The fellows in Chicago rock quartet NE-HI look forward to every show they play, but their August 2015 gig at The Mothlight held particular significance for guitarist/vocalist Jason Balla. Back when the venue’s co-owner Jon Hency lived in the Illinois metropolis, the two became friends but lost touch when Hency moved south. The bit of news Balla heard about Hency was that he was running an appealing live music spot in Asheville. An invitation for NE-HI to perform on its first big tour soon followed, but the day before the gig, the band’s van died and forced the cancellation of the foursome’s Asheville debut.
“It was the first time we’d dealt with a broken van, and needless to say, we were pretty overwhelmed,” says Balla. “And it was an extra dagger, the fact that I wasn’t able to see my friend from all that time ago.” He hopes for better luck when he, Mikey Wells (guitar/vocals), James Weir (bass) and Alex Otake (drums) give The Mothlight a second shot at a first appearance on Thursday, March 23.
“I guess we’ll have to play double-good to make up for it,” Balla says.
NE-HI is excited to share songs from its second album, Offers, whose energy and upbeat, summery sound run counter to its winter 2016 conception. While the current season has included the first snowless January and February in Chicago’s history — “Clear proof that global warming is a thing,” Balla says — the new NE-HI tunes capture the community’s shared passion for bursting through the city’s typically brutal cold.
“Winter is our season — at least it’s very formative to the charm of living in this place because it can be pretty oppressive,” Balla says. “A lot of people hunker down and … everyone kind of gets into this funk. I think why I love living here is once you get that first warm day, even if it’s 40 degrees or something, it’ll feel like it’s 70, and people are in shorts and finding any excuse to be outside or scouring a restaurant for a patio. The city really comes alive because people are kind of beaten in by the environment until they can’t take it anymore, and then the first chance they get, people kind of go a little crazy.”
No song on Offers conveys this spirit better than closing number “Stay Young,” which almost didn’t make it on the album. The musicians laid it down with nine other tracks in Chicago’s Minbal studio, then listened back — and didn’t like what they heard. “We were like, ‘Oh, my gosh. These are kind of just mediocre songs,’” Balla says. “But it was the needed perspective of being able to hear them outside of you playing them in the moment.”
Two months later, NE-HI returned to the studio to rerecord much of the album. In regard to “Stay Young,” the intention was to maintain the spirit of the song but completely redo it. The only element that remained the same was Balla’s noodly, riffy guitar melody. “Everything else, we just restructured the vibe,” he says. “The spirit of it kind of came alive and then became that song — which is really cool because I’ve really always loved it and I was so frustrated to see it potentially on its way to the trashcan. You’re like, ‘Agh! I just really want to make this work.’”
Balla is quick to point out that the first sessions weren’t a complete wash. “Drag” and “Don’t Wanna Know You” came from those initial recordings, as did the title track. Its spontaneous creation via jamming was the breaking point for NE-HI in terms of overcoming what he calls “the difficulties that we were having at the time and the stress that we’d been putting on ourselves,” which may or may not have been colored by concern for the so-called “sophomore slump.”
“It’s one of those things that almost seems like an old wives’ tale or something like that. You’re not even sure it’s a real thing, but you’ve heard about it, so for some reason, you think about it every once in a while,” Balla says. “Sometimes, I would be worried about it. I guess I can understand where it comes from because you’ve done your first thing, and that was you figuring out what band you actually are and how you sound as a group of individuals coming together to make music. So when you have your second one, you don’t necessarily want to do the same thing, but you also want it to be you. How do you find that space?”
He answers his own question: “It’s a lot of self-discovery, but more than anything it’s actually staying true to the initial spark of why the four of us were making music together in the first place.”
WHO: NE-HI with Shaken Nature and The Power
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Thursday, March 23, 9:30 p.m. $5