MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The Philadelphia rock band called Man Man has a reputation for intense theatrical shows complete with face paint and all white costumes.
The musicians sport large beards and moustaches. Musically, Man Man is inspired by artists such as Tom Waits and Frank Zappa.
Joel Rose has this profile of the band.
JOEL ROSE: On stage, Man Man lurches from one song into the next, switching instruments on the fly.
(Soundbite of cheering)
ROSE: There are no jokes between tunes and no friendly banter. They don't even talk to the audience until the set is over.
(Soundbite of music)
ROSE: Lead singer Ryan Kattner and drummer Chris Powell say it's an approach born of necessity.
Mr. CHRIS POWELL (Drummer, Man Man): We learned early on that if you just play through your set — no breaks — you don't hear people heckling you.
Mr. RYAN KATTNER (Lead Vocalist, Man Man): Mm-hmm.
MR. POWELL: It's like a punch to the face for 30 minutes. It's great.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. KATTNER: (Singing) You've got me down, what can I do?
Mr. POWELL: Just keep the energy going because we spend a lot of time constructing a set that has a nice ebb and flow to it. And there's no reason to break that.
ROSE: With so much happening on stage, Powell and Kattner say, the band doesn't want to distract from it visually. So, they all wear white.
Mr. POWELL: We don't actually wear the same exact things. Its basically just a theme, you know, bring whatever white clothes you want. And that's it for the tour, and then you just wear those things.
Mr. KATTNER: So, by the end of the tour, we're about beige in color. You know, it's going for that "Lord of the Flies" prep-boy look.
ROSE: The band members embrace that theme by painting their faces and adopting adolescent, tribal-sounding stage names like Honus Honus and Pow Pow.
Jessica Suarez writes about music for Pitchfork Media and the Fader.
Ms. JESSICA SUAREZ (Freelance Music Writer): Everybody thinks that they're a joke band, but they're really not.
(Soundbite of song "Whalebones")
Mr. KATTNER: (Singing) He felt her curves surrounding his neck like a yoke. He knows he'll never forget the way she cut through his bed like a snake will bite through a cable flesh but he holds her. Though she's broken.
Ms. SUAREZ: If you listen to their lyrics, they're super-emotional lyrics.
ROSE: She says that if you look past the funny names, the face paint and the smelly outfits, you'll find a band working some very rich emotional terrain.
Ms. SUAREZ: You know, boy meets girl, girl dumps boy, boy takes her back and then she changes her mind again. So even if you're hearing like crazy xylophones and guys screaming in the background and this crazy organ, it's still kind of a basic broken-hearted love song.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. KATTNER: (Singing) Why can't anything be easy? Why do I always dream that my teeth are falling all over the street. You get the girl, you lose the girl. The girl walks back, she's already moved on. You take the risk, she changes her mind, you lose a girl and you lost her so, why can't anything be easy.
Ms. SUAREZ: That happens across so many of their songs and their lyrics that I almost thought of as the thesis of Man Man, like you always take the other chance, and then you always lose again. But I still find that sort of hopeful. It's never like, and then you give up. You know how - they always seem to try again.
ROSE: That could easily describe the band's off-stage history, too. Ryan Kattner started Man Man in 2000. The band put out an album four years later. Then everyone else quit.
Mr. KATTNER: There has been a lot of people in this band. It's just a lot of learning. You know, growing pains. Another person might have gotten the message that like…
Mr. POWELL: To stop, yeah. I know.
Mr. KATTNER: Yeah.
ROSE: Instead, Kattner tried again. The new Man Man lineup put out a critically acclaimed CD in 2006.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. KATTNER: (Singing) Only time will tell if I'm allowed, see no way around, wake me alive. I want to sleep for weeks like a dog out of feed even though I know it won't work out in the long run.
ROSE: The album didn't sell and Man Man got dumped from its label. Musicians put up the money for the next recording themselves. The risk paid off when they found a new label: Anti- the same one that's home to Tom Waits. Critics point out that Kattner's vocal style owes a big debt to the older singer. It's a charge Kattner doesn't exactly deny, but he maintains it's the only way he can get the job done.
Mr. KATTNER: When I was in second grade, someone came in the class and they asked who wanted to be in choir, and all these little girls raised their hands. And I was like, oh yeah, man, choir. And then I…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KATTNER: But then I was so self-conscious. I didn't even sing. I just lip-synched for a year and a half. I know I don't have the best singing voice, but what can you do? You have to make do with what you can.
(Soundbite of song "Rabbit Habits")
Mr. KATTNER: (Singing) Don't you dare say that you heard worse, that the end was coming soon. And your eyes shine like Oppenheimer's. As he talks about the boom. And he don't even taste the food he eats anymore, and there's a space, a place where his heart was before. And he don't even taste the food he eats anymore and she don't want to dine alone. And he don't want to die alone. And she wants to live to eat.
ROSE: Man Man makes do by touring a lot. The band has been on the road almost nonstop for the last three years, including a stint opening shows for Modest Mouse. Man Man launched its current tour by selling out midsize clubs in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Chris Powell says some of their fans have even been showing up in costume.
Mr. POWELL: Kids will show up in all white. That's a little more rare, but we do see, most nights, there will be at least one person with a fake moustache, usually a lot, actually, with fake moustaches.
ROSE: In homage, apparently to Ryan Kattner's overgrown Fu Manchu.
Mr. KATTNER: I never thought that I would be saying this, but there's something pretty, pretty hot about a girl with a fake moustache.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROSE: If you don't believe them, go see for yourself. Man Man plans to be on the road for most of the year.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
SIEGEL: And you can hear for yourself some songs from Man Man's new album at npr.org/music.