By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2003
Kill Hannah singer/songwriter/guitarist Mat Devine feels that he was genetically ‘just predestined to be a total music lover,’ something that could very well explain the power and intensity of their Atlantic Records debut, “For Never and Ever.” The influence of new wave can definitely be heard in Kill Hannah’s music (and seen in their image), but they never come across as trying to be ‘retro.’ Rather, it’s an unforced and modern sound that is highly polished without being sugar coated. Called ‘the future of Chicago rock’ by Billy Corgan, Kill Hannah has gone through a few line-up changes over the years. Currently, the group is rounded out by guitarists Dan Wiese, Jonathan Radtke, bassist Greg Corner, and drummer Garret Hammond (formerly with Prick).
We recently got Devine on the phone to talk about the new CD, the creative process, and other topics.
Do you remain the main songwriter within the band?
It’s weird. For the majority of the band’s history it was more just logistics. It was so much more efficient to write it all myself. I’ve never gained anything from jamming with anyone before. It’s just a matter of being most productive. If the five of us stood around just jamming, I’d have an idea and rather than just explore it I’d have to stop and teach everyone and see if they understand. I’m not very prolific, and probably only one in every hundred ideas that I have is worth pursuing. But I can go through those other 99 ideas in about 1/2 an hour by myself. But everyone in this band is very capable of contributing, so that’s not the reason. And I’d never discourage contributions from anyone. it’s just that up until now, that’s how we’re done it.”
So do you record demo versions of songs, and then bring them to the band?
“Yeah, usually I’ll have a demo of the song. Sometimes, from the arrangement to the lyrics, it’s completely refined, but in other cases it’s pretty raw and rough.”
What kind of equipment and instrumentation do you use for the demos?
“I have keyboard with a sequencer in it, a Roland XP60. It’s cool. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t graduated to the level of Pro Tools yet. I use this Roland VS-880 digital recorder, but I use it just like an old 4 track. It’s capable of so much more than what I use it for. I have a really rudimentary understanding of it. But the cool thing is that with my keyboard I’m able to lay out the arrangements, sequence the drums. I’ve been doing it for so long that the drums sound pretty realistic.”
Are the songs usually fully developed by the time the full bands goes into the studio to record?
“Every song is unique. But in the case of this last record, I’d say the majority of the songs were completely hashed out. We’d been playing them live for years. They’ve evolved to the point where they are 100% streamlined and perfected. But there’s a couple of new songs where we intended for the producer to put this stamp on it [the disc was produced by Sean Beavan, who ahs worked with Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, No Doubt, and Slayer.] The song ‘Unwanted,’ for example, that completely metamorphisized in the studio with the producer. We changed the arrangement quite a bit, and even the tempo was bumped up 30-40 bpm from the demo to the final recording.”
For those who have heard the CD but not seen you live yet, how would you compare the two?
“Live, it’s a lot more aggressive, a lot more vivid. We’re pretty loud, we’re pretty energetic. And I think from my approach to the vocals to everything else, it’s a little more exciting.”
What inspired you to start making music?
“It was probably a combination of things. One of my best friends started playing electric guitar and from the minute I heard him replicate a riff from Def Leppard’s ‘Pyromania’ I was totally inspired. Then it was my older sister’s boyfriend the next year who actually taught me to play a U2 song on the guitar. As far as songwriting, my heros were Robert Smith and Morrissey, The Cult, stuff like that. I think genetically I’m just predestined to be a total music lover, as are all my friends. I think my songwriting is just an extension of that.
I read something about John Hughes helping the band out early on. What’s the story behind that?
“I went to high school with his son, who was into music as well. They had a home studio and I demoed a couple of songs there. And Mr. Hughes liked them. Someone had the idea of throwing us all in the studio together, so he rented some studio time for us for a few weeks. So I went in and tracked 11 songs or so, with his son producing. So it was more of an education for all of us. It was just cool to be associated with him at the time, because we’re such fans of his movies. But it never really materialized into anything.”
What made you decide to go with a major label for this release?
“We’ve always wanted to be with a label who could afford to take the model that we’re created to the next level. It just seems that for what we needed, a major was the only choice. We need to survive, we need to make a living. We’ve been doing it for so long. We’ve always thought on a bigger scale. Atlantic seemed like the perfect choice when we had the opportunity. We put out 2 albums independently in Chicago, and a couple of ep’s. In hindsight, it maybe would have been cool to have released those on a bigger indie. Philosophically, we are indie. We do everything on our own. We design our own cd covers, we promote on our own, we print out our own posters at kinkos. We’re very much an indie band in that sense. But when you’re talking about five guys in their 20’s and your talking about taking a career so seriously and sacrificing everything else for it, we needed the facility that the major label system can offer us. We need to shoot a video, and we need to tour for the rest of our lives. And we wouldn’t have been able to afford that unless we signed to a major label.”
Were you afraid at all of losing creative control?
“I was afraid of that until I met the people at Atlantic and became so close with our A&R guy. That is the popular fear. And I can name a dozen bands out of Chicago who had good reason to fear that. But in our case, we created everything on our own over the years. We weren’t signed to be shaped; we’re already fully formed. Both parties went into it with that understanding. So it’s not a typical case of a band that might be manufactured and lost along the way.”
Had you been seeking out/talking to labels all along?
“Yeah, we put out our first ep in ’96. It was a really cool record, and from that point we had always been in touch with labels. For the past 8 years, we’ve probably been rejected by every label, indie and major, a couple of times each. We’ve always been really ambitious and we’ve worked our asses off. For some reason it just wasn’t enough. There was a point where we would have signed with my grandma if she had 10 grand. We were really impatient and just so hungry. We still are.”
Ideally, how often would you like to release a new album?
“It’s hard to say. When I think about bands like No Doubt … with ‘Tragic Kingdom,’ there were 5 singles. You can’t rush things. I would think every year or year and a half would be good. But there’s no reason to stop the momentum of a record gratuitously to start another one. We have enough material for another record, and I get really excited when I think about how we can record it. But I’ve got to focus on the task at hand right now.”
What are your touring plans? Are you looking to hook up with another band?
“We’ve got Chicago pretty much locked. We do really, really well there on our own. But outside of the midwest, we’re virtual unknown. So we love opening for more established artists. Recently, we’ve opened for Chevelle, Everclear, Evanescence, Eve 6, and tons of other bands. We never know what we’re doing one week to the next. We keep getting dates added every single day. We’re in talks right now about something more regular, a steady opening slot on a high profile tour. But until that’s locked down, we’ll just continue to do a few shows here and there with other bands, and a few headlining on our own.”
How has the Kill Hannah website been working out?
“I don’t know where we’d be without it. I shudder to think of this band coming out in the mid 80’s. It’s been totally invaluable to us, ever since the beginning. We were one of the first bands that I’m aware of to even have a website. It’s always been a real priority for us. I think the most visible benefit to it has been the attendance at these out of town shows. We did a collEge tour last year, and we were in the most obscure rural areas but we still had a dozen or two hardcore fans. If it were not for the internet, then that definitely would not be the case.”
What are your feelings on file sharing? We’ve recently seen legal action being taken against a lot of people using the networks, but at the same time some up and coming bands feel it’s a good way to get exposure.
“Yeah, that was my position on the argument until we got signed. We welcomed it, and it was exciting to see our stuff up on all the file sharing engines. It’s just cool to know that people can so easily have access to your songs. It was great exposure for us. But now that we’re signed, I don’t know …. I’m really proud of the record, and I really want people to have it in their hands with the artwork and everything. If the file sharing impedes on that, then I have a problem with it. But I don’t know what the stats are. People are so easily spooked and paranoid without knowing for sure and having all the facts. This new iTunes library is kind of cool, you get a song for a dollar. I know our single is up there. But I’m a music lover and all my friends are. And I love the tactile quality of having something in my hands. That’s what excites me, and I don’t think it will change that much. An mp3 is just not the same. The quality is fine, but there’s not much romance to it. I don’t think the music industry is any more vulnerable than it’s ever been.”See all interviews →