Progress Report: Man Man
NAME: Man Man
PROGRESS REPORT: Completed work on the Mike Mogis produced Life Fantastic, due out 5/10.
I’ve kept up with Man Man for a while now, interviewing them for Pitchfork, CMJ, and Paper Thin Walls (R.I.P.), seeing at least a couple of their shows every year since moving to New York. I thought their last album Rabbit Habits was excellent, a reinforcement of the mixture of sadness and bravado that painted Six Demon Bag. But Rabbit Habits could have been Six Demon Bag II. After listening to their upcoming followup Life Fantastic, it seems like they’ve made the same jump forward that happened between their debut and Six Demon Bag. I think it’ll surprise (but please) other fans of Man Man, as well bring them new listeners. And I they’ll be listeners who discover their album before their always-impressive live show.
Mike Mogis, house producer for Saddle Creek (and a member of Monsters Of Folk) and Man Man frontman/songwriter Ryan Kattner (aka Honus Honus), toned down some of the hallmarks of Man Man — the chaos, the instrumental clutter. It’s still there in places, but it’s less ramshackle, more elegant. There are also surprising passages of wide-open space, as well a new, pretty palette of strings, oboe, flute, etc. Listening to songs like “Spooky Jookie” and title track “Life Fantastic,” it becomes apparent that the songwriting and melody (and Kattner’s double-edged lyrics) have always been there, someone just needed to sharpen the focus. As Nick Sylvester wrote in his Six Demon Bag review for Pitchfork, “… listen not to the sounds, but to the songs.” There may be no better producer at getting songs out of the sounds than Mogis.
STEREOGUM: Why did you want to work with Mike Mogis?
RYAN KATTNER: I think both parties were fascinated about the collaboration. On paper it really seems like an unnatural combination. I wasn’t even sure about it until we spoke on the phone for a bit and it seemed clear that we were on the same page. Both of us wanted to stretch our legs a bit, get out of our comfort zones, take a stroll, see what happened. It was also especially fun telling people in Philly that we were going to Omaha to make our next record. The look on their faces when the words “Mogis” and “Omaha” left my lips was priceless.
STEREOGUM: How long did you spend in Omaha?
RK: We were slated to be in there for seven weeks — four weeks of recording, two of mixing — and have a record in our hands at the end of that. Instead it turned into nearly three months, with the rest of the band leaving after about five weeks. I had to re-track almost all my vocals due to an evil chest cold I picked up as soon I hit Omaha. Nothing better than a lingering five-week chest cold in the dead heat of a sweltering midwestern summer to make you love life. We’d also come into the studio with about 16 “bursting at the seams” songs that needed to not only be recorded but whittled down. It was intense and stressful and somehow Mogis managed to keep things organized and not lose his mind. Well, not entirely.
STEREOGUM:Do you think he’s made an important impact on the final album? I think you can hear a difference right from that first teaser track.
RK: As far as what Mike brought to the table I was most keen on what he can do sonically for us, how he could open things up a bit, get songs to breathe more. I have a tendency to get hooked on a single tune and then proceed to listen to it and only it on repeat for days, weeks. One of those songs was “Devil Tricks For A Bitch” by Lightspeed Champion that Mike had done a couple years back. Something about the song, the sparsity, the strings, made me want to see if we could throw some of that kind of shimmering beauty into what we do. Having Mogis on board also brought in the many musical resources he had available to him in Omaha. Neely Jenkins, Laura Burhenn, and Susan Sanchez all lent their beautiful pipes to the mix. Nate Walcott’s string arrangements are gorgeous. It definitely helped melt some glimmer into our chaotic way.
STEREOGUM: If I remember right, you haven’t really worked with a producer before. Was it comfortable for you, to give up a little bit of control?
RK: I felt like we were reaching a point where we needed a true outsider to come into our fray and help organize and focus our attack. Kick some fresh air into the mix. Open the windows. We’d spent a lot of time on these tunes in our West Philly cave of a practice space, demo session hell, and we needed someone else to make the hard calls of what parts stay, what goes, how can this song hit harder, et cetera … someone who’s only listened to the demos for a month or two compared to a year or two and who didn’t bring the uniquely bizarre baggage that comes from touring together in a van for years brings. Some of the songs need a diet and Mike was down to try it.
STEREOGUM: I guess that you had to give up some control to do Mister Heavenly too. Has working with someone else on songwriting there changed the way you write for Man Man?
RK: Mister Heavenly songwriting didn’t actually start until all the Man Man songs had already been demoed and written. It takes me forever to write songs anyway so most of what I write tends to go directly to Man Man. Man Man is the only band that I’ve been in so there really aren’t many b-sides laying around in our back catalog.
This was the first time that I had a couple “scraps” to work with and after the stress of pulling things together and collaborating with bandmates for the Man Man album I needed a stress-free, no expectations outlet. That’s how I approached Nick about working together. “Let’s do a one-off 7-inch!” No pressure, keep it simple, have fun with it, who cares if it sucks. I’d never worked with another songwriter before so it was refreshing to show up with half an idea and be like, “Uh, verse is all you, man. I’ll take the chorus.”
STEREOGUM: Were there any songs that passed from one band to the other?
RK: As far as overlapping songs there was really only one Man Man song ["Mayan Nights"] that I wrote early on that didn’t fit in the mix of the others and some band members couldn’t stand it so I figured it’d be easier to pull it off the chalkboard for Mister Heavenly instead of forcing it on people. Chris (Pow Pow) and Jamey (T. Moth) really loved it and convinced me to keep it around. It turned out great and much differently than if I had done it with Nick. In the end, though, it didn’t even end up making the album because it still stood out too much. The irony is that I wrote the song a couple years before Mister Heavenly and the backing vocals in the chorus are “Doomed you are, doomed you are, doomed you are, to the last drop.” Early predecessor to “Doom Wop” I guess.
STEREOGUM: I think every album so far you’ve said it’ll be poppier and/or darker. How about this time?
RK: Sonically this album sounds really different from all our other albums and a lot of that has to do with production and mixing. Great thing about Mike is that he doesn’t work on a project to just work on a project. He wants to be as proud of the album as you are. He ended up mixing songs up until the beginning of the new year. Some songs had to get mixed three or four times until they hit the hardest.
This was the hardest one, for me at least, to write and I’m really proud of it. When I got back from Omaha I was a little shell-shocked. I knew we had made something — dare I say — oddly beautiful, but I couldn’t fully wrap my head around it. At that stage it was 16 tracks long and the collective weight of that many songs was overwhelming. It can be a deceptive album at times. There’s one song — I won’t say the name because I don’t want to influence people’s ears — that I played for a friend of mine and she was laughing at the playfulness of the first half of the song but by the second half, there were tears in her eyes. She was real pissed at me for that.
Going into writing this album, the back-story was littered with the weight of several friends dying, a break-up, living out of a suitcase for years, IRS nightmares… In the past I was able to channel this sort of dysfunction into creativity but this time around I just didn’t want to play music anymore. This all started to happen around the time we began touring for Rabbit Habits so I was able to step into a grueling touring schedule and sleepwalk for awhile.
STEREOGUM: Around the time you made Rabbit Habits, you did a little video for Pitchfork showing some of the wackier ways you came up with sounds. Are there ‘sound’ stories like the ones in that video, around this album? I mean new samples or field recordings that you all tried hard to capture?
RK: I think this is one of the things that Mogis was most excited about when it came to working with us. If we had a song where I felt like we needed a “going out into the field and group singing” vibe (“Shameless”), he’d hitch up the mobile recording gear and off we’d go looking for a field with the right kind of trees. In some of the tunes we wanted to capture a Joe Meek feel for the drums so he’d pore over sounds and spent forever recording different drum kits (and treated drum kits) all around the studio. Chris really got a work out during that drum tracking period.
Mike’s five-year old daughter, Stella, is all over the record and he even got his father in on a chorus (“Steak Knives”). Especially in that song, given the lyrical context, I thought it’d hit harder to have three generations of Mogises singing along.
And there were little odd ball details that I wanted to happen that Mogis was totally down for: a four sentence spoken word piece between two Sean Connery characters by Sean Connery in “Dark Arts,” a 40-second Steve Vai shredding guitar solo in a chaotic break down at the the climax of “Life Fantastic,” a dead space in the recording filled by our friend Phil. Sean Connery’s people never got back to us — no big surprise there — so I ended up having to do my best impersonation. Steve Vai was up for the challenge but we couldn’t get our schedules to match up so Mike tried to tackle it himself. Phil was Phil and even though you can’t hear him do anything, he’s there in the Phil fill I think. Even seven weeks into recording, Mike would still genuinely ask me if the label people had heard from Connery’s people yet. That’s commitment.
Oh, and still haven’t heard by from Connery’s people, by the way.
Life Fantastic is out 5/10.