Can’t Stay Down
It can’t be easy being Kill Hannah.
To say the self-proclaimed “nu romantic” outfit — a staple of the Chicago scene for more than a decade — has seen its fair share of setbacks would be a sizeable understatement. Though the band sports a history of obstacles, the events of October 21st, 2008 surely stand at the forefront, when its van caught fire in the Swiss Alps between overseas tour dates. In and of itself the incident, which incinerated everything musical and personal onboard, would be more than enough of a setback for any group. Yet for Kill Hannah, the worst was yet to come.
This past November, the group — consisting of frontman Mat Devine, bassist Greg Corner, guitarist Dan Weise, drummer Elias Mallin, and live guitarist Michael Maddox — woke to find its tour bus and accompanying trailer stolen from the Philadelphia Holiday Inn where the members were staying. It was a crisis that set the band back $120,000, in addition to forcing the act to miss the tail end of its tour alongside alternative acts Jet and Papa Roach. All of which begs the question, has the long-suffering unit ever considered calling it a day?
“Yeah, we did,” Devine admits. “We’ve been having that talk our entire career. There’s always that one thing that brings it back. There’s always that one show, or one letter from a fan, or one promise of a tour. Everybody in this band pretty much has a college degree; we don’t have to be living in hotel rooms every day, playing shows every day. And we do it, obviously, because we love it. There’s also a point where you feel like you’re getting kicked in the face every day and, slowly over time, you’d have to be crazy not to think about quitting. But like I said, there’ll be something, there’ll be an article in a magazine, there’ll be an e-mail from someone I admire, something like that. And that’s really what keeps us going.”
Barring any unwelcome interruptions, Kill Hannah plans to keep going by getting the word out about its latest full length, Wake Up The Sleepers. (“We’re pretty much launching the entire album campaign around our spring and summer touring schedule,” Devine informs.) It’s a cinematic record full of Devine’s breathless and dramatic proclamations (“You are the air that I breathe,” he exclaims on “Snowblinded”), over the band’s harder glam/nu-wave-tinged anthems. It’s also easily Kill Hannah’s most experimental record to date, featuring guests like Amanda Palmer (the dour “Living In Misery”) and even a full-on choir (cheerleading in the background of “Tokyo”). Sleepers also finds the band trying material more sparse and exposed than anything since the early days as an indie unit, evident in the synth-backed “Why I Have My Grandma’s Sad Eyes.” It could pass for a Devine solo track and unveils a new, more heightened vulnerability in the songwriter. As for why the band chose this record to branch out, the frontman’s answer is nothing if not direct.
“Desperation, I think. We’ve been through so much, and we’ve risked our lives so many times, and we don’t have kids or anything. If we want to be immortalized in any way or to be remembered for anything, it should be the best songs, we should try to at least reach our fullest potential, and I think that’s pretty much where it came from to take chances. It didn’t feel like we were taking chances, it just felt like — it felt like we just weren’t compromising.”
An admirable route, but also a dangerous one, as the ever-collapsing music industry is now more selective than ever when it comes to aiding artists. It’s a reality the members of Kill Hannah have seen first hand, making the decision to press on regardless. Surprisingly, Devine even welcomes the challenges that his band meets in the face of the industry, if not fate itself at times.
“I think it’s a blessing in disguise, because, what it comes down to is, if you really can’t stand living at the poverty level, then it pretty much filters out the casual musicians. It kind of thins the herd,” the singer affirms. “The economy has basically given people a choice: You either have it in your blood and you have to make music, or if you don’t have to, then I think right now, you just won’t, because it makes no sense. So, I think what that means is, overall I think the quality of stuff that remains and that you’re going to hear is going to be the truest expression of the truest artists.”
Not to mention the most enduring.
“I think we put,” he considers, “we just put a lot more heart into this one, and I think our motivation behind the songwriting went back to, for us, just went back to the early days of the band: You made a record for the purest of reasons just because you had to, because you had something you had to express, and this is a more complicated record. I think it’s got a lot more layers, I think it’s got a lot more to say, and, I think, whereas the last record had a good number of three-and-a-half-minute songs that made a lot more sense for commercial radio. This is more of an overall statement.”
Devine and the band seem to be tempting fate a third time but can’t resist uncertainty’s tractor-beam pull. Murphy’s Law? Ha! Kill Hannah’s actively soliciting God’s laughter by setting goals.
“I hate to say it,” he begins, “the goal is kind of like, we have no clue what’s happening with the industry, we had no clue what was happening with the band internally. I think the goal was honestly just to make something that we’d be proud of, whether that means a million people hear it or 10 people hear it. It was done for us, and it was done for the fans who’ve been lifelong supporters. In the context of a scene and a climate that we thought was just getting abysmal, and just getting — just the general state of the music industry was so depressing — I wondered why, still to this day, 90 percent of the stuff I listen to was made 20 or 30 years ago. We wanted to reach down and to make something that we’d want to listen to, and that the fans who’re just in need of meaningful songs, that it would really matter to them.”
That it matters to Kill Hannah goes without saying.
— Jaime de’Medici