Chicago's Dehd Made an Optimistic Album Out of a Messy Breakup

We're streaming Dehd's electric debut, 'Water,' ahead of its release.

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May 7 2019, 4:03pm

Photo by Alexa Viscius

Dehd have a tangible chemistry. The Chicago trio started in 2015 as an outlet for guitarist Jason Balla and bassist Emily Kempf to explore their budding romantic relationship. They brought on their best friend and first-time drummer Eric McGrady because they liked having him around. In live shows, Balla and Kempf, who are the band's co-lead singers, pogo across each other, stacking twisted, sugar-coated harmonies on their songs. But McGrady is the foundation, keeping everything together with his pummeling snare and floor tom.

With McGrady’s unconventional drum kit, Balla’s experience fronting local post-punks NE-HI, and Kempf’s work with the experimental art-pop project Vail, Dehd is one of the city’s most eccentric indie rock combinations. Two exciting EPs, 2016’s Dehd and 2017’s Fire of Love, have transformed them from DIY dive bar-playing upstarts to a full-fledged touring force. "The way we write is pretty cool because it's very much of the moment," Balla says. "What you hear on the record is us three being in the practice space and playing music together."

The promise of their first two releases has culminated in their electric debut album, Water, which we’re streaming below. It’s not just that the 13 songs are their most confident and seamless yet; the LP’s mere existence is a triumph, because it came out of the Kempf and Balla’s messy breakup. Since the two had always processed their feelings for each other through the band, when their relationship dissolved in the summer of 2017, they decided to keep playing together. They even went on tour. "There was lots of sobbing," says Kempf of that post-breakup tour. "It was pretty intense but we would just get on stage and nothing mattered when we were performing."

Although it was an emotionally exhausting experience to sit in a van for weeks at a time as exes, honest talks and live performances kept the band intact. "I process stuff by performing, so it was so interesting to be processing these same emotions with the person who I was processing these emotions about," explains Kempf. "There was a lot of pain. We'd have talks like, ‘okay, well if I start crying in the studio, then I'll just take a little break'."

Since the band’s writing process comes from almost stream-of-conscious jam sessions, Kempf and Balla were understanding each other's emotional states as they first heard their respective lyrics. "We don't talk about lyrics," Kempf says. "Sometimes I don't know what he's saying until I hear the record. When I ask, 'what are you saying right there? Cause I want to harmonize with it.' It’s always an 'oh shit' moment."

Take "Baby," a bouncy track that has Balla singing, "when I dream of days past with my baby / It happened all so fast / Would you be here with me?"

One particularly cathartic song on the LP is "On My Side," which is marked by clanging guitars and Kempf wailing, "Time is on my side I will be alright." She says of the recording process, "I would just fall to the ground sobbing because it was so hard to sing that part and I couldn't nail it. I was so sad and full of grief but Jason would be like, 'it's okay, you can do it. Try again.'"

"He would just be patient with me," she says. "It was just this crazy form of support even though we weren't romantically entangled anymore." Even without knowing that, the vocal part she describes is one of the most emotionally resonant moments of the entire album.

While Water comes out of the ashes of romance, it's so optimistic and hopeful that it feels wrong to even call it a breakup album. Dehd's melodies have the same breezy and pop-minded feel of '60s girl groups, but performed by a raucous DIY punk band. Lead single "Lucky" nostalgically swoons with plenty of jangle as Kempf croons, "Is this the end shalalalala?"

"It's a free joyful experience making music with us three together," Balla says. "I think that's also where the positivity and stuff comes from because it's almost a spiritually rewarding thing to be making music with the people that you're the closest with.”