Cloud Nothings is all about intensity. Lead vocalist/guitarist Dylan Baldi mentions intensity countless times throughout our phone call, and it’s for good reason. There’s hardly a better way to describe their music from 2012’s Attack On Memory through last year’s Life Without Sound. Eventually, you’d think the band would hit a point of diminishing returns. How can you realistically keep upping the ante before you reach a ceiling?
The band’s latest record, Last Building Burning (out today via Carpark Records), somehow manages to be the band’s most intense record yet. Recorded with Seattle-based producer Randall Dunn, Baldi and co. have pushed their sonic barriers and tapped into an even more brutal, raw sound than they’ve ever achieved in the studio. It’s miraculous that the recordings are able to contain the visceral power rushing through the musicians, finally capturing the overwhelming sonic assault they’ve been known for in live performances. But Last Building Burning is more than just about volume and distortion. The band’s growth as musicians is on full display, Baldi’s vocals exquisitely ragged and formidable against the intricately designed guitar fuzz and (as usual) batshit insane drumming from Jayson Gerycz. It’s also some of Baldi’s finest songwriting yet, with brief melodic moments that harken back to the Cloud Nothings’ earliest days as a bedroom-pop project.
Lyrically as well, Cloud Nothings has honed in on themes they’ve long addressed like feelings of hopeless, complacency, and looking for an exit. Much like the instrumentation, it’s some of Baldi’s heaviest writing yet. As Baldi walks through each track on the album, he explains his yearning to continue to find new ways to find intensity in music and how watching the world around him become homogeneous inspired his writing (also, one of the songs was originally written to be about a Pumpkin Spice Latte).
Dylan Baldi: I always like the first song on each record to just be one that sort of sets the tone. The first song from the last record is slower and kind of creepy a little bit. It always just sets the mood for the record. So this one is pretty insane [laughs]. It's just, like, really fast and, you know, annoying, and I feel like that is the mood of the record [laughs]. It's a song that could only go first on the album. If we put it anywhere else it would be too jarring, but to start it off right away is just kind of a nice bang.
KEXP: On the record, it was definitely kind of a visceral feeling. Like, “Okay, we're doing this.”
Yeah. I wanted it to be like that right away because our last record was a little... I don't know if soft is the right word, but it was definitely a little more fluffy, production-wise. I wanted this one to kind just immediately be a different record.
Did you write this song envisioning it to be an intro song or did it just come out and it was like, okay, this has to go first?
Yeah, well, all the track order stuff always ends up being the very last thing I do or think about. We'll have this little batch of usually eight songs. That's how many are on most of our records. And then once they're all done and I hear them all that's when I'll be like, “this song can only fit here.” There's always one order that seems like it's just the only way it can be to me.
You've talked a little bit about wanting the album to have kind of a raw, live feeling and chaotic energy. What kind of attracted you to that sound for this record?
Well, I want that sound with all of our records. I think we mostly have ended up doing that, but it just didn't come out that way with the last one for whatever reason, and it kind of bummed me out. So I just wanted to make sure that we got back to just sounding like the way we always do. I like records that just sound like real things happening in a real place. I guess that's not always true either, but for a rock band, I like it to be a record that just sounds like something that's just happening in a room right in front of you. I wanted our records to sound like that.
Yeah, and I know that you had mentioned that's kind of the sound you've gone for before. You've recorded a lot of your albums live, like Here and Nowhere Else. This one specifically feels more raw and live and intense. Was there something different in the studio that you did to capture that?
Not really. I think the guy who was recording it, Randall Dunn, who has a lot of experience with metal, essentially, and kind of more experimental music. That band, Sunn O))), he was their sound guy for 12 years or something. He's actually from Seattle. He just moved to New York really recently, but he used to work at this place called Avast in Seattle. So yeah, he's a musical dude, so I think he helped. He just heard us play, and it was like, “all right.” He knew what to do to make it sound like the way it should. Yeah, but I think that this particular batch of songs is just a little more aggro [laughs] than some of the other stuff.
That one is kind of just about... I guess I used the word "him," but that could be replaced with literally any pronouns. I don't know. I just always feel like, I do this myself sometimes too, but I always see people who are really stuck in certain situations and sad about it, but it just seems like there's always a way to get out even if you're really, really down on your luck. So I wrote the song about that, I guess.
It seems like that might be kind of a theme throughout the record- kind of feeling stuck and trying to get out?
Yes... I think all of our records are really just about the same thing. Yeah [laughs]. I'm clearly always getting stuck and trying to get out. And I think that's the only reason I make music, honestly, is that I get a real visceral enjoyment from finding a new song or a new way to do something. I really like that more than pretty much anything else that I can do in the world [laughs]. So yeah, all the records almost end up being just about music, basically, but also kind of how we can translate that into any situation almost. They're vague but not purposefully so.
They just kind of naturally come about for you?
I think so, yeah. Making music is just something I do every day. Yeah. I guess it's almost like a self-serving thing because I do it because I really like it, and I'm glad other people like it [laughs].
It's interesting to hear this song right after "On An Edge" because it's a lot more melodic, I guess. It's a lot hookier, and it kind of reminds me of the first Cloud Nothing records. Were you thinking about writing hooks and capturing that sort of style with this intense energy?
I mean, I think... 'cause even back when we were touring, even on the self-titled record or whatever, there are ones that are just really fast, pop punk songs almost. The way they sounded on the record was never the way they sounded live. We would play the songs live, and they just sound insane compared to what the record sounded like. I think people would just be confused [laughs]. I do like the idea of someone knowing what they're in for, maybe, when they hear the song on the record and be like, “Oh, okay, I'm seeing it live and it's maybe not sounding exactly like the record,” but, you know, having a better idea of what it's supposed to actually to be like.
I feel like you could kind of say this about any song on the record, but the band and, especially Jayson Gerycz's drums, sound insane and awesome. What is it like working with that kind of intensity in the studio? You've talked about it live, but what is it like in a smaller space and in close quarters?
It's fun. Yeah. I think every time we get together that's all we can really do [laughs]. We get together and just play music, and that's what happens. We just, no matter what, the song starts off as it ends up being something just fast and intense. It's something you can only reduce to a couple of adjectives, honestly. Like, that's intense. What else can you really say? [laughs] I kind of like that. It's something that's just so brutal and in your face that you kind of just have to simplify it down to, like, it sounds intense. I guess I don't have anything else to say [laughs]. Yeah, that's just kind of the energy that we're always naturally working with, I guess.
I interviewed John Congleton a couple years ago, and we were talking to him about Here and Nowhere Else. He talked about recording you guys and how his role was kind of like, I'm just going to stay out of the way and let them go crazy. Whereas another producer might tell you guys to hold back or something, and it's just kind of cool to hear that and then to see how that intensity has just continued to build.
Yeah, I think that's pretty true. I'm wondering at what point peak is [laughs]. Like, does it get more intense? Like, where do we go from here? I also play some kind of free jazz sort of stuff around Cleveland where I play saxophone, and that ends up getting even more insane because I do a lot of it with Jayson too. When he's not in rock band mode and we're just kind of free jamming and playing music that, you know, nobody likes, and we're just doing it that shit gets really crazy [laughs]. I'm always wondering if Cloud Nothings will go down that road eventually and make a free jazz record that nobody likes. Maybe not.
I mean, I personally would like to hear that.
People say that and then you'll hear it and be like, “Well, I used to like that band” [laughs].
That's true. The grass is always greener or something like that.
The jazz is always greener [laughs].
I think I wrote that song after we went and saw Hot Snakes play. I really like that band. Their record from this year, actually, is still one of my favorite records of the year. You know, it just... it rips. I went and saw them play, and I think that song sort of popped out the next day or two or something. And so, I think in some way it was inspired by that. I love Drive Like Jehu and stuff... not that that song sounds like them. But yeah, I just the wanted to do something vaguely Hot Snakes-y as a tribute to a band I like.
Lyrically there's an interesting kind of back and forth on this song. Correct me if I'm misinterpreting any of it, but it seems like this sort of flippancy of public perception of actions, but then on the chorus, you are singing like, "No one will remember my name, I'll be alone and ashamed..."
I mean, this song is not about me. This is about gross people in positions of power abusing their office. And then, you know, at the end of someone's life it doesn't matter how much you accumulated in your life, I guess if you sucked [laughs]. You know, people just won't care about you anymore. They'll write you out of history because you were a horrible person. So yeah, that's what that song is kind of about.
Do you like to write outside of yourself like that a lot? I think it's easy to interpret songs as confessional when it comes from a first-person perspective. Do you find it fun to kind of dial into someone else's perception or see outside of yourself?
Yeah. I think whenever I'm saying "I" and stuff in songs, it's never about me, necessarily. Especially, I used to do this. I would just write vague stuff about things that going on in the world, but I never would specifically say, “this is happening and this is what this means and this is all of it You know Greg Sage, from that band Wipers? I read an interview with him where he said that he would just get his lyrical ideas from sitting at a coffee place or something, listening to people talk and trying to write about what he thought the future would be like based on what people were just talking about around him. His lyrics all turned out very bleak [laughs]. I think I almost sort of internalized that approach. You know when I was 17 or 18 or whenever this band started, and I've kind of just been doing something like that. I'm not necessarily drawing from anyone personal experience or something. It's more of like an observing everything kind of approach.
It's kind of cool to see those influences kind of all coming together in this song: Hot Snakes and Wipers lyrical approach and things. It's a cool kind of extension of all that.
I mean, we've been a Wipers, like, rip-off band for years or at least we've been trying to be [laughs]. Hopefully that comes through in some way.
I've always just kinda wanted to do a song where essentially it's just the same riff over and over and over through the whole song and this one is basically that. Like, the chords never really change. The top of the guitar part kind of changes, but the actual structure of the song is essentially just the same thing over and over and over. I just always thought it would be fun to try to do that but still keep the song interesting and have it go up and down dynamically. So it's kind of a nerdy songwriting exercise [laughs] that turned into a song that I think is pretty cool.
In the statements leading up to the album, you've mentioned that you were really particular about the pacing of the record and that you wanted to have a short record that has a flow. How did you see this song fitting in? It feels like maybe the closest thing to a ballad. Maybe this and "So Right So Clean." How do you see it fitting into your concept of the motion of the record?
This one is kind of like a come down from the first 3 songs, I guess. Those are just all really intense and fast and at the end of the third one, it's just like, jeez. Like, stop [laughs]. At least that's what I, in my head, was thinking. By that time it's nice to have something slightly less in your face or whatever. So, yeah, this one is just slowing down the pace to the next song which is slow too. I don't know. I like the whole record to just kind of move in an intelligent, dynamic way that makes sense to me. I listen to a lot of very long songs or long ambient records. I got really into techno for a while which just gets deeper into all these DJ mixes and stuff and just the way all those flowed and everything. I got really kind of obsessed with that, and I kind of try to approach our records like that too. Where it starts up big and there's a little come down, and it kind of gets bigger at the end.
Do you go as far as thinking about bpm and things like that?
No, because we can't play to a set bpm [laughs]. That's impossible for us, unfortunately. We tried to play to a click track on Life Without Sound – or not “we tried,” we did. I think John Goodmanson, the guy who produced that one, I'm pretty sure he was like, "You gotta play to a click track." Alright, sir. When we don't, everything just gets fast and I think that was disturbing him. But, yeah, I wasn't concerned with bpm, but in general, like, speed, the idea of speed and tempo, I do think about, yeah.
Oh, yeah. This is actually the only other one where I was like, this could be the first song. I had a little alternate track list in my head. I guess there's another sort of theme running through the record. In general, it's just sort of the destruction of history in a way or just, like, cultural history. It always makes me sad when I see someone tear down a nice, old building that I was really into every time I'd drive by it in Cleveland or something like that. I'd be like, I like that big old thing even though it's a big, ugly, useless building or something that was pretty cool. But lately that stuff is just getting torn down all over the world and replaced with really boring toaster buildings, and that makes me sad. I think a lot of, well not a lot of the songs, but probably this one and "So Right So Clean" are a little bit about that – just being bummed that people don't care about any history of their community or anything anymore.
Yeah, I mean that definitely resonates over here too. This city has completely changed, and every year it seems like a different town. It seems like that is kind of widespread, like you are saying, and a lot of artists are responding to that right now.
I mean, it's just going on everywhere. You can go to any city in the world and every city has a coffee place that looks exactly the same and every city has a bunch of apartments that look exactly the same as every other city. Everything is just turning into one place. It really freaks me out. In a hundred years every city will just look the same. It will just be the internet of the world. Everything is just one big global thing which is... I guess somebody thinks that's cool, but I don't. I like when things have their own personality, I guess. I want to go from Cleveland to like... where did we go recently? We went... oh, not recently, but I do remember we went to Helsinki for a show or something. We were only there for like, a second, but I got to Helsinki and I was like, “This looks like Pittsburgh” [laughs]. And I remember thinking that very clearly. We were in some part of Helsinki where I was like, “Yeah, I could be in Pittsburgh right now. This sucks. I feel like I should feel like I'm very far away from the Midwest, but instead, I just feel like I'm at home still.” I don't even remember what I was looking at. I don't like that feeling.
Yeah, it's weird. Why travel and see the world if it's all going to be the same?
Right? Yeah. It's just, like, erasing the history of places. It's weird. I don't like it.
"The Echo Of The World" is also the lead single from the album. Is there any reason behind picking that one first?
Yeah, I thought it was the most... different, I guess, out of all the songs on the record, for sure. And then, in general, like stuff that we've even made in the past, we don't necessarily have a song that sounds like that. So that just seemed like a good way to maybe make people interested in the record a little bit. Or just kind of be like, “Oh, what's this?” This is not exactly what I thought it would be from this band, but it doesn't sound like some totally different band. It sounds like us, but it's got some new stuff going on that we don't necessarily get into or didn't really do at all on the last record. So, yeah, it seemed like a good taster.
When you were writing and recording, were you trying to do something different? Were you trying to write a song that sounded like something you hadn't done before?
Yeah. I mean, I try to do that every time I write a song. It was on my mind with this one [laughs]. Yeah, I'm trying to think of what I would have been thinking about and I guess probably... yeah, I think I just liked the idea of that long build. Our songs either have this like [laughs]... This is such a dumb thing that I'm about to say. Our songs either have like a short little build up point towards the end or are really crazy in the long run. And this is a medium one. We don't have a medium one. Let's try that. So this is our medium build song. That's the most exciting thing anyone has ever said about a song. It has a medium build. Yeah, thrilling [laughs].
Oh, well, this one I wanted to make essentially like a drone track but it was like, you can't just make a drone song on our record. So I had to put some kind of song around it. But yeah, it is that whole long, like extra-long, feedback-y, drone-y zone that it gets into. I was honestly just listening to a lot of music that was just one long tone [laughs], you know, for, like, a very long time. I was super into this organist… Her records were just, essentially, organ drones in a big old church. They let her use this organ and record it, and it sounded amazing. It would just be like an hour of essentially just one note but then also like the sounds accompanying it in the room. Like a janitor would come in or something, and you'd hear a door open or someone would cough or whatever. I really liked that. So I was into the drone world [laughs], and we tried to do it.
I'm kind of stating the obvious, but it's the longest song on the album by a considerable amount, and you mentioned wanting to do drones. In terms of pacing why did you want to put this song where it is on the record, and how do you see it fitting into the album?
It sort of feels like a little, almost like an intro to the next song, you know, not in the way like it’s just a throwaway track or something, but it does its own thing. There's nothing else on the record that really does that. It lets you space out for a second instead of just being barraged by a bunch of crap all the time [laughs]. It gives you a second just to be like, “Whoa. What is this? Like, why are they doing this for so long?” [laughs] I really like that. It does build a little bit towards the end and has a loud ending or whatever, but it just seems like a nice sort of moment of relative calm. It's a moment of relative calm before the next tune, which is another banger [laughs].
You couldn't have picked a better producer to work with on a song like that.
Oh yeah. That's his sound. We were doing this drone-y thing. He recorded a bunch of stuff, and he kind of pieced it all together. I think he said something like, "I know how to wrangle a drone," or something. We were like, "Okay, man. Do whatever you want. We're just trying to record this thing." So he messed around with it a little bit too. So that one was not necessarily what we were sitting in a room playing. Now there's a couple of little extra bits and bobs on that one. But yeah, he's great at that stuff.
So is it like you guys recorded two different things and he helped piece it together? Or were you guys doing overdubs or what was kind of the process?
There are a couple little overdubs on it. But we did the main piece. how long it is, like seven minutes or something, of just zoning out and droning. It did build the way it does, and Jayson dropped out and came in with that beat and everything. Like, the whole structure of it existed. But then I went over it and maybe did one extra guitar sound and a there's a guitar solo thing almost that fades in and out at the end that we added over top. So, yes, just a couple of little things, but we could do it again if we wanted it to, and it would sound essentially the same.
For some reason whenever I think of drones I always jump to improvisation, but it sounds like you had mapped out a bit of what you wanted to do and what you wanted it to sound like.
Yeah, of course. I mean, I like improv stuff, and it's fun, but even when you're doing that – I actually do it a lot. I just recorded a bunch of really crazy stuff with Jayson and this other drummer and this guy named Bob Drake in Cleveland. He builds his own synths, and he uses other synths that weird people in other parts of the world have built, and we were jamming with him and this other drummer named Jay Guy. He's, like, another legendary Cleveland drummer guy, and he's in Indonesia right now studying gamelan, but we got him for a second while he was home. When we do stuff like that, you have to plan it out. If you're just sitting there like, “we're going to make something up,” it could be good, but there's like a 99 percent chance it's going to be terrible. So even with music that sounds improvised or even just weirder music that isn't just structured songs, I feel like it's really important to build some kind of structure into it. Or at least have a general idea of what you're going to do whether you draw a picture and try to follow that or just do something and talk about it. It's definitely important.
I mean this is another one that's kind of about just being sad that things are changing [laughs]. I guess it fits in with "The Echo Of The World" theme. It's also a kind of song that I feel like we never had made before... musically at least. It's slow and brooding in a way that's a little more dramatic than some of our stuff is generally. I was intrigued by that direction. It just sort of happened on its own. I was like, oh, this is cool. So, yeah, we've got to kind of follow this through to its conclusion.
This is the song where we also hear the title of the album: “Last Building Burning.”
Oh yes, yes. That's true.
What about that phrase kind of stuck out with you to use it to embody the record?
'Cause it's badass, man [laughs]. No [laughs]. I just think it really is kind of an intense phrase to me. Just saying it out loud it kind of feels like the way the record sounds to me and the way the cover looks and everything. I like to use phrases from the lyrics as the album title. Never a song title, but just something from in one of the songs. And this was the only little portion of lyrics from the whole record that seemed to me that it could encapsulate the whole vibe and image I had going with the record.
It definitely is a very vivid image. It immediately puts something in your head. The image of a burning building and the music in comparison to that is a really interesting experience.
I wanted everything to be very just, like, black and white essentially. You know, like the cover. It's just very grim. It's definitely talking about a burning building. It's sad and black and white and grim. So, we nailed it [laughs].
I really love the dirge feeling and the slower pace and that intense feeling that you were talking about, but it also made me think about how you are singing on the record. It feels like maybe you're taking a different approach? It's a really cool sound. Like, maybe a little more rough and raw than we've heard from you in the past. Was that an intentional thing or am I just totally making that up?
With the singing I guess I try to do it differently on every record because I don't know how to sing [laughs]. So I just try to do something that fits the music or at least fits the way that I think the music sounds. And, also, singing is embarrassing, I think. Like, singing in front of people is just, there's nothing more embarrassing to me than having to be like, “Oh, I have to sing. “So I've just kind of gotten more comfortable with it, I guess, over the course of all the records too. Now I'm finally just being like, alright, I'm just gonna fuckin' yell here, and you're just gonna have to deal with it [laughs]. I think I'm more comfortable doing that than I was in the past. There's definitely a little more intensity to some of the vocal stuff, which I think just fits the music. If I was just happily humming over everything I think it would be inappropriate [laughs]. So, yeah. Some of the grittier stuff just made sense to me.
It's cool to see the evolution of yourself as a singer. You've had that rougher and harder style on the past few records since Attack on Memory. It fits the music really well.
Yeah. I also hate listening to my own voice, generally, and this is the first record where I can listen to it and be like, I like what I did. So that's a nice feeling to have liked something that you did [laughs]. I don't often feel that way. But yeah, I'm actually proud of this one.
This is like, the populist jam. Yeah, this one is just... it's the oldest song. This one actually has a really funny story. Do you know the band The Courtney's from Vancouver? They're friends of ours, and I was actually trying to start a band with the people from The Courtneys, Jen and Sydney. We were trying to make a band that was based on all of the Starbucks seasonal drinks. So, like, every song would be about a different drink. Like, the Unicorn Frappuccino or whatever. It was pumpkin spice season, so this was probably a year ago, I'd say. We were hanging out in Halifax for the festival, and they were playing too, so I was just talking to them, and I had a free morning, and I made this little song that was about pumpkin spiced lattes. And it is “Another Way of Life” [laughs]. So I ended up with the band, and we were supposed to record and stuff, but it all kind of fell apart. I was like, “I still like this song. If I can just make it not about Starbucks I think we can do something with it for Cloud Nothings.” So that was what happened there.
You could have gotten ahold of Starbucks and been in cafes all across the world.
I mean, we blew it, yeah [laughs]. We've got to release the Starbucks version. The Starbucks exclusive. Yes. I can't remember what the lyrics even were... I wrote them on a plane or something, like, after I made the song. I don't know. It doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter at all [laughs].
So why did you want to end with this song?
I think I like the idea of ending with something that was a little brighter in tone than the rest of the record. This one could almost have been on maybe the last record or something or on one of our super early ones too. This one and even "Leave Him Now" they're kind of like of a piece to me because I did write them in relatively similar times and in similar mindsets. I think the idea is just ending on like a pop-y, kind of happy song after a record of someone just screaming at you for half an hour. It's nice. It's a nice thing to do for people. We give them a little gift at the end. Thank you for sitting through that, and it feels like a very happy song.
That was very courteous of you guys.
[laughs] Yeah, we're always thinking about the listener.
I had that as a note how there's definitely a feeling of relief in the song and in the melody and the lyrics too. Especially in contrast to some of the darker places you go on the record. It sounds like that was kind of intentional?
Yeah. I think so. This whole record is a little more intentional, I feel like, than any of the other ones have been. The other ones would just accidentally come together at the last minute. We were like, “Oh shit. We have to go record? What are we doing?” And this one was very... like, Jayson and I really practiced everything and really... we do a lot together where it's just me and him sitting around being like, “Hey, I have a song.” We'll just play it together over and over until it makes sense. The way the record moves, and everything that happens on the record, even down to the little drum fills on all the songs. Everything was very plotted out and planned and structured in a way that I liked more so than our other records. Not that I liked more but that we did it more.
That's cool because, you know, it's a meatier and more raw and live sounding record too. To have that kind of intentionality behind it is kind of a cool mixture of ideas.
Thank you. I'm super happy with the way it turned out, and I think it's important to make things that sound raw and real in a time where it's very easy to fake stuff and, you know, not necessarily have to know what you're doing to achieve something. I just like the idea of things that are tactile and real.
Yeah, totally. In general, how do you feel about this album in the context of your other work, and where do you want to go next after going through this process?
I think it's a good stepping stone toward where I want to go next. I mean, I joked about, like, a free jazz record but I do want to do some things that are just like, long pieces, almost, more than just a record that's a bunch of three-minute songs with one long song. I've been tossing around the idea of doing a sort of a series of... I don't know. More like a classical record or something. Just things that are more like pieces of music, like, long. Maybe one song on the record is 30 minutes or something versus a record that is 30 minutes long. I feel like we can do that and keep it interesting. I think that's the goal for me: to be able to make extremely long pieces of music that also are still interesting and somehow also sound like Cloud Nothings. That's always been in the back of my mind as a goal, and I feel like this record would be an interesting bridge to that. Like, far in retrospect, once I look back on everything that I've done in my life. To look back and be like, “That record made sense, right before they made that one record where every song was 20 minutes long.”
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