After eight years of battling countless obstacles with little relief or reward, the members of Man Man were getting sick of each other.
"We were all like cranky brothers," recalls frontman Ryan Kattner, who performs under the stage name Honus Honus. "We all get along, but when you spend more time in a van with other men . . . it's a much different relationship."
But the Philadelphia band's newest full-length release, "Life Fantastic," symbolizes a turning point: With Saddle Creek producer (and Bright Eyes member) Mike Mogis at the sound board and a handful of new artistic elements added to the mix, Man Man is looking to move up and out, evolving beyond its often-chaotic persona into a more mature, established act.
The avant-garde outfit's first record, "The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face" (Ace Fu Records, 2004), cost a paltry $500 to produce, as the band members cobbled tracks together in after-hours studio sessions.
Just before entering the studio for their second album, "Six Demon Bag" (Ace Fu, 2006), the group's original members called it quits, leaving Kattner without a band and scrambling to rebuild in time to record.
Kattner says that by the release of the group's third album, "Rabbit Habits" (Anti- Records, 2008), even the new quintet's energy was dwindling.
"We kept running out of money and we didn't have a label," Kattner recalls. "We had to keep touring to make money to do the next [recording] session . . . suddenly I found myself in a position where playing music was just making me really unhappy."
"Rabbit Habits" experienced considerable success for an indie record, selling 26,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and debuting at No. 7 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart. Nevertheless, Kattner says the touch-and-go nature of their record cycle had left him and the band at their wits' end.
"All our records before ["Life Fantastic"] were a total scramble," he says. "We were in a situation where we knew [we] were not going to be able to make another record unless we had a producer."
Luckily for Kattner, Man Man manager Juan Luis Carrera noticed a personality match in Mogis (Carrera also handles Bright Eyes), and when the two musicians hit it off, they embarked on a year-and-a-half endeavor that would give "Life Fantastic" the critical attention-and slimming effect-of a professional production. The resulting 11 tracks resonate with a mature macabre sound thus far unheard on any of the band's previous releases.
"He wields such a lovely scalpel," Kattner says of Mogis' touch. "When we went in to record, we needed someone else swinging an ax and saying, 'You know what? Get rid of all this.' He's really good at focusing on what's going to make a song hit the hardest."
In addition to Mogis' keen ear, "Life Fantastic," due May 10 on Anti-, benefits from the addition of string arrangements by another Bright Eyes member, Nate Walcott, and pre-existing artwork by Brooklyn-based artist Brad Kahlhammer. Man Man and its camp also plan to work with other artists for the album's video components.
Anti- director of marketing Matt McGreevey explains that the highbrow elements that comprise the new album's production are part of an effort to reintroduce Man Man, which has until now maintained a somewhat cultish fan base, as both more sophisticated and accessible.
"Musically, they are maturing as people and artists, and you are starting to see that in their work," McGreevey says. "It's still a Man Man record, but where they are in their careers and the influence of Mike Mogis have both refined it a bit, made it more accessible, without losing its charm and energy."
McGreevey adds that the efforts behind "Life Fantastic" mark only the beginning of Man Man's new momentum.
"We are looking into opportunities to position the band into that [highbrow] world, even beyond collaborations with these artists," he says. "Now that they're four albums deep, the rough edges are getting smoothed out. This is who they are."