Life Without Cloud Nothings on the Car Stereo Isn’t Worth Living
Dylan Baldi has never been one to stick to a formula. From his early 7” singles to 2015’s collaborative album with Wavves, he has continually insisted that his band, Cloud Nothings, sound different with each release. When he began recording under that moniker in 2008, he was really just some kid from Cleveland fucking around, making lo-fi pop songs. About a year into it, he scored a record deal with D.C.'s Carpark Records to release Cloud Nothings' proper debut album, a self-titled collection of giddily urgent pop-punk that sounded like the result of one too many energy drinks. Despite universal praise, Baldi became bored writing what he felt were pop songs that all sounded the same.
Although he initially considered changing the name, Baldi returned with a full-time band and chose to make his music virtually unrecognizable. Cloud Nothings recorded an antagonistic album called Attack on Memory with Steve Albini, fully intending to wipe away any traces of Baldi’s musical past. Things got even more intense on the follow-up, 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else, an album that saw the band continue to pursue their path in making incensed noise-pop, but at breakneck speed, with a few more hooks thrown in.
The fourth Cloud Nothings full-length lives up to Baldi’s proposal to keep moving forward. Life Without Sound was conceived in a period full of uncertainty for Baldi. He began recording it the day he moved back to the U.S. from Paris, and spent the first block of the time working on the album while he was living with his girlfriend in Northampton, Mass. He then returned home to Cleveland to continue working with the band before they headed out to El Paso, Texas, to record with John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead, Unwound) at Sonic Ranch.
Life Without Sound marks more transference for Cloud Nothings. There isn’t that need to be so cutthroat and urgent with the pacing, which allows the songs to open up and breathe. Also of note: The pop hooks are the strongest they’ve been since the first album. As Baldi tells CLRVYNT, this new album (which you can stream below) marks the end of a trilogy, leaving us to guess which direction Cloud Nothings will head next. (Hint: It might be a Hanson tribute album using only the tambourine.)
I was surprised to hear piano open up the album. What inspired that decision?
There was a piano at the studio. [Laughs] That was really it. Yeah, it just seemed like a nice, calm way to open things. There is piano all over the record, in the background here and there, actually. We did that with Attack on Memory, and I liked the effect it had sound-wise. I like to just throw a piano in the background. This was just a good way to make people think, “Oh, different record!” I like to start things by turning people off a little, and eventually it will make sense to them.
Was the piano originally part of the arrangement?
No. The song was done. We went in there ready to go. But the piano was there, so it was one of a few things we added at the end, because we had time. I think it just filled the song out. There's also some synths on the record that are hard to hear, and there's a Rhodes on “Enter Entirely” at one point. The producer was like, “What if we put some tambourine here?” But I was like, “No.” That’s the one thing we didn’t do. We’re not quite a tambourine band, but the next record is just tambourine, though. [Laughs]
Life Without Sound seems to bring back more of the hooks from the self-titled album, especially compared to the last two albums. Was that intentional?
Maybe. I wasn’t thinking about it like that. I’m always trying to write pop songs, basically. In my mind, Here and Nowhere Else is a pop record. There are hooks all over it. But in doing interviews for this record, I’ve discovered that some people don’t think that way, or that this album is poppier. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything too different on this record, but I always try to make each record sound different from anything we’ve done before. If anything, this one feels like the culmination of the various elements we’ve introduced over the last few records. It feels like a nice closing statement. Not that the band is done, but it feels like the end of a phase.
So, do you consider Attack on Memory, Here and Nowhere Else and Life Without Sound to be a trilogy?
I guess so. Because even the record covers are similar, in a way. They’re all just blurry photos I took of stuff. It just kinda feels like it caps off learning how to write these kinds of songs. I think maybe the next thing we do will sound very different.
Well, the production seems to be getting tidier.
Yeah, they keep getting bigger and better and cleaner.
Is that something you want — to polish up your sound?
No, it’s always an accident. I don’t listen to many records that are polished in the way that this one is. So, I’m not even familiar with the type of people that produce those records. All of our recommendations for producers have come from our label. Like, “How about this guy?” Because if it was up to us, we’d make a record that sounded like it was in a cave that was 4,000 miles away. Nobody would want to hear that but us. Steve Albini was the only person I actually knew that we’ve worked with.
So, you worked with John Goodmanson because he was recommended?
Yeah. He’s good friends with Wichita, our European label. He’s done a bunch of records for them, like Los Campesinos!, the Blood Brothers and Wild Flag.
But he’s also produced some Hanson records.
Dude, you want to talk about Hanson? I know too much about Hanson. At the studio, Sonic Ranch in El Paso, everyone would tell us how Hanson is the greatest band. Like, Hanson, really? And then John started talking about them, and apparently everyone just loves to work with Hanson and says they’re such a great example. I didn’t go check out Hanson after that, because I had other stuff to do, but I was convinced that people just like Hanson. That is a fact.
They have a ridiculous following, almost like some secret society or cult. As for you, the last record was rushed. What did having two years do for the band?
It was great. We took some time off because we toured too much. No band should ever tour that much. I feel like we could have either kept touring and lost our minds completely, or stopped and tried to become people again. So, we took option two. When we started working on this record, I was writing stuff alone for a long time, just noodling. I was living in western Massachusetts, in a very beautiful place where I would just ride my bike in the mornings around the woods and go for a hike, then come back and work on music. It was pretty relaxing. And then once we started working on a band, it was nice to actually play something more than once before we had to move on. So, we practiced until it sounded good. It’s great to have time. I recommend time to everybody.
Sounds like Massachusetts was great. Why did you return to Cleveland?
I was living with my girlfriend there at the time, and we just decided to live together for that one moment in time. So, I went back to Cleveland and she moved elsewhere, too. But things are okay. We’re just not really together. That’s why. It was an okay time to return to Cleveland because we ended up working on the record every day for hours and hours. So, it was fine with me. Our drummer had just bought a house, so when I moved back, I started living in his house. And that’s where I’m speaking to you from right now.
Over the last three albums, you’ve recorded with Steve Albini, John Congleton and John Goodmanson. Those are three pretty big names.
I like to switch it up because it keeps things interesting. Going in to make a record with the same person could be fun, but I like when our records sound different. Especially with the people we’ve chosen to work with. Unless the songs were radically different, I think they’d just sound the same as whatever previous record we made with them. So, I just like to work with people that have different ideas of what we can sound like. Because we just play the songs. Someone else records them and can make them sound totally different somehow.
So, you associate a different producer with bringing in a different sound?
I guess so, yeah. Just changing the actual sound of the record, not necessarily the sound of the band. Each of our records has their own kind of atmosphere, and I feel like that’s important for me to have.
What is “Realize My Fate” about?
That was actually the first song I wrote for the record, and it came to me two years ago. It kind of encapsulates the vague theme of all the songs on the record. Or at least lyrically it’s the clearest. It’s about just coming to terms about uncertainty. Being okay with not quite knowing what’s going on or why you’re doing what you’re doing.
It sounds like you had a lot of uncertainty in your life. Didn’t you also live in Paris for a while?
Yeah, I did. And the day I came back from Paris in August 2014 was the day I made [“Realize My Fate”], weirdly enough. I was all jet-lagged and feeling weird, so I just started playing my guitar. And I just wrote that song and thought, “Huh. That’s pretty good, I guess.”
This album includes a lyric sheet. What does that say about your confidence as a songwriter this time around?
Really, all it says is that I would read reviews or people commenting on the records or tweeting lyrics at me, and they would be wrong all the time. Like not even close to something I would ever say. So, I wanted to put in a lyric sheet so nobody would get them wrong. [Laughs] I mean, I love buying a record and having that sheet inside, but we just never did it with ours before. It just felt like the right time to start doing it. I think this is also the first record where you can sort of understand what I’m actually saying, so we might as well put the words in there.
In the press release, you talk about how you always listen to your music in the car when it's finished. What is it about driving to your music that makes it the best way of testing out your songs?
I feel like driving is the ultimate way to listen to music. I’ve spent the last seven years driving around listening to music. Like driving in a van all around the world. I like having something to do while I listen to music, and driving is a good way to zone out. I guess I need to focus on the road so I don’t die, but it’s a good closed space to look around and associate the music with some kind of environment. I’ve always done it. In high school, I would just drive miles and miles into the middle of nowhere and listen to weird records. I never really stopped doing that.
So, do you listen to a new record when it’s just completed or demoed, and then want to change anything about it afterwards?
No. I will really just play it one time and drive around, maybe see my old high school or my old house. It’s kind of just a nostalgia trip. But it’s not an emotional experience. I just do it for fun.
Does it matter how good the stereo is?
No, mine is terrible. If I had a good stereo, I’d be playing our records all the time. [Laughs] I like our records, luckily. I never thought I’d ever be doing it with my records.