Interview: Mister Heavenly
Much like the quirky, heavily rhythmic music they churn out, Mister Heavenly’s three members are restless. In less than a year, they concocted a genre (“doom wop”), embarked on a cross-country tour with actor/temporary bassist, Michael Cera, released their first full-length (Out of Love) and began brewing its follow-up. All of this on top of Nick Thorburn, Joe Plummer and Ryan Kattner’s already-infinite resumes.
“Nick is disgustingly prolific,” says Kattner. If there’s resentment in his voice, it’s only because Kattner lost a summer’s worth of work with his own band, Man Man, while being audited by the IRS. Now back on schedule, he’s spending what few free hours he has working on a series of books for children with Thorburn. Plummer, onetime drummer for the Shins and longtime drummer for Modest Mouse, splits his time between solo projects, performances and composing work for the likes of Les Savy Fav, the Cribs and the Black Heart Procession. And Thorburn — who helped put Montreal’s indie scene on the map in the early 2000s with the Unicorns and, later, Islands — writes comics, and is self-publishing his first in the coming year.
eMusic’s Marissa G. Muller chatted with each of them alone about their eccentricities.
What’s your first music-related memory?
Joe Plummer: Watching my grandma play the organ at 5 or 6. She was a church organist and she had a big organ in her house. That sounds weird [laughs]. I didn’t pick up any keyboard knowledge from that. I should have but I didn’t.
Ryan Kattner: I’m an Air Force brat, so I moved around a lot as a kid and I lived in the Philippines when I was little. My grandfather had a house there, and there was a grand piano at the top of the stairs. I used to run up and down them and bang my head on the piano. So, I find it ironic that, years later, I’ve made a career out of banging my head on the piano.
Nick Thorburn: I have a couple. One is my parents peaking into this room I was in and catching me dancing to Michael Jackson. I was probably 4 years old, got really embarrassed, and I haven’t danced since. The other one is listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland at age 5, [which] had a profound impact on me and still does. That record is top-notch.
Did you ever see Michael Jackson live?
Thorburn: I never did. I used to fantasize in kindergarten that I’d come in [carried] on his shoulders and be the coolest kid in class.
What’s an album that you would give to someone that you love?
Thorburn: Jim Guthrie, Now More Than Ever. I was introduced to his music by the drummer of the Unicorns, who was friends with Jim Guthrie. It’s near perfect, lyrically and musically, and it’s pretty slept-on, too, which is kind of a shame. But it’s a really beautiful record that I would definitely give to someone that I loved. I’ve shared it with a person that I love; [they loved it] maybe even more than I.
Plummer: Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen. A good friend of mine in high school gave it to me [when] he took me to see fIREHOSE, which was a post-Minutemen band. I listened to it a lot, [and] still do. I’ve bought copies of it for some people, but I don’t remember who.
Kattner: Leonard Cohen, Death of a Ladies’ Man. I feel like I’ve given it to someone. Did the relationship last? No. I think when you give Death of a Ladies’ Man to someone you love, you can’t expect too much longevity. I didn’t get into Leonard Cohen ’til a couple years ago, and then I got to see him play and realized that I was blowing it. I waited too long to get on board. But I love that era as well as later, when his voice gets deeper.
What’s an album that you would give to someone that you hate?
Thorburn: The Van Morrison contractual obligation album called Bang on a Can. He was in a terrible record contract and had one more album left, so he recorded an album of intentionally terrible-sounding music to get out of the contract. It’s about 24 songs of varying lengths — mostly not more than 30 seconds to a minute and a half — of him making up chord progressions and writing songs about donuts, and other things. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and good for somebody that you hate.
Plummer: I wouldn’t give anyone I hate anything, except for a tongue lash. But Throbbing Gristle‘s first record is obnoxious and I would somehow force them to listen to it at a loud volume.
Kattner: A Man Man record [laughs]. I’d probably give them no wave stuff — but, no, I’d want to keep that. So, maybe the Jeff Foxworthy album You Might Be a Redneck If…
What is a favorite album from each of your bandmates’ projects?
Plummer: Six Demon Bag is my favorite Man Man record. From what I’ve heard about the new Islands record, I think that’s going to be my favorite. I heard some of it, secretly in a car with Nick. It’s beautiful but that’s all I’ll say.
Thorburn: [Laughs] Jeez. I think the newest Man Man, Life Fantastic, is a huge step for Ryan. My favorite Man Man songs are the gentler, quieter ones, and the ones on there like “Oh, La Brea” and the title track are absolutely beautiful.
What do you think he’d say is his favorite album of yours is?
Thorburn: He wouldn’t be able to decide which one of mine was his favorite because he loves them all.
Kattner: I really like the Unicorns album, obviously. Those first couple Islands records were really good too, even the stuff he’s doing now — I gotta be political about this.
What is one thing that you’d love to possess?
Thorburn: One of those islands in Dubai in the shape of me.
Plummer: I would like to live in a place where I could have 100 dogs around me at all times, and all kinds: big, small, mutts, even full-breeds. My girlfriend brought a Scottish terrier into my life and — outside of practicing, even playing music, which she doesn’t like — we do exciting things: drive around, do errands, go to the park, nap. We have a similar lifestyle when I’m home.
Kattner: I would love to have a home.
What kind of home would it be?
Kattner: I think any home would work at this point because I don’t really live anywhere. I’m a serial subletter.
What are you doing on a Friday night?
Plummer: Going to dinner with my girlfriend when I’m not on tour. We like to eat fancy food.
Thorburn: I follow the Paris Hilton logic on weekends: go out on weekdays, [when] there’s less riff-raff. That sounds terrible, but it’s not a classist thing. Crowds just spook me.
Kattner: I do most of my bad-decision making during the week and when I find myself in a scenario where I’m like, “Wow, this is a really fucking annoying scene,” I realize it’s a Friday or Saturday and I realize how fortunate I am to have such an alternative life.
What would you be doing if you were staying in?
Kattner: Nick and I are trying to work on a revamp of the Hardy Boys so we’ve just been plotting that out because we want to write a series of children’s books. We’re calling it The Tardy Boys — they show up to solve a crime, but it’s too late. But it’s a hard time to get Nick to commit to characters and story lines. He’s starting a band every week.
Thorburn: I would be writing music, reading, watching the Larry Sanders Show, or drawing comics.
What kind of comics do you draw?
Thorburn: Lighthearted, humorous but sort of dark, ’70s-inspired comics, like R. Crumb. I’m self-publishing the first one, Howie Doo, but I’m hoping to find someone for the next one [and] I’ve already started working on it. I’ve been drawing since I was an infant; that’s preceded everything else. It’s like an anti-anxiety medication: I just sit and draw and really calm myself down.
Kattner: Nick is disgustingly prolific, it makes me sick. I admire his work ethic.
How long were you working on the new Man Man record?
Kattner: For quite a while. I lost an entire summer because I got audited by the IRS. It was really funny because I was living out of a storage unit and I was like, “You’re auditing me?” But all they got, aside from money, was an entire summer of mine. I got to the point where I didn’t even want to play music anymore. It used to be an outlet and then it became a source of a lot of bad energy but I was able to rediscover the reasons why I was playing got through that Man Man record. It’s a bummer that it slipped under the radar — I’m really proud of it — but at the same time I feel like [the] things that I’ve enjoyed in my music life are usually things that I stumble across. If people stumble across that record and find a connection to it then that’s how it’s going to be.
What’s the worst day job you’ve ever had?
Kattner: I had a summer job in St. Louis [painting] houses when I was a kid. It was mostly exterior house painting, and that was the worst outdoors ’cause Midwestern summers can get pretty brutal. During the same summer I was also working at a KB Toys store. So I alternated days, but I was so exhausted at the toy store that I would just find places to sleep. I used to climb up on third level shelves where they [kept] plastic wading pools, curl up, and tell myself that I would close my eyes for a couple seconds. But I would fall asleep, and someone sleeping and snoring in one of those plastic pools was a very rude awakening to shoppers. This was pre-mustache so I looked a little more trustworthy.
Plummer: The worst day job I ever had — which I lasted a day on — was roofing. It’s scary, it’s hard, it’s dangerous, it’s hot, it’s painful.
Thorburn: McDonald’s. I was the burger flipper for an entire year when I was 16. I dyed my hair a lot at that age, so they kept me in the back, and I slacked off a great deal and would just hang out in the dumpsters with my friends who’d show up. They would never fire anyone, because I think it’s such a shitty job that they can’t bear to lose anyone, so they put me on probation. There’s not really a positive outlook on life at that corporation. I became a vegetarian shortly after I quit and have been for 14 years.
What’s your go-to recipe for cooking?
Thorburn: It’s a weird thing that I’ve concocted: brown rice, chickpeas, red onion and sometimes green peppers, with nutritional yeast fried into it so it gets kind of cheesy; avocado on top of the rice, arugula, pomegranate seeds if I’m feeling fancy, and then a tahini-balsamic dressing over the top of it.
Kattner: Rub salt on a chicken and then pop it into the refrigerator for 24 hours, bake it, and that’s it. I just learned about salt rub, but I haven’t done it yet because I don’t have a kitchen.
Plummer: An olive oil-based pasta with garlic and chili flakes and maybe broccoli.
JP: I like eating weird stuff.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Plummer: Natto. It’s rotten soybean with a consistency of snot, smells horrible, and is the most dynamic yet disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. I have a friend in San Diego and we talk about food a lot so she brought that up years ago and asked me if I’d ever had it and one night she made a big dinner and took me aside and said, “I have Natto, do you want to try it?” and I tried it. I didn’t get sick.
Kattner: Joe’s like a WWI war hero. That’s his vibe. If there’s a trench warfare going on, Joe’s going to come out of it courageously and glimmering. He’s a very dapper man — god, I wonder how the hell I’m going to come across in this.
What are a few of the best concerts you’ve seen?
Plummer: Firehouse. Neil Diamond in ’90, the Canadian punk band SNFU, the first time I saw Man Man, Wooden Shijps, and the first show I ever went to which was a hardcore band called Breakaway. I enjoyed a little bit of slam-dancing in my youth.
Thorburn: I hate to sound like a jaded, cynical person but since I started doing music and playing shows for a living, I find that I’ve lost a lot of the joy and excitement for seeing concerts. [That said,] Ratatat, cLOUDDEAD — this backpackery, alt-rap group in Montreal — opening for Blonde Redhead with the Unicorns, Lollapalooza in 1994 when I was 12, hitchhiking to the nearest town with Alden from the Unicorns to see Fugazi when I was 17, and JEFF the Brotherhood. They’re a band that I’ve seen lately. I think they’re onto something.
Kattner: Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, [and] Prince at Coachella. Granted, I was on mushrooms, and I’m not the biggest guitar solo fan, but Prince didn’t guitar solo; he made sensual love to my ears. I was like, “I understand why you’re a symbol!”
Did you catch him backstage after?
Kattner: No, he was surrounded by a security and purple smoke so you couldn’t actually see him. He arrived in a UFO and as soon as I saw the UFO descending on Coachella I got wet. For a guy, that is a uniquely Prince experience. And this was pre-mushrooms when I got wet.
Do you have a mentor who is also a musician?
Plummer: They may or may not know it but I look to the Melvins for cues. They keep making good music, they’ve done it forever, they’ve survived a lot of things, experienced a lot of bullshit, and they’re very open-minded about things. Dale and Buzz are wise fellows and they impress me.
Thorburn: I sort of think of Jim Guthrie as a mentor. He’s definitely someone I look up to, whose opinion and direction I take very seriously.
Kattner: I wish I did, I feel like I might have been more successful if I did. If I could it’d be Leonard Cohen.
If someone else was going to join Mister Heavenly, but not Michael Cera, who would your ideal fourth band member be?
Thorburn: Flannery O’Connor. She would play bass, tell jokes, do all of the banter, and definitely write the lyrics.
Plummer: Gary Oldman. He would play bass and sing and speak in a funny accent.
Kattner: Can you play bass?
Kattner: Then Nicolas Cage. He would be amazing. And if he can’t do it, fuck it: Let’s get Keanu.