Ryan Kattner, the mad genius behind Philadelphia’s experimental rock band Man Man, is so pokerfaced that it sometimes takes a couple of beats before you realize he’s joking about something.
When I ask him how the band got started, he answers, without a glimmer of sarcasm in his voice, “We all met on Tinder.”
The same mischievous streak that runs through our interview is present in the music of Man Man, which combines Neutral Milk Hotel’s eccentricities and Ween’s goofiness with Frank Zappa’s penchant for surrealism. It’s a schizophrenic fusion (the band’s Facebook page lists their genre as “other,” which seems about right), but it’s certainly not alienating: Much like Zappa, Kattner knows how to write a catchy melody, and his songs are usually one dissonant chord or off beat away from being a radio-friendly single.
In perfect self-deprecating fashion, Kattner, who performs under the stage name Honus Honus, says his main musical influence was “the fact that I’m not a very good musician.
“So I surround myself with really talented musicians,” he said. “If we really want to strip it down to the heart of the matter, that’s about it.”
The primary members of Man Man are Kattner and his co-writer and drummer Christopher “Pow Pow” Powell, and they’re backed up by an ever-changing group of session players who perform brass, woodwinds and makeshift percussion instruments. (Current aliases include Brown Sugar and Shono.)
“There’s always an infusion of new blood and a bloodletting of old blood,” Kattner said. “When you’re in a massively successful band like Man Man” – he can’t quite keep a straight face on this one – “you’ve got to keep things fresh.”
Man Man’s live shows are typically crazed, sweaty affairs, and although there are only four guys onstage, Kattner says it’ll sound like there are a lot more.
“There’s four of us total, but it’s going to seem like 28,” he said.
“Actually, if the band could just be four holograms, I’d be all aboard,” he deadpanned. “Chris and I have talked about starting to wear masks onstage. That way we can totally rotate in other players and run my vocals on a tape.”
Man Man’s sound has been likened to a drunken, demented carnival, and some of their songs are as chaotic and unwieldy as a Tilt-a-Whirl car threatening to spin right off its axle. But the band’s most recent album, 2013’s “On Oni Pond,” is more melodic and less frenzied than their previous four records, with a funk strut that occasionally recalls Beck during his ’70s kitsch “Midnite Vultures” phase.
“On Oni Pond” is the closest to a straightforward pop album the band has yet produced, and while it careens from one seemingly contradictory tone to another, it does so less violently than in previous efforts.
Kattner’s lyrics exist somewhere between Shel Silverstein and William S. Burroughs – the song “Pink Wonton” half-rhymes “Guantanamo” with “feral animal,” and “End Boss” imagines Wolf Blitzer shooting pool and eating churros in a seedy barrio pub (in concert, Kattner often wears a tunic emblazoned with the CNN anchor’s face). Meanwhile, “Head On (Hold on to Your Heart)” has a glossy, romantic touch, punctuated by lilting synthesized strings, and “Deep Cover” is the sweetest ukulele-plucked ballad to so casually drop an F-bomb in the last verse.
After they’ve finished their tour, Kattner says he and Powell will likely retreat back into the studio, where their next record is currently in demo stages.
“It’s been very productive,” Kattner said of his and Powell’s creative process, “and I’m knocking on wood as I say that. Things are super focused, and the amount of creative egos in the room is just limited to the two of us, and we’re able to talk things through.”
He says he visualizes the next album as “German future, like ‘Blade Runner’ dubbed into German.” Whether he’s joking remains to be seen.
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