Ask The Artist: Mat Devine of Kill Hannah & Wrongchilde on the Philosophy of ‘Indie’
When doing a publicity push for your project, most interviews inevitably begin by asking you to describe your sound. And while that’s totally fair and sensible, that question always kind of gives me hives.
So few artists fit neatly into one category, and even if they did, it’s not helpful in determining if they’re even worth listening to. So whenever I’m asked to label my sound, I clumsily attempt to compare it to albums or movies that have inspired me, or otherwise come off like a total alien trying to improvise a new genre like, “John Hughes Nightmare Pop.”
My latest attempt was just a wild grasp at adjectives, throwing in terms like “modern” and “synth-based” the way a chef at a hospice might mangle a soup. It’s like… I guess these things could taste good together, but ultimately does it really make a difference?
It would have just saved us both a lot of trouble if I just said “indie”. Everyone knows “indie” is the go-to term to designate any sound and image that falls even slightly outside the realm of manufactured Top 40. So why couldn’t I?
Because to me, “indie” will always be a principle, not a sound. Because I lived in the 80’s and 90’s, when “independent” was used as a distinction from “corporate”; I’m not sure how the term has gradually become hijacked by people who mistakenly think that it has anything to do with dressing like a lumberjack or an iPhone repair tech, or having 3 zither players in your group.
It’s an ethos; and one that can apply to artists of every genre. Country crooners and Nordic death metal bands are all “indie” in the beginning. If you record your own songs, shoot your own photos, design your own flyers, websites, t-shirts, then you’re “indie.”
Like in any field, being independent means having the guts to stand outside the pack and be somewhat original—to take the heat, commit to your vision, and contribute something meaningful, but most of all, to work your ass off.
If you do eventually choose to team with a record company, the partnership should in no way pollute your independent mindset. But if you aren’t vigilant, it will. Especially if you’re fried from a relentless touring schedule, it’d be easy to understand the temptation to delegate mundane responsibilities. But that’d be a huge mistake.
Micromanaging is not a dirty term. It’s the essence of the independent spirit. Creative complacency can grow like a canker sore on the Jersey Shore. You have to treat it like it’s Snooki trying to crash your high tea at the Plaza Hotel. No fucking way. Keep that dude out!
One day, you allow a label intern to Photoshop a sticker design, or update your website, and the next thing you know, your album cover has a fucking tree on it (we counted SEVEN releases the SAME YEAR at a previous record company), and you’re dancing around like a monkey for some video director who, though very famous, has NEVER listened to your album. Then you’re on an overpriced, formulaic photo shoot that involves some arbitrary model (who has also NEVER heard your album) running through a Joshua Tree sunrise for no reason to make out with the lead singer who she’s never met before.
Not withstanding some extreme Beliebers, fans aren’t stupid. They know the moment you allow your values to be compromised.
Whether you’re on a big label or not, “indie” means maintaining an open, ongoing dialog with your audience through your work. It means staying up when you need to go to sleep, getting papercuts from vinyl inserts, screaming at your computer, and staying acutely involved in every creative decision.
It’s grueling—it’s maddening at times, but it’s absolutely vital. In the end, no one on earth knows what your fans need more than you do… and THAT is what will give your band all the confidence you’ll need to forge ahead with concepts which your label rep might tell you are “a waste of your time” …like all the best things you’ll ever do.
– Mat Devine
Mat Devine has been making music for over 20 years, primarily as the frontman of the Chicago-based rock band Kill Hannah. His latest project is a solo endeavor dubbed Wrongchilde, whose debut album Gold Blooded was released in September.
Photo: Dirk Mai