Breaking: NE-HI

The Chicago quartet give sunny garage pop a melancholy tweak.
Breaking: NE-HI

The Chicago quartet give sunny garage pop a melancholy tweak.

Words: Cameron Crowell

photo by Bryan Allen Lamb

February 24, 2017

NE-HI / photo by Bryan Allen Lamb

MEMBERS: Jason Balla (vocals/guitar), Alex Otake (drums), Mikey Wells (guitar/vocals), James Weir (bass)
FROM: Chicago, Illinois
YOU MIGHT KNOW THEM FROM: Their 2014 self-titled debut album, touring with Twin Peaks, or delivering Christmas trees around the Chicago metro area
NOW: Releasing their sophomore full length Offers on Grand Jury

“During the holidays we’d do Christmas tree deliveries,” says NE-HI vocalist and guitarist Jason Balla. “We’d all wake up super early and put on big work coats and gloves, then load a truck full of trees and go to people’s high-rises and install [them] in their homes. I think we all associate with that image of putting in a day’s hard work.”

Over the past few years, NE-HI have taken on a workload as a band that can hardly be matched. They come from a bustling Chicago scene where they cut their teeth playing house shows around the city before embarking on DIY tours, releasing a debut full-length, and garnering local attention (the Chicago Tribune called them the city’s new favorite band), and following it all up with a club tour opening for friends and labelmates Twin Peaks.

“Our first show was actually with Twin Peaks at this infamous [Chicago] basement called Animal Kingdom that held shows for a while,” says Balla. “Things have changed a bit, but it’s really nice still playing those [DIY] shows because a lot of [towns] don’t even have a proper venue or anywhere to play, and we don’t really want to skip over places.”

Balla speaks with a warmth and grounded affection that fits right in with the band’s “Midwestern boy” identity. NE-HI’s sophomore album Offers is both a testament to this identity and a complication of it. It’s the kind of feel-good indie rock that’s so pure it feels like a hoax. It’s the soundtrack for a blistering summer day spent splashing around in an above ground pool with an ice chest full of ice cream sandwiches—the sound of the moment when society feels like it’s finally contained nature, just before some kid from down the street tries to dive off the roof and breaks their leg. While there’s a tinge of working-class alienation and frustration brewing below, in all they’re a group that’s dedicated to making the best of things while staying true to their roots and community.

“There’s a connection where you play a gig at someone’s house and then you sleep there after. You’re in it with everyone,” says Balla. “With club gigs it can be harder to actually meet the people you’re playing for, just because there’s this stage and it’s [elevated]; it’s not like being in a living room.”

“There’s a connection where you play a gig at someone’s house and then you sleep there after. You’re in it with everyone.” — Jason Balla

NE-HI’s energy has always drawn from the garage-rock and post-punk spectrum, but the end result comes out sounding like the prototypical ’60s power-garage pop made it through to the ’80s and found Big Country and new wave. Balla sings with a brattiness on “Sisters,” where in each verse a subtle refrain of “I know your sister just thinks I’m dumb” stings in the middle of an otherwise bright-sounding track.

The album’s closer and lead single, “Stay Young,” begins with a snowballing guitar riff that sounds like a balloon always on the verge of popping. It’s chipper and upbeat, and at first glance it seems like a naive party jam about taking up a youthful YOLO-ness. But it’s really a reflection on the passage of time and perhaps even the feebleness of attempting to see the world as a party in the face of so much change and the pains of growing up. Balla implicates himself, singing, “I’ve been holding to youth / It’s not coming.” But he also counters the thought with characteristic optimism, concluding in the last two lines, “It’s really not fair / To think the future’s sad.”

“It’s more about maintaining a youthful spirit and curiosity toward the world, moving forward but not trying to get stuck in the past,” he says. There is darkness, yes, but with NE-HI there is a lot to look forward to as well. FL