The Key Moments That Made Cloud Nothings One of the Best Indie Bands Around

rock music! Photo: Josh Brasted/FilmMagic

Cloud Nothings began as a slapdash lo-fi pop project for Dylan Baldi in his parents’ Westlake, Ohio, basement, and the band churns out some of the most frenetic, head-smashing music in indie rock right now. Released last week, Cloud Nothings’ latest album, Last Burning Building, sounds like they’re throttling away from 2017’s more measured Life Without Sound, but Baldi — ever wary of overthinking music tropes like career narratives or thematic content — doesn’t tend to look at his albums as reactions to what came before. “Nothing is on purpose. We’ll do a bunch of shit really fast and then later have time to reflect on it and be like ‘Oh, maybe that’s what this is about.’”

The first-thought-best-thought approach has been a guiding principle for one of the most flat-out thrilling indie rock institutions of the decade. So it may seem counterintuitive to ask an artist who raged against nostalgia and sentiment on his breakthrough album to look back on defining songs at each point in his career, but we did it anyway. Here’s Baldi on six crucial Cloud Nothings tracks.

“Hey Cool Kid” (Turning On, 2010)

A truncated version of Baldi’s origin story goes like this: as a freshman saxophone major at Case Western Reserve University, he spent weekends writing songs on GarageBand in his parents’ basement. These were then uploaded to multiple Myspace accounts for fake bands he’d daydreamed up in school, one of which would be actualized into Cloud Nothings. He was mostly looking for a way out of the malaise of whatever a normal life might bring. “I was taking it a little more seriously than I should have. Even the sound quality of these songs, they sound horrible, but they were cool. I was just making these tin can recordings, so I guess I was a kind of delusional 18-year-old at the time.”

“Hey Cool Kid,” the first of his Cloud Nothings singles, would become something of a firestarter for Baldi, generating interest on MP3 blogs and eventually, getting booked on a New York show. This led to more touring opportunities for the young songwriter and an eventual compilation of early recordings, Turning On — first released by Bridgetown Records, later reissued when the band signed to Carpark Records. “I do feel like it is kind of an artifact of the era,” Baldi says of its scrappy lo-fi sheen, remarking that he isn’t sure how this trajectory could happen today. The same blistering snark is of a piece with the Cloud Nothings who would eventually … cover Coldplay’s “Clocks.” Baldi says the track, which still rates as one of the band’s most streamed songs despite clearly existing in a different musical era, came from being an outcast for much of his life. “I think it’s just … I never really felt like I fit in as a kid or at any point, it was always just sort of on the fringe of various groups of people who identified really hard as one thing.”

“Heartbeat” (Cloud Nothings, 2011)

For Cloud Nothings’ debut album, Baldi was pushed outside of his comfort zone. “I remember being kind of freaked out, ’cause I had to drive all the way to Baltimore from Cleveland and at that point I still really hadn’t gone to too many places outside of Ohio. And I was staying on a couch of some dude I didn’t know at all,” he says. In Baltimore, he was paired with producer Chester Gwazda, who’d previously worked with Dan Deacon. He helped Baldi sand away the rough edges of his music, keeping the sugary roots intact and bringing his vocals more clearly to the front. Baldi now likens the self-titled debut to “going down a slide,” and doesn’t seem interested in its circular brevity. “I don’t think a whole lot about this record. I don’t know the last time I listened to it, I think ’cause my voice freaks me out on this one.”

On a record almost entirely composed of bright, sunny hooks, he tends to latch onto “Heartbeat,” a dark quickie that never repeats itself. “This one was still really fast and fun but there was sort of a darker side to it that I didn’t realize until I heard it back. I don’t remember if I thought ‘I want to make more stuff like that,’ but I think maybe in the back of my mind that was brewing.”

“No Future/No Past” (Attack on Memory, 2012)

A line in the sand if there ever was one, the lead single for Attack on Memory made clear this was a new kind of band. Baldi tends to think of this as a pivot point only in the sense that it was “the first record people liked,” but the presence of Cloud Nothings’ live lineup (Jayson Gerycz, TJ Duke, and Joe Boyer, initially) for the first time in studio made a palpable difference. This was a ferocious unit, capable of swallowing a song whole into extended noise midsections, while Baldi nearly shredded his vocal cords and kept piling up the hooks. He was diving deep into ’80s punk, overtly trying to mimic Wipers’ “Youth of America” in the case of “Wasted Days,” but ended up with something else entirely.

“No Future/No Past” hangs on those hopeless, repeated mantras that would come to define Cloud Nothings’ heaviest entries, and Baldi’s most guttural vocal work widely available at that point. He still remembers where he was when the song came out, several weeks before their fortunes would really change with Attack on Memory’s release — a sparsely attended show in Baton Rouge, insanely sick in flannel sweatpants and a giant hoodie. The online/real-world contrast stuck with him: “I remember that day in particular, because it was weird reading people online being like ‘Yeah this song’s awesome,’ and to be playing a show for two people while I’m throwing up.”

“I’m Not Part of Me” (Here and Nowhere Else, 2014)

If Attack on Memory was an introduction to what this rhythm section was capable of, Here and Nowhere Else uncorked them with fury. Producer John Congleton summoned Gerycz’s thwacks to hit louder, faster, and higher in the mix, and the whole band — reduced to a three-piece at this point — seemed to level up out of necessity. It was the last time Baldi consciously tried to emulate another artist, the jerky riff-work of Scottish punk band Life Without Buildings. (He realized during our talk that their band name was sort of a portmanteau of the last two Cloud Nothings albums.)

Baldi has a complicated relationship with their hook-crazy calling card “I’m Not Part of Me,” to the point where he wasn’t even sure about releasing it as a single. “I was like ‘This one sucks, you can’t put this one out first.’ I hated it. Then everyone else was like, ‘No you should, I think people will like this one.’ Turns out, everyone else was right.” It’s not uncommon for a punk-adjacent artist to feel burned out with their most popular song, but Baldi would eventually find its structural perfections “satisfying in a math way …like architecture or something” — interchangeable pieces you can align in their right place and repeat. But despite the song’s jagged edges and knotty lamentations on grounding yourself after heartbreak, Baldi seems more interested in verse-chorus-verse-noise structure these days.

“Modern Act” (Life Without Sound, 2017)

Cloud Nothings took their time leading up to Life Without Sound, largely a product of Baldi living in Paris and Massachusetts for long stretches. “What made the other records so cohesive is we were just together all the time. There was barely any time where we weren’t thinking about these songs or talking about music,” he says. “This one, that slowed down so rapidly that I almost forgot what the band sounded like.” Working with veteran producer John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney) proved to add a new luster, although the band’s ferocity still bubbled underneath.

Baldi also took his time on lyrics, which is to say, more than scribbling them down in the studio as had been the method on past releases. Since so much time had spanned from writing and recording to the album’s release, these could easily get misconstrued. Take the clean, sharp “Modern Act,” whose cynicism toward much of the outside world could seem a little topical when the album was released in January of 2017. Baldi assures the impending carnage wasn’t anywhere near his mind when writing it in 2015; any Cloud Nothings fan would know the hopelessness is evergreen. “It wasn’t very of the moment, even though the lyrics could be interpreted that way because my general outlook is ‘Well, the world’s going to shit,’ no matter what’s going on.”

“Dissolution” (Last Building Burning, 2018)

Three of the four full-band Cloud Nothings records have followed the same formula: seven breakneck tracks and one sprawling beast that threatens to consume the album whole. “Dissolution” is the latest entry into the latter category, following “Wasted Days” and “Pattern Walks,” and stands as Cloud Nothings’ longest track to date. It’s a natural progression, but its midsection noodles off into drone and Gerycz’s jazz inclinations to be something more complex than its predecessors, before thundering back in the final minute. The bulk of “Dissolution” would not sound out of place from Gerycz and Baldi’s avant-garde digressions with a side project called Skunk Wook Quartet, which performed a wild one-off gig this summer in Cleveland.

Baldi was in a heavy mind-set during the Last Building Burning sessions, listening to a bunch of doom metal, and pairing with a producer in Randall Dunn (Wolves in the Throne Room, Sunn O)))) who knew his way around this kind of onslaught. An outside-the-box pairing, but of a piece with Baldi’s recurring musical interests. “The stuff that I’m really into and have been my whole life is … hard to listen to sometimes, stuff that’s pretty chaotic. That feels like what the inside of my head is like the whole time, so I listen to stuff that makes me feel like I’m normal.”

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