Growing up often isn't easy. That's certainly been the case for Man Man singer-keyboardist Ryan Kattner (otherwise known as Honus Honus on stage). Their new album, On Oni Pond, veers noticeably away from the experimental side of their earlier albums but picks up a dancier aspect and tackles issues of intimacy, domestication and growing up. The title's meaning reflects that idea of settling down and acknowledges the little life issues that just don't go away as adulthood sets in.
"[The title] On Golden Pond was taken, so On Oni Pond seemed peaceful and relaxing," says Kattner. "But it was a combination of peaceful and relaxing, and oni means, like, little demons [in Japanese]. So I like this idea of going to this peaceful, relaxing place and it's overrun, so you're kind of stuck there, and you have to make the best of the situation."
Man Man hasn't always been in a peaceful, relaxing place. An active band since 2003, it's released five albums and has endured several line-up changes. Its previous release, Life Fantastic, is underscored by some of the darkest lyrics the band has ever written; the songs depict autobiographical events of an accident Kattner suffered and scenes of an emotionally abusive relationship.
With Man Man paired down to just Kattner and Chris Powell now (although they have backup musicians with them when they play live), both the music and lyrics to this latest album have a wiser perspective after the trials described in Life Fantastic. The new album's sound has shed much of the random squawking and noisemaking found in previous releases. The eclectic feel of their overall sound isn't completely lost, however; it's simply tamer and flows much more in line with the beat. "Head On" opens in a series of waltz-like guitar plucks and smooth keyboard notes in the background. Just as the catchy rhythm takes over, the lyrics turn foreboding: "Hold on to your heart / never let nobody drag it under," and "Saw you dreamin' of death / father ghost in your chest."
Their sound takes another direction in both "Loot My Body," and "Pink Wonton"; in each track soulful elements are punctuated by horns and female voice responses. Here, Kattner's vocals seem to dance with his keyboards. In another twist three songs later, "Pyramids" takes on a video-game quality with a distorted guitar solo backed by an active keyboard rhythm that feels like it should have more of an 8-bit sound. These seemingly divergent elements come together in a surprisingly nice way, and even Kattner's verbosity adds to the dancey vibe. Kattner acknowledges that writing lyrics can be a difficult process, but like any coming of age occurrence he seems to draw on the promise of everything being all right in the end.
"I'm constantly stuck," Kattner says of his lyric writing process. "It's really just a matter of digging deep and bustling through. I hate writing lyrics. When I write lyrics it's not like there's some glowing ball of goodness blowing forth from pen to paper. It's mostly an arduous task, but at the end of the day I'm lucky enough to be writing songs and even more fortunate enough for there to be people wanting to hear them. And even vastly more fortunate for people there who want to see them performed."
Lyrics found in On Oni Pond include bits of advice like, "If you won't reinvent yourself / you can't circumvent your hell," and warnings of what bad habits can lead to with "Have you learned nothing at all / when the curtain comes crashing down."
Along with growing up, Man Man also seems to have found the perfect mate in Xenia Rubinos, at least for their current tour.
"She's pretty amazing," Kattner says. "Her energy: She's pretty fearless in her approach in the way she makes her music. It's kind of a match made in heaven, if heaven is a place for wonderful music. She's a two-piece, her and Marco, and they just have such a good vibe, such an engaging live show. And like we do, she gives it all she has. When they were on for us in the fall, we were very happy and pleasantly surprised at how easily she connects with the audience, and for us that's very important."
Kattner goes on to explain that in order for a show to be good, there must be a connection with the audience, with an energy dynamic playing off both sides. That same kind of energy dynamic also seems to translate into how Kattner and Powell write their music.
"A song either starts from me playing at a keyboard or guitar on repeat, trying to come up with words, which sucks," he says. "Or another way is that, and this has happened moreso on any record, but Chris and I will play together and hash out an idea, or we'll bring some music to the table and try to put together a structure, and I'll take that back to wherever I'm writing, and I'll try to sculpt the story."
Staying true to their ever-changing musical approach, Kattner seems to enjoy the spontaneity of not knowing exactly what the future holds.
"I want it [the music] to go in more people's ears," he says of Man Man's future. "I want more people to get hip to what we're doing. But the sound is constantly evolving. It is exciting to say I have no idea what the next record is going to sound like. We haven't really had any time to sit down and start working on new material, but we're gonna do that this spring. It should be interesting. I mean, I dread every time we have to start writing new songs. But it's one of those things that like once the songs are written, and they start to take a shape, then it gets really exciting."
As Kattner looks into the nearer future, he declares their upcoming show at the Grog Shop is already one of his favorites.
"We are prophesizing," he says. "I looked at the tea leaves on the sidewalk today [and it's going to be a great show]."
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