After his last tour, Dylan Baldi of indie-rock stalwarts Cloud Nothings was wholly burnt out. Maybe it was the rigorous live schedule or the vigor of the excellent 2018 record Last Building Burning, but doing those songs night after night started to wear on Baldi. “Playing through the album every night would just drain me. It was hard to even do the old stuff after playing through that, ’cause I was just exhausted,” recalls Baldi over the phone. “The songs are almost too intense to be fun. They’re almost like an exercise in a way.” At one point, Baldi debated if touring was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
No more touring is a jarring thing to think about for Cloud Nothings, a group who have established themselves as the most reliable meat-and-potatoes rock group since Spoon. With the airtight work of drummer Jayson Gerycz, bassist TJ Duke and guitarist Chris Brown backing him up, Baldi has mastered a particular brand of sturdy, straightforward melodic punk, filled with harshness and tunefulness in equal degrees. On any song written by Baldi, his signature style cuts straight through.
While the tour for Last Building Burning felt like a drill to Baldi, he started getting his groove with an unexpected method: daily morning runs. “I would go out first thing in the morning, and that just became a pattern for me of running and then coming home and making a song,” explains Baldi. Soon enough, he had nearly 40 demos to sort through.
Those runs were the basis for The Shadow I Remember, one of the most consistent projects Cloud Nothings have ever put out. The new album is also a healthy middle ground between the heaviness of Last Building Burning and the comparative poppiness of 2017’s Life Without Sound. If you’ve liked Cloud Nothings in the past, you’ll surely find something to like on this record, from the pummeling drumwork of “It’s Love” to the soothing “Nara.”
Recorded last February over the course of a week, there’s a surprisingly relevant anxiety to The Shadow I Remember. For Baldi, who has made a career out of shouting angsty slogans, worried sentiments aren’t exactly unexpected. It’s just that the uncertainty is more stark than ever before. Take the opener, “Oslo,” where Baldi spends the chorus posing existential quandaries with the sense that singing them out loud will provide some clarity. “Some people can read it as depressive, but it seems realistic to me. I try to get that stuff out in the songs so I’m not talking about it too often in day-to-day life,” Baldi says with a laugh. “I get it out through these little one- or two-line lyrics here or there. That’s enough for me.”
Cloud Nothings have never been big fans of extended experimentation or long hours in the studio, but by reuniting with Steve Albini, the legendary producer behind their 2012 breakthrough record Attack On Memory, they made sure that the process would be as breakneck as possible. “It was just work from morning to night everyday. We’d work, then come back to our Airbnb, watch something terrible on Netflix for half an hour, and then everyone went to bed,” says Baldi. “It was a pretty exhausting process.” After a late final day which nearly kept Albini from making a flight to Japan, the album was done. Only a few weeks later, plans to release the album got put on hold as a pandemic swept the United States.
Although Baldi is used to the repetitive nature of touring, he wasn’t sure what to do when it was replaced by the mundane strangeness of early quarantine. Much like everyone else’s, his days blurred into nothingness as he stayed in his Philly apartment with his girlfriend, Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz. “When the whole thing went down, I spent a couple of months being like, ‘Huh, what are we supposed to do?’” says Baldi. “I started sending Jayson songs, and he would just drum on them and send them back. It became almost like hanging out, or as close as we could get to doing that by chatting and talking about these songs we were making.”
With the release of The Shadow I Remember put off until 2021, Baldi and Gerycz surprise-released The Black Hole Understands last July as a Bandcamp-only release. As everyone else was stuck inside, what started as a lark turned into an album with energy and fanfare behind it. “We started building this catalogue of stuff, and eventually we were like, ‘Should we release this? Is it good? Will anybody care?’ Finally we just decided to do it,” Baldi says. With the positive reception to Black Hole, they decided to start sharing monthly EPs with their Bandcamp subscribers. It’s just a small fraction of the music Baldi put out last year, as we haven’t yet mentioned the free-jazz albums, the lo-fi solo album or the noise-y electronic EP that he released over the course of 2020.
That balance of quality and quantity has always been the key to Cloud Nothings, the kings of consistency at their crossroads of pop punk, noise rock and indie pop. Despite a total of 34 releases last year—if you include the 27 live albums they dropped on Bandcamp to support small music venues—it doesn’t look like Baldi and co. are really ever going to slow down.
“I just keep diving further and further down the rabbit hole that I’ve made for my music and keep trying to find new avenues within it. It’s a matter of finding new ways to attempt the same sort of thing. There’s a couple types of songs that I like to write and I just keep trying to do better versions of them. It’s like putting out the new iPhone. The new Cloud Nothings song is just the updated version of the old version and it’s better in some ways. Some people like the old one and don’t want to update, but we’ll keep updating.”
Ethan Gordon is a writer living in Pittsburgh. His work can be found at No Ripcord, Vice, Mic and others.
Revisit Cloud Nothings’ 2010 Daytrotter session below.