Dehd's Angels and Demons
The Chicago-based band talks about the tragicomedy that is their third record, 'Flowers of Devotion.'
Photo: Alexa Viscius
It’s a sweltering hot summer day in July and Emily Kempf, Jason Balla and I are all looking at each other through our respective screens. Kempf sits outside of her place of work, wearing wireless earphones and a baseball cap, and Balla sits in a room in his apartment, surrounded by some plants. Kempf and Balla are two out of three members of Dehd (the third member, drummer Eric McGrady is in Kempf’s words “very shy and does what he wants” and was not available to chat). The Chicago-based band has just released their third record, Flowers of Devotion, a truly singular, ecstatic rock record that deals with life’s onslaught of tragicomedy.
Largely about isolation and grief, the record is full of moments of intense self-reflection, of airing out your dirty laundry, and of saying exactly what is on your mind no matter how painful it feels. Flowers of Devotion is a collection of songs from the depths of each member’s respective diaries. A song like the early, new wave-tinged single “Letter,” documents Balla and Kempf’s former romantic relationship with one another. “To every girl going forward/you’ll never get what I got/got what I do,” Kempf sings unflinchingly, her vocals drenched in elliptical braggadocio. These songs sound good while crying alongside. They are songs that also feel heartbreakingly relevant in an era where isolation seems to be the norm; wherein we are constantly told that going at it alone isn’t so bad when in reality it hurts all the time. GARAGE chatted with Dehd about some of the tentpoles of their record, what it means to grow up as a band, and maintaining community throughout protests and the pandemic.
There is this huge looming sense of isolation that is all over this record and it feels particularly potent right now. It seems like the idea of being alone is a big theme in some of these songs.
Emily Kempf: A lot of the themes of our record are about learning how to deal with isolation and learning how to be autonomous and relying on myself or self parenting, self love, self partnership, self best-friendness and all that. Aligning with what's going on, everyone being isolated and having to reckon with being alone or with loneliness. On the other hand, where we were like, “We're going to make our record about angels and demons,” and, also very current, that is what's happening [in politics]. But yeah, [so much of the record is] just about wanting to be alone and to be able to survive in a healthy way, not in an idolizing sort of cowboy lifestyle or being a hermit or something. A lot of the record is about learning to be able to exist in the world without certain attachments, either romantic relationships or other people or ideologies, or like just having a non-attachment to stuff and being able to thrive. I wrote about that a lot, and going through a lot of grief cycles, both me and Jason went through different versions of grief and talked a lot about coming from that, a lot of the songs started from that and yeah. So much is just lines right up with what’s happening in the world. It's weird.
You just mentioned how grief was another big tentpole that you were focusing on and working through on this record. You were both going through different cycles of grief, how did it feel to write about it together and now share it in a very public way.
Jason Balla: Well, now I guess at least we write all the music, the three of us, and then lyrics are independently done, whoever's singing it. So, it just so happened. And Eric has a song on the record as well, which is a bit older, but it kind of deals with that stuff. And personally, just writing songs is one of my main ways of making sense of my emotions, or getting through some mental blocks or whatever that I'm trying to figure out. So, it's pretty, I guess, it’s liberating to do it that way versus ways that I'm not good at.
EK: I like it when people are able to relate. I try to write from the heart, [and] being very public about vulnerabilities is my way of walking through fear and processing. And there's no better way. The scariest thing to do is to read your diary to a crowd of people who are like, "Yay." And it's very joyous and I think it's really cool to present emotion and work through emotion as a community essentially.
I would love to hear more about the angels and demons thing going on throughout this record
JB: It kind of spurred out of being on tour and when you're driving through all the right wing hubs of the world where there's all these apocalyptic billboards, damning you to hell with hot hotline numbers and stuff to call to be saved by Jesus. We were making jokes about that, but then with stuff in the record and the kind of idea of comedy and tragedy and all this, opposite got swept up into that joke where it became, it made sense of everything else that we were talking about.
EK: Yeah, like a duality vibe, being in intense grief, but being able to find joy and make jokes in the face of tragedy to still be able to find comfort and just the contempt of existing at all. It's just like, "Oh my God, like what is going on?” And just sort of leaning into that, which came from how apocalyptic everything is. It felt like global warming and America, the president, everything that's going on now. It's like, how do you deal? If not with jokes and laughter and leaning on your friends in between bouts of sobbing.
Can you walk me through a song where these ideas of comedy and tragedy fuse together in a particularly potent way?
EK: I was going to say “Haha.” That is a really good one for me. An easy song where that comes out as a jokey, like, "Haha, I'm suffering from heartbreak, but it's good now." And just being like a letter to myself in a certain way and a lot of the parts I sing back and forth, the male and female vocal parts, just that moment of having the pure torture and the actual like, "Oh, this is fine," happening in the same second. And then writing about it and in a not so sarcastic way where it's like, "Yeah, things are good. I'm feeling good."
There's sometimes it's like you go through shit that is so upsetting that the only way that you can deal with it is try to find ways in which it might be even a little bit funny.
JB: Or just like when you're walking on the street and you're really bummed and then you step in dog shit or something. And then you're like, "Of course." It's just the funniest thing, because of course that would happen to you right now, while you're feeling, you're so caught up in your own emotions and whatever. And you're like, "Oh yeah, the universe is great." And like, "Time is really large." And like, "I'm actually insignificant and this is just the world letting me know this." [laughs]
How have you been able to recreate the huge sense of community in Chicago for yourselves during the pandemic?
EK: [We've been doing a lot of mutual aid], which [is inherently inclusive]. Everyone's helping each other out on a much broader scale—It's not just for fun and games, but for actual change. I feel like that vibe is still happening in Chicago, and participating in that has been really fulfilling. I don't mind that we're not playing shows, because it's been really nice to be on a break.
We have a 15-passenger van that we bought in February and then the world shut down, we were like, "Well. We have this freaking giant van." I was like, "What can we do?" And Jason was using it to help distribute groceries [in the early part of the pandemic]. And then when the movement, protests and riots started, I started using it with my tattoo shop to collect and distribute supplies to the West Side and South Side neighborhoods.