[The following Q&A previews Cloud Nothings’ Friday, Oct 7 appearance, at Lincoln Calling music festival, 12 a.m. at Duffy’s Tavern, 1412 E O St. Grab weekend and day passes here.]
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Before Cloud Nothings became a proper outfit, its frontman Dylan Baldi began by making music for fun alone, like many an aspiring songwriter. Live performance wasn’t even on the radar until his earliest music was noticed online by Todd Patrick, a promoter, who asked him to open for Real Estate and Woods in New York City in 2009.
That one connection helped to kickstart Cloud Nothings. Since that show, he’s ditched school, released five albums and added two members, bassist TJ Duke and acclaimed drummer Jayson Gerycz, who also plays in the band Wombs.
Pitchfork and Rolling Stone have praised Cloud Nothings’ last two efforts, Attack On Memory and Here and Nowhere Else. They even teamed up with indie rockers Wavves last year for a collaboration album. Baldi, 25, is taking his band’s energetic show across the country and globe playing festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Pitchfork Music and, next weekend, Lincoln Calling (RSVP here).
Baldi spoke with Hear Nebraska this past Friday evening before heading to a Potty Mouth/Nada Surf show in Cleveland. Both bands have worked with John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney), who also produced Cloud Nothings’ forthcoming album. He talks about his experience recording with some of rock’s biggest producers as well as finding music as a quiet teenager in Cleveland.
Hear Nebraska: Looks like you guys have been doing some cool stuff lately. You played some shows with Dinosaur Jr. in September. That must have been fun. Tell me a little bit about that. Have they influenced your music at all?
Dylan Baldi: I listened to a couple of their records a lot. I’m actually not even too familiar with their later stuff and some of their more recent stuff. But touring with them was great. They were nice. Murph, their drummer, is a great guy. Their crew is awesome. And their shows are really good. There were a lot of people. It seemed like there were a lot of people who maybe didn’t know who we were, but they were very receptive audiences, so it was nice.
HN: So you got some nice little PR.
DB: Yeah, it was just five dates. Played the east coast and a little bit of the south.
HN: I saw you played in Asheville, (North Carolina). I’ve heard that’s a cool town.
DB: We did! That was my first time there. I’ve just been hearing about it a lot and how cool it is. And Angel Olsen lives there now. And I love her new record a lot, so I was like, “This place must be cool.” And I went there, and it was cool. I liked it.
HN: So I read in Columbus Alive! that Cloud Nothings is releasing a new album soon?
DB: Uhh, yeah, I don’t know how much of that interview was actually correct. But we do have a new record that’s done.
HN: Before the end of the year maybe?
DB: No, that’s the thing. I woke up, and that’s the first thing I saw that morning. It was a tweet that said, “Cloud Nothings has a new record coming out.” And I was like, “Oh, do we? Interesting.” I think I must have been misquoted or something, but I don’t think it’s coming out this year.
HN: It seems like since you started this project in 2009, you’ve been moving non-stop, recording five albums, including 2015’s collaboration with Wavves, with a new one on the way. In what ways has the full-time musician’s’ lifestyle met your expectations?
DB: I don’t think I ever had any expectations. It was the only thing I felt like doing at the time. I didn’t want to go to college really. I was just going there. Someone liked one of my songs online. It took one person’s praise for me to be like, “I’ll just drop out of school.” So I did. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I still really don’t. I had no expectations for what anything was going to be like. I knew I wanted to travel and see some stuff before I camped out in one place for a long time. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. That’s kind of all I expected, and it’s going great.
HN: So along the way, have you discovered a place that you might like to settle down?
DB: There’s a million places I’ve been to and really enjoyed. I’ve moved around a little in the interim, but always end up back in Cleveland, which is where we all live and where we’re from. And that’s where I live right now. So I have a feeling I’ll probably stay here. It’s a good place to come back to. And all my friends and my family are here. It’s an easy place to live, and it’s cheap. It’s just getting better and better as a city. Even in the last six years, I feel like there’s just more people doing cool things. The number of people doing cool things just keeps growing and growing. It’s getting nice here.
HN: So there’s maybe been a good artist resurgence there?
DB: There definitely has. There’s always been a lot of music. It kinda feels like, at least when I started playing here, the music scene was very fragmented. You had like the noise guys going to the noise shows, and the punk kids going to the punk shows. Now, it feels like everyone is one, big team, which is nice.
HN: When you were a teenager, were you going out to shows in Cleveland?
DB: Actually, not really. I think I can probably count the number of shows I went to as a kid on one hand, maybe two. I didn’t really go to too many shows. I just loved music. And I was kind of loner kid. I spent a lot of time listening to stuff and playing guitar in my room. But going to shows wasn’t an everyday experience for me.
HN: You learned how to play the guitar by yourself in your room. Is that how it happened?
DB: Pretty much. I took guitar lessons for a couple months. But I quickly decided I just wanted to play by myself and do my own thing and songs that I like, rather than playing from a set lesson plan that I had to learn from. I played all sorts of instruments, but the guitar was the one that I felt most comfortable making my own music with.
photo by Pooneh Ghana
HN: In that Columbus Alive! interview, you said that you’re taking a more outward look on the new album and that you feel like people are becoming more aware of how to treat the world. In what ways could people be better to the world?
DB: That’s a big question. There’s a lot of ways. What I meant by that it’s being more and more publicized that horrible shit is happening all over the place. It’s almost seems like it’s not getting any better. But what ways could people make the world better? I don’t know, I think it’s just important to think about people and be aware that there’s other people in the world besides you. There’s issues and struggles that you would never even understand or think about unless you meet people all over the place and talk to people and find out what their lives are like. So I think that kind of thing is really important for people to do.
HN: And during your travels while touring, playing your music, maybe you’ve came across lots of different people now and maybe your outlook on things has changed a bit in the last five or so years.
DB: I would say so, yeah. At first, when the band started, I was probably narcissistic in a way. I think you kind of have to be in a way, to be like, “I’m gonna start a band and go on tour and people are gonna like me.” Why would you think that? I can’t even imagine doing that right now at this point in my life. I don’t think I would be as aggressive about that kind of stuff as I was when we started the band.
HN: So you’ve been humbled.
DB: I guess so. Yeah, you meet so many people who are also musicians and artists and people who are doing what you’re doing. No one’s getting rich or anything, you know? So it’s just people who are doing things because they love it. And you can kind of develop a community of friends and stuff around that, which I didn’t necessarily have growing up. So as I’ve become more and more solidified, I guess, yeah, it’s changed things a little bit.
HN: So you’re a bit more social now than you were when you were growing up?
DB: I think so. Definitely. I was pretty anti-social. There’s so many stereotypes of that kid in high school who doesn’t talk to too many people and sits at home and listens to his sad records. That was me. I was very much the stereotypical sad kid. But lately, I don’t feel that way that much anymore.
HN: Good, good. Well, that was part of your path sounds like.
DB: I think so. A lot of people seem to gravitate toward the arts to find out where they fit in. To try to figure out their lives by making art about it. And I guess that’s what I did, or, what I continue to do. And it’s nice. It’s a good way to exist.
HN: Compared with the last album, 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else, and your first record from 2010, Turning On, your vocals sound a bit more intense and loud. What happened during your creative process between those years that led to a heavier sound?
DB: A lot of it was playing with a live band. When I recorded Turning On, it was just me in my parents’ basement recording all the instruments, playing everything. I wasn’t even thinking about playing live. I was just recording by myself. And then I had a band. And it’s been the same band the whole time. Once I started playing those songs with them, the old stuff took on a different, meatier sound without me doing anything. It was just a matter of actual human beings playing that made the songs sound totally different today. As we kind of learned each other’s strengths as a band, I think the record has kind of gravitated toward what we found out we were good or things we wanted to expand upon, and try to do better differently with every record, so that kind of led to a heavier sound. And when you have a heavy band playing, it just seems right to yell sometimes, you know? And I have a gruffer-sounding voice in certain parts or just actually sing, or sort of just quietly talk into a microphone in your parent’s basement because you don’t want them to hear you.
HN: Can we expect those kinds of vocals on the new album?
DB: Sure, yeah. Every record pretty much, on every part, I want to get better at guitar, and I think our drummer has been better and better with every record, he’s amazing. We’re just constantly trying to improve, trying to write better songs. So everything we do with every record hopefully sounds like we mean it a little more.
HN: Your recent recordings have been pretty fast-paced. I read on Music Feeds that the sound on the new album could tone down a notch. I also read in The Denver Post you were experimenting with electronic music. Why the change of pace, and what sparked your interest in electronic sounds?
DB: All of us have liked electronic stuff. We don’t just listen to rock just cause we make it. And mostly, I don’t, cause when you play in a rock band every day that’s loud, that’s not what you want to listen to when you’re checking out music. Our drummer has a bunch of synthesizers, and our bassist has a cool drum machine, so we do that on occasion. But that doesn’t really carry over to Cloud Nothings, yet. The new record still sounds like us. The songs are maybe a little slower, so you can tell what’s going on a little better, but it still sounds like Cloud Nothings.
HN: You went to school at Case Western Reserve University. What were your initial plans with that endeavour?
DB: Yeah, I went for saxophone. I didn’t have any plans, and the perfect thing to do if you don’t have plans is to not do anything and see what happens. My only plan is I just want to travel and see more than Cleveland. Cause I didn’t really go a whole lot of places as a kid. My family went on little vacations here and there. I knew there was more out there, so I think my only plan was to go find more. If I stayed in school, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d be playing saxophone, and I’d be really good at it, which I don’t know what you do with that.
HN: You could play in a ska band.
DB: Yeah, that’s the dream, someday. When there’s a ska revival, whenever that happens, I will be there with a saxophone. On the frontlines. Opening for Less Than Jake.
HN: What was your writing process for this new album? Did you work on while you were on tour? Did you jot things down into your phone? How did it come about?
DB: Well, in 2015, we didn’t do much as a band. But I ended up moving to western Massachusetts. And I was alone in a house most of the time. It kind of felt like I was hiding. I had an acoustic guitar that I got there, and I kind of wrote a lot of the songs at this house. And yeah, that was it. And eventually, I went back to Cleveland, and I said, “Guys, guess what. I wrote some songs.” And we learned them and made the record.
HN: Where did you end up recording the new album?
DB: We recorded at this place called Sonic Ranch, close to El Paso, Texas. Right by the border of Mexico and Texas. It was amazing. We were there for like three weeks. It’s like a world-class, insane studio. Like all the nicest stuff you can imagine. There’s multiple studios on this property. It’s literally a ranch. It was amazing.
HN: That’s an iconic place.
DB: You know about it?
DB: Oh, awesome. Yeah, some crazy records have been made there for sure. It was kind of funny being there. It was like too nice for us. I got to play Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar, and I was like, “Why am I playing this? I shouldn’t be able to touch this. Nobody should ever be allowed to touch this.” So I did that. They had a bunch of Billy Gibbons’ (ZZ Top) gear there, like his museum. It was nuts.
HN: Who produced the album?
DB: His name is John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie, Blonde Redhead, Sleater-Kinney).
HN: You’ve worked with some other big-time producers such as John Congleton, (Spoon, Explosions in the Sky, The War On Drugs), as well as Steve Albini (Nirvana, Jawbreaker, Mogwai) on the last two albums. What are some of your favorite memories of working with those guys and Goodmanson?
DB: It’s already pretty surreal saying we got to work with Steve Albini. He’s a legend. I don’t have any crazy stories or anything about these guys, cause they just work really hard and are really nice people. It’s not like we were doing anything wild with them. Steve was great. He just knew exactly what to do. He would just say, “Hey, I think the bass should sound a bit more like this.” And he’d go downstairs and try a couple things on the amp and come up, and say, “OK. That’s exactly what I wanted.” He was great. Congleton was really easy to work with. I think he had thoughts of what the band would sound like at their best. So he definitely had ideas of doing things I would have done. The drums are really loud on that record. If I was mixing it, I probably wouldn’t have done that, but it turned out to be a great choice. So that record sounds awesome. And with Goodmanson, it was the same way. He’s like a crazy genius. That record sounds huge. And I don’t know how he did it. Cause it’s just us playing in a room. And it sounds massive.
Mark Hayden is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Reach him through HN’s managing editor at email@example.com