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Will NE-HI follow Twin Peaks and The Orwells as Chicago's next big export?


NE-HI, the purveyors of Chicago's fourth-best indie rock album, aren't afraid of success or Steve Albini. - BRYAN ALLEN LAMB
  • Bryan Allen Lamb
  • NE-HI, the purveyors of Chicago's fourth-best indie rock album, aren't afraid of success or Steve Albini.

When the Sex Pistols played Manchester 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 bands, a Black Lips' show at Logan Square Auditorium 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.

But, of the young Chicago musicians in attendance, NE-HI have since shown themselves to be the least Lips-like, possibly because co-frontman Jason Balla was working the door 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 jangly pop of "Hoboken Sound" bands like The Feelies.

Although Balla didn't know his counterparts in Twin Peaks or the Orwells at the time, his band was soon playing underground shows with them at Animal Kingdom, a now-defunct DIY 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 were the first among them to find national acclaim, NE-HI are now beginning to catch up.

The Chicago Tribune included both bands in its 2014 list of best Chicago indie albums, with Twin Peaks coming in at No. 1 and NE-HI at No. 4. (Two places above legendary Nirvana producer Steve Albini's band Shellac.) NE-HI has since toured with Twin Peaks, played seven showcases at this year's South by Southwest, and signed to Grand Jury, whose roster also includes Mothers, Esme Patterson and, yes, Twin Peaks.

NE-HI's sophomore album Offers, released this past February, finds the band advancing musically, as well. While their Krautrock leanings have yet to come to the fore, postpunk-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 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," says Balla. "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'd expected.

Sessions began in January of last year at Chicago's Minbal Studios, where they recorded on a '60s-vintage Scully analog eight-track that had once been used for the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street sessions in Muscle Shoals. But after finishing eight songs, the band decided to keep just three of them — "Palm of Hand," "Don't Want to Know You" and the title track — 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," says Balla. "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 their 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 recording a few songs at Albini's Electrical Audio studio. "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, 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," laughs Balla. "It would be a pretty good reason not to have to work anymore."

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