The Charmed Life of Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi

Christopher Leaman

It’s a perfect spring afternoon in New York, one of the first after a punishingly long winter, and Cloud Nothings’ frontman Dylan Baldi is sitting on a park bench by the Williamsburg waterfront. Clad in flannel, with unkempt brown hair and beard growth that obscures his typically boyish features, the 22-year-old singer seems bemused by the scene surrounding him: tourists sprawled on benches, dogs pawing the brown grass and the reflective glass of those gruesome luxury condos towering toward the clouds.

Or he’s bemused by the fact that tonight’s show, like every other date on Cloud Nothings’ East Coast tour, has sold out.

“It's blowing my mind,” he says. “This is what I've wanted to do for a long time. The fact that it's actually panning out is insane.”

Cloud Nothings, the project Baldi launched out of his parents’ Ohio basement in 2009, has grown seemingly overnight into one of the most popular and critically lauded bands operating at the bratty intersection of pop-punk, indie and noise rock. Three hours from now, Baldi will take the stage at Music Hall of Williamsburg to scream most of his new album, Here and Nowhere Else, to the Brooklyn crowd.

But for now he’s at ease. “Tour morale is through the roof,” he jokes, nodding towards the river, which he tentatively identifies. “That’s the Hudson, right?” 4.22_CloudNothings2 Christopher Leaman

The poisonously trendy Brooklyn neighborhood marks the epicenter of the indie industrial complex that has embraced Baldi’s band over the past several years. A mile south of here is Baby’s All Right, the south Williamsburg venue where Cloud Nothings debuted Here and Nowhere Else in its entirety in January. A few L stops east is the office of Pitchfork, the influential music site that has somewhat breathlessly trumpeted Baldi’s every move since 2012’s Attack on Memory. A bit deeper into Bushwick lies the site of the Market Hotel, the on-and-off-again DIY space where Cloud Nothings played their first show in late 2009.

But Baldi admits that he isn’t sure how to get there from here. He hasn’t the faintest interest in moving to the borough.

“I like it here, but I could never live here,” he says. “Too expensive. Too many people. I would be spending a couple grand on a place I’d never be at.” Which is true. He splits his time between Cleveland, where he has started leasing his first apartment, and Paris, where his girlfriend lives—but he’ll be spending the next five months on tour: East Coast, West Coast, Europe, Asia. 4.22_CloudNothings1 Christopher Leaman

Cloud Nothings started in awkward earnest in 2009 as a solo project Baldi engineered from his parents’ house in between freshman classes at Case Western Reserve University. Somewhere along the way, the modest Bridgetown Records caught wind, releasing Cloud Nothings’ first EP, Turning On. (A self-titled LP of breezy if unremarkable pop-punk followed in early 2011.) Baldi cobbled together a backing band for that inaugural show at the Market Hotel, then dropped out of school and spent a grueling two years touring to empty clubs while his bandmates—drummer Jayson Gerycz, bassist TJ Duke, and former guitarist Joe Boyer—juggled day jobs at music stores and pizza joints.

Then they hired maestro engineer Steve Albini (Pixies, Nirvana, et al.) for a sophomore effort, and out of that anguish emerged 2012’s Attack on Memory, a searing set of noise-rock aggression that channeled Baldi’s frustrations into the success he craved.

“When I did Attack on Memory, I was depressed because I’d been in this band for a while, and we were touring a lot but making no money,” Baldi says. “I was kind of in a bad place.” The songs carried an intensity and purposefulness far removed from earlier recordings, and they made their mark. Things picked up for the band during that album’s promotional cycle and subsequent tour. “Moved out of my parents’ house. Everything was golden,” he recalls. “I thought, I can do this for the rest of my life.”

Seriously? I ask.

“Nope. No way. I would go insane,” Baldi laughs. “But I can do it for a little while.”

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These days, Baldi isn’t so much uninterested in the trappings or glamour of indie-rock celebrity, moneyed or otherwise, as he is vaguely baffled by it.

“We tour in a van. I don’t want a bus. I don’t want a light guy,” he tells me. “That’s weird. We’re staying in, like, the Days Inn everywhere.”

The only hospitality rider requests he has made of the venues and promoters that host him, he reveals—and such demands can run deep and obscene—are the ingredients to make Ants on a Log. There is some confusion at this pronouncement: Is this a fancy cocktail of some sort? Backstage later, as he finishes a beer and prepares to take the stage, he shows me: It’s just peanut butter and raisins spread across celery sticks. The venue has provided other refreshments of its own accord, including a cheese-and-crackers spread and tortilla chips, but those have hardly been touched.

“I feel bad just asking for free stuff,” he laughs. “It doesn’t seem right. I just want some celery.”

That starkly minimalist ethos exists as a sort of analogue to Cloud Nothings’ music. Recorded in just a week with veteran producer John Congleton, Here and Nowhere Else is, like Attack on Memory before it, scarcely half an hour in length and almost Spartan in its bracing simplicity. It is a model of bare-bones, power-punk efficiency. There are no sonic embellishments standing in the way of Baldi, the forceful thrust of his songs and the pummeling drum work by Jayson Gerycz that undergirds them. (Steve Albini’s influence lingers in the record’s muscular drum attack.) They are terse, tightly wound punk bursts, with hooks that are unabashedly pop; only the suitably intense seven-minute “Pattern Walks” draws on an extended instrumental coda. Baldi wrote the album’s lyrics the week they were recorded. They are alternatingly sung in the two vocal techniques he has mastered: a nasally pop-punk whine (think Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge with a sharper bite) and a full-on scream (it is scorching). 4.22_CloudNothings4 Christopher Leaman

However hurriedly they were jotted down, those lyrics, full of brash declarations like “I can feel your pain / And I feel alright about it,” still hold meaning when they are screamed into a packed venue, Baldi says. But the breakneck method of songwriting is the only way he can imagine working. “I have to do everything very quickly or else I would overthink and second-guess myself to the point where I would never do anything,” he tells me. “I need that deadline and that short amount of time to work. Otherwise, I don't even think about writing music, really.” With the stakes markedly raised on Here and Nowhere Else, “I tried to just live in a little bubble where we could pretend that nobody knows about us.”

But a music journalist was present at those sessions, I point out, having read the resulting Pitchfork feature. “For a minute,” Baldi shrugs. “That was weird.”

The singer bristles when asked if he’ll ever make an album that exceeds 40 minutes in length. “Longer than 40 minutes is too long,” he insists. “Asking for that much of someone’s time seems wrong. It’s like, just take this half hour…”

But a dramatic Attack on Memory–style departure—an album that will again, with brute force and commitment, sweep away preconceptions about what Cloud Nothings is and can be—is not out of the question.

“I think I might have to do that for the next one,” Baldi says. “Because I’m running out of pop songs. You can only write so many of those before they sound the same.”

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We push on toward the river, where a couple of European tourists approach Baldi and ask if he’s in Cloud Nothings. He nods, a bit uncomfortably. They haven’t heard the music, they explain. They just saw the marquee and thought he looked like someone who might be in a band. Can they take a picture with him? They are disheartened to learn he isn’t on Instagram. Still, they hope to catch the show.

I don’t know whether or not the pair is present when, some hours later, Baldi, Gerycz and Duke stumble onstage and, without a word, launch into the rolling drums and fuzzy abandon of “Quieter Today.” Baldi is soft-spoken and easygoing in conversation, but onstage he is transformed, a spitting vessel of angst and aggression, sneering out refrains like the one that jolts through “Wasted Days”: “I thought I would be more than this / I thought I would be more than this.”

He doesn’t need any warm-up or preshow ritual to summon that energy. “When I stop being able to do that, I guess I’ll just stop,” he tells me. It is my fourth time seeing the band in two years and Baldi’s confidence has markedly risen as his audience has multiplied. Not that Duke and Gerycz don’t carry their own weight. “Whenever we play together, it just is that intense,” Baldi says. “Because our drummer is a f**king maniac.” It’s true. Gerycz, a powerhouse performer, is a spurting fountain of sweat by track four.

They power through the great bulk of Here and Nowhere Else and Attack on Memory, too—nothing from the earlier records—in little more than an hour. (This is standard. Baldi thinks shows, like albums, should be short and to-the-point.) The venue is nearly triple the capacity of Baby’s All Right, and this time the crowd knows the words to the new songs. Baldi has gotten used to that, except for when he’s playing to a foreign-language audience, and they still mouth along in English. So I imagine he isn’t too taken aback by the two stocky athletic types up front who visibly know every word to “I’m Not Part of Me” and a few other songs.

A mosh pit breaks out during “Psychic Trauma”; I catch fans bobbing in time to the song’s driving rhythms and howling out the chorus. I remember what Baldi said about having to pretend nobody cares about his music and look up for his reaction. Dark hair shadows his face. He’s gazing down at his guitar, lost in concentration.