an interview with Cloud Nothings, whose ‘Life Without Sound’ LP is streaming
Cloud Nothings are set to return with Life Without Sound, the third album in their series of harder, full-band albums that began with 2012’s Attack on Memory (but fourth album overall, or fifth if you count Turning On as a proper album). After doing Attack on Memory with Steve Albini and 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else with John Congleton, they worked with yet another famed rock producer, John Goodmanson, who’s best known for producing Sleater-Kinney, Harvey Danger, and others. It was touted by the band as a more “vocal-heavy” album, and it’s their first of the last three to not have an extended, noisy jam. Instead, it’s got a ninth track (the previous two records had eight) and all of them are economical, melodic rock songs. The songs are just a bit slower than the last record, and Cloud Nothings tend to sound a bit tamer and brighter this time around. They don’t ditch their dark side entirely though. Album closer “Realize My Fate” is one of the band’s more intensely dark songs, both lyrically and musically. “Darkened Rings” has one of the nastiest riffs in their discography and gruff, yelled vocals throughout. And though there’s no noisy jam on the album, “Enter Entirely” has got a pretty classic-style alt-rock guitar solo (somewhere between J Mascis and Rivers Cuomo). Life Without Sound has Cloud Nothings following their own path, seemingly unconcerned with trendiness or commercial appeal, and it’s another very fine record from this band.
I talked to frontman Dylan Baldi about his approach for the new record, working with John Goodmanson, DIY shows, the current state of guitar-based rock, and the time they played a German nu metal festival right after Papa Roach. Head below to read our chat.
BV: Life Without Sound is your first album with John Goodmanson, which makes it your third record in a row with a different beloved rock producer, after Steve Albini and John Congleton. How has working with each one differentiated?
Dylan Baldi: They’re all pretty different really. Albini was very straightforward. You could ask him anything and he’d just answer you, it was a pretty easy process. He has a very clear way of working, I think, that he likes to — not stick to, necessarily — but just stuff that he’s tried a bunch of times that he’ll just like, always do. Congleton and Goodmanson are maybe a little more similar to each other… Everyone was pretty hands off, except maybe Goodmanson was maybe the most hands-on producer we’ve had in terms of changing the songs. He definitely has a way that he makes bands sound. The other two kind of just let us do whatever we wanted with whatever we had. He’d be like, “oh try this guitar thing,” like he had ideas about sound that we didn’t necessarily have, so that was a big difference.
Goodmanson really likes Harvey Danger. Albini kept talking about this one band from Cleveland called This Moment In Black History. And Congleton… once he stopped a session early to go get dinner with Steve Shelley [laughs].
Are there any records Goodmanson did — Harvey Danger or otherwise — that inspired you to work with him?
Hmm, no actually. The reason we ended up with all these people was because our label would be like “how about this guy?” and we’d just be like “okay!” None of us really listen to — well the case of Albini is maybe a little different — but with Congleton and Goodmanson, none of us listen to the kinds of records those guys are producing too often, really. If it was up to us who we worked with — well I guess it is up to us — but if we could choose anyone, it would be, like, just our friend down the road who has a microphone. But yeah, our labels are always like “how about this famous guy?” and we’re like “well… okay, why not?” Mark [Bowen], who runs our European label Wichita, is friends with John Goodmanson, and he was like “how about John Goodmanson?” and we agreed.
I wanted to make a record with Rudy Van Gelder, but he died and I don’t think he was making records recently anyway. It’s a bummer.
Before the new record was announced, you said it’s a little slower since things in your life slowed down as well. Now that it’s about to be out in the world, can you elaborate on that at all?
Yeah the songs are a little slower. It’s not like they’re slow songs — they’re still of a medium to high tempo — but they’re definitely less frantic than the stuff on Here and Nowhere Else in particular. I don’t know if it’s on purpose, like a reaction to that record or what, but it just felt like the right speed for this whole record. Just cause when you’re playing a bunch of really fast songs, I feel like things get lost sometimes, like the little nuances. And these songs have those little nuances and I wanted that to be apparent, rather than blend together as one big song like Here and Nowhere Else. That record just kind of flows like one giant song.
You also wrote Here and Nowhere Else when you were touring as a trio but for this one you’re touring as a four-piece again. Is that related at all?
We wrote Here and Nowhere Else knowing it was gonna be a trio thing, and when we were really rehearsing it — which wasn’t for very long — it was mostly just me and [drummer Jayson Gerycz] running through stuff and being like “I don’t know if that sounds good… oh well, next song.” We just did that record really quickly. I don’t know if we actually didn’t have enough time or if it just felt like we didn’t have enough time. I don’t really remember what was going on, but it did feel rushed. Not in a bad way; I like that record. But yeah this one has more layers to it, more guitars, and the sound changes more from song to song. Like I used different amps on different songs, which I’ve never done before.
So you knew you’d be touring as a four-piece again while writing this one?
Yeah I knew I wanted another guitarist again. Actually, Chris [Brown], the guitarist, grew up with Jayson [Gerycz] our drummer and I’ve known him for as long as I’ve known Jayson. And he actually joined the band before Here and Nowhere Else, once Joe [Boyer] was no longer in the band, but then we just went and made a three-piece record and never really said like, “oh, you’re not in the band.” So then when we actually needed a fourth person to round out these new songs he was the first person I went to, because I… felt bad [laughs]. But no, he’s really good also, very good at guitar, very good dude.
As you’ve also mentioned, the new record is more vocal-heavy. In the past, you’ve said that you don’t care too much about the lyrics, but given the more vocal-heavy approach, did you put lyrics more in the forefront this time?
Yeah, I did take more time on the lyrics. But that’s also because we took more time with the songs in general. We had rough drafts of these songs so long ago. Normally my first draft of lyrics is the one I used cause I’d write it last minute, but on this one we spent so much time messing with the songs that we figured we should do the same with the words. I don’t know if they ended up being more important to me, but they did end up being worked on a lot more. And when we went to record — we always do the vocals last — I was in the vocal booth and I was listening to those songs and they sounded like, huge. Goodmanson made them sound really big. And I didn’t realize that until I heard them in the booth, so I was like, “well I guess have to sing… better [laughs] or different,” because otherwise it would sound kind of silly. So I just tried to sing in a way that fit those bigger-sounding songs. It was a very spur-of-the-moment vocal leap.
“Realize My Fate” in particular sounds like a lot is going on there, lyrically.
Yeah, with not many words [laughs].
Right, not many words, but there’s like a new depth to it. Of all the songs on the record, I’m like, this one gets heavy.
Yeah it does get heavy, and it’s got an intense song to go along with it too. That was the first one i wrote for this record. It was about two years ago, a little before Christmas. I remember writing it and being like, “oh this is pretty cool,” and then I didn’t do anything with it. I waited two years to put it on a record. But yeah that one in particular… those lyrics came right away with that song, and I guess I was feeling dark. I was just coming back from a tour and it was the first time we really had time off with no actual touring or anything booked, and I was just sort of confused. I didn’t know what to do really, so I was like, “well… I’m gonna write a song about being… confused,” and that ended up being the last song on this record.
On another lyric note, you sing “No use in life without a sound” on the second song, which I imagine is where the album title comes from?
How did you settle on that as the title?
I always like the names of the records to be lyric bits from the songs, just because I feel like the songs are always tied together in some way, so it only makes sense that the record title takes from those. And I always like the title to be some words that I think sound cool together [laughs]. I had a different title at first — I forget what it was, but it sucked, but it was some lyrics from “Sight Unseen” I think. We tried out a few other lyrics as titles, but they all sounded kind of silly or pompous except for the one we settled on. I’m really bad with deciphering what I do in the moment. Generally I’ll do stuff, musically at least, and then later on I can look back and be like “oh that’s what I meant.” If you ask me this in like 2019, I might give you like, the most intense answer to that question. But for now I’m like, “yeah I don’t know.”
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Yeah, I hear that. To switch gears from the record a bit, I caught your last New York show, the one that was supposed to be at Market Hotel. So Market was the first place you guys ever played, and I assume the point initially was to go back to that venue for that reason, even though you’re playing bigger rooms now, like Webster Hall this coming February. How important is it to you to still play and support these small DIY spaces?
I mean, coming up, we never really went through that whole DIY scene really. Like we played that Market Hotel show and then played the Shea Stadium show the next night. And then immediately it was just like, “hey I’ll book your band,” and we just started playing like, real venues. It was maybe a weird route for us to take, but I like that [DIY venue] stuff. There was a venue in Cleveland — well not a venue but a practice space that we were using and I was like “hey I wanna put on shows here,” and the people that ran it were like “yeah sure, whatever you want.” So we booked a couple shows and then the cops came to one or something and the people were like “alright no more shows here.” And that was a bummer, because we don’t really have that many spaces in Cleveland, or at least not anything like that. So I do think that stuff is necessary and important for music, and I like to support it in any way that I can. And playing Market Hotel again would’ve been really fun.
I know you’ve been asked about the state of guitar-based rock before, and you probably hear all the talk, like, “rock is dead! now it’s alive again! actually no it’s dead!”. At this point, how much would you say you think about or react to the state of rock music? Especially as a band on a record label where most of the artists, besides a few others, aren’t loud rock bands.
Yeah I don’t know exactly when rock was the most popular form of music, but… it’s been a while. But I think as long as there are people who are making the music they want without trying to follow trends, eventually things will come back around again. Like “oh yeah that band was good,” even if it wasn’t like, their time, when they were first around. At the moment, I don’t even listen to a whole lot of rock, I just happen to be in a rock band. And yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of popular rock bands of any substance, but there are a lot that aren’t that popular, and I think there always will be. I still think it’s a cool thing, to be in a band and play guitar or play as a drummer, you know? I think that’s a cool setup and there’s still plenty to do with that. There are new, weird things happening with that all the time. I don’t think that will go away on an underground level.
On a sort-of related note, I caught some of your set a couple years ago when you played the Skate & Surf festival in NJ.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, that was a weird one.
Obviously it’s a festival that caters to emo and punk bands…
Yep… it does.
But it makes a bit of sense, right? There’s some punk in Cloud Nothings, the new record has some palm-muted power chords and some yelling. What’s your take on having crossover with that world?
Yeah I don’t know, I don’t mind it. I grew up listening to some punk in that realm. We cross over in interesting places, with people who I didn’t necessarily expect to be into what we do, but then I can definitely hear similarities between whatever music they’re into and us. And I get that, because I listen to all sorts of different stuff. And just because I think we sound like one thing, or because I don’t know what we sound like, that kinda leaves it open for anyone to be like, “that kinda sounds like my favorite… MxPx record or whatever.” And I can’t really tell how much the whole “emo revival” is like… real, or just something that people will write about just to write about it and put a bunch of bands together because… they can, and there’s an article. I don’t really understand a whole lot of the writing about that, but we do get thrown in there sometimes, and we do get thrown on some festivals like that. We played like a nu metal festival in Germany, where we played right after Papa Roach. Like they played “Last Resort,” and the singer yelled like, “Thank you, we are: Papa!” and then held the mic out, and the crowd was like “ROACH!” And then he dropped the mic and we had to start playing. So that was way weirder than Skate & Surf [laughs].
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Cloud Nothings also have a lot of touring coming up. Their schedule includes a run with LVL UP which hits NYC on February 1 at Webster Hall (tickets). They also play day three (7/30) of NYC’s Panorama festival, the day with Nine Inch Nails, A Tribe Called Quest, Angel Olsen, and more (tickets). All dates below.
Enter to win a pair of tickets to Cloud Nothings’ 2/1 show at Webster Hall with LVL UP.
Cloud Nothings — 2017 Tour Dates
01/26 Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom
01/27 Toronto, ON – Lee’s Palace
01/28 Montreal, QC – Fairmount Theatre
01/30 Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
01/31 Boston, MA – Paradise
02/01 New York, NY – Webster Hall
02/03 Baltimore, MD – Ottobar
02/04 Columbus, OH – A&R Music Bar
02/06 Grand Rapids, MI – Calvin College
02/07 Detroit, MI – El Club
02/09 Madison, WI – High Noon Saloon
02/10 Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
02/11 Minneapolis, MN – Fine Line
02/12 Milwaukee, WI – Turner Hall
02/15 Portland, OR – Doug Fir
02/16 Vancouver, BC – Biltmore Cabaret
02/17 Seattle, WA – Barboza
02/18 Seattle, WA – Barboza
02/20 San Francisco, CA – The Independent
02/22 Los Angeles, CA – Teragram Ballroom
03/01 Copenhagen – Loppen
03/02 Malmo, SE – Babel
03/03 Stockholm, SE – Debaser Strand
03/05 Oslo, NO – Parkteatret
03/06 Hamburg, DE – Knust
03/07 Berlin, DE – Bi Nuu
03/08 Munich, DE – Kranhalle
03/09 Cologne, DE – Luxor
03/11 Amsterdam, NL – Paradiso
03/12 Brussels, BE – Botanique
03/14 Paris, FR – Petit Bain
03/16 Bristol, UK – Thekla
03/17 Glasgow, UK – Stereo
03/18 Manchester, UK – Deaf Institute
03/19 Leeds, UK – Brudenell Social Club
03/21 London, UK – Koko
03/22 Birmingham, UK – The Hare & Hounds
03/23 Brighton, UK – The Haunt
05/12-14 Atlanta, GA – Shaky Knees Festival
07/30 New York, NY – Panorama Festival