You can tell where some bands are from by their sound. Other bands sound like tears in the fabric of reality. Man Man is the latter. If you were to guess where they are from based on the sound of their music you might think they sprang into existence in a secret bunker below a forgotten carnival deep in a haunted forest. Their music is a beautiful chaos of wide-ranging influences and surrealist lyrics that build into prosthetic hearts beating in the darkness.
On May 1, 2020, less than two months after the United States was largely shut down and quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Man Man released their sixth studio album, Dream Hunting in the Valley of the In-Between. A sprawling seventeen song epic that delivers on the past promises of Man Man’s prior work, the album was delivered into the world full of the irony of being a soundtrack to what felt like an apocalyptic moment in the world. The very moment that frontman, Honus Honus has spent years joking about being the perfect backdrop for the band’s music.
In the face of such a difficult climate for album promotion, Honus, aka Ryan Kattner, has refused to let the album disappear, putting his time and creativity to work via social media (including going live on Instagram from his shower) to get the word out about Dream Hunting. It was through Instagram that Honus Honus and I connected, which led to the only enjoyable Zoom call I’ve had during the pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and mention of kazoos.
RWB: I’ve been listening to the album, and reading the lyrics, and I’ve seen some of the things you’ve talked about in terms of writing the album in isolation. “On the Mend” you mentioned as being post-breakup. A lot of the songs have that vibe. A breakup album vibe. Do you feel like that permeated the whole album?
HH: Yeah, I mean it definitely was a sentiment going into it. I didn’t want the album to be overwhelmed by that feeling. So there was definitely an intention to bring joy and mirth and playfulness into it as well. But I was in a place post-relationships, and for a while I couldn’t use the name Man Man. And that was an extremely surreal feeling, since I started the band. So I did a solo record and did a little bit of touring with a solo band and it was just a money pit. And I was starting to lose confidence. Not in myself, but in the ability to be able to keep making music in a way that I could still get it out there and support it. And all these feelings kind of settled in. You hit various crossroads in your life and for me it felt like I was at the one where I may have to quit playing music, and just try to figure out some other path forward. And it was killing me because music to me is as intrinsic as breathing. So I was really wrestling with that and the more time that went by between Man Man releases I just thought, you know, it was done. I didn’t think I’d be able to get back on the horse again.
RWB: I think that’s a pretty common plight with indie artists in general. In the writing world I’ve experienced a lot of the same feelings. Is there a point? Is this going somewhere? Am I getting anywhere with what I’m trying to do?
HH: Yeah, I mean, ultimately you’re creating for yourself. But you also don’t want to work in a vacuum.
HH: I jokingly called my solo record Use Your Delusion. But I was reaching that point where, “am I being delusional here?” with trying to keep my baby alive. It was a constant struggle. Do I keep trying to do this? It’s been nothing but difficult. And I know nothing worth anything comes along easily. You have to persevere and push through that and I feel like all those things are in this record, which, in an unintended way makes it a very timely record for right now. Yeah. It’s pretty wild how much this record just makes sense right now.
RWB: You’ve been predicting that for years though.
HH: Jokingly, you know. Jokingly. Like, I make music that will finally be appreciated during the apocalypse. But I didn’t want the apocalypse to happen. Hell, even our album cover is so right now. Isolation. Struggling to deal with and confront the unknown. There was a lot of self doubt. I believe in my abilities and my songwriting, but there’s always going to be self doubt. I will say, though, that this time that I call my time in the wilderness, kind of being exiled from my own band was good in the sense that I found incredible players, supportive people, people who were wanting to make music with me. And I was able to emerge from all that with the best band I’ve had. And now we can’t tour.
RWB: The irony is thick with this album.
HH: Yeah. Oh my god. So, in between releases when Man Man was off, you know we toured Oni Pond for two years so by 2015 I kind of had to figure out what to do. I was side hustling just trying to make ends meet, while also supporting a solo album which didn’t make any money, just lost me money. For this record, you know, I think it’s the best record I’ve ever made. I feel like every experience took me to the place which created this record. It took four years to make this record. And it’s just one of those things where I feel like I pushed all my emotional and financial chips to the table, because I was so excited and delighted to get out there and tour the wheels off it and share it with everyone and now it was a bad gamble.
RWB: But the album definitely has that feeling of a synthesis of everything that came before it. The first Man Man album I listened to was when Rabbit Habits came out and since then I’ve listened to everything pretty religiously. Over the weekend Ilistened to all the albums in order and I could pick out these elements from each one and see those in their evolution in the new songs.
HH: You want to constantly evolve. You’re always gonna have grouches in the corner like, “oh I like them better when they just banged on pots and screamed.” Alright, great, go listen to that record. I’m not the same person. I’ve changed. I have more life experience. I think it’s boring to keep making the same record over and over again. I want to challenge myself. I want to grow. I want to evolve. That’s what life is about. If you want stasis and that’s what you’re comfortable with that’s fine, but that’s just not my trip. A big thing with this record is that we spent three and a half years recording it and it was pretty much done instrumentally. I decided—and I talked it out with the producer Cyrus Ghahremani—I wasn’t happy with how it sounded. It sounded great. It sounded like a record, but it didn’t capture the right vibe like the first records I ever made did. So we went in and we re-recorded. We scrapped three years worth of stuff and recorded live in a studio over two days, which is wild when you think about it. And Cyrus is a great dude and he had the same instincts and he was willing to scrap three years of work. And I think it’s what gives the record that “you’re in the room with us vibe.”
RWB: It definitely has a lot of energy to it, and it flows really well. You’ve mentioned that this is an album that works best when you sit down and listen to it all the way through. And you can really feel that movement through it. This is an album album.
HH: I know we live in an era of singles, I don’t live in the past with that. But I like albums to be a concept. To be a whole living thing. And sequencing is super important to me and we hadn’t had an album in seven years and I wanted to come out of the gate swinging with the sequencing of the record. And then on the second half of the album things get a little more introspective. It’s not fun to sequence, but it came together.
RWB: In “Cloud Nein” there’s a lyric where you say “a dollop of delusion” and I was curious if that was a callback to the solo album, or if I was reading into it too much.
HH: No, absolutely. I mean, that song is as much singing to myself as it is singing to anyone else. When you have seven years between releases, and you find yourself in a position where your own band name has been taken away from you for a while you really realize that nothing ever lasts. You just have to push through. It’s a very basic sentiment but it really hit home.
RWB: Lyrically a lot of the songs seem like you’re addressing yourself and then they expand outward.
HH: For me lyrically that’s why it takes me years to make a record. I mean, I have friends—God bless them, but fuck them—in a year they can write three or four records. Or ten records. For me, it takes four years to write nineteen songs. That just sucks. But that’s because my emphasis is on the songwriting and the crafting of the words. A song needs to be personal, but not so personal that the feelings can’t be transposed to another person. I want to write a song that while, yeah, I’m dealing with some shit, it’s also something you can identify with. That’s the transformative quality of music, which is incredible. It’s a collage of personal experience and storytelling and things I ingest over that time. I never want to make a record that’s like woe is me, I’m a sad boy. That’s so fucking boring to me. So I do appreciate that’s what you pulled out of it, because I really struggle to write songs.
RWB: You mentioned the collage aspect in terms of the storytelling. That matches the music itself, this collage of sounds. There are so many different instruments that get pulled into Man Man songs that there is this real wild sense that matches what you’re talking about.
HH: I don’t go into a song like, this is gonna be kind of a bluegrass deal and then a Frank Sinatra “New York, New York” thing. And then it’s gonna be an homage to David Bowie. And then it’s gonna end up somewhere baroque and then it’s a total meltdown. No, these songs just get written. I think that’s something that throughout my career has frustrated musicians that play with me sometimes. Like, You can’t mash these things up. Whenever that’s said I’m like, why not? I think it’s cool. Who says you can’t? There are no rules.
RWB: It’s art.
HH: Yeah. Once you start having those hang ups, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. But I do think it makes it difficult for people to try to categorize us, because they like to put people in genre boxes.
RWB: You wrote the album by yourself with a piano. How did the rest come together after that, because there’s such a rich textured layer of different sounds. How do you decide what all these other elements are going to be?
HH: I did all the arranging on the record with Cyrus and we just have a second language together. And so we were able to figure out, Okay, I’m hearing this here and he’ll make a suggestion and I’m like yeah that’d be cool. Then we just have extremely talented players. Like on “Goat” I explained here’s what I’d like to hear—and “Goat” is such a badass saxophone song and Casey Butler, who plays sax on the record, he’s a heavy hitter so he could just go with it. And if there are things that I don’t like or that don’t really work, we talk it out. It’s like you’re bringing in a skeleton, then you can put flesh on it. And fortunately everyone’s pretty egoless, and it’s just about serving the greater picture of the song.
RWB: Obviously the state of the world right now is affecting your ability to play this album live. If Man Man’s not able to tour until fall of 2021 is it the same album anymore, a year and a half after the it came out?
HH: Maybe we’ll just re-release the record next year like it never came out. It’s a tricky thing, because we’re a band that our income and our livelihood is dependent on touring. That’s where we make the bulk of our money. And we’re all, for lack of a better word, we’re all fucked. And it’s gonna be interesting to see where we’re at a year from now. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep doing this. I’m going to be ruined from it. We’ll figure it out. My biggest worry is that I don’t want this record to slip through the cracks. I’m really proud of this album, and we put a lot into it. It was constructed in a way that it benefits from long plays, and it benefits from repeat listens. There’s so many layers to this record. And that was intentional, you know, we had a lot of time to make it. My favorite albums are ones that reveal themselves even more, the more you listen to them. And that’s the silver lining right now, if people do give this album a chance I think it’s a good one to soundtrack your life.
Dream Hunting in the Valley of the In-Between is out now on SubPop Records.