As Most Of The Indie World Turns Soft, Cloud Nothings Stay Aggressive

It feels wrong to describe Cloud Nothings as a “veteran” indie band. After all, the group’s founder, Dylan Baldi, is still only 29. But his band has been around for more than a decade now, and along the way amassed one of the era’s most consistently strong catalogues for a loud, punk-leaning act. If this corner of the indie world has a standard bearer, it has to be Cloud Nothings.

“I mean, we’re kind of enduring by necessity, because none of us are particularly qualified to do much else,” Baldi told me recently. “But even when we started, I don’t know that the trend was nerdy rock bands from Ohio. I think people lumped us in with Japandroids that year, when the band became more popular than we had been. And then I think we got lumped in with an emo thing that was happening, which is its own world and scene that is flourishing perfectly well and always has been without us. We’re really not part of that. And we dipped in here and there, we’ve toured with The Hotelier, but that in no way makes us a functioning member of that scene. I would feel disingenuous to claim that.”

If Cloud Nothings have never really fit in anywhere since their breakthrough with 2012’s Attack On Memory, they’ve still been able to maintain a niche in a scene that continues to move farther away from what used to be the bedrock sound of indie music — heavy riffing but essentially melodic rock songs. And Baldi remains devoted to refining his craft. During the pandemic, he’s recommitted himself to songwriting, turning out songs nearly every day, and in the process produced 2020’s winning The Black Hole Understands, a throwback to the fizzier bedroom pop style of Cloud Nothings’ pre-Attack On Memory era.

The band’s latest due out Friday, The Shadow I Remember, is a return to their more aggressive style, though it was actually recorded before The Black Hole Understands. Cloud Nothings reconvened with Attack On Memory producer Steve Albini about a month before quarantine in early 2020 and quickly bashed out the energetic and feisty set, mixing pummeling rockers like “Only Light” with infectious pop tunes like “Sound Of Alarm.”

Baldi talked about the album’s creation and reflected on his band’s legacy as they enter their second decade.

What was interesting to me about The Black Hole Understands is how it reminded me of the early, pre-Attack On Memory Cloud Nothings material. Why do you think that is?

My immediate circumstances were relatively similar, which is being inside and having nothing to do, essentially. When I’m just on my own and in my head, I do end up making these sort of airier, lighter, poppier kind of things. And when I’m separated from the band, it doesn’t tend to get the aggression necessarily that comes with playing live with everybody. So, yeah, when I’m on my own, things take a little more of a Slumberland-kind of route.

Are you still writing a lot?

I was trying to do a song a day for a long time, and I’ve had to slow down because I had to start doing this job. We still put out an EP every month, actually, on Bandcamp. So, I have to at least make those four songs every month, if not more.

Were you this prolific before the pandemic?

It is a lot for me. And I really like it, actually, because it keeps the songwriting muscle in shape. Sometimes, honestly, there’s probably been a year that’s gone by with me maybe not ever sitting down and really finishing a song, because I haven’t had time. And I don’t like that. The thing I like about music is making and recording a song. That’s the most fun part to me. So, it’s been nice to have the opportunity to work so much.

I ask all musicians that I interview lately the same question: How do you feel not being on the road? I imagine this is the longest you’ve been home in a decade.

It’s just disappointing. It’s funny to be putting out so much music, and all you can really do is talk over Zoom. I can’t talk to you in real life or you can’t come see a show. That whole aspect of it is really important to me, the community that builds around music or around a band, or any kind of art that is public. And missing that feels like missing a huge part of what makes music special to me, to be corny about it.

Also, I did start the band because I wanted to leave home. That was part of the impetus behind it — “I guess we’ll start a band so I can tour and see something that isn’t Cleveland.” Because that’s essentially all I’d seen my whole life. And we kept going to farther and farther out places, and that being gone is just a little sad. But it’ll come back.

It’s interesting that you have all this music that you can’t tour behind. I imagine that by the time you can tour, you might have another new album. It’s almost like this music is destined to be orphaned.

I’ve wondered about that, about every record released in the last year. Are they just gone? You put something out and maybe it gets a review, maybe people tweet about it for a day, and then it’s gone. Your record is gone. I’m not going to record stores. I know some people are, but that’s where I would go and see a physical record and that reminds you it exists, but I haven’t done that in a year. It’s just bizarre to be creating these things that have no physical attachment to them, in my mind at least, or you can’t see the people buying it. You can’t see the people coming to shows, whether they exist or not. It’s just weird to only have the internet as a gauge for reality.

Why did you want to work with Steve Albini again?

We had to find someone pretty quickly, basically, because we wanted to get this record out originally last fall. That was my original hope, and it was already January when I wanted to book these dates. So, we had to get it together real fast. And there’s not too many people who are available that quickly, who I think would do a good enough job. But luckily, Steve Albini was around. And I think he is honestly the best for the band in a lot of ways, just because his personality just kind of vibes with ours very well. We all just want to get the thing done. We’ll be able to hang out and goof around, but we’re there to make the record. And we don’t want a specific someone leading the session or telling us, “Do things this way.” We just want to do it our own way and get it done, have a good time hanging out, and then that’s that.

I interviewed you last nine years ago, when Attack On Memory came out. And I remember there was this story that you didn’t get along with Albini, because you said in an interview that Albini played Scrabble when you were in the studio.

Yeah, the whole Scrabble thing. I don’t know what that was. Any time anyone asks me about Steve Albini, which is often, it’s always, “Oh, did he play Scrabble the whole time?” And I have to be like, “No, that’s not what he did.” There is downtime when you’re doing something like that. I’ll look at my phone, and Steve Albini will play Scrabble. It wasn’t some cruel remark where I was trying to tear him down. I was just like, “Hey, he likes Scrabble.” I think people thought that meant he was lazy, which is insane, because he’s the opposite of that.

This time, there was honestly less downtime. We were just cruising through it, because we only had six days. We kept him there pretty late on the last day. And I do still feel bad about that, because I think he really wanted to go.

You’ve been making records for more than decade, and you’re still only 29. You’re obviously still pretty young, but Cloud Nothings by now has a real body of work. For instance, you recently put out a 10th-anniversary edition of your first record, Turning On. Do you ever reflect on the band’s arc so far?

Honestly, not so much, until this last year, where I didn’t really have much else to do. And so I did spend a lot of time thinking about the past and looking at old photos and all kinds of ephemera from the last 10, 11 years.

How do you feel about how the band’s progressed in that time?

The main thing is that I feel like just as a band, we just got the hang of it. In a way, not knowing 100 percent of what we were doing on some of the older records might have fueled certain choices that people actually really liked. But as a songwriter and person today, there’s probably stuff I would not do, for better or for worse. I feel like I’ve gotten more into the idea of just having to work at it all the time, and having to constantly be writing. Because there was a point where I felt like I didn’t necessarily have to do that. I thought I had cracked the code, like “I know how to write a song.” But there’s no code where you go and put in things exactly some way and that’s your song and it’s good. That’s a recipe for making something bad, it turns out. Now, I’ve fallen into a rhythm of constantly doing things. And that to me feels like a better pattern.

What about indie rock in general? The difference between now and when you put out Attack On Memory is pretty incredible.

The things we got lumped in with then were just sort of other things that maybe weren’t even really truly big trends. The big thing from 2012 was Grimes, and that obviously got really big. It’s funny to not be trendy when you get popular and continue to not be trendy as the years go by, and you see audiences change and the size of rooms and audiences. It gets bigger and smaller depending on what year or what record we put out. But I can’t pretend to know what people are thinking. I know what I like, and I feel like as long as we keep making music that I think is okay, there will be some audience there for that.

The Shadow I Remember is out Friday on Carpark. Get it here.