Interview with Jason Balla of the band NE-HI

by Angela Brooks

Although Audiotree Music Festival takes place in Kalamazoo, MI on September 22 & 23, the Chicago music scene is always well represented. One of our favorites, NE-HI, will bring their insane high-energy performance to the main stage on Saturday this year. We talked with lead singer and guitarist Jason Balla about NE-HI playing Audiotree Music Festival, the Chicago music scene, and the new material they’re working on to follow up to Offers, their fantastic 2017 album.
(NOTE: Jason was so excited for this interview that he was a little out of breath on the phone…either that, or he just got back from rock climbing. You decide!)

HWID: Hey Jason, great to talk to you. We loved Offers and we’re really looking forward to seeing you at Audiotree this year. Are you guys working on new material?
Jason Balla: Yeah, we’ve been working on it all year. We just played our first show of the year (Millennium Park on August 12), which is crazy because the last couple of years we’ve played hundreds of shows. It was kind of like, “Oh shit, I forgot this exists outside of our 12 x 12 practice space.” It’s crazy because the way the stage is orientated, you can’t see the grass. Where the majority of the people are at, you can’t see them, so it felt kind of intimate. We got to play a couple new songs that we’ve been working on. We’re considered a “live band,” so it was nice to test run the new songs to see how it feels in front of people.

HWID: Are there any new influences for the new music?
Jason Balla: There’s kind of a bunch of different ways to go so, we’re making sense of what it all means, but definitely more groove orientated. I think when we first started playing we had a strong groove and swing, so we’re focusing more on that, and overall slightly “dancy-er,” still rock music though. The big focus for us, too, is that the recording process itself is more of an influence. We can experiment more sonically and with structures rather than “this is what our band sounds like” and we just track it live. We’re having more fun and messing around with the possibilities that a studio affords.

HWID: Where do you guys record at?
JB: We don’t have a place right now, our last record was at a place called Minbal in Chicago, which was recently bought by a friend of ours, so now it’s called JAMDEK. That’s the place that feels most like home. We’re going to do some sessions there, but I think we’re also going to bop around to some other spots and see if there’s anywhere else that’s fun and any different room sounds or equipment that might suit us.

HWID: You do sound for Twin Peaks, who played Audiotree last year, where you at the festival last year?
JB: I was! It was a really fun festival, very well run, all the people there were super nice, and the bands were great!

HWID: What are you expecting from this year’s Audiotree Music Festival?
JB: The biggest expectation would be that it’s going to be a good time, my friends are all playing. Melkbelly is going to be playing the same day as us, who are dear friends of mine and sources of inspiration, so I think it’ll be great to be surrounded by a bunch of friends who all make great music.

HWID: You guys are involved in a bunch of side projects, what do you think will happen with those once you start to focus more on NE-HI?
JB: NE-HI has always been the number one thing for everyone. We’ve been writing songs for so long this year, too. Not every single song that you write is necessarily a “NE-HI song,” so in some ways they (side projects) stand as an alternate place to put different songs that don’t fit in the right way with NE-HI. It’s all just about making stuff that you’re excited about, so I don’t think anything will change too much.

HWID: The collaboration you did with Jamila Woods, “The Times I’m Not There,” is your most played song on Spotify, can we expect more collabs in future? Also, who would be your dream collaboration?
JB: I don’t think we’re actively pursuing anything right now, we’re focusing on our own thing. There are so many people who I admire, but I don’t know if it would make sense. For some reason, I was just thinking of all those funny 80s hip-hop collaborations that don’t always need to happen. Like a lot of the people I look up to wouldn’t make sense with NE-HI. I’m really happy how the Jamila song turned out but we’re also not a hip hop or R&B band, so avoiding the Public Enemy and Anthrax collaborations.

HWID: What other local festivals have you played?
JB: We’ve played Pitchfork and Do Division, various street fests. The biggest festival and most fun we’ve ever had was playing Pitchfork last year.

HWID: Would you be comfortable talking about what’s going on with The Orwells?
JB: I guess I don’t know exactly what to say, it really breaks my heart that women are being treated that way by anyone. It’s just part of a bigger picture, every time it happens it’s becoming more of a public conversation, and it seems ridiculous that people must be reminded all the time. I just hope that people can cast a more long-lasting change in behavior. Hopefully we can keep working towards a place where everyone feels welcomed and safe, and doesn’t have to be used or marginalized for no reason.