Rank Your Records: Man Man’s Ryan Kattner

Upon the release of the first Man Man album in seven years, the frontman looks back at the band's catalog.

Hello and welcome to REPLY ALT, the world’s greatest email newsletter about music. REPLY ALT is free to subscribe, although you can opt for a paid subscription for a measly $5 a month which greatly helps me out, especially now.

In Rank Your Records, I talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

After Man Man mastermind Ryan Kattner sent his record label the recordings for his new album, Dream Hunting In The Valley Of The In-Between, he boarded a flight to the East Coast for the holidays. Bad turbulence hit the plane and when he imagined himself perishing in a fiery crash, a thought crossed his mind that brought him peace. He remembers: “I said, ‘Eh, you know what? I could go out on this record.’”

Dream Hunting is the first Man Man album in seven years, their sixth record, and first for indie powerhouse label Sub Pop. The band was stuck in limbo over the last few years as Kattner was legally barred from using the name Man Man, he says. In that time he released material under the name Honus Honus and with the supergroup Mister Heavenly. But now, finally, he has regained custody of his baby and is no longer taking it for granted. 

Over the last 17 years, Kattner has carved out a wholly unique place in the world of indie rock with his Man Man brainchild. Over that time, he’s heard his sound described as everything from quirk-pop to pirate-circus music, and has been compared to artists like Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart. None of it strikes him as particularly accurate, but who is he to say?

Kattner and I did this interview by FaceTime only a couple of miles apart from each other but separated by the endless distance of quarantine. For Kattner, a person who enjoys his solitude, Dream Hunting seems like the ideal Man Man album to be heard in this moment. 

“I wrote so much of the record in isolation, so this is, in a way, the best circumstances to listen to it,” he says. “It’s a longplay—17 songs—and it feels best when you listen to it in one chunk. The record, and even the album title, is about struggling with being in between things and how you deal with it.”

To celebrate the long-awaited release of Dream Hunting In The Valley Of The In-Between, I had Kattner put his five previous Man Man albums in order of personal preference.

5. The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face (2004)

This was your first album. How’d the band form?
Ryan Kattner:
I’d never played in a band before. I’d just started playing keyboards. I didn’t know the names of any of the chords I was playing. It was recorded for $500.

How long did it take?
It took three months. We could afford two or three days after-hours in a studio. We tracked all the drums and keyboards live with my first drummer, Tom. He’s a badass drummer but we didn’t really get along. So there’s no click track. And we did all the overdubs on a non-click track drum/keyboard skeleton.

When you listen back, what are the weak points you hear?
I think there’s something really magical about it. When I did it, I thought I was only doing one record and then getting on with my fucking life. I still hadn’t figured out how to sing. I’m shredding my voice on that. I guess at the time I thought, “I’m gonna make one record so I’m gonna go as hard as I can and if I destroy my voice, so be it. This’ll be the thing I show my kids someday and they’ll say, ‘Oh, dad played in a shitty band.’”

So were you trying to form a band or just grab people who could help out?
I’d never thought of playing beyond Philly. And the only reason we got signed to Ace Fu, our first label, was because my friend Jeremy played in An Albatross. He kicked a four-song CD-R to Ace Fu.

You’ve had so many rotating members in Man Man over the years. And for a band that just needs a bassist or something, that’s a pretty straightforward task. But people in Man Man have to play bass and also xylophone and also kazoo and also they might have to hit a can with a fork or whatever. How do you find those versatile musicians?
When I lived in Philly, it was hard. It was slim pickings. And on top of that, I want to get people who are interesting and have idiosyncratic tastes in music so they’re bringing those experiences to the table. So you’re gonna get great musicians, but not people I get along with, necessarily. It’s a lot easier out here on the West Coast.

Have you followed the Philly scene from afar?
I tuck in every so often. I feel like there was a shift to classic rock again, like when War on Drugs and Kurt Vile blew up. But there’s stuff like Sheer Mag, who are great, though they’re also kind of classic rock. I also love that band Palm.

4. On Oni Pond (2013) 

This one was produced by Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes. How’d he do in capturing your sound?
I think he did a great job. I think the reason this one was lower on the list was because the experience of making it wasn’t a lot of fun. At that point it was just me and our old drummer, Chris. It was super click-tracky. Everything was super gridded-out. It didn’t feel as organic. Although, it had our biggest hit on it. “Hit,” you know? [Laughs]

Yeah, “Head On” seems to be that song that has transcended the band. Why do you think that became your hit?
It has a universal message. I had a feeling with that song that I’ve had with a handful of songs on this new record. It was what I was going through at the time. I had a couple people who were stepping on my heart a little bit. I had to refocus. I don’t know what it is about that song.

Just my opinion, but it’s one of the few Man Man songs where the lyrics are very straightforward—at least the chorus, anyway. It’s a little less esoteric. I’ve been listening to you for 15 years and I honestly still don’t know what the hell you’re singing usually. 
Yeah, and when I sat down to write it, I really had to fight some dark lyrics in that song. It wasn’t a bid to write a hit or anything. I think that’s the reason that the first record is at the bottom. Yeah, the recording is really raw, which is kind of cool, but you can’t understand anything I’m fucking saying.

Your lyrics do have a bit of a Rorschach quality to them where they’re weird patchworks of phrases and words. I’m wondering, is there a wrong way to interpret your lyrics? Do people ever come up to you and totally interpret a song wrong?
No, no. That’s why it takes me years to write a record. I spend years trying to write lyrics. My challenge is always that I want to make it personal but not too personal that someone can’t make it about themselves. I want to tell a story, but I want that story to be transformative where it’s applicable to someone else. 

Have you ever been hired to write a song and had to think more in a commercial context?
I wrote a song for Mavis Staples once, but she never heard it. [Laughs] I’ve tried writing with commercial songwriters, and it’s tricky. In my brain, every song I’m writing is a commercial song. 

3. Rabbit Habits (2008) 

I read an interview where you said this was the first album where you really understood how to work your voice.
Yeah, the first record, I was trying to destroy my voice and now there’s ranges I can’t even sing, because of that record. The second record, I was trying to prove something to all the guys who’d quit between my first and that was also destroying my voice. The third record, I was touring a lot and realized, “Oh, if I don’t do that, I won’t lose my voice.” I’ve never had training, but when you do something enough times, your body kind of figures it out on its own. And I finally figured out how to use it without destroying it.

When you hear Rabbit Habits back, what are the things about you like and what are the things you wish you’d done differently?
I like that it’s a real live-feeling record. It was a feeling we tried to capture on the new record. None of the records were easy or fun to record, but that one in particular was a real struggle to do.

How so?
We were between labels so we had to tour, spend all our money recording, tour, spend all our money recording. And when we weren’t touring, we were working our shitty day jobs. We did a month in Chicago and a month in Philly. We ended up signing to ANTI- at the time, but we didn’t know what was gonna happen. So it was a real gamble.

How was your experience with ANTI-?
Ah, well… no comment.

Man Man’s great strength is its live show. I’m wondering how you view your albums in relation to the live show. Do you want people to sit down and listen to them? Or are they just fodder for the show?
I’ve always viewed them as two separate entities. I want people to enjoy the record on its own. I’ve been to enough shows where the band sounds exactly like the record and I’m bored to tears. If I want to listen to your live show and have it sound exactly like the record, then I’ll just stay home and listen to the record. So the live energy has always been a completely different beast. 

2. Life Fantastic (2011)

Pitchfork called this your “most tasteful record” and I’m wondering what that means to you.
Pitchfork. [Laughs] Yeah, Ian Cohen. 

It’s a pretty favorable review. Do you care about reviews?
Reviews are cool. It’s a weird thing. An artist spends X amount of years on something and then a reviewer writes 300 words. Unfortunately, people sometimes just look at the number. But that album came from a really fucked up place in my life where I didn’t think I was going to live to make a fourth record. I was so self-destructive and selfish. In my brain, my deal with the devil was that I was supposed to be dead by now. That’s where the album title came from.

Sort of an ironic twist on your mental state?
Yeah. So a lot of that stuff fed into the energy of that record. We also wanted to make something that felt really different from Rabbit Habits. When it came out, it just kind of got written off as another one of our records, but I think it sounds so much different from our earlier stuff. The strings and the arrangements, and there are songs that are nine minutes long. I’m still really proud of that record. Last year, Man Man started touring again, and kids were coming out of the woodwork and that was the record they were talking to me about. It felt artistically redemptive. Better late than never. 

Man Man came along at this time in the mid-2000s where there felt like there was room for a lot of weird, idiosyncratic indie rock bands. You’ve been doing the band for over 15 years now. How have you noticed the scene changing in that time?
I feel just as lonely musically as I did then. But you’re right, you could have your Hellas and your Deerhoofs killing it. But when I first started out, it was when Interpol and the Strokes were out, and everyone was trying to sound like them. Then, suddenly, it was dream pop, and everyone was chasing the same sound. There still is idiosyncratic stuff out there but it’s not as celebrated.

What’s been the effect of being a sonic outlier?
It doesn’t make it easy. It’s strange how some sonic outliers get exalted and celebrated and then others toil underneath it all. You could have someone who’s a hardcore Radiohead fan saying, “Wow they’re so experimental!” And then you play them something else and they’re like, “Eh, it’s just so weird and out there.” Well why is that weirder than what Radiohead is doing? When we signed to ANTI-, a big part of it was like, OK, yeah, we always get the Waits comparison because of the marimba and I have a gruff voice and stuff, sure. But maybe Tom Waits fans will be into us because we’re doing out-there shit. But not really! No bleed-over. [Laughs

You’ve probably heard your sound described in a million different ways. When you meet someone and tell them you’re in a band, how do you describe it to them?
Well, when I tell someone I’m in a band, which I do pretty reluctantly, or at least I used to, they look at me and think it’s a metal band or a rock band. I used to just say that it’s an acquired taste. Now I just say it’s brilliant and heartbreaking.

1. Six Demon Bag (2006)

What puts this at the top for you?
Six Demon Bag was sort of like my Larry David spite shop.

Who was your Mocha Joe?
My Mocha Joe—I’m fine with them now, I guess—but my entire band quit between the first and second record. It was so long ago that it’s fine now. I wouldn’t want to keep making music with me, either. But I guess they expected me to quit too, but I didn’t. So that record was borne out of that, borne out of me not telling my record label that my entire band quit and making a record with a $1,000 budget. I recorded it over three months in this warehouse, next door to a sweatshop and above a porn studio, in the summer in Chinatown in Philly. The smells alone were just crippling. But I didn’t have to fight with anyone to get my vision across.

Looking back now that you don’t have that feeling of spite, how do you think the record sounds?
Um, insane. I’ve tried to listen to that record on mushrooms and I can’t do it, man. I don’t know how anyone could. I had a total mental breakdown before that record and almost died.

Was that prompted by everybody leaving?
No, it was just a lot of things in my life. I was in my mid-20s and really crazy. I keep saying that, but I was really kind of out of it. The only thing that got me through was playing in Man Man. I really poured all of that manic energy into that record. So when I listen to that record, it just sounds manic and insane. It’s even mixed really strange. We mixed it in headphones using Cubase. I didn’t know how to record to a click track, so nothing’s recorded to a click track. That was the first record with Pow Pow on it, when he was in the band. Some of the drum beats were me beating on the back of chairs and shit. It was a lot of fun. It was creativity by necessity.

Do you look at the record as a triumph over that manic period?
Yeah, hell yeah. I’m really proud of what that record was borne out of. It was an insane time. The engineer almost died making that record.

How so?
He had an undiagnosed adrenaline gland issue. I didn’t hear from him for a day or two and I went to the warehouse he was living in and he looked like E.T. in the riverbed. He was laying on the couch and he looked dead. But I like how nuts the record sounds.

I read an interview a long time ago where you said you stopped playing “Van Helsing Boombox” live because it was emotionally taxing. This far out, have you exorcised whatever that was?
I can play that song now. But the week we wrote that song and the first time we played it, the next day I ended up in the hospital. It was really bad. But I love that song. It was written in probably one of the darkest times in my life, but for other people—and this is what’s cool about music—it’s like an inspiring song for them.