Dehd on “Blue Skies” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, February 25th, 2024  

Dehd on “Blue Skies”

Burning Bliss

Aug 09, 2022 Photography by Alexa Viscius Web Exclusive
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You can easily apply the popular Homelander-meme to Chicago jangle pop trio Dehd: every setback has somehow catapulted them further towards ballooning notoriety. The group’s lauded third LP Flower of Devotion was released when a pandemic made touring impossible. In most cases, this isn’t ideal, since you’re supposed to be riding that momentum all the way until the next album campaign.

Before that, however, it seems relevant to mention that Dehd have already cleared the significant speed bump of co-founders Emily Kempf and Jason Balla ending their romantic relationship. More often than not, this kind of drama would’ve done in an indie band still on the upward slope. But instead, on their second record, 2019’s Water (an appropriately Biblical title, by the way), it became the big bang that sparked their songwriting to a whole new level. Suffice it to say, the band hasn’t looked back since.

You see, Dehd know a thing or two about life after death and on their fourth LP, Blue Skies, they gleefully double down on that never-tell-me-the-odds joy. This record expresses bliss with the urgency of having to take a leak; thirteen songs that hit that elusive sweet spot between Beat Happening’s thrifty amateurism and Vampire Weekend’s percolating pop craft. Shedding some of the serrated edges still audible on Flower of Devotion, Blue Skies homes in deeper on the friendship and chemistry between Kempf, Balla and drummer Eric McGrady. Woozy harmonic layers and the odd clinking clattering drum machine are merely there to bolster and accentuate Dehd’s core quirks and instincts, not per se expand on them.

“I believe that’s a common theme in general, overcoming yourself and whatever might be going on. And highlighting the uplifting part of that, feeling stronger from that, you know?,” Balla comments over Zoom from his brand new apartment, hedged in between a bricolage of unopened moving boxes. These days, bands in the modern touring economy need to overcome myriad hurdles: marginalized pay for streaming royalties, that extra COVID-related wrinkle to already complex touring logistics, not to mention the challenge of upholding your mental health throughout all this drudgery.

With that in mind, Dehd remain as mellow and frivolous as they allow themselves to be. “Some days I think I’m gonna quit/And some days I’m glad I never did,” Balla squalls on album closer “No Difference.” Uncertainty for what the future holds could easily spawn suffocating introspection, but Dehd sing the words as a triumphant rallying point. So how do you truck on in a world that seems to thwart you at every corner? A good start is renting an actual truck and playing your first shows in over a year at various parking lots around the Chicago area, which is what Balla decided to do after not touring Flower of Devotion at all. “When we opened the door, there was a sea of people in the parking lot. I was like ‘Oh, you are all actually real! It’s not just an algorithm!,” he chuckles.

While Dehd’s modest makeup allows them to do a full electric show in the back of a moving vehicle, they are currently basking in the rather novel joy of doing headline shows at bigger venues and festivals. “It’s been so much fun and so gratifying. The tour we’ve just gotten back from was the best tour we’ve ever done. People were excited and they knew all the words,” beams Balla. That such a simple, foolproof formula resonates at these different scales speaks of Dehd’s magnetism and charm: their songs exist in that pure-hearted pleasure zone between joy and desperation.

A person experiencing happiness can take a song such as “Empty in My Mind” at face value, heedlessly chasing those jitters of early romance. But this song also speaks profoundly to the empty-hearted, chronically depressed soul looking for a way out of a downward spiral. Though Kempf and Balla are two distinct voices on their own, whenever they blend together, it becomes this whole other voice. McGrady’s drumming—though as basic as can be—is never satisfied with simply holding the beat, adding colorful tom pounces in sync with the melodies.

Balla talks about how McGrady didn’t even know how to play drums prior to joining the band, and how much of Dehd’s expressiveness comes from a lack of professional skill. “There’s a beauty in not knowing how to do something and doing it anyways, because you end up finding your own voice, rather than already having an idea of what something should be, or how you’re supposed to play. I’m also a self-taught guitar player, it took me a long time to even learn some basic chords. Because I was kind of set on my own little adventure, which I think reflects in the way I play guitar now.”

As cheesy as it might sound, Dehd are in some ways the indie rock equivalent of the Ghostbusters: they too have a cool ride, started their own telephone hotline, and above all, write songs that sound weightless, as if they are caught and tractor beamed out of thin air. “We’re always trying to distill one thing or one feeling, and capture that in a bottle basically. I’m not trying to explain the world in three minutes or something. That distilled thing hopefully is recognizable to listeners,” says Balla.

As elemental as their songwriting and instrumentation is, each song on Blue Skies carries a distinct, sentimental energy. The McGrady-penned “Hold” beams with the bittersweet innocence of Arthur Russell, whereas “Waterfall” recalls the cosmic gaze of Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica. It’s music for unabashed dreamers striding ahead of an evaporating road at their heels. Balla himself acutely aware of weighing the solipsistic joys against the weight of the civilized world, and the quest on finding some sort of healthy equilibrium: “I don’t care about American ways/It doesn’t change/I’m dreaming of the one who understands,” he bellows on the latter song.

“At the time we were writing that, it was in the context of all this social unrest. I think America stands for a lot of things, and it can feel so discouraging,” Balla laments. “It causes a lot of apathy, because oftentimes it doesn’t feel like anything really changes. I got really into reading history books over the last four years. I’ve been trying to learn more about American history, so I can contextualize everything that’s happening now, to understand a bit better how we got here. There are certain aspects of America—there’s a certain energy that I love; to be free to create and do stuff like the truck show. The other side of the coin is that this energy is not equally distributed and continuously, the same problems keep happening over and over. So yeah, it can be discouraging, but it’s also a reminder that you have to keep working towards undermining that loop.”

Also read our interview with Dehd on Flower of Devotion.

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