Despite the quick rise of his punk outfit Cloud Nothings through the blogosphere and the warm critical reception of the band's latest record, Attack on Memory, 20-year-old singer-songwriter Dylan Baldi remains calm. The big, black all-ages Xs drawn on his hands surely negate any ego-tripping. "Some cities on the West Coast don't let me in the venue except for the 40 minutes the band is playing," he says.
Baldi started as Cloud Nothings when he was 18 years old, recording in his parents' suburban Ohio basement. He was at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University at the time, majoring in saxophone performance, which he says seemed an obvious dead end.
"I thought, 'What am I going to do after college if I major in music?' I kind of realized I wasn't going to make it into a sustainable career, no matter whether I went to college or not. I thought I might as well try to get something going immediately instead of paying $100,000 going to school."
The first batch of songs he ever wrote eventually resulted in the 2009 album Turning On, with the skuzzy, sneering track "Hey Cool Kid" rapidly getting attention from such blogs as Stereogum. Before Baldi even played his first gig, New York tastemaker and DIY show promoter Todd P invited Cloud Nothings to open for critically adored breeze-pop mainstays Real Estate in Brooklyn.
Attack on Memory, released in January, is a focused departure from the band's pop-punk past. Recorded by legendary producer Steve Albini, the record is cleaner, louder, and unmistakably harsh. Album opener "No Future/No Past" has Baldi moaning and screaming over a slow procession of somber, cathartic guitar that evokes the early '90s emo of Sunny Day Real Estate.
Baldi says he intentionally set out to craft more aggressive songs, partly guided by his taste. "When I feel like I need some kind of inspiration, I put on one of my favorite records. I can't even finish it because I get so excited; I have to stop the record and immediately go play."
So what has Baldi been jamming? He has cited an obsession with '70s Portland punks Wipers as a major contributor to Attack on Memory's aggression and structural nuance. But lately, Baldi says, he's been examining the thin line between killer blues jams and bad cheese. Think "La Grange" versus "Sharp-Dressed Man."
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"Something I've been listening to a lot lately is early ZZ Top records," he says. "I really like them — they're a really tight band — but they got horrible immediately after they grew beards in the '70s. But there's not a huge difference between their good albums and bad albums. It's all very minute things that make a giant difference."
"Stay Useless" is the shortest and most straightforward song on Attack on Memory, but it's a perfect example of Baldi's elevating his pop tendencies to expert levels through minor tweaks. His trusted speedy guitar hooks and cymbal splashes remain, but Baldi's voice has gained noticeable expertise within a hard-and-fast context. "I need time to stop moving / I need time to stay useless," he shouts, his vocals up front in the mix. He accents certain words for impact and draws out the last syllable of the final chorus with completion.
Looking back on extensive tours and recording with rock's most famous curmudgeon, Baldi says he has not, at any point, felt overwhelmed. "Nothing really intimidated me when we were doing it. It was always at the level we needed to be each time something bigger happened."
"The only thing that intimidates me," he adds, "is knowing we have to go on a 15-hour flight to England or something."