“This isn’t like cheating on your wife; this is more like cheating on your abusive, negligent wife. It doesn’t feel bad. It actually feels good.” Over the phone from a tour stop in Florida, Mat Devine — founder and frontman of the Chicago quintet Kill Hannah — isn’t talking about partaking in some groupie action, though he and the rest of his gothy, glammy, electro-tinged emo-punk outfit have been known to indulge from time to time (more on that later).
No, he's actually referring to a night this past December, when backstage, just an hour before Kill Hannah's annual Christmas show, the band simultaneously divorced Atlantic Records, where it'd endured a rocky five-year marriage, and consummated a new union with indie Roadrunner Records. "From the time I was 17 until the time we got signed, every time I threw a penny in a fountain, my wish was very specific: I wanna get signed to a major label," says the 34-year-old Devine. "Now, it's almost an albatross around your neck. It's almost tacky."
The label switch opened a small window in which the fivesome - singer-guitarist Devine, guitarists Jonathan Radtke and Dan Wiese, bassist Greg Corner and drummer Elias Mallin - were able to put out the new Hope for the Hopeless, a B-sides and rarities collection that's available only at shows, Kill Hannah's website and Hot Topic stores.
Without the help of any label, the disc is selling briskly, and without the benefit of a current radio hit, Kill Hannah is touring the album this summer to packed venues, owing to the rabidly devoted following the group has accrued through years of nonstop touring and fan-friendly behavior. But most of all, it's the music that's done it: Stylish, often exhilarating, undeniably sexy, it strikes a fine balance between hard-charging vitriol and buoyant pop accessibility; the songs frequently dive into despair and fear but stop short of pure nihilism and usually offer a lifeline out of the darkness. Which explains the title of the new disc: a summation of Kill Hannah's capricious career path, which started in Devine's dorm room 14 years ago.
"It's always been this yin and yang," he says. "During the pre-label days, we'd be flown out to Los Angeles to showcase for the president of a company and we'd be thrilled on the way there, and then we'd get rejected and be heartbroken on the way back. And then the next day we'd play a show in Chicago, and our fans would bolster our spirits again. So it was just a constant roller coaster between doubt and hope."
So how has Devine dealt with that volatile ride?
"Xanax," he laughs. "I mean, if ever there are doubts, they're always silenced by the shows we play or the letters we get from fans, written in blood and stuff like that."
Indeed, Kill Hannah's most ardent fans are beyond devoted - sometimes scarily so - but Devine acknowledges that there have been plenty of haters and shit-talkers along the way too. "Depending on who you ask," he says, "we have a great reputation for being a unique and original band, or we have a horrible reputation as womanizing drug addicts."
Asked about the latter perception, Devine allows, "I think we've dabbled in a little bit of Mštley CrŸe behavior in the past, which is all part of our philosophy of exploration. We've experienced a lot of the clichés, you know - we've lived it firsthand. I think back to me being a skinny 14-year-old and being terrified of chicks, of feeling alone and weak. And some of the things I've seen and done in the last few years … it's kinda laughable, the two extremes.
It's both the desire for greater success and a tremendous fear of failure that's propelling Kill Hannah forward, both on this tour and toward its soon-to-be-recorded Roadrunner Records debut (and fifth full-length overall). "The bar scene in Chicago is just littered with ex-musicians, who all comfort each other," concludes Devine, "and I never want to be in one of those bars, making excuses."