Dylan Baldi is a music digger, one of those kids who searches obsessively on websites and at record stores for new tunes. He's vague about his actual sources, but you get the impression that he gets his favorite new low-fi records from an obscure noise blog written by some kid in Idaho or maybe from a friend of a friend who runs a tiny record label outside of Seattle.
Most people probably never heard of the bands Baldi says are his current faves: Julian Lynch, Big Trouble, Ducktails. But Baldi — who records as Cloud Nothings — doesn't care how big they are, and he certainly isn't paying attention to their production values. What matters most to him are the melodies at the core of the songs.
But don't mistake him for one of those cooler-than-you PBR-sippin' music snobs you want to slap silly. The Westlake native laughs as he confesses that his favorite melody right now can be heard in a Top 10 song: Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream."
The 19-year-old Baldi's low-fi recordings are a long way from Perry's mass-produced pop dreams — he plugged a microphone into his computer to make every single instrument heard on his debut album, Turning On — but they feature the same catchy hooks that make them just as irresistible. "It's definitely the way the melody works over everything else," he says.
That's no more evident than in the first song Baldi wrote under the Cloud Nothings moniker, "Hey Cool Kid." At the time, he was a Case Western Reserve University student. And as he had done before with other songs, he posted "Hey Cool Kid" on his MySpace page.
But there was something special about this one. Otherwise, the song would have simply rotted in cyberspace like so many other cuts posted by kids making music in their parents' basements. But "Hey Cool Kid" caught on, thanks to a familiar-sounding intro groove that eventually settles into a big, catchy, and super-clean melody.
It's hard to make out a lot of the track's nuances. For one thing, the highs and lows are pretty much nonexistent. For another, Baldi's voice is mostly hidden inside a repeating guitar riff. The casual nature of Baldi's songs gives them a sense of coolness and whimsy — a happy medium between toe-tapping dance rock and sleepytime indie rock.
But Cloud Nothings' music is also scruffy, loaded with charisma, and down-to-earth fun. You can't understand what Baldi is singing about most of the time, but that's not the point. "It's not about the lyrics," he says. "I write about imaginary scenarios that could happen to people."
The music's charm comes from the low-fi sound of the homemade recordings. Baldi says he made the record in his parents' basement out of necessity, but it ended up becoming a badge of honor. "Luckily, [low-fi recording is] a cool thing to do right now," he laughs. "It happened to work out for me."
After hearing some of Cloud Nothing's music, Bridgetown Records — a small label in La Puente, California — contacted Baldi about releasing Turning On at the end of 2009. The album was recently reissued by Carpark, a bigger indie label that will put out Cloud Nothings' second album during the first couple months of 2011. Baldi is working on that record now.
In March, Baldi gathered a few local musicians and went on his first tour as Cloud Nothings. He booked the entire run himself, asking bands around the country if Cloud Nothings could open for them. They now have someone to do that kind of stuff for them, which is a huge weight off Baldi's shoulders — especially since the group will soon be heading overseas for its first European tour.
Famous landmarks (Baldi says he's pumped to see the Eiffel Tower), sold-out shows (Cloud Nothings have opened for buzz band Wavves), and a booming blogosphere fan base — not bad for a kid who was making music in his parents' basement not so long ago.
The biggest problem these days is keeping sane during long van rides from city to city. So Baldi and his bandmates listen to Jock Jam mixes, fret over their haircuts, and talk about their favorite Cleveland restaurants. Sure beats wondering if the washer and dryer are going to mess up that song you're working on.
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