Man Man is a cavalry of carnal merrymaking. A five-headed beast of war paint and white costumes, of saxophone and sousaphone and xylophone and pots and pans that clang and bang like how 5-year-olds or demons make music. The Man Man gang, with brash nicknames like Pow Pow and Chang Wang, swap instruments like spit and sweat, and pierce with glee the comfort zone of any guarded listener. It's as bracing as bands come, an onslaught of potentially alienating, though ultimately engaging, art-school clichés carried out with the fire of an entering freshman and the calculated precision of a tenured prof.
"I never thought Man Man would get us out of Philly," says petite, mustachioed frontman Honus Honus (born Ryan Kattner). His interpersonal interactions barely deviate from the spastic ferocity that defines his onstage persona.
Since its 2004 debut, The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face, the Philadelphia-based group has been, like, the definitive act on the carnivalesque rock circuit. (Gogol Bordello, another scene ringleader, will accompany Man Man for a handful of dates in late May and early June.) Man Man has also toured with a bunch of indie's most successful, more mainstream acts, including Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Cat Power.
Man Man culls sounds from gypsy cabaret, jazz, punk, pop, the schizo ward at the psychiatric hospital and the alleyway behind the diviest bar just after last call. The band's albums tend to sound dirty and fast, but everything is planned and purposeful -- "structured chaos, like trying to keep the atom in the bomb," says Honus.
Last year's Rabbit Habits (Anti- Records) has been branded Man Man's "pop" masterpiece, even though Honus wrangles with critics' adopted assessment based on an offhand comment awhile back ("this is what happens when you make a tongue-in-cheek statement during an interview"). He concedes, though, that yeah, sure, Rabbit Habits is certainly more accessible and poppy than Man Man's debut or 2006's Six Demon Bag. It has to do with the way it was mixed, he thinks, and the fact that for the first time, his vocals are clear and upfront, instead of hidden behind kazoos and literal-rather-than-figurative fireworks-as-instruments.
"It's a double-edged sword," says Honus, who admittedly shrieks and howls more than sings. "People could be like, 'Oh, that's what he sounds like? Fuck this band.' It's a measuring point of whether or not people will stick around and appreciate what everyone else is doing."
Indeed, what Honus likes most about the band, he says, is its polarizing potential. You're either into Man Man, or you're not. You either adore Man Man, or despise from afar everything it does and stands for.
Pity to be a bystander rather than a participant, though, at a Man Man show. There's a kind of kinetic energy that crackles among band members and extends into the audience, the message that it's OK to let go in this particular time and place, and maybe even beyond.
"If you feel like freaking out at a Man Man show, you don't have to worry about people thinking you're bizarre," says Honus. "We're just doing what we do; we're not really thinking about how we're looking. 'Cause trust me -- I've seen photographs of myself performing. My mother thinks there's problems with me. She's right."
Man Man is certainly for waving the freak flag in all art associated with its music -- look no further than the video for "Rabbit Habits." The recently released ode to Teen Wolf stars Honus' friend Charlyne Yi (who is also Michael Cera's girlfriend), as well as Fred Armisen (who really should just quit SNL and focus entirely on comedic duo ThunderAnt, with Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein). Though Rabbit Habits, the album, is basically a year old, it was worth the wait for the short film, which features werewolves in love, snacking and van-surfing their way through one magical night, with one very awkward morning after.
"Freak, freak, get away from me!" Armisen yelps while fleeing from the adorable Yi in full-on, full-moon fur. Of course, by the end of the video, Armisen gets what's coming to him for ridiculing such a lovable, good-natured weirdo -- evisceration.
This celluloid method of storytelling is not entirely foreign to Honus, who studied playwriting and screenwriting in college before translating his theatrical aspirations into songs.
"I started playing music on the side as sort of a therapy," he says. "Then I made some poor life decisions and it became my full-time thing."
Man Man, opening for Cursive. 7 p.m. Tue., May 5. Diesel Club Lounge, 1601 E. Carson St., South Side. $15 ($18 day of show). All ages. 412-431-8800 or www.dieselpgh.com
- Poor decisions: Man Man