By Daniel Kohn
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When you look at the seemingly celebratory title of Man Man's fourth album, Life Fantastic, you might imagine things are going pretty well for the face-painted, cut-offs-wearing wild men in the psychedelic, vaudevillian-rock ensemble. But for front man Honus Honus—or Ryan Kattner, as he's known in the world outside of the band's self-imposed mythology—that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, he says, writing the new album was downright excruciating.
"I'm waiting for it to be a joy," Kattner says. "But it's just one of those things—I'm a very slow songwriter, so I'm just trying to carve out songs here and there, and hoping for it to ring true." Released last May on ANTI-, Life Fantastic comes nearly a decade after Man Man's formation and seven years after their Ace Fu debut, The Man In a Blue Turban With a Face.
"A different record could've been written, given the circumstances and the time," he says. "I'm very proud of this album—it's a real labor of love, as they all have been. They're all time capsules for where my head and where our collective heads have been at."
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If you spend even five minutes listening to Life Fantastic, you can easily hear where Kattner's head has been. The record features some of the darkest, most frightening and most personal lyrics he has ever written, which is not entirely surprising when you learn he has been grappling with a series of unfortunate life circumstances over the past couple of years—including the deaths of several close friends, the end of a relationship, tax-audit hell, and a period of vagrancy—that began to feel almost comically surreal. On the atomic, theatrical "Dark Arts," he sings about coping with depression and loneliness after a terrible accident. He sizes up his ex's new fiance on somber and intimate "Steak Knives" and eats humans on slinky, creepster-cannibal waltz "Haute Tropique."
On top of everything else, he went to see a shaman in Asia who told him a lot of things he just didn't want to hear, some of which ended up coming true. "It was pretty dark," he says. She advised him to abandon his current career path at a time when he was already struggling with writing new songs. "I went because it was like, 'Oh, this'll be a funny story some day,' and it just turned out to be something I don't ever want to do again," he says. "She basically told me, 'Find another business—this isn't going to work for you.'"
But the tough times and discouraging prophecies were necessary for the growth of the band. When Kattner was finally ready to return to music, he knew he couldn't write the same songs he wrote four albums ago, when he was barely 23. "I wouldn't want to, anyway," he says. "I'm just not the same person anymore."
Beyond going deeper and darker lyrically, he also switched up the band's workflow. Rather than doing production in-house, as with the first three Man Man albums, Kattner hired Monsters of Folk member/Saddle Creek producer Mike Mogis—who has worked with bands ranging from Bright Eyes to Rilo Kiley to the Faint—to tighten up the record. The idea of working with someone new was terrifying, Kattner admits, but he had a feeling they'd be better off with an outside perspective.
"We looked on Craigslist's casual encounters and found him," Kattner jokes. "We just typed in 'beautiful ears,' and he came up. Okay, fine, I'll be honest with you: He was the first person we contacted, and he sent photos of those ears, and they were so delightful that we had to work with him."
The end result was an album that truly represents what Man Man are now and have always been about: getting their demons out while putting on one hell of a show. "If the demons jump into you—our mutual exorcisms—and you thrash around and let go and really have fun, not worrying about looking cool or stupid, that's what's awesome for us," Kattner says. "You have to realize that you don't really have control over everything that happens. You cannot let situations swallow you or get yourself lodged in its throat 'cause its choke will put you out, so we just keep plowing ahead.
"Besides," Kattner adds, "I have a feeling that maybe my mom paid off that shaman I met, so maybe I should stick with music after all."
This article appeared in print as "Twice the Man: Man Man's mutual exorcisms get those demons out."