Image-Heavy Style + Relentless Pursuit = Homegrown Superstars
Not from Chitown? You’ve probably never heard of Kill Hannah. If you are, then you may have been catching whiffs of some of Kill Hannah’s relentless self-promotion over the band’s decade-long run. You might own a Kill Hannah wife beater, you may have met a band member after one of their sold-out shows, you could have seen the lead singer and the guitarist DJing at a local bar. And if you have a Kill Hannah tattoo, you are personally thanked in the liner notes of their new album, Until There’s Nothing Left of Us.
Kill Hannah, once described to me by the guitarist’s sister as Garbage meets Smashing Pumpkins, has been called one of the hardest-working bands in Chicago, with some of the most loyal local fans possible. The band was born in the mid-‘90s when lead singer-songwriter Mat Devine attended the Art Institute in Chicago. The “Hannah” in Kill Hannah is, naturally, an ex-girlfriend, a beautiful little goth girl who broke Mat Devine’s heart back in the day. It was 1996 when the band recorded their first EP and became more professional. “It was very dynamic back then,” Devine tells me. “People came and went pretty regularly until we started taking it much more seriously.” They’ve had the latest lineup for the last five years—Devine as the lead singer and guitarist, Greg Corner on bass, Jon Radtke and Dan Wiese on guitar, and Garret Hammond on the drums.
In the old days, if the band wasn’t at Kinko’s printing posters, they were sending out email blasts and talking to strangers on the street. But even after they got signed to Atlantic Records three years ago, their tireless effort to reach out to their fans has continued. “I think the Chicago fans are so loyal because early on there was so much one-on-one interaction with them,” Devine says. “After every show we’d make it a point to thank everyone for coming. Now it’s turned into a sort of post-show mob scene. But it’s amazing.”
Nowadays “Kill Hannah” is a true brand—as much a style as a music act, recognized just as much for their goth-tinged androgyny, striped sleeve-gloves, and heart-in-crosshairs logo as for their deadpan glam-rock sound. Besides being influenced by the sounds of the Cure and Billy Idol, the band also fits snugly into the style of their mother era, the “alternative” vibe—sorta Jane’s Addiction, circa 1996. But there’s no trace of the depressing woe-is-me-ness that seemed to follow the mid-‘90s rock wave. There’s a retro hedonistic vibe to their music and image—highly stylized, eyeliner-infused, you get the idea.
Yet they’re also modern; it’s not very hard, for example, to picture them gracing a magazine cover, or a mainstream radio station playing one of their tunes. They’re also so-called “underground”, but catchy—it’s hard to get singles like “Kennedy” or the newly released “Lips Like Morphine” out of your head. The Kill Hannah cocktail—part throwback, part 1996, part 2006, part subculture, part MTV—makes for a label that’s hard to pinpoint. Devine tentatively offers the term “modern rock”, but admits that “lately [reviewers] are struggling to categorize us. Recently, I heard ‘danceable goth anthem rock.’” If it’s possible to hear a shrug over the phone, Mat Devine gives me one. “I don’t spend much time categorizing us, anyway.”
The label “anthem rock” hints that concerts are the entrée to the appetizer of Kill Hannah’s albums, especially because the visual style of the band is central. “[Seeing] us live is when you can see the sweat and energy and blood that goes into us. You can come close to replicating it if you turn your stereo up really loud and fill your room with fog.” A hook with the line “Welcome to Chicago, motherfucker,” for instance, just sounds better when it’s crooned live.
So Kill Hannah loves Chicago and Chicago loves it (“I do not approve of your methods,” a tight-ass voice says in the same track, Kill Hannah’s love letter to Chicago. “Oh yeah? Then you’re not from Chicago,” is KH’s reply.) Devine describes the band’s beloved home base as “pretty much the coolest city that we can afford to live in really cheaply.”
But it’s not enough. For years, Kill Hannah has been waiting infiltrate a national audience, and gradually, it seems to be happening. If online notoriety is essential to almost-famous bands (and let’s get real, it is), Kill Hannah is MySpace royalty, with over 105,000 friends and millions of gushy wall comments from people who have named their profiles after KH’s singles or albums. Their deal with Atlantic has allowed Kill Hannah to finally reach past the heartland and afford to tour nationally. For the last few months, Kill Hannah has been performing all over the country, and their fall tour includes terrains as varied as Fresno, Toronto, Toledo, Louisville, and Fort Worth.
This extended tour following the August 1st release of Until There’s Nothing Left of Us is what Devine says people are calling “the next level, the next evolution.” He sees the new album as the passion they’ve always had, but “a lot more epic, more cinematic, just triumphant. You can just tell that we spent a year working on it. We are smarter now, and there’s so much growth that’s apparent after all this time.”
Kill Hannah’s uphill struggle is forcefully spun into the second song on the new album, “Believer”, which Devine calls “the autobiography of the album.” At first listen, the track could be about anything—the pursuit of any dream, the lows of any sacrifice, even a lover’s last plea. But then you listen closer—“All the things that you set aside / All the friends that you leave behind / Just so the curtain will rise / And it feels like the first time… I need you to believe in me until there’s nothing left of us”. You realize it’s Kill Hannah’s reminder—to either their fans or each other—that they’ve gone through a lot and will always be around, as long as they got believers.
Well… Welcome to Chicago.