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Cloud Nothings Ease Into a Life Without Sound

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It’s Election Day in New York City, and Dylan Baldi and I are sitting across from each other eating donuts. This activity serves as the ideal distraction from the orange elephant in the room: Will Donald Trump actually win the presidency? (A few hours after our meet-up, the answer will be revealed and people will be openly crying in the street.) But the 25-year-old Cloud Nothings frontman and founder appears more inquisitive than concerned for the moment. “I was actually really curious to see if the vibe here was similar to how it felt in Cleveland when we were in the World Series,” he tells me. “I feel like there’ll be some of the same tension, but for totally different reason. I’m curious to measure it.”

Taking a step back to evaluate his surroundings is a common habit of the Ohio-born singer-songwriter. In fact, much of the time his reactions can be delayed, which is why, he jokes, he’s not always so great with interviews. “I’ll make this stuff, and two years later, I’ll be like, ‘Well, I wish I could talk about it now, cause now I know what the fuck I was thinking.’”

For the moment, though, Baldi’s in New York with Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis, who’s busy promoting her solo debut as Sad13. Without betraying their privacy, it’s safe to say that the two musicians do share a history — Baldi actually began to pen new Cloud Nothings songs in 2015 while living with Dupuis in Northampton, Massachusetts. But that year, he admits, was a lonely one, with Dupuis out on tour a bunch in support of Speedy Ortiz’s Foil Deer record. “I just kind of lost my mind a little bit,” he says. “I just ended up alone a lot of the time, and away from everyone I knew and in situations that I wasn’t super comfortable with.”

To cope, Baldi turned to his guitar. Later, drummer Jayson Gerycz and bassist TJ Duke visited him in the college town for two weeks, where they worked with the frontman on what would become the post-hardcore quartet’s (including recently-added guitarist Chris Brown) fourth full-length, Life Without Sound. It’s the follow-up to 2014’s thrashing, critically lauded Here and Nowhere Else, which earned extensive praise from Paste, plus outlets like Pitchfork, Stereogum and Rolling Stone. Eventually, Baldi moved back to Cleveland to finish his newest project, where, he says, “everything kind of felt better.”

Cloud Nothings  devotees expecting to hear a fresh batch of frenetic recordings may be in for a surprise: While Baldi continues to pack his songs with lyrics of existential dread, Life Without Sound (out on January 27 via Carpark Records) places a new emphasis on melody, is crisply produced by John Goodmanson and plays out at a much more gradual, even-keeled pace than its predecessor. Rueful album opener “Up to the Surface” opens with a plaintive piano melody before transitioning into trudging percussion and a wall of distortion. Baldi’s restraint continues into the title track and well into the peppy “Modern Act” and the harmonizing “Internal World.”

Baldi acknowledges the changes in aesthetic, saying that they’re simply a reflection of slowing down his lifestyle. “With the last couple records, Here and Nowhere Else especially, we had been on tour for like two years. And [the record label] was like, ‘Make a record.’ And we were just like, ‘Okay, sure, whatever.’ And we just played a bunch of songs really fast and didn’t even practice it that much or think about it. But with Life Without Sound, we slowed down. We didn’t tour that much. I feel like just because life was slower, and I was listening to slow music and stuff — everything was just slower. I felt a little more sane. I feel like the songs reflect that.”

The record’s production sheen, meanwhile, is a product of spending so much time — about three weeks in total — in the Texas-based studio, Sonic Ranch, where they studiously arranged the album’s many guitar lines. “John Goodmanson, I think, just loves melody,” Baldi says. “There’s definitely a highlight on one individual melody in every [song], which is not normal. With me there’s a lot of melodies going on all the time, but he kind of pared it down, where there’s one thing to focus on for each section of the song.”

But it wasn’t all work at Sonic Ranch, which, according to Baldi, came surrounded by pecan trees and houses one of Stevie Ray Vaughnan’s guitars. “It was hard to play,” he laughs. “It sounded terrible, it was ugly… We [also] found some of Sublime’s guitar picks on the ground. And what we think are Rome [Ramirez]’s glasses.”

Baldi tends to zero in on funny little details like these, which arguably take up more space in the singer’s mind than, say, his song’s deeper meanings. When he writes lyrics, which are often racked with hand-wringing doubt and furtive anxiety (“I want a life, that’s all I need lately / I am alive but all alone,” he bemoans on “Modern Act”), he may not realize what drove him to say those things for months or even years. “I’m pretty good at going with the flow and not really thinking about what’s going on, or where I am or what I’m doing,” he says. “That’s why touring is probably so easy for me. I know what I’m doing, I know where I am, but my mind is somewhere else.”

But Baldi maintains that, despite his lack of self-awareness in the moment, he’s committed to writing better songs and more successful albums with every go-around. “I write songs because it’s fun for me,” he says. “And I feel like other people enjoy it. That’s something I can do for people. Just to make myself feel like I’m doing something positive. It’s like my only mission when I make a record. It’s like, ‘This has to be better than the last one.’”

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