Grow up nurtured by the sweaty, B.O.-rich souls of a thriving DIY music community and you never really leave.
The members of Chicago’s NE-HI (pronounced knee-high) didn’t all come together at the late Animal Kingdom, a Logan Square basement spot, until they were asked to compose a score to a film that never got made. That was 2013, they were in college, and the cramped, tight space gave ample room for off-the-cuff performance experimentation, trying out new songs, and straight up goofing around.
Fast forward to now, as the band’s fanbase has steadily grown further outside of the insular Chicago music community, and songwriters/guitarists Jason Balla and Mikey Wells, bassist James Weir and drummer Alex Otake can light the fire of that vibe of go-for-broke communion just about anywhere. Sitting in the empty center of Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on a Monday night after soundcheck, they extol the virtues of keeping one foot in the basement show realm while still learning how to work with the challenges of playing bigger rooms.
Half of the band works at Chicago’s The Empty Bottle, a Ukrainian Village bar that’s kept its neighborhood vibe high, its prices low, and a slew of great Chicago bands coming and going through its doors since opening in 1992. Inevitably, NE-HI learned what to do and what not to do, not so much throwing the youthful ambivalence of their early jangle away as sharpening it into a trajectory that Steve Albini would describe as “doubt[ing] the conventional wisdom unless you can verify it with experiment.”
While their 2013 self-titled debut cemented NE-HI as heavy players in the same scene that birthed fellow Chicagoans Twin Peaks, last month’s Offers raises the stakes. Arrangements are tighter but no more muted, while the angular jangle of sonic forefathers like Wire and The Clean inspires a mechanism for elevating the caliber of songwriting while still keeping things immediate, compact, and conducive to involuntary head nods.
I sat down with NE-HI to ask about how they stay friends when band priorities change, the inclusivity of Chicago DIY, and what a certain taxidermy moose was doing with a bra around its antlers.
It’s kind of funny that you guys all got together to score a film that was never made, and I know that’s sort of a key point in your biography, but there’s something different that happens when people come together with composition as the intention, versus just being a party band. How do you understand that time, intent-wise, and what’s changed?
Jason Balla: It was much more of an aesthetic direction, he basically wanted us to make a combo of James Dean and Grease or something.
Alex Otake: I think he almost wanted a Blue Valentine vibe, Elvis Costello stuff. Jason actually used to play saxophone. [Laughs]
Balla: Tenor sax.
Otake: So there was one song where he was playing saxophone, I’m sure it’s tragically awful.
Balla: [Laughing] Tears of my heart.
Saxophone’s in right now, though, no?
Balla: It is, actually. I’m sure if we put that shit in right now it’d be fine.
If I grew up in Chicago I’d be haunted by the lame music of Chicago instead of invigorated by the blues.
Balla: It’s actually kind of funny, how little influence the band Chicago has on what’s being made there. One of our favorite bands in New York right now is Lionlimb, they have a ripper saxophone player.
Great band, I saw ’em open for Quilt here, actually. Kinda jammy, and they have a sort of Wilco vibe about them. Another great Chicago band. The sort-of anthologized Chicago story, the old DIY Chicago story is about dudes like Steve Albini and Jason Narducy and Naked Raygun just going for it. How aware are you and your peers of that whole old gentry? You guys are young kids but you seem to listen to a lot of older shit. And I don’t know if the youngsters of New York are doing the same thing.
Balla: Except for the Velvet Underground.
Yeah exactly, if Patti Smith mentioned them in her book all bets are off.
Balla: I dunno, I may have the most ties to the older Chicago generation because I’ve been involved with this music venue The Empty Bottle there for a long time.
You both were, right? You and Mike?
Balla: We both work there, I just started there much younger.
Mikey Wells: Yeah, I’m from Wisconsin, so I didn’t know older people who were in there. I knew Jesus Lizard, older bands and stuff, and I knew who Albini was, but I wasn’t involved with it. I didn’t move there ’till we got this band together.
Working at a venue of that caliber when you’re seeing your own sound play out in different rooms has some sort of effect on you, I imagine.
Wells: I see a lot of bands all the time, so I see what I don’t like about shows. Or how bands act.
Balla: It’s easy to get jaded quick on a lot of that stuff.
Wells: But there’s also a lot of older people from the scene that he kind of grew up around and I met through working there, even just talking and learning from their stories.
Balla: It’s a pretty supportive family, bands like Joan of Arc, The Ponies and some more of the late-’90s guys. There’s a lot of names where maybe you go everywhere and not a lot of people know them, but they’ve all had their moments and are still doing interesting stuff.
There seems to be a collective musical knowledge that’s a bit deeper than some places, though.
Balla: Yeah, and it’s cool because there’s definitely that old school of thought that seems different from the landscape today. They were of that era where they were carving out a place to be creative, and we’re all moving to the same neighborhoods that they were moving to 20 years ago.
How did the death of Animal Kingdom mirror so much of the phoenix nature of DIY in all cities—here in New York, in L.A., everywhere? What lessons did you learn from the sweaty all-ages shows that you had to learn or unlearn once you started playing these bigger spaces? What foundational stuff did you learn that doesn’t serve you anymore?
James Weir: Definitely getting too drunk, that’s straight up.
Otake: Well, when you come up in that DIY scene you’re really just at a party with your buddies, you’re not thinking too much about screwing this up or how it’s gonna sound, you’re just gonna go out there and play it as hard as you can, and people are gonna be pretty responsive because they’re you’re friends. It’s a pro and a con.
Wells: It’s also a pretty big advantage that we got because we were in a situation where we were playing for a lot of our friends, but also for people who didn’t really know us, because there were still touring bands, new people coming to the places all the time. But it also gave us the chance to have a really energetic live set, too.
Balla: It was also an infectious energy to be around, especially when no more people could possibly fit in the Animal Kingdom basement, and the entire backyard was also wall to wall.
“We kind of tightened up while playing venues, but we can let loose in there a little bit and just really rip it.”—James Weir
You have to go to a show or play a show at a place like that to realize that energy is something you can never really get back in a larger venue. Bands that came up in DIY here come back, like Parquet Courts, and they always try to sneak in some DIY or all-ages show at the last minute when they come through. They need that energy, they need that reminder.
Balla: Totally. I think with that whole world, too, it’s a community of openness and trying things out. We still do this now sometimes, but you write a song that day and play it that night.
Weir: We just see how it goes. [Laughs]
Balla: Yeah, it’s not too self-conscious or self-aware, which really allows you to open up, try everything and see how it comes to you.
Weir: We’ve been playing these bigger venues, clubs and stuff like that, but we also still play basements on tour, especially when that’s where the scene is in a town that we’ve never been to before.
Balla: A town that doesn’t even have a venue where it makes money when passing through.
Weir: It’s cool because we kind of tightened up while playing venues, but we can let loose in there a little bit and just really rip it. It’s fun, and not as messy as when we just started out.
Once you sleep on enough couches you learn what makes a good couch in this town versus a bad couch in that town.
Balla: Yeah, you see how people are actually living.
Well, on Offers you guys seem to have kept a lot of your old energy intact, while also recording a batch of songs that sounds tighter and focused and maybe a bit cleaner, too. Where can I hear the changes in the types of sterile rooms you’ve been playing on this record?
Balla: I don’t know, a lesson that we actually learned playing in this venue, it was an accumulation of stuff, but we learned at Baby’s that when you’re playing these small stages people can actually hear what you’re doing. This was the place where we had to be on our shit.
But a song like “Prove,” which is maybe the fastest song on the record, can be pretty wild. But it’s tight, it’s all about rhythm, and not about noise or playing as fast as we can. Maybe a more poised energy, that we were able to better contain without it being boring. How to make things sound exciting without being all over the place and sloppy, without falling apart.
Where can you still get that spontaneity back when you’re at home?
Balla: A lot of the mainstays actually closed down, and the ones I’d be able to mention are actually shutting down as well. It’s moving back to small venues and clubs. The Empty Bottle has always been a space for that, and this place The Hideout has been booking a lot more exciting local and touring stuff on a small level, so there’s still fresh ideas going around.
People hang shit on the wall at The Empty Bottle, right?
Balla: Tons of posters.
“It’s actually kind of funny, how little influence the band Chicago has on what’s being made there.”—Jason Balla
I thought I heard bras.
Balla: There’s a funny story about a bunch of bras hanging at a venue in Iowa City called The Blue Moose, and as the venue’s named, there’s a giant moose head hanging in the bar. It’s a college town, so it’s all sleazy and whatever. But there’s all these bras hanging on this moose’s antlers, and Mikey, I don’t know what your current situation was, but you spun around on that barstool and said, “That horse is having the time of his life!”
So you were having a good night?
Balla: Both of ’em were, I guess!
What can you say about inclusivity in Chicago DIY? How to treat people who are maybe of a different gender identity or just different from you when you’re all packed so close together? It sounds like pre-school shit we all should’ve been taught at a young age, but people still need to learn it. Insofar as DIY tends to set safe-space policies and good models for how to treat people often before more mainstream places learn. And since Chicago is currently stigmatized by our current president as this landscape of constant tension and racial war, how inclusive do you think the scene is as far as the diversity of the kids and the music coming out of it?
Balla: That’s really hard to say. I think some people would say it’s not inclusive enough, and I can definitely see that in certain scenes. But it’s such a big city, there are so many circles. So you might have that in certain areas, and then other areas are much more diverse, and gender fluidity is much more present. But it also depends on what you listen to, too.
Weir: As a whole, though, my experience with the Chicago DIY community has been very much inclusive. There’s very much that Midwestern warmth in Chicago, and it’s not like everyone’s too cool to talk to each other. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what you’re wearing.
Such a counter-narrative to what’s coming out of Washington.
Balla: Sure, and during the Women’s March, the second biggest protest was in Chicago. I was on tour at the time, but all the photos of friends’ I’ve seen showed that everyone was there in support, regardless.
Wells: It was super positive, I was there with a bunch of friends. And it was crazy, there were a quarter of a million people there.
You guys are such good buds. How do you keep that intimacy and camaraderie as the priorities of your small business change, as you guys go out there in the world and there’s more expected of you, as people try to put sunglasses on you and shit?
Wells: Jokes. [All laugh]
Weir: Not taking each other too seriously.
Otake: And a healthy amount of giving each other shit, you know?
There’s no ego there?
Otake: Well, also, we were friends before we were a band and we gave each other shit, but were also really nice to each other and goofed around with each other, too, you know?
Weir: We very much learned to live with each other before we ever started playing music.
Balla: When we started, Alex was living on my couch for a few months, and I was living with James.
Weir: We were college roommates; it’s not a Craigslist band.
“Sometimes you borrow strangers’ bongs.”—Mikey Wells
Being in college and going on tour can be very similar. You eat what’s around, you try to sleep in a way that won’t fuck up your back—
Wells: You smoke a bong! [Laughs]
Yeah, you can’t bring a bong with you on the road.
Balla: I’ve seen that happen before. Not with our band…
Wells: Sometimes you borrow strangers’ bongs.
Bong leasing, not a bad idea. I’ll go on Shark Tank with it!
Wells: Another thing we think about a lot is that we were friends before, so bringing it all back. Let’s go hang out and not play music right now, you know? We don’t get to do that super often because we’re all really busy, and we all do other things. But another cool thing is that some of us play in other bands with each other as well, so that’s a nice respite from being in the NE-HI zone. So we hang out here a lot.
Balla: We were driving here yesterday and stopped halfway through to watch the Super Bowl, just ate an obscene amount of chicken wings. You can’t take yourself too seriously, because we’re just making music and eating chicken wings.
Weir: We take chicken wings seriously, though. [All Laugh]
Why are we seeing so many more fully formed, tight-knit groups of kids making music from Chicago? Did the Orwells help kick it off?
Balla: We try not to give them too much credit for anything, you can put that in the article. [All laugh] Maybe it’s even something to do with the internet, there’s so much more music and everyone has so many interests, it’s easy to get together and the idea of making a band is much more accessible.
Even thinking of the time when you have to make the demo first and there was this whole process that was so exclusive, now it’s easier to find out about stuff in the DIY community. All those Twin Peaks dudes were going to shows when they were in high school, and playing ’em, too. The whole reality of making art becomes so much more attainable.
I think rent prices in Chicago have a big factor in it, too. You can move to the city and see a band succeeding. It’s livable and there’s a certain viability to watching a lot of young bands having success. It feels like a city that’s a culture hub where you can actually live and not kill yourself trying to pay rent, you know. Go for it.
That’s another important piece of all-ages shows that people don’t often talk about. When you’re 16, to even have a stage that will let you get up on it and play is so important and valuable.
Balla: The first show that I ever tried to play in Chicago, I wasn’t old enough, and so I had to stand on the street until it was my time to play. It’s not that fun.
Did they escort you inside?
Balla: Yeah, it was terrible! My bandmate at the time botched her fake I.D., so we were trying to use our fakes and it didn’t work out.
What’s next? SXSW?
Balla: Yeah, we talked to our buddies who played last year and they played like 10 shows in three days. They looked dead by the end of that.
You almost have to do that, unless you’re playing the Sonos Handjob House or some other primetime slot.
Balla: That show sounds sick! [All laugh]
I hear they give you ponchos at the door.
Balla: Just like The Blue Man Group.
Ne-Hi’s new record Offers is out now.