“Run, baby, run / Run from the bad love / New love, baby / Come on honey, give me some.”
I didn’t know I could love Dehd even more than I already did until I heard “Bad Love,” the lead single on their new album “Blue Skies.” Their 2020 album “Flowers of Devotion” was a sonic respite for me during the first year of Covid, a jolt of upbeat surf rock from start to finish that I blasted on the empty roads of D.C. when there was nowhere to go and nothing to do, but so much to feel about what was happening around us.
The Chicago-based trio — Jason Balla (guitar, vocals), Emily Kempf (bass, vocals) and Eric McGrady (drums) — are six years and four albums into their band’s indie rock career, approaching each project with a blend of punk, surf rock and dream pop that offers textured, complex sounds while tapping into a range of emotions with equal intensity. “Blue Skies” has a quiet calm to it, a reflection of Dehd’s latest evolution during the pandemic.
I had the chance to chat with Balla about Dehd’s current tour, why he appreciates nice crowds at their shows and the importance of tapping into the band’s wild sounding roots before they head to Black Cat this Sunday, October 23.
District Fray: I’ve been really excited to have this interview and I’ve had your Black Cat show on the books for a long time.
Jason Balla: I’m super excited to play the Black Cat.
Have you guys played there before?
I don’t think so. But it’s a legendary spot.
I feel like it’s a great venue for you guys, too. Has your tour started yet?
We’re on day three of nine weeks.
How’s it going so far?
It’s honestly been so nice. We’re from Chicago and the first few shows we’re playing are in the Midwest, so it’s like this nice breath of fresh air. The Midwest has some really happy people.
What was your last tour experience pre-Covid?
We were actually trying to go to SXSW when everything was closing down. That was our last tour and it lasted for four days before we were like, “We should probably just go home. This is really bad, actually.” It was really crazy once that happened because the first show of that tour was one of the best out-of-town shows we had played up until that point.
When did things pick back up for you guys?
We got back into it last year and it’s been pretty steady since then. Especially on this tour, we’ve been incorporating a lot more from the new record. It’s the first time we were ever actually able to write a record where we hadn’t played the songs before. It’s a really new experience for us.
How are audiences receiving the new record live?
They seem to like it. Let’s see if it holds up.
I’m sure it will. I want to talk about your sound. You definitely have some punk and surf rock undertones and retro influences, but I really think your band is doing something nobody else is doing right now. The way you layer complex vocals over instrumentation is pretty rare. How do you approach the songwriting process?
The three of us all have pretty disparate influences. There’s this tug and pull between where each of us is coming from and then we meet in the middle. Just inherently, we like minimalism and simplicity in the songs but where all the other stuff comes in is how to make that a textured and really interesting thing to listen to. It sounds simple, but there’s actually a lot going on.
There are so many great bops on “Flowers of Devotion.” The album feels very rock ‘n’ roll and filled with big emotions. “Blue Skies” is also emotive, but it feels a lot more subdued. Was that intentional?
I think it’s just where we were. It’s a lot more about hope and optimism and finding peace. Through some of the songs, finding peace worked its way into the fabric of that.
Are there any songs from “Blue Skies” that are particularly near and dear to your heart?
I like “Window” a lot. “Control” is really fun for me. It’s been really wild to play “Clear” and “No Difference.” They aren’t necessarily songs I was expecting would be so fun to play and that people would really resonate with. That really adds a new layer of importance to me that it means so much to someone else as well.
You guys were put on my radar by a Gen Z music nerd, but my mom is also obsessed with “Bad Love” and coming with me to the show on Sunday. I’m guessing that’s no surprise to you, that your demographic is eclectic.
We have Gen Zers, we have people I would consider my peer age range, but there’s also people who could be our parents coming to our shows and see some things in us that maybe they recognize from when they were listening to music in their 20s. There’s a cool excitement that people are bringing to it across age ranges. I feel like it’s pretty mixed across the board. You have the weirdos and I don’t know, I feel like a lot of people are represented at our shows and everyone’s just nice and having a good time. There’s no beef going down on the floor or anything.
Right, which is always a good thing. On a more individual level, what sound are you focused on creating with your music?
The thing that is influential to me is when there’s someone who has a really unique voice and a creative spirit that I recognize and want to aspire to the same sort of spirit in their music. That’s how I want to create stuff. There’s also this free form of expression that feels very personal.
Do you have a favorite memory of playing a D.C. show?
We played this place called the Bathtub Republic, which was a DIY venue. When we came to D.C., you had all these people in suits and business wear. It was just so amazing to see these people who are so serious and focused on affecting change [also] slow down. I thought that was so exciting.
How would you describe your style of collaboration with Emily and Eric?
It’s evolved over time, but I think we have a pretty good balance right now. Everyone really has a lot of space to explore. It’s mainly a generous, communicative experience. We write all the songs together in the same room. As a song is unfolding, it’s a little bit of a dance between who’s hot on the trail of where it’s going — [to use] the metaphor of football — we let them run with it, and then someone else can take a pass and then we switch the lead. I think it’s very much an ebb and flow. More times than not, we put ego aside and just try to work toward making the best song rather than a song that has all of one of our fingerprints on it.
Is there a song you’ve recorded that you feel completely embodies the band?
We started playing an old song recently called “Fire of Love.” It has the spirit of the band because it’s really wild sounding. It’s been really fun to get back into that headspace and revisit the guitar player I was five years ago. Emily is singing, going crazy and Eric is just pummeling away at the drums and I’m getting to explore all over the guitar. There’s a lot of unbridled joy in the act of playing that song that I think is at the heart of it.
Catch Dehd at Black Cat on Sunday, October 23. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and Number One Popstar will open. Tickets are $20. Learn more about Dehd at dehd.horse and follow them on Instagram @dehdforever.
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