Photo: Jesse Lirola
“It’s a pretty isolated zone,” Dylan Baldi remarks of the Midwest. He’s in Cleveland, Ohio, where he grew up on the city’s western suburban fringe, Westlake, and started Cloud Nothings. “It’s not like you make music here thinking you’re going to get famous.”
It’s the sardonic, defeatist attitude that’s romantically linked to much of the Rust Belt states like Ohio, as if there’s something glamorous about being an underdog. Just because Bruce Springsteen got famous singing about broken towns doesn’t mean being from those shitty towns is something to aspire to.
But at least there was something to rebel and fight against in 1970s New Jersey; Westlake isn’t a shithole, objectively speaking. The whole tragedy of the Rust Belt isn’t necessarily an identifier for people in Baldi’s demographic. It’s a more solipsistic crisis, marred with self-doubt and self-effacement. “I thought I would be more than this,” he bellows on “Wasted Days,” off of Cloud Nothings’ 2012 LP, Attack On Memory. He shouts that line 16 times on that track.
Two years later, they released Here And Nowhere Else, which was heralded by the beautiful, book-ending single, “I’m Not Part Of Me.” Ian Cohen called it their “finest song to date.” It’s certainly their most successful (read: well-known). Yet Baldi recalls it with a now-trademark blasé shrug. “I didn’t want that to be the first song that came out. It wasn’t my favourite song on the record.”
Part of it almost certainly comes from deeply-rooted self-policing, and disdain for anything less than the best. He’s not interested in creating music that isn’t better and different than what he’s done before. “I like trying to make a better version of some other song that I made. I’m mostly just trying to surprise myself,” he states mildly.
It seems like an anxiety, a fear of narratives and of labels; call him a good lyricist and he will tell you he doesn’t really care about lyrics. Tell him he’s a great guitarist, and he will point you at better ones, like Gillian Welch’s co-conspirator Dave Rawlings, who he’s really into right now. But he isn’t comfortable with the idea that people might be into him that way.
“It’s cool to see some [people] feel a way about our band that I felt about…” He trails off for a split second before veering away. “I don’t think about having that sort of influence. I don’t think I have that influence as a person.”
It’s easy as a listener to want to continue the narrative progression with Cloud Nothings’ fantastic new record, Life Without Sound, which is due out January 27 via Carpark Records. The band has a massive, reinvigorated, cleaner sound; not as grey as Here And Nowhere Else nor as frantic as Attack On Memory. It sounds like a breather after the marathon the previous two ran, an assessment. Attack saw a nihilistic, disappointed young musician, while Here showed positivity, an upswing. Life Without Sound offers a more mature, less extroverted band; a well-oiled pop band that is leaning into being just that: a pop band that sometimes writes great punk rock songs.
“There was just more time to reflect on what we’ve been doing, and what we were going to keep doing, which was being in a band,” Baldi says of the time they had writing Life Without Sound. “It’s a bit of a ‘coming up for air’ sort of record.”
“I mean, the first song is called ‘Up To The Surface,’” he snorts.
The sentiment is too obvious to convey without acknowledging and poking fun of how blatant it is. He jumps on the joke before anyone else can. Baldi has all his bases covered.
It’s intimately clear how important music is to him, and how seriously he takes his craft. He doesn’t really fuck around. Like, at all. There have literally been entire interview pieces begrudgingly dedicated to how reticent the frontman is in conversation. And why shouldn’t he be, when publications plaster “notoriously neurotic Dylan Baldi” on their headlines. He doesn’t need to be discursive in interviews and one-on-one discussions, nor is he obliged to be. He exorcises his emotions in song; it’s all there, for everyone to see. Expecting him to do so in conversation, and ostracizing him for not doing so, is remarkably selfish.
“Music in general has always been a therapeutic activity for me,” he recalls, reaching back to when music began to grip him tight. When he got his license, he’d stop by his favourite CD store, pick up a few discs, and then he’d drive as far west as he could before going too far. Through farm territory, rural areas, “cornfields and generic Midwestern shit.” Then he’d come back, retracing his steps back home. It’s almost a Samwise Gamgee-esque tensing of boundaries; how far outside the Shire can you go before you’ve really left? Do you count the footsteps or the mile markers? Except for Baldi, there was no end game; it was just music and movement. “I like going places without having a destination,” he admits.
“Once I started deciding I was going to write songs with a point, then I started using those to sort through what I was thinking at the time,” he relates. “Especially once I started not knowing what was going on with my life. I dropped out of school to start the band, and that was already such a radical departure from what I had thought I was going to be doing. It was important for me to have that outlet to sort through things.”
He was going to be studying saxophone. “Which has all sorts of applications in the real world,” he chuckles, half-sounding like a sarcastic dad explaining to his colleagues that his son studies saxophone.
I tell him how John Elliott, another Cleveland scene fixture, likened Cloud Nothings to Kraftwerk in their work ethic and rehearsal scheme. Baldi roars laughing; “When did John say that?!” Most ‘guitar-rock’ elitists would balk at being compared to a German electronic group epitomized with an industrial aesthetic. What makes Baldi brilliant is he doesn’t; he loves Kraftwerk. But maybe there are some parallels.
“They didn’t know what they were doing from day one,” he posits. “Once they got that new drummer, they kind of kicked in and became the robots.” Some would say the same of Cloud Nothings when drummer Jayson Gerycz joined the band. And “the robots” doesn’t necessarily refer to Kraftwerk; it’s a state of idealized performance, of optimization, that most bands want to achieve. A sort of ‘we’ve made it’ stage.
But Baldi doesn’t think that’s the case with his band. He’s still coming to terms with the proverbial here and nowhere else.
“When you go to Europe as band that’s touring, you have to write down your occupation on a little landing card. And I would always write ‘musician,’ and that just felt so weird, cause I don’t feel like I have a job. I’m coming here to play music I guess. It was hard to realize that’s what I’m doing. That’s my job.”
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t like talking to journalists, or talking about his own craft in general; he’s not even sure he’s a musician, he’s not even sure if these conversations are warranted, let alone sure if he should give them credence. If he’s achieved something great, he stands more to lose. He’s easing into the role, anxiously; this is technically Cloud Nothings’ fifth full-length record, and only now is Baldi cool with saying, ‘I’m a musician.’
“I’m finally comfortable with that, and I can say that to people and not feel like I’m lying or pretending to be something that I’m not, and that is some kind of sign of where my head is at. It does sort of feel like I’m faking it up to a certain point. But I’ve been faking it long enough that I can at least pretend I’m doing it. I’m better at pretending,” he laughs.
Just over a minute into “Sight Unseen,” a cutting, classic Cloud Nothings boiler (that is, never really handing us a cathartic crescendo; when it does come, it’s messy, noisy, rough), Baldi offers dryly, “The following is an account of all that I have seen.” Life Without Sound is another year or two in Baldi’s life, and he’s offered his distillation of that life in a tremendous new record that doesn’t try to plumb nostalgia, nor overstep its bounds into the future. He never tries to be something he’s not, and he’ll be the first to admit it, shouting in your face, “I want a life, that’s all I need lately.”