NE-HI is a band from Chicago comprised of Jason Balla (guitar), Mikey Wells (guitar), James Weir (bass) and Alex Otake (drums).
The band stopped at Total Drag Records on Easter night on their tour promoting their full-length album “Offers.” It was their second time at Total Drag; their first was during a tour with fellow Chicago rockers Twin Peaks over the summer.
“Offers” is an album of epic proportions, with droning guitars and themes of staying young and finding a voice in the music world.
Total Drag co-owners Dan and Liz Nissen also finished renovating their shop just in time for the show, in order to house a stage and a more permanent area for record shopping.
Here’s what guitarist Jason Balla, who Pitchfork described as a “rubber band in flight,” had to say about touring, the new album and the band’s history.
Q: I loved “Offers,” it was a good record. What is it about, overall?
A: I think in really broad terms, it’s just about growing up, rediscovering yourself and where you’re going and how you’re using your time. In a funny way, it’s this offering of, not in a sacrificial way, but it’s like this is our musical offering to the gods, to the music-listening gods. It was our first record where we got signed (to Grand Jury Records), and we were trying to figure out what was what, and maybe getting ourselves stressed out a little bit.
Q: What is “Buried on the Moon” about? I feel like it might have something to do with finding a record label, finding a voice.
A: Mikey wrote the lyrics for that, so I can’t really speak too specifically, but I think it’s dealing with the stresses of having all this extra attention and figuring out what you want to say and how you want to say it and what’s the point of doing it all, which is just to do it and relate and communicate with the world rather than so much worry about all that stuff.
Q: What are the thoughts on Sioux Falls and coming back a second time?
A: I love it. It’s actually been my most looked-forward-to show on tour, because we played here with Twin Peaks in the summer and I met Dan and Liz, and we’re kind of just so taken by them and the shop. I had been mailing records to Dan a lot because he kept selling them, I would send him like five (records) and he would hit me up a week later and I would mail him more, so we’ve been (having) those kinds of conversations. (The renovation) is pretty sick.
Q: How did you guys all form together? I keep reading that you scored a film together. Did that pan out?
A: The three of us met in college. Mikey dropped out and we all stayed connected. I met Alex separately, and then he and I started playing music. The film thing came together, and that was the reason we were all in the same room, behind an instrument. We tried to write some songs for it. One of them is the first song we ever wrote — “Since I’ve Been Thinking.” The movie was never made, it just kind of was like a good homework assignment. It snowballed (into NE-HI).
Q: Do you like to talk about genres and influences at all? I know some bands don’t because that’s not really why they make art.
A: People say we’re a garage rock band a lot, and I think that’s not right. That’s my biggest pet peeve. It’s too easy of a description. We did come out of the garage rock scene in Chicago, so I get it.
Q: Have you ever played in a garage? People always say “Chicago garage rock.” Maybe like basement rock?
A: We’ve played in a lot of basements. I guess we played in an auto body garage once. It was on our first tour in Cincinnati and half of the ceiling was collapsed in, so it was half inside, half outside. You could see the starry sky while you’re playing inside. It was pretty sick.
Q: What’s been the best show experience and the worst you’ve had?
A: I don’t think we’ve really had a bad show in a long time. The best show… last night was really cool in Minneapolis. Usually, the thing that makes it for me is just having a crowd with a good personality. If people are just in a good mood and nice and friendly, it’s usually the
Q: How did it feel to be on a stage like 7th Street Entry that so many great people have played on?
A: Oh, it’s sick. We’ve played there a lot of times. Minneapolis is one of our homes, kind of, so we go there a lot and have a lot of friends there. It’s one of the best sounding places to play, it sounds so epic, so it’s really easy to lose yourself to it all.
Q: On that same note, are you all Chicago born and raised?
A: Alex and I are, James is from Mankato, MN and Mikey is from Wisconsin. We’re from the suburbs, so no true Chicago inner city born.
Q: What do you love most about being from Chicago?
A: I guess there’s a certain Midwestern thing where you can put up with a lot. It’s a lot of bottling up all your feelings, which is maybe helpful for music, because then you can let it out in this one place. But it’s probably also not that good for you. It’s a double-edged sword.
Q: How about growing up in a music scene that seems very collaborative? I watch a lot of interviews with Twin Peaks and they’re always crediting bands like White Mystery.
A: Everyone’s super supportive and we all kind of pop in the same scene. There’s so many little circles in Chicago and they’re all really great, and there’s a lot of people who are really inspiring to me who either organize events, or play music and some who do both. There are a lot of people doing things on their own terms, and it’s pretty exciting to see that you can make anything you would want to and do it the way you would like to.
Q: Do you have certain places you go when you visit certain towns?
A: Even if we’re cruising past Sioux Falls we’ll stop at Total Drag, or there’s this one diner in Iowa City that we’ll always stop at called the Hamburg Inn. Also, the bar up the street (Tommy Jack’s) every time we play Sioux Falls, I’ve been there. There’s this coffee shop in Cincinnati that is like my destination. When we’re driving to town, I drive straight there. It’s called Collective Espresso and it’s like the most amazing place. It’s like getting coffee in a greenhouse. It’s really fun.
Q: What do you do when you’re not on tour?
A: I do sound for bands, that’s like my main line of work now, but I also work at a couple of music venues in Chicago. If I’m not working, I’m writing music or hanging out with friends, drinking all their coffee, reading.
Q: What are the ups and downs of touring?
A: The hardest part of touring is the constant transit and you have to learn to make anywhere home. It’s also still kind of tricky — that’s the downside. The upside is getting to see all these great people that live everywhere that you don’t normally get to see.