Chicago garage-rock quartet embraces bigger sound on second album and 'first actual statement'
On Ne-Hi's self-titled 2014 debut, the Chicago band favored simple, repetitive song structures — an approach that informed Jason Balla's minimalist lyrics, which often consisted of little more than the singer and guitarist repeating the same passage ad infinitum (“It's been a while since I've been thinking at all,” he drawls mantra-like on the album-opening track).
With its sophomore album, Offers, released via Grand Jury earlier this year, the garage-rock quartet incorporated more complex musical passages, a development that opened the floodgates for the frontman.
“‘Every Dent' is the most words I've ever sang on a song. It feels kind of crazy,” Balla said, and laughed. “We were playing more with structure on this one, and with more complicated structures there were more and different parts to sing over. It just made sense that they had to balance each other with different kinds of words and more words.”
That doesn't mean the narrators in the songs are all prone to excessive verbalizing — “I don't want to answer/Don't want to talk on the telephone,” Balla sings on “Don't Wanna Know You” — but overall the details are richer, and there appears to be an increasing awareness within the band that it can utilize music as a means to engage the larger community.
“It seems like at this point, with the shape of everything going on in the world, the way to make what we're doing most helpful to society is to really invest in the words. It's your opportunity to contribute to the conversation,” said Balla, who joins his bandmates in concert at Spacebar on Friday, April 7. “I don't claim to be a super great lyricist, but I at least wanted to express something relatable, or on a deeper level than writing a song about trying to make it to the party on time.”
The musicians lacked this sense of clarity entering into initial recording at Chicago's MINBAL studio, which led to a scrapped session and a two-month break during which the players grappled with broader questions — largely, “What does Ne-Hi sound like on record two?” Balla said.
“We'd been playing for a few years together, and it was time for something different and to figure out what was exciting to all of us,” the singer continued. “There was a bit of stress involved, but once we had some time to step back from the pressure of making a record, that's when we could actually see what the record was supposed to be.
“I think having made one record, now intention comes a bit more into play. The [first album] was just a document of a thing. This is our first actual statement.”
Where Ne-Hi's debut sounds like a chaotic product of Chicago's DIY scene — all basement closeness and muffled, fuzzy clatter — Offers is a bigger, brighter effort reflective of the larger rooms the group has played in recent years.
“Once we started playing in real venues with proper PA [systems], you could hear everything that was going on, and it wasn't just this chaos bouncing off all the walls and ceiling in some packed basement,” Balla said. “That kind of clarity made us think, ‘Oh, shit. We have to be kind of careful about what we're writing because you can hear all of it.' It pushed us to write better songs … and really play well together as a group rather than simply [capturing] this messy happening.”