Photos by Xavier Juarez
On May 23rd of last year, Chicago’s Ne-Hi played its first show in the basement of a former house venue on the border between the city’s Logan Square and Avondale neighborhoods, a room that claimed the health of countless cochleae by electric guitar sound waves rattling viciously between narrow concrete walls and a generous-seven-foot ceiling. Also on the bill for that show were the hyped garage young guns Twin Peaks. Yesterday, both those bands took the stage at Lincoln Hall — steps away from DePaul University, where Ne-Hi singer-guitarists Jason Balla and Mikey Wells, bassist James Weir, and drummer Alex Otake all attended — in front of a sold-out crowd.
An 18-month turnaround from non-existence to the level of local establishment Ne-Hi has reached today is quick for any group, but that’s about the only thing that’s surprising about this band’s ascent. At Animal Kingdom — which referred interchangeably to the aforementioned house and the indie rock-centered DIY community of musicians and friends for which it served as a home base — two things fared especially well when done right: high-registered guitar licks that could escape the room’s muddy sound conditions, and an energy level that embraced the workouts inevitably induced by its sometimes-triple-digit temperatures. Ne-Hi is a band that has both of these things, in neck-breaking spades, and more.
As Animal Kingdom’s following outgrew its limitations, causing it to fold this past summer, Ne-Hi, like Twin Peaks, is left standing as another of its preeminent representatives. “It was a really special time for a while,” Balla says from the couch of Weir and Wells’ apartment in Humboldt Park, where they’ve met up to answer my questions in the comfort of their living room. “It just kind of got to a point where the amount of people that it reached way outgrew the size of the space that it was.” Ne-Hi, likewise, is about to outgrow its city.
As often as Ne-Hi has been linked to the term “DIY community,” they’ve tended to lean more on “community” than “DIY.” In March, the band released its eponymous debut LP, which was recorded in two days at the Logan Square studio Public House Recordings and pressed by Manic Static, forgoing the more obvious option of producing it entirely by themselves.
Balla works a sound engineer for Big Audio Entertainment and freelances at venues including the Empty Bottle and the Burlington, two of Ne-Hi’s most frequent home venues. He acknowledges that they had weighed the possibility of making the album in-house, but the decision to let in an extra hand was unanimous. “Dave [Vettraino, founder of Public House Recordings and the engineer and co-producer of Ne-Hi] is so great at it, and it really just lets us have the opportunity to play the music and just focus on performing the songs,” he says. “If we’d recorded it by ourselves, it definitely would not have been nearly as good as the way he did it.”
“He was such a huge addition to the way the record sounded, too, and he rearranged the order [of tracks], which I think helped,” Weir says. Wells specifically cites “The Times That I’m Not There” as one of his favorite songs that he was lukewarm on until he heard it in Vettraino’s proposed sequence, to a collective agreement.
Ne-Hi isn’t a wordy listen — four songs basically consist of a single couplet repeated eight or so times — but its most striking lyrics are open-ended and carefully incomplete, the kind that trigger imaginations as to what their contexts might be: “It’s been a while since I’ve been thinking at all,” “It’s not all the time that I go there,” “It’s only getting more.” The huge gap between the simultaneous grandness and meaninglessness in each of these phrases has a sound, and it comes in the instrumental attacks that conclude “Haunted Summer”, “More”, and especially the record’s standout track, “Time Wanna”, when the band chases Wells as he unintelligibly shrieks “Won’t you follow down?” with the most rousing and realized minute of music they’ve written yet.
In the past year, Ne-Hi has translated these minutes to stages and sound systems of all sizes; they’ve maxed out at Chicago big rooms Lincoln Hall and Thalia Hall and bottomed out at a “coat room” in one especially touch-and-go set in New York this past winter. But their flexibility in adapting to spaces has elevated them, especially with a live set that thrives on juggling visceral spontaneity with parts that interact in precise and acrobatic motion, parts that require them to stay somewhat reined-in even when the feeling prods them to unhinge.
After multiple tours through the Midwest and East Coast, ears outside Chicago started to get wind of the album and live set. On October 14, the booking agency Billions announced they had signed Ne-Hi — a partnership that Otake affirms they only agreed to with confidence that the people who sought them out were “genuinely interested in music and in having a relationship with the people that they’re working with.”
Expanding their community to let in new faces of varying backgrounds and lives has been a principle of Ne-Hi’s from the beginning, going all the way back to their own formation, which was originally a one-off collaboration to score a friend’s film that ended up getting scrapped. Balla and Otake, both from suburbs of Chicago, also perform as the noise pop duo Earring; Weir and Wells are from Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively, and play in a six-piece dance rock project called Mauve. Both those bands, like Ne-Hi, are actively writing, recording, and playing shows today. This web of directional forces that they’re spinning has pulled Ne-Hi smack into the intersection between dead serious and dead-serious fun.
They’re learning to live together at that intersection: After his three bandmates weigh in on some of their favorite moments from their album, Wells breaks up a brief silence. “I like ‘Haunted Summer’ because I get to shred my balls off,” he says, then beams deviously at his own sabotage of his bandmates’ thoughtful responses, then deadpans towards me on a dime and says, “If you do edit this, you should say not ‘balls off,’ but ‘testicles.’”