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.”
Murder By Death
They may call Bloomington, Indiana, home, but since their 2000 formation, Murder by Death have been a band without musical borders. Theirs is a world where Old West murder ballads mingle with rock-injected Western classicism; where an album's sequencing can take listeners from a haunted back alley in rural Mexico to a raucous Irish pub. All of which is to say, Murder by Death albums don't just str
ing together songs; they create experiences. With their fifth album (and second for Vagrant), Good Morning, Magpie (04/06/10), Murder by Death continue the tradition of border expansion that drove career standouts like 2006's In Bocca al Lupo and 2008's Red of Tooth and Claw. The difference, however, is that this time, the band literally went off the map to get there.
"Going into the woods helped me write in a way I never would've been able to otherwise," says singer/guitarist Adam Turla, recalling the 2009 retreat into the Tennessee mountains during which, armed with little more than a tent, a fishing pole and a notebook, he wrote the 11 songs that would become Good Morning, Magpie. "There were days where I'd sit down and write for seven hours, make dinner, and then sit down and write late into the night with my little camp light going: just intense, nonstop sessions of pure writing. I've never worked that way, ever, because with all the business of being a band, I've never had so little to do! Every day I was either cooking, hiking while writing, or writing. I didn't speak to a single person the whole time."
Be that as it may, Good Morning, Magpie still speaks volumes. Recorded at Bloomington's Farm Fresh Studios with Jake Belser (who most recently worked with MBD on their all-instrumental soundtrack to Jeff Vandermeer's 2009 book Finch), and mixed by Grammy-winning Red of Tooth and Claw producer Trina Shoemaker, the album weaves 11 disparate stories into a whole that's unlike anything else in the band's catalog. "These songs definitely come together as an album; we just aren't relying on a concept this time," says Turla, referencing the conceptual storylines that drove Murder by Death's last two albums as well as 2002's Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them? "Being out in the woods with no pressure freed me up to explore different moods and different stories, all of which became linked through the experience I had writing them: just that sheer sprint of working in isolation."
With its junk-pile percussion and ramshackle Vaudevillian flow, "You Don't Miss Twice" is the only song on Good Morning, Magpie that directly references Turla's time in the woods—but the song's spirit informs much of what surrounds it. "I was telling a friend how I thought this was our most upbeat record, and his reply was, 'Seriously?'" Turla recalls, laughing. "But 'upbeat' doesn't necessarily mean 'happy.' Take a song like 'Yes'—it's got this fun, shuffling beat and this amazingly catchy melody from Sarah [Balliet, cello], but the lyrics are all about accepting death. Or 'Whiskey in the World,' which is basically a sad bastard's lament about how the whiskey that makes this character enjoy life is also what condemns him. That duality between the music and the lyrics is something we haven't done much until now."
Even though it was written in isolation, Good Morning, Magpie came together over six weeks of rehearsals back in Bloomington—ultimately marking the first time the band recorded a full-length at home. "We ultimately just decided to record in Bloomington because we had a friend here [Belser] with his own studio, and he'd already done a great job with the Finch soundtrack and our B-sides and 7-inches; and we also lucked out and had Trina [Shoemaker] basically making herself available to help us mix whenever we were finished. So then we started thinking, "Man, we have all this time to ourselves; we should just bring in our friends—musicians from Bloomington and Louisville, Kentucky, which is about 75 miles away—and just play parts here and there. It was great—the album ended up with a lot of different instrumentation, and we paid everyone in whiskey."
In keeping with Murder by Death tradition, whiskey also plays muse to a handful of Good Morning, Magpie's songs—including the Balliet-penned opener, "Kentucky Bourbon," which sounds like a Bulleit jingle spun through an old Victrola. But as the album progresses, the songs wind through other locales and moods: from eerie Southern-gothic territory (the creeping, uneasy "White Noise") to an old Spanish cabaret ("On the Dark Streets Below") to the high-noon drama of the title track—itself inspired equally by Welsh legend (the title references a tale of the magpie as Satan's messenger) and the American West. No mere genre exercise, Good Morning, Magpie feels like a travelogue from a band that's logged the miles to write from experience.
"Travel is a big part of this band's reason for being," says Turla, noting that the past few years have seen Murder by Death's passports stamped in Alaska, Greece, Norway and the Italian island of Sardinia, among other far-flung locales. They have challenged their fans to book them all over the world - in as many unique places as possible. "I personally love the sense of variety you get from traveling, and I'm sure that idea influenced the way I approached a lot of these songs. Trying to use different styles and throw in different influences—whether it's the way you turn a phrase or play a certain note—you can suggest different places," he concludes. "That's the fun of fiction; that's the fun of movies, and music can have that effect, too. It's all about being able to transport people to another place."
When DAMION SUOMI (sue-me) stands before you on a slightly elevated stage you will find yourself wondering where exactly you heard the songs before that night, there is just something familiar about them; like they have always been inside you, but you never heard them actually sung before. DAMION takes the stage as a nomad who just found his home again and will fight to stay in it as long as possible, empty and half empty beer bottles will surround him like a protective fence. DAMION says the songs he sings are "a mix of hope and despair," but what only takes one verse to realize is that hope and despair is sung as a doppelganger that can only survive conjoined to each other, which is why when DAMION is singing a song that reads like forgotten lines by Yeats and Bukowski, but he'll be smiling as an only child does on Christmas morning.
DAMION used to be in a rock band of the pop rock persuasion, but at some point he began writing a collection of songs that felt rooted in Irish culture and bar drunk poetry. "These songs were birthed from pubs, drinks, and relationships," he says. So he took this newly discovered collection and added in some classic Irish folk songs and began playing sets in Irish pubs all around Florida out of a hope that others would smile with him in the sorrow.
"I've always loved Irish culture", DAMION says, "If you study it you'll see heartbreak with a smile." this mixture is evident in all of the songs on his self-titled debut on P IS FOR PANDA records. On the song "San Francisco", DAMION sings of great love and what a waste it is all within the same breath. The chorus houses the line, "I gotta sing. I gotta shout. This world is tough. Boy, you should know if you love something let it go." tailgating on that line is yell from the mouth of a shot glass, "watch it die."
If you've ever searched out aged whisky to help you sort things out, then DAMION will be your preacher. If you've held onto your friends and lovers like stolen money, then DAMION's self-titled album will be your holy book to keep at your side. It will remind you to smile when sadness comes crashing in because you have to have them both to live.