The Rock City archives: 2015

Kill Hannah, Rock City Basement

  • Thursday 3rd December 2015
  • Supported by: TBC

Sleek, sexy, undeniably melodic, and thoroughly unique, it's ironic that Chicago rock quintet Kill Hannah got its start in a place called Normal.

A native of Connecticut, singer/songwriter/guitarist Mat Devine moved to Chicago's North Shore suburbs during his senior year in high school. He proceeded to enroll at Illinois State University, where it turned out that he was a poor fit. Sitting in his dorm room, he felt alienated and bored in the rural farm community.

"Kill Hannah started in Normal as just me and a four-track," says Devine. "I didn't have any friends the first year, so I just worked on music. I was so elitist in a sense - I always felt like a loner - and I turned that restlessness into songs."

One of these was a tune called "Kill Hannah" that was based on a brief but turbulent relationship. "It was the best song I'd ever written at the time," Devine says, "and I was really excited about it because it was the first time I heard something that was close to what would become the band's sound.

"The song kind of lost meaning for me over the last six years," he continues, "but the story is kind of cool. Hannah was a 16-year-old at the time I was a freshman in college. She was a local, but she stood out - she was modelesque but didn't know it, and she had purple hair and three nose rings. This was in 1992, so it was a little more daring. We started dating, and it was a really bizarre, brief relationship that resulted in my first experience with heartbreak. I was devastated. I think I was fine three weeks later, but at the time it was really, really emotional, and I was really angry."

Thankfully, Devine's revenge fantasy was limited to a song: he and Hannah are still friends, he says, and she "kind of gets a kick" out of the band's name. "She's still a really fascinating person, she loves literature, and now she lives in Geneva, Switzerland."

Though the song has long since been dropped from the band's set list, it's indicative of the way Devine writes. "What I liked about it was that it was specific but universal," he says, "because everybody's been through something like that." The same can be said of many of the driving, hook-filled songs on "FOR NEVER AND EVER," Kill Hannah's Atlantic Records debut.

Few among us haven't had a lonely, desolate moment like the scene on Chicago's Navy Pier described in "New Heart for Christmas," felt the hopelessness portrayed in "Raining All the Time," or experienced a brief flash of the triumphant and defiant attitude that propels "Kennedy." With their killer power chords, catchy electronic loops, propulsive rhythms, and anthemic choruses, Kill Hannah's songs have won the band a dedicated following.

Leaving Normal behind (in more ways than one), Devine relocated to Chicago in the mid-'90s and put together a full band. The group released a series of strong D.I.Y. recordings, including three EPs (Hummingbirds The Size Of Bullets, Stunt Pilots, Sleeping Like Electric Eels) and two albums (Here Are the Young Moderns, American Jet Set). Their following grew organically as the musicians converted one fan at a time, relentlessly spreading the word (they've long been a familiar sight handing out fliers all around Chicago, even standing on street corners in the rain and snow).

Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, rock critic Jim DeRogatis noted: "Kill Hannah transcends image by delivering the goods... On one level, these are pleasant bubblegum ditties. But there's also a measure of subversive, My Bloody Valentine-style sonic terrorism, and that's what makes the band stand out." He also added that they were "the cutest band in Chicago" - and indeed, a distinctive sense of style has always been important to the group.

"From the very beginning, when I was still naive and didn't know anything about being in a band, I always had a vision of what I wanted," Devine says, and he chose his bandmates accordingly. "Super-slick, polished, pretentious, arty - I wanted to be like the cool band, with people who had some fashion sense and who liked sexy music. We admired the sounds of the Cure, but we wanted the philosophy of Andy Warhol."

Several members came and went through the years. "On our album notes, I give an extra special thanks to the ex-members," Devine says, "and I think there were six of them, not counting people who were just in it for a week." The group finally solidified with its strongest line-up ever, featuring guitarists Devine, Dan Wiese, and Jonathan Radtke (whose dad, a studio drummer, played with Miles Davis), bassist Greg Corner, and drummer Garret Hammond (formerly with Prick).

To record their major-label debut, the band chose producer Sean Beavan, whose list of credits includes work with Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, No Doubt, and Slayer. The musicians had previously recorded a three-song demo with Beavan, and they appreciated how hard he drove them. "When we did that demo, I remember we had two days of pre-production, and after that we were a much better band than we'd ever been before," Devine says. "Each one of us grew through that."

Now, all of the hard work and the years of hoping and dreaming are ready to pay off. But for Devine, the best thing about being in a band remains that feeling that he first experienced long ago, when he wrote the song that gave the group its name.

"Nothing is as entirely exciting or as satisfying as that feeling that you've just written a song that works," he says. "Those are the moments when I realize that there is no doubt at all that this is my favorite thing to do, and I know with 100 percent certainty that I'll always keep doing it.