Watching the World Fall Apart with Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi
As Donald Trump ascended, we forced the Cleveland auteur to talk through his demons
Dylan Baldi, the lead singer and auteur of Cloud Nothings, was happy to meet me in New York City on election night—he said that he wanted to "compare the vibe" of the city to the atmosphere of his hometown of Cleveland on the night of World Series Game 7. And an hour earlier, when news began to filter through the bar that Florida was too close to call, the opportunity to talk about his band's new album seemed like a pragmatic escape. "An interview might be good," he said between sips of beer, sitting upright on his bar stool. "It takes the mind off depressing shit."
But an hour into our conversation, Baldi left the table and promised that, upon his return, we'd discuss his band's fifth studio album Life Without Sound, their first since 2014's Here and Nowhere Else. "I'm going to use the bathroom. Then I'll be ready to reckon with my demons." While waiting in line, he caught a glimpse of a TV showing that Pennsylvania was leaning towards Trump and now he's pushing his nose-length fringe around his right eyebrow, quietly fretting. "The country could be falling apart right now," he says, "and we're just talking about my demons."
Given the circumstances—the country could well be falling apart—this makes sense. But such restraint is not atypical of Baldi. In an interview with Noisey in 2014 around the release of Here and Nowhere Else, he responded to a question about the making of the album by saying, "It's making a record, you know? We just made songs." Around the same time, he told the UK-based website Drowned in Sound, "All I set out to do is for each record to be better than the last one. That's the only goal, really. I don't necessarily think about writing a more interesting song or whatever." Later on, he admitted that, "I don't really talk too much about myself in day to day life." Baldi is notoriously reticent to talk about his work in depth. "Interview mode is a mode," he tells me. "I've gone in and out of it for a long time."
Baldi has his reasons for retreating. Life Without Sound is Cloud Nothings' most self-reflexive album yet; it's the product of a year spent in isolation, a crumbling relationship, and the resulting introspection that sent the 25-year-old into a prolonged depression. For the first time, Baldi spent time on his lyrics, considering his words in advance rather than scribbling them down in the studio. He laid himself out.
On top of this, an amorphous sense of guilt has taken hold of Baldi in the last few months. Announcing the album's release to Columbus Alive in September, he talked about social awareness and how, despite the new album's personal content, there was a greater purpose to the tracks. "It's about bigger things than me complaining," he said then. "In my mind, at least."
So now, with the atmosphere at the bar turning from boisterous to anxious, Baldi wants to stress that he's trying to make his records "more universal." He talks about 2015 as a "dark year" and then quickly insists that he has "nothing to complain about, absolutely nothing, and I never have." He says he writes, "with an awareness that the things I will be writing about aren't things that only I think about," that he wants his songs to be "relatable."
As the evening wears on, Dylan Baldi wants to assert that his music goes beyond himself.
Soon, things fall into disrepair. By 9 PM, Baldi is standing in my kitchen taking his second shot of whiskey from a coffee cup, leaning back on the counter and trying to avoid the glowing red screen to his right. "Weird night for an interview," he says, chasing it back with another can of beer. "Maybe it isn't all going to be alright."
There's a line to be traced from Cloud Nothings' 2012's breakthrough Attack on Memory to the present moment. That record's opening track, "No Future / No Past," repeated a mantra: "Give up / Come to / No hope / We're through." When the track hit its inevitable crescendo, Baldi unleashed a distant scream that bordered on the nihilistic, repeating the name of the song: "No Future! No Past!"
The darkness remained on 2014's Here and Nowhere Else—the terror of stagnation on "Psychic Trauma," for one—but Baldi borrowed that bitter creed, that rejection of what came before and what would come in the future, and tried to turn it into something meditative. On "I'm Not Part of Me," he sang, "I'm learning how to be here and nowhere else / How to focus on what I can do myself." He accepted the past, saying that he could "leave it all to memory," and insisted that he'd serenely carry his newfound worldview forward: "It starts right now."
Life Without Sound is proof that none of that really worked. The idea of starting again "right now" fell apart in last year when Baldi moved to Western Massachusetts to live with his then-girlfriend. The relationship began to deteriorate at pace. He was, he says, "a real asshole. And I was aware of it the whole time."
Soon, with his girlfriend away for weeks at a time, he found himself isolated in a town where he knew nobody. "Nothing was happening," he says now. "I was just alone. I'd been so used to seeing people every night and meeting people every night, doing new shit constantly. Suddenly I was in a place where I didn't know anyone and no one knew me. I didn't know even how to meet people." So he fell back on the same process that he has for almost a decade. "I just stayed home a lot, played guitar. And slowly lost my mind."
Marks of this isolation-induced mania appear across Life Without Sound like abrasions. Baldi sets his stall out on "Modern Act," the album's first single, singing with an eerie brightness: "I want a life, that's all I need lately / I am alive but all alone." He loses friends, lovers, and his own sanity. At points, he sounds exhausted.
And yet, in spite of all this, Life Without Sound is stubbornly hopeful. It opens with Baldi emerging from his depression, singing that "I came up to the surface / released the air." "Things Are Right With You" inverts and elevates the album's title, Baldi emerging from his depths: "Believe it's time for coming out / No use in life without a sound."
On "Darkened Rings," a track every bit as frantic and fast-paced as anything on the relentless Here and Nowhere Else, Baldi rejects the present-tense philosophy he once tried to claim, forcing himself to look backwards. He finds something worth holding onto: "Darkened rings, with a few bright highlights."
Baldi says that he wasn't trying to reinvent himself in the period around Life Without Sound: "That's what I've tried in the past. That just crashes and burns every time." He says the goal, "not with this record but with this point in my life, was to take all the good parts of things, things that I thought about myself that were good, positive attributes, and to just focus on those rather than anything I did that I'm not proud of."
There's the sense, listening through, that Baldi wrote himself out of this period, that he transcended his depression through the songs. But Baldi won't hone in on that; he focuses again on something more meditative. "It's an acceptance" of the darkness, he says, "but also a letting go of it. Like, 'I'm not feeling this thing, there it goes.' Choosing not to feel that way. I know my brain is capable of going to really shitty places. I'll let it do that, I won't act on it, it'll go away."
Five days before the election, Baldi was driving from the heart of downtown Cleveland—the home of the 2016 Republican National Convention—back to his shared home in the city's southwest. He spotted a bumper sticker on the car in front: If you're reading this you weren't aborted. "Things like that make me worry. My home state."
Back at home, he sat in an overstuffed leather chair in the living room of his shared house, staring at a fireplace still covered in Halloween decorations. It was November 4. With a cup of coffee cooling in his right hand, his eyes half-glazed, he smiled gently back at the plastic skulls on the mantelpiece. Other than shuffling his right leg further over his left, he hadn't moved in any perceptible way—anything that would set off a motion detector—for fifteen minutes.
Usually, at 4 PM on a Friday, Baldi would have been practicing with his bandmates, drummer Jayson Gerycz, guitarist Chris Brown, and bassist TJ Duke, or sitting in his bedroom above the garage out back, picking out melodies on a guitar and committing them to a laptop. He would have been alone. And he would have been fine.
When Baldi returned to Cleveland in January—after things "really fell apart in Northampton"—the timing was perfect. Gerycz had just purchased a house in the Southwest of the city, a few miles from the Lakewood suburb that Baldi grew up in, and Baldi was searching for somewhere to belong.
"It's definitely home," he says of Cleveland. "It's where I know everybody, my family, everyone. It feels like a place where people can stay. If you're from there, you either get out early, or you just stick around. It feels like what I'm doing. I've levelled up to just sticking around."
Baldi is clearly happier in Cleveland. He's returned to a sense of community, shared experiences, and familiarity. But, beneath all that, he's just looking for a different type of loneliness. "It was a good time to be alone," he says of his return to the city. "It gave me time to work through the songs I'd been working on the whole time. Finalizing them. It was a good place and time for that."
"I just didn't realize how important it was to have people to play music with," he says. "That's what I do. It's my hobby. It's also my job at this point, but also it's just what I do for fun. That's what keeps me from just being crazy, I think."
More than anything else that Dylan Baldi told me over the space of two interviews, two days in Cleveland, and one night of America falling apart, this statement contains a truth. Baldi is, by nature, solitary; he's still the same prodigal writer. Loneliness itself is not a bad thing for Baldi; it's the nature of the loneliness that troubles him. He is a compulsive musician, a 25-year-old who genuinely might lose his mind if he can't pick up a guitar for three days in a row.
The last track on Life Without Sound is called "Realize My Fate." It was the first track that Baldi wrote for the album, almost two years ago after returning to the US from Paris where he lived with an ex-girlfriend. It follows a near-identical structure to "No Future / No Past," Baldi repeating a mantra over a scratchy, sinister guitar and Gerycz's ominous drums. But where "No Future / No Past" was sure of itself—sure of its rejection of itself, at least—"Realize My Fate" is searching:
I believe in something bigger, but what I can't articulate.
I find it hard to realize my fate.
An eternal seeing clearer, a mind, a fear of being blank.
I find it hard to realize my fate.
And when it comes? I won't be going straight.
I ask Baldi about that God. He says that he "doesn't know what the higher power is," that "it's the kind of thing that you always think about, but you don't necessarily make a song about," In the end, he says that life is brief. "It's not that long; you don't get that long. You might as well know what's going on."
Finally, he tunes in.
"I think that's the takeaway from the record. You can't figure it out, and you have to be OK with that."
Lead illustration by Dominick Rabrun; all photos by Ryan Manning.
Alex Robert Ross is becoming far too familiar with Cleveland, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter.