Cloud Nothings can’t wait to escape the walk-in closet in which we’ve stuck them.
“Are we done yet?” says drummer Jayson Gerycz, half-joking, his voice suggesting the button-down shirts and billowy blouses are slowly closing in on him.
There’s something a bit surreal about living in a stranger’s Airbnb apartment under normal circumstances, but it gets even weirder when you’re you’re taking candid photos in their closet, passing around a G Pen, drinking malty bottles of Shiner Bock and blasting everything from Aphex Twin to Anthrax. Frontman Dylan Baldi, bassist TJ Duke and Gerycz are here, several miles and one long, unpleasant walk away from downtown Austin, because they agreed to promote their new Here and Nowhere Else LP with a couple of last-minute gigs at South By Southwest. That includes tonight’s Carpark Records showcase (a headlining set that will end up owning the room until the house lights turn on at 2 a.m.) and tomorrow’s SPIN party at the sprawling barbecue spot Stubb’s. Neither of which match the level of stress Cloud Nothings faced three years ago, when they booked a bootstrap tour from Cleveland to SXSW and were struggling to get anyone‘s attention.
“Nobody liked our band,” says Baldi. “We toured a lot and no one came to our shows. It was a pretty dark, weird time.”
“We needed a breath of fresh air,” adds Duke. “When you do something for a really long time and you don’t feel like you’re gaining any momentum, it’s kind of a sad state of being. Something had to happen.”
“I remember having some pretty deep conversations with Jayson and Dylan in the year or two before [Cloud Nothings' third album] Attack on Memory came out,” Carpark founder Todd Hyman says a couple weeks after the Austin trip. “They weren’t making money. They didn’t want to lose their day jobs. I did my best to give them advice.”
More importantly, he paid for a brisk make-or-break session with Chicago’s most notorious engineer, Steve Albini, all without hearing a single demo. That’s how much he trusted Baldi’s songwriting skills and the band’s ability to bring the lo-fi hooks of Cloud Nothings’ first couple LPs — solo efforts that got weirder and wilder on the road — into full relief. Sure enough, when the final mix of Attack on Memory arrived, Hyman was floored by its venomous vocals, criss-crossing guitars and battering-ram beats.
“For a couple seconds, I thought I got sent the wrong disc,” explains Hyman. “It seemed quite a bit different than the other Cloud Nothings records we’d released. I remember thinking, ‘People are gonna either love this or hate it.’ I’m glad most people loved it.”
They certainly did. Pitchfork, for one, slapped a Best New Music tag on the album, with contributing editor Ian Cohen writing, “Those of us who grew up on Drive Like Jehu, Braid and Jawbreaker can listen to Attack on Memory and sense their artistic legacy is in good hands, but there will inevitably be teenagers for whom Attack on Memory stands to be that kind of record to call their own.”
That’s exactly what happened once the tight-knit trio decided to focus on music full-time rather than playing blocks of shows broken up by stints delivering pizzas (Gerycz), sweeping floors (Duke), and living with parents (Baldi). With more than a year of tireless touring ahead of them, Cloud Nothings finally found their footing and gave their fiercest performances yet, whipping an increasing number of capacity crowds into a frenzy, like a hardcore band that happens to write pitch-perfect pop songs.
“People like the darkness,” says Gerycz, grinning and referring to the bleak lyrical bent of songs like “No Future/No Past,” “No Sentiment” and, above all, “Wasted Days,” which spends nearly nine minutes galloping around groaning interlocked riffs to arrive at a very telling chorus: “I thought/ I would/ Be more/ Than this.” By the end, Baldi sounds both exhausted and reborn.
While Attack on Memory may have been the big break Cloud Nothings desperately needed, their first taste of success came in 2009, when Baldi, Duke and two short-lived touring members drove down to Brooklyn’s Market Hotel for their very first show. It was a last-minute opening set for Woods and Real Estate, booked after promoter Todd Patrick heard one of his roommates — Coasting guitarist/singer Madison Farmer, who now works for Goner Records — cranking the Cloud Nothings cassette Turning On. Baldi had friended Coasting on MySpace, leading them to check out his early tracks and fall for, as Farmer puts it, “this 18-year-old kid playing super blown-out, extremely catchy, power fuzz pop.”
“I was bartending that show,” says Farmer, “which made it hard to focus on the set completely, but I do remember feeling like this was the beginning of something great. People were coming up to the bar asking, ‘What the fuck was that!?’ in a good way. Dylan’s gonna hate this, but I still play ‘Hey Cool Kid’ at the bar when I’m working.”
Another person who saw something in Cloud Nothings early on was Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick, who played the Turning On tape for Hyman when he was visiting Columbia in 2009. “‘Hey Cool Kid’ really caught my ear,” says Bundick. “I found myself listening to it all the time and showing friends. Dylan’s doing a great job of not repeating himself and creating his own sound. He’s a smart, no-bullshit kind of guy, which is very rare in musicians nowadays.”
“Hey Cool Kid” was one of the many dirt-caked home recordings that demonstrated Baldi’s natural pop tendencies when he was still in high school. Back then, Baldi thought he was going to be an avant-garde saxophonist like Albert Ayler, to the point where he briefly pursued a music degree at Case Western Reserve University.
“I thought it was a good idea to go,” he says of the month he spent at the school. “I was wrong. It’s weird to think I cared about [playing the sax] so much at one point, because I really don’t anymore.”
You’ll need to listen closely, since his playing is so blindingly fast, but Baldi’s jazz roots — which predate his love of the guitar by a couple years — are reflected in Here and Nowhere Else. Inspired in part by the way pianists like Bill Evans bring robust melodies and chords to jazz trios, Baldi tackles his toughest riffs yet, as Duke and Gerycz push their spastic rhythm section well past its breaking point.
“There’s a lot going on — a lot of hooks,” says Gerycz. “We both pushed it.”
Or as Duke puts it, “It’s like speed reading.”
When I ask Baldi what his bandmates bring to the table, he calls Duke Cloud Nothings’ anchor and says with a smile, “Have you heard Jayson play drums? He’s really good; it’s crazy. I don’t know any better drummers. Well, I know a few but they’re very famous, and I don’t know them personally. Like Neil Peart.”
“I’ve been in bands where you’re always butting heads, and the final product is not as good,” adds Gerycz. “We’ve never been hung up on a song. I don’t know… it’s just really natural. Like, we could probably jam for 30 minutes without really writing anything.”
Or several hours, which is what the duo has done while toying with many side projects that’ll never be released.
“We have a song called ‘Thumping Thursday,’” says Baldi, without irony.
“That is a serious tune,” adds Gerycz.
“It really is — super heavy, with this twisted Black Sabbath bass line. Jayson plays drums really loud, and we added like 15 tracks of stupid keyboard.”
“Yeah, it’s a good song. No one wants to hear that.”
He’s kidding, but the more I talk with Baldi, the more I realize how seriously he takes songwriting, especially for someone who’s just 22 years old. (Duke is 31 and Gerycz Is 27.) In a lot of ways, he approaches Cloud Nothings albums like a series of equations. “I like when there’s order to a song,” Baldi says. “It just makes more sense that way. I almost think of songs as a mathematical arrangement — very compositional.”
And since former guitarist Joe Boyer wasn’t in the fold for Here and Nowhere Else — he’s not allowed to leave Ohio for undisclosed legal reasons — that meant losing a key variable in the process.
“I like the songs to be good,” says Baldi. “You know, really well-defined, structured songs. If it’s not memorable, I can’t say, OK, I did it. One down.’”
When I first meet Baldi in the afternoon before our hangout at the Airbnb house, I open the conversation by commiserating on our similar backgrounds — Cleveland for him, Buffalo for me — and making lame excuses for why I left my hometown since he seemed to be happy staying in his. He responded unexpectedly: “Oh, I don’t live in Cleveland anymore. I live in Paris.”
He says this like it’s no big deal, but it was hard not to do a spit-take at his nonchalance. As it turns out, Baldi met a French lit teacher at a show last year. She was not a Cloud Nothings fan — at least not at the time — which made the prospect of dating her all the more alluring. Now Baldi finds himself in a situation even he finds surreal, where he spends most of his free time in Europe, wandering the streets of Paris with his girlfriend and appreciating things he doesn’t quite understand, like an ad for a Star Wars exhibit featuring Yoda delivering his “do or do not, there is no try” schtick in French.
Technically speaking, Cloud Nothings were never a Cleveland band. Baldi was raised in Westlake, Ohio, about 20 minutes from Harvey Pekar’s birthplace and 40 minutes from Akron and Medina, the suburban development where Gerycz and Duke grew up. Baldi still rents a Lakewood apartment just outside Cleveland, mostly so he can sleep there during rehearsal stretches and receive packages of rock, techno and jazz records he bought online. (Shipping to Paris is a little more cost prohibitive.) Baldi lived briefly with Gerycz, and I learn that his spot was taken by none other than John Elliott, the former Emeralds member and fellow Cleveland vet who runs the electronic-leaning Editions Mego label from their basement. Elliott also uses the space to rehearse with his Outer Space project when Cloud Nothings isn’t practicing.
“These guys gave me a sigh of relief and a fresh perspective on how I operate,” explains Elliott. “I admire their ability to go into the basement and rage through their sets for hours. I used to play music like that, and have been in a deep editing and tracking zone. It made me want to dust off my improvisation skills and play things live more.”
Elliott met his current roommates while he was DJing ZZ Top records. Gerycz and his roommate, Total Babes singer Chris Brown, asked Elliott to play with their experimental troupe Swindlella soon after, and they all ended up contributing to the next Total Babes LP, which is due out later this year and features some rare sax playing from Baldi.
Elliott was hanging around the space while Cloud Nothings practiced Here and Nowhere Else in the two weeks leading up to its recording with producer John Congleton. When I ask him how close those rough takes were to the final cut, his response is revealing. “What’s strange is there didn’t seem to be much of a period where it was being worked out,” he says. “All of a sudden the songs just appeared, and the parts seemed to be in place. They have nailed their ‘actual’ sound in a studio setting. Dylan is writing his best songs, they have been regimented to play hundreds of gigs a year. They’ve grown into a sort of Kraftwerk-style rehearsal machine, despite their sound having nothing to do with Kraftwerk.”
“They like to play music. It’s as simple as that,” he adds. “They operate on their own terms.”