February 23-March 1, 2006
Man Man's got a brand new Bag.
So this is what concrete tastes like after downing four Bloody Marys at Dirty Frank's and suffering a sneak attack from Man Man's manic frontman, Ryan Kattner. I get up, dust myself off.
"Seriously now, thanks for the interview," says Kattner, as he shakes my hand and lunges below the knees for one last tackle. Despite what onlookers at 13th and Pine streets might think, Kattner means well. This is just how he shows affection. And I can't complain reallynot when the wild-eyed singer with a self-described "Charles Bronson mustache" (a passport joke he never lopped off) once body-slammed a female friend onto a Pac-Man machine. "She was still upset even after I sucked the blood off her chin," he says. "So I bought her two bottles of tequila and some salsa."
And then there was the night he split a bottle and a half of Cuervo Gold, got hit by a car and somehow stumbled into the Khyber with a pocketful of fireworksfireworks he proceeded to light and toss behind the bar.
"I was friends with the bartender, so she was cool about it," says Kattner, shrugging. "Thank god."
Twenty-four hours before Kattner and the City Paper collided, he, as Honus Honus, led the five members of Man Man through a set so chaotic it sank the floorboards at an underground art/design space deep in the heart of North Philly. And by "heart," I mean streets no one walks past sunset. This didn't stop hundreds of teens and twentysomethings from showing up to dirty dance and mosh all punk-rock-basement-like. Yes, mosh, to unlikely selections like the organ-grinding, junkyard jam "Black Mission Goggles." One kid in a monster mask went crowd-riding the whole time.
"We've been told you can either sit down or we can play one more song," Kattner told the crowd, after being asked to stop the show a second time. "I'd like to play seven more, so you'll just have to boogie in place. Dry hump the floor or something."
Inhibitions are often lost at Man Man shows, sometimes to a ridiculous extreme. Like a New York City stop that peaked when a girl came onstage completely naked to sing backup on the rather creepy "White Rice, Brown Heart."
Of course, when you play guitarless music that sounds like Mike Patton mating with Gogol Bordello you're gonna piss a few people off, if they come at all. One North Carolina show preceded by a packed Quizzo game, saw only three people stick around. A few Arcade Fire opening dates (including one at the TLA) were particularly nasty, too. Some attendees went so far as writing the band to tell them they should quit music.
"One e-mail said, 'In three or four years, you might make music that's meaningful, but you probably aren't capable of even that,'" recalls Kattner.
No wonder Man Man's fresh-as-fuck debut, The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face (Ace Fu), polarized critics when it dropped in October of 2004. Taken aback by left-field songs of love and loss written by an apparent madman, they categorized the Philadelphia collective two ways: a) as a crazed composite of Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and carnival music where the cotton candy is spiked with peyote, or b) a complete joke. Neither assumption was fair, since Kattner is a) more into the ear-shedding noise of Black Dice and the experimental pop of Brainiac than any of the above, and b) deathly serious about the music he makes.
"This one writer had the balls to say, 'Don't take these guys seriously; they don't,'" says Kattner, as we finish our first round at Frank's. "It's like, 'Go fuck yourself man.' This is the one thing in my life that keeps me from blowing my brains out."
A tortured indie rock cliche? This is one singer who backs up his declarations of depression onstage, in the studio and in casual conversation over endless Bloody Marys. Much of this may stem from the fact that Kattner's father was in the Air Force and his family was constantly moving. Born in the barren area of Abilene, Texas, Kattner had already moved to the Philippines by the time he was 2 and has rarely stayed in the same city for more than a couple years. He says he's been in Philadelphia "for a while now" and attended Temple University for screenwriting before buying a Rhodes in 2001 and deciding he'd rather obliterate watching-paint-dry guitar rock than pursue a career in film. Oh, and deal with his issues a little more constructively.
"I had a total meltdown before this band," explains Kattner. "Not just the early 20s bullshit, eitherI completely crashed after two years of garbage. Since I can't afford a therapist and I don't really believe in that, I decided to sweat my shit out onstage instead of having a day job."
To do it, Kattner says he plunged himself into songwriting for the next three years and had the privilege of picking his favorite Philadelphia musicians to flesh out the first Man Man songs. (In the early years the band went by Gamelon and, briefly, Magic Blood.) The trouble is those people quit before the sessions of the new Six Demon Bag could be completed, leaving Man Man's already shifty lineup (a revolving door on tour and back home since Blue Turban) a bit shady. Luckily, Kattner found the perfect mix of multi-instrumentalists, all into completely different genres, to retain Man Man's singular meeting of spiky world music, piano-led saloon ballads and other genres that don't have a name yet. Alejandro "Cougar" Borg (Russell Higbee on his birth certificate), for one, is in several other bands including the revered Philadelphia act Coyote. He's been able to share his love of Americana and the blues with the band. As for Sergei Sogay (Chris Shar), he's the one that may be responsible for any Russian music inflections on the new record.
"It's been great to work with five dudes who are into their own thing, rather than put together a band of people who just want to play music like the Doors or Big Star," says Kattner. "I guarantee you our third record will break everyone's heart. If I could play music that sounded like Bloc Party or whatever the fuck is hip right now, I would, but I can't. I grew up all over the place and have no context of what's cool. It's all about how you're programmed. I feel like most people have MS Office preloaded in them, while we have Doom or fucking Wolfenstein."