Anyone who’s never been in a band, especially a virtually unknown one, might think that touring is fun. But Use Your Delusion, a documentary that follows a 2016 West Coast tour by the band Honus Honus, is here to prove otherwise. This city-to-city chain of one-night shows is far from the kind of glitzy tour that big headliners do. No swanky hotel suites, groupies or endless parties, unless you count a half bottle of tequila in the back of the van a party. This tour is of the bargain basement variety, stopping mostly in small clubs where pre-show ticket sales often number in the low double digits.
Honus Honus is the creation of Ryan Kattner, a keyboard player, singer, songwriter and leader of the band. He was once a member of the better known Man Man, a Philadelphia-based musical outfit. Since then, he’s moved to the West Coast and settled in Los Angeles.
In Justin Carltona and Jamie Vega Wheeler’s Use Your Delusion, we learn that Kattner is armed with fresh material and a different band of cohorts. So far, it’s been a tough slog. Honus Honus performs before modest-sized crowds in slightly dingy venues from Seattle to San Diego in a valiant effort to get some attention, or presumably at least as much attention as Kattner’s former outfit once had.
“Their lyrics and musical arrangements are on the eccentric and cryptic side…”
He former band, Man Man, is often referred to in print as an “experimental” band, whatever that means. So I expected that Honus Honus would play some variety of noise rock, perhaps Karlheinz Stockhausen-influenced orchestral arrangements — just kidding. Or at least something on the more avant-garde side of the pop music spectrum. But to my ears and eyes, these guys are more a fairly trippy cabaret act, with colorful, somewhat bizarre costumes. Their lyrics and musical arrangements are on the eccentric and cryptic side, maybe like Frank Zappa meets Nine Inch Nails meets X-Ray Spex. And they sing about stuff like witches and vampires, among other things. In one sequence, Kattner and another band member discuss whether or not their costumes are more vampire-like or more Game of Thrones. They settle on GoT.
The HH lineup includes Kevin, who’s a little embarrassed to admit that his day job is playing a drug dealer on Days of Our Lives, and Tomoki, who hails from Tokyo and started out as a Man Man super fan. She was later promoted to her current role as a Honus Honus backup singer. She’s a bundle of energy who hops around on stage in a skeleton costume as if doing an aerobic workout, and clearly is having a blast.
As the film unreeled, I waited for the other shoe to drop, like a conflict breaking out among band members. But, actually, not a lot happens, at least not in that way. We follow the musicians to their overnight quarters, sound checks and performances, and when not on stage they crack jokes and perform obligingly for the cameras. Don’t expect the film to present anything particularly revealing — there’s no dramatic arc to be found. If there are any intra-band personal tensions they don’t show up so much here, save for Kattner occasionally griping about equipment problems and the rigors of going on the road without a sound engineer.
In fact, the only real mystery is why the bandleader decided to jettison the Man Man moniker and go out on tour under a new, unknown, name. That would seem to be the first lesson in how not to market a band. Interviewed by a journalist, he cites burnout as the overarching reason for launching the band’s new identity. Man Man band members have kids and mortgages now, he adds a bit wearily.
“…burnout as the overarching reason for launching the band’s new identity…”
It’s easy to imagine that the others were tired of life on the road. As the movie amply demonstrates, the musician’s lifestyle, with strings of one-nighters, long days driving to the next gig and sleeping on motel room floors could suck the life out of anyone. That’s what Kattner said he wanted to avoid, but that’s exactly what he got.
So, what makes it all worthwhile? Performing together and playing new material to new audiences. If for nothing else, just to have a good time. There’s no money in it, and as one of the brood laments, bands sometimes pay to play in clubs, believing it will help their career, but the only ones who come out to see them are their friends.
With the record industry in a decades-long financial freefall, there are fewer dollars for musicians. So slugging away, night after night, in dive bars for meager and indifferent audiences has to be a heartbreaker for all but the most committed road warriors.
You’ve got to hand it to this crew, they hang in there and play their hearts out, even if it’s to an audience of 15 or so in a Bakersfield brewery. That’s rock ’n’ roll.
Use Your Delusion (2017) Directed by Justin Carlton, Jamie Vega Wheeler. Starring Ryan Kattner. Use Your Delusion is playing at the 2018 San Francisco Film Festival.
6 out of 10