Man Man Eat Your Beefheart Out

“Sometimes I feel we’re more like movers than a touring band,” sighs Man Man leader Ryan Kattner, his voice haggard and weary after hauling equipment up a steep staircase at the Magic Stick music venue in Detroit. With the remnants of the harsh cold he and his bandmates picked up in Canada last week rattling in his chest, the frontman for Philadelphia’s beloved crew of gypsy punks is understandably disinterested when the subject of last week’s South by Southwest conference enters the conversation. “Yeah, it would have been great to be down in Austin [at South by Southwest] with everyone, but we were stuck in a blizzard, getting sick.”

Falling ill on the road is an occupational hazard for any touring musician, but with Man Man, it’s particularly understandable: The amount of unbridled energy and head-scratching mischief they pour into their live shows could topple the immune system of a superhero in a hazmat suit. From the moment they walk onstage (usually clad in white tennis outfits and streaked with war paint), the pace is literally unrelenting—they rarely pause in between songs to even catch a breath. Kattner dons the persona he calls “Honus Honus” and morphs into a fearsome freak-show barker, banging mercilessly on his Rhodes synth while the surrounding psycho-symphony follows him down into the rabbit hole.

Initially formed in the wake of Sept. 11 and meticulously nurtured via Kattner’s tireless work ethic and devotion to unpredictable, unself-conscious experimentation, the group is essentially a six-piece, carnivalesque orchestra that would be an ideal house band for the Island of Misfit Toys (or perhaps the soundtrack for Mike Patton’s wedding). After building groundswell support in their hometown, Man Man popped onto the national radar in 2004 with the release of their Ace Fu debut, The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face. Opening slots for Arcade Fire and the Fiery Furnaces and coveted appearances at the Siren and Pitchfork music festivals soon followed.

Cacophony may seem like their primary calling card, but such breakneck ambition would be exhausting to watch, if it weren’t for the startling flashes of elegance and restraint they add to the mix. These flourishes are provided by singularly named member “Blanco,” who delicately sprinkles touches of trumpet, piano, clarinet, and cello into the noisy mix of loopy guitars and clattering percussion instruments. “I don’t really like to call myself a musician,” demurs Kattner. “The other guys really should get their due.”

Indeed, their sophomore release is clearly a group effort more than a dictatorship, both in its collaborative composition and inclusive title, Six Demon Bag. With a proclivity for mixing dark, fairy-tale incantations (“fee-fi-fo-fum” and endless streams of minor-key-toned “la la las” snake their way through the album) with sweeter swells of romanticism (“Please don’t go and build a fence around your heart/Like you’ve done before when you’re losing grace,” sings Kattner on the demented waltz of “Banana Ghost”), Man Man have peeled back their ragged exterior to expose a sentimental underbelly—and that’s a good thing.

Next on their agenda is theoretically conquering more concise, poppier frontiers. While on tour, they stopped off at Chicago’s Shape Shoppe studio to record tracks for their third album. “There are still plenty of layers—and we recorded a murder ballad—but we also have a couple of shorter songs, finally,” explains Kattner. However, as soon as he makes that declaration, he backtracks. “Actually, we were really ambitious. Generally a band should go in and record 13 songs or so, but we said ‘fuck that’ and recorded 21 songs. And now they’re all in various stages of completion. But we’ll work it out. For me, the two most important qualities a band can have are to be genuine and to be visceral. I don’t want to be that band that just plays their hometown every week and keeps it safe.”