Photo credit: Bryan Allen Lamb
They've been a band for nearly four years, but NE-HI are well aware they're about to enter new territory. "This is the first record we have where we can't just throw it up on Bandcamp," singer Jason Balla deadpans. He's speaking to Offers, the rowdy Chicago garage-rock outfit's forthcoming album, due on February 24, and their first since being signed to Grand Jury Music. "You gotta take this shit seriously!" he adds. On a recent winter afternoon, the band is crowded around a small table at a Logan Square coffeeshop-cum-Latin inspired-bar. In one sense the foursome—which includes drummer Alex Otake, guitarist Mikey Wells, and bassist James Weir—is here to chat about their new LP. How they took two swipes at it before being satisfied. How tours with bands like Twin Peaks and Carseat Headrest allowed them to road test their new fare. How success as a band in 2017 is up for interpretation. But really, any hang session with NE-HI is just as much a drop-in with a crew of best friends who just so happen to make music together.
"I was at work last night and this dude was asking me about the band and he said, 'Are you best buddies with those guys? Like, do you hang out with them outside of the band?'" Weir recalls with a smile. The guitarist thought the question was an odd one. "Because," he says, "I really think you can't be successful and tour with a band without being good friends. You've got to really tight with the dudes in there or it's not gonna work."
It's not worth telling Weir or his bandmates of the countless acts whose members despise one another. The idea is practically heretical to NE-HI's ethos. First connecting in 2013 when working on a mutual friend's film score, and then cutting their teeth in the Windy City's local DIY party scene, NE-HI run on feel-good fumes. It's the driving force behind their collective charm. And their best songs — like the chugging "Prove," which calls to mind early Strokes, or "Sister," all chant-along vocals and attitude — ring with a similar childlike charm and carefree charisma.
"It might sounds like backwards thinking but I think the reason the band worked is because we weren't gunning for any sort of real success," Balla offers. "We were just making music because that's what we have to do. There was no agenda. It's for the sheer joy and exploration of what's possible with these four musicians."
On the eve of Offers, as well as a 45-plus date national tour, NE-HI (who are premiering their music video for "Buried On The Moon" below) sat down with us to run through their evolution as a band, how and why they took a more meticulous attitude towards their new LP, and what they make of the contemporary Chicago rock scene.
Noisey: It's been nearly a year since you guys finished recording Offers. The anticipation for its release must be killing you.
Jason Balla: For [our 2014 eponymous debut] we recorded it in two days and had it online within a month. There certainly is a lot of anticipation for this one. There's been like 11 months where it's like "Any day now! But it's been cool though. We've been working on a lot of new stuff so lately that's where my head's been at. And then when we started working on our set for our tour and all the songs from this record you get to fall in love with them again. So it's been nice. We had this long break from the tunes and now we're playing them again.
It's probably better to have a little space from the songs considering you'll be playing them nearly every night for the next few months.
JB: It's nice to come at them with fresh ears.
Your debut album felt raw and unhinged but Offers feels like more care was put into both the songwriting and the mixing.
Mikey Wells: On the first record we really had just started the band. We had a lot of those songs and so for most of them we just went in and recorded them in two days. This was different in the sense of we had to really write for a record as opposed to just translating our live show to tape.
Did the luxury of more time in the studio allow you to go down different creative roads?
JB: We totally had the throwing-shit-against-the wall experience. The first round of recording though quite a few things didn't stick.
Alex Otake: We thought we were finished. We recorded enough stuff for a record. But we just ended up editing some songs and writing a lot of new stuff. And then it became the record we have now, which we're really excited about and proud of.
Nearly the entirety of Offers, minus a few songs, came from those second recording sessions. What made you guys realize you could do better then your first take?
James Weir: With the first record the writing process and the recording process was stream-of-consciousness in a way. We had been working on those songs for a year but the recording process was so short it was like 'What you have is the final product.' We're super proud of that record but I dunno, this one just felt like it was nice having the backing of a label and people that believed in our songwriting ability. That allowed us to come back and revise some stuff to the point where we dropped a lot of our first takes.
JB: Having people beyond your local community start believing you gave us a bit of confidence. We had also been playing together longer so we were vibing on each other. There's a sense of pride in whatever you're doing anyway so we just thought 'We can do better. We just should. And maybe some people are going to be listening to it now too." It's a super fortunate position to be in and it's awesome we had the chance because some people believed in us.
Taking it back a bit, before you formed NE-HI did any of you see a path for a Chicago rock bands to be successful on a national stage?
JB: I dunno. We weren't necessarily thinking about it in those terms at the time.
MW: There have always been a lot of great bands that have a lot of different sounds
JB: And everyone's homies!
You all more or less knew of one another but what clicked between the four of you when you got together in 2013 to score your friend Xavier Juarez's film?
MW: I was living in Milwaukee at the time. But I went to school with James and Jason for about a year at DePaul and then I dropped out but still hung out with them. I would come and stay at Jason's house and Alex was staying there and they were doing Earring, which is their duo. I got to know Al just by crashing on the couch for like a week. On the same couch. In each other's arms [ _laughs_]. When our friend Xavier Juarez wanted to do the film and Jason suggested the four of us should do it it was incentive for me to move back here. We had jammed together before and James was trying to get me to move down forever. That was the catalyst. We were like "This is sweet. Let's maybe be a band and take it from there."
And you guys are seemingly best friends, which helps the band chemistry.
JB: I see a lot of bands out there where it's like "Why are you guys even a band? You don't like each other."
It's a rarity for a band to have your guys' closeness.
MW: This is actually a huge facade. We hate each other [_laughs_].
AO: But seriously, why it works is because me and Jason play in another band so we had some musical chemistry already. And then also just the fact that we all have very differing music tastes but then a lot of the same ones in certain things. There is definitely stuff we all like and then music that really branches out and some of us listen to and others don't. Mixed together it melds well. We're able to bring out those influences in each other. Stuff that makes it exciting and different.
JB: But it's not like when you're in a group and you have a jam session and everyone is playing the same thing but the guy who plays drums just wants to be in a pop-punk band [_laughs_].
At what point did you guys feel like this wasn't a one-off project but a full-fledged band with potential?
MW: We did the scoring project and then we were like "We should play a show." After the first show, which was in 2013, it felt really good. It was at Animal Kingdom, a DIY space here in Chicago, and it was packed. We were actually playing with Twin Peaks. I was so nervous. I had never been that nervous in my whole life. I was shaking.
Because you felt this was an important moment for the band?
MW: I knew that it was important. It felt that way. I didn't know why. I just didn't want to fuck it up. Even though I'm sure I fucked it up a ton. I remember I was talking to our friend Eric who is buddies with us and he was calming me down. And then we played and it was fucking awesome. That was the lid on the jar.
JB: A show that always sticks out to me was when we played at this loft and it was just crazy. There were so many people. People were losing their shit and everyone was singing the words. The power went out, but only half of the power, so my guitar still worked. We played and just yelled all the words even when the PA turned off. And then the power magically kicked in when we hit this big note and the crowd was on the stage and behind us and stealing the mikes and singing the songs to songs we wrote. It was crazy.
Let's talk about Offers. It sounds incredibly tight. Which is interesting considering you guys are known for your raucous live shows. ** **JB: It's an important thing to know what medium you're in. Whether you're on the stage or it's to be recorded. Those are such different listening experiences. We've been bringing the energy live forever because we started out in the basements and that's what we came up on and that's what's exciting about interacting with an audience. And then the challenge becomes when you're recording that you can't bring the energy the same way you do on the stage because you're just there with microphones. You're removed from the excitement. And you hear all the fucked up notes!
MW: But we track live to get that energy. None of us are perfect musicians. We just play how we play.
Some of Jason's guitar licks on the album sound real tight.
MW: We hired session musicians for those [ _all laugh_]. But no, none of us are perfect at playing but we make a really interesting sound together and we capture it by live tracking. With this record it was about playing together in a live room and make it not just compelling but also technically tight. That was a challenge but one we learned. I think as a result the record is really great in that way. It's kind of wild because it's teetering on the brink of breaking at some points.
And I know you've already been playing most of the new songs live.
JB: Almost all of them. At least 75 percent of them. Maybe with the exception of one song. But here and there we've played all of them.
AO: There definitely are certain ones that have translated ones better in our live show that we play more often but we've played all of them.
Given your DIY background with a super-dedicated fanbase it must be interesting now to be trotting out new songs unfamiliar to your fans.
JB: That was certainly in the back of our minds. Also there had been so much time in between the two records. You had to kind of be like "I hope people like what we've grown into."
MW: It's also different because now we've been playing outside of Chicago a lot. And we don't know what the crowd is like in every city or each venue. It's a lot different than making something like our first record where we know some of the people and they know us.
JW: Yah. We were sort of spoiled playing so many Chicago shows and having a really rooted fanbase where we could play our old songs and play new stuff that might sound a little more rough but the energy was so alive that the songs would still feel good. When we took the first draft of this record on the road we were doing some shows with Carseat Headrest and some of our own stuff in smaller towns and there was more of a sincerity to the crowd reaction. People didn't know who we were so we took a better look at the songs to be like "How are people going to like these?"
I'd have to think your time together has instilled a confidence in you even when going into a new city?
MW: I think so. No matter how big the room or how many people are there on a good night we can rip someone's head off and make them a fan for life. I think we all feel that way.
JB: I think that's true for sure.
Bands like Carseat Headrest or Twin Peaks, both of with whom you've toured, have pretty open-minded fanbases.
AO: I think that's definitely true.
JB: Both tours were great and have much different fanbases really. And I think both those bands have two different approaches to music as well. It's really exciting to be able to play to both groups of people and have them appreciate it for different reasons. Certain crowds react to the energy. But what I think is special about our band is we play with interesting melodies here and there and textures so people who are more inclined to stand in the back and check it out might be more excited by. It's cool.
How do you feel about the current status of NE-HI? You're not huge but are carving out a living doing what you love.
JB: I'm just loving writing songs. The money doesn't even matter. I do sound for a living. I basically just stopped working a couple months ago to write music. Because this is what I believe in doing right now.
MW: Let's just say: if my amp blew up tomorrow I could get a new amp and be OK financially. As opposed to not being able to eat.
Let's be real: in 2017 a relatively successful rock band could get great press and yet still be crashing on friends' couches while on tour.
JB: That's our story, for sure.
JW: With streaming and bands not making a ton of money selling physical copies of records you all have to have side jobs outside music. So we all have jobs working at restaurants and stuff. But I think we're in a really good spot. We still have a lot of work to do but we're super happy.
JB: This is truly what we love. We love playing music. Anything shitty you have to do to make this happen that's OK.
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.