Two girls from Seattle, who had just arrived in Australia the day before, asked anxiously if Man Man had been on yet. “We’ve seen them four times,” they said. “They’re fucking crazy.”
Crazy, maybe, but the easiest way to understand Man Man might be as a Philadelphia-based band. That city’s excellence is supremely self-aware, and is perhaps a product of its perpetual underdog status. For Man Man, this manifests as a plethora of affect. From the wacky names to the Scooby Doo toy on the drum kit to the insane facial expressions, it’s all ironic-but-not, which makes it OK to be a somewhat bemused but a lot easier to let yourself be completely swept away. Then the group cuts away suddenly, or you listen to Honus Honus’ lyrics closer, and you realize this three-ring’s a cover up for devastating emotion. You don’t get self-deprecation much more cutting than: “I’m a son of a gun / I’m the outcome of cum.”
So if you’ve spent some time with Man Man’s music you might be a little apprehensive venturing to their live show. Is it going to be a simple get-down? Or are they asking something more of us?
We arrived at Sydney’s hip art gallery-turned-music venue Oxford Art Factory just as openers the John Steel Singers, a new Brisbane group, took the stage. The lead singer was dressed in a Viking Quest T-shirt. The guitarist wore one with Sufjan Stevens’ Greetings From Michigan logo across the chest. The drummer had the long, unruly hair of one of the Fleet Foxes. There was one tall, skinny guy whose oxford-shirted outfit recalled Vampire Weekend. Despite this ragtag collection of contemporary reference, the young six-piece performed thrillingly refreshing music that’s pretty much their own. Their psychedelia-tinged indie pop is full of ingenuous melody, reminiscent of the Panda Band (though they’re not as ragged or aggressive live). They seemed impossibly young, but with a well-rehearsed tightness and musicianship that promises big things.
That the crowd didn’t get much bigger for the main act was a bit of a tragedy — Man Man ended up performing to probably not much more than 250 people. And Man Man don’t do intimate. Or rather — the tightly orchestrated chaos they unleash onstage surely feeds on a big crowd’s losing-its-shit energy. Then again it’s hard to say, because here, even in front of a small crowd, they were still fucking crazy. As soon as the band appeared, the American girls pushed away from us towards the front of the stage, almost close enough to touch Honus Honus’ unruly moustache.
Starting with the title track from their latest album, Rabbit Habits, they quickly bounded from the growly piano ballad into the record’s more upbeat material, barely catching breath for the next hour and a half. Critics tend to find melancholy at Man Man’s heart, which there certainly is, but their live show, even at its sedate opening, is suffused with abandon. Peeling layers is fruitful — this ragged surface belies incredible musical discipline. And yes, if you look for it, the sodden heartbreak that’s pop music’s common trope is in there too. Humbly without reserve the band offers up, as if to tide us over before we think too much about it, rapid sawing, frantic bashing at keys, furious trumpet quarter notes, and saxophone improvisations. All of which, of course, makes for an irresistible spectacle.
But — and this is what makes them one of those must-see-live groups — these shambolic characters weave an incredibly tight dialogue in recreating and expanding their hurly-burly sound onstage. Through all the time changes and heavy/light texture of “Big Trouble” they were perfectly in time; when the explosion of energy hits post-intro “The Ballad of Butter Beans” it was as if a firecracker lit up under each band member simultaneously. This shared musicianship is the dirty secret of Man Man’s dirty sound. In the live setting it makes all the difference.
So there’s no real disconnect, once Man Man is in full swing onstage, between the emotional core of Honus Honus’ lyrics and the ragged waltzes and hurly-burly regalia of the songs themselves. Their music has an incredible visceral appeal, and the group uses every element of their physical presence — the scowling, the literally jumping-in-air, the contortions to swap instruments quickly between an almost purposefully too cramped stage setup — to emphasize this. As their show wears on, without much indication that it might end, you find yourself catching breath — without realizing, you’ve been jumping for a while.
Later, after waltzes and klezmer and aggressive punk-ish stabs of noise (a frenetic survey of Man Man’s recent catalogue), we wiped our brows and began to take somewhat breathless stock of what we’d just seen.
“How was it?” We asked the American girls.
“Awesome.” They were flushed and beaming. But after a pause — “We’ve seen them crazier.”