Who Are Nothing?

Jon Wiederhorn

By Jon Wiederhorn

on 03.14.14 in Features

File under: Shoegaze revivalists, disorienting drone-rock, post-rock miserablism
For fans of: Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Medicine
From: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Personae: Dominic Palermo (vocals, guitar), Brandon Setta (guitar), Kyle Kimball (drums)

Nothing Frontman Dominic Palermo isn’t the average artsy, introspective indie-rocker, and the powerful ennui in the band’s songs comes not from a healthy level of introspection and self-doubt, but a debilitating sense of despair and the overwhelming need to escape. The group’s music is arresting, balancing waves of distorted guitar with sedated vocals, conjuring a sound redolent of ’90s English bands like Slowdive, Chapterhouse and My Bloody Valentine. And, like My Bloody Valentine, Nothing perform at a punishing volume in concert, turning gentle textures into deafening and visceral walls of bleak, barren sound.

Palermo grew up in a single-family home in Frankford, Philadelphia, a lower-class community. As a child, his mother introduced him to Cocteau Twins and Slowdive, bands that stuck with him throughout his rebellious adolescence while he was selling drugs and committing burglaries. He kept listening to atmospheric psychedelia even after his older brother introduced him to punk and he started playing in hardcore bands, ultimately forming Horror Show in 1990. That group — which released an album and a pair of EPs on Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon’s label Deathwish Inc. — performed dark, emotional songs, mostly about heartbreak and violence. They came to a halt in 2002 when Palermo was sentenced to seven years in prison for aggravated assault and attempted murder.

He was released two years later and in 2011, after a long period of self-examination, he formed Nothing with Brandon Setta.

Jon Wiederhorn spoke with frontman Dominic Palermo about the therapeutic value of music, the impact various drugs have had on his life, prison, existentialism and how Nothing wound up on a label that specializes in extreme metal.

On the contrast between soft songs and heavy vibes:

I don’t think of music as light or heavy. If you turn pretty music loud enough, it will assault your ears. That’s what I like to do. You feel it more when it’s loud. As for the depressing feeling of it, the music is pretty miserable because we’re pretty miserable.

On growing up in inner-city Philadelphia:

In the ’90s, Kensington was the heroin capital of the country. Everyone I knew had people in their families who were hooked on dope or selling dope or doing robberies for dope. My brother’s dad died of a heroin overdose in prison. My uncle was a functional junkie for 25 years and died of a heart attack. My dad was a crack head who was in and out of jail. He was abusive and fucked up, then he got clean and tried to come back around. But it’s hard to forget or forgive stuff like that.

On discovering My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless:

Hearing that album was amazing. It was like music from another planet. Growing up as punk-rock kids, we’d play it while we drove around with insane amounts of drugs in the car getting into trouble. It’s just funny to have soundtrack like Loveless for all that illegal stuff.

On Horror Show:

I always had a good ear for music, but I was never a good player. With Horror Show I wanted to make really aggressive hardcore. It was a good learning experience, I guess, but I was really more into sad music.

On going to jail:

I got jumped by some guys. So I gathered some of my people, and we got a fight with them. The guy that had beaten me up earlier was older and his little brother was with him, so I stabbed him in the chest as an act of revenge. I got arrested for aggravated assault and attempted murder and I was sentenced to seven years in jail, but got out after two. I wrote some lyrics while I was in there, but the only time I ever got to listen to music was when my cell mate had a cell phone and he asked if I wanted to call somebody. I didn’t have anybody to call so I called this radio station I listened to in Princeton and told the dude what was going on. He played a bunch of music for me, which was cool.

On discovering existentialism:

My brother sent me a bunch of books, because he’s a miserable prick, too. The first books he sent me were “Nausea” by Jean-Paul Sartre and “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The timing was perfect, because I was at a really isolated point in my life and it was comforting to me that these writers were able to explain some of the shit I was feeling when I didn’t know what was going on in my head. It kind of put my emotions into words for me. I also got into poetry like Bukowski and Baudelaire.

On his short tenure in Los Angeles:

The first four years after I got out of prison were insane. I had two friends die within a six-month period from DUI shit. One got killed on his motorcycle. Everything was falling apart and I had a nervous breakdown, so I got on a plane and went to L.A. I hoped that would be better, but it wasn’t, and it got to the point where I was literally on the verge of suicide every day — the closest I’ve come to wanting to blow my fucking brains out. Friends were going to Coachella and we stopped in Joshua Tree for a couple days. I ate every drug I could get my hands on and I had a freakout. I decided I needed to move back to Philly right away.

On forming Nothing:

In 2011 I did a demo tape [Poshlost] and then I met Brandon Setta a little while after that. He was trying to buy cocaine from one of my friends. We started talking and then we did all this cocaine together and ended up being friends. He liked the same music as me and knew how to play it right so I asked him to play guitar in the band.

On taking drugs to make music to take drugs by:

Pharmaceutical drugs were way more influential on this album than street drugs. The whole record was built off Adderall and Percocet. We also went through lots of boxed wine, but that was just to try to force ourselves to sleep so we could wake up early again and go back into the studio.

On signing with Relapse:

The guy we recorded with, Jeff Zeigler (Kurt Vile, War on Drugs) is really good friends with Rennie Jaffe, who’s the label manager of Relapse. He kept bringing them up during the recording. I was not into the idea at all, originally. But as we got close to recording, I met with Rennie and talked to him for a while. He really wanted to work with us and understood what we were doing, so it made sense. They’re a machine and they’ve pushed us to another tier. We’re pretty stoked about it now.

On what makes him happy:

I like seeing my mom. I like seeing my dog. Playing music is cool.