Q&A: Honus Honus On The History Of Man Man, Living Out Of A Storage Unit, And Writing On Oni Pond
Man Man have been making wonderfully eccentric rock and roll records since way back in 2004. Stylistically, they have dipped their toes into a variety of styles and genres without ever truly committing to any of them, which makes them hard to classify and — for some people — equally hard to love. They also have a frontman who goes by a goofy name (Honus Honus) and lineup that appears as unstable and hard to pin down as the band’s music. For these reasons — as well as the songs they make — I love Man Man. While I am not an avowed superfan of everything the band has done (though 2008’s Rabbit Habbits is pretty fucking excellent), I’ve always been attracted to the spirit under which the band operates and to Honus’ general openness about both himself and the band. I’ve spoken to him several times over the band’s career and was happy to meet up with him recently at a dive bar in midtown Manhattan in the middle of a weekday afternoon to talk about how the band’s fifth album, On Oni Pond, came to be.
STEREOGUM: I think the last time I talked to you was back in … 2007? I can’t remember where you were living, but I think it was here in NYC. Or Philly?
HONUS: Yeah, 2007. I’m trying to remember … after we went on tour again that December, I immediately got my stuff and put it in a storage unit in Philly. I’ve been subletting or couch surfing ever since. I’m in Silver Lake now. In LA. It’s really nice.
STEREOGUM: Do you still have your shit in storage?
HONUS: Yeah, most of it. It’s mostly old FADER Magazines from ’07. For the longest time, it was just broken instrumentation and taxidermy and books. I shipped my boar’s head out to LA but it also contains a lot of our band gear. The band gear is probably 80% of the storage unit. Stuff that I haven’t needed for seven years. But, psychologically, it’s good to know that it’s somewhere…
STEREOGUM: I was talking about the psychology of storage units with someone yesterday. I’m very much of the mind that, if it can’t fit with me in my house, then I don’t want to have it.
HONUS: Everything that I own would fit in half of a cargo van. I don’t have that much stuff that’s not instruments. Even in LA, my friend who just wants company is renting me out her extra bedroom and she wants to put a bed in it. But there’s just a sofa in it right now and I’m just like, “I’ll just stay on the sofa. Keep things rooted. Consistent.” Like Rain Man.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been there?
HONUS: I moved a third of my stuff to LA almost two years ago. So … since April, maybe? I want to have roots, but I think if I had roots, I wouldn’t be able to keep doing the band. So many things could happen.
STEREOGUM: The last time I talked to you, I think you were living in an attic.
HONUS: Yeah … It’s funny because maybe part of me … no, I would prefer not to have to live in attics and stuff. The attic had a really big window and it was the one time I’ve ever been scared of aliens spying on me because it was an enormous glass window so I’d have to hang a curtain during the night because I didn’t want anyone watching me. And I’d hear raccoons fighting outside … raccoons and gunshots. And that was really funny because that was the first time I did my taxes really hardcore. I wanted to make sure everything was in order so I didn’t get audited and years later I got audited for that specific year.
STEREOGUM: Because you did it wrong?
HONUS: Yeah, I messed up. I fucked up and I had a bad accountant that year.
STEREOGUM: Usually for these interviews that I’m catching up with a band before their next record … I mean, what happened with you guys since that last record? Did you tour a lot?
HONUS: We did tour. The record wasn’t very well received. It didn’t really affect our touring, but that record was such an arduous process to put together. We’d been doing about two years between album releases but then I got audited and, when I got audited, it was totally Kafkaesque and I lost an entire summer. And then our record came out three years later. So … yeah, we toured. I think it was just that the process was so arduous personally, that I didn’t want to repeat that experience ever again. No other record would have come out at that time — it was the first time I dealt with friends dying, my parents splitting up … Just a lot of stuff that most human beings go through and yeah … that’s that record. I love it, but I sure as hell didn’t want to do that again.
STEREOGUM: So what was different this time around?
HONUS: I think it was just an awareness. That last record was about wanting to quit. I mean, I’ve wanted to quit since I’ve started because being in a band is the worst career choice ever … so that record was about muscling through that. And I think that this record was something like, “Okay, that’s done. I don’t want to do it like that again and I won’t do those same things again,” and, in a way, it was really refreshing because it was like a reboot of sorts. It was just me and Chris, pretty much. I ran off and lived in Western Massachusetts for a winter that turned into a spring working on songs. I realized the only way I’d finish the record is if I came back to Philly and tried to work with the guys. Really, Chris and I are the only ones that really worked on the record.
STEREOGUM: How long did that process take? Did you record in Philly?
HONUS: No, we recorded in Omaha. In my young adult life, I’ve never not lived in a city so initially the plan was to go to the woods and see what that was like and I realized that my ears rang too much and I got bored to death and I had to come back. I was also hoping that people wanted to write with me, but no one really did. I was avoiding that. So I had to return to that. So Chris and I hashed out a record.
STEREOGUM: You worked with Mike Mogis, right?
HONUS: Yeah, in Omaha. So we recorded it in Omaha — he has an amazing studio there. We did the last record with him so it was nice to do another album with him because we could speak in shorthand but, at the same time, the songs that we were sending him was nothing like the last record. And we had less time. The last album took three months and we only had three weeks for this one. So we had to work efficiently and it was good – it was a good challenge for everyone. And Mike’s such a badass.
STEREOGUM: All of the Man Man records are very different from each other in a lot of ways.
HONUS: Thank you for saying that because I feel like people want to say they aren’t.
STEREOGUM: And this record in particular … the vibe of it. There are so many different kinds of sounds. Was it hard to get a handle on the material?
HONUS: I don’t have any musical training. I just kind of starting playing music after college. Man Man is my first band. I’ve never been the kind of musician that’s liked a band’s sound and tried to copy it. Because even if I try to do that, I don’t think it would sound anything like the source material. With this one, I emerged from the woods with half an album’s worth of structures and then, working with Chris, it was scary but really fun. He’s been working with loops a lot and we would just muscle through the songs during the summer. It was really fun because I hadn’t worked with Chris like that since Six Demon Bag and even when he and I were playing before that, I had just hired him to be a session drummer before he eventually joined. I hadn’t had that much control since that record, either — I’ve always had to deal with different personnel.
STEREOGUM: Did other people play on the record too or did you guys play everything?
HONUS: Yeah. Mogis plays on the record, Jamey, a new badass horn player named Adam … But as far as the songs and the songwriting, that was just me and Chris. And it was fun because neither one of us have any qualms about being corny or cheesy. We just don’t really care. We feel like that, at the end of the day when the song is done, we’re going to own it whatever the style is. That’s what’s been fun about playing with Chris since day one — we don’t really care if it’s cool sounding or not. We’ll make it sound cool.
STEREOGUM: What will the live permutation of the band be?
HONUS: We’re a five-piece. A lot more synths. My buddy Shono is playing guitar. There’s some really cool guitar stuff on this record which, in the past, there hasn’t been. It’s funny — I only play real piano on two songs on this record.
STEREOGUM: Is that how your write most of the songs?
HONUS: Either piano or guitar. And through repetition. That was what was fun about this record. We basically had a summer where we had to write this record so that sense of urgency fed into the energy of it. What’s your take on the record vibe-wise?
STEREOGUM: I really love it. I’ve only had it for a few days, but I think parts of it are really beautiful. It’s less chaotic sounding than your previous records, which often had a really schizophrenic quality to them … I don’t mean that in a bad way.
HONUS: I think as you get older, that chaos is still there but you’re just better at keeping it in check.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. I feel like there’s a certain unpredictability to what you guys do, which I appreciate. When I got this new record sent to me, I honestly had no idea what it was going to sound like.
HONUS: I like that it’s hard to pinpoint down because there’s so many different styles.
STEREOGUM: Where did the title of the record come from? Does that have to do with where it was written?
HONUS: I guess it was this idea that, for the first part of the process I was in Western Mass., which is very beautiful and I thought of it like On Golden Pond and I thought of On Oni Pond because you go out to this beautiful place and your demons are there. So you just learn to deal with them and enjoy the scenery.
STEREOGUM: That’s a hard lesson to learn. It’s funny that everyone wants to move somewhere else …
HONUS: I’m out there and my ears are ringing and I can’t even enjoy it because it’s too quiet. And I knew On Golden Pond was taken, so On Oni Pond … you can’t outrun your demons.
STEREOGUM: Your band has had such an interesting up-and-down crazy history. Are you surprised that you’re still doing it?
HONUS: I never thought there’d be more than one record — I’ve been saying that for a while, but I believe it. It took a long time to not wake up every morning and ask, “Why am I doing this?” I still have that. But I never thought it would go on this long. And hopefully this is a rebirth. Writing this record was a lot of fun. I mean, it was scary because when we started writing the record, it was just Chris and I and we didn’t know how these songs would translate live or what our band would be because there was a constant turnover.
STEREOGUM: In the past year, so many bands that I talk to happen to be people of a certain age who have been doing this for a while. After maybe three or four albums into their career — unless they become super successful — everybody has a moment along the lines of, “Why do I keep doing this? What am I getting out of this?” I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately who have come up against this wall recently.
HONUS: We’re like the slow burn, you know? Could I say that I’m psyched that we’re a band that’s still hungry? It’s good to be hungry — it keeps you on your toes. We’ve never really been afraid of losing our audience. It keeps you honest. But … I think, with this record, we said “fuck it” and just tried to write as great of a record as we can. If people don’t like it, then they don’t like it.
STEREOGUM: How has touring been for you in the past?
HONUS: I wish we toured 365. I love touring. With touring, I can get any baggage that I have out. When I’m not touring, I think too much.
STEREOGUM: I think a lot of people are that way. Friends of mine who are musicians really have the most problems when they’re not touring. There’s a routine of touring that they can deal with — it’s the off time when shit gets crazy.
HONUS: Yeah. You’re around people doing something on a personal level. I’d rather been sweating on you or screaming in your face than be at home thinking about things. I love it. I’m looking forward to touring heavily for this record.
STEREOGUM: So the other guys that are in the touring band, where is everybody from?
HONUS: Jamey and Chris are in Philly. They were in a band together called Need New Body, which was a great band. Chris is the longest tenured player other than myself. Adam (or Brown Sugar) lives in Brooklyn. And Shono lives in Boston.
STEREOGUM: Before the tour starts, what are you doing? A lot of press stuff?
HONUS: Trying to. I think the real concern that Chris and I have is that we don’t want this record to be written off as just another Man Man record. I feel like that’s so lazy — we want people to actually hear the record. That’s what’s so exciting about this album is that there are definitely good bait songs that pull you in. If you can get into what we do, then we have four other records you can enjoy. And a song like “Head On,” especially. It was hard to pick what song to jump out the gates with because there’s not really another “Head On” on the record and there’s not really another “King Shiv.” I’ve been trying for years to work that opening line of “King Shiv” into a song.
STEREOGUM: It just didn’t work before?
HONUS: It was just a personal challenge. Like on “Rabbit Habits,” I would keep trying to use the word ‘bodacious’ in the lyrics.
STEREOGUM: What do you foresee happening in the next year or so — just playing a ton of shows?
HONUS: Yeah, just playing a ton of shows. And hopefully I get settled in a little bit and then we want to get started working on a new record already. And this one hasn’t even come out. It’s interesting because I knew I wasn’t going to quit after Life Fantastic. But regardless of how this record is perceived, I’m looking forward to making the next one. And I’ve never really been like that before.
STEREOGUM: What do you think changed?
HONUS: It was just writing with Chris this way, which I hadn’t done in a long time, was really refreshing. And the new blood we have in the band. Just good energy. I mean, I’m still fucked in the head so it’s not like the songs will start to be super happy all of a sudden. But I’m still learning my craft — Man Man is my first band, so I’m still learning how to write songs. I guess it’s good that I’m starting to figure it out a little bit five records in.
STEREOGUM: How old are you?
HONUS: Forever 21.
STEREOGUM: I only ask because … well, I don’t know if we’re close to the same age or not, but … it’s interesting how your ambitions change as you get older. The mid thirties is a real funky time.
HONUS: Like I probably said this entire interview, I never thought I’d be in a band. It was never an ambition in life. It was an accidental thing that happened and I feel lucky that I found an outlet. And I’m even luckier that people can get into it.
STEREOGUM: If you hadn’t done this, what do you think you would have done?
HONUS: I went to school for film and screenwriting so I probably would have tried to get into that world. That’s what’s nice about being out in LA is that I have a lot of friends who didn’t divert into playing rock music and who actual have careers. The ten years I spent seeing the rest stops of America and the world … I wouldn’t change that. They paid their dues in the industry — you’ve got to pay your dues.
STEREOGUM: That’s one of the hard things about New York. You have to get over that — there’s always someone younger than you and maybe even less talented than you but who is more successful than you. But if you think about those things too much, it makes you insane.
HONUS: I try not to dwell on that. I feel really lucky that I was able to stumble across this. I really wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think we made a great record and I would like people to hear it hating on it because of the last one.
STEREOGUM: Did people really not like the last one?
HONUS: I don’t know. I mean, I loved the last record. Considering the circumstances, especially. I think it’s my favorite record besides this one. And they’re different. I think my only fear is that people think we just made the same record again. I appreciate you saying that you think they all sound different. Because I think that’s the hard thing for people in this band is that, for me, I can track my life through these records but for the players, they’re just playing in a band with a guy they can’t stand or whatever. Every record is a chapter. A very weird chapter.
The only thing upsetting about having so many records already is that I think that people could get into us but they just don’t have the chance to find out about us. Most of the bands that started at the same time as us either got huge or broke up. I used to not quit because I wanted to begrudge people that thought I would … but now I don’t want to quit because I think I still have one more good record in me, at least. That’s why I’m psyched about a song like “Head On” because I think that it’s maybe one of the first times I can recommend our song to just about anyone and they can find something in it that they can identify with. And if we can pull them in, they can see that there are so many more surprises on the record. When Chris and I were writing this stuff, we thought, “to hell what you think” because it’ll always be my voice and his beats. So no matter what direction we go in, the heart of the song will still be there. I think that’s the one thing about this record that I really like — we’re kind of like “to hell with you” if you think you know what we’re about. If you don’t want to like this record, so be it but I think we made a great record.
Man Man’s On Oni Pond is out now via ANTI.