Back when The Sex Pistols played Manchester, England in 1976, their audience famously included future founders of Joy Division, The Buzzcocks, The Fall, Magazine and The Smiths. “They say everyone who was at those gigs went out and formed a band,” Johnny Rotten would later remark, “but that wasn’t our plan — or our fault!”
For Chicago’s latest wave of young Indie Rock bands, a 2014 show at the city’s Logan Square Auditorium by Black Lips may have performed similar magic, as members of Twin Peaks, The Orwells and NE-HI gathered to witness the notorious Atlanta band’s combination of Punk and Garage Rock antics. Of the bands featuring several of the young Chicago musicians in attendance, NE-HI (which would open for the Lips later in 2014 at a different venue) has since shown itself to be the least Lips-like, musically, something that is less surprising after finding out co-frontman Jason Balla was actually just working the door for the concert that night.
“I was making sure everyone had their tickets rather than losing myself in the moshpit,” says the now-25-year-old musician, whose tastes run more toward Krautrock acts like Neu!, Post Punk bands like Wire and the Jangle Pop of “Hoboken Sound” bands like The Feelies.
Although Balla didn’t know his counterparts in Twin Peaks or The Orwells, his band was soon playing underground shows with them at Animal Kingdom, a now-defunct DIY basement space on Chicago’s north side. It was there that Balla recalls seeing one of Twin Peaks’ first gigs.
“They were all in my high school, but I was a couple years older than them,” he says. “I was like, ‘Who are these guys?’ They were super young and really good. It was kind of mind-blowing.”
While Twin Peaks was the first among them to find national acclaim, NE-HI is beginning to catch up.
The Chicago Tribune included both bands in its 2014 list of best Chicago Indie albums, with Twin Peaks’ Wild Onion coming in at No. 1 and NE-HI’s self-titled debut at No. 4 (two places above Dude Incredible by legendary Nirvana producer Steve Albini’s band Shellac). NE-HI has since toured with Twin Peaks (as well as the likes of Car Seat Headrest), played several showcases at this year’s South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas and signed to New York City’s Grand Jury Music, which is distributed by Fat Possum Records and features a roster that includes Mothers, Esmé Patterson and, yes, Twin Peaks.
NE-HI’s sophomore album, Offers, released this past February, received wider critical praise (including from outlets like Paste and NPR) and finds the band advancing musically, as well. While its Krautrock leanings have yet to come to the fore, Post Punk-inspired single-note guitar lines surface on many of the songs. Meanwhile, the standout “Palm of Hand” is straight out of The Feelies playbook, with Balla and Mikey Wells’ intermeshed guitar parts cascading over bassist James Weir’s and drummer Alex Otake’s insistent rhythms.
“I love The Feelies,” says Balla, who still hasn’t reached the stage where musicians bristle at comparisons to other artists. “The cool thing about all those (Hoboken) bands, for me, is how the guitars are so unaffected and almost awkward or broken-sounding. They’re kind of on that edge of — I don’t know — being nonsense, but also being the best hooks ever. And I think that’s one of the things that most interests me now, too, is like finding newer and shittier ways to play the guitar that still sound exciting.”
From a songwriting perspective, Balla says his favorite lyrics on the new album are from “Buried on the Moon,” which co-leader Wells wrote about his father, who was also a musician: “Well, come and make a record like your dear old dad/Yeah, we’ll give you all the money, then make you feel sad.”
“Every time I hear it, it’s a really powerful and emotional experience,” Balla says. “Mikey lost his dad at an early age, and hearing him singing it just really hits me.”
“Buried on the Moon” also reflects an anxiety the group felt while working on Offers, which turned out to be a much more challenging experience than they expected.
Sessions began in January of last year at Chicago’s Minbal recording studios, where NE-HI recorded on a ’60s-vintage analog eight-track machine that had reportedly been used for The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. But after finishing eight songs, the band decided to keep just three of them — “Palm of Hand,” “Don’t Want to Know You” and “Offers” — before going back to the drawing board.
“It was our first time dealing with the music industry, and we were feeling all this pressure at the time, a lot of which was self-imposed,” Balla says. “But when you let yourself go, that’s when it all happens. And then your brain comes in later, you know?”
So now that NE-HI is gaining momentum outside Chicago, will its hometown paper once again rank them above Shellac, or whatever other project Steve Albini happens to be working on at the moment? And will the perennially cranky producer finally retaliate by beating the hell out of them?
“He doesn’t strike me as a brawler, by any means,” says Balla, who briefly encountered the acerbic producer while working at Albini’s Electrical Audio studio (Offers was mastered by Bob Weston, who works on a lot of projects recorded at the studio and also is the bassist for Shellac).
“I just remember walking in one day and he was in the kitchen, wearing a jumpsuit that looked like a cross between a mechanics’ suit and Ghostbusters (outfit), and arguing with the studio manager about whether DEVO had more than one good album.”
Of course, Albini could always just go the “you’ll never work in this town again” route.
“That would be kind of sick, actually,” says Balla with a laugh. “It would be a pretty good reason not to have to work anymore.”
NE-HI plays a free show Friday at MOTR Pub. More info: motrpub.com.