Let's get this out of the way: Dylan Baldi, the founder and core of the Cleveland post-hardcore band Cloud Nothings, is 22 years old.
If you read an article about the band, there's a good chance it will mention Baldi's age in the first paragraph. (And, yes, those odds just went up about 30 words ago.) This doesn't bother the preternaturally talented songwriter, who's seen his age highlighted since he started Cloud Nothings when he was 18.
He does have a theory about why it happens, though.
"I think that's something a lot of people do because there's not much else to write about, really, with us, because we're not sensational in any other way," he says in a jet-lagged phone interview from a tour stop in Portland, where he's just arrived from his home in Paris. "If people want to write about us, it's not like we're crazy, with some kind of wild story. The most insane thing is that I dropped out of college."
Dropping out of college: not insane, though Baldi does have a good line about his decision to ditch life as a saxophone major at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland:
"I just started thinking, OK, if I finish this, I'll just be massively in debt and will be able to play saxophone really good. What is the point?'' he says. "So I just stopped."
Jazz's loss is a gain for lovers of rumbling, rough-hewn rock 'n' roll, the kind that's bursting with melody and bereft of frills. During the past four years, Baldi has steered Cloud Nothings from an unassuming indie-pop band to the powerhouse behind two albums that were widely, lavishly praised: 2012's Attack on Memory and this year's Here and Nowhere Else.
The former was Cloud Nothings' breakthrough, a collection of lean, punchy pop songs that showcased Baldi's tuneful instinct, even when he masked it with slurred lyrics and screams. The latter is a step forward: clearer but not too polished, more confident but purposefully ragged, and muscular without overrunning the melodies. Guitars churn and cymbals crash across its eight bracing tracks, which sound like they're headed downhill with no brake pedal to be found. A pile-up is imminent—a brutal and beautiful pile-up.
Cloud Nothings play Friday, July 11 at Soda Bar
The lead track, "Now Hear In," buzzes along at breakneck speed before offering some lyrical misdirection at the end, as Baldi sings, "I know there's nothing left to say" four times in the outro. "Quieter Today" and "Psychic Trauma" find the frontman's scratchy howl squarely in the Cobain Zone, while the chorus of "Giving into Seeing"—the word "swallow" screamed over and over—sounds like it could've been plucked from the second half of Nirvana's Incesticide. Elsewhere, the marble-mouthed melody of "I'm Not Part of Me" evokes The Replacements, and the frayed-punk spirit of The Wipers hovers over everything.
There's something particularly blue-collar about Cloud Nothings' music, a quality that can be traced to Baldi's Midwestern work ethic. He says he lacks an "artistic temperament" and takes a "very utilitarian" approach to making music.
"That's the only way I can feel like I'm actually doing something. Because I do like having goals and achieving those rather than just being like, Who knows what's going to happen today, man?'" Baldi says with a chuckle.
"I have a sort of 9-to-5 mentality about what I do. That sounds stupid and almost insulting to people with jobs like that, but that's how everybody that I grew up around and everybody that I know has worked for a long time, so I treat it that way, too."
To his credit, Baldi accepts the bad parts of the workingman's toil with the positives of being in a successful touring band: It's exhausting—but that's a necessary part of being in a band.
Of course, as anyone with a 9-to-5 job knows, there are days when clocking out for good seems more appealing than facing another day. It's a feeling Baldi knew well before Cloud Nothings gained traction, and one he still experiences.
"I'll probably think about [calling it quits] tomorrow if I'm in the van for too long. That's something that always goes through my head," he says. "But even when [the band] wasn't going well, it was still like we made just enough money to get by, and it was still a better job than anything else I could possibly be doing. And it was way better than school, 'cause I hated school. So I was OK."
That's good news, given the arc of Cloud Nothings' career so far, a career built on a sound that Baldi talks about as if it doesn't always make sense to him.
"I want to do something new with every record. I want to do something different. But somewhere, obviously, there's some part of me that [keeps] making pop songs, which is not the kind of stuff I listen to all the time," he says.
"It's interesting to me that I've chosen that route for this band. I don't know why I did it, but it feels like I just want to keep doing that better."