Chicago’s prominent punk collective NE-HI – comprised of Jason Balla, Alex Otake, Michael Wells, and James Weird – has been making the rounds, much to the collective happiness of their dedicated fanbase. With their most recent release Offers at the helm of everyone’s attention, we sat down with the band to talk about everything that’s been going on lately, and to get pumped up for what’s to come.
Below, find some tunes (to enjoy often) and some more info on one of the most in-demand bands right now.
What was the first song or record you ever listened to, and who introduced it to you?
The first record I recall ever actively listening to was a 3-Disc Greatest Hits Queen comp. I was 12 and had a portable cd player that had Queen more or less on permanent rotation. It’s hard to put together why Queen and how I even got the cds (my family wasn’t especially musical), but if I had to guess it’s because of some kids I’d hang around with from my Boy Scout Troop. They would spontaneously start singing Bohemian Rhapsody, without any real instigation. The odd ritual of it all, the lyrics, the totally wild structure. It totally swept me up.
Did that first musical memory lend itself to your taste and influence for your own music now?
That’s a good question! I can’t say that I actively think about Queen too much these days, but I think there’s an element to their music, especially Freddie Mercury’s vocals, that is really open and raw. You really can feel the emotion behind the melodies. It’s total pop music, but not too polished. That attitude towards music is underneath a lot of what I try to do. There’s also a story I’ll think of sometimes, where at sound check Freddie would climb the stacks of speakers and if his microphone didn’t feedback he’d tell them he wasn’t loud enough.
When did you decide to pursue music? Was there an “a-ha” moment?
There wasn’t really any decision to pursue music so much. It was way more about the discovery of music. I played saxophone in school band, all reading from the page, but once I started playing guitar, writing my own parts, music became an adventure rather than an exercise. For NE–HI, a few years ago we were a part of a showcase in Chicago organized by our friend and recording collaborator Dave Vettraino of Public House Sound Recordings. It was the first time a show of ours sold out and all these people were singing along to songs that WE wrote. The energy was infectious and it was the moment when we realized things were going somewhere and we really wanted to take it there.
What’s the official origin story for NE–HI? (Was it a meet cute?)
Mikey, James and I met in college in Chicago. James and I were randomly assigned roommates and Mikey lived down the hall. Alex and I met at a Harry Potter Premiere and played music together before NE–HI got together. The four of us got together to jam with the hope of scoring a friend’s film. The film was never actually made, but we knew we had something exciting on our hands. I’d say the HP aspect is pretty meet cute.
Offers is set to release this month. Are you excited at this point, or is it just second nature now?
We can’t be more excited! We’ve really been itching to get this out and for people to hear what we’ve been up to. Even though we’ve been playing together for a while at this point, it still feels like we’re a new band in the eyes of a lot of people. Getting to release this LP with Grand Jury is kind of our chance to put a flag in the sand. Plus we’re going to be touring like crazy and the experience of playing and trying to connect with people is the highlight of playing music for me these days. Not to mention morning coffees with our buddies scattered about. We’re going to be some happy and highly caffeinated boys the next couple months.
What do you want people to take away from this album?
I like to think of this record as a sonic companion to a wrestling match with life. We were going through a process of uncertainty and self discovery that was all tied up with a lot of pressure. We sort of put the pressure on ourselves, this pressure to succeed and do something profound. Once you start thinking about how to be profound it actually is the biggest obstacle to doing anything of the sort. If people can hear this record and relate it with some of their own struggles and things they’re working on, that’d be the so cool to us. It’s also totally cool to just throw it on for a nice windows down drive.
What are you most looking forward to about its release?
I kind of talked about this already, but really the chance to play these new songs for people is what I’m most looking forward to. We’ve done a lot of touring the last two years and have really been working on our craft. Playing with these guys, there’s nothing really better. And to get to hear the new tunes coming out of bigger pa’s and not just us in our practice space is going to be really huge.
The song “Buried On The Moon” is one of our favorites right now. What inspired that track, specifically?
This is a Mikey track, but I’ll take a stab at it as best I can. Like I said earlier, we were feeling the pressure, and Buried on the moon sort of tackles how we were working through all of it. One of my favorite lines that Mikey sings is “Under the guise I’m never wrong” and I think it really speaks to having confidence in what you’re doing and really the confidence to be wrong. This was sort of our way past the stress and attention that we were experiencing. We had to learn to trust in ourselves again.
The sentiment in “Stay Young” is beautiful, as is the track. It feels to me like a really great spring track. How do you imagine people listening to it?
Once the weather turns in Chicago, the city really explodes with energy. Everyone gets really bummed out and oppressed by the cold so at the first sign of warmth and sun people really freak out. There’s like a million bbqs those first few weeks. I think that’d be a pretty triumphant setting, a bunch of friends, maybe some kids and dogs running around, on one of the first warm days.
You have quite the fanbase – we always have photographers clamoring to cover your shows. What’s that like? Any fun fan stories?
It’s really encouraging and it’s so huge to have that excitement at a show because we really feed of it. We’re stoked, so when the audience is also stoked true magic can then happen. When we’re on tour I typically wear a fanny pack around for all my tools and what not. We played these two shows in New York over the summer and one of the people in the front knew me by name and asked where my pack was. I had just taken it off, but really blew me away. It’s like oh man people are actually paying attention.
When you do live performance, is there any ritual you partake in before or an artist you channel on stage?
Nothing too crazy before we play. Drink water and beer. When I play, there’s a sort of choreography that I make up in my head. If I’m channeling anything it’s really just the guitar lines that I’m playing. Sometimes if I’m just standing there I’ll actually start fucking up because I’m not in tune with what I’m playing.
What’s up next?
Shows, shows, shows. And then another record! We’ve been home for a couple months and have been really working hard on writing. Hopefully once things slow down for us, we’ll be able to finish that up!
is out now
. Keep up with the band here