It’s a Man Man’s world

Philly’s favorite avant rockers bring their wildly absurdist style to Ybor.

A boy trudges home from school, gets bullied by the neighborhood thugs and later, finds comfort (along with inspiration for payback) in John Waters’ Cry Baby. And thus, the video for Man Man’s “Piranhas Club” begins, as our boy hero turns greaser, slicks back his hair with a switchblade comb and a healthy dollop of pomade, dons a leather jacket and shades, and gathers his own motley crew of delinquents to start a street gang, who set out on their bicycles to raise hell. In the course of the video, the juvie gang gets up to all sorts of no good — throwing raw eggs from an overpass, shoplifting sodas and snacks from a convenient store, taking baseball bats to a car, fooling around with a dead cat in a nasty abandoned lot, and ultimately turning the tables on the thugs and getting sweet revenge.

The hilarious video — directed by Lex Halaby, and co-written by Man Man frontman Ryan Kattner (see below) — has been selected as an official entry in the prestigious LA Film Festival. I discussed the making of the video with Kattner when we spoke by phone last week. The band had worked with Halaby in the past, and knew he was capable of making the most from a minuscule budget. Plus, Kattner was available to lend a free hand. “Basically, I was on set trying to help out in any way I could, chauffeuring people around, or trying to distract the parents while their kids were doing all these terrible things,” he explained. “Like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, it’s totally fine. This dead cat, it’s nothing.’”

The taxidermied feline came from a Hollywood props company and was stuffed with sand instead of sawdust, giving it a realistic appearance of floppy recent deadness. “We tried to get a dead dog but we didn’t have the budget for it,” Kattner explained. “So we went with a dead cat instead. And it was gnarly, its head was kind of squashed and its eyeballs were missing, but there were still bloodstains from where the eyeballs were. And so we couldn’t get the kids to pick it up.” To prove it wasn’t so bad, he said, “I picked it up and I was like, ‘Look, it’s just like a teddy bear, basically, it’s just kind of gross-looking and smelly, but see, it’s nothing.’ And I’m holding it, thinking, ‘Aw man that thing’s gnarly.’ The one kid, Albert, when he picked it up, he was a little resistant at first, and wary, until he realized the power that holding a dead cat wielded among everyone, including the crew. That’s pure maniacal joy on his face, when he’s laughing and chasing people around with that dead cat.”

Kattner called casting kids a “strange situation,” but he and Halaby soon discovered the best way to make the final cut: “We had every single kid dance to the song at the very end of their audition. You can really see how the kids are gonna be when they’re dancing. And ultimately, that’s how we chose them — how they reacted to the music in dance.”

Man Man has been producing weirdo avant rock since forming nearly a decade ago in Philadelphia, and they’ve earned frequent comparisons to Tom Waits both for the bizarre lyrical content and vocals of Kattner, whose ragged barks and crusty gut-bellows deliver wacked-out narratives that come direct from his warped psyche.

His wildly offbeat style is well-suited to Man Man’s carnival freak-show aesthetic, which mixes theatric old world gypsy music with brash experimental pop, Zappa-style prog rock, and more recently, as with “Piranhas Club,” twisted doo-wop. The band’s elaborately layered and tightly arranged instrumentals writhe, lurch and burst with colorful embellishments and eclectic textural elements as created by the kitchen sink's worth of instruments Man Man’s members employ, which include but aren’t limited to clavinet, Moog synths, brass (sax, trumpet, French horn, flute, euphonium, sousaphone, bass clarinet), xylophone, marimba, melodica and all manner of nontraditional percussive tools.

The band — currently encompassing Kattner (aka Honus Honus), Christopher Powell (Pow Pow), Jamey Robinson (T. Moth), Billy Dufala (Chang Wang) and Jefferson — has issued four LPs so far, the last two (including 2011’s Life Fantastic) via Anti-. While Life Fantastic may seem like the band’s most accessible effort to date, its lyrical content is darker and more ironically horrifying than ever. Kattner admitted to the sneakiness of dressing up his sinister narratives with upbeat music, something he said he strives to do. “It’s fun to have the contrast, it makes life interesting, it’s like putting siracha on your salad or your cupcake. Or in the case of one of the songs, on someone who works in a deli.”

The song he references, “Haute Tropique,” is about being the best bad you can be as told via the absurd stories of a man who not only eats people but uses the leftovers to make housewares, and a mock Brady Bunch mother whose out-of-control temper drives her to commit filicide: “Here’s a story of a lovely lady/she had three daughters who drove her fucking crazy/She hacked them up with an old machete/and threw a party with dead daughter confetti.” Kattner also has a knack for mixing fact with fiction and using his autobiographical experiences to make profound and tragic statements about life, as in the wildly unhinged “Dark Arts,” where he reflects on a drug-related accident (“Bored to life you shower with a knife/You mix Ambien and motorbikes), the death of good friends, and his feelings of alienation.

Live, the band crushes it with an outrageously energetic stage show that is pure adrenaline and hardcore instrument-clobbering. In other words, a spectacle you don’t want to miss. “Drag the bodies out, please. The live bodies. You bring the bodies, we’ll bring the bath salts.”

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