Music Features

Interview: Dehd

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Chicago indie rock trio Dehd released their third studio album, FLOWER OF DEVOTION, in July to acclaim from fans and media alike. The album is a significant step up in many ways for the band, most notably in terms of recording quality and production. Where their previous efforts have allowed their classic and earnest songwriting to shine through rough-hewn, lo-fi instrumentals, FLOWER OF DEVOTION to something much more languid and crystalline, the emotional heft and urgency of their songs landing with more potency than ever before. Complete with dueling vocal leads and intricate guitar melodies, Dehd sound as essential as they ever have. I spoke on the phone with Jason Balla, singer and lead guitarist of Dehd, as well as the album’s sole producer, about the concepts and creation of their latest.

I’ll start with the only question I think any interview can start with in 2020: How are you doing?

Jason Balla: All things considered, we’re doing pretty good. Lots of crazy stuff going on obviously, but at this exact moment we’re doing pretty alright, the sun’s still shining.

We’re a little bit removed from a true quarantine or lockdown at this point but with COVID-19 still a very real concern for most people, how have you been spending your summer with everything being the way it is?

JB: It was pretty crazy. At first, you know, we had all these tour plans and everything so the first bit of the summer was really just spent cancelling everything *laughs*. Been spending a lot more time outside. I moved, so me and my girlfriend have been gardening and kind of going back to the simple life, you know? Being in nature, growing food, cooking a lot. Took part in some of the protests when that was going on, and since then we’ve been doing some stuff with a community farm. Lots of outdoor stuff, lots of stuff that grows.

I think we could all get outside a little more and it would probably be for the better.

JB: A little sunshine goes a long way!

Obviously the main topic of interest for us is your newest album, FLOWER OF DEVOTION, which released last month after a couple months of delay. What has it been like for you guys to release what feels like a pivotal record in your career while unable to tour or promote it in a traditional way?

JB: It’s funny to put yourself in the headspace of March, but at the whole beginning of it I don’t think the whole reality of the pandemic had really set in, like, we were still driving to South By Southwest even though that had already been canceled, and we were like three days into the tour and every day new information came out and we kind of realized that this is so much bigger and more serious and longer-lasting than any of us had thought, you know? So we kind of scrambled and decided to push it back but at a certain point it just had to come out because of all the other moving parts, the ball had already kind of been pushed down the mountain and you can only delay it so long. It’s been kind of crazy but it’s honestly been okay, it’s not necessarily the way we were all picturing it or anything like that, but in the grand scheme of things it seems to have been alright. It would be great to be touring and playing the songs live but we’re figuring out other ways to do it, like we’ve been doing a couple livestreams, and honestly a little time at home is also good. We’ve been on tour for so long already up until this point. It’s a little breather that none of us would ever have taken on our own, but it’s been a real blessing in disguise I think, at least on a sort of “time at home” metric.

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Yeah, and you guys were coming off a record last year as well, so I would have to imagine you were probably recording this album while still promoting the last one.

JB: Oh yeah, it was like tour, come home, tour, go in the studio, tour, write a little bit more, tour, go in the studio again, we were just on the whole time, so we would’ve really been in it right now had we not had this extra little break *laughs*.

Silver linings.

JB: Yeah! Take what you can positively from it I guess. Another weird part of it has been that it seems to have kind of fit into the topic matter of the record and our overarching good and evil, apocalyptic kind of dichotomy that we were framing a lot of stuff in, so it was also this sort of twisted thing to be watching these really apocalyptic events happen as the record comes out, obviously we weren’t anticipating any of this stuff going on.

No kidding. This record has been making a lot of waves, at least among people here at Merry-Go-Round and friends of mine in Chicago, even going so far as to pick up that coveted Best New Music from Pitchfork. So I’m curious what something like that means to you guys and where your head is at given the response.

JB: I think just overall it’s really awesome that people have been listening to the record, that’s kind of the only thing you can ask for. We’ve been getting a lot of people reaching out, especially because of the weird time that people have been having being stuck inside and people who might be feeling extra lonely. It seems it’s been able to be a kind of companion for people who are making sense of all these world events that are going on. It’s pretty amazing and we feel really fortunate to be able to make something that people are able to connect with at all, but then also to be a relief or something to them at this time is very cool. 

Absolutely. Listening to the album you can feel a lot of very potent emotions running through the songs, coming from both yourself and from Emily, and I think one of the things that has set you guys apart has been this dynamic where the two of you are often singing to and about each other while playing and harmonizing on each other’s material. I’m curious as to what the songwriting process looked like for the songs on this record in particular.

JB: So, I guess first I would just correct one aspect of that, which is there’s not really that element of it being “about each other” so much on this one. That was maybe how WATER was, but we lived a lot of life in between those two records, and that was made a couple years ago at this point, but we record the same way, all together in the room. There’s some exceptions here and there where one of us brings an idea more fully baked to the table but a lot of it is just the product of us being together in the room and playing our instruments and throwing the spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. I think that metaphor also applies to the singing aspect of it, because sometimes we’re both just trying to find what the vocal melody is and it happens to be at the exact same time, sometimes it sounds like a bunch of mush and sometimes they fit together in a weird way, and that’s how you get these multiple vocal leads where you can kind of choose your own story.

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Something I wanted to ask you specifically about was the production on this record, which you personally handled. As far as Dehd projects go this one is a pretty major step up in terms of fidelity, so I was wondering what ideas you had for what the album would sound like going in, and what the experience was like for you manning the boards.

JB: The boards aspect of it was really funny. It’s been cool because I’ve recorded all of our stuff except for the very first tape we put out, so it’s also been this arc of me learning how to record stuff and our aesthetic tastes of recording changing over time. Like the last record we made, WATER, was all about minimalism and also in the heat of all the garage stuff that was going on around us and in Chicago, whereas for this record we rented an actual studio and it was just the three of us in there. We played the record live so I would be standing in the control room, hit record, put my headphones on, and I would have my guitar and an amp in the control room and we would just be looking at each other through these windows, everyone in these different rooms. So it was pretty hilarious because there was just never a break *laughs*. But it was really cool because we had a lot of time and there wasn’t anyone else there, we were directly involved with how everything sounded, so we had our own time and space to find the sounds and stumble onto some new ideas and new ways of listening to things. Just having more time in the studio, we were able to make it sound really nice and take a lot more time to play the songs well. We used to think, like, “the more mistakes, the more charm!” So I think we just took everything slightly more seriously with the intention of trying to make it a little more polished and a little bit bigger.

So, I don’t know how much hand you personally had in this, but I wanted to ask about the music video you guys made for “Loner,” which is this very cool video filmed in two different locations, both in the desert in California and inside The Hideout in Chicago, and also has a whole narrative to it. What’s the story behind that video?

JB: That would technically be a better question for Emily to answer. She’s our music video handler for the majority of the video, especially all the stuff with Alex Grelle who is obviously the star of the “Loner” video, but I definitely know enough about it. Basically the whole overarching concept of the record and the imagery is focused on these opposing forces, like good and evil, comedy and tragedy, and sometimes having both things fit together. So from that spawned this idea of Alex Grelle as this Britney Spears-esque angel who finds her way into Hell and has a great time. I wasn’t on location or involved with the actual filming of it but I can report that I think they had fun.

Awesome. I didn’t see your name in the credits so I wasn’t sure exactly what role you had in the video itself but I still wanted to ask to get whatever I could on it because I do think that video is really great.

JB: It’s really fun, and it’s kind of an extension of a video we did for the last record which also features Alex and was also filmed at The Hideout, which as you know is an important Chicago musical institution, so I think in general with the music videos and especially those ones we have this desire to give our friends and other creative people in different lanes outside the music community an extra platform or a way to do something and maybe be seen. Just to put on all our talented friends since we have three minutes or whatever with which to do so in a video, it’s really cool to have people involved from all those different communities, because you know everyone is so talented here.

So, I actually was planning to be at your album release show at Lincoln Hall in May, which obviously didn’t end up happening, but once live music hopefully becomes something we can kind of collectively go back to, what is it that you’re hoping to do for your first show back?

JB: Oh man, we’ll probably end up playing everything three times as fast because we’re so excited *laughs*. I don’t think too much has changed in that department, we’re just itching to do it, you know? We had already put a lot of time into reimagining how to play some of the songs live, because there is all this extra production and we typically have been super stripped down, and we still are with just the three of us, but we definitely were able a few little tricks to beef things up and incorporate more of the drum machines and samples, which Eric is kind of at the helm of. So it’ll be really nice to at least have that, especially after people are hearing all of the songs, seeing what we were able to do with them I think will be cool.

With this album having been what I would call a massive success, and coming off another album just last year, do you have any idea what’s next for Dehd?

JB: Well, we’re making some more videos, playing a few digital shows, and just generally trying to stay creative during this time of lockdown. We got a lot of time on our hands, so we’re doing that and I think we’re gonna start making another record. There’s only a few things you can do as a band *laughs*.

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Yeah *laughs*. I guess the options right now might be a little limited. On the other side of things, what are you personally listening to right now?

JB: Oh, well I think my quarantine has been basically soundtracked by this group of Chicago, I guess you’d call them digital and vinyl DJs and remixers, choppers and screwers called Physical Medium. It’s all really incredible stuff. They have a couple of these mixes, some of them are just straight up DJ sessions, others are these really cool comprehensive hour-long jams that are tons of songs put together and slowed down and chopped and sampled. It’s some of the people that are involved with the band Dim, if you’ve heard of them?

Yeah!

JB: I would definitely recommend it, there’s this one mix that’s the greatest jumping in point called “The Serotonin Volume,” which is, well, it’s just that. It’s so good.

The reason I love asking people this is that a lot of the time they give me things I’ve never checked out, so thank you, now I have something to listen to today!

JB: I would definitely check that out, I throw it on like any time I’m in the kitchen or doing anything pretty much, it’s great for driving, any activity that you could possibly be undertaking.

I’m from Chicago so, especially anything local, I’m automatically interested so that sounds great to me.

JB: It’s really cool stuff, it’s got some roots kind of in like the ‘90s acid house scene, but then also they’ll sample broadcasts from other places, these cool, blown-out synthy, dreamy pop projects from various decades, it’s really cool. What have you been listening to?

What have I been listening to? All sorts of things *laughs*. Right before I picked up the phone to call you I was listening to SPEAK & SPELL by Depeche Mode.

JB: Hell yeah. I tried to listen to an R.E.M. record earlier, which is a new thing for me, I didn’t get as far into it as I would’ve thought, though.

I’m honestly kind of surprised R.E.M. isn’t something you’ve listened to before just based on the music you guys make.

JB: No, not really, a family friend actually told me “this record reminds me of your record” so I tried to put it on and I just don’t think it was the right day. I’ll try picking it up again soon.

Absolutely. To be honest, one of the albums I’ve been listening to a lot is the new Dehd album, so I’d guess you’re pretty familiar with that *laughs*.

JB: *laughs* Hell yeah.

So the last question I have is a question I like to ask Chicago people specifically: I want to know what your favorite place is to get hot dogs in the city and your favorite place to get pizza in the city.

JB: Well, my OG spot was Red Hot Ranch for hot dogs, but I’ve been a vegetarian for I think about a year now and I haven’t been able to find a proper veggie dog replacement for that. If anything, the fries at Red Hot Ranch, it’s worth it just for that.

I interviewed Avery Springer from Retirement Party a couple months ago and she also said Red Hot Ranch, so Red Hot Ranch has been a popular choice of late for people I’ve talked to.

JB: It’s just a great place to go! 

It really is, I live pretty close to it so I can get up there every once in a while.

JB: That’s perfect. Fatso’s Last Stand may be an honorable mention, second place.

Fatso’s is literally a block from my apartment.

JB: That’s sick. And also a good veggie burger!

Absolutely!

JB: For pizza I think I’m gonna have to go down and dirty and say Village Pizza.

Again, also a block from my apartment.

JB: Yeah you’re right in the middle of the food triangle there.

Great place, right across the street from a Bacci too, I want to know the story about how there’s a Bacci and the Village Pizza right across the street from each other. There’s gotta be a story there right?

JB: You’d think! I used to play in an emo band when I was in high school and we recorded our record in Ukrainian Village many, many years ago. I was like 14 or something like that, and I had a slice of Bacci’s pizza and that was my instigation, like, “I know what I’m gonna do with the rest of my life, I’m gonna move to Chicago.” They got slices of pizza as big as your head, where else would you want to be?

As my roommate and I always say about Bacci, it’s the best slice in the game.

You can check out Dehd’s FLOWER OF DEVOTION, out now on Fire Talk, over on Bandcamp!

Jacob Martin
Unofficial Self-Appointed Merry-Go-Round Chicago Correspondent. Number 1 on last.fm in plays for John Prine and Alex Cameron.

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