Dehd on Chicago, Black Lives Matter, and Their New Album “Flower of Devotion” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Dehd on Chicago, Black Lives Matter, and Their New Album “Flower of Devotion”

The Mutt of the Genre World

Jul 16, 2020 Dehd
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Just a few years ago, Emily Kempf was roaming around the United States. She had just left her Atlanta home, and her band Back Pockets, and was looking to find a new scene. After an “insane” nine months of wandering, she wound up in the windy city of Chicago. It was originally on her lists of prospective locations, along with Oakland, California, and a small town in Northern Vermont. But, there was something about Chicago that just felt right. It fit like a glove—a clothing item she previously hadn’t needed while living under the sweltering Georgia heat. And soon enough, she met her future bandmate, Jason Balla at his gig at Animal Kingdom.

Coming from the suburbs of Chicago, Balla was already a prolific musician at this point, at least in terms of the underground Chi scene. From his work with Ne-Hi and Earring, Balla had made a pretty noticeable name for himself. But he and Kempf soon embarked on a new project along with drummer Eric McGrady: Dehd. And at the same time they started working on their eponymous debut LP, Balla and Kempf fell in love.

But just as bands do, relationships run their course. Balla and Kempf may have ended their five-year romance, but Dehd wasn’t…dead. Actually, this was the beginning of something even bigger. Despite a few teary-eyed studio sessions, and passive-aggressive lyrics, the musicians kept it together to make 2019’s Water.

And while their sophomore EP was minimal in sound, it ejected a cannonball of longing and heartbreak, coating everything in the glimmery shine of indie-rock. This dynamic is what makes Dehd so interesting. Backed by twangy guitars, gobs of reverb, and floating harmonies, you can practically hear the call and response of Balla and Kempf’s songwriting. They always seem to meet in the middle, though, letting you see the two sides of their story.

Flash forward one year later, and Kempf and Balla are still making some of the best music in the game. Their new album Flower of Devotion, via Fire Talk Records, is set to hit the (digital) shelves tomorrow (July 17). And this LP finds the crew at their tightest yet. Working with an outside producer for the first time, the riffs are sharper, the drums are heavier, and Kempf and Balla’s songwriting remains gloriously magical. Additionally, McGrady even pens a song on the new collection.

Last week, Under the Radar caught up with Balla and Kempf. According to them, McGrady isn’t the biggest fan of interviews, although Balla suggests this might just be a way to “acquire a sense of mystique.” The two break down their humble beginnings and chat all things Flower of Devotion. We also have a lengthy talk about the current social unrest and how the band has pitched in to help both the Black Lives Matter movement and with COVID relief. Check it out.

Samantha Small (Under the Radar): So I have a general question for Emily. What made you want to move to Chicago out of all places? What about the scene is what draws you to it?

Emily Kempf: I love this question because I love Chicago, so I love talking about how great it is. I ended up there during the polar vortex—it was the most insane. I was trying to live somewhere where there was snow. As a southern person I knew only 100 degree weather and barely any snow. I was like, “Okay, well, I guess I could live here if I survived that.”

Yeah, you’ve already had the most. So anything from then on is easy.

Kempf: Well, I also didn’t know…I mean, people told me it was weird, but I didn’t really have any reference. I was just like, this is how it is, this is how the winter is all the time. I also thought the same thing with the music scene. The Melkbelly crew were my first friend group and they let me stay in their house and I kind of grew my roots from there. And then the house show scene and the music scene in general. I kind of just went there and then later was like, “I guess I’ll just stay here because it was so lovely.” Everyone’s so inclusive, and in the creative world they all overlap. The actors, the comedians, the musicians, the visual artists, and the fabric artists—everybody’s together and going to each other’s shows and propping each other up. There’s not a lot of dissolve and jaded competition that I’ve really experienced. Also there’s the ability to get successful while also having this hearty sort of DIY scene. I like having both those worlds combined. And it’s nice to visit like the higher speed competitive vibes of, say New York or LA. But I like living in the loving arms of Chicago and then just dipping my toe into the rat race when I want to.

I read that you guys have offered up your van for the BLM protests and you have a lot of resources on your website. I just wanted to see if you guys would elaborate on why you think we should take these steps?

Kempf: Before the protesting started Jason was using the band to help deliver groceries to COVID desolated areas. Then when the rioting started we started using the van, me and my tattoo shop, to get goods donated. It’s like a 15 passenger van so it’s awesome and like, we’re not freaking using it. So I’m like, let’s just use it for the cause. So we were delivering to the south side and the west side and then I used it when I was cleaning up after the riots. I went out on the streets and was shoveling stuff and transporting people. I just started doing jail support and was giving people rides home, which originally started with protesters, but now it’s just regular people coming out of jail needing support and it’s also led by volunteers. And it’s really funny because the van was a government owned vehicle, and once I was [driving] by the cops and this guy that I was giving a ride home to was like, “You’re still transporting prisoners!” [Laughs] Which is totally true, but in a much cooler way.

Jason Balla: It’s basically just like the pan hitting us over the head. Like how hard you have to be hit over the head to like realize there’s other perspectives and like voices out there. I’ve just been reading a lot of great stuff lately that I had kind of already had in my, you know, pile of books to read but the I’ve just been focusing on reading a lot of stuff and it’s just like yeah, educating myself on the issue because I definitely didn’t know all this stuff as explicitly. I think the thing I’m learning just how far it goes back really. I think a lot of people are like, “Oh, like the war on drugs or civil rights, or whatever,” but just retracing the steps of the systemic racism of our country and really the world. But it’s been really insightful. I think the importance of just educating yourself and learning is so helpful, and to being able to understand some of the concepts people are throwing around, you know, maybe 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have understood the argument for reparations or something like that, but now it seems like a no brainer to me. All you have to read is like two books and you’re like, “Oh, my God, this is fucked.”

Hopefully people are reading more and disseminating information. We have all this time! If you’re not reading right now, what are you doing?

Balla: Especially because I’m unemployed, you know? I can afford to just really digest the material for a couple hours every day.

Emily: And the other thing is like everybody’s waking up at the same moment in an abrupt jolt—which is cool. Paired with the pandemic, we all have this time. And we need to move it into when we start getting busy again. How can we continue working for changes we want to see, like going forward in a less like, jolting way? It’s like, we have to prepare for it for a lifetime.

Balla: Integrate it into your daily life.

Emily: Exactly. Our training time is now and then it’s time to dive in. But then it’s like, keep paddling for the rest of your life. Because I’m going to be privileged for the rest of my life. It is my job to give away everything I can. It gets into just thinking creatively. We’re creative, productive, hard working individuals—just put that attention and then funnel it into the Black Lives Matter movement or defunding the police, or whatever it is. It’s like, just freakin shine the laser over there. Use the same energy that we were using before COVID for other stuff and just put it somewhere else that’s actually gonna make positive change happen in the world.

Yeah, definitely. On a similar note I had to take a questionnaire for my school and one of the questions was “Before all the Black Lives Matter protests, how often did you think about race?” And I was honestly like… not very often. Now it’s daily and I can already see that change happening with myself.

Kempf: That brings up another point, we have a privilege to learn about this and not experience it. None of us have had to think about it every day because we’re white. And it’s a privilege to be able to go study, read, and learn up on stuff and then try to be a good ally. I don’t go outside and be like, “Oh, this cop is gonna kill me.” And I probably never will feel that way. So it’s like, give it away. [Editor’s Note: Kempf wanted to plug three organizations the band is working with: @bravespacealliance, @assatasdaughtersig, and @360__nation.]

Well, what you guys are doing is super great. To go back to the Chicago scene a little bit, what do you think the music realm is gonna look like after COVID, all these protests, and all this talk about inclusiveness?

Balla: I think people have a lot of time in and are making a lot of stuff and maybe people who also might have made stuff before have time to experiment. I don’t have a metric on that one, but, I would hope that there are some new voices that we see at venues.

Kempf: I feel like maybe the world as a whole will start being more conscious about black and brown bodies being more included in a wider sense. I also think everyone’s gonna explode out [once people can attend live shows again]. Like that’s probably definitely what’s gonna happen.

Balla: It’s gonna be kind of fun honestly.

Kempf: I’m excited for that day.

I can’t wait. So, all that aside: let’s talk record. You’re about to release Flower of Devotion. How does it feel during the midst of this kind of garbage fire world right now? What are you guys feeling?

Balla: Up until recently it’s been kind of hard to think about it with everything else going on. And now that it’s getting really close it’s like, this is real.. again. But, it’s exciting because we did work really hard on it and the wheels have been turning for a while. So now, amongst other things, we’re at least able to talk about it and share what we had been working on with everyone which feels really nice, because I think some people also want to hear music and stuff right now, too.

Kempf: I don’t think it’s like everyone’s like, so busy working that things that are comforting or that music is not needed or wanted. But it is weird to be self promotion and stuff like that. I’ve kind of stepped back from all Instagram posting and just giving space to people that aren’t white or me. I don’t have any, worry or attachment to the process of releasing this record. But I think it’s just from when the pandemic happened I was like, “This year is totally fucked.” And whatever happens it pales in comparison to people dying of an infectious disease. People are dying from the cops and there’s protesting, so the record is on the back burner in our minds. It seems to be doing just fine without paying too much attention to it. So I kind of think that’ll probably continue; it’s gonna be born. People are gonna listen to it and like it and we don’t really have to do that much. It’s just gonna come out and it’ll be done.

Balla: Yeah, eventually we’ll be able to play a show for people again. I think that’s when it will really feel real, when we’re playing the songs and maybe people know them now. That’d be a really cool feeling.

So you guys kind of branded your last record, maybe not intentionally, as a relationship record. Is there a theme for this one? Is there a general idea that you guys are going for?

Balla: This one’s kind of like the world of opposites and the binary. But, also the grey area in between. Both simple and complex, in one way.

Kempf: We cheekily we’re like let’s make a theme next year heaven and hell, angels and devils, comic and tragic—that kind of vibe. And we also intentionally didn’t want to be like, “Here’s another album about us being broken up still,” because that happened a million years ago. But it is about relationships itself. Loner is about l wanting to be autonomous outside of a relationship. You know, Jason and I both went through a lot of grief, I guess Eric did too. Eric has a song on this record too, which is a huge deal because Eric has been a secret genius that we’ve known about forever but he is very shy and doesn’t share all of his gifts with the world so easily. So we’re really excited that he felt comfortable and willing to have one of his beautiful songs on this record. And he integrates it with a sort of a wink. It’s like, laughter still exists, even in the face of tragedy. Our community holds us up and our relationship with ourselves keeps us going in those dark nights of the soul.

Was there any song on the album that was kind of hard to crack? Maybe you were surprised by the way it came out?

Balla: Kind of in a couple of them, but I think one of the standouts was the second single that we put up, “Flood.” We were gonna just trash the song and stop working on it because we had kind of written a rough version of it. I think a lot of times when we’re writing music, if we don’t bottle it up on the first day it’s really hard for us to come back and figure it out. We had let it go away and then tried a couple times and we’re like, maybe it’s just not gonna work. But then it finally clicked for us and we kind of found it.

Emily: It flooded out. When we wrote that song I think I was jetlagged and I was really soft and whispery, and, well, tired. And I couldn’t find my way back to that gentle place. I’m often singing in a very loud, shocking sort of surprise kind of way. So I had trouble getting back to that kind of sad, like I’m folding into myself kind of way. But I think we nailed it in the studio.

I think you nailed it, in my honest opinion. So you guys write separately. Are there any times that fusion isn’t as seamless as others?

Kempf: This is actually the truth: when we are asked in interviews about certain songs, lyrically, that’s often when I figure out what Jason even is saying. Often, I’m just like, that’s his business. It’s like his room; I’m not going to go in there unless he needs me to. Sometimes I’ll ask him just so I can harmonize better. Or like in the recording studio, that’s another time when I’m like, holy shit, I didn’t know you’re saying this or vice versa. We give each other a lot of respect and space with our words and we don’t really edit each other unless we think it’s gonna hurt someone’s feelings.

Were there any specific records that you guys were listening to that inspired you? Any shows, anything like that?

Balla: I was actually just writing about this. We always bring up Broadcast. Broadcast is like something in my head a lot with production—their band is just so cool, you know? But then one thing that I hadn’t quite thought about was right before we were working on the record I saw a lot of Protomartyr shows. Both of our bands are three pieces and, I don’t know, I was thinking about their energy a lot. I was coming off of just watching that every night for a long time and just being enamored again with a really amazing live band who is expressive and just has the essential elements to get the point across, and like all the little ways they do that is so cool. I think I was caught up in that creative energy.

Kempf: And then like I was listening to like Roy Orbison, like a lot of crooners. And then, Angel Olsen has always been one of my little markers that I try to hit.

Right, I just want to be her.

Kempf: Yeah, I mean, who doesn’t want to sing with her wings? [Laughs] But, yeah the band Crack Cloud is like real crazy and cool. And like, I feel like those three bands describe my vibe on the record. Like a little James Brown—his WOW energy. Just the way he admitted his yelp. I tried harder for the rocker guy voice.

I’ve read some interviews where it seems like you guys don’t like being called post-punk, rock, surf. As someone who personally thinks genre is sort of obsolete, what’s your take on that? Do you guys like these labels or do you not?

Balla: I’m a personal enemy of the term surf being applied to our band but it’s more of my own ego than anything else.

Kempf: Yeah, maybe like a foggy beach is better.

Balla: Let’s just get away from the beach, there are so many other environments.

Kempf: But your guitar is jangly—it’s a jangly guitar. It jangles like the ocean.

Balla: Maybe it jangles like a, I don’t know, like a wind chime. [Laughs]. I don’t know, I mean certainly genres exist for a reason. But I feel like we’re like the mutt of the genre world where there’s just too many different breeds in us to really nail it down.

Kempf: I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard about how to describe us: we’re the mutt of the genre world. We’re rocky, you can say grunge, you could say garage rock, you know, rolling the eyes, you could say indie rock. That’s usually what I say in conversation, indie rock. Because usually it’s just people wanting to hold on to something and it’s usually for the sake of conversation. It’s like, how do you explain a soul? It’s not really possible.

Balla: Usually talking to distant family members or adults or something, ”death metal” is usually a pretty good one.”

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