Interview: Cloud Nothings on Making Mistakes, French Girls & the Power of Taylor Swift
By Shannon Carlin
Age ain’t nothing but a number. Just ask Dylan Baldi.
At just 22 years old, the Cloud Nothings frontman has released four albums in the last five years, with his latest one, Here and Nowhere Else, being the culmination of the catchier stuff on 2011’s self-titled record and the heavy elements on 2013’s Attack On Memory.
Since Baldi first hit the scene in 2009 with his lo-fi debut, he’s been called a “prodigy,” and even a “wunderkind” once or twice. But he doesn’t let the compliments go to his head.
“I’ve never really considered myself anything special for doing this at like a young age. It’s just kind of like what I like doing and I figured I should start doing it as soon as I could,” he told Radio.com. “And you know, it’s cool that people can say really nice things about me because of that. Like wunderkind is an intense statement, for sure. Must have been like a German website.”
When Baldi got on the phone from his hometown of Cleveland, he chatted with us about being more positive in his old age, making mistakes and why Taylor Swift is such a pop genius.
Radio.com: You’ve said that this album, lyrically, was inspired by all the traveling you’ve done. How is it different from the last Cloud Nothings record?
Dylan Baldi: It’s not a huge departure, it kind of deals with the same feelings from the last record, but just the way I look at it and look at those things, has been informed by the amount of like growing up. That’s actually what I’ve been forced to do. Just being on my own in all these places and figuring things out. It’s almost a more positive outlook on the same negative sort of things I was talking about. Just the lack of direction that a lot of people feel when they’re, you know, 22. That’s how old I am. Now I’m looking at it more like, ‘It’s okay to feel that way and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.’
Was there anything besides just getting older that led to this new outlook?
Yeah, a lot of it was with Attack On Memory, things actually started working for the band. People started liking us and all that, so it kind of made me happy because we worked really hard, toured constantly for two and a half, three years before that record even came out. We weren’t really getting anything back from it. We weren’t really making any money and everybody still had jobs and it was like, ‘We’re still doing this, but I don’t know if it’s the best thing to be doing.’ But it was gratifying to learn that all the hard work actually paid off. [Laughs] It’s great to realize it can actually work out that way.
You said you left mistakes on the album. Why?
I mean, it’s not so much mistakes, but the sound of the band still learning the songs while we’re recording them. I like to do that. I like to make everything really last-minute so when we’re recording, we’re still figuring out the music because the sound of the band on record screwing things up is more interesting than the sound of like a perfect band. I don’t really get excited about things that are perfect whether it’s music or people. Anything that’s completely perfect bores me so I like to have that little bit of grit, that little bit of confusion in the songs themselves. It becomes a little more human in a way.
Is there a song on the album that you consider your favorite?
Yeah, the first song on the record is actually my favorite one, “Now Hear In.” Just because it’s been kicking around in my head for such a long time, that guitar riff that I didn’t know what to do with. At one point, it was almost like a country song when I had no idea what I was doing.
Are you a fan of country music? Would you ever actually release a country song or album?
Yeah, I listen to all sort of stuff. I love the older country music for sure and I make acoustic music. Actually my drummer, Jason [Gerycz] and I are really into fingerpicking guys like John Fahey and Robert Bowlin. So we used to play that music all the time. But, I don’t know if I’ll be doing a record anytime soon.
You also said that jazz was a big influence on the album.
I’ve always loved all sorts of jazz. I used to play saxophone when I was younger. I went to college for it actually for two weeks, three weeks maybe, before I dropped out. I just like the honesty. And like the personal expression that can come from jazz music because it really is musicians playing exactly what they’re feeling and thinking. It’s a really direct route to these people. You can hear the solo from someone and kind of feel like you know them almost. That’s kind of the big thing I took away from jazz. It’s not so much even that I’m not going to make jazz, but I want to make something that honest.
I wanted to talk about “Pattern Walks,” which at over seven minutes is the longest song on the album.
Well, I wanted to make a long song again, but I wanted to make it a response to the long song on the last record, “Wasted Days” and I wanted it to kind of start off angry, angsty or whatever word people want to use. But then I wanted it to sort of morph into something prettier, you know? That sort of noisy breakdown that happens and I wanted to do that because at the end of “Wasted Days,” I say, “I want to be more than this” over and over and over. And at the end of “Patterned Walks” I wanted to say “I thought,” a bunch of times, but over this prettier background. Just because it kind of is a better representation of where I am now compared to where I was then. With Attack On Memory, I was pretty depressed. I wasn’t really feeling good. But this one, I was generally in a better place and trying to just think more and understand more about everything, rather than, ‘this sucks’ all the time.
You released “I’m Not Part Of Me” as the first single off the album. Why?
It’s actually the one on the record that sounds the least like all the other songs. It’s a bit more poppy, I guess. But lyrically it encapsulates the meaning of the whole record to me, which is trying to figure out yourself and where you’re going, what you’re doing in your life. Because that became very important to me once I released Attack On Memory and started traveling and touring. It’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t really know much about myself really. I’m not sure what I like or who I really am.’ So I really needed to figure that stuff out. And “I’m Not Part of Me” is about that process. How important that was for me at the time, for me to get out there. And it’s catchy. It gets stuck in my head.
On “Giving Into Everything” you scream “swallow” and it almost sounds painful. How many times did you have to scream to get it right?
That’s all like first take stuff. Yeah, my voice can just do that stuff like endlessly. But, the reason I chose ‘swallow,’ which honestly, has nothing to do with the song, is because my girlfriend is French and I asked her what her favorite English word was, because I wanted to repeat one word over and over and didn’t know what to say. She said it was ‘swallow’ so I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll just say the word “swallow.”’ Yeah, it ended up sounding good. It does sound pained. But it didn’t hurt.
Last year, you mentioned that you considered Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” to be one of the best pop songs of 2013. I wanted to know what makes it so good? And if you found any connection to her honest writing style.
You know, it’s not even lyrically that I can say I get down with Taylor Swift. It’s more, I’m a super nerd about song structures and like melodies and how all that stuff works together. I spend a lot of my time being fascinated by that stuff and figure out how it all works. Like her songs, are usually a perfect example of a great modern pop song, you know? Like every single she put out from that last record [Red] is a perfect song pretty much. The way the songs work, I don’t know, it’s really nerdy stuff. It’s hard for me to explain. [Laughs] I’m like fascinated by the structures of pop songs because even a really abstract one, like “Single Ladies” or something. Like Beyoncé songs are like bizarre, but they’re still super catchy and they still work in that way. And then you have Taylor Swift and it’s just really straightforward like part A, part B, part A, part B. It’s pretty obvious what happens, but they work and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about while I drive around listening to the radio. I’m into it more on like a songwriting level then you know, wanting to emulate Taylor Swift’s boyfriend troubles.
Yeah, obviously your next album isn’t going to take the Taylor Swift approach.
Yeah, it won’t be my breakup record. But maybe, we’ll see.