Eighteen months ago, Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi walked into an unassuming Massachusetts music shop. Shortly after, he walked out with an acoustic guitar on which he would write the band’s new record, ‘Life Without Sound’.
For Dylan, that’s an unusual way of doing things. The writing process for previous records saw him, as he explains during a recent London visit, “playing guitar really loud through an amp in the basement of wherever [he] was living,” as he would furiously thrash out the skeletons of Cloud Nothings songs. Not so, this time around.
The songs he produced on that newly-acquired acoustic guitar are the most considered of his songwriting career and, as a result, ‘Life Without Sound’ is a far more placid listen than what’s come before. “I think I just don’t want to make heavier music anymore,” he casually offers as his motivation. “I can’t imagine playing with that sort of anger now. I just don’t really feel that way very often anymore.”
“There’s less inner turmoil,” Dylan explains, on what exactly changed. “I think I finally just accepted my existence. This is a weird metaphor, but every time we go to the UK to play shows, we have to go through customs and have to write our occupation on the landing card. I would always write ‘musician’, just because I didn’t know what else to write. It was always just, ‘Well, I guess that’s what I’m doing’. It’s weird and it doesn’t feel right, but that’s what I have to write. I felt that way about a lot of things in my life actually. But now, for the first time, I feel like I can confidently write ‘musician’ on my landing card. There’s less questioning of my own motives now.”
“I don’t know if there was one big turning point,” he continues, “but I’ve slowly just become happier. I guess I was forced to change. You can’t just retreat into yourself forever if you want to function as a person.”
“You can’t just retreat into yourself forever if you want to function as a person.”
Forced or not, that newfound self-assurance can be found beaming throughout the new album. The bombastic chorus of ‘Things Are Right With You’ is the sound of a band letting go and trusting their own abilities, while the ever-shifting dynamics of ‘Darkened Rings’ and the way Dylan lets his voice explore new cadences on ‘Modern Act’ are sure signs of a band more comfortable in their own skin.
Often, though, when the creative force behind a band sees their life become more manageable, the music suffers. There are enough of once-great bands churning out complacent records as millionaires as proof of that. But for Dylan, being a happier person hasn’t hampered his writing in any way.
“There’s always something to write about,” he says, brushing off any suggestions of contented stagnation. “If anything, having a better headspace makes it easier for me to write because it’s way better than sitting in my bed, too depressed to do anything. Now, I can pick up a guitar any time and start working on something. It feels easier.”
That’s not the only thing that’s coming easier to him these days, either. Having dedicated his previous lyrical output to ‘just complaining about things’ – his words, not ours – ‘Life Without Sound’ is a more altruistic affair. Not in a blatant Michael Jackson ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ way, but there’s certainly less insulation and wallowing this time around.
“I think I’m just less in my own head lately,” he says, “and less freaked out at the idea of being alive, and that gives me more time to look outward. I think you get a little less self-obsessed as you get older and it gets easier to think about other things and other people and I definitely have an easier time doing that now than I ever have before.”
“I like that the record is going to throw people off on first listen.”
Probably best that the lyric writing for this record was pretty much finished by the time 2016 rolled around then, or this would’ve been a serious bummer of a record. “It could’ve been,” he interjects. “But our lyrics are always pretty depressing.”
All in all, ‘Life Without Sound’ is the furthest from Cloud Nothings’ established sound than they’ve ever stepped before. And even within it, Dylan admits that there’s more distinction between songs too.
“As much as I like our last record,” he says, in reference to 2014’s ‘Here And Nowhere Else’, “I feel like every song is sort of similar. There’s a tone to the record that carries on throughout and I wanted this one to be more varied. I wanted each song to feel like its own moment and its own world unto itself.”
Being something of a ‘vibe’ band in the past – the sort that by throwing on one of their records, you’re transported into a particular mood and taken on a journey within that mood – this move towards track-to-track distinction changes something that’s been core to the band. Dylan isn’t worried, though.
“I like that the record is going to throw people off on first listen because it’s a little different,” he concludes. “It took me a minute to even realise what the fuck it was we were actually doing - but then I enjoyed it.” And when the result of whatever the fuck Cloud Nothings were actually doing is as strong as ‘Life Without Sound’ is, Dylan won’t be the only one.
Cloud Nothings’ new album ‘Life Without Sound’ is out now via Wichita Recordings.