Dylan Baldi, the singer-songwriter behind Cleveland, Ohio indie rock outfit Cloud Nothings, comes off as a strong contrast to the serious alternative rock of the band’s latest records: he’s genial over the phone when the albums are ferocious, he’s relaxed when the music is intense.
Dylan is gearing up to release the band’s latest album, Here and Nowhere Else, at the end of the month. It’s an uncompromising follow-up to 2012’s Attack On Memory that extends the scope of the band. “It’s not just an in-your-face rock record. There’s more going on,” he previously said.
Setting aside some time to speak to Music Feeds, Dylan details the headspace he was in for this latest record, the creative barriers that existed, and the role of speed in his music. He also explained what Clif bars are to an Antipodean interviewer and why Laneway was the best tour he’s ever done.
Music Feeds: You guys debuted Here and Nowhere Else at a show in Brooklyn. How do you feel the new album was received by those attending?
Dylan Baldi: Oh, that show was weird, man. It was just for press people so it was just a lot of people standing and looking at you and kinda not smiling. I thought we played fine. When you’re actually playing [the new songs] and it’s just a room full of people just looking at you and not really showing any emotion, it’s sort of frightening [laughs] It’s weird but I think people liked it.
MF: We watched a couple of videos of it and it seemed fine, and the music was great.
DB: Yeah, we ripped [laughs] It was the first time we really played a lot of those songs live. I like playing those songs regardless.
MF: There was a lot of press at the gig for good reason. In case you didn’t know, Here And Nowhere Else is a highly anticipated album. It’s appearing in ‘Highly Anticipated In 2014’ lists from lots of outlets. The AV Club ranked it amongst Wes Anderson’s latest film and Season 4 of Game Of Thrones.
With the album coming out end of March, what can people expect from this latest one?
DB: [jokingly] Well, it sounds just like Game of Thrones would. It’s like Game of Thrones, but you can listen to it while you exercise. No, I don’t know. It’s just eight really good songs, you know? And I’m proud of it. [It’s] The first record we made where I’m not embarrassed by the way I sing or by anything about it.
I can stand by every little part of it and say “I’m actually really proud of this.” So if you like the last stuff, I think you’ll really like this one maybe even more.
MF: The song titles give off this melancholic, angsty feel, such as Giving Into Seeing, Just See Fear and I’m Not Part Of Me. But in interviews you’ve stated you’ve been more positive, and less ‘fuck everything.’
What was the process behind this album? What was the headspace you were occupying for this record?
DB: It’s funny the things [journalists] write you [said]. Yeah, I remember [saying] this thing, but now it’s everywhere.
MF: Do you want to revise the statement?
DB: [Jokingly] Yeah, allow me to elaborate. Well, no, this one I was definitely in a more positive place than when I was recording Attack On Memory. I was actually fairly depressed at the time [recording Attack On Memory], because no one actually liked the band. And that’s how I was spending my life, and that’s a bit of a weird way to spend it.
But with this [latest] one…things were well received last time but it’s not like I was some sort of Disney happy idiot character, so there’s obviously other emotions that come through on the record. But just lyrically I guess is what I was talking about with that quote.
[The new album] deals with the same themes as Attack On Memory but it just takes on a more positive viewpoint. With the last one, the song titles were probably even more depressing, like Wasted Days and Stay Useless, but this one is more just trying a positive spin than those darker songs.
MF: Definitely. Some of the influences on your last record were Black Sabbath, Wipers, and Thin Lizzy. Would you say it is the same here or were there any other influences this time around? Aside from breaking out of that depressing state?
DB: [jokingly] Yeah, I only listened to Taylor Swift. I listen to a lot of different types of music that don’t even come through on the record necessarily. When I was making this [record] I listened to a lot of jazz honestly. Which doesn’t really make sense since I didn’t make a jazz record. Really, the thing that I took from there was the way that I play guitar.
Because I’m the only guitarist in the band now I really needed to think of a way to fill out the sound. And I listened to a lot of piano trio jazz because the piano has the whole chord thing going on. I just had to think of a way to make the guitar work in that way. The stuff that I listened to doesn’t even sound like the record, it’s just stuff that songwriting-wise I took some cues from.
Listen: Cloud Nothings – I’m Not Part of Me
MF: We know with Attack On Memory, live you guys were a four-piece but now you’ve reverted back to the power trio. Does that change your live show? Can you even play the Attack On Memory tracks now?
DB: Yeah, I can play them, it’s just that they don’t sound like the record, but they still sound okay, they’re still decent songs. It’s harder to think of a way to make it work. For the last three records I thought in terms of ‘two guitars, bass and drums.’
With this one it was a bit of a struggle at first but I kinda like having that struggle when I’m writing something because if it was easy, if I were to make another ‘two guitars, bass and drums’ record, it might’ve ended up a little boring in a way. Having this has opened things up to try some different stuff.
MF: Attack On Memory was named so because you wanted to get away from those older albums. Listening to the first singles from Here and Nowhere Else, they seem to marry the power pop of those older albums and the aggression and grittiness of Attack On Memory. Do you feel that’s a natural progression for Cloud Nothings?
DB: It feels natural to me. It’s the songs that made sense to write at this time. I don’t really premeditate anything, I just sit down and play guitar until something sounds nice and then I think “Oh yeah, I’ll just follow that wherever it goes.”
So with this one, a lot of people are saying it’s a mix of everything we’ve done so far, which is kinda cool. But I think obviously everything we’ve done so far is me, it’s an important part of my growth as a singer-songwriter.
MF: Listening to it last night, we had this idea it was like Titus Andronicus following up The Monitor with Local Business in that you didn’t go in the same direction and have kept it interesting. If you were to do Attack On Memory once again, it might be too much of the same thing, maybe?
DB: Definitely. I don’t think I could even do that. Attack On Memory came from a different version of me even [and] I couldn’t go there anymore. I couldn’t sit down and write another No Future / No Past, I couldn’t even write a slow song for this record. It just felt boring. It didn’t feel like me.
MF: We managed to catch you guys live at Lincoln Hall in Chicago in September 2012. It was a set of Attack On Memory in full and then your encore was a medley of three earlier songs.
We were just so surprised at the pace of those earlier songs live, especially the frenetic drumming and the noisiness of the guitars. Especially compared to what you’d recorded. With this new album, we got a lot of that pace again and it really captures that specific live element more. Was that intentional in the studio?
DB: It wasn’t intentional, but if I’m playing live that many times, how we play in the studio is [definitely] the way we play live now. Some of these songs only sound good when they’re pretty fast [too]. I like writing catchy poppy songs in a way but I like always having a barrier in front of that catchiness, something that doesn’t just make it into a straightforward pop song.
Speed on these songs might actually be what that barrier is, which I didn’t even notice until an interview twenty minutes ago, but these things can just blow by you and you don’t necessarily realise that.
MF: As a listener, the speed of the record is exciting.
DB: Me too, but some may just hear it and think “Eh, it’s just noise,” but I don’t understand those people.
MF: Another thing with this album is that it really benefits from listening on headphones, just the way it really fills the space and just to crank it up, you get to hear something new each time in the mix.
DB: Yeah, that’s intentional in a way. I think about the way songs work so much that it gets to a serious nerd point. That kind of stuff results in a record that sounds better with headphones where you can hear the space between instruments, between notes in a chord, and just stuff you don’t necessarily think about but that just sounds good, that just feels good to listen to.
Listen: Cloud Nothings – Psychic Trauma
MF: You recorded this one with John Congleton (The Walkmen, Swans) in New Jersey. What was it like working with him creatively? What do you feel he brought to the recording sessions?
DB: He brought a lot of Clif bars. Do you guys have those over there?
MF: Clipse bars? Clif?
DB: A Clif – like C-L-I-F. They’re like a little health food bar. Like a candy bar but it’s healthy. He ate those every day but aside from —
MF: Wait, did he give you any?
DB: No, they were his Clif bars. I have to get my own food. Well, when we got there, he hadn’t heard any of the songs, and we didn’t really know anything beyond his credit list. It was kinda figuring each other out, [but] then once we started recording he just made it sound really good right away. He understood us and the band really quickly. There wasn’t much talk about what to do.
MF: Was this any different from [Attack On Memory producer] Steve Albini?
DB: The biggest difference for me was probably that if we played something and [Congleton] thought we could play it better, he would tell us and be like “try that again,” until we actually did it right. Whereas Steve, if we played something badly he would just say “What do you think?” He would have no opinion in the process.
John had a little bit more of an investment in us in making our record sounding the best it could. At first it was kinda annoying but then you’re like, “It’s probably important for our record to sound good, we should play this”.
MF: Looking at your tour diary, you’ll be gearing up for some tours across North America, starting with SXSW and then across to Europe. Are you excited to take this new record out to your old fans and new?
DB: Yeah, for sure. I’m always excited to play any new song. We toured Attack On Memory for two years and it made me lose my mind so it’s nice to play some new stuff. Even if it’s a bunch of songs that I hated I’d be like, “Thank God I’m playing these songs,” but luckily I like these [songs].
MF: You were last in Australia in January and February 2013 for Laneway Festival. Do you have any fond memories of that tour and the crowds you played to? What was it like playing your first Australian tour?
DB: I loved that tour. That was the best tour we’ve ever done. It was so much fun. I think it was just because Australia is such a cool place. But Laneway, [I liked] the environment around that touring circus of bands, you make a bunch of friends, hang out the whole time. It’s really something I want to do again right away. The whole experience was amazing.
MF: Well, looking at your tour diary on your website, you don’t actually have any Australia dates. When can we next expect you here?
DB: Oh, we don’t? We will. I think December and January we’ll be going back there. As soon as it gets cold in Cleveland we gotta go somewhere warm.
MF: Well, I was hoping you were going to say that just so that we don’t have to get on our knees and beg, or anything demeaning like that.
DB: Oh, no need to beg. We’ll come to you even if no one wants us.
MF: I don’t think that’s gonna be the case.
DB: Yeah, I know, I was just joking around.
Cloud Nothings’ fourth album, ‘Here and Nowhere Else’, is released Friday, 28th March through Stop Start.