Published on The Deli Philadelphia – Tuesday, May 10, 2011
– by Annamarya Scaccia
Life Fantastic is a difficult listen. It’s not because the fourth album (which hits shelves today via ANTI- Records) from indie outfit (and Philly’s golden sons) Man Man is hard to digest sonically. No, it’s far from that. Instead, Life Fantastic–the first album recorded with a “proper” producer (Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk) in Omaha, Nebraska–is this beautiful rage of avant-pop hooks, distorted madness, and vintage explorations. It’s a winding trip into floating out of control and pulling yourself through the dust of life’s natural cycle. And that’s what Man Man frontman Honus Honus a.k.a. Ryan Kattner loves about Life Fantastic–the shift in direction that, while connected, takes you some place new, some place unexpected. It’s a journey, he says, also explained with the three totem sculptures created by New York-based artist Brad Kahlhamer that appear throughout the album artwork (one mouse-like critter is featured on the cover). We had a chance to chat with Kattner about the beauty of Life Fantastic, the emotions that fueled the songs, and what makes Philly unique.
The Deli: Before working on Life Fantastic, you packed up your things, you put them in storage, and traveled across the country after dealing with a number of bad experiences that left you empty. How did that time traveling affect the making of the album?
Ryan Kattner: There was a sense in drifting. It was more drifting than traveling. It wasn’t this luxury of traveling. It wasn’t for tourist reasons or anything. It was kinda just to clear my head. It did bleed into the record, this sense of drifting and trying to sort things out.
TD: Through that drifting, when did you first start experiencing the breakthrough moments that allowed you to start turning your emotions into songs?
RK: It kind of happened, actually, with the song “Dark Arts” that’s on the album. It was New Year’s of last year, and I just sat down and started working on that song. It kind of [encompassed] everything that had been happening. Just on how being a creative person and just seeing my friends, as you get older things, normal life stuff happening–friends pass away, friends go crazy, friends have kids. All these things, they’re just normal. I just saw so many awesome people around me just kind of getting swallowed up by pursuing creative endeavors or even just getting older. And I kind of was able to just bore it into that song. It was observational, but the song itself is a little intense.
TD: Yea, I read that your father called you up after hearing “Dark Arts” because he was worried about you.
RK: [Laughs] Yea. He called me up when I sent the demo. I told my [roommate]–I guess I kind of can define myself as a serial subletter. I just go around and sublet–and my buddy that I was living with at the time, I drove him absolutely crazy with that song. It stayed on repeat half of the time, and he was in the other room trying to paint [Laughs]. After he heard the same verse 300 times, he just came in the room [and said], “You know man, I can’t…I can’t listen to this anymore. You’re driving me nuts.”
TD: Even though it is an intense song, I’d imagine it allowed you to purge the emotions you needed to purge.
RK: Yea. It was one of those things where not every song is so deeply confessional. It’s the stew of ideas. But that song, it kind of reconnected me to why I was playing music anyway in the beginning, which was just to kind of get some of these ideas out of my head. It’s an exercise, so to speak. In fact, [“Dark Arts”] kind of came after about a year and a half trying to work on material. Songs were coming together but they didn’t feel like there was a unified theme yet, and [then] I realized, “Oh yea, I guess the unified theme is going to be like a sense of control, losing it and finding it, realizing that the only control that you have is controlling how you deal with the situation.”
TD: You’ve said that typically, when you experience bad situations, you were able to turn them into something creative, but with your recent experiences of friends’ deaths, IRS bills, and heartbreak, you just felt emptiness, something that, to you, is worse than feeling depressed or miserable. Were you able to work through why those particular experiences left you feeling empty? Did you just reach this breaking where you couldn’t feel anything anymore?
RK: It was a circumstance where I was feeling very creative. Playing music was supposed to make me feel less crazy and, at the time, it was just kind of making [me] crazier and crazier. I realized, “You know what, I don’t want to have to necessary minorly explore these experiences, and I don’t want to have to go to the well and kind of rehash the same kind of songs, dip into the same bag of tricks.” And, to that extent, I didn’t really want to play music anymore. It was kind of reaching that point. I didn’t want to have to dial it in. It was more like that. It wasn’t feeling right at the time. And it was strange because it coincided with a period where our last record, Rabbit Habbits, was coming out, so at least a year and a half of our band’s life was plotted out for us. We would tour. We would support the record. We would play shows. In some ways, that was the way to kind of roll with the punches. But then there was this other half, which was kind of packed away for awhile. When I had to confront that stuff, it was kind of a struggle. This isn’t some tortured artist kind of [thing]. It’s just what it was.
TD: Are you afraid that people would take Life Fantastic as a tortured artist kind of thing?
RK: Not at all. People are going to look at it however they want to, and when it came time to discussing what went into this record, I feel like I could have gone real abstract, but at the same time, I feel like it would have trivialized what a labor of love this record was for myself, and also for the rest of the band. This album deserves more than that. It was a really difficult album to make. It just buckled down. We’re lucky. We’re lucky that we’re able to make music, and we don’t exist in a complete vacuum. There are some people that would listen to it…Bottom line is, yea, I’m a mess, but we all are a mess at some point. Credit has to be given due to my bandmates because they put up with all this.
TD: And how did they put up with it?
RK: [Laughs] Having someone like Mogis on board was good. He was a great facilitator when it came time to putting all of our ideas down when we went to Omaha to record our record. We had the songs and the structures and everything, but Mogis help[ed] us give great performances.
TD: How was your experience working with Mike Mogis in his studio at Omaha, seeing how Life Fantastic was your first time working with a proper producer?
RK: He’s a brilliant guy. Obviously, on paper, it looks like an odd collaboration, but this band, my brain, Mogis’ brain, our hearts, it was very idiosyncratic. It was actually a perfect match. We liked the fact that it didn’t make sense if you looked at it for the first time, but we liked the challenge of it. I feel like, for a band to be able to track roads is important. When you get stagnant and start repeating yourself, it’s like, “Just quit.” That goes back to what I was talking about earlier. The last thing I want to do is keep repeating the same record. As much as it would be nice to go back and play the game of “If Only.” If only we had the budget to actually record the last record, or the one before it. What’s cool about those records, and this record especially, there’s a narrative to all of them and what led into them. I think, for someone who listens to our records, it’s cool to be able to track the steps that this band has taken. We’re doing what we do. We’re trying to create our own language here. So either you’re on board or you’re not, and if you’re not, then oh well. [Laughs]
TD: Working with Mogis in his studio, did you learn anything new from him that will help you grow going forward with Man Man?
RK: Yea, for all of us. This is the first time we worked with a “producer”, so it was a scary, amazing experience. And it’s the first time we’ve been able to make a record in one shot, in one place without having to scramble constantly, which is interesting because this is our fourth record and it was the first time we actually felt, “OK, we don’t have to stress out about running out of money every single second, and going on tour and making money. We can just sit down and bunker down and make a record that we’re proud of.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s stressful, but I think things have to be a pain in the ass for them to turn out well.
TD: But, at the same time, even though it was stressful like any creative process, not having to worry about those things, did it make the process easier?
RK: It allowed us to focus on the record and making the record. Obviously, there’s live stuff that’s gonna bubble in. There isn’t anything you do. The one concern that I have for this record and people listening to it is that I really hope that people give the record a listen instead of chocking it up to, “Oh, here’s another record by Man Man.” I think it’s a really beautiful record, and I think it’s probably one of our best records, best-sounding records. It really embodies the core of what this band is about. That’s where Mike really stepped up to the plate. This band is about the extremes. It’s about the ugly chaos and not the beautiful moments, and he was really able to handle that with a fine-tooth comb. We showed up to go to the party, and Mike put on our lipstick for us. [Laughs]
TD: Since you recorded Life Fantastic in Omaha, what did you think of the city and did you get to check out the local music scene?
RK: Yea. It was kind of funny because they just changed it, but I think last call was 1 am or 12:30 am, which we thought was so bizarre, which is probably healthier for us. Omaha’s cool. It’s a great place to make a record. There weren’t any distractions. I think also, symbolically, I enjoyed the fact that, when I wrote the words and stuff for the album, they were written all over the country, and I was like, “Oh, I guess this is symbolic of recording this album in the heartland of America.”
TD: Such an early closing time is hilarious though. I know so many people I know living both in and out of Philly who find Philly’s 2 am closing time weird.
RK: I like the 3 am closing time, but, at the same time, when I’m presented in situations where I could be absolutely and very evilly debaucherous, I will have a tendency to drink ’till 4 in the morning, but that’s not healthy…[Omaha] just changed it when we finished with the recording, which is fortuitous I guess.
TD: Other than the drinking times, how is the Omaha scene compared to the Philly scene?
RK: I mean, I love the Philly scene. Philly is fucked up and dark [Laughs]. The thing that I love about Philly is there really isn’t a scene. That’s the cool thing about the city is that everyone is doing their own thing. It’s that typical Philly attitude. Unlike New York where it’s a constant hustle. For the most part, you always have to bust your ass to make things work. But I feel like in Philly, you can get by and you can do what you want to do regardless of whether or not there’s an audience for it. That’s a great kind of world to operate in. I mean, Omaha is cool. As you know, we don’t sound like any bands that are from Omaha. You know, we have friends in bands from Omaha, but I don’t know. I don’t think we sound like too many bands from Philly, or too many bands in general. [Laughs] We don’t really have peers.
TD: Isn’t that good to be on your own level like that or is it lonely?
RK: It’s lonely, but it’s cool. This scene is constantly shifting and we’re just staying our course and doing what we do. It’s persistence of vision. I guess that’s the best way to put it, or maniacal optimism or complete foolhardiness. I think it’s all of these things. [Laughs] It’s [a] Philly thing.
TD: Which makes this city unique.
RK: Yea, man, If you want to be a tough-ass dude and wear a dress and get wasted and parade around on New Year’s, do it.
TD: More people should have that attitude.
RK: It’s definitely a Philly attitude [Laughs] There’s no pretense here, that’s what I love about this city. If someone doesn’t want you around, they’re gonna tell you to get out of their face. [Laughs]