By Paul Brown
On Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 I caught up with Honus Honus, lead singer of Philadelphia band Man Man. This was just before their first ever show at the newly opened Union Transfer, and just about eight months after the release of their fourth album, Life Fantastic.
We would end up talking about everything from Man Man’s creative process to the wild circumstances surrounding the creation of their 2006 masterpiece Six Demon Bag to the impending Mayan Apocalypse. You can read the entire interview below:
PB: You’ve been off tour for about a month now, right?
Honus Honus: Yeah, yeah. Just been recuperating. I had a tough year last year, and then it was like our album was released into a vacuum (laughs). I mean, we put a lot into it. And it was really strange because for us it was a big departure… But, you know, back to the drawing board! Now we’re just squirreling away for the winter, trying to write a new record.
PB: Yeah? Do you have any songs that you’re finishing up?
HH: They’re just a lot of little pieces, not a record yet. The shape of the record is still pretty gray.
PB: Is that usually how it goes for you guys? Do you usually not have an idea of what you want an album’s shape to be until you’re pretty much finished?
HH: Unfortunately (laughs). I’m not the most prolific songwriter. It takes me a long time to write songs, cause, you know, the hardest part is just finding a way into a song. It can be a melody you hear in the middle of the night or it could be a line you read in the newspaper. It’s always the hardest thing.
It’s funny, after every record, just for me personally, I feel like I don’t know how to write songs. Like, I just forget, and I don’t even know who made those albums, you know? It’s good, cause it keeps you hungry, but it’s definitely frustrating.
PB: Are you feeling like you’re able to find a direction to go musically?
HH: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny because you can really go in any direction with a band like this. We’re not really tied down, necessarily. But I don’t know. I have an inkling of what I want to do, but there are other people in the band, so…
PB: When you come up with a song sketch on your own, do you usually have an idea of what you want the song to sound like as a finished product or do you kind of throw it up in the air to the rest of the band and see where it goes?
HH: I have an idea, but then, you have to trust in the people you play with- you have to trust that they’re going to do something tasteful… And, you know, most of the time it’s extremely tasteful, and they write amazing parts. They’re all insanely talented musicians. I’m just a scrub that comes in with a… “song” (laughs).
PB: When you guys decided to work with Mike Mogis for Life Fantastic, did you have in mind from the beginning of the writing process that you wanted to work with an established producer?
HH: Yeah, I mean, we wanted to go outside of our… uh, comfortable cocoon, but also, at that point we needed someone to help sculpt—or, not so much sculpt as guide. At that point, we’d been working on demos for so long that we just needed an outside voice that could give us a fresh perspective on things. But also, sonically, it was important to capture the beauty of some of the tunes we were bringing to the table, you know? We just felt like they deserved it. They deserved to have lush arrangements and just to be heard the way they were intended.
I mean, I like that every record of ours is different. Some people could say things are getting more refined, but I think it’s more like… the skeletons in the closet are just being hid behind some nice suits now. They’re still there! (laughs) Now, the graves are just dug a little deeper. You’re not gonna be in your garden and dig up a hand.
PB: And a lot of times, those types of albums can be the ones that stay with you the longest, you know? The ones you really need to dig to find everything that’s hiding there.
HH: I feel like this album is just gonna be a…. Well, it’s unfortunate for us in Man Man, because we have to keep hustling really hard, which is good, but… I really do think this album is going to stick around for a while.
You know, it’s funny, I’ve already done a couple interviews just for these shows we’ve got coming up, and, the first thing out of people’s mouths has been “so, about your overlooked album from last year” (laughs). And it does feel really good that other people feel like that and not just the band. It means a lot.
PB: And the fans seem to feel like that, too. I know quite a few people who are in love with Life Fantastic.
HH: Nah, I mean, we’re lucky that we have awesome fans that have stuck by us. For this band, for what we do, the most important thing is creating a language. People can either learn it and try to speak with you or they can move on. We’ve been very fortunate people have taken the time to weather the storm with us, so to speak… Learn the language.
PB: And hearing the songs live can kind of make that language easier to learn, you know? I think seeing your shows can put the songs in a new light for people.
HH: I never get tired of playing these songs, either. Like, every time I play “Life Fantastic” it just feels awesome. Even though the song itself is… well, its sentiments aren’t the sweetest (laughs)
PB: A lot of the songs on this album are pretty out-rightly dark. You don’t feel like it’s draining to play them night after night? Or is it more cathartic?
HH: It’s a combination wheel.
PB: But if you never get tired of playing them, so I guess they can’t be too draining?
HH: I mean, it’s a great job that I have. It’s an accidental one… I never thought we’d be sticking around for more than one album.
PB: And at this point do you see yourselves making a fifth?
HH: That’s the plan (sighs). I mean, I’m beating my brain against the wall working on it now, so…
PB: Has it been like that for every album?
HH: It has, it has (laughs). You know, going back to what I said earlier, I forget how to write songs and I have to relearn. I go through it after every record, where I’m just like, “how in the hell…” it seems so insurmountable.
PB: Do you feel like you’re always learning new ways of writing songs, or do you eventually find yourself finding a way back into a rhythm or a process?
HH: I’m still learning how to write songs, you know? I mean, I wish there was an easier way (laughs). I am trying to write songs here, not working in a coal mine somewhere, so it’s a different kind of… I mean, I’m thankful for that, that it’s not that kind of work.
PB: (laughs) Is that where you think you’d be if you weren’t in music? Working in a coal mine?
HH: If I weren’t in music, I don’t know where I’d be…
PB: I actually wanted to ask you about a Nick Cave quote. He said “songs have a greater understanding of a writer’s life than the writer himself”. Do you agree with that?
HH: Yeah, that’s definitely true. I feel like the hardest thing for a songwriter is maintaining a level of objectivity so that the song can still possess a transformative quality and it can still affect someone in a personal way, as opposed to just being a woe-is-me tale about the songwriter’s life. I actually find that to be kind of boring. And that’s the hardest thing, I think, is trying to write a song like that. A song where it means something to you and it’s very personal, but at the same time it’s not too personal that you’re alienating the listener.
I know in the early days of Man Man, back when I thought it was just gonna be our first record and that was it, I tried to write songs that I thought were pretty outside myself. But then, when I go back and hear the songs years and years later, I’m like “holy crap, I really laid it out there!” I didn’t even realize it at the time. I thought it was thinly veiled.
Fortunately, on that first record— or unfortunately, I don’t know— (the lyrics) are thinly veiled by my voice being buried in the mix (laughs).
PB: Yeah, I’ve read you guys weren’t too happy with the way that album turned out from a production standpoint…
HH: We worked with Bill Moriarty, who’s from Philly, and he’s just an awesome guy and a great engineer and he’s worked on some wonderful records here in Philly. I feel really fortunate to have been able to work with him on that first record and on some of the Rabbit Habits sessions. But you have to take into account… Our first record was made for $500. Bill worked really hard with us to make our $500 go the distance of an album (laughs).
I remember for that first record, we only had enough money to track one night in a studio and it was only after-hours. Everything else was overdubbed in a one-room apartment.
PB: How was it recording Six Demon Bag and Rabbit Habits? Were those different stories?
HH: Six Demon Bag was recorded by our friend Mizzle, and that was done in a Chinatown Warehouse… It was a cool spot, but it also wasn’t air-conditioned and we recorded in the summer. Below us was a –-an obviously illegal—porn studio, and beside where we were recording was a Chinese sweatshop. So, between hearing stuff coming from downstairs and hearing sewing machines and Chinese radio in the other room, it was, uh, pretty interesting.
The best part of that was the guy from downstairs screaming at us, “I’m sick and tired of hearing these songs over and over again!” and then he’d start singing one of the songs to us.
PB: (laughs) You didn’t get a chance to record that, did you?
HH: No, I wish I had (laughs).
And, I mean, that record was made for next-to-nothing and, on top of that, I had to deal with the entire first line-up leaving the band right before the recording.
PB: Were the songs pretty much already written when they had left?
HH: A handful of them were, but no, not really. Stephen, who was in the original line-up, he stuck around and recorded his parts, which was very helpful. But then, trying to scramble around to put together an album and then also put together a band to play the songs was… not fun.
Also, being under the radar of a label worrying, like, “Are they gonna drop us?”… But out of all that came a great record and also some great new members of the band. That’s when Chris Powell (Man Man’s current drummer) jumped on board.
PB: It seems like you guys have been touring almost non-stop since the new line-up formulated. Doesn’t that get tiring?
HH: I mean, I wish we could play more shows. We’ve slowed down in the last year or so, just because the writing of Life Fantastic took a while. And I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the last four years, so, I mean, it’s good when I’m touring! I know I’ll be sleeping somewhere (laughs).
In the beginning, what took getting used to was assimilating to being home from touring. And somewhere along the way it just became, like, touring made more sense than being “home”. I mean, I don’t have a home, so touring is home.
Everyone else (in Man Man) does (have a home), so they’re psyched to be back in Philly.
PB: What do you usually do between tours and recording and all that?
HH: Last year, life was easy, because when Man Man weren’t touring I was on the road with Mister Heavenly. But the down time does get tough. Also, I can’t write when I’m on the road… none of us can. I really need to be sequestered away somewhere.
PB: What are some of your favorite cities to hit on a tour?
HH: Well, obviously Philly, the hometown. New York is always fun, we love L.A, Austin… I’m from Texas, so Austin’s great. Oh, Birmingham! Believe it or not, Birmingham’s amazing. I went to high school in Alabama, so–
PB: You’re from Texas but went to high school in Alabama?
HH: I’m from everywhere (sighs). My Dad was in the air force, so…
PB: So I guess touring isn’t too far out of your comfort zone?
HH: Yeah, it took me a couple years to realize that I somehow ended up falling into a similar routine (to the one) that I grew up with as far as traveling a lot. And I kind of adopted a gypsy sort of lifestyle where I’m just always on the road, which I prefer. I get really restless when I’m in one place too long.
It also sucks, kind of- not having a sense of place or roots. But, whatever (laughs). Listen to me whining (laughs).
PB: You said that Philadelphia is your home but you’re constantly traveling. What makes you distinguish Philadelphia as your home over anywhere else?
HH: Well, all my stuff has been in storage here… I mean, Philadelphia is great. This band really couldn’t have happened anywhere else. It’s a tough, gritty city, and there’s an attitude here that’s firmly ingrained in what this band is about. Basically, “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do and I’m gonna do it how I want and I don’t care if you don’t like it.”
PB: (Laughs) That definitely sums up Philadelphia.
HH: Yeah, and that’s what I love about this city. And there’s a great arts scene here, too.
I feel a little bit lost whenever I’m back in Philly, just because I haven’t really been here for a significant amount of time to get re-acclimated to it. The streets look the same—sometimes—but there’s an energy here that is nice to reconnect with. It’s been a while.
PB: I know a lot of the guys in the band went to UArts (University of the Arts)… or was that a different lineup?
HH: Oh, I went to UArts.
PB: What was your major?
HH: …Screenwriting. A very practical major (laughs).
PB: Do you ever want to get back to that?
HH: I would love to, but I’m more of a collaborative writer. I hate writing alone.
PB: Do you have any dream collaborations?
HH: Basically, anyone who can make it happen. That’s basically it. Someone who’s established and knows how to make films and has made good films.
PB: Do you have any writers or directors in mind who you’d want to work with, or do you think if any opportunity arose and seemed right you’d just go with it?
HH: It would be awesome to write with one of the Wilsons. Owen or Luke. It’s funny, actually. I think, as far as the acting goes, everyone was charmed with Owen, especially in the beginning, but I think Luke is kind of funnier. But yeah, those are fellow Texans.
PB: What stuff has Luke been in recently that you’ve liked?
HH: Oh, I don’t know… those NBA commercials (laughs).
PB: Are there any other creative endeavors you see yourself getting involved with, either with or without other members of Man Man?
HH: You mean side projects? Really, the focus is just to do another Man Man record. At least, that’s where my head’s at. Mr. Heavenly was a fun diversion, and it’s a band in its own right. We’ll probably end up making a record at some point. But right now it’s nothing but Man Man. If I didn’t have this band… I mean, this band is my breath, you know? It’s in my bones, I can’t amputate it (laughs). I think I’d have to open up my torso to pull this band out of me.
I would like to work on a film some day, though. That’d be a dream. To co-write something and see it be made.
PB: Do you have any ideas as far as a story goes? Or who you’d want to work with?
HH: I mean, there are plans…. What I’d love to do is a travel show. I’d co-host a travel show (laughs).
PB: Like… a theatre type of production?
HH: No man, just send me to Tibet with another musician… or anybody (laughs).
PB: I’ve heard about you going to the Far East and seeking out Shamans and stuff like that–
HH: Yeah, I’d never do that again. Fuck that. That was a bad scene. I thought it’d be good for an anecdote or two but it just ended up being a hex. I think I’ve finally, hopefully– knock on everything wood in this room—I think I’ve outrun that one.
PB: So what are your opinions on 2012?
HH: Are you kidding? End of the world!
PB: Yeah? You think it’s coming?
HH: Yeah man. And I think our music will finally make sense. You know, when the world ends.
PB: During or after?
HH: Before, middle and end. Man Man will be the band out in the wasteland playing for Tina Turner. And the ghost of Tupac. Thunderdome style.
HH: We’ll be the band performing. We won’t need marimbas, we’ll just be playing on rib cages. Doesn’t matter if it’s out of tune—I’m always out of tune (laughs).
PB: So you guys will be the string quartet to the world’s Titanic?
HH: Yeah… except you might find me jumping into the water before the ship sinks… Or before it hits an iceberg. But unfortunately, I know I won’t die in that water (laughs).
HH: Yep. It’ll keep pulling me back out and spitting me onto a piano… But it’s all about what you make of it.
PB: So, if you could go back 10 years and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
HH: I’d go back 10 years and I’d give myself a sports almanac. I’d be a very rich man today and I may not be sitting here talking to you, but I would be…
PB: On an island somewhere?
HH: Yeah, or on the Titanic. Actually, I’d be hanging out with the Mayans. Greeting them with open arms. You know, I’d love to play a show on December 21st this year. On, like, Machu Picchu or something. If there’s anyone who reads this or listens to this that can make it happen, I’m there.
PB: Hopefully this will make its way to whoever can make that happen.
HH: The Mayans? Yeah. Hopefully… as they drink my blood from the blowhole of a dolphin.