Kill Hannah has spent much of its career coming to its fans around the country and in Europe, but once a year during the holiday season the Chicago alt-rock band has its fans come to it for "A New Heart For Christmas." And considering the event — a fan expo of sorts — is in its ninth year (it kicked off Thursday with a rehearsal performance and fan Q&A and is followed by an acoustic show Friday at Crimson Lounge and a concert Saturday at the neighboring House of Blues) the trip must be worth it for the band's faithful followers.
"The reason it's gone on for as long as it has is, the first time we did it was such an epic event, people asked us to do it again next year," lead singer Mat Devine said. "Fans outside of Chicago knew we'd be here around Christmas and could book flights well in advance. It became this kind of fan convention. We would rent out entire floors of hotels. Fans that traveled would decorate each other's hotel rooms and doors.
"We put a lot more production into it. As a touring band, the economics of touring are such that you can't have everything you want, like lasers. This show, we know for a fact that we put every dollar we earn back into it: multiple snow machines, crazy lights. In between sets, we bring out crazy costumes, 8-foot Frosty comes out, girls dressed like sexy elves. One tradition is I have to learn an acoustic Christmas song that I play alone toward the end of the set.
"People bought flights from England, France and Scandinavia, and it's important that they get their money's worth."
"A New Heart For Christmas" is also the title of a song from the band's 2003 major label debut album, "For Never and Ever." Devine wrote it during what he calls possibly the worst week of his life, which included getting his heart broken by a woman and taking a lonely walk along Navy Pier on Christmas while all his family was in Connecticut.
Only once has "A New Heart For Christmas" been canceled, and that was in 2010 because Devine was cast in Broadway's "Spider-Man: Turn Off Dark" and his bandmates were busy with their own side projects. Devine signed on to play one of the members of the musical's "Geek Chorus" (which served as the show's narrators) for 15 months — but the role of the chorus was written out after a year.
Did he see the firing coming?
"Not really," said Devine, who had no prior theater experience. "But we'd already had 125 performances. I was definitely ready for a change. It becomes 'Groundhog Day' for a while. Not that I'm not insanely grateful. It was like a second childhood. It was totally artistically refreshing, like a crash course in theater. It was cool being a smaller cog in a big machine for once versus having to micro-manage everything. It was really kind of a rebirth, which is really a blessing at my age. I just couldn't do it forever."
The 38-year-old Devine has continued to act since then, including, he said, in a TV pilot. His bandmates have stayed busy in between albums as well. Bassist Greg Corner DJed President Barack Obama's 50th birthday party at the Aragon Ballroom, drummer Elias Mallin has been touring with pop star Kesha and guitarist Jonny Radtke, who this weekend is rejoining the band on stage for the first time in three years, has been playing with Filter. Still, Devine said most of Kill Hannah's next album has been written and expects the follow-up to 2009's "Wake Up The Sleepers" to come out in the summer.
How much longer does the band — which formed in 1996 and is known for songs such as "Kennedy" and "Lips Like Morphine" — want to continue?
"As long as we're still pushing ourselves, still improving, still mattering," Devine said. "Every record for us, every time we get together, we wait for the world to tell us it's just senseless. Instead, we get on tour and do very well. We went to Australia and in the back of our heads we said, 'If it's a disastrous tour and there are only three or four superfans in the audience, if we jumped the shark and it feels like it's ever less than totally thrilling, we won't be inspired to make another record.' What happens every record, the crowd stays the same age or even gets younger. It rejuvenates us. Also, it doesn't hurt that we're still best friends and never really fight. We entertain ourselves."
When and where: Acoustic show 7 p.m. Friday at Crimson Lounge, 333 N. Dearborn Street; concert 6:30 p.m. Saturday at House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn Street.