Dehd’s interpersonal drama could have crushed a less determined band. Co-lead singers Emily Kempf and Jason Balla formed the group in the glow of their nascent romance about five years ago, but eventually split up as a couple. Instead of skulking back to other projects within Chicago’s underground rock scene, they went ahead and recorded their second album, 2019’s Water, trading barbed breakup lyrics in the studio, eyes red from crying. Even after reliving those emotions onstage for the better part of the last year, Dehd is not only still going—they’re about to release their best record yet with next month’s Flower of Devotion.
The group’s outsized, theatrical backstory runs counter to the lean contours of their music: an effortless, elegantly rumpled strain of indie rock with a light touch, ample reverb, and killer vocal harmonies, variously evoking the Velvet Underground, Galaxie 500, vintage garage rock, and ’60s girl groups. The new album builds on their electrifying spirit of dejection, grappling with the push-and-pull of modern romance in songs shot through with longing.
We connect over Zoom in late May. Kempf sits in her sunlit front room, framed by houseplants and stained glass, innumerable tattoos poking from beneath her shirt; Balla is in his backyard on the other side of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, searching for stable WiFi as he steps around the garden he and his girlfriend have been working on during quarantine. The exes maintain an easy and self-evident camaraderie, quick to finish each other’s sentences. (Drummer Eric McGrady, affectionately described by his bandmates as a man of few words, declined to participate. In an email, he explained, “To be honest, I’ve never really cared for interviews.”)
The pandemic first caught up with Dehd in March, when they were forced to hurry home after just three days on the road. “It was like when the tape player warps and everything comes to a halt in slow motion,” recalls Balla. Like pretty much everyone, Dehd began distracting themselves with whatever projects they could. Balla, home for an extended stretch for the first time in almost seven years, began work on a home studio. Kempf, whose kinetic energy radiates through the Zoom window, busied herself with solo recording, visual art, and writing script treatments.
Then, in mid-May, the trio turned up on Instagram Live from their practice space to perform “Loner,” the infectious lead single from Flower of Devotion. It was a socially responsible performance: All three musicians wore masks and stood six feet apart. And even if they did not quite master the medium—they accidentally positioned the smartphone horizontally, for one thing—their charm is abundant. It’s not easy to sing through a mask, but Kempf, in particular, absolutely sells it. For a little over four minutes, they make it possible to almost believe you’re crushing cans of Old Style at an indie-rock house show, and not sitting on your couch, eating cereal directly from the box while staring at a screen.
Balla grew up in the suburbs outside Chicago, and in junior high, he played bass in what he describes as “shitty emo bands” until a friend began slipping him tapes by arty groups like Cap’n Jazz. Kempf hails from Atlanta and has a similarly checkered musical past, but she’s too embarrassed to say more on the record. (“This was the era when train-hopping was cool” is all she’ll cop to.) McGrady is a fellow Georgia native, but he didn’t connect with Kempf until one night in 2015 when Balla’s band NE-HI was playing Animal Kingdom, an unlicensed DIY space in a century-old house in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood. “That’s when we all met,” recalls Kempf. “It was this magical night.”
Dehd’s sound hasn’t changed radically since their 2016 self-titled debut, but it has gotten more refined. Balla favors clean-toned guitar with just a hint of bite; Kempf’s bass has both heft and drive; McGrady’s backbeat snare hits swim in reverb, recalling the Jesus and Mary Chain. If their music were a physical object, it might be an Adirondack chair fashioned from reclaimed lumber: sturdy, unpretentious, and surprisingly roomy, with the occasional splinter sticking out from the sanded surface. On Flower of Devotion, there’s more space in the mix, perhaps because Balla, who has produced the band’s last two records, was listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins, Broadcast, and Cate Le Bon around the time they were recording. Kempf on the other hand, was immersed in Dolly Parton and Roy Orbison, which might explain the faint trace of twang in their playing, and the occasional yelp in her voice.
But what really distinguishes Dehd’s music is the interplay between Balla and Kempf’s voices. Both are remarkably versatile singers, easily shifting registers, timbres, and tonalities, and they shadow each other in unusual ways. But when I ask what bands with a similar vocal setup—one man, one woman—might have influenced them, Kempf professes distaste for the whole idea. “Usually, it annoys me,” she says. “I find it to be twee, or I feel excluded. Like, ‘OK, cool, you guys are in love with each other, doing a duet.’ I’m always like, ‘Fuck that.’” She rolls her eyes, and then her expression softens as she considers the topic further. “But maybe it’s a genderless thing, where me and Jason’s voices are interchangeable and mix together in a way that’s confusing for people, which I love. Then it’s more about the art and not about the personalities, or our relationship.”
Despite the severe economy of Dehd’s sound, their vision for the band is expansive. They are politically active—they recently offered their tour van to supply Black Lives Matter protestors—and host a collection of activist resources on their website. And their videos, which Kempf produces and co-directs, typically look like the work of a much bigger band. The surreal, often laugh-out-loud funny video for “Loner,” shot in Joshua Tree, California, stars the up-and-coming Chicago actor Alex Grelle as an angel who finds love among a phalanx of latex-clad devil strippers in a desert roadhouse bar. It’s a hoot. But the themes it addresses—pleasure and pain, good and evil, sin and forgiveness—go to the heart of Dehd’s music, says Kempf, who notes the tragicomic masks on the new album’s cover. “Shit’s fucked up and the world is on fire. We’re just making some happy tears. We know that being in a band is not serious.” She guffaws when she says this. “But we’re going to share our gifts and hopefully inspire others to do the same. Because life is fucking hard, you know?”
Pitchfork: How have you all been keeping busy during the pandemic? Do you have weird new hobbies?
Emily Kempf: My God. I have to make stuff all the time. I’ve made three psycho electronic albums. Before that I was painting clothing, meticulously, for hours and hours. I haven’t started baking bread because I took one look at the recipe and I was like, “Math? Scale? I don’t think so.”
Jason Balla: Emily’s not really one for measuring.
EK: Yeah. Jason’s the scale guy. I’m like, “Just wing it!” Improv everything all the time.
How does it feel to have your personal breakup be such a cornerstone of the band’s backstory?
JB: When Water came out, the breakup was already old, but it definitely was part of the story for that album. But with this album we had the opportunity to just be a band.
EK: I think it’s hard for people to grasp that relationships can change from romantic to friendly, and the music is the reason we’re still together. It’s very grown up, like we got divorced and have children, and we’re chill.
What was the recording process like on the new album?
JB: We recorded Water ourselves, but this time we rented this studio called Jamdek, in Humboldt Park, where we all live. It was literally just the three of us in there for two weeks with a lot of space and nice microphones. We were intensely, deeply in our own little world. On the last record we got frustrated, but this time it was really smooth.
EK: Less tears! We’re still scrappy by nature, but we tried to refine things a little more. Instead of being like, “OK, we have four days and this much money and we have to make it happen,” which we’re good at, it was nice to have two whole weeks and really lean in. I like improv and live energy, so recording is usually hell for me. My last year of darkness was mostly around mental-health things, so for me it was like, “How can I go into recording and not feel trapped?” Having a lot of time and space let me feel less like, “I have to get the take, and if I don’t, I’m gonna break a chair against the wall.”
Are your lyrics mostly autobiographical, or are they character studies?
EK: Mine are totally autobiographical. I try to stay really honest—it’s like my journal. I’ll cloak it with enough mystery so that it’s not too obvious, but sometimes it’s super direct. Someone like Dolly can assume a character and write very well about someone totally different from her, which is her special skill. For me, it feels better to be vulnerable in this way.
JB: If I’m trying to articulate something that I’m going through emotionally, it’s much easier for me to process it in the form of lyrics. The last couple of years, everything has seemed so fucked—I was going through some personal times that felt like the end of the world. In parallel, being surrounded by all this hate and xenophobia and Trump and the environment—just like making sense of all the sadness right now. And then obviously the [pandemic] crisis. Sometimes it’s easier to bottle up this feeling in a song.
Emily, you do so many different things with your voice, from your wide range to your yelps and interjections. Is that an intentional part of the songwriting process, or is it more intuitive?
EK: One-hundred-percent intuitive. I think of my voice like a house with many closets and lots of outfits that I can put on. Can I do whispery Lana Del Rey voice? Or operatic, bird-noise voice? On this album I was obsessed with James Brown-y stuff. I know I can sing well, but I like singing not well, as a choice. I’m not trained. I just started singing out of nowhere when I was 23. I was this crazy party person, and then I got sober when I was 21 and it was a very transformative time for me. I discovered music, literally. I was like, “Music is magical!” I had always been a visual artist. I was really shy and didn’t want to play in front of people, total stage fright. But I would sing and people would tell me, “You’re really good.” I thought everyone was just being polite, but I couldn’t stop singing. It was like I was possessed. I was like, “I have to keep doing this thing that makes me feel like dying.” And then through the years it’s become my favorite thing in the world.
When you’re writing songs where you both sing, how does that work? Are you writing together or are you comparing notes and seeing what fits together?
EK: We usually just start playing. It’s rare that we’ll bring in something written. We go to practice and if one of us starts playing, then the rest of us follow.
JB: With vocals, if Emily seems to be onto something, I’ll hang back, or vice versa. Whoever has the spark, we give them the space within our little jam to go down the rabbit hole.
EK: Me and Jason are both very strong personalities, but we work very well together, musically. We listen to each other and allow each other to both be leads, which I find to be incredible. I’ve been in a million bands, and I haven’t been in another where two people with equal power can share the spotlight. I like that we can set that example for other people. Like, you can share power and it’s chill.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork