By Sage Shemroske
Photo Credit: Atiba
As we approach the mid way point of 2023, we decided to cast our minds back to one of our favourite records of last year – Blue Skies by DEHD, and this fantastic conversation between the band’s Emily Kempf and Sage Shemroske.
It’s become very hip for bands to have an ironic ‘thing,’ but Flower of Devotion was such an earnest album and Blue Skies really doubles down on that. How do you maintain that kind of sincerity?
Being earnest is actually what I think is actually cool. My definition of cool isn’t being snarky or ironic but being earnest and being yourself in a way that might be embarrassing and having the courage to do it anyway. We as a band have always been that way, that’s how we write songs and that’s how we are as people. Just down to earth. It’s nice to have a wider audience appreciate that aspect. It’s not like we’re the only ones doing it but I do think it gives people more credit. People want to see something that’s real. That’s what I want to see, that’s what I relate to.
I know how to be cool, and I know how to be mean, and I know how to be ironic. But if that was the only thing I knew how to do – that seems sad to me. My goal is to have that foundation of honesty and earnestness. It’s childlike. I don’t know how we keep up with it but it feels better to me to be that way! It’s more fulfilling. So I feel like that’s why I personally keep attempting to remain in that sphere; it feels better even though it can be scary to be vulnerable in that way. It’s for myself to relate to the feelings I’m having. And when other people relate to it’s an added bonus. It makes being a musician not pointless when it’s not random.
In that vein, there’s a lot of intentional optimism on Blue Skies. How do you incorporate that discipline of hope into your life?
Being positive is something that’s embarrassing. In the same way as being earnest. It’s scary to be positive in the face of global collapse. If I’m positive I’m ignoring something. But I think on this record we try to toe the line of keeping a discipline of hope in spite of despair. Whether it’s internal personal despair or global despair. I can’t do shit if I’m spiraling all the time, I have to have some thread of hope through the spiral. Music’s one way that we do that. I know Jason (Balla) would talk about this and Eric (McGrady). I feel like Eric feels safe when he’s playing on stage, but then he’s anxious every other second. I guess it’s just a necessity to keep going. Our version of it is to write music and perform. It seems to get easier when other people are holding onto that hope with you. It’s not in a vacuum. I always call it the vortex- the crowd gives and we give, and it’s like this feedback loop.
The bad stuff doesn’t go away but maybe it becomes easier to deal with. Not that music is the end all save all thing, but it’s one thing I use to help me continue on. And it’s cool to share that with the crowd.
The album has a certain level of uncertainty. And it feels like a lot of that comes from nature. Would you say that’s true or where does that come from?
I think each one of us, personally, has a strong sense of self. We’re very grounded in something, maybe it’s hope? But keeping it simple it’s like what are you gonna do? Just give up and die? Orbit out? I can only respond for myself but the album is probably a reflection of our personalities and we definitely have a similar vein of remaining grounded in chaos. Or thriving? I just orbit out and I’m like ok, so much happens in life! I’m very settled in but I’ve lived like four lives! I have a genuine, very strong trust in the universe. Everything is just in procession and I have very little control over most shit, but I can control myself and that’s basically it. I try to keep it simple and focus on my behavior or how I can be of assistance to my friend circle or my community. And in what ways can I do that? I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. What can I do with what I have and where I’m at. That ethos is probably just infused into our songwriting. We’re writing about love and friendship – the small stuff that everyone can relate to.
I think it’s really common, especially now, to think ‘I’m not doing enough, I need to craft this large scale assistance system!’ but sometimes it’s just the social relationships we keep and how to ground those and do the little things that keep those running and keep us safe. Even in small ways.
And it’s not like just talking about it, it’s doing it. I try to be a positive experience for the people I interact with whether I know them or not. That earnestness and that honesty matters all the time, no matter who you’re interacting with. I think I also believe in change from the little to the top. There’s people who are good at working at the top but I just wanna throw a rave with my community and remind everyone to stay alive another day, while other people are doing this because we all have different skill sets. We all can do our own thing and meet in the middle. But I’m definitely a grassroots, ground floor up person.
You’ve mentioned love and other personal relationships. What does it mean to have a relationship with yourself and a healthy relationship with yourself?
This is something I’ve been super focused on for several years. How can I get what I desire or feel is wanting on the outside inside. How can I be my own best friend? It doesn’t mean I’m a hermit and I don’t have best friends, but can I treat myself the way I treat my best friends and have that relationship with myself in some capacity? How can I be my own partner, and self soothe, and self parent? I cannot do those things in a void or alone. I still have partners, and families, and best friends, and a community that is a part of that web. But I’ve really enjoyed exploring being alone with myself or hanging out with myself. And I mean that as literal as I’m gonna take myself out on a date. And what does that look like? Well if I go on a date with someone I get dressed up, I make plans, I feel excited. It’s intentional. I never did that before. But now I’m gonna go get dressed up for myself. The new perspective is crazy. You’re on your own and my relationship with myself has changed to the point where my therapist will talk about the ‘observer mind’.
And I feel like I have myself and I’m in observer mode way more now. I’m more connected to that part of me. Any situation I’m in it’s me being social, having a personality, having charm. But then there’s another part of me that’s the relationship with self. And that relationship has gotten stronger. I feel more wise and more peaceful the more I water that plant. I’m not speaking about anything that’s new, obviously when I get into a romantic relationship I wanna bring a whole person into that rather than half a person who’s trying to feel better by filling the void. The only way I can bring a full person in is if I know who I am and have a relationship with that person who is me.
Speaking of that processing and talking to other people, something I thought that was really neat about the album release cycle was that you set up a hotline of sorts for people to leave messages about love. Do you feel like talking about it or giving people space to talk about it can help set those feelings free?
Oh yeah. Definitely. I know there’s many ways to process, but I publicly love to work through stuff. I’m obviously a performer so that’s one way. I think when people talk about stuff or even leave it on the voicemail you’re sharing that story with someone else who is now hearing it. You’re not the only one who knows about it. Even if it’s just a stranger there’s something freeing about sharing the weight of information. But Jason and Eric for example don’t necessarily talk through their stuff the way I do. So I’m like ‘where’s it going?’ But I’m also open to the idea that that works for them and that the way I do it isn’t the only way. But I do like to make fun of it. Let that shit out! I do know they’ve got their own ways of doing it. But I don’t know how I would be here if I couldn’t talk it out.
One thing I really wanted to hear you talk about is your vocals. I got really pulled into DEHD when I heard Desire and you do the ‘desire, HUH!’ A lot of bands that get compared to older music reach for a sort of unearned nostalgia. But we’ve talked about earnesty and I’m wondering how you feel about those rock n’ roll vocals.
Rocker dude! That’s what I call them. I just like trying on different characteristics with my voice. I like choosing to be outside of gender I guess. Like I can choose something that’s gendered but make it androgynous somehow by accident because I’m female presenting or woman presenting or whatever. But I have the ability to sing in many ways that might confuse people, and I LOVE it when that happens. Like ‘oh is this a dude?’ and it’s like maybe the term ‘dude’ is a question as well. But yeah, James Brown, Elvis, I like to do yelps and things like that. It’s an expression of sound that’s coming from movement, from dance. The sounds are expressing a feeling and they’re definitely a choice that I make.. I love that you said ‘unearned nostalgia’ because we’ve somehow accidentally touched on a lot of older things. Some people will name 80s music and I know that it’s their reference point and they’re referencing what they love about the era they grew up in. But I see it as more 50s and 60s. The things that I do, the music I listen to. The way the band exists being very minimal, not a lot of singles. It’s mixing the girl groups with – I do not want to mention The Beatles – but the Rolling Stones. But it’s true, they were good at songwriting. James Brown expressed in such a euphoric way using his voice as a trumpet, as an instrument. I try on different voices. And I try to pair anything I hear – I’m gonna try that. And I mix them all together in a way that’s not discernable.
I have one final question for you. This is for my friend, Bray, who loves DEHD so much. So I asked them what they would ask you. And they wanna know, if you could have anyone cover a DEHD song, who would you want it to be?
I actually just started noticing that people are covering our songs. It’s so weird. I know it’s normal behavior but it hasn’t happened until this year. It’s like I’m not aware that we’re in a different place. Have we become the bands I looked up to when I was younger, am I that band? It’s a weird thing to consider. I don’t know, maybe Broncho? They’re one of my favorite bands. But I don’t know if I have a slick answer to that one.
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