Dehd talk new album, quarantine, feelings, fermentation & more in BV Q&A
Chicago-based post-punk trio, Dehd — Emily Kempf (vox, bass), Jason Balla (vox, guitar), Eric McGrady (drums) — are anything but on their deathbed. Since the release of their 2017 debut EP, Fire of Love, Dehd’s sonic vision and whole-hearted vulnerability has allowed them to float to the top of the barrel as a product of their local scene. With Kempf’s siren call, Balla’s shimmy-inducing riffing, and McGrady’s hypnotic percussive influence, they’re ready to take it global.
Dehd’s story is entrenched with a variety of ups and downs (the whirlwind relationship and breakup between Kempf and Balla, being just one bump in the road), but they’ve prevailed, perfecting their craft and consistently releasing earworm after earworm. As a strong example of this, the band’s sophomore record, Water (written and released just after said breakup), was one of my favorite albums of 2019. With effortlessly meshing the euphoric joys of being in love with the crushing heartbreak of coping with loss and existential woes, Water cements Dehd’s ability to hit listeners where it hurts (in the best way possible).
Earlier this year, Dehd was meant to hit the road with Boston duo, Vundabar, but, as with most other things, the dates were pushed back thanks to COVID-19. Even still, the band hasn’t slowed their roll, with their new album, Flower of Devotion, being released this week via Fire Talk. Much like Water, the upcoming record is chock full of emotive release, which is definitely fitting considering the emotional upheaval associated with an unprecedented time such as this. From the raucous ‘fuck you’ found with “No Time” to the self-aware existentialism of “Apart” (which is also Eric McGrady’s official song-writing debut!), Flower of Devotion isn’t afraid to channel the inner psyche and shake listeners by their shoulders. It’s an impressive range of tracks, featuring deeply confrontational ballads, reverb-heavy dance anthems, and personal soliloquies that I just can’t get enough of.
In anticipation of the widespread release of Flower of Devotion, I spoke with Kempf and Balla via email to gather some insight regarding the record’s creation, their motivations, and their feelings on this current moment in time.
Hey guys! To begin, the music industry is obviously in a really weird place right now, and things feel very uncertain. For the past few months, how have you been doing? What have you been up to whilst in quarantine (besides preparing for the new album)?
Emily: I've been doing tons of yoga and meditation and watching loads of TV. It’s been super chill for the most part, when I’m not in existential dread about the state of the world and worried about my family dying of COVID.
JB: I’ve been really getting into fermentation in the kitchen. Sauerkraut, kimchi, tepache, fermented garlic and ginger... Trying my hand at kombucha right now. The whole process has really given me an extra understanding of how interconnected things are. This bacteria floating around in the air or our stomachs makes food taste good and keeps us healthy. Crazy!
The world is currently on edge, too, due to the urgent fight to bring attention to (and hopefully eliminate) systemic racism in this country and worldwide. Especially since Chicago has been such a hot spot regarding the recent protests, as Chicago residents, can you speak about your personal experiences throughout all of this? (I noticed you guys offered to cart groceries and supplies using your van a few weeks back!)
Emily: Yes; we’ve been pretty active in attending protests and participating in mutual aid. The Dehd van has turned into a transport for jail support and supply distribution. I’ve felt really grateful to be able to contribute in any way to the movement.
JB: There’s definitely a new sense of urgency to address this that I haven’t seen before. I hope the momentum continues and we can learn to integrate this action into our lives going forward.
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⭐️psa⭐️ the dehd van is available for distributing groceries and supplies at protests, and available for jail support and rides home ~ i am in loop with several different organizers around these subjects just posting here for further visability ~ i have no job and only free time ~please comment/dm/email us & share with friends if you find a need for a van for anything related to protesting police brutality. love y’all keep it up fuck the polize ✊🏽xo em & dehd #blacklivesmatter
You guys announced your upcoming record, Flower of Devotion, shortly before the quarantine was really set into place (at least in the US) and I’m sure you didn’t plan to release it in the midst of a pandemic. How has the current climate changed things in regard to the release process/ how everything came together?
Emily: I mean, we certainly aren’t touring in support of it, but everything else has always been digital, really, so I haven’t noticed a shift in that being negative for us. I think people will always need music, through the good times and bad times. Even if it went poorly in some way, I feel like there are so many more important issues at hand, [so] it’s ok if our success is dampened in light of that, I guess.
JB: It definitely puts things into perspective. With the album, we worked so hard and intensely on it and I was totally in that world of making. I’m really proud of the record and think it’s important, but it’s also good to be reminded of all the bigger, more pressing things outside of it. Making music is just one part of this big, fucked up, beautiful world.
When going about writing this record, what was your vision holistically, if you had one? Now that it’s come together, how would you describe the general idea of the record in a few words?
Emily: Our vision was a sorta duality vibes—"heaven or hell, demons and angels, sorrow and joy, comic tragic"—that sorta thing. Turns out, we were really on the nose in many ways with that vision, given the current circumstance we all have found ourselves in. The record, in a few words, is about having room for both tragedy and joy in life, not taking oneself so seriously, and taking care of yourself.
JB: I’m really interested in the way that things can be two things (or many all at once). Laughing when crying. Simple, yet complex. That sort of thing. Life can seem like one thing or the other so often, especially right now with the political climate and people’s opinions drawn in the sand, but it’s really all a blur and a conversation.
“Loner,” one of the record’s earliest singles, is a really great way to introduce the musical prowess of their record. It’s funny that, here, you talk about wanting nothing more than to “be alone” when, right now, loneliness is essentially the only option. Has quarantine made you reevaluate your feelings at all or has it simply validated how much solitude is sometimes necessary?
Emily: Haha, ya. Well, there is a difference, I think, in loneliness and being alone. I was attempting to write about the desire for basically non-attachment, for self-sufficiency and autonomy; the ability to take care of one’s needs and not be codependent. Funnily, being in quar has definitely seemed to jumpstart all of us into more intimate relationships w ourselves and how we spend time alone, deal with being alone, having loneliness etc. I have grown so much closer to myself during quar and believe this has made me a better member of my community and friend circle.
I also wanted to ask about the conception of the “Loner” music video, which stars your friend Alex Grelle as Angela the Angel, too. How did the concept for this video come about?
Emily: Hehe, my pride and joy! I always have tons of ideas for film and I am obsessed with Grelle (and pretty much all of the cast in “Loner”). The devil and angel theme in this sort of purgatory was just a chance to have fun with some ancient ass heavy subjects.
A lot of this record sort of teeters between overwhelming sadness and brief moments of joy (with “Disappear” being a great example of this). Do you find that this is evidence of how life tends to be: a hodge-podge of really high highs and really low lows?
Emily: Ya, for sure! I guess we were channeling that with our music. “Disappear” is a perfect example!
JB: It’s the big blur I was mentioning earlier. You can feel like hell, but still laugh about it. In songs, I’m often trying to sort of wrestle my feelings down to the page and there are conflicting perspectives within that fight so, I think a song like “Disappear’ is evidence of that. Also, sometimes you just wanna dance it off.
In your opinion, what do you think has been Dehd’s highest high?
Emily: Um, haha, I dunno! Maybe almost playing Pitchfork, lol. But, genuinely, I feel high when I think about the fact that we still get to make music together. It’s so special and loving and I’m glad we’ve made it through all the lows thus far to keep making art together. It’s the best thing in the world.
JB: Anytime we’re playing a show and we’re so in it, that’s all there is.
On another note, “Haha” is honestly one of the best songs I’ve heard in a DECENT second, not to mention it’s heartbreakingly relatable material. What led you guys to approach this subject in the way that you did, considering the duality between its sugary-sweet, sort of campy sound, and the whirlwind of emotions it discusses (especially via the sort of call-and-response format it creates)?
Emily: Ahhh, thank you; it’s one of my personal faves, too!! Heartbreakingly relatable, hell ya. My only goal as a songwriter is that I secretly want to make everyone cry and feel things. Honestly, the approach is a common one for us—our music always comes out bouncy and full of some sort of “energy” and our lyrics either match that bounce or deceive the listener with their heaviness/sadness. And the call and response is mostly me, talking to me! It was a fun choice we made in-studio. I wrote this song almost like a joke with only myself, or a letter to me, but one that everyone gets to see.
“Flood,” at least by my interpretation, touches on the permanence of love, even in the worst of circumstances. “Flying” and even “Month” kind of touch on that, too, in the sense that they contain this fleeting feeling. When enduring these sorts of relationships, where everything seems to constantly be up in the air, how can you distinguish between commitment through the “good” and “bad” and simply enduring toxicity? When is it time to let go?
Emily: Whew! Getting into it here! Yes, how does one distinguish?? I haven’t quite figured that out but if anyone has, please tell me! “Flood” and “No Time” are about that, for sure—the painful/wonderful process of falling in love, and then, leaving someone you still love; being filled with doubt. Was it the right thing to do? Could I have done things differently? Where do I end and they begin? Oiy!
JB: “Month” is mostly just about my relationship with memory and time. Trying to make sense of the memories you’ve had with someone no longer with us, to address the broader lead to this question, too. I think the record’s a lot just about the complications that come with life. Cycle of life and death. Relationships with friends and family and romance. There aren’t a lot of easy answers out there, [and] that’s why we talk about them.
“No Time” presents a nice shift in tone in the sense that it shows that that process of letting go is in full force. When going about writing this one, did that fiery energy (especially via Emily’s vocals) come from the feeling of frustration that tumultuous relationships create?
Speaking of that energy (and assuming live shows start happening again in the future), which tracks off this record are you most excited to bust out on tour? I think “No Time” is definitely going to be a crowd favorite!
Emily: “No Time” is very fun to sing. It’s def the most challenging song for me, haha. I’m also excited about “Haha” and “Loner” :)
JB: “Desire,” to me, is pure thunder. Sometimes, when we’re touring with other friends’ bands, we invite them to play double drums with us, even—just [to] make it soo stupid big and crazy.
One of the last songs on the record, “Apart,” is a slight change in pace, considering its existential quality. That said, since Dehd’s genesis, do you feel like you guys have grown and/or changed in any significant ways? If you had the chance, would you have done anything differently?
Emily: THAT’S ERIC’S SONG!!! His debut!!! We are soooo proud of him; the song freaking rules. [It’s] a little light into the mystery that is Eric’s mind.
I think Dehd has just gotten closer to each other and better at communicating. I think our songs are maturing (but not tooooo much, haha) and I absolutely wouldn’t change anything. Well, maybe less drama on tour with the breakup stuff (on my part). I wish I could’ve “learned faster'' on how to be chiller. I’m grateful Eric and Jason stuck by me all this time.
(Also, is that Eric singing on this track?)
On a separate note, we’re always curious to also hear about the music our favorite bands are listening to. Any favorite albums from this year you’d like to share, and/or albums just helping you get through 2020?
Emily: I have mad love for Grimes ;)
JB: Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth, Tasha’s Alone at Last, the new Freak Heat Wave singles, and every mix on physical-medium.com.
Finally, past the pandemic, what are you guys looking forward to most? What does the future look like for Dehd?
Emily: I'm getting a puppyyy!! Can’t wait to shred with my boys again; hopefully, next summer we can get back in the saddle.
JB: Live music, live music, live music!