Photos by Ben Rayner
The last time I interviewed Nothing’s leader Domenic “Nicky” Palermo, it was just brought to light that Martin Shkreli was shadow funding Collect Records, the label he was signed to.
Shkreli’s company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, had price gouged the drug Daraprim—a drug used for treating HIV positive patients—from $13.50 to $750 overnight, raising the ire of an entire industry, as well as the band who pulled their upcoming album immediately. A few months prior, Nicky sustained significant head injuries during a robbery at the hands of five assailants in Oakland, CA which resulted in a diagnosis of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). The band returned to their former label Relapse Records, releasing second LP Tired of Tomorrow in 2016, receiving a tremendous amount of accolades, as well as an 8.0 from Pitchfork, whose number rating system has become one of the most important metrics in music.
“I’m trying to not be mad about anything, it’s why I don’t leave the house that often,” Nicky tells me over drinks at the Ace Hotel on Broadway in Manhattan. “I get livid when I wake up and there’s no eggs in the refrigerator—that shit can ruin my entire day.”
Rather than discussing concussion protocol, ‘Pharma Bros’, or his two-year stint in prison, we’re venting about meme accounts, specifically those that roll out stolen content that’s been well circulated for years. We’ll later discuss the band’s upcoming album Dance on the Blacktop at length, but for now, ranting about memes, the subway, and the draining impact NYC’s signature summer heat has on the body and mind dominates our conversation. It’s not banter you’d expect from the mouthpiece of a modern shoegaze band, but it’s entirely his character and the wit that cuts through the implied miasma of the genre. The band’s craft may hark back to Slowdive or Catherine Wheel, but their roots are in hardcore punk, graffiti and the streets of Philadelphia, rather than college campuses in the UK. Rather than recontextualizing or recreating a sound, Nothing’s forged their own mix of deep atmospherics by gleaning from the past and unabashedly being themselves.
“‘Blueline Baby’ is a nickname we came up with for kids from Kensington who rode that train all the time,” he tells me, explaining that many of the songs on the new album are based on characters he encountered growing up in a raw part of Lower Northeast Philadelphia. “There’s also blue lines as in veins. The song is about a girl I knew who OD’d when she was 13-years-old.”
Dance on the Blacktop isn’t as much of a departure for Nothing as it is using the recording studio as a new instrument. Along with revisiting their writing process, the band looked to a new producer in John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Kurt Vile), who first received notoriety by engineering the second album for fellow Philadelphians, The Hooters. In hearing the album it’s immediately noticeable that the producer helped expand the band’s sound and dynamics, in essence, by dialling things back.
“Dreamland is a renovated church—the biggest space we’ve ever recorded in,” Nicky explains. “You’d think that a reverbed snare hit would be endless, but it’s kind of the opposite. We’re getting natural reverb off the room—I toned my normal settings down because the space picked it up. The natural sustain length was longer. It’s a stick of dynamite in a room, rather than one in a reservoir—it hits and leaves a natural ring, rather than a wide open space.”
The balance of atmosphere throughout Dance on the Blacktop is what’s immediately striking. After demoing tracks in Nicky’s small apartment in the East Village, the band headed upstate to Woodstock, New York, where John urged them to use the interplay and familiarity of those rehearsals to bring cohesion to the songs, rather than reconstructing them from the drums up as they had done in the past, flooding the tracks with layers and washes.
“Will [Yip] makes everything sound like it was made in the Hit Factory, John [Zeigler] has this ill, grungy vibe, dealing with this music that’s set to be beautiful and big, but he pushed the imperfections. Brandon [Setta] is really crazy about his tuning—he’s adamant about fixing it—but this time we pushed to let it be a little out of tune and go for the performance. It gives the songs character.”
But music is just one arm of Nothing—their experimentation with everything from t-shirt designs to videos and wheat-pasted posters fitting into a larger, conceptual puzzle. A self-described “intense person with a rabid mind,” Nicky’s thirst for control over the band’s aesthetics and their audience reception can be easily attributed to his background writing graffiti, as much as the natural urge for personal order after being stripped of freedom during his prison sentence.
He details a recent two-day video shoot for “Blueline Baby” in the Poconos, where he lead a crew in orchestrating the band’s most ambitious project, rife with projections, catering crews, lighting rigs, models, and a scuba diving photographer. Meant to be a companion piece to Dance on the Blacktop’s layout—art directed by DIY stalwart and visual artist Mark McCoy—Nicky mentions momentarily feeling as if he was out of his depth, before looking into the monitors and seeing the vision come together successfully. “Art is supposed to make you uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s at its best when you start conversations.”
Having finished Nothing’s album, along with a full-length Death of Lovers back-to-back and knowing the rigours of the impending promotion cycle, Nicky’s intentionally unplugged since finishing production. Less drinking, less socialising, less internalising, but without any musical catharsis.
“I haven’t touched a guitar since we finished in the studio,” he says. “I probably should because we have shows coming up in July. It’s been a strange time to be in New York after spending so much time in Philly,” he says. “I’m kind of over partying, so I basically moved here to lowkey be alone in a crowd. There’s too much expected of me in Philly, but I can go under the radar here. It’s insane to think that you’d move New York City to not leave your apartment.”