Music News & Reviews

Working on its fourth album, Man Man continues to experiment

Quick. Slip on an album by Philadelphia's Man Man. 2007's Rabbit Habits is preferred, but any of the band's three studio records will do. Now, describe what you hear.

Maybe some of these tags might apply: tensely animated, frantically rhythmic or playful in a Halloween parade sort of way.

Now get a load of Man Man in concert, an experience that makes the records seem positively timid. There's the war paint, the uniforms that seem to resemble off-kilter tennis outfits or the propensity for its members to run amok.

Wrap it all up and the word that most commonly pops up to describe the recording and performance adventures of Man Man is experimental. But you also have to measure in the brass and cartoon-like mallet percussion (which recalls a darker version of Danny Elfman's great carnival pop collective Oingo Boingo), the grunts and chants that often pass for vocals (which sound like a slightly tempered variation of Captain Beefheart) and the curious balance of lyrical pop convention and complete melodic anarchy.

This helps form at least an outline of the delicious discord that goes into Man Man's music.

But then, for a summation of the band's sound that is fit for this quick-hit world, let's check in with Ryan Kattner, better known as Man Man keyboardist, vocalist and frontman Honus Honus. He referred to the new music the band is set to record for its fourth album as being like "a cupcake with hooks inside."

"We all come from different backgrounds, so there's a lot of butting of heads in our band when it comes to making new music. I'll bring in a skeleton of a song, and then we'll fight tooth and nail over it. Sometimes that song might see the light of day. Sometimes the song might get thrown in a shallow grave in the back yard."

A favorite of Lexington audiences for years (the band played at Buster's last Halloween), Man Man stands at something of a crossroads as it approaches work on its fourth album. Rabbit Habits helped bolster its national following, but Kattner insisted that it was "very difficult" to make. This time, the band is preparing itself by fine-tuning new material before commencing recording sessions. Still, he says, the new songs are "hard to wrap my head around."

"Really, what this whole tour we're about to do is about is playing the new material," he said. "We want to take the songs out and see if they have legs."

And do they?

"Oh, yeah. They're kicking people.

"For some reason I wanted to write a kind of mellow-sounding record this time. The thing is, though, nothing in my personal life has been mellow at all. So I've ended up on the opposite end of that.

"I played some of these tunes off of my dad's opinion. I do that a lot. We had been demo-ing the songs all winter because we wanted to be as prepared as we could before we head into the studio. So I sent my father the demos. After I sent him one of the songs I'm really excited about, he called me up and said he just needed to hear the tone of my voice to make sure everything was OK. He was like, 'Son, like the song. Was a little worried. Glad you're all right.'

"My dad is pretty honest about stuff. But when my father comes out to our shows, he gets kind of tense because he hates seeing me climb on stuff. He was down at the front of the stage for a show recently, and I just knew that I had to climb the scaffolding. It's not something I do all the time. But I had to climb up to the spotlight and point it on myself so he could see me."

How is it that Man Man's songs are open enough for such instinct to take over like that? How can the music move and thrive when its chieftain is literally climbing the wall?

"Well, there's definitely space in these songs that we sense when we put them together," Kattner said. "They're constructed around a kind of song structure that I've managed to cobble together over the years.

"Believe it or not, I still don't personally know how to write a song. I know there's the textbook way — you know, verse/chorus, verse/chorus, soaring guitar solo, anthemic chorus. But I've never been very happy with that. I'm more likely to say, 'Let's just do a verse and a jam.' The songs are still structured. But there is also room for us to have fun and mess around.

"Then again, we could put out this new record, and everyone might hate it. I always feel like what we do could be over tomorrow, so we don't take anything for granted. We've been fortunate to this point to have people stumble across what we do and then support us — or totally hate us. Either way, the response strikes a fire in us."