Very early in this interview Honus Honus describes his band as a “handshake band.” If you know the band then you know, and if you don’t know, well, then you’re not reading this interview.
I’ve been a fan of Man Man since Andrea Waters played “Engwish Bwudd” in the Wendy’s drive through on 27th on our way to a show at the Pabst Theater when we were in high school. I’ve been a fan ever since. They are that kind of band.
And they just released one of their finest works. “Dream Hunting in the Valley of the In Between” is a culmination of all their work that came before. It’s wild and adventurous. It’s weird, but yet it is so, so catchy at times. Honus Honus called me from his writing space in L.A., only to find that his writing space had terrible internet, so he drove 20 minutes back to his place and called me from there.
I’m such a big fan of Man Man, and have been for so long. I realized that Man Man is the connector of the greatest friendship of my life. I was hanging out in my dorm room in college and I was listening to “Six Demon Bag” and the guys next to me were listening to “Rabbit Habits” and I like walked out of the door and I was like, “What the fuck is going on here? You guys get it? I get it. We should be friends.” And we have been the best friend sets, best friends I ever had in my life.
That’s amazing. It reminds me, I came to this realization last year that we’re basically a secret handshake band.
Absolutely 100%. I am like in the office at work. We were talking about bands to play and stuff. We were talking about some of our essential bands. And I was like Man Man is an essential band for me. I looked around the room and soem people had no idea and the ones that knew, they were the ones that knew. For sure a secret handshake.
Yeah. For me that band was Pavement. They’re my favorite band, or Pavement and Can. And whenever I met anyone who loved Pavement and Can, I just knew that on a deep down, inexplicably level, we would get along.
Yeah. That’s so great. I was going to ask you, what are some of the bands for you at the beginning when you were making Man Man, when you were like, “This is what we want to sound like. Talk more about Can, what’s the deal with your love of them?
So with Can, I discovered them in my senior year of college, there was a grad student I was friends with and she was dating a musician. His name was Jeff Mueller. He’s still alive. He was in June of 44. He was in the band Shipping News. It was part of that Louisville scene. They are like Slint. He doesn’t remember me cause I ran into him years later at a festival in Barcelona we were playing and I told him, basically, because of you, I started my career, playing music. He just thought I was a fanboy. ‘Cause I couldn’t even grow a mustache in college. So he wouldn’t recognize me. But anyway, I just asked him, “Hey man, you play music, just suggest a couple of records for me?” So he suggested Can, Delay. And I think the second Black Heart record, Black Heart Procession, and they just blew my mind. With the Black Heart I was like, “Wow, this is spooky evocative music.” I really did this thing on its own. And I liked how much space is in it. And then with Can, it really opened my eyes in the sense of, you don’t have to sound like one thing. You could just sound like yourself across the spectrum and you don’t have to be locked in to playing the same type of song every time.
I do think that the thing that I love about Man Man is that it does sound like yourself and how do you find what yourself sounds like?
I mean, it’s tough. When I first started out I didn’t think I would make more than one record. And I wanted to have a female singer. I didn’t even know how to sing properly. So the first couple of records are just real throat shredders. ‘Cause I was trying to destroy my voice. I was like, if I have a destroyed voice, at least it might be an interesting voice. At the time, I didn’t think I had a great singing voice. And as far as not being confined to genre or whatever, it’s really, I’m self taught. And if I just came up with something and someone was like, “Yo, that sounds like a reggae song.” It’s like, I’m singing it, it can be my words and It’s going to sound like my song. So who cares? I’m not trying to write a reggae song. I’m not trying to write a bluegrass song. I’m trying to write a song period.
I feel like you can hear all of that kind of “adventuring,” in the song and in all the songs. And that is a part of why I love them. Do you have a favorite Can song?
I do and it’s funny, this is a song that I just came into recently.
They just released on vinyl, the can singles. And there was a song that I’d never heard before called “Cascade Waltz.” Do you know what song?
It’s a beautiful song and the lyrics are very sparse, but they’re perfect. “Cascade Waltz” currently is my favorite Can song.
I love bands that have gigantic discographies because there is endless discovery in there and you can always find something. What drew you to Pavement?
Pavement was also a late discovery for me. I didn’t get into them until “Terror Twilight.” For me, it’s always exciting when I discover a band later in their career because I’m like, “Oh my God, I can really dig it.” I can see where it came from and for them, that’s what happened. And I really connected with, Malkmus and his lyrics. I love how he could mix absurd imagery, but somehow in the way he delivered it made it feel personal. He could sing about a blue incandescent lampshade, but somehow, make that feel like a personal statement. And the juxtaposition of storytelling, like from one line to the next, they seem disconnected, but they make total sense because they’re sung with total sincerity and that’s kind of what I pulled from it. And I think it’s why I ended up writing songs the way I do where I have to sing a song 500 times before I bring it to all the musicians. Because at that point, it’s as second nature as breathing to me. So I could sing about something I’ve observed, but like I’ve sung it so much, it’s part of me now.
Right. Or the opposite, where you can sing about something that’s personal and then it’s so wrote that it feels absurd. Having talked to Malkmus, I think that like Malkmus has a thing that you have, which is, you’re both funny, it’s like the songs have a sense of humor.
I mean, I think you have to have levity in music and when you balance it with genuine emotion, it’s confusing to people and it’s great. I love when you don’t expect a song to like dig into a part, like “Oh wow. That’s actually kind of heartfelt and unexpected” and then come back like, “Oh, that’s the funny line.” The thing with Pavement though, Malkmus made me want to quit playing guitar.
Oh, it was one of the things like “Oh man, he’s kind of doing everything that I want to do that I can’t do.” He’s doing everything that I aspire to do, but by aspire to do it, like he does, I’m just copying. So screw it. I’m just not going to do it. So then I just started playing keyboards and I feel like getting turned on to Black Heart, that was a keyboard based band largely. It was very super trampy. I always felt limitations with guitar, as far as what to do vocally. I can give you the stuff on guitar, I’ve written maybe half a dozen Man Man guitar songs. I always felt kind of locked into this structure that I can never break free from. So I could write a song, but it’s never a song that I liked. I was like, “Uh, such a boring guitar song.” But on a keyboard, I found the freedom to really work my voice more. And the keyboard is more physical because you’re really throwing yourself into it. Or at least I would, I would totally destroy keyboards. But I just found an attachment and I had no idea what I was doing. I was totally self taught.
How does that translate into all of the million other instruments that you put on the record?
You know, it’s just one of those things. I think I’m un-diagnosed ADD. So I just get bored with hearing like a blues guitar solo that I’ve heard a gazillion times just on a song. And for me, it was always far more interesting. And this can go back to like maybe some of those early eighties, Tom Waits records, that’s when I first heard marimba, on a song.
I was just about to bring up marimba, because it is all over “Dream Hunting.” Tom Waits is a favorite artist of mine. Sometimes you’re just like, “Okay, this is a thing that I know.” And then I know marimba and Tom Waits albums because I listened to Tom Waits all the time. But I didn’t know if that is a connection. Is there a connection there with the marimba?
I mean, I’ll be honest, I get annoyed when people are just like, “Ah they’re just like Tom Waits” because we’re not.
You’re not! No, I’m not saying that at all.
I know that, I know that! In this regard. I will say that I was inspired to use marimba and a song from, maybe it’s like “Rain Dogs” or like “Frank’s Wild Years,” or one of those records I heard as a grid and the marimba always kind of jumped out at me. And because of those albums, I looked up what that sound was. And I was like, “Oh, marimba, that’s cool.” Because on the record, I don’t like vibraphones, I don’t like glockenspiel. A marimba just felt earthy, you can get darker tones. And it just felt strange. And I remember being 22 or 23 in Philly, and there was a music store or had a marimba, but it was monochromatic. So there were no black keys and it was two octaves of just like the white keys. And that’s why the first two Man Man records, you can play all the marimba parts on just the white keys.
The marimba, like the piano, is something that you can throw your body into and also has such a scale.
Yeah, just the articulation on it. And the cool thing about the marimba is that even if you’re playing the same notes, just the tones of it, the earthiness of it, it doesn’t get in the way of a piano.
Yeah, I think that in dream hunting also, I feel like you really stepped it up in terms of instrumentation, like “Goat” to me is such a great song because it’s got those incredible horns. It sounds like something that’s kind of totally different and earthy. That sound super stuck out to me in the first couple of listens of just being like “Damn, we’re here, we’re on something different here.” What popped off with that song?
I mean, I liked that that was your feeling. Because when “Goat” kicks in and the record and the sequence, you’re like, you’re in it, baby.
Yeah. For sure.
We are in. I mean, as I’ve already stated, like I love kraut rock. I love German rock. I wanted a song that took time to evolve and just kind of that you felt like you were just in a different world. It was very cinematic. I mean, the song was inspired by someone I was dating at the time who was bitten by a goat and she thought she had salmonella.
I remember listening to that song for the first time and being like, “Was there even lyrics here?” You know, I was just like, so lost in the sauce.
I’ve always been fortunate even from the beginning. I’m the first one to admit, like as a musician, I’m passable. Which sucks because I try to make a go at it in this world as a “musician.” If you’re not a sideman, you kinda just have to write your own songs. So that’s why I’ve been forced into that role. But I always have had incredible players and I really wanted to have a song that truly showcased the players. My school of thought for songwriting is kind of the Tom Petty. “Don’t bore us get to the chorus.” I always try to write a song like under three minutes. And I don’t even think it’s that long, but it feels long. Cause it’s like, I just wanted to give the band time to stretch their legs and just get a vibe going. And that vibe was indicative of the whole record.
Absolutely. It’s like, you go to outer space and you come back in three minutes. And that is a thing that I think that when I have talked about Man Man, for some people who don’t get it, I think that y’all are adventurous and the sound escape, but you always, always are super catchy. You know? Like, when that Mister Heavenly stuff came out, I feel like everything that you have done is like, “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” comes back to being grounded and it can be a little amalgamous and it can get out there and get weird, which is like what I want it to do. But then also it comes back and I’m singing “Cloud Nein” every day of my life. And it’s stuck in my head every time I hear it.
Yet somehow we can’t ever seem to break through. I feel like there’s a governor on this band’s trajectory. Now granted and the circumstances in which this album has been released. Unfortunately, people know music, but I think this is the best record. This is the best batch in its entirety, of songs, I think I’ve ever written. And I feel like it took everything to get to this point. And it sucks that it has to come out now and I’m just hoping it doesn’t get lost in the vacuum. Cause I just feel like if anyone had any hang up with his band, or if you wanted to get into this band, this is the album.
That’s what I thought too. I was like “Cloud Nein” came out as a single and I was like, this is the single that is taking them off. I was like, “this thing is an absolute jam.” How couldn’t it?
Were you surprised by that when you heard the record version of it?
I was! Because I got that version early and I listened to the record and it starts off and I was like, okay, here’s “Cloud Nein” and I was like, wait a second. What is going on here. And then in the middle section too.
They were like, we can’t have a single where you have a full on stop in the middle of your song like that.
I think the stop is cool, but I understand.
It’s an Easter egg for people that fell in love with the single and then listen to the actual album.
“The Prettiest Song in the World” I think really kind of showcases how much fun you have lyrically. What was going on when you were writing that?
I literally was trying to write the prettiest song on the road for a girl that I was dating briefly and I could not focus. And at the time there were these massive wildfires over Burbank and like I think their Calabasas and stuff. So my writing space is in Atwater Village, Burbank’s just beyond it. But I would walk out of my space frustrated and just look up and see the Hills on fire. And sometimes you write a song and you try so hard to push it and try to get more parts out of it. And this was just one of those songs that was like, you know what, I’m just gonna end it just like this. I cannot finish this song and this is just what it wants to be. But then in the first half of the song I had been working on a musical with a buddy of mine, this guy, Rolin Jones, who gave me the writing space. And he’s a brilliant playwright and screenwriter. And he was nominated for a Pulitzer for a play he wrote. He wrote The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. And he’s awesome. So we’ve been working on a musical together and I was mad at him for a while because I don’t know squat about musicals. So I started, I was like, “Oh, this is how to write musical songs.” And then I started leaking into my Man Man songwriting. So when I look at the first half of the song, it was like, Oh, that’s where the musical theater is and it’s really leaked into my song writing, especially for someone who’s never liked musical theater.
Why haven’t you liked musical theater?
I think it goes back to when I was in art school, I was friends with a lot of actors because I went to art school for playwriting and screenwriting, but the musical theater kids were so annoying at parties. They would just get drunk and they would just sing showtunes. And I think it ruined musical theater for me.
I think I had a similar experience where I was like, I don’t like this crowd. I think within the past year I was talking to my friend and I was talking about all the things that I like, like the Scott Walker records and Tom Waits and like some of this other stuff. And I was like, and actually some actual theater, I watched An American in Paris the other day. And I was like, I love this. And I was like, maybe I do like it. Sue me.
I’ve come around on it. I have some lyrics that I’m working on for about two days stuck in my head for this musical that I’m writing right now. And it’s like “My boss hates me, I’ve got HPV from boning a nurse in a Prius last week.” I don’t know, it’s stuck in my head.
Is it fun writing a musical?
It’s challenging. I mean, the fun part of it is that songs in musicals constantly evolve to a high point. And you can keep just shifting gears until you cross into a wall. But it’s hard to write musical songs. At least I have a hard time because I’m confined by my caveman knowledge of playing piano. Also my limited vocal range, like I do not have a musical theater voice. So it’s tricky, but I like challenges and I like working on things that are way out of my comfort zone and this is definitely it. But when I wrote “Prettiest Song,” at the time I had been hired to write songs for a movie-musical, a film and also this like off-Broadway, Broadway musical. So I just had musical theater on the brain, which I think also affected “Powder my Wig.” Which, for me, “Powder my Wig” is my “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
What is a song you have been listening to a lot recently?
The past two days I’ve been listening to a song called “Bonny.” I don’t know why.
Who’s it by?
Charlie Wadhams. It’s a very Yacht Rocky kind of song. I don’t know why but I’ve been listening to that a lot. I don’t know. I think he’s an LA dude. One of my horn players, might play on his album, he sent it to me the other day. And I’ve just been taking a look at that.
Tell me more about the track. What’s it like, what’s the vibe? You sound a little concerned with yourself.
I don’t know because it’s not normally the kind of music I listen to. It’s a pretty chill song. It’s very seventies, smeared Vaseline on the lens.
Is there one that is more of what you normally listen to?
My buddy Drew Mills put out a record, which is really beautiful. A.M. Mills. The album’s called “Angel Eyes” and it’s just beautiful songwriting. He’s got a great voice. He’s a dude from Philly that I really looked up to back in the day. He was in a band called Aspera. He had a band called Blood Feathers and this band Blood Feathers, the co-song writer from that band is Ben Dickey who played Blaze in that movie Blaze. Wow. It’s something that I’m not terribly into, but I’ve been trying to listen to a lot of outlaw country music right now because I’m working on a script that deals with a lot of that stuff.
Well, it is very much my vibe.
I don’t know that one, but do you know Kris Kristofferson? Kris Kristofferson has studied Shakespearean poetry in England.
He was a Rhodes Scholar. And Merle Haggard, everyone loves a Merle, but I’ve been trying to listen to that stuff for inspiration. Honestly, the only thing I’ve been listening to for the past week or so is, there’s a song that I wrote for Mavis Staples a few years ago. She never heard the song, but I just wanted to do something positive during these kind of topsy-turvy times. I have this demo that I wrote for her, and then I had the rest of the band just record parts for it. And so we’re going to drop that on July 3rd on the next BandCamp day with all proceeds going to NAACP. I think whatever that first Friday in July is, I think it’s July 3rd. All future proceeds from the Band Camp sales will just go to the NAACP. And the song is called “Dig Deep.” And I mean, it really would sound better with someone like Brittany Howard or Mavis Staples. So when you hear my voice singing it and you have to like, use your imagination and pretend it’s one of them singing it. Because it really needs that kind of powerful voice. I try my best, but I ain’t no Mavis Staples. Bettye LaVetter would knock it out of the ballpark. Just someone who has that gravitas. I’m just a half-Filipino weirdo. I don’t got it.
Well thank you for chatting. I cant wait to tell my buddies in Madison.
Did you see our show at the High Noon Saloon?
Someone at one of those shows shat their pants in front of me.
They were like on acid or something, and I’m on stage. And I had to like, kick him in the face to get him off the stage. I was playing and this guy was bugging out so hard. Clearly on LSD, just tripping face. The crowed started to clear out and back up and then I got the wall of smell and I was like, okay, this guy just shat himself. And then he tried to get on stage and I was like, not happening, bud! And I had to kick him in the face to keep him off stage. I didn’t want to kick him in the face, but I didn’t want a guy who just shat himself on stage either.
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