"Whether or not we've accomplished that, I don't know," said singer/keyboardist Honus Honus (real name: Ryan Kattner). "We're definitely rockin', but we're not a rock band."
What they are is a Tom Waits-esque pop cabaret. They're the Decemberists if Colin Meloy was hairier, or a joke fraternity of gypsies. Honus Honus beats up his Rhodes keyboard ("A lot of Rhodes, they're kind of bright and pretty, but mine is kind of gritty and gnarly, and it's great to hide behind and abuse," said Kattner); Pow Pow (real name: Christopher Powell, formerly of Need New Body) creates percussion out of nearly anything; and Alexander "Cougar" Borg, Sergei Sogay, Blanco and Les Mizzle (real names: ?) play various instruments, including marimba, trumpet, cello, clarinet and, according to the liner notes for their most recent record, Six Demon Bag (Ace Fu, 2006), "coyote throat," "caveman throat" and "science." Man Man gets on stage in white suits and plays mashed medleys, with madness and mayhem as stage props, and absolutely no "witty banter" between songs.
"Not that we're not witty," said Kattner.
Man Man embraces the fundamental performance aspect of music: Songs are written to be sung, and a live show is supposed to be purely about the re-creation of a song. The white suits and the absence of small talk were originally supposed to focus attention on the songs themselves, but with songs like Man Man's, something more expressive was bound to be released.
For example: "We had a show a couple of months ago in a warehouse space, and there were like (more than) 400 people at the show, and it was awesome--there were kids crowd surfing, and there was a kid crowd surfing in a gorilla suit," said Kattner. "I was just like: What the hell have we created? It's pretty awesome, because our band definitely has a cult thing going for it."
The cult thing, Kattner thinks, comes from Man Man's ability to perform their surreal collage songs, without holding anything back, ever. Said Kattner, "We bring it every night, and we bring it as honestly and genuinely as possible."
So what is, it, exactly, that they bring? Six Demon Bag starts quietly, with a piano waltz, but then goofy voices come in with, "All I want to be is a shovely bubbly gobbly gook," and "Engrish Bwudd" takes off on a drunken romp. You'll recognize the chorus ("Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!"), but everything else is the sad story of a man stolen from "his slow mama's hands aboard the boat the Sweet Louisa." He gets picked up by "wild hyenas" who "taught him how to hunt old elephants, so he spent his formative years eating out badunkadunk," goes to France, and then gets kicked out of his girlfriend's house. All the while, what sounds like recorders whistle a gleeful melody.
The lyrics for "Young Einstein on the Beach" consist solely of "Gotta gotta get it get it got it good!" and all of the instruments throw themselves against the wall repeatedly--if the Gremlins had a band, "Young Einstein on the Beach" is what it would sound like. "Skin Tension," though, turns to Old World serenades, and sings, "It breaks my knees when she hides her nosebleeds in my dreams." "Black Mission Goggles" kicks in with hip-shaking percussion, surf guitar and Kattner singing, "The sky is falling like a sock of cocaine in the ministry of information."
Each song is its own melting pot of musical ethnicities, and the fact that they can suddenly boil over at any given moment may be due to the way Man Man writes their songs: on index cards.
"We have one of those old lotto ball machines, so whenever we have any ideas as far as writing a song, we just, like, tape that idea to one, and then roll it up and pop it in the machine. It gives us seven index cards, and we look through the ideas and decide if it's good or not," explained Kattner. "It's not always accurate, though. Sometimes, we just get recipes for food."
And sometimes, one gets songs like "Push the Eagles Stomach," with jazz saxophone, lines reminiscent of Kelis' "Milkshake," and the word "moustache" being repeated as the percussion clunks.
Remember, though, that Man Man is, despite the theatrics, a pop band: Each song is surprisingly catchy and exciting--intentionally messy, and loving every minute of it.