The Chicago indie-rock band Dehd started as an excuse to go on vacation.
“I guess we’re both really efficient,” said singer and bassist Emily Kempf. “We were just like, this seems like a good way to pay for a vacation and hang out.”
It was 2015. Emily Kempf and Jason Balla had just started dating, and since they’re musicians, they decided that the best way to travel together would be to go on tour. So they made a band. Kempf said they didn’t become a “real band” till they added a drummer — Eric McGrady.
Right away, the post-punk trio made music that in part reflected Kempf and Balla’s relationship — how in love they were. They also built a loyal fanbase and started to catch the ears of music critics around the country.
Then, in 2017, Kempf and Balla broke up.
“Our romance was falling apart and forming into this other thing that it is currently,” said Kempf. “And it’s not like, ‘and now we’re done!’ It’s ... it’s still in process. So [this] album is just like a continuation of our relationship.”
The band stayed together, and they made a new album — called Water — about breaking up and staying friends. It’s out now, and its whole thesis can be summed up by the optimistic song “Lucky,” which starts with the lyrics: “Lucky / To have / People in my life with the power to break my heart.”
Watching Dehd perform, you can see that Kempf and Balla are singing about each other, to each other — across the drummer McGrady — in front of a room of people. It’s so deeply personal, it’s almost uncomfortable.
“Yeah ... you can hear it sometimes when things were not going well,” said Balla. “Like if you’re listening for it, you can hear it in our voices or in the performances.”
The most striking example of that is in a song called “On My Side.” It starts with Balla mumbling the words, “Letters stop / Let me know if you’re coming back again / Let me know.”
At first, Kempf didn’t know what Balla was singing in those words. They write lyrics separately, and she only found out what he was singing when she wanted to learn his part.
“I sometimes don’t know what Jason’s thinking about,” said Kempf. “Or I didn’t know what he was thinking about during the breakup. Like, the first lyric is 'letters stopped.' And I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, ‘cause we used to write each other letters all the time.’” Turning to Balla, Kempf laughed, and asked, “Is that what you meant?” He said it was.
“On My Side” trudges along with plodding drums and scuzzy guitar under Balla’s vocals, until Kempf bursts in with an insistent wail that turns into a broken growl, singing: “Time is on my side / I will be alright.”
“On that song, particularly, I was sobbing between every take and like falling to the ground, just totally, like, ‘I can’t do this, this is so hard,’” said Kempf. “Jason would be like, ‘It’s OK, you can do it, try again.’ And me just being like so heartbroken and in so much pain, but also being like, 'I have to record this part.'”
All this emotion between two of the bandmates might have left you wondering about the third — drummer Eric McGrady. Balla is particularly amused by a snide New Yorker write-up that noted: “To listen to the group's new album, Water, is to feel sorry for Eric McGrady, the innocent bystander destined to drum through crossfire.”
Kempf said McGrady keeps them in line. "Because we can’t go too far off the deep end when Eric’s present, and occasionally Eric’ll make this little noise like, ‘mm.’” Balla agreed: “Like disapproving — you don’t want to upset dad.”
In fact, McGrady is the force holding things together. He’s stoic and consistent — even though he’s apparently terrified of performing.
Actually, it’s scary for all of them.
“It’s fun to have the prospect of complete just failure,” said Balla. “In front of others,” added Kempf. “Like here we are, processing everything, in real time, in front of everybody.”
MAY. 30 COLUMBIA, MO @ CAFE BERLIN
MAY. 31 LAWRENCE, KS @ REPLAY LOUNGE
JUN. 01 NORMAN, OK @ THE OPOLIS
JUN. 03 EL PASO, TX @ LOVE BUZZ
JUN. 04 ALBUQUERQUE, NM @ LAUNCHPAD
JUN. 05 TUCSON, AZ @ CLUB CONGRESS
JUN. 07 LOS ANGELES, CA @ THE REGENT THEATER W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 08 SAN DIEGO, CA @ THE IRENIC W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 10 LAS VEGAS, ND @ THE BUNKHOUSE SALOON W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 11 PHOENIX, AZ @ REBEL LOUNGE W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 13 AUSTIN, TX @ BARRACUDA W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 14 SAN ANTONIO, TX @ PAPER TIGER W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 15 HOUSTON, TX @ WHITE OAK MUSIC HALL W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 16 DALLAS, TX @ DEEP ELLUM ART COMPANY W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 18 DENVER, CO @ BLUEBIRD THEATER W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 19 SALT LAKE CITY, UT @ IN THE VENUE W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 21 VANCOUVER, BC @ VENUE W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 22 SEATTLE, WA @ NEUMOS W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 23 PORTLAND, OR @ ALADDIN THEATER W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 25 SACRAMENTO, CA @ HOLY DIVER W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 26 SAN FRANCISCO, CA @ GREAT AMERICAN MUSIC HALL W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 27 SANTA CRUZ, CA @ THE CATALYST W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 28 SANTA ANA, CA @ YOST THEATER W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
JUN. 29 SANTA BARBARA, CA @ VELVET JONES W/ TOGETHER PANGEA & VUNDABAR
Alyssa Edes is a news producer at WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.