wrapped in rattletrap exuberant percussion. “It’s funny because that song, as dark as it is, it’s one of the prettiest songs on the record. So it winds up having a really nice contrast,” said Powell.
Kattner, who admitted the song came out of a fairly difficult period in his life, said he was initially surprised when people latched onto it. “It is probably one of the most accessible, straight-forward songs on the record. It’s a great song. I love playing the song, but it’s just… it’s funny. It’s like looking at old photographs. Any time, I sing the song or hear the song it still kind of gets to me,” he said.
Not all the songs are that serious. In fact, the brief, frenzied “Young Einstein on the Beach”, with its “Get it / Get it / Get it / Got it” chant, is about nothing more earth-shaking than… Furbies?! “So, it’s Christmas time, the mothers are at the toy stores, rushing to get the Cabbage Patch dolls, rushing to get the Furbies, rushing to get the hot toy for their sons or daughters,” explained Powell. “And then on the other side, you’ve got the hunters who have got to get these middle age mammas. So at the tail end, you’ve got that duh-duh-duh-duh. Those are hunters out collecting mammas. They’re out popping arrows in these mommies who are buying the hot toys. So it could be young Einstein on the beach thinking about all these heavy thoughts.”
Just back from a late fall tour with Okkervil River, the band is now rehearsing their frenetic live set again. Man Man’s live show (voted best of CMJ by Rolling Stone last year) is a sort of continuous medley, with bits of familiar songs emerging out of a non-stop barrage of freaked-out sounds. Kattner said that the format evolved out of necessity in the band’s early days. “We knew we would be the first of four bands on the bill. We had 30 minutes to get our freak on, to make an impact and then bail, and leave people, saying ‘Holy shit.’”
Working out the show—“sort of one big song” as the band members describe it—takes some time and effort. “We’re concerned with the flow and the tempo and the way that everything moves, the way the whole body moves,” said Kattner. “It’s going to pick up and slow down and take you to this really crazy, chaotic feeling, then drop you back into something that’s really melancholy. You think it’s over and then we hit you back even more.”
There’s definitely a theatrical element to Man Man’s show—the current version apparently includes staged vomiting of chopsticks—but Kattner cautioned that fans shouldn’t focus too much on the peripheral stage-play. “The thing I want to stress though is that it is music first and it is content first,” he said. “We want to be as honest and genuine about the stuff as we can. We’re serious about the music. It’s not a joke. It’s raw and it’s primal and we want you to be into it, because we’re definitely into it. The music is too hard and takes too much energy to play to be funny. I don’t care if I look dumb. I’m sweating real sweat.”
Man Man will head out on the road this winter and spring with dates yet to be determined, but definitely including a stand at SXSW. If there’s time, Kattner says the band may start working on developing a kids’ show this summer, incorporating music, skits, and maybe segments on how to make monster masks. And with a reconfigured band, a new tour, and a new record on the shelves, Kattner says the band’s darkest days may be over. “It’s really positive right now. Just being with the guys, it’s such a great feeling.”