Dylan Baldi is only 20 years old, but he’s already on his third album with the band formerly known as “lo-fi pop,” Cloud Nothings. Now, Cloud Nothings are crossing over to the dark side with a thoroughly jammed-out and shadowy new release, Attack on Memory, recorded with Steve Albini. Before the band began their tour, we chatted with Dylan about the inspiration behind the new tunes. Don’t worry: He promises the impending apocalypse had nothing to do with it.
Attack on Memory is such an awesome album title. What brought you to the name, and what inspired the album’s new, dark sound?
Dylan Baldi: Attack on Memory is the lyrics from one of the songs, and it’s also just sort of saying that this is a different approach to the band that we’re taking, so it’s sort of removing, or not removing, but building on the old memory, I guess.
There wasn’t anything in particular that I thought of while I was writing the songs, you know, it just happened to be that when I sat down to write a song for this record, it did turn out a little bit…I would get an idea, and play it the next morning, and it would be something a little slower or a more intense than something I made for the self-titled album or Turning On.
You recorded Attack on Memory with Steve Albini. How did that come together, and what was he like in the studio?
Pretty much anybody can work with Steve Albini in the studio as long as you pay him. If you have a band, you can go do it and it will be super easy. He’s really easy to work with. He kind of didn’t even do much, really. You know, we had our songs and we went in there and he set up all the microphones and all that and let us record and let us do whatever we wanted and didn’t even suggest anything at all [laughs]. Even if we sort of pressed him to tell us what he thought about something, he wouldn’t do it [laughs]. It was kind of…kind of strange, but it was good! And we got through the album really quick in, like, four or five days.
Wow, so no words of wisdom from Steve?
Uhhh, no. He was really good at Scrabble [laughs]. He played Scrabble on Facebook a lot while we were recording, and we would play Scrabble on our computers and get words from Steve Albini.
Did he kick your butts or did you guys beat him?
We didn’t play him. We were all playing different people separately, and we’d be like, ‘Steve, come here!’ And he’d tell us a word…it was pretty interesting [laughs].
So maybe he didn’t influence your recording as much as your vocabulary.
Yes, he definitely made us smarter [laughs].
You know, since Steve Albini’s name is tied in to the new album, I would’ve thought that he had something to do with the change in sound. It’s interesting to hear it’s completely unrelated.
Yeah, it’s kind of annoying. I’ve already seen a couple of things where it’s like, ‘Steve Albini must have written all these songs for Cloud Nothings, and he’s using them as, like…a puppet.’ But that’s not true. Steve just played Scrabble, and we did our own thing [laughs].
So this is your first album recording with a full band, and it seems to have had a huge part in your new sound. There’s a lot of instrumental breakdowns where you all just jam and a heavy emphasis on the drummer…How did recording with the band make a difference?
It definitely changes things cause, you know, the last album I played drums on it, and I don’t know how to play drums. I can play them well enough to play behind a song or whatever, but our drummer is, like, a very, very good drummer [laughs] and even having a good drummer at all completely changes how a whole band sounds. I bet if we recorded the last album with him in it, it would probably sound a lot different than it does now.
And yeah, the way we developed these songs was I wrote my part, and the melody to sing, and everyone else kind of made their own parts, as opposed to me dictating what everyone does all the time, which is kind of what the last couple things were. But this one it’s more the full band effort.
Yeah a lot of press I’ve read about you refers to you as the “mastermind” behind Cloud Nothings. Now that you’re recording with a band, does that still hold true or has it become more collaborative?
It’s a little more collaborative. I’m still making the end decisions. If I don’t like a song, we probably won’t end up playing it, but for the most part, it’s definitely more of a collaborative process than it was a couple of years ago.
When you released your first record, Turning On, you were 18 years old. When I look back at who I was at that age, I feel like I was a completely different person. Are you happy to have that moment of yourself out there or does it feel weird for people to be comparing this record with what you were doing then?
It is really weird, yeah, cause I think…I mean I’m glad it exists, I’m glad I documented what I was thinking and the kind of things I was into as an 18 year old, but it’s kind of strange for me to go back and listen to that because if I were to write a song or think about the lyrics to a song today, I wouldn’t think anything even sort of like what I made just two years ago, which is sort of crazy. But it does definitely feel like I was a very different person, yeah [laughs].
Do you think that part of the new sound in Attack on Memory has to do with growing up?
The new album in terms of growing up, I’m not sure I would say that [as a theme], but definitely in terms of the way I write songs is probably maturing if not my…worldview, or whatever [laughs]. Definitely what I think about when writing a song is a little more than what I did two years ago. It was just sort of verse/chorus/ verse…a very simple, basic way to do it, and I wanted to challenge myself and do new things writing-wise.
What are some of the new things that you’ve been trying to change your writing process?
Well you know, now that I’m writing songs with a band, I would never want to do….There’s the song “Wasted Days” that has a four or five minute jam in it, and if I was making a song alone, I would never do that because I’d have to sit there and play guitar solos over and over, recorded over each other, and that just seems, like…[laughs] not fun to me at all. But to do that with a live band playing with you and sort of playing off of them, it’s exciting and really fun.
Even just the structure of the songs aren’t necessarily as simple as they were for the last couple albums, there’s a little more depth to them. One of the songs, “Stay Useless,” you know, it’s sort of a catchy pop song or whatever, that’s the idea behind it, and that was the idea behind all of the songs on the last one, but with this one, there’s just more parts to it. It doesn’t go verse/chorus/verse. The guitar part that starts the song never comes back again; they never play that again. There’s just tiny little differences, and it’s very subtle. There’s a lot of little things I just started adding…to keep myself from being bored, to keep from writing the same kind of song over and over and instead write something fresh.
This album definitely has less of that “layered” solo feel, with those random shouts and jams and stuff it feels less like quilting a blanket alone at home and more raw, for sure. It’s interesting to hear you talk about how other people adding to your work has changed it so much.
Yeah, that and also, making this album I wanted to make something that sounded like us playing live because that is what it is, you know, that’s the way we recorded it. So when we play live, even when we play old songs, it’s really loud and upfront, so I wanted to sort of catch that. And that’s another reason why we picked Steve Albini to record it, cause that’s his thing: to make a band sound like how the band sounds and not do too many flashy things in the production.
When you’re playing your old songs with your band, do you find yourself jamming with them or changing them, doing things you never would have done on a record with those songs?
Lately, as in the past couple months, yeah. We kind of played them exactly the same way for a whole year and it got super boring. So yeah, if we’re gonna keep playing those songs at all, they’re definitely going to be fleshed out and a little different than they were on the record.
You’re going on tour now – are you planning to play old songs or focus totally on the new stuff?
We’re probably not going to play the old songs, I would say, you know, unless before a show someone specifically asks me, ‘Can you play…’ whatever. We’ll probably do that. But if it’s just us making the set list, we’re not going to play any old stuff. We’re going to play, probably, this whole new record, maybe a couple even newer songs, but that’ll be it.
Is this kind of the sound you’re planning to continue with for the foreseeable future?
I’m not really sure what we’re gonna do. We’ve been writing these songs that are a little even, like, weirder and stranger, not so much structured pop songs, because even though these songs aren’t all pop songs, there’s still something to hold onto, like a melody or whatever, but we’ve been making some stuff that isn’t like that, and also I’ve been making stuff that’s completely like that, so…I’m not sure where we’re gonna go with it. We’ll see. I think we’re trying to put out an album every year until we…burn out [laughs].
Yeah, you’re often described as a “pop” band. With this new, darker sound – I mean, this record gets almost metal at moments, and there are some really grungy, tough tunes in there – do you think people will stop calling you pop?
Well, I mean already, the first thing that anybody said about it was, like, “Oh, lo- fi pop band Cloud Nothings comes out with new songs…” And it’s like, ‘Ugh, did you even listen to this?’ So I think we might be kind of stuck with that for a minute, but hopefully as people actually listen to the album, they kind of realize that there’s a little more going on than your basic pop song. I don’t care what people call us, I guess, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to call someone a pop band, but maybe they’ll stop doing that [laughs].
Attack on Memory seems really relevant to me right now in terms of the disenchantment of our age group, especially with everything that’s going on politically and economically. One of the touchstones for me was the repeated line, “I thought I would be more than this.” Is the idea of not being able to meet your dreams with reality something that you think is in the record? Is it completely accidental or something you were trying for?
I don’t necessarily think that was something I was actively processing while I was writing these things, but I think with our age group, when anyone is this age, when my parents were this age, they probably felt exactly the way you just described. You know, it’s a different story, different things were going on, but the same sort of disenchantment…realizing that they can’t live the Disney dream life or anything. So I think probably just the fact that I wrote this record when I was this age, thinking about the things that people our age think about…and the kind of music that I like isn’t the kind of music where the lyrics are sugar-coated and everything’s super crystal clear and kind of a utopia, super top-40 pop music kind of thing. I’m still into punk music and all that kind of stuff. That’s a little darker traditionally, so the kind of things I’m writing about end up being the darker things. So I think that that’s something that I wasn’t probably actively thinking about, but definitely sort of seeped into my whole outlook when I was writing this record, and I think it probably does for anybody who would be in our situation and have the same reference points in terms of music. The art they’re creating…probably comes out in the same sort of way.
Cloud Nothings' Attack On Memory is out January 24 on Carpark.