For as long as the members of Man Man can remember, singer Ryan Kattner, aka Honus Honus, hasn’t been shy about donning the most flamboyant dresses and capes to make his gaggle of characters come to life.
His fashionista spidey-senses tingle when he sees clothing more akin to grandma outfits for important rituals like bingo games or church outings, Kattner remarks. But more important than his best Tina Turner or Liza Minnelli impersonations is what lies beneath it all – a refined sense of performance and what a performer should be.
“If I am uncomfortable, I should be more uncomfortable and push myself,” Kattner says. “Once you can throw yourself out on a limb, it can go places.”
It’s no secret. Man Man is not a standard rock band, like The Beatles, The Killers or Foo Fighters. They aren’t the rock band anyone wants them to be, mostly because of who they are and have always been. By the same token, they just don’t give a shit. It’s a take it or leave it approach, but either way, you’ll never see anything like it again.
If “Head On,” a single from last year’s release, On Oni Pond, is your point of reference, seeing a Man Man show may be surprising.
“The song is a bit of a gateway drug,” explains drummer Chris Powell, aka Pow Pow. “You could say, ‘Oh this is great,’ or ‘Oh, fuck, that shit is crazy. I’m not into it.’ I think either is great.”
To Man Man, the “experimental” in an experimental genre is a dirty word. The band isn’t shy of catchy hooks, carnal melodies and storytelling, however mischievous and dark they may be. Where the experimental label catches up with the band stems from the theatrical and unconventional shenanigans of their live performances.
“It’s me throwing on a Tina Turner dress and doing my best Liza Minnelli impersonation,” Honus Honus says. “I don’t make a very beautiful woman, I make an interesting looking woman.”
A Man Man show is unforgettable from start to finish. Kattner regularly kicks back the piano bench to stomp and belt songs at the top of his lungs and shimmies all around the stage between costume changes and character impersonations.
“It’s like anything else in our set,” Kattner says. “It’s a juggling act. I know I have X amount of time to run across the stage and put on something before I have to start singing. If things get fucked up and go wrong, it’s exciting in its own way. It’s a forever quest.”
Powell, meanwhile, looks like he is sitting on a spring-loaded launch pad by the way he bounces around, which must be a hell of a ride judging from his animated facial expressions. Adam Schatz, known as Shono, and Bryan Murphy, aka Brown Sugar, equally match the the others’ ferocity with palatable tomfoolery.
One of the earliest examples of Man Man kicking it up a notch was in 2007, when they enlisted Philadelphia artist Isaac Lin to paint the drums that were scattered around the stage during a show. Lin, a friend of Powell’s from the pre-Man Man days of Need New Body and Icy Demons, incorporated his black calligraphy pattern with neon colors in between, which looked cool under the black lights Lin recalls. Man Man still features Lin’s creations on stage today.
More recently, Philadelphia-born costume designer Naomi Davidoff helped Man Man pull off a stunt that got the attention of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Davidoff took an off-white tunic and plastered Blitzer’s face in blue and magenta all over it, like a kind of awkward chicken pox one typically gets from watching CNN. Pictures of the tunic and news that Honus Honus referenced the station’s anchor in the song “End Boss” off of On Oni Pond first made it on to a segment of Anderson Cooper’s show, then Blitzer commented on it himself a week later.
“I’ve received many honors throughout my career but perhaps none as satisfying as being the inspiration for an indie rock song,” Wolf Blitzer says in the segment, which is accessible online.
“It’s about Wolf Blitzer breaking into houses and eating children,” Kattner says of the song. “I thought it would be more interesting if it was Wolf Blitzer, the CNN guy.”
Davidoff, who says she has been listening to Man Man for years, was excited to work with the band even before the tunic went viral.
“I thought it could be a really cool opportunity to make something custom of Man Man,” she says, “and see how Ryan would transform the costumes during their performance.”
In the summer of 2013, Davidoff reached out to Man Man to ask permission to use a song of theirs for her entry in the Boston Fashion Week. Davidoff proposed a trade: permission to use the song in exchange for free costumes for Kattner to wear on the upcoming tour for On Oni Pond.
“We had a few things that Ryan wore, tunics and stuff like that,” Powell says. “I really think that is one of the better ways to go about making each trip different. Honus does a really good job of switching that up, especially since Naomi asked us if we were interested.”
Davidoff’s vision: a tiger-striped, crushed velvet, reversible poncho cape. As magical as it sounds, crushed velvet doesn’t mix with the unforgiving heat of stage lights or Kattner’s zestful onstage theatrics. Aside from the heat issue, he needed interior pockets for his confetti and fake fingers stash. They went back to the drawing board to create poncho capes with “radiating patchwork, appliqué, crazy trims, dark patterns and stripes” fitting enough for Man Man’s untraditional front man.
Davidoff also created skeleton suits and LED tuxedo jackets for the whole band, which made their debut during Man Man’s Halloween show in 2013.
“During the Halloween show, I watched Man Man’s set from the stage,” Davidoff remembers. “Seeing Ryan master the costume changes from behind the scenes was great. Watching Man Man play my favorite songs while performing in the LED tuxedos was probably the most rewarding experience of my design career yet.”
Going to a Man Man show is a cerebral Tilt-A-Whirl without the guardrail. There will be dips, turns and spins through Man Man’s twisted, sexual and demented carnival of outcasts. It’s a ride that you can’t get off easily, not that you would want to anyway.
“It’s kind of like we are Dumbo in the Magic Circus,” Kattner says, chuckling. “We don’t need the feather to play the show. We are going to fly regardless.”