A digital avenue into stardom: Local Chicago band Ax and the Hatchetmens gains fame through TikTok


Valerie Loebich

Kenny Wolzewski and Axel Ellis, the bands lead singers, are pictured mid-jam.

Social media allows independent artists, now more than ever, to have a legitimate chance at making it big in the music business, and the local Chicago band Ax and the Hatchetmen are seeing that beautiful blend of timing, talent and luck work in their favor.

Ax and the Hatchetmen is a seven piece Chicago-based indie rock band comprised of Axel Ellis (Vocals/Guitar), Kenny Olzewski, (vocals/guitar), Sal Defilippis (vocals/guitar), Hunter Olshefke (vocals/bass), Nick Deputy (drums), Phil Pistone (trumpet) and Quinn Dolan (saxophone).

TikTok is the most accessible social media platform that allows aspiring musicians to best gain raw exposure. My senior year of high school I found the group through one of their viral videos while I lived in a completely different state. The video led me to their first EP, “Bear on the Roof,” where I immediately had put multiple songs on repeat. Following them on Instagram and TikTok for the past two years, they’ve grown steadily, amassing 70,000 monthly listeners and over 4.5 million streams on Spotify, boasting over 150,000 TikTok followers and 15.7 thousand Instagram followers. They haven’t even released an album.

Their  innovative music gives a wall of sound created by harmonies of the three guitars, the depth of the bass, and the floating melodies of the horn and sax. Lyrics that really tell a story, coupled with the energy of Ellis and Olzewski’s vocals, make them incredible on headphones and invigorating live. The group’s genre falls somewhere between indie rock, alternative, beach rock and jazz. Many of the members studied conservatory-style jazz in high school, and implemented those techniques and styles into their music with improv. They have a love-hate relationship with improvising, but for the most part, given their practice, have fun with it.

Quinn Dolan, Phil Pistone, Nick Deputy, Sal Defilippis, Kenny Wolzewski, and Axel Ellis are pictured playing at Subterranean. (Valerie Loebich)

Ax and the Hatchetmen didn’t happen overnight, the group has been playing together since 2019 after winning the Evanston Battle of The Bands, gaining ten free studio hours to record their EP at Gremlin Recording Studios, where they have since recorded all of their singles. When asked if they thought they’d be where they are now if they hadn’t won back then, Olshefke jumped at the question.

“I do not for a second think we’d be where we are. It would be a completely different outcome,”
Olshefke said. “I think we would have found a different way to record the songs, but I don’t think they would have come out as good. We were with the right people, it just ended up working.”

In talking about their presence on TikTok, Ellis stated “TikTok is different than the real world” and that the excitement of virality “doesn’t trickle into real life”.

Independent artists like them need to post more frequently to keep their audience engagements up that lead to more streams, that lead to more tickets. Grateful for their following and support, the bottom line is exposure when it comes to their TikTok. They don’t have a method of posting, but try to be positive, have a good time, and share their experiences as a band and pretty much best friends.

“It’s unfortunate to have to bust out a phone to record in good moments.” Ellis said of social media’s downside.

Constantly updating and engaging on social media seems to be a necessary evil for a majority of artists in this new digital age of music. Young, talented artists are emerging out of Tik Tok and increasingly gaining success through the app. Some of these familiar names include GAYLE with “abcdefu,” Tai Verdes with “A-O-K” and Lil Mosey with “Blueberry Faygo”. With tons of new fans who constantly expect new music, it can be difficult for smaller independent artists to keep up without the full support of a label.

After Ax and the Hatchetmen blew up in 2019, they were approached by a few different record labels, but the group opted to stay as independent as possible. They signed a licensing deal with Frty Fve, a streaming and social media based label and publisher. Independence is the new trend for artists like Ax and the Hatchetmen, where they’re able to maintain as much control of their work as possible. For a group of Ax and the Hatchetmens size, it may be smarter to hold onto their independence in the meantime.

Their most recent single, “Existential Crisis, Pt. 1” is set to a seemingly upbeat tune but talks about how entrapped they are in social media, not knowing the path ahead or how to navigate it. Relying on friends, although sometimes problematic, is a consistent answer. They play local shows around Chicago, and are gearing up for a West Coast tour this summer, which hasn’t been formally announced yet. You can keep up with their local show dates and upcoming tour on their website or social media accounts including Instagram, Spotify and TikTok.