[Although he had already released two full-lengths as Cloud Nothings, neither of them offered even the slightest hint of the full-bore raging-guitar panic attack that Dylan Baldi would unleash on Attack on Memory. Recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago, the record was a '90s-emo fever dream, howling guitars stumbling over toppling percussion and a freaked-out Baldi shredding his vocal chords at the top of the pile. eMusic's Brian Raftery talked with Baldi in January about Scrabble, Steve Albini, and hanging out at McDonald's.]
Just over two years ago, Dylan Baldi was a bored Cleveland teenager living at his parents’ place, where he’d churn out lo-fi, high-watt power-pop tunes that he released under the name Cloud Nothings. Two spastically executed albums followed: The 2010 singles compilation Turning On and last year’s Cloud Nothings. But neither hinted at the raw power of this month’s Attack on Memory, a hooky half-hour’s worth of bruised guitars, tortured vocals and sky-scraping choruses, all recorded by famed aggro-rock engineer Steve Albini.
What were you listening to while you were writing Attack on Memory?
I got really obsessed with the Wipers around the time of the last album, and started listening to all their albums at least once a week. They’re really probably the main driving force behind the songwriting on this record. They’re amazing. He’s a really good songwriter and guitarist and stuff like that.
Why’d you choose to record with Steve Albini?
We had all these songs written, and we were trying to figure out who would make them sound the best. I wanted them to sound raw and unpolished, sort of, and I like the way Steve makes records sound…Something that’s apparent on all the records he’s produced – or at least the one’s he’s produced in the last 15 years – is a really specific drum sound that’s due to the room. And that’s something that made me choose him, because our drummer is a really important part of our live band, and I wanted it to sound that way.
What’s it like working with him?
It’s like being in the room with any other guy. I mean, he’s a really normal guy. We were only there for four days. He didn’t really give us any suggestions or anything. He just stayed out of our way. He just set up the mics and let us do whatever we wanted. We could have made an album of polka songs, and he wouldn’t have cared, as long as we’re happy.
So you guys didn’t play poker? He’s a bit of a card shark.
He is, but none of us really know anything about that, so I’m sure he would have taken all of our money if we’d played…we didn’t hang out so much. We’d talk when we were listening back to our album. And he played a lot of Scrabble online, and we were all in a phase where we were all playing, too. So we had some Scrabble chat.
On Memory, the vocals are very clear – they’re almost raw. But on your earliest singles, your voice was often buried deep in the mix. Was that intentional, or was it a byproduct of the at-home recording process?
It’s a little bit of both. I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing recording-wise when I made those songs. And because I was the only one who had input on them, and I don’t like hearing my own voice, I’d turn it down when I was mixing them. Just cause I don’t want to hear myself singing. That’s not a good thing to me. But on [Memory], we were all mixing it together. If it was just me, it would be quiet still.
It is pretty bleak at times. When I first heard it, I assumed it was a break-up album.
Yeah, it’s definitely not about that. At least, I didn’t intend it to be about that, but it could be I guess. I could see how people would think about that. Every interview I’ve had, someone’s had a different idea of what the lyrics are about. I kind of like that it’s interpretable.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I always played piano and saxophone, so I played jazz a lot in high school. But I probably did my first rock or pop songwriting really not too long ago – just three or four years ago, I guess.
What it was about?
I don’t even know what our new songs are about, and I just wrote those. [Laughs]
It sounds like you don’t obsess over lyrics too much.
I always have a melody and an idea of what I’m going to be singing, in terms of just the notes. But I never think of the actual words until, in some cases, literally the day before we record the song or something…to write a lyric about something, you really just have to feel that way for the ten minutes your writing the lyric. It doesn’t have to be something I all the time. It’s not like I’m walking around feeling as depressed as this album probably indicates.
You dropped out of school after just a half-semester to work on music. Are you on hiatus, or are you finished altogether?
You could call it a hiatus, I guess, but I’m probably not gonna go back. I’m hoping this band does well enough. If I did go back, it would be when I’m old, I guess, and need to get a real job, or whatever.
And your parents are cool with that?
Yeah, they’ve been really supportive the entire time. I think they kinda knew I was looking for a reason to drop out. I was never really excited about it. I lasted just half a year, and I was studying saxophone performance, which wasn’t my thing.
Do club owners ever give you grief about being under 21?
It’s only a problem in some cities on the West Coast, where I can’t be in the club unless it’s during the 40 minutes that we’re playing. While I’m performing, I’m an employee of the club, I guess. And they don’t want the cops to come in and accuse of them of having an employee who’s underage. So I have to go find something else to do all day.
So what do you do to kill time?
We played in Seattle last year, and I just sat in a McDonald’s next door to the venue for five and a half hours. I saw the employee of the month get awarded when I was there. Everyone who worked there started clapping, and the owner came out and put the plaque up on the wall.
That’s a rare sighting. I didn’t think the general public was even allowed to see those!
It was very surreal. I think they keep it under wraps.