Music Features

Cloud Nothings and the Shadow Of Serenity

0

Dylan Baldi has been incredibly busy for the past year. He and his bandmates in Cloud Nothings have released two albums (there’s another one on the way) and seven EPs, he’s released two free-form jazz albums with Cloud Nothings drummer Jayson Gerycz (there’s another on the way), and released a deluxe reissue of his very first album, TURNING ON, to celebrate its 10th anniversary—in a time where it seems like life has been standing still, he has certainly found a groove whilst in the grind. 

When I get ahold of Baldi on an early Monday afternoon in January, he lets me know he’s just finished up work. The first few weeks of 2021 have been as good as they can be in quarantine. He’s been playing Animal Crossing and is looking for a new game, though he isn’t really familiar with what’s come out for the Nintendo Switch as he’s been so focused on the games for the PS5 he still doesn’t have. There’s, of course, Twitter. We briefly chat about KISS, as he’d tweeted about their recent live stream from Dubai on New Year’s Eve (his mom is a really big fan of the band, but he didn’t watch—having seen some clips I tell him it was a pretty rough set, and that record-breaking amount of pyro didn’t justify any of the streaming option prices, especially the VIP tier that cost a thousand bucks for the stream, a swag bag, and a commemorative metal plaque that looks like a concert ticket. “Now this is where I announce our live stream from Dubai”). There’s Lavender, of course, his recently fostered pitbull (“Things can’t be going that bad when you have a dog.”) And now in addition to a very busy 2020, he just recently picked up a part-time job, describing it as “really uncreative.” Baldi is a busy man.

— 

We’re here to discuss Cloud Nothings’ forthcoming album, THE SHADOW I REMEMBER, but first we feel the need to fill in some holes regarding the band’s jam-packed 2020. I ask Baldi if he would mind laying out a timeline of when all of the Cloud Nothings material that began dropping last summer was recorded, as it’s a jumble. “It all started back in the normal days of February 2020,” he begins, explaining that THE SHADOW I REMEMBER was recorded with Steve Albini in his Chicago studio before everything went to shit. “We got home, everything was fine, and then suddenly it wasn’t.”

THE SHADOW I REMEMBER was always scheduled for 2021, as Carpark, Cloud Nothings’ long-standing label, had already filled out their release schedule for the year. Baldi admits he would have preferred to get it out sooner, but wasn’t going to jump ship in order to make it happen. Once upon a time, Baldi lived in Cleveland with Gerycz, and the two could play together in person whenever they felt like it, but he’s since relocated to Philadelphia, impeding his instant access to collaboration. “We were stuck,” he admits. Always pushing forward, it was only a month after quarantine began that the two began emailing each other ideas for the songs. “Eventually we had a lot of songs made and were like, ‘Should we put these out?’”

Open in Spotify

That first batch of tracks would eventually become last summer’s excellent THE BLACK HOLE UNDERSTANDS. Recorded using only the amp modules from GarageBand, Baldi refers to BLACK HOLE as a totally fake album, which blows my mind since it was easily one of my top albums from last year and a strong entry in the larger Cloud Nothings discography. “If somebody popped that record in front of me and made me listen to it, I wouldn’t know that it wasn’t made in reality… I was actually really happy with the way it came out,” he admits.

The band became aware of Bandcamp as a viable release platform for the record after they found success releasing 27 live recordings on Bandcamp Friday back in May. I mention to him  that Merry-Go-Round had floated the idea of ranking every version of “Wasted Days” from those releases. He chuckles, “I can see what people buy on there and a good amount of people just went through and got all the long songs like ‘Wasted Days’ or ‘Pattern Walks’ and it’s very funny to me. People really love those songs.” BLACK HOLE was subsequently released as a Bandcamp exclusive, and the band quickly conceived the idea of starting a subscription service, where patrons would be given access to a new EP on a monthly basis and discounts on merch. “It felt like life just became the internet and I was like, I guess this is what we have to do right now.”

“The idea of music as a full-time occupation is a nice thought, but as the money moves away from touring into just, the ether, it’s just gone.”

Cloud Nothings with Gradient

THE BLACK HOLE UNDERSTANDS was well-received, as was the subscription model. “Bandcamp Fridays were extremely helpful,” Baldi explains. “I attribute that greatly as the reason why I didn’t have to work anywhere else… until recently.” The band’s quick thinking in getting the subscription service going and adhering to such a consistent release schedule to try to bridge the financial gap created by the inability to tour was commendable, something lots of bands began offering during the pandemic through Patreon or Bandcamp. I bring up the tone-deaf comments from Spotify CEO Daniel Ek from last summer, who defended the company’s outrageously low payouts for streams by saying that it’s an artist’s responsibility to create more if they want to make a living. “The idea of music as a full-time occupation is… a nice thought,” Baldi begins, “but as the money moves away from touring into just, the ether, it’s just gone.” It’s a grim reckoning, as rescheduled event dates for this year for concerts that were cancelled last year keep getting pushed back as the pandemic remains an issue. “It’s going to be a hard reality to contend with. You have to find ways to get by and also be creative in the midst of it all.”

His optimism is inspiring. I’d be hard-pressed to name another artist or band that released new material that is as solid and consistent as Baldi has over the last year. In addition to the monthly EPs and another full-length, Bandcamp exclusive, LIFE IS ONLY ONE EVENT, Baldi and Gerycz released two free-form jazz albums as the aptly named Baldi/Gerycz Duo. Both of the records were recorded in the same one-month period, and there is still one album of material left. When I ask what made him want to release music like this, he shares that he grew up playing saxophone very seriously, and that even though Cloud Nothings demands most of his time, he still plays on and off. “I had kind of thought that would be my path in life, but in retrospect I don’t really know what that would have looked like.” I jokingly offer that he could have been in a ska band and he laughs. “I think my ideal would have been, like, a Colin Stetson path and be the indie saxophone guy. I could have been playing with Bon Iver,” he sighs. “Just look at me now, quarantined in Philadelphia.”

— 

At this point I feel like I’ve covered all things Dylan Baldi from the past year, although since our conversation I discovered he released a collection of solo demo recordings that is also really fucking good, so I decide to move on to the next project. THE SHADOW I REMEMBER will be Cloud Nothings’ ninth studio album. Clocking in at 33 minutes and 11 tracks, it is their most focused release to date and features some of Baldi’s most interesting song structures. “Every time we record, I want things to be different,” he states. “This time I wanted it to sound like the band because I feel like we got away from that for the past few albums.”

It’s safe to say that goal was achieved. SHADOW channels the fierce energy the band exhibited when they debuted the full band lineup on ATTACK ON MEMORY, and that could have something to do with the fact that they reunited with Steve Albini. In reading about the upcoming record, my mind was drawn back to almost a decade ago when vague rumors about how the band didn’t have the best time the last time they worked with him appeared in the press, with Baldi being quoted about Albini just playing Scrabble all the time. Looking back at those articles, I tell him that it doesn’t seem like he meant anything bad by it, but I’m still curious.

“To be clear,” he starts, and we both laugh, “there is a lot of down time when you’re making a record and there’s nothing to do. During the down time, the guy was playing Scrabble! I say things very flatly and seriously and people always assume that I’m being mean. I was just very straightforwardly explaining something that was happening while we were there.”

Open in Spotify

With that truth finally laid bare, I ask why they chose to work with Albini after all these years of working with a different producer for every new album. Baldi boils down the choice to return to a feeling of familiarity and a lack of pressure. “Steve really gets the band, and with him it feels like you are just going to your friend’s house: you record, you have a good time, and then you leave.” He goes on to explain that Abini’s expertise comes out on the engineering side of the process. “He’s not going to say anything about your songs, but he will give his opinions on the sound. He’s constantly fiddling with the mix and is a genius in that way, more so than I think people really give him credit for.” The album sounds incredible, benefitting from the energy and volume that can be unleashed in a proper recording studio, and a most welcome progression from the “fake” albums released last year. Where those records recall the dialed-back sonics of the first two solo Cloud Nothings records, THE SHADOW I REMEMBER calls back to the charged and biting nature heard on ATTACK ON MEMORY and HERE AND NOWHERE ELSE—raw, yet still refined, focused rock music that is catchy as fuck.

One thing that sticks out about the album was how each instrument sounds perfectly pronounced; the riffs, the basslines, the beat, and the vocals are obviously working together to form a song, but if you want to, you can just pick one to focus on and clearly hone in on it. I apologize for not having the right jargon when I try to explain this quality to Baldi, and he asks me if I read about this in some kind of press release where he was quoted. I haven’t, and the specificity of each musical part really only dawned on me after I listened to the record through my headphones after giving numerous car or speaker listens. Whatever the word is that I can’t seem to find, he’s glad I’ve noticed it. “It’s kind of nerdy, but with the stereo spread when you listen with headphones, you can focus on one particular sound throughout the record, and it doesn’t move, but it doesn’t get boring. I don’t know how he does that.” Baldi feels like this gives the record a sense of replayability. “It’s much more of a sonic experience than some of the other records we’ve done.”

— 

Baldi recently Tweeted that tracks four and seven are typically pretty good on any album, so I decided to start there. Track four, “Only Light,” is a whirlwind, with what feels like three distinct movements jam-packed into three blistering minutes. Baldi has been quoted as trying to break out of a character he felt like he had been playing when it came to song structures, and “Only Light” is a shining example of this progression. “I think that’s my favorite one on the record. We don’t have another song that sounds like that, and I don’t necessarily know what that sounds like. I kind of wanted every song on the album to follow that trajectory: climb a mountain and then fall off.” This description leads to a track that follows that grand design perfectly, “It’s Love,” a concise, double-time jam built around a hypnotizing lead guitar line. By the end of the brief minute-and-a-half run time, you are thrown off that mountain. I hypothesize it might be the shortest track in their discography. “It could be, but maybe a song from the self-titled record. I don’t really remember that one too well” (he’s right, it’s not). When the world is lucky enough to get a Cloud Nothings live show again, I bet him they’ll burn through “It’s Love” in under a minute.

“There were some things between ATTACK ON MEMORY and now that felt too big, and some weird things happened. That was like a peak and now we’re back to what, to me, feels much more manageable and that’s about as much as I ever wanted. I am OK with being the middle class or working class band.”

Cloud Nothings with Gradient

Track seven is called “Sound of Alarm,” built around a slightly distorted and pretty riff and an upbeat sing-along chorus with Baldi repeating the line “I need to make time for me / For me.” I can’t help but ask him if he’d had any idea of just how much time he was going to have on his hands when he first recorded the song and he naturally chuckles, reminding me that the song had been written before the lockdown. When I ask if he got enough time for himself he says, “I’m the kind of person who could live alone in the forest for the rest of my life and I would be fine. As long as I could eat and if I didn’t have to have money.” This last bit seems to trigger some quick reflection, following up with “So, I guess that’s not really true.”

Having touched on Baldi’s favorite track, I tell him that mine is “A Longer Moon.” He seems surprised. To me, it also follows the method of fitting the tension and growth of a longer progressive track into a concise three minutes, and there is a transition into a darker, chill-inducing second half that comes after an extended guitar hammer-on sequence. “Sometimes, when I’m making a song, I just do something that makes me laugh, and I start to wonder if I can actually use that. Like, what if we just did this one part for a long time?” On its own, the guitar riff would be dangerously close to corny (it’s very easy to imagine someone playing the riff one-handed while holding up the devil horns). But it gives way to an ominous beast in the form of low, single piano key hits over a steady bass groove before a cyclone of interweaving guitars rip in and derail everything. It is truly the highlight of the record.

— 

When discussing the title of the record, which comes from the closing track “The Room It Was,” Baldi brings up the subjective nature of perspective. He is interested in how someone’s history and past experience can allow people to experience the same events or places in very different ways. “In a cutesy way, it ties into returning to your roots as a band,” he says fondly. “Very literally, we are in the same studio, with the same producer, but things are different. Nine years have gone by, our lives are different, his life is different, but it’s essentially the same thing.”

Things are indeed very different now. Baldi started Cloud Nothings as a fake band to release his solo music, and within two years had assembled a permanent lineup, hell-bent on placing distance between their present and the bedroom studio where it all started. With each subsequent release, they pushed forward, exploring new structures, working with new producers, using new methods to release music in order to support themselves, and continuing to grow while retaining integrity. 10 years into Cloud Nothings’ existence, I wonder how he feels about where they are, and if any of it lined up with what he originally wanted.

“The fact that we can keep doing this, that a record label is, like, ‘Hey, we’ll give you $8,000 or whatever it is to go record with Steve Albini’ 10 years into this is where I wanted to be. Back when I was making music in my room, I wanted to be the band—we don’t even have to be a huge band, but I just wanted to have a thing, where I could say ‘This is my band’ and we can tour pretty much wherever we want and it usually ends up being a pretty good time. There were some things between ATTACK ON MEMORY and now that felt too big, and some weird things happened. That was like a peak and now we’re back to what, to me, feels much more manageable and that’s about as much as I ever wanted. I am OK with being the middle class or working class band.”

Open in Spotify

Hearing this level of satisfaction can almost seem out of character for Baldi. I mention that it could be easy to assume that he’s constantly bummed with the state of things based on his lyrics that have always explored the nature of change—afraid that it won’t happen, upset that it didn’t happen, or caught off guard when it does happen, just not the way that he expected. He laughs. I’m not sure if it’s my poor and rushed attempt to analyze his new lyrics, or if it’s because I’m almost on to something. “Something that is newer to my personal view of things is just like a general comfort with being alive.” He laughs again, but this time to himself. “Just, like, walking around and existing, I was very uncomfortable with that for a long time.”

A past sense of discomfort has always been present in Baldi’s work, even if the weight of it could, at times, be lessened when carried by a catchy melody. He knows he’s not old, but he knows being older has helped him become more comfortable with, in his words, “that existential dread that bothered me so much as a kid, as I accept it instead of treating it as something to be frightened of.” It’s a refreshing and relieving sentiment. Then, almost as though he doesn’t want to come off as too enlightened, he adds, “It’s not happiness, but just an acceptance of where things are.”

— 

So what is next? The original plan for the subscription service was to keep it going for a year, or more if time allows. “People seem to really appreciate the EPs and it’s not the hardest thing in the world to write four or five songs a month.” Baldi sounds committed to that, unless touring becomes an option. For those of us looking to get our live Cloud Nothings fix, he tells me that there will be a live stream event to coincide with the album release. I ask him if there’s any KISS-level pyrotechnics planned. “No pyro, but there are constant psychedelic visuals going on. It’s actually really confusing to look at but it’s good.”

I’m curious, with all the new material, how he will decide what will go on the setlists when the band can tour properly again. Will songs from BLACK HOLE or LIFE IS ONLY ONE EVENT be fair game? He says he isn’t sure but suggests that “by the time touring is something sensible for us, we’ll probably be, like, ‘Should we make another record?’” I am floored at this man’s drive. By my count at the time of writing this, Dylan Baldi has released 80 songs in one year combined under his own name, Baldi/Gerycz Duo, and Cloud Nothings, and he’s already got his eyes on the next record.

He says his dream is to release an album with four 20-minute tracks and then to just jam out like the Grateful Dead every night. “I don’t know how big of an audience there is for that.” I assure him that if he ever decides to do that and bring the show to Southern California that I will definitely be there. He thanks me but warns that he might have to charge me more if I’m going to be the only person there. I double down and say that, if it’s less than a thousand bucks and I get a commemorative plaque, I’m in. He laughs. 

“All right, $900 bucks and a plaque. It’s a deal.”

I cannot wait.

THE SHADOW I REMEMBER drops this Friday, February 26th.Grab a copy on Bandcamp!

Jake Mazon
Jake Mazon is the host of The Final Sound radio program on VPN, as well as a co-host on THE REAL ROCKER THEATER and WHAT'S YOUR RECORD? podcasts. There's a really good chance that he's already read the new article about what offensive thing Morrissey said this week, so please stop sending him the links.

    The Illusion and Delusion of SEARCH PARTY

    Previous article

    The Comfort of Tranquility In I AM DEAD

    Next article

    Comments

    Leave a reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *