‘Floors mostly. Couches, if you’re lucky’: an interview with NE-HI’s Jason Balla

NE-HI, w/ Deleters

The Mill — Friday, April 14 at 9 p.m.

Chicago’s NE-HI plays The Mill on Friday, April 14. — photo by Bryan Allen Lamb

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. And each neighborhood, seemingly, raises its own music scene. Out from the subterranean venues of Logan Square, NE-HI will return to The Mill Friday, April 14 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10.

The minimalist rock quartet first came together in 2013 to score a friend’s film. They released their self-titled debut in 2014 on Chicago/St. Louis fuzzed-out label, Manic Static — a label run by Philip Lesicko of the Funs, who has been heavily involved in Logan Square’s DIY scene, before and after the 2014 shutting down of starburst house spot Animal Kingdom.

NE-HI’s new album, Offers (Grand Jury, 2017), kicks the habits of garage rock readymades, prying into the dead spaces that lay within four-chord structures. Airy guitars and bass jangle as much in opposition as they do in unity. Drums floor the record. Vocals croon and sustain overhead. Offers is a refining of the rawness that defined the band’s debut album.

Guitar/vocalist Jason Balla and I spoke over the phone while two of his other bandmates were asleep in the van, the other one driving. We discussed now-defunct DIY venues, like Animal Kingdom (where NE-HI played their first show) and Wally’s World; the places one’s mind ambles while driving several hours a day (his being introspection and mine Speed Racer); and the creative conundrum that results without personal space during tour. Balla told me their band name has no relation to MASH’s Radar O’Reilly.

At the time of our conversation, NE-HI was driving from Buffalo, New York towards Cleveland, Ohio, concluding their two-week stint on the East Coast. After Iowa City, the band heads westward, where they’ll loop along the West Coast down through the Southwest and back to the Midwest for the rest of April and beginning of May. This summer they will perform at Pitchfork Festival.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and concision)

What it’s like to be on the road for so long? I’ve heard two weeks is where you break the threshold.

I feel like with one-week tours it kind of takes the whole seven days to get like, “Oh, yeah — I can do this!” But then you’re home already.

On this tour there’s been this weird sense of indestructibility. You can be really tired, but you’re still doing everything. There aren’t a lot of social norms left. You lose most inhibitions. At a gas station stop — or somewhere else — it’s kind of fun to be the dirty, unhinged person in there that everyone’s going, “Ugh, what’s the deal?” You’re kind of freaking everybody out by your current state.

Are you sleeping on couches and floors, or are you doing hotels this tour?

We’ve been getting a bit of mix. But I’d say it’s weighted towards sleeping at friends’ houses. Floors mostly. Couches, if you’re lucky.

What are the future plans for NE-HI after this tour?

We’ve been writing a new record already — so we have nine or so songs written so far. We have a practice space set up. We’ll probably go there and get back to it.

We’re taking the opportunity to be back home and write because it’s so hard when you’re on tour. You’re always traveling, and you never have too much personal space — or any — to jam or just kind of dick around on the guitar. It’s a lot harder to find those moments when you can do something creative. Every night you’re playing the songs, but [songwriting] is the product of different creative dynamics. It’s not like playing the songs you’ve made already.

But it’s also a fun challenge to see how you can make [already written songs] creative and a little exciting or different each night: the way you’re moving or the way you’re singing.

What spaces surrounding you influence your music?

More than anything, the thing that’s influenced the songs we’ve been writing is getting a little bit older. Through the process of recording and playing stages where the sound is more defined — where you can discern what’s going on with all the different pieces — you can hear the vocals and there’s that added awareness of what you’re doing. We’ve proceeded with a little bit more intention, a little more creativity with the songwriting and structure.

I think of NE-HI’s style of music as a time and place. Could you tell me a little bit about Logan Square scene and how that’s shaped NE-HI?

Especially at that time, it was right when I first started going to all those DIY shows — it was something of a new concept to me. Animal Kingdom was the hub of all that stuff, and the place with a lot my first experiences with that kind of creative energy.

It’s kind of hard to describe. It was this wild energy of people playing and making stuff. [Animal Kingdom] has this pretty tiny basement. The ceilings are really low. Almost any show, the whole place is packed. Everyone’s on top of each other, and there’s something infectious about that.

In the crowded basement — with people on top of you — only the first two rows of people can even see what’s going on. The rest of it is just a blur. But that’s how this blur of bands started, with bands like the Funs, the Hecks, Coffin Ships and Ego — all these Chicago bands that were a supportive and welcoming part of the community for us.

The overwhelming thing was just this sense of energy and wildness that spurred us on to want to write more music and play more shows. It was a great little testing ground to start new songs. Even one song on our new record, we played for the first time at Animal Kingdom. There’s a phone video of it that’s funny to see — that we come from there, and now we’re playing on actual stages and PAs.

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