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Cover Story: Kill Hannah

| December 1, 2015

Kill Hannah 2012

If you’re a millennial and grew up watching bands nearly every week in the City, it’s hard to imagine the musical landscape without Kill Hannah on the scene. Up until a few years ago, the glam-rock group has been a staple on the Chicago scene. Even when the band has been less active, as it has in recent years,  the band’s bassist and Chicago musical impresario Greg Corner has never been absent from the culture around the city, whether DJ’ing for the President and First Lady, or serving as musical director and co-host at JBTV.

When Kill Hannah announced they would perform two final shows in Chicago – December 18th and 19th at Metro for the tenth edition of the group’s long-running New Heart For X-Mas series, following a handful of dates in the UK – it was and wasn’t a surprise. With most of the band members now located in LA – including frontman and songwriter Mat Devine – it was only a matter of time before the group made their retirement official. “Everyone thought the band broke up already,” Corner admits when I interview him in a top floor suite of the Public Hotel. “Our last US tour was in 2010 with the Smashing Pumpkins. So, it’s been a while.”

The primary reason for the retirement of the band is  its various members are no longer centrally located. “Mat is in LA now, [with former guitarist] Jonny (Radtke) and [drummer] Elias (Mallin), and then [guitarist] Dan (Wiese) and I are still here in Chicago, “Corner explains. It’s not an understatement to say that  the various members of Kill Hannah have kept musically active over the years. Mallin logged time with pop acts like Ke$ha and MKTO, while Radtke spent four years in Filter, in addition to performing live with A Perfect Circle-offshoot Ashes Divide. Devine, meanwhile has been busy with an array of projects, from landing a role as Grim Hunter in the ill-fated Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark musical, to recording a solo album (2014’s Gold Blooded) under the name Wrongchilde, to writing 2013’s Weird War One: The Antihero’s Guide to Surviving Everyday Life, and this past winter’s Nobody Will Buy This: Don’t Drink and Tweet.

“Everyone’s been busy doing their own things,”the bassist confirms. “When we think about like, ‘Oh, can we get in a van again and tour the United States and sleep on floors and make no money?’ It’s like, no one can afford to do that anymore. That’s why we’re like, ‘Alright, this is probably it then.'”

The band’s origins date back to 1995, when Devine created Kill Hannah as both a band name and its first song title. “I remember exactly where I was standing when I thought that name was a good idea,” the singer recalls when we connect on the phone. “I was actually standing in front of the visual arts building at (Illinois State University), and I was thinking of how I wanted a name that I could see on a marquee along my favorite bands at the time. It was kind of like a revenge fantasy, where I imagined thousands of people all wearing T-shirts that say ‘Kill Hannah,’ because I was so hurt by [Devine’s titular ex, Hannah].”

“It was a dual vision of, on one hand, making music that I really care about, and at the same time, trying to really get back at this girl,” Devine continues. In 1996, the group performed their first show under the name Kill Hannah, in addition to releasing the Hummingbirds the Size of Bullets EP and rarely-referenced full length The Beauty in Sinking Ships. It was also the year that longtime drummer Garrett Hammond would join the band in an on-again, off-again capacity. The following year, the similarly shoegaze-y Sleeping Like Electric Eels EP dropped, and the band performed their first of many, many shows at the Metro. It was also the year that Corner joined the band on bass. “I was playing in two bands, and one of the guys in the band (was) like, ‘Oh, you got to come out and see Kill Hannah,'” Corner recalls. “I went, and I’m watching them at Metro. It was their first time or second time playing Metro, I think. I’m watching them and I’m like, ‘This is exactly the kind of band I want to be in. This is crazy.'”

It was not long after that performance that Corner would cross paths with Devine while the bassist was working at a club called Tunnel. He and Devine made formal, if not brief, introductions at the spot, with the frontman deciding the bassist was fit for the band. “[Mat] looked at me and he’s like, ‘You play bass, don’t you?'” Corner remembers. “I’m like, ‘What? How do you know I play bass?’ He’s like, ‘You just look like a bass player.’ He’s like, ‘We need a bass player, you want to try out?’ I’m like, ‘Absolutely.’ I met with him and Kerry [Finerty], who was the guitar player at the time, and we talked about music, John Hughes. We had the same love for movies and for music. Then without even hearing me play, he was like, ‘You want to play a show with us next week?’ I’m like, ‘OK.'”

With Corner onboard, the group would go on to release the acclaimed Here are The Young Moderns and American Jet Set in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Both releases would start to grow their underground and under 21 Chicago fanbase. By the end of ’99, Finerty had left the band, and by the middle of the following year, longtime KH staples Jonny Radtke and Dan Wiese came onboard. That would also be the year the band would record the singles “Crybaby,” “Kennedy,” and “Welcome to Chicago, Motherfucker” – the latter two becoming live set staples and fast fan favorites.

Throughout the lineup swaps and steady stream of releases, Kill Hannah was steadily building up an army of fans from throughout the Chicago suburbs. Teens clad in arm socks and war paint, cheap dye jobs and apparel straight off the racks of The Alley. “We’re called an emo band now, but we were never even embraced by that community,” Corner states. “We never fit in anywhere, and so we made our own identity, scene, everything. It started locally in Chicago. We created this scene and we weren’t part of any scene. We created our own, and then we started doing that across the country, and then we started doing that overseas. And that was just by playing tons of shows.”

Despite the lack of commercial recognition in the media (“We didn’t really get much help from radio or from press,” Corner confirms), Kill Hannah found themselves realizing their major label dream when the group signed with Atlantic Records in the summer of 2002. “I was maniacally self confident,” Devine admits when looking back at the band’s earliest days, long before they were signed. “I was kind of irrationally determined about it. I was sure that it would happen, but that’s the thing. I didn’t know nor did I plan for it to really take another eight years before we even got signed. I was sure that we were ready back then.”

After the band scored its coveted major label deal, Kill Hannah released their commercial debut, For Never and Ever, in October 2003. The record found the group trading the atmospherics from their past releases for anthemic hooks and rockier riffs on tracks like “10 More Minutes with You” and “Boys & Girls,” all in a bid for recognition from alt-rock radio. Following two years of touring, KH  released Ever’s follow up effort, Until There’s Nothing Left of Us, in the summer of 2006. The record would combine the group’s penchant for dreamy romanticism with their predilection for pop hooks on songs like “Black Poison Blood” and “The Collapse.”

After years of heavy touring, Kill Hannah’s official full length swan song would come in 2009’s Wake Up The Sleepers. The band found a heightened maturity in its songwriting, evident on the especially heartfelt “Snowblinded” and the notably somber “Why I Have My Grandma’s Sad Eyes.” Not to go quietly into the night, however, the band just released its one final song, the full-on Christmas-infused “This Is Our December” – available exclusively on Amazon Music. It’s a soaring, sentimental send off that sounds like Christmas in Chicago, all jingle bells and imagery about snow. Meaning it may be the most Kill Hannah thing the group has ever produced.

For all the changes to the band’s music and lineup, one constant has been their DIY approach to their entire career, from marketing and promotion to merch and distribution. “We always did everything ourselves,”Corner confirms. “Mat always designed all the CD covers and the artwork and everything, and I was always running the merch store and a lot of the business and accounting and all that kind of stuff behind the band. When the collapse happened for the music industry, and really the entire country, in 2008, a lot of bands didn’t know how to be self-sufficient. For us, it was like business as usual.”

“It was born of a necessity,” Devine affirms of the group’s overall DIY model. “It came from art school, I guess. I got just as geeked about designing our first CD and coming up with the logos and T-shirt designs and video concepts as I did making the music. It felt like a whole. DIY is right. You have no choice. It’s not sexy. It’s not sexy to go to Kinkos for eight hours and print out fliers that ninety-nine percent of the people you give it to are just gonna scowl and throw it on the garbage. It’s not sexy to walk into a shop and ask the owner if it’s okay if you can put a stack of tickets on the counter and make your own T-shirts with some janky screen printer that you stole from the art department in college.”

“Every step along the way we became de facto experts in promotion, in marketing, in design – you really had no choice but to go DIY,” the frontman continues. “It’s cool, because that’s the same ten thousand hours principle that applies when you get that shot, when we had a chance to scale up when we signed – we stepped to the plate as a real seasoned band in all aspects. We knew ourselves and we knew our fans, because everything had been DIY, we’d been so successful. Every fan was earned one by one. We were experts on ourselves. We knew ourselves better than anyone in an office in LA or New York possibly could. That thread carried. That was a through line of our entire career.”

With the clock ticking before the band’s final shows, Corner and Devine are understandably reflective on what the journey has meant. “I hope that our songs have been the soundtrack to some really cinematic moments in people’s lives,” Devine expresses. “I hope we’re associated with transformative periods in people’s lives. I want the whole trajectory of the thing, from the very germ of it until now. I want it to be a thing of beauty. I want the story of what we’ve done to be a rich, beautiful, funny, twisted tale. I feel proud when I think that we have mattered and given a sense of…not just to think that maybe someone out there is making out to our song or fucking to our song or driving recklessly to one of our songs, which is awesome, but maybe beyond that we’ve given people also a sense of community. We built a world around the band. I love thinking about how many people have been a part of that world.”

For Corner, the experience of being in Kill Hannah is basically inseparable from his entire life. “That’s my youth, man. I did go to college and everything, but it was my high school, college, and post-graduation, and master’s, and PhD and everything, in the music industry.”

Over the course of two decades, Kill Hannah fought the good fight for unabashedly emotional rock and roll. The group never backed down from a seemingly endless supply of challenges, any one of which would have broken a lesser band. They cultivated a culture of die-hard suburban misfits, and earned the respect of the Chicago community, including Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan, who once called the band “the future of Chicago rock.”

For Devine, every victory and every obstacle, every chord and every crowd, it was all part of a journey. “I’m reading Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success right now and I’m like, ‘That [journey] makes sense.’ That’s what we were doing,” he says, reflecting on the last twenty years. “That was our ten thousand hours, just slugging it out in Chicago for that long.”

-Jaime Black

Appearing 12/18 and 12/19 at Metro, Chicago.


Welcome To Chicago: A City Remembers Kill Hannah
As told to Jaime Black for Illinois Entertainer

Over the last two decades, Kill Hannah not only made a lasting impression with their faithful and fashionable fan base, but with the Chicago music community. Now, in the group’s final week, some of Chicago’s finest share their thoughts on Kill Hannah’s music and legacy.

“In the early days…I’m talking about that early core lineup of Mat (Devine), Jonny (Radtke), Greg (Corner), and Garrett (Hammond). I remember them being out in front of (Metro), like any Wednesday night or any Friday or Saturday that we were doing a local package, or even sometimes a national package. They would be out there meeting people, hanging out, passing out tickets to their next show or passing out flyers, and they always had people around them, because in a way, they were fun to hang out with. They were fun to be around. That’s hard, because a lot of bands get a little lofty. These guys were always really pretty close to their fans, and always pretty close to the ground, so to speak. I think that’s the admirable aspect of their lineage.”

– Joe Shanahan, founder/owner at Metro Chicago and Smart Bar

“Kill Hannah was the natural evolution of Chicago Music – a combo of things we were doing in the Pumpkins – but also with an eye towards Wax Trax and even House. A very cool band with some even cooler members.“

– Jimmy Chamberlin, drummer – The Smashing Pumpkins

“They never worried about being cool, you know? Chicago isn’t really known for having what you’d call an image conscious music scene. Lots of t-shirts and jeans. And Kill Hannah didn’t give a fuck about that. They’re nothing if not very conscious of their image. They embraced the makeup and hairspray and everything that goes with it. So what happens? Everybody in their audience started to dress like them. Emulate them. It’s like a cult. Which is actually pretty cool.”

– Scott Lucas, frontman/songwriter at Local H, Scott Lucas & The Married Men

“Kill Hannah was one of the most “complete” bands to come out of Chicago in the ‘90s. They had such a clear sense of identity, which found its way into their sound, look and merch. I thought they were great.”

– James VanOsdol, Director of Programming at Rivet Radio, Inc., former host of Chicago music programs at late Chicago rock stations Q101 and The Zone

“One of my favorite narratives that came up a few times over the years while interviewing Kill Hannah. Mat recalled a time shortly after their signing with Atlantic Records when they were riding in the back of a limousine drinking champagne when the Atlantic record rep expressed to the band ‘Welcome to the good life, Kill Hannah.’ Each time Mat and Greg reminisced while telling that story I couldn’t help but think that ‘the band’ may feel like they never reached the notoriety they had imagined at that time. However, if true, I disagree with that sentiment. Kill Hannah was, is and forever will be one of the most influential bands I’ve ever had the pleasure to interview, to watch, and to consider my friends. Kill Hannah far exceeded most of their contemporaries and should be proud of the legacy they will forever leave behind…until there is nothing left of them. KH, you truly have led the ‘good life!’ Cheers to your next limo ride.”

– Chris Payne, former host of Chicago music programs at former Chicago rock stations Q101 and Rock 103.5

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  1. James O’Brian says:

    This article should be fixed and credit Kerry Finerty. Joe Shanahan quote did pertain to her and it was left out. Miss Finerty was responsible for booking most all of the shows up to 1999 for Metro and was a icon of the band. She left due to personal and artistic reasons. She is often left out of many articles due to Devine’s personal break up as they were engaged. But it is proper to credit her with what she did musically. She played and wrote songs up to 2000 and wasn’t credited properly. She went on to play for Atrixo who was signed to Hollywood leaving KH. Atrixo featured the very now well known artist Lawrence Rothman and members of Living Things. She also had an long time DJ gig at smartbar called Panic featuring DJ POGO from Q101 for a few yrs in the early 2000s til she moved to NY and became a big time multimedia designer. You should have credited her more properly. Fair to say that the writer is or was a roadie for the band and did not write things truthfully.

    I’m Miss Finerty’s personal assistant James O’Brian. Feel free to email her & get her comments. This is unkind if not cruel to leave her out. She was a huge part of the band and it took two male guitar players to replace her. There sound completely changed after Finerty left and there were a lot of old school fans that were really upset with her leave. A lot of fans stopped being fans because it was no longer the same Kill Hannah. When Finerty was in the band it was consider post punk glam shoe gaze and when she left KH became a emo rock boy band and lost a lot of its romantic beauty and post punk edge. Without Finerty they were no longer consider “Young Modern” they became sell-outs. Which is fine. Just stating Finerty’s huge impact and FACTS!

    -Let the record show the writer was/is not a roadie for the band – Ed