It’s hard to imagine what looked worse: the night a sleep-deprived, Ambien-addled Ryan Kattner hallucinated his way into a motor bike accident or the afternoon an electrician checking out his sublet’s faulty wiring walked into his room and found nothing but a boar’s head, half-drained bottles of booze, scattered tax forms, a Wurlitzer, a frame-less mattress, and writing on the walls. (They were song lyrics, but still.)
“He was severely freaked out. A haunted, wordless, freaked out. Maybe I wasn’t living very sanely,” says the Man Man frontman, who also goes by his keyboard-clobbering alter ego Honus Honus.
While it’s easy to nervously laugh at the absurdity of it all now, Kattner’s personal life got so dire a couple summers ago that he found himself wondering whether music was worth it anymore; whether a mounting pile of heartbreak, the heaviness of several friend’s tragic deaths, and IRS bills outweighed the need to express it all on stage or in the studio.
“It’s funny, because in the past, I was able to take bad situations and turn them into something creative,” explains Kattner. “This time I couldn’t at all. I felt nothing, which was worse than feeling miserable or depressed.”
As a black cloud hovered above his head on the east coast, Kattner did what many aimless artists have done before him–he put most of his possessions away in storage and lived out of a suitcase. His wandering took him to Los Angeles, Austin, Portland, and wherever else a friend had a couch, floor space, and patience to spare. In the end, it took many months for the singer/multi-instrumentalist to pick up the pieces and funnel an endless procession of love and loss into the demo stages of Man Man’s fourth album, Life Fantastic. But once the breakthrough moments started kicking in, he had no choice but to soldier on.
Take what happened on New Year’s Day not too long ago. Already a few months into some actual songwriting, Kattner stumbled into his very own after school special, best summed up by a new song…
“If I razor cut some bangs,” he howls in “Dark Arts,” clawing at the album’s most unhinged arrangements, “Will I forget who I am? Stare at the man who’s in the mirror; how the fuck did I live this long, this way?”
“I sent my father a demo of that song,” says Kattner, “and he called me afterwards to hear my voice. Make sure I was on the level. Everything about it sounds unhealthy, from the words to the vibe itself. But at the same time, I needed to get it all out of my head.”
The exorcisms didn’t end there, of course. Thanks to a renewed sense of purpose, the songwriting for Life Fantastic continued throughout the past year alongside promising sessions with the rest of Man Man: Drummer/Percussionist Chris Powell and multi-instrumentalists Billy Dufala, Jamey Robinson, and Russell Higbee.. Which isn’t to say that things came together quickly. Contrary to the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later rep of the group’s live show, Man Man records have always involved months–or in this case, years–of refinement to reach a level everyone’s happy with.
For instance, it took an entire day–literally two nine-hour stretches–to develop just two verses in the aforementioned “Dark Arts.”
“That’s just the way that I work,” explains Kattner. “I usually have to sing something at least 300 times before I bring it to the band. I work on the melody and the cadence, but I also want a delivery that feels real. I have to be able to sell what I’m saying, even if that mean sitting there with one verse on repeat.”
Not every song was the sonic equivalent of giving birth, however. Life Fantastic’s title track is one example of every last piece falling into place perfectly, from subdued bursts of brass and swooning strings to a piano progression that literally dances circles around anyone within earshot. And then there’s “Steak Knives.” Easily one of the most beautiful, barebones cuts in the Man Man catalog, it sounds like a cavernous confessional set against creeping chords and heart-sinking chorus lines. Simply put, the thing’s gonna make at least one person cry this year.
To add to the considerable headphone candy quotient of the entire LP, Life Fantastic is the first Man Man album with a proper producer behind the boards. And not just any knob-twiddler, either. We’re talking Mike Mogis, the Bright Eyes member responsible for the widescreen backdrops of nearly every major Saddle Creek release.
“The songs were fully-formed entities by the time we got to Mike’s studio,” says Kattner, “But he was there to say things like, ‘Okay, that’s a bit much.’ He was able to help us carve the beauty out of the chaos we brought. It wasn’t whittling down the points; it was sharpening them so they’d puncture even deeper.”
Mogis was also there to fulfill any random requests the band may have (a gang chorus here, a childlike melody there, even some field recordings) and flesh out their flashiest ideas with the delicate string arrangements of fellow Bright Eyes member Nate Walcott (see: the climatic close of “Oh, La Brea” for Man Man at their most cinematic).
All while maintaining the order ab chao ethos that’s been at the core of Man Man since their rail-jumping 2004 debut, The Man In a Blue Turban With a Face.
“I want us to be the kind of band you could bring home to your parents,” says Kattner, “but at the same time, they’re worried you might steal or break something. And you know what? They appreciate you for that very reason.”
On the surface, Murder By Death is a Bloomington, IN quintet with a wry, ominous name. But behind the geography and moniker is a band of meticulous and literary songwriters matched by a specific brand of brooding, anthem-riding balladry and orchestral indie rock.
Murder By Death’s path began in the early 2000s as most Midwestern college-town groups do, by playing to small crowds at ratty venues and frenzied house parties. While many of their formative-year scene-mates failed to make it much further than campustown’s borders, Murder By Death translated their anonymous beginnings into a 10+ year career founded on a bedrock of five full-length albums, tireless D.I.Y. touring and performing ethics, and, most importantly, a dedicated, cult-like fanbase.
Since the band began in 2001, their audience has blossomed due in part to extended tours alongside similarly hardworking musical kin such as Against Me!, Gaslight Anthem, Lucero, William Elliott Whitmore, Ha Ha Tonka, and others. Through more than 1,000 performances across the United States, Canada and Europe, Murder By Death has gained word-of-mouth devotees and support from the likes of media outlets like SPIN Magazine, who said of the band:
“They brawl like Johnny Cash’s cellmates or dreamily swoon like Nick [Cave], stomping saloon floorboards in 4/4 time as grand strings fade into high noon.”
What resonates most with supporters is the band’s energetic, unique, and altogether consistent sound and conceptualized vision. The personnel and ingredients of the group consist of Sarah Balliet’s throaty cello melodies, singer/guitarist Adam Turla’s booming baritone vocals and brawny guitar strumming, drummer Dagan Thogerson and bassist Matt Armstrong’s locked-down, post-punk rhythm section interplay, and Scott Brackett’s (formerly of Okkervil River and Shearwater) multi-instrumentalist bag of tricks (including piano, trumpet, accordion, mandolin, vocals, percussion). The overriding sound is an amalgamation of textures ranging from dark and desolate to upbeat and brightly melodic, all of it landing somewhere under the orchestrated indie rock umbrella.
The other mainstay signature element of Murder By Death’s identity has been built by the overriding concepts behind each individual album. Every successive effort conjures up fresh imaginative and tactile worlds – whether it’s the battle between the Devil and a small Western town (Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?, 2003), an arid land of death and redemption (In Bocca al Lupo, 2006), or just songs inspired by a retreat into the Tennessee mountains (Good Morning, Magpie, 2010).