- Alexa Viscius
- Dehd, from left to right: Emily Kempf, Jason Balla, and Eric McGrady
Like any band worth a damn, Dehd are greater than the sum of their parts.
The Chicago trio—bassist-vocalist Emily Kempf, guitarist-vocalist Jason Balla, and drummer Eric McGrady—have been releasing their lo-fi fusion of postpunk and garage folk since 2016. On the new album Flower of Devotion (Fire Talk), they've perfected that approach.
Dehd were defined early on by their fuzzed-out love songs—when the band formed in summer 2015, Kempf and Balla were already a couple. Though the two of them broke up in summer 2017, shortly after they began writing their breakout debut full-length, Water, the album wasn't released until May 2019—which meant Kempf and Balla had to keep rehashing the writing and recording process and the terms of their split in interviews.
"The funny thing about writing Water, and then it coming out a billion years later, was being like 'We've been over this!'" Kempf says, laughing. She's on a call from Humboldt Park's Time Being Tattoo, where she's one of four resident artists when not touring.
Despite the usual postbreakup reeling, which included tears, intense talks, and uncomfortable tensions, Dehd persevered. At band practices between tour dates promoting Water, tracks for Flower of Devotion began taking shape.
The trio sound tightened up and reinvigorated on their sophomore full-length, though they haven't sacrificed any of what Balla calls their "sloppy charm." They're all eager to start the next chapter—one where they can finally just be a band.
"We moved on a long time ago, but the public was late. Our relationship, in all of the many forms it's been in, is so public through our music that we obviously have to talk about it," Kempf says. "But it's nice with this album—we're excited because now the public might start catching up a little bit more. Yes, Emily and Jason are broken up, but everything is still chill and they still make art, so let's look at the art!"
Love remains at the center of Dehd's musical union: they negotiate its complexities through catchy tracks that capture the band's growth in and out of the studio. Sometimes conversational and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, their songs address closing the door on the past ("Haha"), the embrace of intimate but platonic connections ("Desire," "Flying"), romance and the absence of it ("No Time"), and how it feels to direct that energy toward yourself ("Loner"). Dehd have found their balance: a little bit of heaven in hell, and vice versa.
"We've dealt with a lot of grief and a lot of trauma this past year, and this is what we're writing about. This feeling you can laugh at your indescribable heartache," Kempf jokes. "We have new relationships, and Eric has a song. That's new and exciting and crazy!"
McGrady had never played drums before joining Dehd, and he still keeps his set simple—just a snare and floor tom. He's a man of few words and declined to participate directly in this story. (He explained through the band's publicist that he really doesn't care for interviews.) The Flower of Devotion track "Apart" is the first he's written for the band as well as the first he's sung—his baritone voice, offset by Kempf's honeyed coo, recounts the pains of growing older.
"It's one of our favorites," Balla says, upon joining the call. "We planted the seed six months prior. Then when we were in the studio, he was like, 'Let's lay it down.'"
The seeds for Dehd were planted when Balla, Kempf, and McGrady all went to the same show at beloved DIY venue Animal Kingdom in summer 2014. At the time, Balla was part of buzzworthy four-piece Ne-Hi and Kempf was making music as Vail (she was also playing on and off with singer-songwriter Lillie West in Lala Lala, and appears on that act's 2018 album The Lamb). For a few years, Dehd was more or less a side project—an excuse for the couple to tour together, with McGrady and his no-frills style providing a steady pulse.
When Ne-Hi split in May 2019, a few weeks before Water finally came out, Dehd were ready to take center stage.
Ne-Hi's demise surprised the Chicago rock community, because they were so widely assumed to be the city's next breakout band. But it had an upside, as Balla sees it. "You're scattered all over the place. It's wearing you thin," he says. "Touring so much and grinding for a while, you're just like, Why am I doing all of these different things? I guess, at a certain point, I wanted to focus on something and get really good at that."
Dehd have concentrated their attention and honed their sound while staying true to their signature simplicity and their democratic approach to songwriting and decision making, which is rooted in the lessons all three members learned over the years in Chicago's DIY scene. While McGrady hasn't written much, for instance, his input into the band's aesthetic is integral as tracks come together. And no one is required to do interviews.
Balla handles production, but Dehd make choices as a group to ensure everyone's voice is heard. He compares writing lyrics to "free word association" (sprinkled with luck, Kempf confesses), and he says the band's melodies are often influenced by spontaneous discoveries they make while tinkering with their instruments and effects pedals or messing around on the mikes during jam sessions.
"There's a lot of freedom. I've never really been in a project where we can record ourselves, do the art. It feels nice to have your hands on stuff rather than fall victim to other things," Balla says. "It's cool to be able to do it your way and incorporate that DIY ethos into something that's more polished, that you take more seriously."
Where Dehd's past releases—including the menacing 2017 EP Fire of Love and their 2016 self-titled debut—muddled Kempf's vocal acrobatics with layers of swirling psychedelia and rumbling reverb, Flower of Devotion showcases them with intention.
With its full-throated howls, playful yelps, and rasping whispers, Kempf's voice is her main instrument, she says—the bass comes in a close second. At times her vibrato makes her sound a bit like PJ Harvey, Wanda Jackson, or even Roy Orbison, and her wild-eyed delivery captures the energy of Dehd's live show. Listening to the new album, you can envision her jumping around onstage or dancing in the studio, wielding her bass like a scepter.
Kempf compares exploring different vocal inflections to trying on outfits as a form of expression. When she decides how to perform a song, she relies on visualization—by drawing on the track's themes and sound, she can imagine a physical space it inhabits and let that guide her mood.
Visualization saved one of the standout tracks on Flower of Devotion—the climactic "Flood," Dehd's latest single—from the trash can.
The mega life-after-love ballad, which Kempf started writing at the beginning of a new relationship and finished after it ended, was ditched early in the recording sessions, but Balla suggested they try to revive it. He picked up his guitar and worked out a new part.
"Jason's guitar line is so beautiful," Kempf says of the thread that ties "Flood" together. "It reminds me of the beach—not a fun beach, but a dark, sad beach. Which I just realized the video is exactly that, but this is the first time I've vocalized that that's what your guitar line made me feel like.
"So I thought, How can I make myself sound like I'm underwater on a foggy beach?" she continues. "What does that sound like, and how can I achieve that? Not even consciously deciding that, but intuitively knowing this is what the song needs for the idea of it to come across in the best possible way."
Balla's voice, usually thinner on the band's past recordings, sounds more confident on Flower of Devotion. On tracks such as the subtly devastating "Month" and "Disappear," his singing picks up elements from his beefed-up guitar rhythms. He's also learned more about tracking and developed an increasingly adventurous approach to setting up a recording space, so that his production work can amplify a myriad of textures. To capture more clarity and variety, the band also had to set what he calls a "higher standard" for their playing. Typically one-and-done in the studio, they pushed themselves a bit further this time.
"We'd try it a couple times if we didn't get it on the first try, which wasn't always our philosophy," Balla admits. "We took the time to really focus. We wanted the drums to sound great and big, and the rhythms—make them heard in the way they deserve to be heard. Eric has this understated brilliance to the way he plays. You don't think about it, but it's so essential to how the songs work. If anything, in our band, we've gotten better at listening to what everyone's actually doing."
Flower of Devotion feels like the work of a band tuned into one another's strengths, with a shared dedication to turning sadness, grief, and loneliness into something that at least sounds like it was all worth it. Something not to fear, but to dive into.
If the pandemic had never happened, Dehd would've released the album this spring, after a five-city tour that would've taken them to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest. At the time COVID-19 hit, they'd also been announced as part of the lineup for this year's Pitchfork Music Festival—which would've been their biggest show to date.
The band guess that they'll remain unable to tour until at least February or March of 2021, so they're turning out music videos (a passion of Kempf's). So far they've released three from the new album: "Loner" in May, "Flood" in June, and "Month" in July. (The "Loner" video is a literal exploration of the band's heaven-and-hell themes, codirected by Kempf and starring local actor Alex Grelle.) They've also negotiated for some space within their label's usual promotional schedule, pushing back on posting about their projects every two days—as Black Lives Matter protests continue across the city, Dehd have used this space to provide resources and center other voices where they can.
Last month, Kempf turned Dehd's tour van into a delivery vehicle for organizations collecting food, baby supplies, and other necessities. The band directed proceeds from a recent Bandcamp Friday to the ACLU, and their website includes a page dedicated to community resources and information about national campaigns on climate change, environmentalism, food waste, and more. Dehd's Instagram story is more likely to contain petitions from Save Our Stages, links to donate to Assata's Daughters, and demands for justice for Breonna Taylor and her family than it is promotional posts about current singles and album preorders.
Dehd hope to organize a virtual album-release show for August or early September, featuring prerecorded performances of the trio all in the same space as well as to-be-determined live interactive elements. Even though the band can't tour, they're not worried about whether people will find the new album. When faced with uncertainty, many folks look to find deep comfort in music or in the kindred souls they discover through it. Dehd are no exception.
"In all the bands I've been in, I've never been in one where we're all so equal. I don't know if that's something you can decide or if that's something fateful," Kempf says. "Being in this band has taught me more about love, in all its forms, than a lot of things in my life.
"Going through all the pain and emotional labor of the breakup in the early years was worth it because of that aspect," she continues. "We've been through so much together. The Flower of Devotion vibe is—I'm fully devoted to Eric and Jason. Being devoted to your friends, your community. It's worth doing. It's really hard, but it's worth it. We have the values of how we want to exist, and they are fully realized in this band." v