Chicago couple's break-up illuminated through Dehd's sunny, minimalist, pop
Chicago trio Dehd formed somewhat as a lark.
In a roundabout way, guitarist Jason Balla and bassist Emily Kempf latched onto the gig economy in 2015, starting a relationship and then starting a band in order to take an extended vacation traipsing the country. The couple played self-promoted gigs to fund its new bliss, but Dehd gradually bloomed into more, with the duo writing songs as a telepathic team, shirking the other responsibilities and realities of adulthood.
Recruiting drummer Eric McGrady as the grounded center to their intertwining melodies, the band released two EPs heralded in its hometown's fertile “third coast” scene before Balla and Kempf eventually split as a couple.
Few bands borne out of young love are likely to survive a break-up, plus both Balla and Kempf were moonlighting in other well-traveled Chicago groups (Vail and Ne-Hi, respectively), so an escape hatch was there. Instead, the musicians regrouped to write and record Dehd's debut album, this month's Water, with baggage in tow. The result served as a balm to heal any open wounds.
“The band really became bigger than the relationship, and we knew that,” said Balla on the road by phone. “Quite a bit of the record is about the dissolution of our romance and how we had to keep going. And it's actually going swimmingly. We have a lot of fun playing with each other.”
And it sounds as such. Water is an infectious and sparkling indie-rock document built of seemingly few elements. But it also teeters subversively above a lot of heavy feelings, drawing out a host of emotions. On “Lucky,” the catchiest of Dehd's tiny anthems, the former couple harmonizes on a refrain of “Is this the end?” before settling on an irreverent round of “Sha-la-la-la-las.” “Happy Again,” built on minimal guitar jangle and a spartan beat, sees Balla's crooning malaise overwhelmed by Kempf, who joins in to sing the agreeable, rousing chorus.
Elsewhere, stories of contentious rides on tour (“Long Way Home”) and grinning to bear it (“On My Side”) call to mind a simpler, more primitive time — be it the pre-Trump bloom of indie label Captured Tracks' original roster, including the Beets and Beach Fossils, or farther back to Phil Spector-guided girl groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals. Either way, either era, Dehd communicates a communal joy in its effortless pop, countering trite trends and staid traditions with what it termed an “aura of true self-expression.”
“It just feels super free and easy now,” Balla said. “There's a lot of room to try out new ideas, space for trial and error. And living in the moment, we don't really have a lot of worries about which direction it goes.”