Jason Balla and Emily Kempf broke up and wrote a “relationship album” at the same time.
Imagine if Nora Ephron wrote a Pitchfork-produced screenplay: Boy moves to Chicago; girl moves to Chicago. Boy starts a solo project; girl starts a solo project. They go on tour together, eventually combining their acts under a new moniker that fuses the initials of their previous projects and invokes morbidity (in a cute way!). They start dating and release a handful of extremely catchy, surf and garage rock-inspired cassettes. They adorably squabble about the appropriateness of the terms “surf” and “garage rock” to describe their music. Then, they (romantically) break up while writing their debut record, only to realize that their relationship isn’t over—it’s simply changing forms.
Oh wait—that’s the real story of the Chicago-based outfit Dehd. The boy is Jason Balla, and the girl is Emily Kempf. Along with their friend Eric McGrady, they’ve been playing as Dehd for about four years. Now they’re getting ready to release their debut full-length record, Water, next month. The first three singles—“Lucky,” “On My Side,” and “Happy Again”—are all aching, bass-heavy cris de cœur. And while the record was written during Jason and Emily’s actual breakup, they don’t consider it a breakup album.
“I’d say it’s a relationship record,” Jason tells AdHoc over the phone.
“It’s a relationship record that doesn’t have to be about romance,” Emily adds. “That’s [a] theme of the band.”
We recently caught up with Emily and Jason about their experience writing the record, their affection for Chicago’s music scene, and their upcoming tour. Read the interview below, and catch Dehd at Union Pool on May 17, with support from Patio and Gustaf.
Water is out May 10 on Fire Talk.
How long have you been in Chicago?
Jason: I’ve been here for like 10 years, and as a band we’ve been playing for three or four years.
Emily: I’ve been here for five years.
Have you guys always been Dehd?
Jason: It’s always been Dehd.
Where’d the name come from?
Emily: Well, a really long time ago, I was playing in Heavy Dreams, and Jason was playing in Dream Eagle [both solo projects]. We went on a tour and combined the names together. Well, we went on a tour as separate entities, and then we were like, “This is cool—we should make this a real band.” We had Eric [McGrady] join, and then it became Dehd, because it was the letters of the two solo projects.
Jason: I’m sure “dead,” the actual spelling, is taken by a heavy metal band or something.
What’s Chicago like these days?
Jason: It’s great. We both have played shows and put on shows [here] forever. Emily used to do this thing called The Cool Girls Show, and I do sound at a couple venues in town, so we’re around everywhere.
Emily: Yeah, we’re in it. We’re in the family.
Jason: It’s a cool time, because a lot of our friends are doing music seriously, which hasn’t always been [the case]. Chicago has waves of bands that are amazing, [but] that don’t really leave town very often, and right now, people are taking [their music] out on the road.
Who are some folks who come to mind?
Jason: The new wave is like Deeper.
Jason: [There’s] lots of good stuff, and it’s all over the map. It’s not all just one genre or anything.
Tell us about your vision for the “Lucky” music video. How’d it come together?
Jason: It was inspired a bit by Alex [Grelle] actually, the performer in the video. They’ve been a friend for a while in a slightly different—in more of a queer performance world, a little bit less so the music scene. But we [run in] similar circles, and they put on an amazing show called The Girly Duval Show, where they take on the persona of all these different classic starlets and do musical numbers. It’s amazing.
Emily: Which is actually really true to the Chicago scene, where it’s like, all the theater-actor people and all the comedians and all the musicians interlock, and everybody goes to everybody else’s shows. There’s a lot of cross-genre events where all the shit is going on at once. Alex is definitely a part of that, and we really wanted to put that in the video. And the Hideout is a staple club house for all the rock kids and comedy kids. We just wanted to be like, “This is our home, and these are our homies!” And we were obsessed with dance and the idea of doing a one-shot [a single, long take]—like a fake one-shot—inspired by Alex. And a Bollywood dance video. And Britney Spears’ song “Lucky.” Those [were] our inspos.
There’s also this pseudo food fight in the middle. It gets messy.
Emily: Yeah, that’s because of Molly [Hewitt]. Molly did all the food design and helped with set design.
I can still see the Jello jiggling in my mind!
Emily: That was all Molly!
Jason: She’s so good.
When were you guys writing and recording this record?
Jason: I think about a year ago. Or maybe two years ago was the writing of it, and then we finished recording about a year ago.
Emily: We’re always writing, but we don’t always record. [This] record was also being written and recorded during the peak of our breaking up, so it was really intense. The songs are about it. The energy is there, but it’s all kind of like, “We prevailed!”
Would you call it a breakup album, or is that a stretch?
Emily: It’s an album that happened to be written during a really intense time, [with our] romantic relationship ending and our new, family-friendship relationship [coming] more [to] the front.
Jason: I’d say it’s a relationship record.
Emily: Yeah, it’s a relationship record that doesn’t have to be about romance. That’s [a] theme of the band.
Musically, how does this record compare to past releases?
Jason: I think it’s a culmination of what we had been working on. We had been writing really short pop songs, and this is kind of like us doing that to the truest extent possible and keeping it a little messy and sloppy—[that’s] the spirit that we write music with. [Also,] we’ve only put out cassettes and stuff like that before, so [that was] like a build-up to us doing a record. Now we’re free to move on to the next thing.
Emily: It feels like a maturing process. [We were] like, “Okay, I think we want to level-up a little tiny bit,” [without] realizing that this year was [going to be a huge] step forward. We’re about to record another album next week, actually, and it’s totally even more powerful than the last one, so I’m like, “I CAN’T WAIT TO TELL EVERYBODY!” It’s still this sweet pop, but it’s getting more… I don’t know what the right word is for it. It’s just super fun, in a truthful way. It punches you in the face—no, it punches you in the heart, but in a cool way.
Why did you call this record “Water?”
Emily: I actually don’t remember why, [but] I have theories about it. Sometimes when I’m drawing I don’t know what my art is saying until months later, and then I’m like, “Oh, that totally is what was going on”—like it’s more truthful than what I can say with language. But water is cool, because there’s like a million different forms of water. Then I was thinking about me and Jason and Eric’s relationship, and all [its] different forms. None of the forms are better than the other ones; they’re just different, and we’re just kind of riding… [laughs] riding the wave.
I felt like you were about to say that. Would you say there’s a surf influence?
Emily: I knew you were going to say that! Jason hates it; I love it. Everybody thinks we’re surf-y, and I think it’s because of Jason’s surf-y-ass guitar, but Jason doesn’t love that connotation. We’re not from California! We’re from fucking Chicago! We just have a surf-y vibe, even though we’re Midwest as hell. We didn’t mean to be that way. We also get worried about the [label] “garage rock.” I’m hoping that our version of the garage/surf situation is pure and new [and] different.
Jason: We’re not trying to be a retro, throwback band. That’s what I don’t like.
Emily: Right—no, no. But the purity that exists with our music is coming from a place that’s timeless.
What are some recent influences?
Jason: Oh man, so many good ones.
Emily: For Jason, Tim Presley.
Jason: Cate Le Bon.
Emily: The new Weyes Blood album. Well, actually, I don’t love it, I just love two songs on it—it’s a little too Neil Young.
Jason: Broadcast. Lots of women-run bands.
You’re about to go on tour. What’re you looking forward to?
Jason: We can’t wait for the West Coast.
Emily: We’re going to fucking slay.
Jason: We don’t like it there that much—you know, surf music and everything.
Emily: I like it! I just feel like everybody’s going to love us over there, and we’re going to shred.
I’m from the West Coast, and everything you just said is true.
Emily: It’s going to feel so good! I love playing live so much.
Do you know some of the acts you’ll be playing with yet?
Emily: Together Pangea!
Jason: It should be cool. Me and Eric are really excited to be in New York, because it’s our favorite city to go on tour in. Specifically, because of the bodega bagel sandwiches.
Emily: When we’re approaching the city, they start talking about which sandwiches they’re going to get.
Which sandwich are you going to get?
Jason: I get the pastrami bagel.