by Jacob Sprecher
Mister Heavenly. Heard of them? Maybe. Or maybe you heard that it’s just dudes from Man Man, Islands and Modest Mouse. Or that actor Michael Cera used to be the touring bass player. Or that they play something called “doom-wop.” But these are not the pictures you need to be invoking. Because this is not a supergroup. This is not a bunch of indie hipsters looking for masturbatory cred. Mister Heavenly is instead a three-piece of seasoned musicians that consider themselves good friends. They mingle deftly in an eclectic world of pop, rich with lush rock ‘n’ roll harmonies. But Mister Heavenly is also rather dark and driven, writhing in a plaid blanket that your great uncle Ed kept in the trunk of his 1957 Buick Caballero. Yet you can’t deny their contemporary rock tidings.
So the hell with the fact that Ryan Kattner fronts Man Man, or that Nick Thorburn fronts Islands, or that Joe Plummer plays drums in Modest Mouse and The Shins. Because they play in Mister Heavenly, and Mister Heavenly is a real band, too. They’re signed to Sub Pop. They have a debut album, Out Of Love. It just came out a week ago. And it’s really good. So just before hitting the byways in support of said record, Synthesis caught up with co-frontman Ryan Kattner for a good old round of shit-shooting.
So you and Nick first got together when Unicorns was coming to an end?
I first met Nick around…’06? Unicorns might have just ended, I can’t remember. It was before he put out his first [solo] record.
You guys made pretty fast friends I take it.
You know, Nick and I have unique personalities. It was one of those situations where I knew we’d connect, but it wasn’t anything we really needed to rush.
Were you writing together initially?
No, no. We didn’t start writing together till last year. It was one these where you see a buddy on tour or you happen to play a couple shows together, and you talk like, “Oh yeah, we should work on something.” Nine times out of 10 those things never come to fruition. But we were finally on the same coast, and I had some downtime before I was going into the studio to record the Man Man record. We figured we’d give it a go.
I don’t think most people would necessarily equate Islands with Man Man and having it work as a songwriting team. But the juxtaposition in Mister Heavenly seems to fit remarkably well. Did that surprise you at all?
Not really [laughs]. That sounds really arrogant. You know, I’d always really respected and appreciated Nick’s songwriting, and I found that both our bands tended to take a poppy spin on darker things. I just felt like it could be a really great contrast, our two styles; and on a more immediate level our two voices. I always thought they would work well together.
And they do. I have to admit the new record kinda blew my doors off. I hadn’t heard the singles you released last winter, so when I got the mailer of the full album and listened to the first track, “Bronx Sniper,” I didn’t expect the record to unfold the way that it did from that point. It’s just so…eclectic. I gotta assume you’re getting that reaction a bit?
It’s a funny imbalance. The reaction from actual music listeners like yourself has been overwhelmingly positive. It seems like critical reaction, people just wanna harp on me and Nick [laughs]. They don’t want to admit that they like the record. But then there’s always a weird conflicting statement: “Oh if we didn’t know it was these guys the record would blow our doors off,” like you just said.
So you’re probably getting shit for the supergroup thing.
And we all hate that. We’re just friends making a record. [It’s not like] Nick or I have ever had a Top 40 hit. For us, it’s cool how the record came together very organically as though it was a brand-new band. The “doom-wop” tag—that’s just whatever; that doesn’t mean anything. We did have a base of trying to root things in doo-wop somehow, but at the same time Nick and I are too ADD to settle into one sound. I mean we like the idea of having a signifying link, but for the most part I like how eclectic the album is.
So it’s good to have some sort of tag, but anyone that really listens should realize this record’s not just coming from your appreciation of doo-wop.
Yeah. It’s just the way that we write. And it was fun to keep things so scaled back.
Just having a three-piece, you know? It added a different vibe, too. Things are more streamlined. It’s a good summer jam album [laughs].
Obviously you and Nick are going to get the most attention as the songwriters, but I think Joe’s performance on the kit is really huge on the record, too. He’s just so consistent. The styles vary quite a bit, but he keeps a feel that links everything together.
I’ve admired Joe’s drumming—and I will stroke his ego—for a long time. Even back when he was in Black Heart [Procession]. And the way the record was recorded, we really needed to have a strong backbone like Joe. It was recorded with all of us playing live in the same room, and he has a very specific feel which is perfect for this band. We just had a lot of fun recording the album. “Pineapple Girl” is actually one second longer in the beginning of the track, but we had to snip it because you could hear Joe laughing.
Lyrically, I was curious where you were coming from on some of the material. To me, the lyrics feel extremely personal and identifiable. There seems to be an emotional thread of offering up your soul to somebody else. Were you coming from a place of emotional pain?
Well, you can trace it back to the Man Man record that came out this year. I was trying to be a little more direct. What I like about this project in particular is I can maybe be a little more direct, and just blame the influence on Nick. I can maybe push things a little bit poppier, and if they fell flat on their face could be like, “Oh that’s not my fault that’s Nick’s.” [Laughs.]
No, no, but that’s the real challenge of writing a song. It’s gotta be personal but it can’t be too personal, ‘cause it has to be relatable. And I feel like that’s the thread to doo-wop that I appreciate. You can have these songs that are two-and-a-half minutes long that
tear your heart out.
I’d Say “Reggae Pie,” “Diddy Eyes” and “Wise Men” can really speak to the love-related shit that people put themselves through.
“Wise Men” is a very personal song to me. It’s one of my favorites; I feel like it really took legs once Nick and Joe jumped in there.
Had you been sitting on some of the material before you guys got together?
“Wise Men” was one of those, and “Reggae Pie.” They wouldn’t have made sense on the new Man Man album; they were just kind of orphans. I’m not a prolific songwriter at all. That’s where I appreciate working with someone like Nick—he’s just a workhorse. I mean, it’ll take me months to write one song, you know, ‘cause I hate writing lyrics. When it comes to songwriting, I literally have to sing a song hundreds and hundreds of times before it feels right; before the cadence feels honest.
You know, it’s kind of a good feeling seeing songwriters flex their muscles; take a few risks. And I feel like that’s what you guys are doing a little bit, ‘cause you could have streamlined it: Everything could have sounded like “Bronx Sniper,” but instead you come back it up with something like “Charlyne,” and you guys are in a completely different ballpark.
I appreciate it. I don’t think either one of us wanted to write an album of just “Bronx Sniper.”
Are you already looking down the line to where Mister Heavenly might lead you in a year?
We really don’t know. Listener feedback has been awesome; it’s been so positive. But critical feedback not so much… I mean the way we kinda feel about it is like, Joe plays in the The Shins now, so between The Shins and Modest Mouse and Nick [having] a new Islands record coming out, hopefully we’ll be able to find time to work together again. We’re looking forward to it, it’s just a a matter of trying to figure out our schedules. ‘Cause right now they’re at the whim of everyone else’s. Who knows? Maybe we’ll have a fluke Top 40 radio hit [laughs].
But yeah, we don’t know. It may sound odd, given the context of everything I’ve said prior, but none of us really view it as a side-project. We’re proud of it and we feel like it has a distinct enough voice to exist as its own band. It’s just a matter of trying to carve out the time… I guess we’ll see.