Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Dehd Jacob Consenstein Dog Days 2 Alt Press Photo

Dehd centres community on their road to success

07 May 2024, 09:50
Words by Laura David

Lead photo by Jacob Consenstein

Dehd tells Laura David how intuition and human connection helped the Chicago trio create their fifth album Poetry.

For two shining years between 2012 and 2014, Animal Kingdom was the spot of the Chicago DIY scene. A 114-year-old, worn-in house in the city’s Avondale neighborhood, the space saw its share of raucousness and indie revelry in its short reign. Operating under the radar of official licenses and law enforcement, the space was a hub for indie and alternative newcomers, drifters, hopefuls, enthusiasts, and everyone in between.

In the end, it was a Facebook post on a page called ‘Avondale Neighbors’ that did the house in. As the story goes, the post read: “There have been loud parties thrown, where the little scumbags who call themselves ‘tenants’ have been charging admission, serving alcohol to minors, urinating in the alley on everyone’s private property, illegally dumping old furniture in the alley—like huge lime green 1970s hot tubs—and trying to use Facebook to advertise these parties.” One can’t help but read such a post without a laugh and a sigh. While it’s easy for unimpressed onlookers to write off places like Animal Kingdom as public nuisances, such a reduction brushes over the petri dish of culture that those spaces actually nurture.

Though Animal Kingdom may not be standing today in its former glory, its legacy lives on. Perhaps one of its most significant — if not its definitive — musical outgrowths is American indie-rock trio Dehd. Each coming up in their own ways through the DIY scenes of cities across America, the members of Dehd cling to a view of constructing music careers as vessels for community-building rather than commodification.


“I left home at 17,” says bassist and vocalist Emily Kempf. “I [later] came back, but I consider my childhood and my formative years as [DIY]. Like, I say I grew up in the DIY community. I grew up at DIY house shows. Like, I’m most comfortable in house shows and on the floors of friends’ houses and touring all over the country.”

In the mid 2010s when Kempf first entered the scene, she began repeatedly running into none other than Jason Balla. The two began noticing each other out at events, and though they were always in and out of other projects, they began keeping tabs on the other’s life and work. From there, a friendship — and, for a short time, a romantic relationship — between the two flourished. When Kempf finally made the move to Chicago where Balla lived, the pair ran into the man who would eventually become their group’s missing piece, Eric McGrady, at none other than a show at the Animal Kingdom.


“Eric was there guarding the beer,” Kempf chuckles. “And I had just moved to Chicago maybe 48 hours prior. So I was, like, fresh on the scene.” At that point, Kempf and Balla had already started what was an early iteration of Dehd. But given that the pair were already involved in other projects, Dehd was something of a way to pass time for fun. Asking McGrady to joined just seemed like the natural, exciting thing to do.

“This is the only band I’ve been in where we formed it and the only rule was to have fun and there was no, like, ‘Let’s make money! Let’s make it!’ It was just like, the only rule was to have fun,” Kempf says. Not surprisingly, Dehd also became the only project that ever did actually make Kempf and her bandmates any money. It was 2020’s Flower of Devotion that carried Dehd to a noticeably larger audience and significant critical acclaim. While some bands may have taken such a moment as a cue to engage in creative extravagance, Dehd decided to double down on the methods that had made their success in the first place. This choice was intentional. Turning their backs on the communities and styles that had propelled them forward wouldn’t have just been a disservice, it would have been detrimental to their artistic and personal character.

“The thing that’s really cool when you start out making music and touring in the underground sort of way is like the connections you make with people and the experience, the actual life that you get to share with people…. And then, to see what other people’s lives are like,” Balla explains. “The more popular your band gets, you know, maybe you’re staying at hotels, or you’re doing all this stuff, and there’s all these barriers between you and other people.”


While Dehd exude gratitude and excitement for attaining what Kempf calls a “pay the bills” level of success, the recognition seems a secondary reward to the lived experience gained through tour life and life in artistic scenes. Done right, touring, hopping from place-to-place, and creating via the true DIY method can become its own form of education, of enrichment, and of empowerment. These are teachings that can’t come — or, at least, would be very difficult to glean — from glossy stadium runs and high-end studio sessions.

“Very early on, I loved touring because I could see what was happening in the world that I couldn’t see on the news,” Kempf explains. “The first time I went to Baltimore, I was like, ‘What? Why are all these houses boarded up?’ No one told me this was happening. Or, when I went to France and, like, healthcare was free, I was like, ‘How is this possible?’ [I was] just going into the world and seeing it.”

“Also,” Kempf adds, “it’s just the courage it takes to face ‘insecurity,’ you know, financial insecurity. People are often like, ‘How can you affoard it?’ And I’m like, ‘Honey, I’m eating peanut butter and sleeping on the floor.’ It’s not expensive, you just have to do it. And obviously there’s a privilege aspect to it, but I just would rather tour and be broke than have a secure job and fancy, expensive place to live.”

Whether touring or recording, intuition, sheer will to “do it,” and, above all, a centering of human connection drives all of Dehd’s endeavors as a band. Their forthcoming record, Poetry, was born out of this ethos. “Music is always coming through us and coming out. It’s like an endless waterfall,” Kempf tells me. “So, when human time decides that it’s time to make an album, we just point that waterfall to a recording device. It’s always been that way.”

On this go-round, that endless flow swept Kempf, Balla, and McGrady to Taos, New Mexico, where Kempf recently relocated to live in an off-the-grid earthship community. Kempf has actually dialed into our call from her earthship, and she goes on mute periodically to tend to her chickens and the other animals that sprawl across her space.

Time spent in the desert allowed Dehd to do more of what they did best — lead with intuition. Writing sessions in Taos didn’t “start” or “end.” Ideas just hung in the air, available to be picked up and played with at any moment. Instruments and equipment were left connected at all times for ease of use, facilitating this effortless writing process. “Sometimes we were all focusing on writing. But other times someone would just be putzing around on one instrument while someone else was making coffee or upstairs taking a nap or something. […] You could kind of just meander and find inspiration.”

As tracks took shape, the group saw the outlines of their album forming. The fluid writing environment, Balla and Kempf tell me, gave them the space to be both more authentic than ever in their writing and as authentic as possible with each other. When deciding on which songs would turn into final cuts, votes for a track to make it through had to be unanimous. This conclusiveness came about by necessity as much as for nicetie’s sake. The final choices were then taken to a studio back in Chicago to be fine-tuned and completed. But studio time is expensive, so the trio wanted to be firmly set on a tracklist so as to not waste any time.

Mood Ring Atiba Jefferson C1 A2321
Photo by AtibaJefferson

In the studio, Balla took over as Dehd’s main producer. “Producing, well, it’s just been like thousands of hours of recording stuff on my cassette recorder in my room,” Balla says. “Even before that, I’d take secret notes in my head every time I’d see someone work in a studio. Basically always over their shoulder being like, what are you doing right now?” While Balla brings the technical skills, Kempf brings the gut-check. She’s a student of pop, she tells me, endlessly curious about what connects with people, what makes them keep coming back, and why. Her goal is to find songs that can spark emotional bonds between band and audience, particularly in physical spaces. The live shows, after all, aren’t just where Dehd are at their best. They’re also the places that honor the band’s founding character. “I’m not writing for people in their houses,” Kempfs says and laughs. “I’m writing for the crowd.”

Nonetheless, was the group’s reliance on each other that ultimately grounded and guided the record. Kempf tells me there’s even a track on the album dedicated to this very dynamic, the catchy, anthemic single “Alien,” which is a loving portrayal to the strength of the bond that has developed between the three band members and the ability of that bond to guide them through trying times. The track and Poetry as a whole are further testaments to Dehd’s commitment to community — both the community they have with each other and the community they have found with fellow creatives and fans. And that commitment is, truly, the lifeblood of their project.

“We know how to write a pop song and we know how to write a hook. But it’s paired with having fun and being honest,” Kempf explains with a hint of hard-earned confidence. “We’re not making it for the machine. We’re making it for ourselves.”

Poetry is released on 10 May via Fat Possum

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