Words by Andrew Humphrey
A lot has changed in the last seven years for Man Man, the experimental pop and rock ensemble from Los Angeles. Since releasing On Oni Pond, the band’s founder and songwriter, Honus Honus (aka Ryan Kattner), has had more than his share of challenges both in keeping the moniker alive and in developing 17 cohesive yet eclectic tunes. It took almost four years of writing and rewriting to deliver their newest record and first release via Sub Pop Records, Dream Hunting in the Valley of the In-Between. It was worth the wait.
But let’s be real for a minute. This is a terrible time for artists, especially musicians with an appetite for touring. At the same time, people desperately need positivity in their art right now. While it may be a complicated time to release any album, the lyrical themes of personal growth and fortitude offer a much-needed catharsis. The eclectic blending of genres, the story-telling lyricisms, and the killer instrumental performances further provide some needed escapism.
Off Shelf: I hate to have to ask, but how is your health doing during this pandemic?
Honus Honus: It’s funny you asked because I was just texting my friend about it. I’ve actually had a cold for basically like five weeks. I went and got a COVID test on Thursday [April 9]. They give drive-through tests now. You just drive through, and you give it to yourself in the car and then you drop it into a receptacle. And I asked one of the people, “okay, so when can I hear results?”
And they’re like, “oh, seven to ten days…”
What’s the point of taking the test? It got so bad on Friday that I went to urgent care and I found a place that does x-rays. I’m five weeks with a cough. They wouldn’t even let me in the building. They give me the paperwork. I had to fill it out in my car, photograph it, email it in, call the receptionist, talk to her, wait for a doctor to call me back, which was like an hour and a half in my car. And then, after like an hour and half of waiting, they just diagnosed me over the phone without physically seeing me as “walking pneumonia” or “a bacterial respiratory infection”.
I’m on day four of antibiotics and it’s not really clearing up. And I’m like…”Okay, well you just made my body more susceptible for COVID. It’s just aggravating because I’m in quarantine. I can’t hang out with my girlfriend. I can’t hang out with my bandmates. I can’t do anything for five weeks.
[Editor’s note. We followed up a week later, and he reported he’s feeling better, and indeed does not have COVID-19.]
OS: Yeah, and that must make releasing a new record a bit odd.
HH: I’ll be honest with you. It sucks putting out a record right now. It’s a global pandemic… but I don’t know… Sub Pop gave me the option to push the record release and I opted against it. I feel like this is the time when people need music. People need something to help get them through this bullshit.
OS: Yeah, I saw that you did the pre-release on Facebook recently. It’s a crappy time for everybody so it’s really important to have good art to lift everybody’s spirits.
HH: Yeah, it’s just one of those things where it’s like…financially this is ruinous [laughs]. But at the same time, this is bigger than just us. So, if anyone can use the soundtrack to help them get through the day, then that’s great. For me, that’s like the silver lining in it. I’ve made this record. It’s a long player. It deserves to be listened to in one sitting. I feel like these are the best songs that I’ve ever written, and I feel like this is the strongest record I’ve ever made.
It’s unfortunate that it has to come out in this time. But you know, I’ve been joking for years that I make “Apocalypse pop”. So, fuck it. It falls right into branding [laughs].
OS: How has the response been so far?
HH: That’s been the rad thing. People were taking their time to write me, and post on Twitter and Instagram, and other social media. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. People were saying they think it’s the best record I’ve ever made. That really means a lot because we really poured our all into it.
This record, I didn’t think would ever happen. When I finally put the finishing touches on the record in November, I had a cathartic break down. It just seemed so insurmountable that I would get the chance to be able to make another record under the name “Man Man”. Then to be able to put it out on a label like Sub Pop…it’s just incredible.
OS: How has it been working with them?
HH: I put out my first Mister Heavenly record with them, so we had established a relationship. They’re wonderful. I mean it’s… less of a label. More of a family vibe. They really care about their artists. I feel very fortunate to be working with them.
OS: Between the previous record and the newest, you’ve been busy. How did you end up coming back to Man Man and what impact did those different side hustles have on writing this latest record?
HH: I knew that I didn’t want Man Man to end if it wasn’t on my terms, since it’s my band. I started it. I knew that I was always wanted to make at least one more record. All those side hustles were basically just so I could make this record. It was all just to help me finance it. The solo career was kind of forced upon me. It was fun because I met some incredible musicians and people. My relationship with Cyrus Ghahremani, who produced this record, got even stronger. I feel like I emerged from that whole exile stronger in a way, because I have a band of just total slayers.
OS: How did you go about recruiting them?
HH: Well, a lot of them were from my solo band. I brought in a whole bunch of dudes that I just wanted to be around I wanted to make music with. They understood that I was doing this not because I thought it would pay my bills but because it was as intrinsic to me as breathing. I feel like over time, when you’re doing one thing for so long, and this isn’t me casting shade at anyone, but you kind of lose site of that. Of why you’re doing something. And so, it was refreshing to be around people who believed in the songwriting.
OS: I’ve heard you describe how emotion, if it’s perceived as being artistically fake, gets ignored. Is that process different when you’re recording an album compared to performing live?
HH: I have a lot of musician friends and a lot of songwriter friends. A lot of them are very prolific and they could bust out a new record in a month or less. But it took me three and a half years to write this record. An interesting thing about this record was that Cyrus and I were recording in between the fringes of our day job hustles for like, three years. And by like, December of 2018, it just didn’t feel right to us. It didn’t feel right to me. So, in January of last year, we booked out a short week-long tour with the intention of rolling right into a studio and re-cutting everything live… in two days.
OS: Wow! Like, the entire record?
HH: Pretty much! Most of the record we recut live in two days in a studio. They were frantic days. It was stressful as hell. Like, the feeling wasn’t quite there from what we had worked on for the previous three years. It felt too boxy. Too “studio-y”. This is much to Cyrus’s credit. He was totally on board to try it, despite having just spent three years on a record with me. But I think it really benefited things because I wanted to feel like you were there in the room with our band. I wanted you to not only hear it, but to feel it. The vibe was super important.
OS: Kudos to the shredders you’re playing with then, because to be able to cut that much content with that level of technical proficiency is hugely impressive.
HH: Yeah, they’re all primo badasses. You can really feel it in like to say, songs like “Goat”, “Animal Attraction”, or “Powder My Wig”. That’s why we rolled directly in the studio after doing a week-long tour. This would be hot. Like, we didn’t cut the entire record over again, but we cut a majority of it.
OS: Was there a specific moment in your life you knew you wanted to be a songwriter?
HH: Yeah, actually. I’ve told this story a lot but it’s true. It might have been my first or second year in film school. We were watching Stranger Than Paradise by Jim Jarmusch. He uses that song by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell on You” throughout the entire movie. It’s the first time I heard a song like that or sang like that. I guess it just grabbed me by the guts. It was so visceral, and little did I know, years later I’d want to make music that had that effect on people.
OS: Was it a combination of the song against a film? Like the combination of visual to music that helped spark that or was it strictly the music?
HH: Yeah, absolutely. I feel when people ask me what I listen to, to influence my sound, it’s mostly “what do I watch”. I feel more informed by films than I do by music.
OS: Was there anything you were watching when writing this newest record that helped spark some of its vibe?
HH: There are homages all over the record. Like that song “Sheela” is about Ma Anand Sheela from Wild Wild Country. She’s the right-hand person to a pretty intense cult. She has a maniacal fortitude that borders terrifying and hideous. I was disturbed by her the entire time I watched the documentary. Then after a couple weeks I could not stop thinking about her. She’d wormed her way so deeply into my being, I felt like I had to write a love song for her to release her for me.
But I feel like one of the biggest inspirations for this record was finding myself at a place where personally, creatively, and financially I was straddling a crossroad. Do I just throw the towel in and find some other way that’s less crushing? Or do I keep on pushing forward. Keep on trying to push this boulder up the hill and put out another Man Man record. It was really the juxtaposition of those two feelings. It was purgatory in a sense. It’s been seven years since our last release, and I was wrestling with a lot. Like, is it too long? Is anybody going to care anymore? Is there going to be an audience?
OS: I love the production in it, all these microscopic layers of melodies and harmonies. I’ve listened to it a couple of different times now and I keep picking out new things in it I hadn’t noticed before. How do you juggle deciding what to keep among all those little details, especially considering you recut so much of the record toward the end of the line?
HH: I think one of the most important things about being in a band is there can be a certain amount of creative push and pull. But then sometimes when that happens, a complete vision can get lost. I felt like with this record I hadn’t had the total abandonment or freedom that I had since Six Demon Bag. That, in many ways, was liberating. The thing about Six Demon Bag that was very similar to this is I’d live with the full song for a little bit. I talked about it with Cyrus and we would arrange it. Like, “this part of the song, God, it really needs the sound of a car screeching on its brakes before impact”. Or, “God this song would be so killer if there’s just this really sweet baroque string quartet right here.”
OS: Rebecca Black makes some appearances on the record. How did that collaboration with her come about, and how was it getting to know her and work with her?
HH: Like a lot of things in my life, it was totally random. I went to go check out a friend playing a show here in LA at this small venue, called Hotel Café. She played after her. I knew that song, [“Friday”] like anybody else. And she was great! Her voice is incredible. Her stage presence is wonderful. I just I knew we were about to go on tour, and I thought it’d be rad to bring her out. I feel like everyone deserves another chance in this life, especially someone who was lambasted and bullied at thirteen by the universe. I just knew that our fans are cool and they’re open and receptive to whoever we bring out. I had the utmost confidence in her.
OS: Was she familiar with you guys at that point?
HH: No, she was completely unfamiliar. But this speaks to her credit. She was completely game to climb in a van with a whole bunch of weirdos and tour with us. She rode in a van with us and toured with us for two tours.
I think it’s really cruel, you know, being bullied, and just being maligned like that. Honestly, she’s so talented, she would have been fine without us bringing her out on tour. I think she would’ve been rediscovered anyway. She’s a really incredible person. Very resilient.
OS: One of the songs that jumped out to me lyrically was “The Prettiest Song in the World.” Not just the line about Satan sucking dicks, but all the parts about Burbank on fire. If you don’t want to answer, it’s totally cool, but I always love asking about the lyrical inspirations for stuff like that.
HH: I literally was sitting in my writing space in Atwater Village, trying to write a song about a girl. I walked out and I could see the smoke billowing off the hills over Burbank. This was in 2017 when I wrote that song. There were crazy wildfires. At night, those hills looked like the pits of Mordor. I had terrible writer’s block. I’d been in that writing space for days on end without producing anything. I was trying to write her a song and I’m like, “You know what? Screw it. That’s it. That’s the song.” I just didn’t know how to end the song and so that’s how I decided to do it. I was too distracted by the world around me.
Were you offended by the “sucking dicks” line?
OS: Was I offended by it? No.
HH: Okay, because that was something that was raised to me. Like “you’re gonna piss off some people”. Who am I gonna piss off? Westboro Baptist Church hypocrites?
OS: The only reason I brought it up is because it’s sort of like…not just lyrically recognizable, but also in the way it’s executed. It’s definitely the most immediately recognizable part of that song.
HH: Yeah, it’s one of those things where the narrator is clearly the one sucking the dicks. If anything, it’s celebrating the act of sucking dicks.
OS: Are there other lyrical themes that really jump out at you from writing this record?
HH: When I’m making a record, it always takes me a while to have that “aha” moment, of “what is this record about”? What is the title going to be to tie this whole thing together?” When I wrote “On the Mend”, I felt like it tied it all together. I feel like this record is an album of hurt and of pain, but also of recovery, acceptance, and growth. Of moving on and finding the joyousness behind all the trials and tribulations. While there are some dark heavy themes in here, I feel like there’s also a lot of fun. It doesn’t allow those feelings to weigh it down. At the end of the day, you need levity in this world.
OS: Yeah, and I guess to tie it back to the beginning of this conversation, thank you for choosing to release this record now. I think it’s going to connect with a lot of people.
HH: Thanks, Man. I really hope it does. My only fear is that it falls into the cracks and then though no one hears it. I’m really proud of this record. It’s strange, because I’m proud of all the records I’ve ever made, but I’ve never had this kind of feeling behind it. It’s probably because it’s been seven years since my last one and because this one took four years. But yeah, I just want people to hear it.
It’s one of those things, like if this cough kills me, you know what? I made the record that I’m happy to go out on.